Posts about objectivity

All journalism is advocacy (or it isn’t)

Jay Rosen wrote an insightful post forking the practice of journalism into “politics: none” (that is, traditional American journalism: objective, it thinks) and “politics: some” (that is, the kind just practised by Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian). Jay catalogs the presumptions and advantages of each. As both he and The New York Times’ Margaret Sullivan observe, Edward Snowden took his leaks to Greenwald and the Guardian because they exemplify “politics: some.”

I want to take this farther and argue first that what Greenwald and the Guardian were practising was less politics than advocacy, and second that all journalism is advocacy (or is it journalism?).

To the first point: Greenwald and the Guardian were not bolstering their own politics in the NSA story. To the contrary, Greenwald and the Guardian both identify politically as liberal — the Guardian’s mission is to be nothing less than “the world’s leading liberal voice” — yet they attacked programs run and justified by a liberal American administration and no doubt caused that administration discomfort or worse. In so doing, Greenwald and the Guardian exhibited the highest value of journalism: intellectual honesty. That does not mean they were unbiased. It means they were willing to do damage to their political side in the name of truth. Greenwald and the Guardian were practising advocacy not for politics — not for their team — but for principles: protection of privacy, government transparency and accountability, the balance of powers, and the public’s right to know.

Now to my second point: Seen this way, isn’t all journalism properly advocacy? And isn’t advocacy on behalf of principles and the public the true test of journalism? The choices we make about what to cover and how we cover it and what the public needs to know are acts of advocacy on the public’s behalf. Don’t we believe that we act in their interest? As James Carey said: “The god term of journalism — the be-all and end-all, the term without which the enterprise fails to make sense, is the public.”

When the Washington Post — whose former editor famously refused to vote to uphold his vision of Jay’s “politics: none” ethic — chooses to report on government secrecy or on abuse of veterans at a government hospital or, of course, on presidential malfeasance and coverups, it is, of course, advocating. When an editor assigns reporters to expose a consumer scam or Wall Street fraud or misappropriation of government funds, that’s advocacy. When a newspaper takes on the cause of the poor, the disadvantaged, the abused, the forgotten, or just the little guy against The Man, that’s advocacy. When health reporters tell you how to avoid cancer or even lose weight, that’s advocacy on your behalf. I might even argue that a critic reviewing a movie to save you from wasting your money on a turkey could be advocacy (though we don’t necessarily need critics for that anymore).

But what about a TV station sending a crew or a helicopter to give us video of the fire du jour, a tragic accident with no lesson to be learned? Is that advocacy? No. When a TV network — not to pick on TV — devotes hours and hours to the salacious details of, say, the Jodi Arias crime, which affects none of our lives, is that advocacy? No. When an online site collects pictures of cute cats, is that advocacy? Hardly. When a newspaper devotes resources to covering football games, is that advocacy? No. Is any of that journalism? Under the test I put forth here, no.

So what is it then, the stuff we call journalism that doesn’t advocate for people or principles, that doesn’t serve the public need? At worst, it’s exploitation — audience- or sales- or click- or ratings-bait — at best it’s entertainment. The first is pejorative, the second need not be, as entertainment — whether a journalistic narrative or a book or a show or movie — can still inform and enlighten. But if it doesn’t carry information that people can use to better organize their lives or their society, I’d say it fails the journalism test.

Journalism-as-advocacy has been bundled with journalism-as-entertainment for economic reasons: Entertainment can draw people to a media entity and help subsidize the cost of its journalism. But it was a mistake to then put an umbrella over it all: If a newspaper creates journalism then everything its journalists create in that newspaper is journalism, right? No. The corollary: People who are not journalists can do journalism. It’s a function of the value delivered, not the job title. (I’ll write another post later looking a pricing paradox embedded in this split.)

Why does what seems like definitional hair-splitting matter? Because when a whistleblower knocks on your door, you must decide not whose side you’re on but whom and what principles you serve. This is a way to recast the specific argument journalists are having now about whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor. Wrong question. As a journalistic organization, the Guardian had to ask whether the public had a right to the information Snowden carried, no matter which side it benefitted (so long as the public’s interests — in terms of security — were not harmed).

