Thoughts on journalism in an age of ecological calamity
“…sitting on marble floors, waiting for somebody to come out and lie to me.”
— Russell Baker, describing his early ’60s stint as a Washington political correspondent for The New York Times, in his memoir The Good Times.
This post doesn’t touch directly on the environment, or even on my own particular subset of environmental politics, those related to food.
Instead, it’s about journalism. If we’re going to preserve and indeed create ecosystems that can sustain our troubled species, we’ll need vibrant, critical, independent reporting. So actually, this post is about the environment and the food system.
The Journalist as Lobbyist
Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias, luminaries of the blog-centric style of journalism now ascendant, laid out two visions of the profession yesterday. In a post about lobbying, Klein makes a startling comparison of reporters to lobbyists:
This is, essentially, what journalism is about: Leveraging social relationships to get people to tell you things they probably shouldn’t be telling you, and that they certainly wouldn’t tell someone they didn’t know and have human feelings for.
Yglesias huffs in response:
Obviously the concept of journalism contains many discrete activities, but I feel like to offer this as a generic characterization even of the investigative reporting function is a kind of double mistake. It starts with the erroneous conception of the “hard core” reporter who has a fierce attitude and piercing gaze, and roots the truth out from the unwilling and corrupt establishment. This attitude leads to the “cocktail party” critique of actually existing journalists as a bunch of gadabouts and schmoozers. This, in turn, leads to Klein’s reconceptualization of the cocktail party circuit as the essence of journalism — you schmooze, breaking down the psychic and emotional barriers, and then you get the scoop. This seems a little self-serving to me. I’m going to a dinner party tonight featuring a minister from the Afghan cabinet and I’m attending because doing so seems more interesting than the reverse, but if I learn anything there it’ll be because someone wanted to tell me something not because I tricked them with my charms.
There’s some imprecise writing here (I love the idea that Yglesias’ dinner party “features” a “minister from the Afghan cabinet”; will he be served seared over a bed of quinoa pilaf? Or sous vide, perhaps?) But Yglesias is right: Cozy relations with sources doesn’t necessarily lead to important stories. Indeed, the cocktail-party-style of journalism can be actively pernicious: it can lead to the suppression of important stories. (Klein acknowledged as much in a later post.) If you were a journalist, would you want to publish a piece depicting Government Program X as lame, when it might hurt the feelings — or career — of Friend Y, who oversees Program X from within an agency? Or worse, risk losing Friend Y as a valuable source?
Cocktail-party journalism lends itself all too easily to the metaphor of the reporter as stenographer to power: someone who scribbles down and publishes more or less the message those in power want to disseminate. The critique goes like this: In exchange for access to important people — for “scoops” — reporters lay down their critical faculties. New York Times reporter Judith Miller’s reports on Iraq’s allegedly fierce “weapons of mass destruction” ahead of the 2003 invasion, which in retrospect were overly influenced by the political aims of Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi, are probably the most celebrated recent example.
The journalist-as-stenographer style seems to have reached its apotheosis in the person of Mike Allen, a kind of über-reporter for Politico. A recent New York Times Magazine profile depicted him thusly:
Like many in Washington, [White House communications director Dan] Pfeiffer describes Allen with some variation on “the most powerful” or “important” journalist in the capital. The two men exchange e-mail messages about six or eight times a day. Allen also communes a lot with Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff; Robert Gibbs, the press secretary; David Axelrod, President Obama’s senior adviser; and about two dozen other White House officials. But Pfeiffer is likely Allen’s main point of contact, the one who most often helps him arrive at a “West Wing Mindmeld,” as Playbook calls it, which is essentially a pro-Obama take on that day’s news. (Allen gets a similar fill from Republicans, which he also disseminates in Playbook.)
I can’t for the life of me understand the value of such journalism — or even how it qualifies as journalism. (The idea that Allen “gets similar fill from Republicans,” I guess, is supposed to show that his technique is politically balanced, and thus OK.) The circularity baffles me: insiders feed Allen information, and then scramble to read his morning newsletter containing that same information. Isn’t he just taking what power brokers give him, and serving it right back to them warmed over?
