Longtime columnist for The Nation Alexander Cockburn has died in Germany of complications of cancer, it was reported today. He was 71.
I heard Cockburn speak once, in the late 1980s at an Orange County Press Club event. He, along with journalist and co-panelist Robert Scheer, said some things that day that sounded downright radical to a very young journalist. Contrary to our training and tradition, they said, we should ignore objectivity. Since everyone is biased, and those biases can’t be put away, we may as well acknowledge to our readers up front what our biases are, and let them be the final judge of our work against that backdrop.
In fact, our biases could be our guides to choosing good stories, and to overcoming the spin that so often attends political journalism, too.
As I recall, there was also an editor there from a mainstream paper such as the Washington Post, a man with several words in his title, who argued against Cockburn and Scheer. He wasn’t very persuasive.
It took some years, but eventually I came around to the point of view Cockburn and Scheer planted in my mind that day, that journalism was more than merely the rote recitation of facts or “getting both sides.” Done right, journalism goes beyond objectivity and aims to tell you what’s true and false, good and bad, and what it means for you and for the country. It’s always based on facts, and searching for what Bob Woodward of the Post calls “the best obtainable version of the truth.” It never lies, but it never hides behind false equivalencies or the notion that all sides always have an equally valid point to make, either. Because sometimes, they don’t.
I’m sad today to see that a powerful voice for that kind of journalism has been stilled. RIP, Alexander Cockburn.