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July 1, 2013 by newsgetting
In a refracted media world where information comes from everywhere, the line between two “isms” — journalism and activism — is becoming difficult to discern. As American news media have pulled back from international coverage, nongovernmental organizations have filled in the gaps with on-the-scene reports and Web sites. State houses have lost reporters who used to provide accountability, so citizens have turned to digital enterprises, some of which have partisan agendas. The question of who is a journalist and who is an activist and whether they can be one and the same continues to roar along, most recently in the instance of Glenn Greenwald’s reporting for The Guardian on the secrets revealed by Edward J. Snowden. Sometimes, a writer’s motives or leanings emerge between the lines over time, but you need only to read a few sentences of Mr. Greenwald’s blog to know exactly where he stands. Mr. Greenwald is an activist who is deeply suspicious of government and the national security apparatus, and he is a zealous defender of privacy and civil rights. He is also a journalist. Taxonomy is important, partly because when it comes to divulging national secrets, the law grants journalists special protections that are afforded to no one else. To exclude some writers from the profession is to leave them naked before a government that is deeply unhappy that its secret business is on wide display. In that context, “activist” has become a code word for someone who is driven by an agenda beyond seeking information on the public’s behalf. I found out as much last week when an article I wrote with a colleague about WikiLeaks called Alexa O’Brien an “activist.” Ms. O’Brien is certainly that. She played a crucial role in the digital outreach of Occupy Wall Street, was involved with the U.S. Day of Rage rally and began covering the Bradley Manning trial partly to protest the lack of information and transparency in the case. But she also describes herself as an independent journalist, and for that matter, so have I in a previous column. She asked for (and received) a correction in The New York Times, pointing out that I had cited her work in my column. “You are reading my journalistic work, using my journalistic work, capitalizing off my journalistic work, and linking to my journalistic work about the largest criminal investigation ever into a publisher and its source,” she wrote from Fort Meade, Md., where she has been comprehensively transcribing the Manning trial. In other words, if I believed she was executing a political agenda rather than a journalistic one, why was I referencing her work? The notion of journalist as political and ideological eunuch seems silly, even to some who call themselves journalists. “Truth is not the hole in the middle of the doughnut, it is on the doughnut somewhere,” a veteran reporter whom I worked with at an alternative weekly in Minneapolis once told me. What he meant was that articles that strive only to be in the middle — moving from one hand to the other in an effort to be nicely balanced — end up going nowhere. I was just out of journalism school, brimming with freshly taught tenets of fairness and objectivity, and already those values were in question. Still, the fight between objectivity and subjectivity is a fairly modern one. In the 1800s, journalism was underwritten by powerful people, the government or political parties. It was only when an economic incentive for information absent a political agenda took hold that an independent press also emerged. It makes sense that as the financial rewards for traditional journalism have eroded, advocacy journalism has gained new traction. It is now up to the consumer to assemble a news diet of his or her choice, adding in news that is produced by people who have skin in the game. “We are beginning to realize that journalists come in a variety of shapes and sizes and come with a variety of commitments,” said Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University. “It isn’t that the fact that someone is an activist is irrelevant, it’s just that it does not necessarily mean they are the opposite of a journalist.” In the instance of Mr. Snowden and his leaks, something of a hybrid model for the big story arose. Mr. Snowden was said to have chosen Mr. Greenwald as a conduit for a leak because he felt they shared values. The matching ideologies of source and journalist made the story happen in the first place. Then The Guardian’s global presence and historically liberal audience provided a sturdy platform, and its newsroom offered editorial muscle. Janine Gibson, the editor in chief of The Guardian’s Web site in the United States, oversaw the coverage. She said that a lot has changed in the new editorial landscape, but that articles still have to hold up under intense scrutiny. “I think to call Glenn an activist is a red herring, an attempt to put him in a box and minimize what he does,” she said. “He has a point of view, but he is meticulous and forensic in his approach and is extremely careful about getting it right.” There are people in government and in the news media who believe that Mr. Greenwald is not a journalist, and should be prosecuted for his role in publishing national secrets. “It is not a matter of being an activist or a journalist; it’s a false dichotomy,” Mr. Greenwald said in a phone call from Brazil, where he lives. “It is a matter of being honest or dishonest. All activists are not journalists, but all real journalists are activists. Journalism has a value, a purpose — to serve as a check on power.” And as a journalist and activist, Mr. Greenwald could not resist a jab. “I have seen all sorts of so-called objective journalists who have all kinds of assumptions in every sentence they write,” he said. “Rather than serve as an adversary of government, they want to bolster the credibility of those in power. That is a classic case of a certain kind of activism.” I take his point, with a few caveats. Journalists are responsible for following the truth wherever it may guide them. Both Ms. Gibson and Mr. Greenwald said that they would quickly follow the Snowden story even if it led to something that questioned his motives or diminished his credibility. But I do think that activism — which is admittedly accompanied by the kind of determination that can prompt discovery — can also impair vision. If an agenda is in play and momentum is at work, cracks may go unexplored. That is not to say that Mr. Greenwald’s work is suspect, only that the tendentiousness of ideology creates its own narrative. He has been everywhere on television taking on his critics, which seems more like a campaign than a discussion of the story he covered. Activists can and often do reveal the truth, but the primary objective remains winning the argument. That includes the argument about whether a reporter has to be politically and ideologically neutral to practice journalism.
By David Carr (The New York Times)