By Robert Mann
Almost three years ago, I created a blog, which I eventually began to call “Something Like the Truth.” At the time, I had not heard Carl Bernstein, the former Washington Post journalist of Watergate fame, articulate his definition of journalism – “the best obtainable version of the truth” – but the name of the blog was an attempt to communicate what I later heard Bernstein say during a visit to LSU and which I found in the poem at this link.
This was my unspoken, unwritten philosophy and the spirit, which I hope has guided me more often than not:
This is what I believe to be true. We may disagree. You may, in fact, be correct and I may be wrong. What is truth, anyway? Perhaps the best we can do is wrestle with whatever facts we have available and hope that they sometimes are enough to persuade us to relinquish some of our presuppositions and challenge our long-held biases or prejudices. Sometimes, I’ll be certain I am correct and I’ll state my views firmly. Other times, I hope to share with you my own doubts and uncertainties. The best any of us can do, I believe, when we are arguing about politics, faith or life is to arrive at something like the truth.
That is not to say that I haven’t often stated my opinions as if I am certain I am right. They are opinions and they are mine. I hope they are founded on fact, evidence and a sense of justice and fairness. The blog’s title, however, has always been a subtle reminder to me, and my readers, that while I think I am correct, I do not assert that I have found “the truth” about any subject or that I have anything close to a monopoly on truth. Like you, I’m just stumbling through this life, doing the best I can – in my job, with my family and in my relationship with God.
That’s some mighty long throat clearing, I know, but it brings me to the point of this post, which is to explain some of the reasons I continue to speak out about public affairs and politics – including (maybe, particularly) about higher education, in general, and my employer, Louisiana State University, in particular. A few weeks ago, the publisher of the Baton Rouge Business Report, Rolfe McCollister, published a column in which he questioned the very ethics of my weekly Times-Picayune column and the bad example it sets for my students at the Manship School of Mass Communication, where I serve as a professor and where I hold the Manship Chair in Journalism.
McCollister also serves on the LSU Board of Supervisors and I had recently published a column in the Times-Picayune calling on the next governor to dismiss the entire board for its failure to publicly defend the university out of, I suspect, a misplaced fealty to Gov. Bobby Jindal, who appointed all of 16 them (except the one student member). I’ll let Rolfe speak for himself:
Mann is one to take full advantage of free speech and faculty tenure as he pontificates in his columns on all that’s evil. Hey, this is America, and I respect that right. But I am getting the feeling that Mann switches his hats often and there may be an ethical question with his two roles. Not a good example for Mann to set for LSU students.
I asked a former seasoned journalist about the ethics of a faculty member who has a second job as a journalist and writes about his university. He said, “Every good journalist knows that you cannot ethically cover the institution that pays your salary and the people who supervise the work you do for that salary.
The ethical equation doesn’t change if a reporter vilifies those people. Who is to say the reporter’s self-interest isn’t involved? Would the reporter be better off if the person they criticize was fired? Did the administrator make the reporter angry one day and now it’s a chance to get even? When journalists don’t recognize this fundamental aspect of journalism, everything they write, on any topic, lacks credibility.”
I wonder if Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss (who sits on the LSU Manship School Board of Visitors) has thought about that conflict? It is obvious Mann hasn’t. (I suspect I will now be the target in one of Mann’s blogs. Oh well, it won’t be the first time.)
After McCollister’s column, I responded on my blog and McCollister added his own postscript to his column. After he wrote that postscript, McCollister kindly texted me one afternoon in early April and invited me to meet with him. He observed that we had been friends for many years and that we both cared deeply about LSU. Life was too short, he seemed to be saying, to let a dispute over the conduct of the LSU Board damage our friendship. I agreed. Continue reading