Adversarial journalism part 2

Did you see the New York Times op-ed debate between Bill Keller and Glenn Greenwald? It’s about “the future of journalism,” and the Times doesn’t use that language lightly. If you’re interested in the press, you should at least read a short commentary, like this one. But for a more thorough selection, see my relevant pulls below.

Greenwald appeared in the column on the heels of announcing, a bit prematurely, his new media venture—described succinctly as something supporting “adversarial journalism.” I don’t think what he spoke of in the column is really all that adversarial (in the real sense of the word), and I bet Greenwald wouldn’t either. But compared to the way a lot of old-guard American outlets operate, it seems we can all agree to use the descriptor.

After the break, here’s Greenwald in his first important declaration: 

We absolutely believe that strong, experienced editors are vital to good journalism, and intend to have plenty of those. Editors are needed to ensure the highest level of factual accuracy, to verify key claims, and to help journalists make choices that avoid harm to innocents.

But they are not needed to impose obsolete stylistic rules, or to snuff out the unique voice and passion of the journalists, or to bar any sort of declarative statements when high-level officials prevaricate, or to mandate government-requested euphemisms in lieu of factually clear terms, or to vest official statements or official demands for suppression with superior status. In sum, editors should be there to empower and enable strong, highly factual, aggressive adversarial journalism, not to serve as roadblocks to neuter or suppress the journalism.

We intend to treat claims from the most powerful factions with skepticism, not reverence. Official assertions are our stating point to investigate (“Official A said X, Y and Z today: now let’s see if that’s true”), not the gospel around which we build our narratives (“X, Y and Z, official A says”).

And later:

The climate of fear that has been deliberately cultivated means that, as The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer put it, the newsgathering process has come to a “standstill.” Many Times national security reporters, such as Scott Shane, have been issuing similar warnings: that sources are now afraid to use the traditional means of working with reporters because of the Obama administration’s aggression. Ubiquitous surveillance obviously compounds this problem greatly, since the collection of all metadata makes it almost impossible for a source and journalist to communicate without the government’s knowledge.

So yes: along with new privacy-enhancing technologies, I do think that brave, innovative whistle-blowers like Manning and Snowden are crucial to opening up some of this darkness and providing some sunlight. It shouldn’t take extreme courage and a willingness to go to prison for decades or even life to blow the whistle on bad government acts done in secret. But it does. And that is an immense problem for democracy, one that all journalists should be united in fighting.

Here’s part of a good rebuttal from Keller:

…in case after case, where the mainstream media are involved, you are convinced that you, Glenn Greenwald, know what that controlling “set of interests” is. It’s never anything as innocent as a sense of fair play or a determination to let the reader decide; it must be some slavish fealty to powerful political forces.

I believe it’s easy to slip into that mindset, that the “interests” are purposeful and not the result of institutional—cooperative—journalistic failure. We’re talking about levels and levels and levels of people. After a few edits, sometimes you can barely hear the boots on the ground.

Who knows. Sometimes this stuff may be purposeful. But the bigger problem is probably the institutional slag, and Greenwald’s organization seems well poised to do something about it.

Another good rebuttal from Keller:

I believe that in most cases (impartiality) gets you closer to the truth, because it imposes a discipline of testing all assumptions, very much including your own. That discipline does not come naturally. I believe journalism that starts from a publicly declared predisposition is less likely to get to the truth, and less likely to be convincing to those who are not already convinced. (Exhibit A: Fox News.)

The key here is when the “disposition” comes about. I can’t speak for Greenwald, but I doubt he’d call any of his dispositions “pre-“.

If reporting leads a person to knowledge of, say, severe injustice or severe illegality swept under the rug, the reporter forms a disposition and is tasked with telling folks about it. But if a reporter (or a news organization, or a branch of that organization) declares a standpoint before their thorough research… they’re probably not open-minded enough to find the truth of the matter. Or of anything.

Let’s assume a hypothetical newsroom is plenty open-minded. Still, a reporter shouldn’t be allowed to ignore significant evidence contrary to her position. I’d go even further to say reporters should seek out all the arguments against theirs and see if the arguments have merit. Really take a look at ’em. Too many outlets tow the same line all the time. That doesn’t build trust. I say, hold all the evidence up to the same light, in your research and even after articles start coming out. Then, if one side comes out on top, don’t beat around the bush. You don’t have to. Make unequivocal, declarative statements that mean something to people. At this point you can actually back them up.

One last rebuttal from Keller to touch on. Greenwald contends trust in American media is eroding because it seems “subservient” to powerful people in politics and otherwise. Keller thinks it might be because of any of these reasons as well: being “trivial, shallow, sensational, redundant and, yes, ideological and polemical.”

We can only hope Greenwald’s organization will switch off a lot of these trends, too.

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