Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Revisiting Journalism in the Blog Age

UPDATE: Cronkite lambasts Dan Rather.

I posted a number of comments back in January 2005 to AJM's posts on the Dan Rather/CBS News debacle of late last year. I post the string here so that it is accessible through my site and so I can refer to it. Thanks for your indulgence. And, thanks, as usual, to AJM, for the conversation.

AJM began with this comment.

In response, I wrote:

First, the independent review panel found no evidence that CBS falsified any documents. There is also no evidence that the documents were falsified. There is evidence that CBS judged these outside documents to be true when they were not verified as true. By any good journalist’s rule of thumb documents must be considered false until verified by more than one source as true. Sadly, CBS blindly defended their veracity; hence “Memogate.”

Second, to the extend this is “Rathergate,” I take issue. Rather defended his staff’s representation of what was true. These are the same people he depended on for years to give him good information. Mary Mapes broke the Abu Ghraib story, which no one doubted was true. Rather had good reason to trust her. He failed when he didn’t verify a story with such obviously powerful political ramifications.

But he did not fail when he trusted a staff he had every reason to trust. (Nonetheless, read none of this to say that Dan–what’s the Frequency, Kenneth–isn’t particularly weird.) All in all, this was less Rather’s fault then this producers’. But he is Executive Producer, and the buck stops there. Or should.

Third, I agree that admission of one’s biases–and hiding nothing–tends to increase a person’s (or in this case, media outlet’s) credibility. I also agree that bloggers are doing some great things, and the future of mass media is driven in large part by the new ingenuity underlying faster, more interactive, more personable, more potent–and potentially more honest–information sharing.

That said, bloggers by and large are not professional journalists. Nor are they necessarily any good at finding a story that hasn’t already been “found” by the mass media, parsing good information from bad by interviewing many sources other than those already interviewed by the mass media, or interpreting information from all relevant perspectives other than their own.

Bloggers today–and the Conservative news outlets are–by and large–pundits and pundit sanctuaries. They comment on the news as it is reported by the mass media. They have become the news in many cases. And they–often with great skill–point out the inconsistencies and mistakes and biases inherent in humans reporting on the world.

But they do not–and in most cases cannot–“cover” the news. They can only comment on what’s been exposed by others. Andrew Sullivan doesn’t send field bloggers to Sri Lanka or Afghanistan. Real Clear Politics gathers op-ed pieces from the mass media outlets. While there’s a lot to be said for the value of personal punditry, talking heads depend on the news brought back from the front lines by others who dug it up and sweat it out. And those guys are usually professional journalists.

Professional journalists are taught in journalism school that objectivity is like perfection: a good goal that will never be achieved. However, Professional journalists are also taught that attempting to be objective in every story is essential to good reporting.It is true that whether in framing the story idea, articulating interview questions, or characterizing facts in a written or spoken piece, a journalist’s own world views inform his story. The “professional” journalist, however, will work hard to realize his own biases to the best of his ability and filter them to the best of his ability from his work. This is a job that should be–and most often is–taken very seriously.

On the other hand, many journalists see themselves as part of the “4th branch” of government. They have a watchdog role to perform and take it seriously, too. Some would say that such a role inherently breeds bias against the government or against an administration or a particular political party, depending on who’s in the majority. Ideally, such biases would not naturally flow from the journalist’s responsibility to keep an eye on those in power and make sure they’re playing straight. I think striving for objectivity goes hand in hand with the watchdog role, but that’s fodder for another piece.

To cut to the quick, my emphasis on professional journalism is meant to say one thing. I don’t want my news from people who have candidly and transparently admitted their biases. Once a journalist–not a pundit–admits her biases, she says to me, “Despite my attempts at objectivity, my biases will affect my reporting. I am not professionally committed to preventing my personal opinions from overwhelming me and distracting me from my job. Therefore, I cannot be trusted to deliver facts to you.”

I want my news from professionals. I don’t want commentary from these people. I want facts. (And that’s a huge subject in itself. Too many journalists can’t resist the temptation to be pundits as well. Brett Hume on Fox is a great example. Anchor one hour, talk-show host the next; And I dare say Fox does not openly admit its biases. How do they want me to read “Fair and Balanced”?) That’s it. Whether the journalist is a Republican, a Green Party member, an Evangelical, or an atheist should have zero affect on the information I receive. That’s what I expect.

AJM replied with this.

I responded as follows:

Bias is inevitable. That's why I wrote: "It is true that whether in framing the story idea, articulating interview questions, or characterizing facts in a written or spoken piece, a journalist’s own world views inform his story. The “professional” journalist, however, will work hard to realize his own biases to the best of his ability and filter them to the best of his ability from his work. This is a job that should be–and most often is–taken very seriously."

