A few things about the practice of journalism and the American news media on which the conservative movement and I agree.
The attempted “sting” against me and my NYU colleague Clay Shirky by James O’Keefe (which you can read about here and here) had its intended effect. It sent even more culture war resentment my way than is normally sent my way. (“The most striking thing about this is the lack of any ethical consideration whatsoever…”)
So I thought it might be good time to address my conservative friends and readers, not on the differences I have with them but on a few areas of (possible) common ground.
I don’t think this will change a thing. It won’t increase mutual understanding, correct for caricature or open space for honest dialogue. There is no such hope for such in the culture war climate we have in the United States, especially around the performance of the news media. But it’s worth doing anyway. Here, I am going to speak to what I take to be common attitudes within the conservative movement generally, based in part on things I hear coming at me from the right. So when I say “you” I really mean tendencies, not individuals.
1. You think the New York Times is “a liberal newspaper” and so do I. In 2004 the New York Times public editor, Daniel Okrent, said just that: The Times is a liberal newspaper, in part because it reflects the city in which it is edited. Here’s what I wrote about Okrent’s column:
One Sunday morning he called the New York Times a liberal newspaper. And even though he meant “…on social issues only!” it was still a profound moment in the history of the Times— and I believe a liberating one. He said it was his most important column and he’s right.
Recently Bill Keller, the former executive editor of the Times, endorsed that view. He also said it’s extremely important for journalists to try to distance themselves from the beliefs they have going into a story.
2. You think the mainstream press should stop claiming it has no view of the world and so do I. The way I read them, conservatives often get exasperated (get real, Jay, they are regularly enraged…) at the way mainstream journalists present themselves as viewless and “above it all,” such that if you’re dissatisfied with their portrait the likely reason is that you refuse to face reality as it is, because that’s what news reports from mainstream journalists do: they depict reality, not the way you see it or I see it but simply “…the way it is.”
I think this attitude is corrosive and mistaken. Not only have I criticized it, under the heading The View from Nowhere, I have tried to suggest what might take its place. This is what I wrote:
I could be wrong, but I think we are in the midst of shift in the system by which trust is sustained in professional journalism. David Weinberger tried to capture it with his phrase: transparency is the new objectivity. My version of that: it’s easier to trust in “here’s where I’m coming from” than the View from Nowhere. These are two different ways of bidding for the confidence of the users.
In the old way, one says: “I don’t have a horse in this race. I don’t have a view of the world that I’m defending. I’m just telling you the way it is, and you should accept it because I’ve done the work and I don’t have a stake in the outcome…”
In the newer way, the logic is different. “Look, I’m not going to pretend that I have no view. Instead, I am going to level with you about where I’m coming from on this. So factor that in when you evaluate my report. Because I’ve done the work and this is what I’ve concluded…”
If the View from Nowhere continues on, unchallenged, trust in the news media will probably continue to decline.
See also Conor Friedersdorf, Stop Forcing Journalists to Conceal Their Views from the Public.
3. You think NPR should stop supporting itself with taxpayer dollars and so do I. Writing about an earlier stunt by James O’Keefe, which resulted in the forced resignation of NPR’s CEO, Vivian Schiller, I advised NPR thusly:
* Abandon viewlessness as the official ideology at NPR. Replace it with pluralism. Meaning: NPR acknowledges that the people who work for it have a diverse mix of views and starting points. It is unreasonable to expect that these won’t factor into their work, but it is perfectly reasonable to hold everyone at NPR to basic standards: accuracy, fairness, intellectual honesty and transparency. That means you can click on the name of any editorial staffer and find out where they’re coming from…
* Renounce the two percent or so of its budget that it gets directly from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or other federal agencies, eliminating that as an hot button issue. (NPR finances are explained here.)
4. You think I should just admit I’m a liberal. So do I. I try to practice what I preach to journalists: that it’s easier for people to trust in “here’s where I’m coming from” than the View from Nowhere. I don’t pretend to be a person without political views or starting points. Since 2004 I’ve had an FAQ at my blog that includes this statement.
Politically, where are you: left, right, middle of the road, liberal, conservative?
My views on issues would be standard Upper West Side Liberal Jewish babyboomer— even though I don’t live in that neighborhood. I am a registered Democrat. I supported Rudy Giuliani, a Republican, over David Dinkins (D) and I am fan of the job Bloomberg has done as mayor. I’ve written for Harpers, the Nation, Columbia Journalism Review, Chronicle of Higher Education, New York Times, Washington Post, Salon and Tompaine.com, to list a few, but not the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard or the Washington Times. I was media editor at Tikkun magazine for a while. That should be enough to place me on your spectrum.
Update: April 2008. As I mentioned here, I am a supporter of Barack Obama for president and I hope he wins. I haven’t given money, or donated time, or been in contact with the campaign, but I voted for him in the primary and intend to do so again in November, 2008. Just thought I should make that clear in this space.
5. You think Dan Rather engaged in outrageous misconduct back in 2004 and so do I. Every conservative who participates in media critique remembers the episode in the fall of 2004 when CBS aired a deeply flawed documentary on George W. Bush’s Air National Guard record. Dan Rather, then the anchor of the CBS Evening News, not only defended the work but attacked the people who were questioning it. I thought Rather was very, very wrong and I wrote about it repeatedly. A representative clip, from the day after CBS released a big report on the episode.
Dear Dan Rather: “Lest anyone have any doubt,” you said in your statement yesterday, “I have read the report, I take it seriously, and I shall keep its lessons well in mind.”
I still have my doubts. Perhaps these would be lessened if, for example, you had bothered to spell out which lessons you saw for yourself, and for CBS News in the review panel’s report.
- Was it the lesson about the deadly consequences of dismissing criticism because you think you know the motivations of the critics?
- Was the lesson that a prudent journalist ought to fear and respect the fact-checking powers of the Internet?
- Or was it that by stretching yourself thin you had stretched thin the credibility of the very network you thought you were serving by taking so many assignments?
- Maybe the lesson is not to apologize when you think you did nothing wrong.
We have had post-mortems that were published before, but not as detailed as this. What lessons are in the report for you, Dan Rather, will be established in public discussion, as the findings sink in. Today, for example, we are discussing, in rhythm with the news cycle, whether CBS News showed political bias in its mishandling of the Air National Guard story. Tomorrow it will be some further refinement.
I would not go so far as to say that you, Dan Rather, need to write a blog. You don’t. But take the money you spend on the person who is sometimes called your spokeswoman, and hire yourself a skilled blogger, to do a Dan Rather Reports blog. Here you post additional source material, put tapes of your interviews, and also explain yourself, react to crtics and follow up on stories aired by 60 Minutes.
Participating in debate around the blog and online journalism worlds could be as simple as lose the spokesperson and meet with your personal blogger for 20-30 minutes a day. He does the rest. Morning talks are turned into posts quoting you; your blogger gets the links to go with them and “runs” the blog, including comment sections. Whenever you want to write, you do.
The blogger is a feedback loop and fail safe device. Part of what she does is monitor the online world for what is being said about Dan Rather and his reporting. Such a person, well connected to the discussion, would have been extremely valuable to you during the twelve-day period, Sep. 8-20, 2004. After six months of your blog, statements like this from Linda Mason, your new vice president for standards: “Dan does think he’s constantly attacked. If we backed off every story that was criticized, we wouldn’t be doing any stories…” would be rendered inoperative by reason of being inane.
One more: a bonus agreement between you and me. You think heavily-edited programs like 60 Minutes should release all the footage from their interviews so we can judge how fair the final product is, and so do I.
That’s five-and-a-half patches of common ground. If I think of more, I will add them to this post.