Growing up amid the oil refineries, chemical plants, and landfills of
New Jersey, I never had the experience of sailing. My father did own a
small outboard, but our weekend outings on Raritan Bay took us to
beaches cluttered with empty Clorox bottles and horseshoe-crab shells.
We did not dare eat any of the fluke my sister caught. So, only when I
was in my mid-twenties and on a trip to Egypt did I learn first-hand
what it means to tack. I spent five days plying the Nile on a felucca,
the traditional Egyptian craft, and though the boat traveled steadily
north, it did not proceed in a straight line. It canted toward the east
bank, then angled back to the west, then shifted direction once again,
the single sail pivoting on its mast to grasp the wind.

As a reporter you will be tacking, too, between the shores of truth and justice, trying to hold your direction
true north. Our lives would be easier, though much less interesting, if
truth and justice were always on the same side, if human events were a
pageant of good versus evil. As the Rwanda genocide and the Enron fraud
show, there are times when the world does divide in such a polar way,
and those times can lift a burden from a journalist's conscience.

What you must resist, though, is the presumption, even the expectation,
that issues can be so neatly parsed. If you have gone through college
already, then you have probably been imbued with the fashionable
theories of our time -- deconstructionism, post-colonialism,
Orientalism, white studies, and so forth. In varied ways, these
theories tell you that all human existence does, in fact, fall cleanly
into camps of oppressor and oppressed. The nation, indeed the world,
can be neatly divided between whites and "people of color." All virtue
resides with weak; in moral terms, weakness is strength. And any
"person of color" is deemed to have the same experiences, values,
needs, wishes, as any other, irrespective of differences in
nationality, ethnicity, class, and color.

These perspectives are not without worth, especially to a young person
assembling an adult self. Any sensate human should want to take the
side of the underdog. Guilt is the sign of an active conscience.
Undifferentiated compassion is a place to begin. The inherent
privileges of white skin, both historical and current, should be
recognized rather than merely assumed. An aphorism of our profession,
first uttered by Finley Peter Dunne's fictional Mister Dooley, puts it,
journalism comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. If
journalists tend to be liberal, and in my experience they do, then the
predilection has less to do with ideology than a more inchoate desire
to engage in what Hebrew calls tikkun olam, healing the world.

None of those values or truisms should overrule the facts on the
ground, or, as J. Anthony Lukas called it, "the stubborn particularity
of life." Journalism has a weakness for reducing individuals to victims
or villains, as if our audiences could not possibly discern gray tones.
It sounds admirable for to "speak truth to power," as Professor Martin
Kramer of Tel Aviv University has pointed out, unless you think of the
phrase's implication that you are supposed to tell lies, presumably
comforting ones, to the powerless. If you can stay clear of these
traps, if you can resist the false reassurance of simplicity, if you
can embrace the ambiguity and revel in the nuances, you might come to
realize, as I have, that the most compelling journalism rarely takes
the form of chronicling the battle between good and evil. In that
contest, it takes no great brain or large heart to decide, as the old
labor-union song says, which side you're on. The trickier and more
valuable task is to illuminate the collision between good and good, or
at least between competing versions and visions of what is a good
policy, a good community, a good citizen.

When I think about the dialectic between truth and justice, I think
back to a play by Richard Greenberg, "Eastern Standard." Greenberg was
writing in the late 1980s, when homelessness was a huge issue,
especially in his home city of New York. In the play, four yuppies come
across a homeless bag lady and in an act of putative compassion invite
her to live at their summer house, provided she serve as their maid. To
their shock, she winds up stealing from them and disappearing. "Eastern
Standard" earned a fair amount of criticism as a result. Weren't people
of good will supposed to feel sympathy for the homeless? And weren't
the homeless worthy of that sympathy? To me, though, Greenberg had done
exactly what a journalist should be doing, poked into all the gray
areas. His yuppies were both altruistic and exploitative; his homeless
woman was both amusingly cranky and mentally ill. The same instincts
that let her survive on the streets also led her to rob her
benefactors. Far from making her less affecting, her flaws made her
more so, because they made her more fully human.

Let me give you another example, this one from journalism itself. When
he was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, Alex Kotlowitz wrote a
profile of two brothers and their mother living in the decrepit,
crime-ravaged Henry Horner housing project in Chicago. The article
created such a stir that Kotlowitz expanded it into a book, "There Are
No Children Here." By many measures, it was an accomplished book indeed.
The New York Public Library named it one of the one hundred most
important books of the 20th century. In an era of "compassion fatigue"
by many Americans, Kotlowitz restored inner-city poverty to the
political agenda by drastically shifting the angle of vision, focusing
closely on children, on innocents.

Where Kotlowitz separated himself from lesser writers on race and
poverty was in refusing to settle for easy answers. He saw LaJoe Rivers
as both the victim and the agent of the misery in which she and her
sons Lafayette and Pharoah existed. In many ways, in fact, LaJoe
embodied the stereotype of the underclass "welfare mother"; at
thirty-five, she was the mother of eight children, the first born when
she was fourteen, and several deeply involved in crime and drugs.
Precisely because Kotlowitz portrayed LaJoe and her family so
unflinchingly, instead of eliding inconvenient facts, he earned the
trust of his readers as a fair broker, a reliable witness. So when he
went on to write about how this broken woman spent part of her welfare
check on burial insurance for Lafayette and Pharoah, grimly assuming
they would die young and violently, he pierced the national conscience.

