Jun 1 1999

Invisible Ink

June 1999

The Times ran a disclaimer (3/19/95) for a remark it would not repeat. It said the computer did it.

The remark had turned up in a March 15 dispatch about Texas Governor George W. Bush studying to become president. One of the Times ‘ many editors, the correction revealed, had added in a comment to that story that was intended only for the eyes of other kibbitzers. It was written in what they call a nonprinting script, like invisible ink. Only there was a glitch. It got into print.

But what was the comment? The Times didn’t say. Being nosy, I looked up the article and found the offending sentence: “There may never have been a ‘serious’ candidate who needed [coaching] more.”

The Times didn’t say the editor was mistaken, just that his opinion was not addressed to the public. It did not, in fact, apologize for implying almost the same thing in the article, when it said that Bush “–fairly or unfairly–is known more for his hands-on governing style than for his intellect.”

The difference is that the story was reporting what other people think–“fairly or unfairly.” Times reporters do not make such judgments; they are a blank slate, free of bias, passion or compassion.

Objectivity is the false god of journalism. It’s not to be confused with honesty. A Times editor once took a phrase of mine that began, “At a time when the stock market was going up–” and wrote in, “according to officials.” Not many are that stupid, but the use of selected or imagined sources is second nature in our trade.

In was in fact refreshing to learn that a Times editor thought Bush Junior was a dim bulb. The orthodox portrait of our leaders presents them as people of uncommon talent, intellect and character, born to rule. Such a view is always fit to print, and always more or less false. The truth, if it is known, may be written only in nonprinting script.