The Journalist as Whistleblowing Filter
Yglesias offers an alternative vision:
The reason investigative scoops happen is that government agencies are large bureaucratic enterprises composed of many variously motivated people. Some of those people decide to blow the whistle. Sometimes out of high-minded moral outrage, sometimes to pursue a personal or bureaucratic vendetta. The trick, of course, is that just because someone tells you something doesn’t make it true. At the same time, just because someone has an agenda, doesn’t mean they’re lying. And figuring out what’s true and what’s not separates the effective reporters from the ones who ran with “scoops” about US intelligence on the Iraq WMD program.
That’s smart stuff. But Yglesias’ vision doesn’t necessarily conflict with Klein’s so much as refine it. When a whistle blower is ready to come forward, it pays to be the journalist who’s built a relationship with that whistle blower.
Arguably the most important investigative journalism of the past 10 years has been Seymour Hersh’s work in the New Yorker on the U.S. military’s use of torture in Iraq and the Bush administration’s plans to launch an invasion of Iran. The anonymous sources who gave Hersh his most explosive information were likely inside sources he’d built a rapport with after decades as a dogged journalist, or those who sought him out based on his reputation as such. (Hersh is proud to remain listed in the Washington, D.C. phonebook.) Relationship journalism can lead to power-flattering stenography, but it can also, combined with the tenacity and judgment alluded to by Yglesias, yield important information about our democracy. For example, it’s plausible that Hersh’s work on Iran saved us from a disastrous invasion of that country.
The Journalist as Detective
But I want to add a third vision of journalism to the discussion: the journalist as unconnected reader and interpreter of public documents. The Mike Allen of this genre is the late lefty reporter I.F. “Izzy” Stone. Where Allen is evidently legendary for his ubiquity on the D.C. social circuit, Stone was legendary for spurning it absolutely. He didn’t want to know people in power; he wanted to know what they were up to.
To find out, he’d pore through government documents, bringing together and contextualizing information from a variety of sources. He didn’t reject the conventional press. He read The New York Times and the Washington Post cover to cover, on the hunt for stray bits of isolated information that could be brought into context. (He was also a voracious reader of the foreign press.)
Probably the most famous scoop of his long career involved the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, when the U.S. government accused North Vietnam of an unprovoked torpedo attack on a U.S. warship off the coast of Vietnam. The U.S. Department of Defense claimed to have “unequivocal proof” of North Vietnamese aggression in the case. Congress quickly passed the now-infamous Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, enabling the escalation of the Vietnam War; and the U.S. military immediately began what would be years of bombing raids into North Vietnam.
The U.S. press was “credulous” about the Johnson Administration’s claims, writes D.D. Guttenplan in his excellent 2009 biography American Radical: The Life and Times of I.F. Stone. Writers in The New Yorker and The New York Times gushed praise for Johnson’s handling of the incident, Guttenplan reports. Not Stone, though. In his I.F. Stone Weekly, Stone “put together fragmentary press reports of the raids to accuse the White House of ‘waging war behind our backs,'” Guttenplan writes. He continues:
The absence of debris, the large scale of the U.S. response…taken together with the haste to retaliate and the history of U.S. covert operations in the area led Stone to conclusions very different from the picture of outraged innocence [Defense Secretary Robert] McNamara and Johnson presented to Congress. “Everything is discussed,” said Stone, “except the possibility that the attack might have been provoked.”
Stone hammered on that theme for years while the war droned on. “Not until the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 would the Weekly’s coverage of Tonkin be completely vindicated,” Guttenplan writes. In 1995, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara himself finally conceded that the Tonkin “aggression” had been fabricated.
Stone would have thrived in today’s media environment, I think. His Weekly, a self-published, highly successful entrepreneurial venture, was a kind of proto-blog; I’d bet that Stone would have played the blog form like a fiddle.
In these dark times, with climate change lurching forward more or less uncontrolled and the worst environmental calamity in our history unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico — to speak nothing of two wars being waged half a globe away — we need strong journalism more than ever.
All three styles mentioned in this post, when done right, are important and necessary. Diversity leads to robustness in all things, even in journalism. We need energetic reporters stomping around the Capitol, formiing relationships with people in power, teasing information out of them, and presenting it smartly and skeptically. But it seems to me that I.F. Stone’s approach is becoming the scarcest of the three. We can’t revive Izzy, but we journalists can strive to be more like him.