REPORTING FOR DUTY IN THE FREE FLOATING CADRE
, who notes that Edward Wasserman, a professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee, is not too keen
on having his facts checked by others (go to www.bugmenot.com
to avoid registration hassles):
News is a messy and elusive form of information. Journalism is crude, tentative and fumbling, always involving compromise, and there's a healthy measure of give-and-take in the process.
But anybody who enters the profession makes a core commitment to do his or her best to determine and tell the truth. And that commitment is now under assault.
Let's read that again, shall we? Anyone who becomes a professional journalist makes a "core commitment" to "do his or her best" to "determine and tell the truth".
Really? If that's true, then this is the best the profession can offer us? 60 Minutes as a Kerry infomercial? Hundreds, if not thousands of stories on Bush failing to meet the requirements of service in the Air National Guard and dead silence on Kerry's oft-repeated, and now admitted fairy tales about spending Christmas in Cambodia? The best efforts of the profession to determine and tell the truth include an AP report that insults me and every other Bush supporter by falsely claiming that the audience at a Bush rally booed when told Clinton was in the hospital? That's
as good as it gets, Mr. Wasserman? I don't think so. I think they can and will do better, if pushed to do so. But not according to Wasserman. He thinks that any criticism of a professional journalist by a non-journalist is bullying and intellectual extortion.
The attack doesn't come from ideologically committed journalists and commentators who put together reports clearly selected and spun-dry to sell a political line. As long as such writers retain some minimal respect for fact, the transparency of their motives may even work to enrich the variety of information and interpretations available to all.
Again: Really? Minimal respect for fact is the best journalists as a whole can do? According to a professor of journalism ethics? Not a healthy respect, not a reverence for fact, but minimal respect. I guess that the AP story about the crowd booing the announcement of Clinton's heart surgery at a Bush rally had a "minimal respect for fact." I will concede that the reporter's respect for fact was minimal. So minimal that I couldn't see it.
And transparent motives? Transparent to whom? Did I miss it when the New York Times started printing their reporters' "motives" along with their bylines? Tell me where the motives of the authors of the NYT's initial reportage of the Swift Boat Vets controversy were made "transparent". Was it before or after the 65th paragraph when they finally got around to saying that the Christmas in Cambodia story was the only Swift Boat accusation that Kerry had "not yet put to rest"? Put to rest? Kerry had not only not put it to rest, he had admitted it to be true. So where are the motives of the reporters in that story made transparent and how is it possible that such misreporting "work[s] to enrich the variety of information and interpretations available to all"?
To the contrary, such efforts work to decrease the information and decrease interpretations available, not to increase them.
The more compelling danger concerns news organizations in the so-called mainstream. These are the country's best-staffed and most influential news organizations, and they're losing their nerve.
Good! I certainly hope its true. The media (with some notable exceptions) has become quite brazen about what they are doing.
I understand why. It's hard now even to write for publication without being aware of just how thoroughly what you say is going to be inspected for any trace of undesirable political tilt and denounced by a free-floating cadre of rightist warriors.
Ah, the vast right wing conspiracy raises its ugly head. Journalists apparently need to be protected from people who, for one reason or another, get annoyed with something written by said journalist who may or may not:
Have made a "core commitment to determine and tell the truth"
Have lived up to that commitment
Have a minimal respect for fact.
Then, horror of horrors, this unpaid (and thus presumably unprofessional) cretin actually has the gall to criticize (yes! criticize!) his betters. What nerve! That they are more than occasionally right matters not one whit. That they are sometimes (even frequently) wrong is what counts.
According to Wasserman, only professional journalists with minimal respect for fact are to be forgiven their mistakes (without ever having confessed same). According to Wasserman, only professional journalists, with their core commitment to determine and report the truth, can allow their political agenda to affect their reporting. Wasserman apparently believes that the fact that some (most? all?) criticism of the effect of a journalist's political agenda on his reporting is itself politically motivated disqualifies it as criticism.
If that's apparent to me as a mere columnist, I can only imagine the current mind-set of supervising editors: If we give prominence to this story of carnage in Iraq, will we be accused of anti-administration bias? And - here it gets interesting - will we therefore owe our readers an offsetting story, perhaps an inspirational tale of Marines teaching young Iraqis how to play softball?
That's right, Mr. Wasserman! The only good thing that isn't being reported from Iraq is free softball lessons!
Soft stories like Marines teaching Iraqis how to play ball is Wasserman's straw man. He needs a reality check:
How many stories were there in the last week about US casualties?
Compare that to how many stories there were in the last six months about Iraqi construction projects (what's being built, where, for how much, who is building it, when will it be done, what will it mean for the locale and the nation). The only person I have seen doing stories like that is Arther Chrenkoff, and the only place I have seen it is on his blog
and the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal.
How many stories were there in the last month about whether Bush's service in the Air National Guard met all the requirements?
Compare that to how many stories there were about Kerry's time in Vietnam and whether all of the claims he makes about his service are true.
Look, I know that no single press organzation can report everything. The entire Western media probably can't report everything
. In know that bad news sells newspapers ("good news is no news, no news is bad news and bad news is good news"). But Wasserman's complaint about having to report (literally) softball feel-good news to "offset" other stories that don't play well on one end of the political spectrum is nonsense. Balancing one story with another doesn't work. That isn't journalism. But refusing to report stories because they don't play well on the end of the political spectrum the reporter or his paper inhabits doesn't work and isn't journalism, either.
