Publisher’s Letter: Unknown Truths and the Future of Journalism

Throughout the Tory’s history, we have been called reactionaries, antagonizers, and sometimes worse for presenting facts and views that many would rather not hear. From our 2007 coverage of McCosh Health Center’s failure to report sexually transmitted disease statistics to Toni Alimi’s report on the dubious mission of the University’s Diversity Working Group in this issue, our stories have not exactly curried favor here at Princeton. And so as I reflect upon the past year, I cannot help but feel a strange connection to international rogue journalist Julian Assange.

Whatever one’s feelings about Assange’s personal character or ethics, one cannot dispute his basic journalistic instinct—to find and document the truth. While all reporters are passionate truth-seekers, there is disagreement over whether we should consider the moral consequences of our reporting.  In other words, are there some truths that we ought not to know? And are we responsible for the outcomes of revealing these truths? These questions are only growing in prominence as we enter 2011, a year that may well see the most radical expansion of the human network.

The debate over what we should and should not know is normative and far more difficult to settle. Part of the reason is the lack of a coherent explanation. In the case of WikiLeaks, opponents of the disclosure of classified government documents argue that it puts American national security and lives at risk. But this is nearly impossible for us to evaluate, given the restriction of information and the overall complexity of the world. Furthermore, the argument follows from another normative premise, namely that national security and lives are paramount. This line of thought hearkens back to Dick Cheney’s determination to protect American lives at all costs. As American citizens, it is comforting to know that the government is dedicated to protecting our lives. Whether this should be achieved by any means necessary, however, is something that we as free thinkers will never resolve.

On the question of the consequences of reporting, my strong inclination is to say that journalists do not bear the responsibility. The content of their reporting, after all, is either publically accessible or disclosed by sources well aware of its gravity. Almost anyone could piece the content together; it just so happens that the journalist is more efficient in obtaining and filtering it. For this reason, Assange and WikiLeaks cannot be held responsible for their actions; blaming them is tantamount to shooting the messenger. Yet at the same time, the government is justified in recognizing WikiLeaks as a potential national security threat and therefore seeking its termination.

The Tory, of course, bears no resemblance to WikiLeaks. Our stories do not endanger the lives of Princetonians, nor do they threaten the operations of the University. Still, reflecting on campus, are there issues on which we should not report? The administration certainly keeps many secrets from us, but would revealing any of them actually harm Princeton?

I have no adequate answers. Even if I did, they would make little difference. As journalists, we have an obligation to tell the truth. I acknowledge that we have made mistakes in the past. (In 2008, for example, Dean Malkiel’s resignation was erroneously reported on the Tory blog. We apologize to her and wish her the best as she steps down at the end of the year.) Rather than discredit our work, however, these missteps serve as a reminder to find the real truth—and not the convenient one. The Internet is a double-edged sword: On the one hand it promotes the spread of misinformation, but on the other hand it has ushered in one of the most exciting eras of journalism. Although we may never acknowledge it, we should consider ourselves lucky to be along for the ride.

Sincerely,

Aaron Smargon ‘11

P.S. As always, if you have any substantive dirt, please send it our way.

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