What's a Journalist to Do? Jay Rosen Replies
Responding to my question:
If the ideologies he identifies -- the pathologies, actually -- are the sum total of the media, what would Jay Rosen, if he were running the world, have us do? Is there a distinction between journalism and ideological argument? Is it methodological? Are there times when, given the difficulty of discovering a truth, journalists can and should adopt a disinterested or disembodied stance? His criticism applies largely to political journalism, and so I anticipate his answer.
NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen (the "his" in the preceding paragraph) lays out his case for what a journalist should do -- and what a journalist should disclose about his or her perspectives on the world. Journalists, he writes, should:
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.
By way of disclosure and transparency, I'm in New York today reporting for a magazine article, so I don't have much time to digest Jay's essay. In the coming days I will digest it fully (I have a small stomach, you know), and I will respond to it, where I think it needs responding, in due course. Generally, I would say that I easily agree with the principles he lays out, but I still have some nagging doubts about the way in which they are, or should be, regularly applied to the craft.
For example: tonight, I'm learning a lot about the back end of how the Rolling Stone article about Gen. McChrystal came to be written. I could share everything I know immediately, thus satisfying the transparency and anti-opacity principles, but in order to figure out who ought to be held accountable and why, I'm going to have to use that information to gather other information and then make an informed decision.
There's no doubt that I will NOT able to identify, by name, all of the sources I've spoken to. I will always do my best to relate to the reader the biases of the sources, but if my goal is to explain to people what's really happening, and I think that IS my goal, then I'm going to have to ... well ... sacrifice at least one of the principles (opacity) for another (accountability).
There are plenty of examples of excellent journalism that's been entirely sourced "on the record"; I'm working on a piece about the military that will not contain any anonymous sources or blind quotes at all. Dana Priest won a Putlizer for her articles about Walter Reed's mistreatment of soldiers, and she did not use any anonymous sources. (She HAD them, and they provided background, but she did not need to use them -- an important distinction.) By contrast, ABC News's investigative unit disclosed the locations of the secret "black site" prisons using anonymous sources. (The news unit has also come under criticism for using anonymous sources in the early stages of the anthrax investigation.)
Anyway, that's my early-morning take after a first read-through of his provocative essay. More within the week.