Atlantic Unbound

NPR Commentary -- May 7, 1996
by James Fallows

Ethics and Public Journalism

Although few people outside journalism have even noticed, the news business has been embroiled for several years about a movement called "civic" or "public" journalism. There is no simple definition of this concept, which is one of its problems. But in essence it says that journalists should think of themselves as being part of society, sharing responsibility for the long-term health of culture and democracy, rather than being strictly detached observers whose duty is only to point out that things are going wrong.

The public journalism principle was recently applied in a dramatic -- and ironic -- way, by two of the newspapers whose editors have been most critical of the concept. These papers are the New York Times and the Washington Post, which last year, at the request of the FBI, jointly published the manifesto from the Unabomber. At the time they were hotly criticized by many of their colleagues not only for humoring a terrorist but also for "giving in" to government demands and becoming part of the law-enforcement process. Yet, in retrospect, their decision seems wise. It provided clues that helped break the case and -- assuming the current suspect to be the culprit -- it thereby saved lives without in any way harming the papers's ability to be independent critics of the government. By acting as if they were in society rather than apart from it, that is, the papers did society good.

The ethical decision those editors faced, about stepping out of their narrowly critical role, has implications not just for "public journalism" but for public life in the largest sense. Through this century, Americans have moved toward what the political theorist Michael Sandel has called the "procedural" concept of our duty to our fellow citizens. According to this view, if we all follow the rules of our own occupational or interest group, then the welfare of society in general will take care of itself. If journalists simply avoid taking sides in disputes they cover; if lawyers simply push their clients' interests as hard as they can; if corporate executives think solely of productivity and profits; and if politicians help their constituents and keep themselves in office, then no one need think about the interest of the whole nation, for that will sort itself out.

The flaws in this procedural model have become obvious, from gridlocked politics to a legal system that preserves rights while often thwarting justice. Some broader concept of public ethics seems overdue. Reporters naturally squirm when cast in the role of ethicists. Yet the press's current attempt, through the debate about public journalism, to rethink its duty to society might eventually help other groups do the same thing.

Copyright © 1996 by James Fallows. All Rights Reserved.