It is en vogue for politicians to rail against relativism these days. In a world that seems more dangerous and complicated than it has been in decades, campaigns like to offer people an anchor, to say they stand for something solid.
Relativism, with its belief that truth is shifting or, at the very least, unknowable, is not a comfortable fit for politics. Who, after all, is interested in running for office on the platform that the next guy's opinion is just as valid as his own? Campaigns need to be about right and wrong. That's what brings voters out. Relativism is the kind of thing best left to cappuccino-sipping academics or black-turtleneck-wearing Upper West Side New Yorkers, who do things "ironically."
But, as is often the case in politics, the reality is more complicated than that. Relativism is, and long has been, the driving force behind one of the biggest tools in politics - spin. Spin is relativism made practical. It seeks to take a set of facts and through the adept application of argument and selective information make them look like something other than what they are.
But the game has reached a new level. Last week, President Bush threw his hat into the relativist ring when he announced that a National Intelligence Estimate that forecast a bleak future for Iraq was full of potential outcomes that were "just guesses." Not that he's completely opposed to guesses, mind you, he just chose to follow someone else's guesses - namely the guesses of administration-backed Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Mr. Allawi says that despite the US intelligence report, and acknowledgements that large parts of the country aren't under control and the rising body counts and kidnappings and beheadings, things are on the road to democracy. And who is the president going to believe? It's just two different opinions, right?
But the campaign relativism game extends well beyond the president to both parties. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth come forth and make allegations with little proof and still find their arguments being aired on television. Both the Kerry and Bush campaigns propose huge spending increases, and then say their plans include balancing the budget in about five years.
These things aren't new, however. What's new is how the news media handles them - particularly on TV where the allegations often come fast and furious. For all the talk of CBS's "Memogate," fake documents are not the press's biggest weakness in covering this campaign. "Fairness," that mantra that has come to dominate public discussion of journalism, has opened the door to serious problems and to relativism in the press.
In the name of being fair, media outlets have gotten to the point where they allow people, particularly those with some title or position - and I'm talking Democrats and Republicans here - to say almost anything without first vetting it. Often, instead of challenging questionable information, news outlets let people voice it and then, "to be fair," allow someone else from the other side to answer the charges or make the opposing argument.
This isn't always a bad approach, within limits. There are legitimate questions about how to spend money on education or how big the military should be or how to fight the war on terror. But routinely presenting opposing points of view regardless of the facts is often a lazy substitute for reporting. It means assertions don't have to be checked or even filtered.
Opinions are wonderful things, and everyone has a right to one. But opinions aren't all equal. I may think the monstrously bad Arizona Diamondbacks are going to win the World Series next year, and I may believe it to my core, but does that really mean it's likely? Should sports pages run pro and con columns on the idea, weighing both sides equally? Of course most calls aren't that easy, but some are. And even on the questions that aren't so cut and dried, we in the news media have to get back to making people provide evidence for claims they make. We've made our mission, which was once about providing the most reliable account available, into one of providing differing views - at times with little regard for fact.
The first presidential debate is Thursday in Miami. It's guaranteed that at some point one candidate or both will try to spin an answer or two or three. The question is, will we call them on it?
If we don't, soon we may "fairness" ourselves right out of business. Who needs journalism if truth is just a matter of opinion?
• Dante Chinni is a senior associate with the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. He writes a twice-monthly political opinion column for the Monitor.