As someone who has written a great deal about religion, I am struck at
how it eludes so many journalists. They try to make it subscribe to
their normal framework for understanding the political world -- liberal
versus conservative, Republican versus Democrat. The Catholic Church in
America is routinely seen as a right-wing force because of its
opposition to abortion and gay rights; yet that same church has
advocated against nuclear arms, welfare reform, and the death penalty,
all as part of what the late Joseph Cardinal Bernadin referred to as a
"seamless garment" of theology. When we encounter evangelical
Christians in news reports, they appear invariably as partisans of
right-wing causes, which many certainly do support. Meanwhile, largely
unnoticed, they have become activists on supposedly liberal issues such
as prison reform, sexual trafficking, modern-day slavery in the Sudan.
But that side of evangelical story does not fit our ready template. If
you cannot tack, how will you make sense of a controversy between
immigrant Dominican parents who decry the failure of bilingual
education to give their children English fluency and teachers from
Puerto Rican backgrounds who see the Spanish-language curriculum as a
civil right? When I wrote that story, I recognized that justice was on
the side of the teachers and truth on the side of the parents. The
tug-of-war inside my own brain was the greatest asset I had in telling
the story.

You can go as wrong with pessimism as naivete, though, because each is
a form of simplistic thought. Newsrooms are sarcastic, wisecracking
places, and their gimlet-eyed perspective is part of their charm.
Journalists as a species remind me of Israelis in one respect. The
greatest insult there is to be called a freier,
a sucker. Still, there
is a vital difference between being a skeptic and a cynic, and in the
coverage of politics in particular I have seen that distinction
increasingly lost. In part, we can blame the politicians for the
pervasive mistrust. It is the spoor of Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra,
the Iraq War; it is the logical reaction to the "line of the day,"
"staying on-message," and all the other trappings of information
management. No journalist I know would want to return to the complicity
between media and government that lulled reporters into avoiding
reference of Franklin Roosevelt's handicap and John F. Kennedy's proxy
invasion at the Bay of Pigs.

But beware when the pendulum swings too far in the other direction.
Beware when you find yourself falling into chic misanthropy, ascribing
the basest motives to any public official as your starting point. Being
adversarial sounds righteous except when it is a mere reflex, just one
more way of imposing black-or-white absolutism on a world washed in
grays. I know there are rewards, from the social to the material, for
ridiculing politicians, especially those with whom you personally
disagree. That sort of attack journalism, all punchlines and
adjectives, sells a lot of books these days, fills up a lot of hours on
radio and TV. It also has real consequences in degrading the quality of
our public life -- by reinforcing the nihilistic view that no one's vote
much matters and the two major parties are essentially the same, when
both those things have been proven demonstrably false in the last two
presidential elections; by ratifying the conventional wisdom that
governmental programs don't work and the private sector can do anything
better; and by driving quality people out of public service and scaring
others from entering. You might want to remember something a former
labor secretary, Raymond Donovan, said on the day a jury acquitted him
of fraud charges, the culmination of seven years of leaks, innuendo,
dubious informants, and massive media coverage. "Which office do I go
to," Donovan asked, "to get my reputation back?"

Several years ago, Columbia Journalism School awarded Walter Pincus of The Washington Post our annual prize for outstanding coverage of
politics and government. The honor came in recognition of a series of
articles by Pincus that cast doubt on President Bush's claims about
Saddam Hussein's weapons programs. So thoroughly did the articles run
against the overall tenor of reporting on the subject, and indeed
against the view of the Clinton as well as the Bush administration
about the Iraqi arsenal, that they did not even make the front page. By
the time of the ceremony, May of 2004, Pincus's reporting had been
proven prescient.

In receiving the award, Pincus was also invited to address the
journalism school's faculty and graduating class. I think most of us
expected a speech about perfidy in high places, a rousing call to
muckraking. Pincus had spent most of his career, after all, reporting
on national-security issues, not exactly a vantage point for observing
the American government at its most idealistic. Not surprisingly,
Pincus spoke incisively and critically about the public-relations
apparatus in Washington and the proliferation of photo-ops and other
forms of pseudo-news.

But he spoke, too, about his own periods of government service, two
stretches of eighteen months apiece during the 1960s as a staff member
for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He spoke about the
importance of staying on a beat long enough to become an expert in it,
and about the responsibility of journalism not only to expose
wrongdoing but pursue remedies. Far from describing those he covered as
enemies, mere quarry, he reminded all of us they are "real people,
three-dimensional, with spouses and children." Speaking of his own time
inside government, he said, "What I saw for the most part were people
working hard to solve tricky, complicated problems in ways not visible
to the outside world and particularly journalists."

I cannot remember in great detail the audience's response to Pincus. My
best recollection is that it was more polite than effusive. The
previous year, the columnist Molly Ivins had won the same award and
given the speech, she was a great hit with her well-oiled anti-Bush
one-liners. If it was entertainment you wanted, she had it all over
Walter Pincus. For wisdom to guide a career, I preferred someone who
comprehended a complex world. He was the one in the rumpled suit and,
I'll bet, scuffed shoes.