The Ideology of Journalists: A Response to Jay Rosen

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Here is my first attempt at responding to Jay Rosen's advice to journalists. I largely agree with his basic points. But I propose an additional distinction between ideological polemics and journalism. When a story is complex, journalists ought to examine whatever thesis they hold and attempt, by reporting, to falsify it. A good story demolishes counterarguments, but it must be aware of them. Whatever this entails in practice I think suggests a very subtle difference in habit: journalists ought to focus on power, actually, versus power, representationally. We need to worry less, not more, about the metadata attached to our words -- less about bias, less about what Jay Rosen will think, less about the nasty Tweets we're bound to get, less about what others assume of our motivations, and devote that anxious energy to Jay's core maxims, which are right on the money.

Be strongly for transparency, which means our ability to see into the house of power. It is part of a commitment to transparency that one respects what is genuinely private, distinguishing it from what is truly public.

Be strongly against opacity as a tool of power.

Be strongly for accountability in government and civil society, especially where public money, human lives and people's livelihoods are at stake.

Be strongly against demagoguery (that's when a leader makes use of common prejudices, false claims and false promises in order to win power...) which means trying to raise the cost of participating in it.

Transparency defined as the "ability to see into the house of power," to understand how and why decisions are made, coupled with accountability, the ability to force people to stand by and stand FOR the consequences of their decisions, the opposition to using opacity as a tool of power -- these are, as journalism students surely know, very noble and often very hard ideals to live up to 100 percent of the time.

But I wonder. Perhaps things that are genuinely private sometimes are not private at other times and shouldn't be; as citizens, journalists have responsibilities that extend to the welfare of their brothers and sisters but also to the security of the republic, and sometimes that means making bargains, or deliberately being opaque, especially when human lives are at stake.

Jay's maxims are about intent and motivation. I want to add some maxims about judgment, the first of them being:

Recognize trade-offs.

Spend as much time questioning judgment as you spend questioning motivation. Both drive decision-making. Motivation is more elusive, and often less concrete, and as a way of adding value to context, it is often meaningless: why did Vice President Dick Cheney consolidate national security authority in the Office of the Vice President? Why did he employ draconian secrecy measures? Why did he subscribe to the unitary theory of executive power? Most people who have pondered these questions focus on Cheney's motives. We still need solid reporting on his judgment. What worked about his arrangement? How did his experience influence the structure of his decision-making?

Study cognitive science. Figure out how minds work. Be suspicious about patterns and be knowledgeable about probability.

Don't be self-righteous. Journalists working for big newspapers, magazines, television networks, or websites are privileged to have the platform and should be humble about using its power.

Be humble about conclusions. This is not to say that you can't make them. It is to say that if your conclusions aren't provisional, then they probably are not correct. Sarah Palin may not be ready to be president today, but that doesn't mean she won't be ready to be president tomorrow.

Now to the question of personal ideology. Jay's disdain for "the view from nowhere" and the "ritualized avoidance of all conclusions" is well substantiated by the corrosive effects those practices have on both journalism and how people perceive it. He concedes that the proper balance between engagement and detachment is difficult to strike, and proposes a gradual shift towards an ethic of personal bias disclosure. A view with a voice.

He writes:

Let me explain how it might work for Marc Ambinder, who has already started in on the project of disclosure. Instead of saying in his bio, "I report on politics for the Atlantic and I'm chief political consultant for CBS News" and leaving it at that, he would say something like... I report on politics for the Atlantic and I'm chief political consultant for CBS News. Accuracy, fairness, doing the reporting before coming to a conclusion and trying to see all sides of an issue are first principles with me, but I am not without a perspective on politics. So here is where I'm coming from...

Yes. That's the question! I would love to be able to figure out how to end that sentence without writing a fifteen page essay that I'm constantly having to revise because I'm constantly discovering that my political identity isn't very fixed.

I'll take the bait. Gay marriage. I'm for gay marriage. Should I include something that specific? If I did, what does it tell the reader? Does it start them on a tangent about my sexual orientation? Does it reflect upon my ability to cover the political activities of those who oppose gay marriage? Should I disclose this to everyone I ask questions about gay rights to? Should I include it in every article I write? What about my sexual orientation? If you're straight and writing about gay politics, is that discloseable?

If any of these questions deserves an answer, then the disclosure Jay is calling for turns into an endless and self-justifying series of rhetorical loops. If they don't, then what Jay is calling for will turn into a meaningless exercise that does not alter the habits of mind of journalists. We are not Supreme Court nominees, though perhaps we ought to be evaluated like them: we've got a paper trail that pretty effectively gives people a window into our thinking when such a window is required to better tell the story.

Clearly, I think I can be in favor of gay marriage and cover fairly those who oppose it. What does "fairly" mean? I don't know, except that I think it means that I must cover it honestly. Knowing that I'm for gay marriage and most Americans oppose it is one place to start from. When I interviewed Mitt Romney in 2007, he had been given from his campaign research shop a dossier that included a reference to where I might stand on this particular issue. I found that amusing; I don't think it changed his answers to my questions.

From here, there's a declension into other, ancillary issues: if Marc's in favor of gay marriage, he must support hate crime laws, right? Well, actually, I oppose them. Why? Well, it's a long story.

If you need to know -- and I mean know -- where I'm coming from -- what my gut says -- then I'm going to have to explain to you my thinking.

And that is not journalism. That's diary-writing. That does nothing to advance the cause. What about voting? I've voted for at least one Republican and one Democrat for president since I was 18. Which ones? Why did I vote for them? The essay continues ... and suddenly, journalism devolves into a sloth pit of selfishness: self-disclosure, self-promotion, self-adjustment, self-reflection. Camille Paglia's worst nightmare has come true: we are all Foucaultians now.

I have a unique platform, so I'm able to grapple with the question without asking an editor for an opinion first. Should we include the editor's perspective in the disclosure module for each story?

It is enough to to say that my political perspective is that: I don't like people who lie, cheat, or steal, or who dissemble for the sake of acquiring or using power, or who think narrowly about everything rather than broadly; who hold fast to dogma; who are quick to condemn those who refuse to condemn. I like it when people change their minds about things, when we recognize the basic dignity of even those who would deprive us of our own; when we are able to criticize America as Americans proudly exercising our rights; when we are able to be proud of America collectively, as Americans fondly attaching ourselves to the Great Idea. Also, I like science and reject denialism, although I respect healthy skepticism. I think I can go to the Vice President's house for a few hours one day and struggle to figure out whether he is relevant or what he's doing behind the scenes the next.

That may tell you all you need to know, or it may tell you nothing.  Maybe it's a series of cliches that strike you as self-contradictory. If so, we're back at the beginning, You've been told to expect to know where I'm coming from because I've told you, not because I've showed you.

I am a fan of cliches, unfortunately, and the one I like the best is the one that I hold to: let the body of work speak for itself.  In other words, journalism comes first, ideology waddles somewhere behind. I don't believe in complete detachment, but I do believe that, by choosing to be journalists, we are acknowledging that, in our own minds, our ideological governors aren't as strong as, say, our legislative governors. Why assume that ideology matters in exactly the same way to everyone?

So, Jay, I may not have answered your questions to your satisfaction, but I've tried.

I'd like to continue this dialogue by posing a few more questions to you:

Readers and viewers have some responsibility in this grand exchange of ideas. What are they? How can the public be held accountable for their decisions? Are there types of criticism that are more valid than the others? How much time should the average journalist spend thinking about what other people think? 

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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