The “Well, DUH!” School of Journalism

These days it’s downright encouraging when somebody states the obvious.

“Mainstream journalists are being torn apart. Conservatives long have accused reporters and editors for big newspapers, magazines and television of having liberal biases. More recently, liberals have hounded journalists for pandering to conservatives and America’s social elite. Both conservatives and liberals depict journalists as craven careerists, more concerned with maintaining their own privilege than getting stories right or serving the national interest.”

Well maybe not as “obvious” as all that, if right out of the starting gate the “both sides” meme is operative. For the last time I looked no one was tearing David Broder apart — though lord knows he deserves it.

“I’ve been a journalist for more than 25 years and have worked for two of the most powerful media organizations in the country, Dow Jones and Time Inc. I’ve written for some of the smallest publications in the country, from weekly newspapers to small opinion peddlers. I’ve taught journalism at leading universities for seven years. Everywhere, I’ve met talented and principled people who want the best for their readers. Yet I must concede that critics of conventional journalism are correct on nearly all counts.
Trying to be fair and balanced, journalists have failed their subjects and themselves. In seeking to stand above the fray, journalists have denied the obvious. They have robbed themselves of credibility.”

I’ve flown around the world in a plane,
I’ve been to revolutions in Spain,
With Kings I’ve a la carted,
But I can’t get started with you….

“They are getting torn to pieces fighting the wrong battles”

And what would the “right battles” be?

“Technology bears some of the blame. In the good old days, a pack of journalists could enter into a secret pact. All reported the same essential facts, drawing on the same people and coming to the same conclusions. The uniformity reports benefited journalists by taking the risk out of their jobs. No one looked bad.”

Oh really? That’s not what A.J. Liebling wrote.

“The internet demolished the journalism herd, driving holes into the fraternity’s defenses and exposing most journalists as poorly prepared, fearful of making grievous errors and reading from a brief and superficial script. “

Uh, no. The internet merely exposed the herd — which remains as powerful as ever. And what “grevious errors” are the herd fearful of making? Those that would put them in bad odor with they’re ever-so-famous unnamed sources, of course. What the non-“Beltway” public says or thinks is of no concern to them.

“Blogs and other forms of “citizen” journalism can never replace the breadth and quality of professional journalism, but the immediate effect of this torrent reportage has been to destroy the credibility of mainstream journalism.”

But has credibility ever been of concern to the powerful? Only in passing. It helps, but once power is locked in, it really doesn’t matter much — as BushCo proves over and over again.

“The Myth of Balance. Professional journalists can restore their status only by taking radical action. They are getting torn to pieces fighting the wrong battles. Journalists keep telling critics that they are committed to hearing all sides. That they are committed to “objectivity,” which in practical terms means giving ink and airtime to various viewpoints in a fair and even detached way. This so-called balance is supposed to translate into the all-important objectivity.
Veteran journalists know that the objectivity ethos is the “big lie” of their profession. “

Now we’re getting to the heart of the matter. “Objectivity” is indeed the biggest con of them all.

“Actually, journalists are beholden to various points of view, and their commitment to balance is a convenient way of not talking about the rat’s nest of commitments, concerns, biases and passions that animate the life of every good journalist and most of the bad ones.”

Not so sure about the “various points of view.” To hear it from Howie Kurtz there’s really only one: Noli Me Tangare.

“Commercial pressures also force journalists to choose sides, to root for one outcome over another, to seek out some sources and never even speak to others. Professional values, meanwhile, force journalists to routinely rule out certain points of view, notably those deemed “irresponsible” or “out of the mainstream.” In a world of complexity, journalists cannot square the circle; they cannot smooth the rough edges of reality.”

Well Leslie Blitzer sure as hell tries. And he’s not alone in that. As for the “iresponsible” or “out of the mainstream” you’ll chiefly find them here

or here

or here.

“Partisan journalism is thus not an aberration but an ideal. Today, this ideal is never professed and instead confusingly denied. Openly taking sides is a necessary but not sufficient condition to reform journalism.”

A lot depend, however, on which side has the floor and for how long.

“The field is under not only ideological attack but also economic attack. The internet has forced a transformation in the mentality and tactics of advertisers, and both newspapers and magazines are only now starting to feel the negative effects of this transformation. Larger traumas are still to come as the internet grows more firmly entrenched as an information and advertising medium.”

“This morning I shot an elephant in my Pajamas Media.”

“A revolution in journalism is underway and its outcome is not even in view. For a long time the causalities will mount. Journalism’s “big dogs” will suffer even as they maintain the enormous influence.”

Taking up space isn’t really demonstrating “incfluence.”

“Change is needed, now. It is already clear that a new journalism ethos is required, a new way of thinking and acting that acknowledges the criticisms from the Left and the Right while at the same time presenting a powerful new rationale for journalistic professionalism and independence.”

And you won’t get it by continuing to invoke the “both sides” meme.

“Here, in brief, is a new creed for journalism that carries forward what’s consistent with the uncertain waves of the internet while affirming what journalism has always stood for.
Let subjects have their say, but tell readers why one side is fudging, lying or worse. Subjects have grown too adept at manipulating reporters. Punish liars.”

How? Joe Klein continues to prosper. Judy Miller has no fear of long-term unemployment.
And Bush is still in the White House.

“Take personal responsibility for the accuracy of your story. Outcomes are more important than process. If your sources prove incorrect, say so in a new story. The critical measure of a journalist’s stature is whether they got the story right, not whether they were fair and balanced. Admit mistakes. Hold accuracy, not intent, as the highest standard. Get the “right answer.” If you can’t, keep trying until you can.”

Suddenly we’re back in High School, with Principal Poop speaking before the Senior Class.

“Declare your agenda. All journalists have one. Be honest about yours. Readers appreciate candor and will judge a story more sympathetically when they plainly see where the journalist is ‘coming from.’
Fair and Accurate. Stop talking about journalists “objectivity” and instead promote the concept of journalistic “integrity.” This means we must substitute the concept of fair and balanced with the concept of fair and accurate. Having an agenda raises the importance of ethics and honesty. Because a journalist is trying to prove a point, his choices of sources become a legitimate area of reader scrutiny. Anonymous sources can still be used, but journalists must take responsibility for whom they quote, whether they quote them by name or not. The days of hiding behind a source are over (thank you, Judith Miller).

No cause to extend thanks to Judy. Thank Patrick Fitzgerald instead.

Passion is important. Partisanship is inevitable. Journalists should not be embarrassed to admit to either.
Journalists are human beings first, not special creatures that are above the normal loyalties of life. Journalists should be subject to all the normal constraints of ordinary citizens. They should benefit from all the normal freedoms of ordinary citizens. If these freedoms are not enough to support an informed and energetic journalism, then the normal standards for all citizens must be raised. For too long journalists have asked for and received special treatment — notably from government and from their sources. Professional journalism cannot rest on special privileges but on superior performance.

And we all know what “superior performance really means, don’t we Binky?

And all that jazz.


  1. Bill Alexander February 13, 2006 9:49 am 

    Great stuff David. As a former professional Journalist, I know how shoddy the enterprise can be, as an adjunct to official asscovering and establishment coverups.
    And thanks for the FiresignTheatre reference…”A wise guy,uh guide to be rulered by…”

  2. David E February 13, 2006 11:37 am 

    You’re welcome.

    The West is divided between those for whom “Don’t Crush That Dwarf — Hand Me the Pliers” has become part of their DNA, and those who’ve never heard of it.

  3. merlallen February 16, 2006 8:55 am 

    Dick Cheney ran 30 yards? I guess that’s not the biggest lie he told.

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