To be a good accountant, the first thing you have to do is make sure your numbers are right. Then you arrange them in the proper order, add them up, and analyze the result. But if the numbers are wrong to begin with, nothing you do after that will matter.
Okay, now go back over the preceding paragraph and make the following substitutions: Replace "accountant" with "journalist." Replace "numbers" with "facts." Now look at the paragraph again.
Being a good journalist, you see, is a lot like being a good accountant. There is nothing glamorous, and much that is tedious, about doing it right.
This is one of the many lessons of Marvin Kalb’s new book One Scandalous Story: Clinton, Lewinsky, & 13 Days That Tarnished American Journalism. It is the best volume I have read on the media’s role in what has facetiously been called Zippergate, and among the reasons is that the scandal broke in January of 1998 and the book did not appear in bookstores until late in 2001. Kalb, in other words, took his time. He did not rush to publish. He arranged and added and analyzed at a pace that ensured a fourth "a": accuracy.
The story itself, however, proceeds at a runaway pace, as Kalb simultaneously follows the paths of several journalists working the Clinton-Lewinsky story in its first frenzied days. He tells us of their deadline pressures and their ethical concerns and the occasionally grievous effect of the former on the latter. He tells of whopping errors, later lamented; of lucky breaks, later rationalized. He takes us inside an occupation cursed by the blessings of technology, and failing in the aftermath of its successful ratings and circulation figures.
And he points out, although without ever using the analogy, that being a good journalist is a lot like being a good accountant.
It is a lesson worth learning for those who read newspapers and magazines and watch TV newscasts. For although the stars of the media are the anchors and show hosts and columnists, they with their exorbitant salaries and almost monarchical perks, it is the reporters and producers and bureau chiefs who ultimately matter the most. It is they who either ensure the field’s credibility or drag it into disrepute. It is they, the accountants, upon whom journalism’s accountability ultimately depends.
And what the reader cannot help noting, time and again, in Marvin Kalb’s One Scandalous Story, is what hard and tedious work the reporters and producers and bureau chiefs are called upon to do: how many phone calls they have to make, how many more phone calls they have to make to verify the initial calls. How many documents they have to read and then re-read. How many questions they have to ask for the sake of clarity and understanding. How careful they must be in their choice of words and choice of priorities. How many times in the course of a single day they must question their own ethics and motives, grilling themselves like cops grilling suspects in a criminal case.
And how great the disservice they do to themselves and everyone who believes them if they take shortcuts in the preceding.
Yet, as Kalb writes, there are a lot of media figures today for whom the shortcut has become the main-traveled road. "The upshot," he writes, "is that many journalists have become too big for their britches. For those who want to offer commentaries on television, deliver speeches for hefty fees, even appear in the movies, the once glorious if somewhat mundane pursuit of the truth now seems too humble a calling."
It is a startling phrase, a startling notion to consider. Journalists for whom the pursuit of truth is "too humble a calling"? And, if I may add a phrase of my own, too arduous a calling? It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t inform the people. It doesn’t strengthen the republic.
I mean, you wouldn’t find an accountant thinking that the pursuit of correctly-totaled figures was too humble or arduous a calling, would you?
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .