Free Press Run Amok and the Irrelevance of Moral Relativism

Yes, another post on the Sandusky matter in State College, Pa. No promises that it will be the last, but no intention to continue indefinitely either.

Whatever became of responsible, objective journalism? What has happened to the once sacrosanct line between the reporting of the news and editorializing thereon? Did we simply become so aware of the difficulties attending to objectivity in collecting facts that we just gave up? Was it a covert politicized strategy to give the appearance of objective reporting, even while deliberately spinning toward an agenda favored by the publishers of the news? Regardless of the cause, the virtual absence of such a line is what we now live with. We are told not just what has happened, but how to feel about it. The proliferation of internet information and misinformation has thrown in the final blow. There is now such an overload of data that one is seriously pressed to find the truth of virtually any incident, particularly one such as the current scandal precipitated by Jerry Sandusky’s molestation of boys on the Penn State campus. Reporters and anchors can’t wait to moralize on every aspect, particularly on what Joe Paterno should or should not have done–even before knowing exactly what he did do or did not do or say, to whom he did or did not say it, and when that might have happened. No matter; don’t wait for facts before staking a good claim on the high moral ground.

A couple of my “favorite” examples (and there are many): NBC’s Ron Allen failing to mention that Sandusky was not a member of the coaching staff at the time of the 2002 incident witnessed by a graduate assistant; the same network interviewing the Harrisburg Patriot-News sports reporter, Bob Flounders, who has been openly on Paterno’s case for years, for a take on what should happen; or the same newspaper’s report of Matt Millen’s emotional ESPN comments which conveniently omitted those portions expressing his affections for Joe and his consistent integrity; and my real winner in the category of irresponsibility and self-serving moralizing–Jason Whitlock, who not only screamed for Paterno to be ousted before the ink was dry, but accused the grand jury of delaying the release of its findings until after Joe’s 409th victory, thereby charging everyone involved with complicity that compromised their integrity. The stupidity of the charge should be obvious–if it is timing motivated by the interests of the people involved, why in the world would it be released days before the biggest game Penn State has faced in a couple of years?

Will any of these or the hundreds of others rushing to get their two cents of judgment on the record ever be held accountable, even if the charges they make prove absolutely groundless? We all know the answer to that, do we not? But what interests me is what is unwittingly revealed by all of this pompous moralizing in which everyone seems bent on participating. The point is this: we do have an implicit idea which we assume to be commonly held as to what the right thing to do might be. And we betray this sense every time we pronounce our judgments or point our thumbs over the actions of others.

For all the talk of moral relativism, of the idea that the rightness of certain actions differs from person to person, that truth is dependent on the worldview, if not the individual mindset of the person, people really do seem to expect a common standard. That is, particularly in the case of Coach Paterno, there is undeniably an implicit assumption that there is a distinct moral standard which not only the speaker and the listener, but the coach himself is expected to be aware of. If we really believed that morality is relative, why would there be such moralizing over what Joe Paterno, Graham Spanier, or even Jerry Sandusky did or did not do?

It will not suffice to say that say that certain actions are known by “everybody” to be right or wrong. We might acknowledge this, but then fail to recognize that very few, if any, moral decisions are made without a set of competing interests being involved. And the manner in which moral actors give priority to one set of values, or the limited awareness they have of the consequences of one course of action or another, or the other issues of life that cloud their judgment at any given time all contribute to the final decision.

We are moral beings. We recognize good and evil, even if imperfectly due to factors listed above and others as well. We approve and disapprove. And we cannot simply write off all moral language as emotional preferences and responses couched in ethical terms, as some prominent academics have suggested (this view does not account for the meaning or existence of moral language in the first place). The relativism we tend to invoke seems to have more to do with minimizing one’s own failures and maximizing those of others than it does with telling us the truth about a moral universe. And in a world that has lost its way, among people who do not know where they fit in that universe, there exists a tendency to bring down anyone who has achieved more in the world than we see ourselves accomplishing. We may not feel great about ourselves, and we don’t think anyone else should, either. So we point fingers–and in the process, we bear witness to the moral sense with which God has made us. And that includes reporters.

2 thoughts on “Free Press Run Amok and the Irrelevance of Moral Relativism

  1. Your last two posts certainly invite lots of response, but I’ll take a very narrow one. Your concept of objectivity and factuality in the US press of the past is a bit much, when was that? during Abraham Lincoln’s campaign for the President? Or maybe when Hearst told his papers “push Graham”? It was never true, and probably super un-true on a pan-national basis if you were a “Negro”, “Indian”, “Irishman”, “weaker sex”, whatever in the various periods of the US. I agree with Jefferson that i’d trade elected officials for freedom of the press any day. Only in a proliferation of reporting do we have the opportunity to potentially hear some truth. The Internet provides a platform like the printing press to communicate noise and truth. We now have to exercise wisdom in deciding what to assimilate in our various communities.

    I’ve taught for a long time that we do not follow institutions, we are to follow individuals, there are certain institutions like the Family or Church that are exceptions of course. I think of Paul’s statements, follow me as I follow Christ. Swap the PSU label with the Steelers label, doesn’t matter, its a bad road.

    RPI is not my alma mater, nor will ETS be, but you will be my spiritual father (and whether you want me or not).

    • I have no illusions about the realities of objectivity; but I do recall being taught that this distinction was the goal of a free press. Maybe I’m just that old that I remember it and long for even a modicum of the pursuit. The proliferation of which you speak unfortunately legitimates the reader/consumer in choosing that toward which he/she is already predisposed. I have no solution except to encourage people to pursue wisdom.

      I’m honored and humbled.

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