In an article about former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson, Patrick Smith claims, “the only way an American journalist can be a good American is to be a good journalist.” The assumption behind this, that journalism rises above biases such as nationalism, made me think of two things. The first is something James Fallows recounts in Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy. The second is the astonishingly fine journalism I’ve been reading in the old The Stars and Stripes newspaper from World War One.
Fallows tells of a panel at Montclair State College in 1987 featuring Mike Wallace and Peter Jennings. They were asked if they would warn American troops if they discovered, in the course of their reporting, that those troops were about to be ambushed. Jennings said he would; Wallace turned and spoke to him:
“You’re a reporter. Granted you’re an American”–at least for purposes of the fictional example; Jennings has actually retained Canadian citizenship. “I’m a bit at a loss to understand why, because you’re an American you would not have covered that story.” (13)
Jennings backed down. The bias of citizenship has to be put aside in favor of the disinterested nature (as Jennings, Wallace and, I assume, Smith see it) of good journalism.
What they don’t seem to understand, and what led the military men on that panel in New Jersey to view the journalists with contempt, is that the pose of neutral observer is always a fiction–and it can be a dangerous one (as in this instance). We are biased–by nature, by family, by country. And more. We warp the news when we attempt an objective stance much more than we would if we admitted our biases and inclinations out front. Our readers can’t trust us, can’t see why we have made the decisions behind our stories, the choices that all journalists must make in the writing.
There is no such thing as impartiality. And there should be no pretense to it.
Reading The Stars and Stripes, I have new respect for Alexander Woollcott, who wrote about the lives of the men at the front, talking with them, learning their experiences as deeply as any of today’s “embedded” journalists. I also suspect that part of the vigor of the paper’s stories is the responsibility of Harold Ross, who shared editorial duties. Very little of today’s journalism has the vigor of The Stars and Stripes, not to mention the fine writing. The biases of the paper and the writers are clear to anyone; nothing, in that regard, is suspect.
Smith sets out a hierarchy: good journalism makes one a good American, but not the other way around. The reality isn’t quite so simple. There is no journalism that transcends biases, none that is “good” in some objective light. All of it reflects the perspective of the writer, her or his editors, the venue and, yes, even the nation. Each decision a writer makes–even in what story to cover or what assignment to take–reflects bias. So do the choices of interviewees and what incidents to favor.
The problem that journalists face is similar to one some attempt to foist upon professors, demanding that they deal only with “content,” not with biased ideas about society or whatnot. They want teachers to pretend to objectivity in a way that, our observations of the profession of journalism this last decade have shown, will only lower teachers even further in the esteem of the nation.
At the end of his article, Smith provides a concise description of the John Dewey and Walter Lippmann debate of the 1920s. His takeaway from that, however, is a little bit of a stretch–to me, at least. Coming down on Dewey’s side (as do I), he claims that journalists should always be in opposition to the powerful. He writes:
The press can either report on the elite’s doings or join in them. For my money, and I bet a dollar of it for [E. J.] Dionne’s and James Risen’s too, the posture of the journalist in the face of power must by definition be adversarial. The moment a reporter or editor assumes the Lippmann position, the job description changes from journalist to clerk.
Questioning, yes. And hard-nosed, unwilling to be deflected by those who also have their own agendas. But adversarial? I don’t think either Ross or Woollcott would ever have thought of himself as a clerk. One doesn’t have to be either antagonist or shill to produce good journalism. On the other hand, both shills and antagonists have written fine journalistic pieces.
I want to agree with Smith, for I do think many of today’s journalists have joined the elite, becoming stenographers (as Stephen Colbert once described them) instead of reporters. Thing is, a stenographer is about as unbiased and objective as one can be, in dealing with words.
We can’t be both neutral and in opposition. Smith, in this article for Salon, at least, doesn’t deal with that contradiction. Few do, either in journalism or in academia.