Professional journalists are committed to recognizing their biases and filtering them out. Does this mean that reporting the news is "unbiased"? Not necessarily. But that is the goal. And it is a noble goal. When reporting facts--not opinions of the journalist--this goal CAN be met. It is by no means EASY to meet, however. AJM's point that pure objectivity is impossible is absolutely true.
But that doesn't undermine my point that professional journalists are taught to recognize their own points of view and keep them out of the story.

Next, do I (me-myself-and-I) think the documents were fake? Yup. I do. But nothing has been done to prove unequivocally that they were faked. OR--which was more to my point--that they were real. CBS' failure is/was huge. But understanding the failure for what it really was is important. It was a failure to follow rote journalism rules and abide by ethics designed to give journalists credibility. Shame on CBS for it.

AJM lists a whole slew of bloggers who scoop real journalists because they're in the best circumstances to observe the "news." AJM misses my point. He lists American soldiers, American diplomats, and the Rocky Mountain Alliance. Fine and good. I love the fact that anyone can report the "facts" they see around them through their blogs.

However, the American soldiers are "reporting" on the wars and relief efforts IN WHICH THEY ARE PARTICIPANTS. The American diplomats reporting on the tsunami are "reporting" on THEIR OWN EFFORTS AND THE CIRCUMSTANCES THEY SEE AROUND THEM IN WHICH THEY ARE INVOLVED. The Alliance is reporting on ITS OWN INTERACTIONS WITH THE GOVERNOR.By "reporting" stories in which they are actors, these bloggers are NOT doing journalism. Not even close. They are reporting on direct observations and their feelings on these observations. Professional reporters--attempting to be objective--keep out of the story. Their are dispassionate observers. They are on the sidelines, attempting to look at the story unfolding around them from the perspectives OF ALL PARTIES INVOLVED. Are they perfectly objective? No. Do they attempt to be unassociated with the subjects about which they report? Yes.

Journalism schools for about 5 years or so have been struggling with a new phenomenon called "Creative Non-fiction." "Old-school," "classic" journalists hate this new form of reportage. It is exemplified by stories like John Krakauer's 1998 book "Into Thin Air" in which he--as a reporter for Outside magazine--writes about the tragic deaths of his fellow mountain climbers on Mt. Everest, and his own escape from death in those same circumstances. In Creative Non-fiction, the writer is free to be part of the story, even the main subject of it, yet still attempt to "report" on the "facts" as they occurred. This is completely out of step with journalism, but is the very thing AJM cites most bloggers are doing.

Now, just for the record, I repeat myself. I do not think pure objectivity is possible. Every decision involved in every story--from the topic to the choice of reporter to the color of the rain suit the reporter wears while covering the hurricane to the turns of phrase an interviewer puts forth to his subject to the adjectives chosen to describe a bombing scene to the decisions made by editors to run the story at all--is informed by myriad biases. That does NOT mean, however, that journalists are not out there working very hard to fairly ignore these biases when reporting THE FACTS.

Candor, as AJM says, is what counts. OK. Reasonable enough. One can be candid in saying "I have this bias." One can also be candid in his actions. I can frank or sincere in my expression when I, as a reporter, inform the reader, the viewer in my everyday work: Here are the facts, presented by a professional journalist. I have made every attempt to filter my own biases from this report because that is my duty and I take it seriously.

AJM says all journalists should tell the viewer their biases. That's a nice idea. But it's like asking a police officer to admit he speeds and runs red lights and--by the way--doesn't happen to like African Americans. All before he arrests a black guy for speeding and running a red light. Do we expect him to do this? No. Do all cops have biases that might affect their work? Yes. But they are professionals who answer to a higher ethic than their own. That means they filter this stuff out AS MUCH AS THEY CAN.

And that's all we can expect of any professional, journalists included.But we can neither expect it nor ask it from the Marine in Afghanistan who's writing in his blog about carrying his dead comrade's body through heavy enemy fire to the safety of a Armored Personnel Carrier. And I wouldn't WANT him to put HIS biases aside.

And one last point: Just because the Bush administration calls the enemy "terrorists" doesn't mean the MSM should follow his lead. Are they terrorists? For the most part I think so. Most fit the basic definition: idealists willing to use force on innocents to create fear and coerce action in their favor from established powers. However, all of the "enemy"--whether actually part of an organized terrorist group, or simply those opposed to U.S. presence in the country--are "insurgents": those who revolt against civil authority.

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