Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Skepticism or Cynicism?

This past weekend my wife and I traveled to Williams College to attend the graduation of our niece, Abby. The main commencement speaker was Thomas L. Friedman, columnist for the New York Times. The speech was an impressive display of public speaking that matches Friedman’s reputation as a top notch writer. Williams College Commencement 2005

I say this, despite the fact that what Friedman writes in his columns generally drives me crazy. I could provide a big list of my complaints as a journalist on the political left, but instead let me quote from Friedman on what is the heart of real journalism:

"Always remember, there is a difference between skepticism and cynicism. Too many journalists, and too many of our politicians, have lost sight of that boundary line....there [is] a big difference between skepticism and cynicism. Skepticism is about asking questions, being dubious, being wary, not being gullible, but always being open to being persuaded of a new fact or angle. Cynicism is about already having the answers -- or thinking you do -- answers about a person or an event. The skeptic says, 'I don't think that's true; I'm going to check it out.' The cynic says: 'I know that's not true. It couldn't be. I'm going to slam him....' Always remember, real journalists are not those loud mouth talking heads you see on cable television."

On this matter Friedman and I are in total agreement. I know journalists across the political spectrum who see journalism as a craft that demands adherence to a set of principles. Fairness and accuracy for starters.

For over ten years I have been teaching a summer course on "Strategic Research, Analysis and Reporting" at Z Magazine’s summer institute; a course developed and taught over the years along with progressive journalists Holly Sklar, & Abby Scher. This coming weekend I head down to Wood’s Hole on Cape Cod to teach another session. Here’s how we traditionally open the class:

"Progressives have a long and proud tradition of muckraking, and there are plenty of role models such as Ida M. Tarbell, Nellie Bly, Lincoln Steffens, Upton Sinclair, George Seldes, I.F. Stone, Rachel Carson, Alan Nairn, Deborah Nelson, Laura Washington, Sara Diamond, Russ Bellant, Frederick Clarkson, Trudy Lieberman and many more. If you haven't heard of one or more of these journalists, get acquainted with their lives and work by doing your own research."

We assume many of these names are unfamiliar to the mostly young audience, and hope they poke around and learn about their predecessors. All of these investigative journalists were skeptics, not cynics. Some could be acerbic or even harsh, but underneath the bravado was a clear sense that the point of their work was to make society a better place to live.

Skepticism helps us fix what is wrong with our society. Cynicism leads us to question if it is worth the effort. As we embrace skepticism, we need to reject--and criticize--cynicism.


Blogger Bruce Wilson said...

As one who has criticized Friedman - repeatedly and in very harsh terms - let me concur that here he is dead on.

Friedman is at his best is very good indeed, especially when he deploys his considerable technical skills to present a well considered message: then, he can be truly inspirational.

10:15 AM  
Blogger Frederick Clarkson said...

I'm honored and humbled to be included in that group.

A rigorous seeking and analysis of facts is at the core of good journalism. It means being being willing to be skeptical of many things. That said, the most skeptical eye I have always directed to myself, and to my own assumptions and predjudices. As hard as it can be it keeps one honest. For myself, to borrow from Robert Frost, it has made all of the difference.

2:15 PM  
Blogger Sunfell said...

I consider myself a skeptic because I am always willing to learn new things, but refuse to accept something at face value until I examine it thoroughly myself. It's turned me into an amateur researcher and a sharp questioner.

I see the difference between skepticism and cynicism as the difference between an open and closed mind. Skeptics want proof and argument. Cynics do not- and in many ways remind me of the True Believers who like to plug their ears and shout: "Jesus/The Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it!"

4:26 PM  
Blogger Chip Berlet said...

I agree with sunfell about the way some closed-minded Christians respond to challenges to their ideas. It's as if there is no disagreement among Christians about how to interpret the Bible. Way wrong. I read it to support my participation in what Ruby Sales calls Liberation Christianity--as opposed to Empire Christianity.

6:30 PM  

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