“When you read a story in the [Wall Street] Journal, you do so with the assurance that immense reportorial and editorial effort has been expended to ensure that what you read is factual,” said the journal's columnist Bret Stephens at UCLA on Feb. 16. “Not probably factual. Not partially factual. Not alternatively factual. I mean fundamentally, comprehensively and exclusively factual.”
Stephens, a Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist and deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, delivered the 15th annual Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture at UCLA’s Korn Convocation Hall. The event was co-sponsored by the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations, the Daniel Pearl Foundation and the Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA . The annual lecture honors the life and work of Pearl, a journalist who worked for the Wall Street Journal for 12 years before being murdered by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002. Stephens was the first journalist from the Wall Street Journal to deliver the lecture.
Author of “America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder” (Sentinel, 2014), Stephens gave an eloquent, impassioned defense of the truth and the journalist’s responsibility to search it out. “This is how Danny operated,” he said. “This is how he died, losing his life in an effort to nail down a story.”
Stephens pointed to the stunning number of journalists who have been murdered after Pearl, including Paul Klebnikov and Anna Politkovskaya in Russia, Zahra Kazemi and Sattar Behesti in Iran, James Foley and Steven Sotloff in Syria, five journalists in Turkey, 26 in Mexico and more than 100 in Iraq. “When we honor Danny, we honor them too. We do more than that,” he said. “We honor the central idea of journalism — the conviction, as my old boss Peter Kann once said, that facts are facts.”
“Truth is not merely in the eye of the beholder,” insisted Stephens. “And we honor the responsibility to separate truth from falsehood, which is never more important than when powerful people insist that falsehoods are truths, or that there is no such thing as truth to begin with. So that’s the business we’re in: the business of journalism,” said the speaker. “Or, as the 45th president of the United States likes to call us, the ‘disgusting and corrupt media.’”
He excoriated President Trump’s blatant, repeated falsehoods as an attack on the truth, one that Stephens argued was exceptionally dangerous for American culture. The journalist recalled Bill O’Reilly’s interview of Trump on Fox News in which O’Reilly told Trump it was irresponsible for the president to say things he could not back up factually. Trump retorted, “Many people have come out and said I’m right.”
Observed Stephens, “[H]is answer is darkly brilliant, if not in intention, then certainly in effect. … He is saying that, as far as he is concerned, facts, as most people understand the term, don’t matter, that they are indistinguishable from, and interchangeable with, opinion; and that statements of fact needn’t have any purchase against a man who is either sufficiently powerful to ignore them or sufficiently shameless to deny them — or, in his case, both.”
Stephens contended that Americans have come to accept Trump’s behavior in four ways: normalizing it due to sheer repetition; putting aside their normal moral filters and choosing to be entertained by the spectacle of his behavior; adopting new metrics of judgment that hold that politics is more about perception than performance; and rationalizing his actions.
The WSJ columnist, who identified himself as a conservative, noted that he had recently become popular with his liberal peers and unpopular with former fans on the right for precisely the same reason: He has not changed his opinions.
“As a columnist,” he remarked in the question-and-answer session that followed his speech, “you call them as you see them. I’m not playing for a team; I’m playing for my integrity.” He later added, “I think it’s my task as a conservative columnist to uphold the conservative tradition in its best form.”
Stephens returned several times to the observation of George Orwell that “to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.
“We each have our obligations to see what’s in front of one’s nose, whether we’re reporters, columnists or anything else,” he noted. “This is the essence of intellectual integrity. Not to look around, or beyond or away from the facts, but to look straight at them, to recognize and call them for what they are, nothing more or less,” he continued. “To see things as they are before we reinterpret them into what we’d like them to be.
“The reason we celebrate Danny [Pearl]’s memory isn’t that he’s a martyred journalist,” said Stephens. “It’s that he was a great journalist. … The legacy of Daniel Pearl is that he died for us. We are being asked for much less. We have no excuse not to do it,” he concluded.