Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you today’s national media controversy or discussion or argument or whatever you want to call it.
It all started with this Politico column where the author starts out by extolling the virtues of journalism in excerpts like this:
We really believed we were doing good. We informed the public and helped make democracy work. We exposed wrongdoing wherever we found it. We reported without fear or favor. As a columnist, I tried to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
We loved what we did, and we did it with passion. We were proud. We felt — I am just going to go ahead and say it — honorable.
At the end of the day, you often went home feeling good. And when people asked what you did, you replied with pride, not shame.
It was, as I said, almost a holy calling.
The writer then goes on to bemoan the current state of journalism, that state which has led to, among numerous recent examples, the Dave Weigel/Journolist flap.
The reply was as follows:
acceptance of activist journalism as “mainstream.” Political consultant Roger Ailes started started this latest iteration w/Fox
Now, at this point I didn’t yet realize that Chuck was quoted in the Politico piece saying this:
“I am sure Ezra had good intentions when he created it, but I am offended the right is using this as a sledgehammer against those of us who don’t practice activist journalism.
“Journolist was pretty offensive. Those of us who are mainstream journalists got mixed in with journalists with an agenda. Those folks who thought they were improving journalism are destroying the credibility of journalism.
“This has kept me up nights. I try to be fair. It’s very depressing.”
I went on to say that I thought activist journalism could work and (what I meant to add) be a force for good. Here I was thinking about the work done by Progress lllinois, Chicago Reporter and the reporters at the Chicago Reader, among others. Had Chuck and I conversed further, I would have told him that I thought activist journalism the way he was defining it was an unhelpful abstraction, that all journalists and editors are activists in their own way, something the Politico piece admitted happened even in the Good Old Days when it said:
There were wrongdoers. Fakers, plagiarists, those with private agendas who wished to slant the news. When found, they were often fired. Even when they were subjected to a lesser punishment, their sins were made clear as a lesson to the rest of us. (At a few papers, those who wished to slant the news were publishers or editors who wished to please their publishers. They were rarely fired. But their numbers were few.)
I wasn’t the only one to take issue with Todd’s characterization. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald voiced his view and it is through examples like this that we begin to see how slippery the definition of “activist journalism” can be.
Aren’t all journalists activists when we really think about it? We are meant to be advocating at all times for the public, for democracy, for the “little guy,” etc. Right? But even in that simple statement with which most journalists could agree, we can see the seeds of problems. Who is “the public?” What policies are best for our democracy? For that matter, who is “the little guy?”
So for better or worse, I have come to the same conclusion that others have come to (even those who are not themselves journalists). Journalism was always activist, but we are just now calling it that. In addition, we are just now possessed of the tools needed to weed out a journalist’s personal mission or bias if he or she shares it anywhere where it can be recorded and saved for future use.
Is that really so bad or wrong? I think not.