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A Journalism Manifesto

A Time Inc. and <i>Wall St. Journal</i> vet says it's time to admit to biases, dump the 'objectivity' and start getting it right.
 
 
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Mainstream journalists are being torn apart. Conservatives long have accused reporters and editors for big newspapers, magazines and television of having liberal biases. More recently, liberals have hounded journalists for pandering to conservatives and America's social elite. Both conservatives and liberals depict journalists as craven careerists, more concerned with maintaining their own privilege than getting stories right or serving the national interest.

I've been a journalist for more than 25 years and have worked for two of the most powerful media organizations in the country, Dow Jones and Time Inc. I've written for some of the smallest publications in the country, from weekly newspapers to small opinion peddlers. I've taught journalism at leading universities for seven years. Everywhere, I've met talented and principled people who want the best for their readers. Yet I must concede that critics of conventional journalism are correct on nearly all counts.

Trying to be fair and balanced, journalists have failed their subjects and themselves. In seeking to stand above the fray, journalists have denied the obvious. They have robbed themselves of credibility. They are getting torn to pieces fighting the wrong battles.

Technology bears some of the blame. In the good old days, a pack of journalists could enter into a secret pact. All reported the same essential facts, drawing on the same people and coming to the same conclusions. The uniformity reports benefited journalists by taking the risk out of their jobs. No one looked bad.

The internet demolished the journalism herd, driving holes into the fraternity's defenses and exposing most journalists as poorly prepared, fearful of making grievous errors and reading from a brief and superficial script. Blogs and other forms of "citizen" journalism can never replace the breadth and quality of professional journalism, but the immediate effect of this torrent reportage has been to destroy the credibility of mainstream journalism.

The myth of balance

Professional journalists can restore their status only by taking radical action. They are getting torn to pieces fighting the wrong battles. Journalists keep telling critics that they are committed to hearing all sides. That they are committed to "objectivity," which in practical terms means giving ink and airtime to various viewpoints in a fair and even detached way. This so-called balance is supposed to translate into the all-important objectivity.

Veteran journalists know that the objectivity ethos is the "big lie" of their profession. Actually, journalists are beholden to various points of view, and their commitment to balance is a convenient way of not talking about the rat's nest of commitments, concerns, biases and passions that animate the life of every good journalist and most of the bad ones.

Commercial pressures also force journalists to choose sides, to root for one outcome over another, to seek out some sources and never even speak to others. Professional values, meanwhile, force journalists to routinely rule out certain points of view, notably those deemed "irresponsible" or "out of the mainstream." In a world of complexity, journalists cannot square the circle; they cannot smooth the rough edges of reality.

Partisan journalism is thus not an aberration but an ideal. Today, this ideal is never professed and instead confusingly denied. Openly taking sides is a necessary but not sufficient condition to reform journalism.

The field is under not only ideological attack but also economic attack. The internet has forced a transformation in the mentality and tactics of advertisers, and both newspapers and magazines are only now starting to feel the negative effects of this transformation. Larger traumas are still to come as the internet grows more firmly entrenched as an information and advertising medium.

A revolution in journalism is underway and its outcome is not even in view. For a long time the causalities will mount. Journalism's "big dogs" will suffer even as they maintain the enormous influence.

Change is needed, now. It is already clear that a new journalism ethos is required, a new way of thinking and acting that acknowledges the criticisms from the Left and the Right while at the same time presenting a powerful new rationale for journalistic professionalism and independence.

Here, in brief, is a new creed for journalism that carries forward what's consistent with the uncertain waves of the internet while affirming what journalism has always stood for.

    1. Let subjects have their say, but tell readers why one side is fudging, lying or worse. Subjects have grown too adept at manipulating reporters. Punish liars.

    2. Take personal responsibility for the accuracy of your story. Outcomes are more important than process. If your sources prove incorrect, say so in a new story. The critical measure of a journalist's stature is whether they got the story right, not whether they were fair and balanced. Admit mistakes. Hold accuracy, not intent, as the highest standard. Get the "right" answer. If you can't, keep trying until you can.

    3. Declare your agenda. All journalists have one. Be honest about yours. Readers appreciate candor and will judge a story more sympathetically when they plainly see where the journalist is coming from.

    4. Be fair and accurate. Stop talking about "objectivity" and instead promote the concept of journalistic "integrity." This means we must substitute the concept of fair and balanced with the concept of fair and accurate. Having an agenda raises the importance of ethics and honesty. Because a journalist is trying to prove a point, his choices of sources become a legitimate area of reader scrutiny. Anonymous sources can still be used, but journalists must take responsibility for whom they quote, whether they quote them by name or not. The days of hiding behind a source are over (thank you, Judith Miller). Passion is important. Partisanship is inevitable. Journalists should not be embarrassed to admit to either.

Journalists are human beings first, not special creatures that are above the normal loyalties of life. Journalists should be subject to all the normal constraints of ordinary citizens. They should benefit from all the normal freedoms of ordinary citizens. If these freedoms are not enough to support an informed and energetic journalism, then the normal standards for all citizens must be raised. For too long journalists have asked for and received special treatment -- notably from government and from their sources. Professional journalism cannot rest on special privileges but on superior performance.