Tuned In

Why Journalists Are Like SCOTUS Nominees

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Because of a disconnected cable box (unhooked for TIME’s office move) and a desktop Mac that has a hard time with streaming video, I’m not watching the Sotomayor hearings today. But having watched some of the first three days, and having read much of the commentary, it strikes me that you could replace “judges” with “journalists,” and the lessons would be the same: 

* Much of our public discourse rests on the official assumption—ridiculous to anyone with common sense—that [judges/journalists] can and should be unaffected by their background, beliefs and life experiences. 

* It’s not true, of course. Not only are [judges/journalists] informed by their life experience, they’d be worse at their work if they weren’t, because…

* …it’s a myth to believe that either profession always involves finding absolute, objective truths, agreed upon by any rational person, like the laws of math. Both, instead, also involve interpretation and judgment.

* For that reason, it’s a good thing for everyone that the profession as a whole include people from as many different backgrounds as possible. This is not for some idealistic reason of pluralism and fairness; it’s because it is practically better for society for each profession to bring to bear a breadth of human perspectives on its work.

* But each profession also ultimately bases its work in fact. There’s a difference between being informed by your experience and being driven by your preferences. There’s a difference between applying your perspective and selectively ignoring facts that don’t square with your beliefs. Recognizing that difference involves intellectual integrity.

* If we were all mature enough to recognize that intellectual integrity is the ideal—not some mythical, absolute neutrality—then we could accept that [judges/journalists] could hold beliefs, like any intelligent person does, and yet not be enslaved to them. We would judge them by their work and its integrity, not their adherence to some inhuman standard.

* But we’re not always mature enough; or sometimes it’s too easy to demagogue someone’s beliefs as proof that they are dishonest.

* So we instead engage in the transparently silly public pretense that [judges/journalists] either ideally hold no strong beliefs, or that they should be able to robotically set them aside, in some walled-off part of their brain, like a partitioned-off sector of a computer hard drive.

* Nobody believes this, of course, but it’s too risky to be the first to admit it. And so cynicism about each profession only grows. 

* Our public discussion is the weaker, and the more boring, for it.