The public press: Transparency is our goal

I hold these truths to be self-evident:

1. The goal of the press is transparency. We want to shine sunlight on the powerful in public.

2. The press must be transparent. Not to be transparent is to be hypocritical. Opaqueness is not an act of trust.

3. Public means public. When something happens in the public, whether it is seen and heard by one person or by 100, it can now be seen and heard by the world thanks to any one of those witnesses. That’s what public means.

Isn’t that obvious?

Apparently not, given the arguments over Mayhill Fowler, which Jay Rosen adroitly summarizes and comments on, and other debates about the rules of the press, what they are, and who holds them. I think the argument is getting unnecessarily overcomplicated and muddy. It’s simple, as simple as I put forward above.

Now out of these rules, there are some consequences.

Everyone — including Mayhill Fowler — agrees that transparency of her identity and purpose would have been preferable. No one is arguing with that.

I say the rules mean that editors should be training their staffs to be always open, always transparent — even in cruddy little blog discussions. I’m saddened that some don’t.

These rules mean that anything that happens in public is public. Corollary to that: Anything a politician does should be public.

Public figures, especially politicians, already assume that everything they say can and will be used against them in a court of public opinion. So I have no sympathy for Barack Obama — who knew his “bittergate” session was on the record if closed to press invitations, as Jay points out — and Bill Clinton — who was very much in a public place when he spoke about Todd Purdhum.

So let’s say that Fowler didn’t ask the question at the rope line but overheard it: Should she report what she heard? I say yes. Let’s say she asked the question and didn’t report it but the person next to her did. OK? Still yes. Let’s say that person next to her was not a civilian but was a reporter with credentials around the neck? Would that reporter report what she’d heard? You bet she would. Now let’s say someone else asked the question and shared the answer, someone who had never reported, blogged, or published before but who realized that this was something others would want to know, so she went to a blog or forum and retold the story in the comments. So? So what? It’s all public. It’s all reporting. It’s all news if we think it is.

Now the biggest consequence of these simple rules for the press: We, the press, should be making it our sworn goal to eradicate off-the-record and anonymous sourcing and secret deals. Of course, the problem is that is those special arrangements are what reporters believe give them access to the powerful. And access is what makes them powerful, they think. Access, to paraphrase a few hacks (British usage) in Rosen’s post, is what gets them their good stories. Access is also what makes them special: they have it and you don’t. These are the rules that keep the club a club. These are also the rules that corrupt journalists who traffic in them with those they are supposed to be covering and uncovering.

Of course, off-the-record anonymity and secrecy will linger on, especially in investigative reporting (which, remember, is a tiny percentage of the reporting actually done).

But can’t we at least agree that we don’t like off-the-record deals with anonymous sources to keep secrets? Can’t we agree that that is antithetical to rule No. 1 above, to the mission of the press?

And shouldn’t we be happy, as Jay is in his post, that there is more reporting and more sunshine from more witnesses now empowered? Shouldn’t that added journalism be welcomed by journalists? Of course, it should — unless the journalists want to protect their club, which is no longer a tenable position in the public. And keep in mind that as more and more journalists get laid off and become bloggers, they’ll find themselves on the other side of that rope, off the bus, out of the club. I say that shouldn’t matter. Professionalism and standards don’t come with a paycheck.

I was hoping we were getting past the point where there was a line. I was hoping that we were getting to the point that, as Jay says, we could agree that there are more and new systems of trust — rules and ethics — and that we could be open to learning them. I was hoping.

But I think the discussion has gotten so murky that it is time to bring it back to the basics, the essentials. Let’s sing the chorus:

1. The goal of the press is transparency.

2. The press must be transparent.

3. Public means public.

: LATER: Jay Rosen finds in this post by Jeff Bercovici the poster child of what he calls the guild mentality and what I call the clubbyness of journalism. Felix Salmon disagrees with his Portfolio colleague. So Jay, Felix, and I are the anticlub, the unguild.

  • Jeff, thanks! This does give me a lot to consider.

    Are you still at the Apple Store, camped out for iPhone 2.0?

  • here’s what i still don’t get: if journalists are journalists everywhere they post online, and anybody online can be a journalist, are we all always on the record? there may be some wisdom in having lines…and it’s got zero to do with the club vs. democracy debate.

  • AB

    So does this mean no more participation in OTR sessions at Davos?

    Or does that not qualify as public? I think big gatherings marked private are particularly problematic. Sometimes it seems that their main purpose seems to be elitism.

  • AB,
    No, as i say, there’ll always be off-the-record. My point is that we should try to reduce it as much as possible and use it as little as possible. I complained at a session at Davos about OTR in my blog. That should be the starting point of discussion.

  • Alex.
    We will all draw our own lines. We ask people not to tell things we say to them. That’s life. But as journalists, that should not be our starting point. And when life is public, the default is public.

  • I guess this means that biased organizations are OK as long as they are “open” about it. So Fox will give up its “Fair and Balanced” slogan and replace it with “Mouthpiece for the GOP since 1986”.

    The point of slanted “journalism” is to make it appear fair and open. So we will still have the propagandists masquerading as news organizations and the “real” news organizations pledging to uphold an impossible standard. No matter how transparent an organization is, their prejudices will still be reflected in what stories they chose to cover, who they interview for them, and how they frame them.

    Everyone has an agenda, some are more aware of it then others. The solution to biased media is more media. At least this increases the chances that slanted reporting or missed stories will be covered elsewhere.

    The problem now is that Fox reaches millions and “The Nation” 100,000. It would take a pretty big scandal uncovered by “The Nation” to be picked up by Fox. In fact the recent shilling for the Pentagon by retired military men was covered by the NY Times and has yet to be covered by any of the broadcast outlets that enabled this deception.

    Several are still using the same shills without acknowledging their conflicts of interest. Propagandists are not going to reform, they have a mission.

  • Andy Freeman

    Oh, the horrors of Fox.

    The right will be happy to give fox to the left in return for the “inadequate” left-leaning press. You know, the major US dailys, magazines, the big three networks, CNN, etc.