An Evening with Kurt Eichenwald

I just came from the 2005 Rosine Smith Sammons Lecture in Media Ethics Featuring Kurt Eichenwald.

For those who don’t know, Kurt Eichenwald has been a writer and investigative reporter for The New York Times since 1988, and primarily covers Wall Street and corporate topics such as insider trading, accounting scandals and takeovers. Eichenwald’s work has earned a number of awards and nominations: the George Polk Award in 1996 and 1998, and a finalist for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. Eichenwald also authored the 2005 bestselling book on the Enron accounting scandal, Conspiracy of Fools.

The evening was quite enjoyable. My wife and I were late additions to the pre-lecture dinner, and both the food and conversation around the table were as enjoyable as they were intriguing.

The lecture itself was a gem. Eichenwald focused on the institutional biases inherent in an occupation built around knowledge dissemination: too many reporters unable to acknowledge a simple truth about most topics they cover: “I don’t know.”

Eichenwald argued that truth is far too complex to present in 800 words or 2 minutes of air time, and journalists should remember that their job is not about delivering truth, but the incomplete facts that can lead to truth.

Though he cited many reasons for the recent decline of integrity in the field, Eichenwald’s central point was to illustrate the pack-mentality — that journalists pursuing a story too often deliver the journalism that the audience desires, conflict frames that reinforce the audience’s view of the world without challenging conventional wisdom.

When taking a systemic view of this phenomenon, the deterioration of the quality of information presented by journalists makes the world more confusing, not less so, and the level of critical debate soon degenerates into celebrity personalities screaming at each other while no one critically listens to the content of their opponents argument.

In this way, Eichenwald argues that rather than challenging the status quo, journalists often reinforce it by allowing incomplete data and evidence to pass muster unchallenged, creating a shallow sort of social “fact,” surrounding a given story.

Perhaps the highlight of my evening was hearing one of my students ask Mr. Eichenwald about his take on Weblogs. This particular student has consistently raised concern about the impact of blogging on the field of journalism, and it was pleasing to me to watch him adapt his concerns into the public realm. Clearly, more conversation will be forthcoming.

All-in-all, a fine evening for those who enjoy thinking critically about the field of journalism.