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Critical is crucial

Critical is crucial

And not just some of the time

Journalists should always employ critical thinking "Involving or exercising careful judgment." That's a definition of the word "critical" presented by the Oxford English Dictionary, and it's one that I and my fellow journalists should absorb. When kings and queens of the press pass along allegations without exercising critical thinking, we become pawns. But when we adopt a double standard, our credibility also is undermined. The press was properly critical last week of unproven claims that President Clinton carried out adulterous trysts at the Washington Marriott. This reckless charge, along with some well-sourced reports, emerged in a new book by former White House FBI agent Gary Aldrich (see review, page 24); Mr. Aldrich made some talk show appearances, but NBC and CNN cancelled plans to interview him. A remembrance of vendettas past, however, should leave us skeptical concerning the extent of media righteousness. In 1991, why did Anita Hill's suddenly revealed, unsubstantiated allegations of decade-old sexual harassment warrant 67 network evening news stories even before Senate hearings examined the evidence? In 1992, why did Joe Trento's claim that a deceased ambassador had said that President Bush might have slept with a State Department aide make it onto ABC and CBS without undergoing critical verification?

Reliable publications stress the work of reporters trained to evaluate sources, but some stories apparently cause editors to lose self-control. Conservative publications that present as fact the Clinton/Marriott story should be ashamed of themselves. Every little breeze may whisper Louise, as the old song goes, but journalists should investigate, and watch for lawsuits instead of gossip, before rushing to judgment. Liberal publications are far more powerful in America today than conservative ones, so they have caused far more mischief. In 1991 Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, and many other newspapers hyped on their covers and front pages Kitty Kelley's unproven anti-Reagan allegations. Jonathan Alter, a personable Newsweek columnist, was defensive about his magazine's use of Ms. Kelley's work: "Of course there are some mistakes in it. ...The point, however, is that Kelley's portrait is not essentially untrue." I haven't heard such comments from pro-Clinton journalists about Mr. Aldrich's work. A double standard trumps consistent critical thinking. The right approach is to assign reporters to verify or knock down rumors of adultery, as the Miami Herald rightly did in Gary Hart's case. A similar type of critical thought should consistently be applied to public opinion poll data. Analysts know that slight changes in phrasing can radically shift poll results, but most publications still report most public opinion polls at face value-unless the polls show results sharply opposed to what journalists want to see. For example, the respected Harte-Hanks Texas Poll last month found that 83 percent of Texans surveyed answered "no" to the question, "Should colleges and universities in Texas use race as a factor in admissions decisions?" Only 13 percent said yes. The poll showed 73 percent of Hispanics and 64 percent of blacks opposed to race-based decisions. Much of the Austin American-Statesman's report on the poll dealt with why-in the words of an inside page headline-"Wording in race poll may have swayed its results." That's true, and similar cautions should accompany most poll results. Now, when polls come out politically correct, journalists tend to report them as revelation to which all should bow.

While on leave from the University of Texas over the past 18 months and spending too much time back east, I was interviewed about 260 times, so I saw big chunks of the Washington press corps in action. Some of the folks are very nice, but almost all seem to paint by numbers. As CBS News correspondent Bernard Goldberg notes, "The old argument that the networks and other 'media elites' have a liberal bias is so blatantly true that it's hardly worth discovering anymore. No, we don't sit around in dark corners and plan strategies on how we're going to slant the news. We don't have to. It comes naturally to most reporters." The liberal journalistic elite and the conservative wannabe elite both need to learn to do what does not come naturally. Liberal reporters need to investigate each Aldrich allegation, even if the results lead to electoral defeat for their ideological soulmate. Conservative Christians should not minimize the errors of Bob Dole, even in the middle of a campaign to oust a pro-abortion president. We all need to approach critically our own biases and those of our sources, and to look at the record rather than assuming either the best or the worst about political leaders-and ourselves.