A few months ago, journalist Jay Rosen wrote about James O’Keefe’s take down of NPR.
For those who don’t remember, O’Keefe (a cheap performance artist who’s sloppy editing somehow manages to fool everyone just long enough to create massive cheering from the right and hiding-under-the-bed-holding-their-balls-in-fear on the left) set up a ‘sting’ whereby he had people pose as potential NPR donors. The donations were going to be dubiously large and from donors of whom no one had ever heard.
[As an aside, huge gifts from new people should be automatically suspect…and a simple Google search shows the donors to be bogus…hello…anybody out there?]
So O’Keefe sets up this sting and he manages to get an NPR fundraiser on tape trashing Republicans and wondering if NPR needs federal dollars.
[And another aside, federal dollars account for less than 2% of NPR’s budget. Fuck it, get it rid of that money. Take that bullet out of the culture warriors’ gun.]
Within a few days of O’Keefe’s hackery, the NPR board realized their balls had been stolen one night long ago and thus yipped and caterwauled and fired the CEO. Rosen does an amazing job of laying out why that cowardice will actually hurt both the press generally and NPR specifically. It’s a long piece, but well worth reading.
Aside from explaining why firing the CEO was a disaster, Rosen also takes Andrew Breitbart, as notorious a liar and media manipulator as O’Keefe, to task for calling for the destruction of the “old media guard.”
As a former journalist, I believe in journalism. I believe in plucky, independent journalism, the kind that was a service to citizens rather than politicians or celebrities. Journalism that shone a light not only on the darkest corners of our society, but also the most boring corners of our society: school board meetings and zoning board meetings and county board meetings where endemic corruption is, sadly, more ineptitude than maliciousness.
That kind of pro-societal journalism is infrequent anymore. Instead, we have what Breitbart calls “the old media guard.”
I say: burn the old guard down. Brutally, violently, with much gnashing of teeth and yanking of hair…all said metaphorically. I don’t want anyone getting physically hurt…even dumbasses like O’Keefe and Breitbart.
[And yes, I get that he’s using the term significantly differently than I am. My point here is that the phrase got me thinking.]
Anymore, Americans have a double-headed Hydra journalism serpent that does society few favors.
First, Americans get their ‘big’ news from a media elite in Washington. It is a permanent community, though the asses in the chairs change every once in a while. This community is built upon the White House reporters, the Pentagon reporters, those who participate in the Sunday morning shows, the political analysts who spend their days and nights appearing on all the news channels, frequently espousing completely contradictory positions within minutes simply be virtue of what network is giving them face time at that moment.
These media-wonks are desperate to keep their cushy beats and to protect their sources. They have a fear, at least in my limited experience with Washington reporters, as well as Austin (TX) political reporters, that they’ll lose their access. So they keep their sources happy by framing the questions exactly as those sources want.
Therefore, ‘torture’ becomes ‘harsh interrogation’ because we don’t want to offend the Bush administration. David Kay, the leader of the Iraqi Survey Group, charged with finding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, is cast as an idiot who can’t even find the country of Iraq, much less the weapons, because to believe his findings – which were that Iraq had no WMD – plays against the narrative the politicians of both stripes wanted at the time. That narrative, you’ll remember, was that we had to go to war to keep the mushroom cloud from exploding over Washington.
[Which was ironic because just a few years later, as both sides became more and more frustrated with Washington, there were calls to level the nation’s capital and be done with it.]
The second branch of non-journalism is Watergate. This style of journalism is mostly practiced by people who came along after Watergate and were told Nixon’s resignation was the ultimate moment of journalism. Most young journalists today want that moment for themselves. They want to bring down a president. Or, barring that, a governor or mayor or police chief or school executive. And yes, it is partly the government’s fault we’re at this point. After all, Watergate, Vietnam, the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, and how many smaller incidents, taught us to distrust the government.
The logical extension of that is the moment when a reporter has confirmation of some fact that a power broker continually denies. When the reporter shoves that fact – be it video or pictures or crying witnesses – into the face of the power broker, it is a collective, journalistic orgasm.
And then the journalist, prodded and forced by the editor and publisher, moves on to the next gotcha moment.
Reporters are rarely given the time or space to offer context or understanding of the larger, underlying issues.
Now, I have no problem with shoving a fact in the face of a liar. I believe in it whole-heartedly. When I was a journalist, I wanted to catch the politicians in a lie or a scam or whatever. But my wants were to make the system better, not necessarily to create a great resume to move on to the next market. I am not holding myself up as some sort of Golden Angel of journalism, but I am saying that when the last editor I worked for told me straight up he was going after a politician because it would help him hop to the next, bigger-market newspaper, I was severely uncomfortable.
Those gotcha moments have to be done with maturity and explanation. Don’t leave us with the gotcha and nothing else. That way lies growing public distrust of journalists because all the public sees is the surprise moment. Therefore, it becomes easy to believe that’s the only thing journalism is. It becomes easy to ignore the media and anything they say, which means understanding of our world and society gets lost. No one really understands the machinations that spin around us.
Those two ways of practicing journalism – cuddling sources for access or exploiting sources for a bigger market – are what need to be burned down. Because as long as that’s how it’s done, the less people will trust journalists with anything.
Don’t believe me? Then Google trust levels for journalists. Last I checked? It was lower than for politicians.
To my reporter friends and former professors: before you burn my house down, I am not talking about you personally. I’m talking about the institutional limitations, placed on you by editors and corporate overseers, under which you have to work.