The next issue for the Guardian was whether and how it adds journalistic value. That is, of course, another journalistic test. Edward Snowden, like Wikileaks, delivered a bunch of raw and secret documents. In both cases, news organization added value by (1) using judgment to redact what could be harmful, (2) bringing audience to the revelation, and most important, (3) adding reporting to this raw information to verify and explain.

Based on his Q&A with the Guardian audience, I’d say that Snowden is proving to be big on rhetoric and perhaps guts but less so on specifics. I still am not clear how much direct operational knowledge he has or whether he — like Bradley Manning — simply had access to documents. So more reporting was and still is necessary. This Associated Press story is a good example of taking time to add reporting, context, and explanation to Snowden’s still-unclear and still-debated documents.

Both these organizations made their decisions about what to reveal and what to report based on their belief that we have a right and need to know. That’s journalism. That’s advocacy.

Time to stop hiding

Everybody who’s shocked — shocked, you say! — that Keith Olbermann contributed to Democratic candidates, please stand up.

I thought so.

The problem with Olbermann’s contributions is not that he made them but that he hid them — it’s the coverup that always gets you in trouble [pace R. Nixon] — and that MSNBC made him hide them. The problem with MSNBC suspending Olbermann is that it heads down transparency road in exactly the wrong direction, toward continued opacity. And the problem with MSNBC’s policy that makes contributing to candidates a suspendable offense is that it prevents journalists from acting as citizens of the communities they are to serve.

It’s not as if Olbermann was objective. It was his job not to be. We all know where he stood. I say he should put his money where is mouth is. He just shouldn’t have hidden it or be made to do so.

And I agree with Matt Welch that news organizations should reveal the votes of their staffs. When I retweeted that thought, some tweeters twitted me, saying that keeping one’s vote confidential is a right. Yes. They should not be forced out. But self-respecting journalists should consider it an obligation to be transparent. Self-respecting news organizations should be honest with their communities and reveal the aggregate perspectives of their staffs. It’s relevant.

We have the ethic of journalism exactly reversed from what it should be: Journalists should be the most open, the most transparent, a model of honesty.

We have the relationship of the journalist to the community also inside-out: They should see themselves as members of their communities like anyone else but with the special privilege of being able to ask questions and get answers on everyone’s behalf.

Put those two together and you have true citizen journalists.

But liberal (yes, liberal) news organizations — MSNBC and NPR, not to mention the New York Times and others — have gotten this all bolloxed up lately, continuing to separate their journalists and commentators — Juan Williams and now everyone at NPR else out of fear — from their communities. They all refused to let their journalists attend the Rally to Restore Sanity, which turned out not to be a political event at all but a repudiation of media — including most of Fox News plus Olbermann himself… a lesson all their journalists should have heard.

They do this because they want to stand above Fox News as objective. What they do instead is stand apart from their communities as — what? — sterile, gutless, distant. Fox News comes off as caring to its audience (“Fox News speaks for us,” say the tea drinkers. “Fox News understands”). MSNBC comes off as… what? Don’t we liberals deserve our Fox News, but with intelligence, sanity, openness? That was its promise. But like NPR, it is now a place where opinions and action are verboten.

: LATER: Henry
on this as a bad business strategy.

NPR: Love ya, but you’re wrong

NPR has told its staff they may not attend the Stewart/Colbert rallies in Washington at the end of the month. I think they’re terribly wrong here, following the journalistic worldview Jay Rosen calls the view-from-nowhere to its extreme and forbidding employees to be curious.

Or as I tweeted: So I guess NPR reporters aren’t allowed to be *citizen* journalists.

Oh, I understand the argument: NPR reporters are supposed to be objective and express no political opinion and do nothing political. I went to J-school, too. And we could argue the point as if in a freshman seminar. I say this is merely a lie of omission, telling reporters to *conceal* their viewpoints and making listeners guess where they’re coming from (the audience knows that can’t be nowhere).

Of course, it’s amusing that NPR had to backpedal and explain why a similar memo didn’t go out about Glenn Beck’s rally. That, the network explained, is because Beck’s was overtly political. Oh, come on, we’re not that dumb. It’s because NPR people are not Beck people. NPR people are Stewart people. They have a sense of humor. Oh, and they’re liberal. No guessing needed.

And that’s OK. It’s time for reporters to be open and honest.

