By Tom Cushing
Problems with the New Journalism, or Why I Miss Uncle Walter.Uploaded: Oct 29, 2013
As a naturalized netizen, I grew up in a paper-and-pencil world with only three TV channels. We were actually a Huntley/Brinkley household, in the same way folks were Ford or GM families in the pre-history before The Age of the Terrific Deal. H&B leaned right, as I recall, whereas Walter Cronkite trended leftish on the political spectrum but neither wandered very far from the center. It was a simpler time -- there was some level of trust in the reportage. In this new age of "affinity news" and unlimited choices, how do we know we're getting anything approaching the Real Scoop?
I recently read an open exchange on "the future of news," between Bill Keller, former editor of the New York Times, and Glenn Greenwald, who broke the Snowden story for the UK's Guardian. It is found here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/28/opinion/a-conversation-in-lieu-of-a-column.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20131028&pagewanted=all#commentsContainer In it, Keller takes the traditional, hard-bitten newsman's stance that a journalist must strive for impartiality, unless that work is clearly labeled "Opinion." He believes that the way to ensure against dreaded slanting is to assiduously hew to the center line lest the writer be unconsciously seduced into a lazy dismissal of the contrary view.
Greenwald starts from the premise that objectivity is a myth -- all writing is biased by the views of author, so why try to hide it? If readers know where you come from, then they can decide whether they need to seek an alternative viewpoint. Further, he suggests that, even if one could write a perfectly balanced article, such choices as whether to run it, when, and where it's placed reflect a "corporatist" bias that prefers the status quo to other voices in the culture. Keller counters that while The Times may be seen as 'liberal,' it is most often viewed as 'fair,' which is his goal.
Both commentators deride the lazy journalism of false equivalence where the writer simply presents both sides, even when one side is demonstrably wrong. Neither participant believes that the Flat Earthers deserve much ink. Amen to that. We readers tolerate way too much utter nonsense, some of which will be believed by somebody, to everyone's detriment.
But they again part company on the crucial issue of the Fifth Estate's relationship to government. Keller has much more respect for the role of national security interests in deciding on what information to publish, and when. Greenwald has some concern for the innocents who might be hurt, but would err on the side of transparency over claims by those in power, who may benefit from opacity.
I think Greenwald has the better argument here and this is the most important issue they covered. I am deeply suspicious of the use of "embedding" journalists with troops, for instance, when the scribes know that their card can be pulled for unflattering content. Further, no journalist should ever self-censor, especially in today's Washington DC, out of concern that s/he will lose access to newsmakers. Just such a thing has happened to Messrs. Mann and Ornstein in the wake of their scathing critique of the contemporary GOP. To them I say, Bravo it's a badge of journalistic honor.
There is simply no more sacred duty of journalists than to expose misdeeds of government. That interest underlies First Amendment press freedom protections. Anything that compromises that fearless approach is the worst problem faced by the field.
I think Greenwald understands that even better than Keller (the NYT DID publish The Pentagon Papers, after all, but in other instances it has soft-pedaled or delayed stories like NSA snooping, at the behest of government). Greenwald believes that entrenched power too often objects in knee-jerk fashion, too strongly, and without sufficient explanation. For him, that appears to be Exhibit A in the need to expose the arrogance of power. He also notes that it gets harder to be an investigator when, as the TV show imitates life: "the government has a machine … that sees everything." Those who can stand up to that pressure deserve plaudits for a hard job, often well-done.
I have gotten accustomed to seeking the by-line of anyone's stuff I read, so that I can understand from whence it comes. I subscribe to the Times, but I'll seek out other voices to try to avoid the "echo chamber" problem. I stop short of Fox News, however, which is that network's most sadly consistent sitcom. But what I really want to be able to trust is that the writer didn't become a willing dupe, pulling punches to go-along-to-get-along.
I just don't know how to fail-safe that trust. Any ideas will be welcomed -- Uncle Walter is unavailable.