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March 12, 2009

Advocacy Journalism

Scott Johnson notes Walter Pincus' whitewashing of the Chas Freeman withdrawal brouhaha:

One would never know from the article that Freeman ascribed his withdrawal to "unscrupulous people with a passionate attachment to the views of a political faction in a foreign country," to "a special interest group," to "a powerful lobby determined to prevent any view other than its own from being aired," to "the Israel Lobby," to "a group so clearly intent on enforcing adherence to the policies of a foreign government - in this case, the government of Israel," or to any of the other variations Freeman worked into his statement.

Pincus's article does reveal that one of Freeman's congressional critics is named Israel. I'm sure that makes Freeman happy. Pincus's article does not report on any of the opposition to his appointment by Chinese human rights activists and sympathizers (including my old teacher Jonathan Mirsky), or the reasons for their opposition. I'm sure that makes Freeman happy too.

Freeman's parting shot combined falsehoods, misdirection, and anti-Semitism combined with imputations of dual loyalty (at best). It is not only newsworthy in itself, it also raises serious questions about the Obama administration's judgment. In short, the Washington Post has expurgated this story in a most discreditable manner.

Though this may be disappointing, it is hardly surprising. Pincus has long urged reporters to use their positions as filterers of the news to build support for their personal political objectives:

Pincus does something rare for any mainstream journalist: he openly argues for a more political press. He even uses the word “activist,” which is forbidden in the mainstream newsroom code. And he says that courage in political reporting sometimes means the courage to admit you’re a participant—a player, a power in your own right—within the struggle for self-government, the battle for public opinion and the politics of the day.

This view of "the press as players" rather than unbiased filters is echoed by Jay Rosen:

The answer, I think, involves an open secret in political journalism that has been recognized for at least 20 years. But it is never dealt with, probably because the costs of facing it head on seem larger than the light tax on honesty any open secret demands. The secret is this: pssst… the press is a player in the campaign. And even though it knows this, as everyone knows it, the professional code of the journalist contains no instructions in what the press could or should be playing for. So while the press likes being a player, it does not like being asked: what are you for?

In fact, the instructions are not to think about it too much, because to know what you are playing for would be to have a kind of agenda. And by all mainstream definition the political reporter must have no kind of agenda. The Washington Post, National Public Radio, CNN, Newsweek, the Des Moines Register, and all similar competitors, are officially (and rhetorically) committed to “no agenda” journalism, also known as the view from nowhere. So while it might be recognized that the press is a player, journalists also see an unsolvable problem if they take one more intellectual step. So they dare not.

Except that some do because it’s patent. “No longer are we just the messengers, observers on the sidelines, witch’s mirrors faithfully telling society how it looks,” said Mike O’Neill, former editor of the New York Daily News. “Now we are deeply embedded in the democratic process itself, as principal actors rather than bit players or mere audience.”

Amongst themselves, the press openly admit they're using news reportage as a blunt weapon to gain political power. And then they turn around and tell us they're honest brokers whose sacred First Amendment calling (which must never be interfered with even if this means shielding criminals or obstructing justice) is to tell it like it is and keep government honest.

But if there are to be no limits on the press, where is the check on their enormous power? Are we seriously to believe the media alone, of all institutions on earth, are magically immune to the age old maxim that absolute power corrupts absolutely?

The press would have you think they're impartial and unbiased. Amongst themselves, however, they sing a different tune entirely.

Posted by Cassandra at March 12, 2009 08:07 AM

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I picture Samson tearing down the "FOUR PILLARS" as journalists systematically destroy the foundations of a free press.

Their new mantra is to tell it like you want it to be and shill for the government that thinks like you do.

It is interesting watching the internet as Samson systematically destroying our Tower of Babble.

Posted by: vet66 at March 12, 2009 11:34 AM

Sounds like he's paraphrasing the old "vast, right-wing conspiracy" excuse.

Posted by: a former european at March 12, 2009 12:29 PM

Although I would prefer a press that made a serious attempt to report the news "straight," I don't have a problem with "agenda" journalism, SO LONG AS journalists are straight with us as to their values, beliefs, and agendas. Almost all of the best political blogs fit this description. So could mainstream media outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post. But they won't do it, and as more and more people become aware of the dishonest nature of their reporting, down and down goes their circulation. Too bad, so sad!

Posted by: TimK at March 12, 2009 12:33 PM

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 03/12/2009 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day...so check back often.

Posted by: David M at March 12, 2009 01:54 PM