Wednesday, March 21, 2018

On informing citizens

Linda Greenhouse, the long-serving New York Times Supreme Court reporter who has been contributing sporadic opinion columns since retirement in 2008, has turned several lectures she gave at Harvard into a pleasant little book: Just a Journalist: On the Press, Life, and the Spaces Between.

In her view, journalistic professionalism has, in the craft's most exalted reaches such as the paper she worked for, been interpreted to require the muzzling of the reporter as a citizen. Anyone who read her reporting would know that Greenhouse believes women should have a legal right to abortion and that torture inherently violates national and international law. Yet when she said as much aloud, casually, in speeches on other topics, she met with intense criticism from media critics. Being a tough woman, she simply pushed on and did her job as she understood it. She was good enough at it that she got away with this uncompromising steadfastness.

The crisis of journalism's business model and the Trump ascendency have forced elite institutions to reexamine their goals and standards. We're in a new day when the "paper of record" announces forthrightly that the President is a liar. "Objectivity" -- he said, she said reporting -- has been fully unmasked as "a management tool to control the behavior of the newspaper's employees." Careful balancing of unequal "facts" both fails the reader and won't deflect criticism anyway. Unexamined stenography of the emissions of those with the most potent microphones serves no one (except maybe the loudmouths). She envisions more fruitful use of journalistic energy.

Arthur Hayes Sulzberger, publisher of the Times from 1935 to 1961 captured the newspaper's credo of impartiality with a saying: "We tell the public which way the cat is jumping. The public will take care of the cat." Maybe that attitude was adequate in Sulzberger's day. Maybe it still is for sophisticated New York Times readers who take the time to sort through the cacophony of media voices retailing mutually exclusive versions of the truth. But surely we know now, in what has come to be called the post-truth age, that simply reporting which way the cat is jumping falls short if the goal of journalism is to empower readers to sort through the noise and come to their own informed conclusions. For that, they need context: not just what happened a minute ago, but what led up to that minute, why it happened, and what might come next.

That sounds obvious enough, but I was well into my three decades of covering the Supreme Court before I thought consciously of this kind of reader empowerment as a goal -- in fact the highest goal -- of journalism. ...

Today the internet provides access to raw information to anyone who will do the digging; the best of reporting, fair and accurate but without false "objectivity," can help us understand what to make of it all.

This graceful short book is well worth a couple of hours to read and ponder.

1 comment:

Rain Trueax said...

My bigger concern with the media is not that they mis-report but that they don't cover what doesn't serve their agenda. It's one of the things I appreciate with the Intercept. It covers issues that don't always go one way. Finding a truly unbiased source, which will gore either side's ox, that's the trick. I get why it's as it is. People like to read what reassures them, what is in their bubble, but it isn't true journalism unless it can give the whole story-- even when part of it the journalist fears might confuse the poor hapless reader ;).

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