On 'Activist' Journalism

I'm more than a little amused by the post-Snowden charge that Glenn Greenwald and others of his ilk are guilty of "advocacy" or "activist" journalism, as if that is a reason to simply dismiss anything they might say. Jack Shafer has an excellent defense of this activity up at the Reuters website, where he reminds us how much worse off the United States would be had the muckrakers and other "activist journalists" of the past never done their work.

I want to make a different point. The charge that a journalist has become an "advocate" or an activist implies that there are two sharply defined groups of journalists out there: 1) Serious, Objective (read: "mainstream") Journalists who should be treated with deference, and 2) Partisan, Biased, Not-To-Be-Trusted-Unless-You-Agree-With-Them journalists who rightly merit a lower position on the media food chain. Anyone writing for the WaPo, NYTimes, WSJ, or Atlantic or appearing on PBS or NBC exemplifies the former group, whereas anyone from Drudge to Breitbart to Greenwald to Rachel Maddow supposedly represents the latter.

My problem with this distinction is twofold. First, accusing someone of "activist" or "advocacy" journalism is a cheap-shot way of trying to marginalize reportage or commentary that you happen to disagree with. To be sure, some journalists in this category are doing pretty bad work (on both ends of the spectrum), but that fact has to be demonstrated by examining their stories in detail and showing where they got things wrong or had their analytical thumbs heavily on the scale. The fact that the story had a point of view or an obvious target is not ipso facto evidence that it is wrong; truth is not defined as the halfway point between two extremes. And as we all saw in the run-up to the Iraq war, publishing in a respected "mainstream" publication is no guarantee that you'll get things right. (For more evidence of that fact, see here).

Second, and more importantly, I don't think there's any such thing as a purely "objective" journalist, and there are a gazillion ways that even reasonably honest reporters and editors end up shading stories to reflect their own appraisal of the situation or their political prejudices, or to simply avoid offending readers to the point that they might cancel their subscriptions or switch channels. All you need to do is compare coverage of Middle East topics in Europe with coverage in the United States, and you'll quickly discover that equally serious and mainstream media outlets treat these topics in significantly different ways.

Or to be more specific: Was Edward R. Murrow of CBS abandoning "objectivity" when he helped bring down Joseph McCarthy? Is Bob Woodward an "objective" journalist when he paints flattering portraits of the people who have given him exclusive insider accounts? Does anyone seriously believe Jeffrey Goldberg is objective and detached when he writes about the Middle East or when he lets himself be a mouthpiece for Israeli politicians? Do we really think David Barstow of the New York Times was devoid of political intent when he exposed the Pentagon program that gave ex-generals VIP tours of Iraq and Afghanistan and then shopped them to media outlets so that they could deliver upbeat assessments of these wars? Is Matthew Lee of the Associated Press engaged in "activist" journalism when he grills unfortunate State Department spokespersons and exposes the hypocrisy or inconsistencies in U.S. policy?

My point is that plenty of respected mainstream journalists have points of view, and those points of view get reflected in what they write or broadcast. They aren't deceiving us or lying, mind you, and in most cases they are probably telling us what they think the real story is. In fact, if journalists don't exercise some independent, critical judgment, they just become stenographers for those in power. So we shouldn't succumb to the illusion that one type of journalist is reliably giving us "the facts," while a different category is feeding us biased heaps of propaganda.

None of this means that we shouldn't hold all journalists -- including those who air their political views openly -- to the same standards of accuracy. If Greenwald or Drudge or Frum or Matthews or Sullivan or Rozen or Sanger or Kristof or Zakaria or whoever gets things wrong, or if their reports and commentary make an obviously selective use of readily available evidence in order to advance a political cause, then they ought to be called on it. Simple as that. Ditto bloggers of all kinds, including me.

The Internet and blogosphere have made it easier for rumors and urban legends to gain traction prematurely, but they also make it easier to expose falsehoods and distortions over time. We are crowdsourcing truth, and I remain optimistic that this feature will eventually force all media outlets to raise their game. One day, maybe even Fox News. But the distinction between "activist" and "real" journalists is a false one and should probably be discarded. Why not use labels like "good/bad," "reliable/unreliable," "honest/dishonest," or "interesting/boring" instead?


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