A libertarian guide for young reporters tells us how media, ideological or otherwise, should work in the digital age
With the rise of ideological journalism over the past decade, a period when opinionated bloggers, Web journalists, and muckraking activists have changed the face of the profession, there's been cause for celebration: The ideological gatekeepers that once narrowed our public discourse no longer hold sway. Every bias is challenged. New perspectives abound. The right and left each have their success stories. But an avowedly ideological press has its pathologies, just like the avowedly objective press it's in the process of replacing.
For a decade, I've followed the right's journalistic efforts and accompanying pathologies particularly closely.
And I see new reason for optimism.
Unlike left-of-center journalism, where ideological outlets like Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and The American Prospect mostly accept the norms and ethical conventions that reign at older guard outlets like the New York Times, many (though not all) right-leaning outlets have gone their own way. Bloggers like Glenn Reynolds started off critiquing the approach of the mainstream media. National Review publishes some folks who think of themselves as reporters or journalists first -- and others who thought of themselves as ideological warriors first, an approach that often diminishes editorial standards, especially at institutions less careful than NR, where no one in charge demands sound reasoning and accuracy. Activists like James O'Keefe have gone a step farther, behaving as if the end of ideologically useful scoops justifies means of reportage that are illegal, immoral, or both. And Fox News is among the outlets that has used the excuse of commentary as license to broadcast the most outlandish, inaccurate nonsense, as evidenced by any number of Glenn Beck conspiracy theories.
Ideological warriors of all stripes perpetrate crimes against facts and intellectual honesty. Some of the pathologies I've mentioned are merely due to the fact that the right is not immune. In a series of pieces over the years, however, I've tried to point out some flaws that particularly affect the way many on the right think of journalism. In "Electric Kool Aid Conservatism," I argued that what the right needs are more people who understand conservative insights, but who consider themselves journalists first. Later in "At the Gates of the Fourth Estate," I argued that the dearth of conservative and libertarian journalists at mainstream journalistic organizations is exacerbated by people like Andrew Breitbart, who hyperbolically insists that non-liberals are doomed to lifelong persecution in the industry. Similarly harmful are exaggerated claims like this one from the late Robert Novak: "Liberals have now filtered into the executive ranks of journalism. And so if you go into journalism now not in the closet but out in the open as a conservative, you're going to have a hard time getting a job, believe me." That's just not true.
For a long time, a young conservative or libertarian who aspired to be a journalist would absorb these pathologies in the course of listening to a lot of talk radio, watching Fox News, reading certain Web outlets that publish a lot of hackery, and seeing conservative movement types fawn over the likes of Breitbart and O'Keefe. They'd be set up for failure, in ways big and small, if they entered the profession. As a longtime critic of the guilty parties, it's easy to despair at their influence.
Credit is now due, however, to a libertarian think tank, the Institute for Humane Studies, for publishing a "Journalism Career Guide" (PDF) that is a potent antidote. As a skeptic of journalism career guides generally (they're almost always clueless about new media), and especially ones produced by avowedly ideological organizations, I'm shocked that I can't find anything in its 68 pages to disagree with. In fact, I bet press watchers as diverse as Jay Rosen at the New York University journalism school (where I earned a masters degree), Slate's Jack Shafer, Chapman's Hugh Hewitt, and Columbia's Nick Lemann would all largely endorse its prescriptions, which is saying something, especially since it mixes practical advice and bits pitched to right-leaning readers.
Don't major in journalism as an undergraduate, John Elliott writes in the introduction -- report for your college newspaper, and learn how to write even if you're going to be a TV or radio broadcaster. "Editors not sympathetic to classical liberal thinking will run most of the student newspapers, but aspiring libertarian journalists should not be deterred by that," he adds in a passage refreshingly devoid of victim-mongering. "I have had two excellent interns who wrote for the Daily Californian at UC-Berkeley. You need to get reporting experience, and you should get it any way you can."
He goes on to mention the single most important thing to know about graduate school in journalism: "The master's in journalism can help you acquire skills and clips. But you need to carefully consider the costs and benefits. In particular, you need to ask how much student-loan debt you will acquire... My major concern with a master's in journalism is that the student loan debt will actually force you out of journalism."