But my real problem here is, again, that NPR is forbidding its employees to be curious. There’s a big event going on in Washington. It could — just could — be the beginning of a movement mobilizing the middle. But NPR people are not allowed to even witness it, to go and try to figure it out, to understand what’s being said and why people are there. No, they can do that only if they are *assigned* to do that. Otherwise, it might seem as if by merely showing up they might have a forbidden opinion.


In its effort to be hyperjournalistic NPR is being unjournalistic. Journalists, properly empowered, are curious. They want to know things. NPR is telling them not to ask questions.

And there’s something more. A few years ago in Washington at the Online News Association confab — which this year, it so happens, is being held the same time as the Stewart rally [coincidence? or liberal journalistic conspiracy?] — I was on a panel back in the good ol’ days when we all still yammered on about “citizen journalists” and a newspaper person came the mic in tears — I swear — saying, “I’m a citizen, too.” Right, I said. So act like one. Citizens are involved in their communities, part of their communities, so they can understand and serve those communities. Journalists tried to separate themselves from their communities (and opinions) and that is much of the reason why journalists lost touch with how to serve them. It is time to get off the fucking pedestal and return to the streets. And the Washington Mall.

I suggest that NPR journalists should protest this order from above. Use social media, folks, and have an opinion about opinions … or at least about curiosity. Start a Facebook page. Start a Twitter meme. Use all those new tools your bosses are teaching you to tell your bosses about this new world you should be part of.

More: Michael Calderone reprints a Washington Post memo that says employees are allowed to watch the rally from the sidelines. Does that mean they’re not allowed to talk to people there? And the New York Times advises staff to avoid such events. Ridiculous. It’s as if the people they serve and cover have cooties.

The myth of the opinionless man*

The problem in the cases of ousted Gen. Stanley McChrystal and ousted Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel is not that they had opinions. Of course, they had opinions. Indeed, we should damned well want them to have opinions. If they each only accepted what they were told without doubts and complaints, without discrimination, they’d each be be very bad at their jobs, wouldn’t they?

The problem is not that those opinions were reported. Publicness — transparency, openness, authenticity, honesty — is good. It should lead to more trust. But here it didn’t. It led to public disgrace. Why?

The problem, then, is our myth of the opinionless man*.

I don’t think that is society’s myth. We all know better than to believe that men have no beliefs — because we are all merely men* with beliefs of our own.

No, the opinionless man is an institutional myth, a fiction maintained by news organizations, political organizations, governments, businesses, churches, and armies. The opinionless man is meant to be an empty vessel to do the bidding of these hierarchies. But opinions and openness about them subvert hierarchies. Or to translate that to modern times, via the Cluetrain Manifesto, links subvert hierarchies. This is the age of links. So hierarchies: beware. One opinion leaks out of the opinionless man and it is shared and linked and spread instantly. The institutions treat this revelation as a shock and scandal — as a threat — and they eject the opinionated men. That is what happened to McChrystal and Weigel.

In my thinking for my book on publicness, I keep trying to look at such fears and offenses and turn them around to ask what they say not about the scandalous but instead about the scandalized — about us and about our myths and realities.

Former Washington Post editor Len Downie was the self-drawn archetype of the opinionless man. He famously refused to vote, thinking it somehow made him immune from opinions and their corruption of his journalism. That heritage is what led to Weigel’s ejection from the Post. But as Liz Mair argues (via @jayrosen_nyu), it’s ridiculous to assume that Weigel should accept and agree with everyone and and everything he encountered on his beat covering conservatives. He should be skeptical. Isn’t that a reporter’s job? And what is the source of that skepticism but opinions? We want to know.

Mayhill Fowler wrote a superb HuffingtonPost piece — inspired by McChrystal and her own experience in the Obama campaign — about journalism as a dance of seduction and betrayal. The corrupting temptation isn’t sex or beauty or wealth or even fame but access. Her perspective is so valuable because she came to journalism and politics as an outsider and maintained that perspective.

