The Ideology of Journalists: A Response to Jay Rosen

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?

Presented by

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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