“Reporters and Interpreters,” by James C. Baker
November 11, 1946

I met a friend recently who had just listened to a report on England, made by a well known American clergyman after some weeks of travel on the Continent, and more briefly in England. This reporter had been exceedingly gloomy and pessimistic and had thoroughly disheartened the representative group of ministers and laymen to whom the report was given. One of the editors of a widely read religious journal has just published a similar estimate, with even darker conclusions regarding both England and the Continent. As for the latter there is, he insists, no health left either in state or church. Even the Provisional World Council of Churches, in his judgment, is primarily a “salvage” organization.

Because I find myself in sharp disagreement with both of these men, particularly in relation to England, the churches on the Continent, and the Provisional World Council of Churches, I am led to make some observations on reporters and interpreters.

Doubtless each man, in response to my dissent, would say: “The facts speak for themselves.” How often we hear this cliche! Aldous Huxley gave the proper reply. “Facts,” one of his characters remarks, “are ventriloquists’ dummies. Sitting on a wise man’s knee they may be made to utter words of wisdom; elsewhere they say nothing, or they talk nonsense, or indulge in sheer diabolism.” Even if you have the facts there remains the question of interpretation.

But many interpretations are based on insufficient facts. It is well to remember John Stuart Mill’s dictum that generalizations should not be attempted without having a sufficient degree of adjacent cases on which to base them. There may be other facts which have not been discovered or have been left out in coming to one’s conclusions. From my own experience in two journeys to England this past spring and summer I think both of the reporters, already referred to, have either not seen certain facts which I saw, or have ignored them in their too gloomy generalizations. Both they and I may well profit by the wisdom of John Mason Brown. When making a report through the Saturday Review of Literature, Mr. Brown said: “Travel impressions are as dangerous as they are unavoidable. Ask yourself how accurately you can gauge the feelings or happenings in your own town (much less your own country), and you realize how suspect such reports are” (Aug. 31, 1946).

Not now referring to the reporters with reference to whom I began this editorial, I am sure we all feel that there has been, and is, much reporting on the world scene which is “sheer diabolism,” making for ill will, suspicion, and conflict. A famous European statesman at the San Francisco Conference said to the Consultants, representing the Protestant Churches there, that many of the “newsmen” at that critical Conference simply “sat around and drank whiskey and made mischief” by the unreliable and false reports they were sending out. Let us beware of such reports from the first Assembly of Nations!

Admittedly the world picture is a confused one, and may be viewed from many angles. When Isaiah’s watchman was asked: “What of the night?” his reply was: “The morning cometh, and also the night. If ye will inquire, inquire ye.” The light and the dark are to be found in every nation—even in the United States.

There is light and darkness in the struggle of the nations to find the path to an ordered world. Because of this mixed situation some view the Assembly of the United Nations with questioning, suspicion, cynicism, or actual hostility. Others believe that the Assembly, together with the other instruments of the United Nations, such as the Economic and Social Council, UNESCO, the Commission on Human Rights, the World Court, hold vast possibilities for the curing of our warring madness and the establishment of a freer and larger life for mankind. “If ye will inquire, inquire ye.” Let the discussion go on, but let us not ignore the facts which give hope, as we give the facts which are fearfully disturbing.

One who assumes to be an interpreter carries a heavy social responsibility. Life is in the power of the word, and death also. Unconsidered and ill-advised or even inadequate speech or writing may do untold damage. So, too, the pessimist or the cynic may take the heart out of many who would otherwise join with those who seek a new world.

We are in a battle with despair these days. One cannot but regret interpretations which weigh the struggle on the side of defeat, especially when one’s own judgment is that such interpretations leave out great areas of fact which give one the right to cherish hope.

James Chamberlain Baker (1879 – 1969) was a bishop of the of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Church, and the United Methodist Church.