Michael Walsh, however, speaks for the institutions as he blows his vuvuzela until he’s red-faced warning of the dangers of such openness:

But the most important thing to emerge from this mess is the notion of privacy, that there is a difference between on and off the record, and it simply must be observed unless freedom of speech — and thus of thought — is irrevocably chilled. For decades, reporters have observed the distinction between what is meant for public consumption and what is spoken of behind closed doors. The principle is not only enshrined in journalism, but in the government: “executive privilege,” however at times abused, is vital to the decision-making process, and freewheeling (if often “offensive”) conversation and characterizations are part of that process. If we have arrived at a point where we literally have to watch every word we speak, than we are no better than North Korea or the former East Germany. Somewhere, Gen. McChrystal is smiling…

Still, the days when “gentlemen don’t read other gentlemen’s mail” are long gone, and in cyberspace any utterance, no matter how “private,” is now potentially public — and potentially career-ending. That’s the real lesson from the Weigel flap: in the war of ideas in cyberspace, truth is no longer the first casualty. Trust is.

Whoa, boy*. I think exactly the opposite: that privacy for government and those who cover it is exactly what we do not need, exactly what we are working to eliminate with sunshine and publicness. Journalists should have been the ones opening the drapes on those dark rooms but they didn’t because they were seduced by their invitations in. So outsiders are forcing them open. Hurrah. Privacy is what protects the tyrants of North Korea and East Germany. Transparency is what kills them.

So if we want more transparency — and I believe that we, the people, do even if they, our institutions, often do not — then we must stop going along with the myth of the opinionless man and the scandal of the opinionated man. We should celebrate openness and honesty whenever they manage to break through. We should recognize that — to reform Walsh’s bottom line — transparency leads to trust. We should remind our institutions — government and the journalists who are supposed to cover them — that we expect them to judge and we will respect their actions more if we understand their judgment.

The institutions’ myth of the opinionless man is what is behind their disdain for the internet and its inhabitants — us. Don’t you hear it all the time: Oh, the internet is filled with nothing but opinions, as if opinions — our opinions — were worthless. But opinions and the arguments about them — and, yes, the facts needed to win those arguments — are the basis of decision-making in any organization and in society itself. Opinions are the soil of democracy. Publicness is the sunshine that lets it grow. (/metaphor)

What we’re witnessing in these cases is more than a mere two-day kerfuffle. We are witnessing small evidence of a cultural shift away from the privacy, secrecy, and control that empowered and protected institutions in a centralized, mass society to new cultural norms of publicness. That publicness grants us independence from the powerful; it wrests control from their hands. That is why we are grappling so with questions of privacy and publicness. (That is some of what I am trying to grapple with in my book.)

Alan F. Westin’s influential 1967 book Privacy and Freedom expresses the view of the prior era: “The greatest threat to civilized social life,” he says in his gravest possible terms, “would be a situation in which each individual was utterly candid in his communications with others, saying exactly what he knew or felt at all times.” Well, hasn’t he just described the internet? There we see our emerging social norm of publicness. There we see the war of the private and the public. It’s about more than Facebook photos.

Jürgen Habermas idealized the emergence of the (bourgeois) public sphere of rational discourse in the 18th century as a counterpoint to government authority and he lamented its eventual corruption by media and commercialization. I will argue in my book that perhaps now, in our post-institutional age, we may see his public sphere emerge after all. It’s not going to look idealized for it is built on discourse — on internet opinions — and to those accustomed to the neatness of control by government and media, that looks messy. But if we have faith in our fellow man* then we can at least hope that out of this discourse, rationality may emerge.

In such discourse, the opinionless man is silent. I’d rather hear him.

* You needn’t supply your rant about how I should not use the word “man.” I’m using it unapologetically — well, except for this footnote. I’m using it because there’s nothing wrong with the word man but moreso because if you take every instance of the word “man” in this post and replace it with “men and women” or “persons” or “humans” it would result in awkward English and lose cultural reference. Besides, in this case, we happen to be talking about two men. And I am one myself. I’m unapologetic about that.

: LATER: Matthew Yglesias on having no opinion as make-believe.

Taking a side

Time managing editor Rick Stengel giving the Bullion Lecture at the University of Mississippi says he was tired of his magazine asking questions and he wanted it to give a perspective (it’s on the audio player here):

I didn’t go to journalism school… This notion that journalism is objective or must be objective is always something that has bothered me. The notion about objectivity is in some ways a fantasy. I don’t know that there is such a thing as objectivity.

One way to break through commodified news, he says, “is to have a point of view, to have an opinion.”

He bases this on the notion that the journalist is an expert. I don’t think journalists are experts as often as they’d like to believe. They find the experts. But still, I do side with Stengel on objectivity.

That’s a perspective.