Now, both stories may well be integral to the news. If so, both should be told. The problem arises when the pressure to tell the softball story comes not from a principled desire to deliver a factual account that is broadly emblematic of significant happenings in Iraq, but from a gutless attempt to buy off a hostile and suspicious fragment of the audience base.
What about when the refusal to deliver a factual account of a story comes from a desire (transparent or otherwise) to end the adminstration of a president? That refusal can be characterized in one of only two ways: it is either a gutless attempt to avoid losing (eg: by buying off) readers on the "correct" end of the political spectrum (which is Wasserman's spin), or its a brazen attempt to manipulate the election (which is mine). There are no other possibilities. But as long as the press is not goring Wasserman's political ox, he seems to be OK with either of them.
News then becomes a negotiation - not a negotiation among discordant pictures of reality, as it always is, but an abject negotiation with a loud and bullying sliver of the audience. News of great significance becomes not an honest attempt to reflect genuinely contradictory realities, but a daily bargaining session with an increasingly factionalized public, a corrupted process in which elements of the news become offerings - payments really - in a kind of intellectual extortion.
Once again, Mr. Wasserman nails it. People who, like me, have tired of hearing the received wisdom of the media are bullies, forcing the media to cover the stories we want in the way we want by extortion. That's why there are no complaints about bias in the medi....
If, as Wasserman claims, the extortion comes from a "sliver" of the intended audience, why not tell them what they can do with their complaints and bullying and extortion? After all, journalism is a business. If your business is being dramatically and negatively affected by bullying attempts at extortion emanating from a sliver of your customers, simply walk away from the extortionists.
What does Wasserman propose? Does he want me to let his fellow professionals with a "minimal respect for fact" continue to try to change my mind on the sly, by slanting their news stories to fit their political views? Should we just step back and let the professionals handle it? After all, aren't those professionals nobly trying to educate this poor, deluded, right wing troglodyte? I think Wassserman's conclusion comes down to "Shut up, he explained
Columnists are supposed to write opinion pieces, as are editorial writers. The reporters who write for the news pages are not. Period. Minimal respect for fact and supposedly transparent motives does not transform an op-ed piece into a news report. If I want to read political commentary, I know where to go. The problem is becoming one of where to go to get news without
the political commentary.
The performance of this country's finest news organizations in the run-up to the Iraq invasion of March 2003 will be remembered as a disgrace. To be sure, it was an angry, fearful time, when independent-minded reporting might not have been heard above the drumbeats of patriotism and war. But it's hard to read the hand-wringing confessionals from news organizations that now realize that they got the prewar story wrong without concluding that the real problem was they were afraid to tell the truth.
Leave aside Wasserman's unsupported claim that the "drumbeat of patriotism and war" somehow obscured "independent minded" journalism. The performance of the country's finest news organizations in the run-up to the War in Afghanistan was also a disgrace. Do you remember the "brutal Afghan winter" that was going to freeze both GIs and helicopters in their tracks? I do. Do you remember the stories about how Afghanistan hadn't been conquered since Alexander? I do.
And in the runup to the war in Iraq, I also remember reports about how the Iraqi sanctions were killing hundreds of children a month. And I remember reports about how there would be tens of thousands of US casualties (mostly from the weapons of mass destruction which the article claimed three paragraphs previously did not exist).
And the performance of this country's finest news organizations in the run-up to the election has been a disgrace. Shameless spinning for Kerry and equally shameless Bush bashing are both being fobbed off on the public as news.
My point is that the failures of professional journalists are not limited to the run-up to the war in Iraq. Moreover, Wasserman's (wholly unsupported) conclusion that those failures are occuring because the journalists are afraid to report is nonsense. Hard hitting reporters who can actually back up their conclusions with documented facts are lavishly rewarded in our society. Pulitzers and movie deals were awarded to Woodward and Bernstein. Book deals, fame, lecture tours all await the reporter who breaks an important story.
The absolute pinnacle of the reporting world is the New York Times. If you make it to the Times, you've arrived, professionally speaking. But in the past several years, the Gray Lady has suffered Jayson Blair's fabricated stories, and Howell Raines quixotic jihad against the Masters Tournament, both of which masqueraded as news. The trend has continued with both war and political reporting. Professional journalism is rapidly becoming an oxymoron.
No, journalism has not suffered due journalists' fears, but their stupidity and contempt. Their failure to realize that they no longer control access to the raw data in the age of information is stupid. And their inability to realize that their readers can actually hold a thought for more than the few minutes it takes to read the current stories is nothing short of contemptuous.
Resisting undue outside influence is part of what news professionals do. But it's hard enough to get the story right, without holding it hostage to an open-ended negotiation with zealots who believe they already know what the story is.
But Wasserman does not want journalists to resist outside influence. He wants to eliminate criticism of journalists altogether, so that no more "abject negotiation with a loud and bullying sliver of the audience" need happen.
The criticism of journalists by non-journalists is not the problem here. The problem is that the "zealots who believe they already know what the story is" are, more often than not, the supposedly professional journalists.
With minimal respect for fact.