Musing on decency

Andrew Sullivan wrote a nice piece yesterday about what he’s come to see as his own hypocrisy in writing a lot about the failures of Sarah Palin, but hardly anything about the John Edwards melodrama:

It just seemed too awful for me to believe. I mean his wife, whom I took to be a very decent person, had terminal cancer. Although adultery is extremely common – especially among people disturbed enough to seek political office – I dismissed it too easily. I mean his wife was confronting death on a daily basis. I just couldn’t believe a husband could do that to his wife then. I also felt protective toward Elizabeth, feeling that investigating this would be deeply hurtful to a woman faced with mortality. Maybe my own brushes with mortality affected me in this as well.

In all this, of course, I was wrong. It really was that bad, and if Game Change is to be believed (and I think it broadly is), it was even worse. My mistake as a journalist was in making an assumption of a baseline of decency in public officials that it is not my job to make. My job is to assume nothing and to trust nothing until verified. One doesn’t have to pry; but when rumors emerge, we should not be deferent with public officials. We should ask questions.

Some of this hits quite close to home for me. I’m not comfortable with the title of journalist for myself, though it has long been a broad category under which opinion writers have found shelter. I think Sullivan is absolutely right that the job of a journalist should be “to assume nothing and trust nothing until verified,” and that serves any writer — blog writer or newspaper writer — equally well as a mantra.

Yet I know that I start from exactly the place Sullivan’s talking about: I start with an assumption that there’s a “baseline of decency in public officials.” I see the logic in rejecting that, but I’m not sure I can. More than that, I’m not sure I want to.

This is not to say that I’m not cynical. I have my own baseline supposition about nearly everyone, that there are more often selfish motives at work than charity. The more loudly one declares their own goodness, the more actively I search for flaws. With someone like John Edwards, that instinct has served me well.

It should be shocking every time someone turns out to be monstrously different than what they say they are. Beginning with the assumption that anyone can be anything would eventually result in bland reporting when a few bad apples really turn out to be bad.

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