Activist journalism: which side are you on?


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.

And this:

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. 

And this:

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. 

In fact, before I read the Politico piece, I saw this Chuck Todd tweet. I replied, saying this was a valid point and what did Chuck view as the main problem? 

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.


  1. Anonymous July 28, 2010

    I think good journalism can be judged on the merits. If standards/methods are solid, POV isn’t much of a problem.

  2. Anonymous July 28, 2010

    I agree that this is good, but defining “activist” is very slippery. Ideally, whenever people read/watch a report they should listen critically and realize that reporter has made several decisions: Who to interview? What questions to ask? Which statements need further fact-checking? Which facts go in to the story? And where?

    All I want from a reporter is to know they are verifying facts and sources. A close second is knowing that they are smart enough to discriminate sources based on their quality. For example, if we know 2+2=4, why are some journalists so intent on giving equal time to people claiming 2+2=5? I fear false equivalence far more than journalistic “activism”.

  3. Anna Tarkov July 28, 2010

    BetrayedByOil, that’s a great point. Let’s call that the CNN problem:

  4. Anonymous July 28, 2010

    And I think you’re right, journalism has always been activist. Again, the key is honest reporting, not POV. ACORN/Sherrod were dishonest stories

  5. Anonymous July 28, 2010

    I think it’s hard to imagine anyone could define any form of journalism as not being “activist” in one way or another. Even in the simple selection of stories to cover for the day’s paper, blog, or newscast, there’s inherent bias based on the point of view of individual editors, reporters or assignment desks.

    There’s a string of philosophy as well from a fellow named Michel Focoult that theorizes that there’s no such thing as true knowledge, or a way to gain any sort of absolute facts. Everything is opinion in one way or another.

    That’s obviously the extreme way of looking at reporting, but my point is this: all reporting is going to be biased (or “activist,” if you’d like to call it that) in one way or another. The real question is how much you allow it to affect your reporting, and which angles you choose to accentuate.

    Some stories obviously call for it more than others: the Sun-Times’ fantastic murder series ( strikes me as a good place for activism, striving to break the “no snitch” code.

    A story about a presidential debate, maybe not so much. There is something to be said, though, about the old adage of “afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.” If a politician/candidate has done something wrong, reporters had better be after it.

  6. Anna Tarkov July 28, 2010

    To take it further, I think when a story of someone’s POV is reported as if it’s the truth, that’s where we run into problems. Sherrod story is an example of Breitbart’s POV becoming the story without further checking.

  7. Anonymous July 28, 2010

    I saw that Daily Show when it aired, complete shredding of CNN, loved it.

    Another problem, as highlighted by Krugman recently, is the odd lack of competent editors doing their due diligence:

  8. Anna Tarkov July 28, 2010

    @bmeyerson That’s a great point. I would add this nugget which someone sent me: It confirms what I wrote in saying that activist journalism exists mainly at the local, but not the national level. To wit: “There has never been a national columnist like Jack Newfield or Mike Royko or Jimmy Breslin, and never will be. Because they will never play the game, or even recognize it.”

  9. Jeff Sonderman July 28, 2010

    It’s a bit disingenuous for one side to claim that they are not ‘taking action’ by choosing what story to report, how to report it, who gets to say what in it, and then push that story to thousands or millions. It’s all “activism” — what’s left is the decision to disclose your own motives and conclusions, or to lie about not having any.

  10. Anonymous July 29, 2010

    The problem is not activist journalism. The problem is the false and misleading idea that journalism is or was ever objective. Humans are not objective by nature. We have opinions. And, therefore, the stories we choose to write, the sources we choose to quote, the facts we choose to include, are all dictated by who we are.

    As a journalist I too believed in objectivity. Dammit, I was fair. But in hindsight, I realize any journalist who believes that is doing himself and his readers a disservice.

    Look through newspaper archives of the past 100 or so years, and you’ll find that objectivity is a fairly new concept. In the past, journalists didn’t hide their opinions in the stories they wrote. And that, friends, is way more honest than even the best-intentioned journalist of today.

    Journalism would be better served if journalists were allowed to analyze and comment on news — talk about not only facts, but what the feel or believe about the stories they report on — and give a disclosure so readers understand if they’re tied to particular political/social/whatever ideals.

  11. Anna Tarkov July 29, 2010

    Dan, that’s so true. I can remember this coming up at more than one journalism panel and it’s almost always brought up by the youngest panel member! What is it with the older journos that they’ve chosen to selectively forget the history of their profession? Seems like journalistic objectivity is yet another enduring myth that journalists have created:

  12. Anonymous July 30, 2010

    I actually like reading opinion that comes from a source whose viewpoint differs from my own. Good journalism is supposed to make the reader think, correct?

    But . . . my fear of identifying writers as leaning right or left (before or after an article) is that by doing so, many people would automatically exclude any piece written by someone who doesn’t identify along with the reader’s or her own political group. Well-written pieces should further thought and debate, and if the audience is even somewhat preselected that debate will not be fair.

    As long as facts aren’t being deliberately distorted, ignored, or magnified, I’m more than willing to look past a writer’s bias. I’d venture to guess that intelligent readers can see a writer’s bias when they read it.

    As for the other forms of journalistic activism, it happens. What stories to run, how long they are, etc. is all part of the business. Like some have already commented, this isn’t a new phenomena; I’m almost always chuckling when I read old (say even 1950s or ’60s) news articles because of the writer’s tone. There seemed to be a general feeling of even the general assignment reporters telling the audience what to think — which might be the biggest difference between then and now.

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