Journalistic naval-gazing: 2 heavyweights have their say

Earlier this month, two heavyweights of journalism wrote about their profession. On March 14, Glenn Greenwald – who revealed much of Edward Snowden’s National Security Agency leaks in the UK’s Guardian – answered an attack on his new publication, the Intercept, which is funded by billionaire Pierre Omidyar, founder and chief executive officer of eBay.

Journalism, Greenwald told us in “On the Meaning of Journalistic Independence,” does not have to reflect the views of those who fund it, even those with “bad political views.” He challenged readers to check how the Intercept has performed as a hard-hitting, investigative publication in exposing the excesses and transgression of national security organizations since the publication’s start-up 20 days earlier. That seems a fair enough request – but in his article he is much more concerned with demolishing the attack on the Intercept than on shedding light on the relationship between super-rich owners and the journalists who work for them.

A few days earlier, the New York Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, reflected on the values of good journalism, based on her talk earlier to the Associated Collegiate Press convention. In her March 9 column, titled “Lodestars in a Murky Media World,” (Sunday Review, page 12) Sullivan concludes: “Integrity. Challenging the powerful. Truth and fairness. No matter what the technological changes, these are never going to go out of style.” One hopes not, but one also hopes that the flag, mom and apple pie will always be held dear.

Sullivan, a fine public editor who embodies the values she holds dear in journalism, is right when she says that many idealistic journalism students are attracted to the profession because of “their compassion for society’s underdog and their desire to make the world a better place.”

On the day her column appeared, her paper published one such effort on its front page, under the headline “The ‘Boys’ in the Bunkhouse. Servitude, Abuse and Redemption in a Tiny Iowa Farm Town.” Stories such as this one have indeed made individual places and institutions “better.” But if one chooses to take the long view, they have not made our society “better” and deterred the powerful from making it worse for the majority of their fellow citizens.

Articles in the New York Times and other papers and magazines have indeed revealed that “the rich became permanently richer and the poor permanently poorer from 1987 to 2009,” as a study using Internal Revenue Service tax data (W-2s, Social Security records and 1040s) proved. Stories in the New York Times demonstrated the effects on middle-class and blue-collar Americans. But no change has been spotted on the economic and social horizon, and none with a chance of some success has been proposed in Washington, D.C.

Indeed, the words “change” and “reform” might have to be viewed with a strong skepticism that could dim the idealism of young prospective journalists. Since Dwight Eisenhower moved into the White House in 1952, promising to “clean up the mess in Washington” because it was “time for a change,” “change” has been the promise of candidates from both parties. Jimmy Carter won in 1976 promising “A Leader, for a Change.” In 1984, Walter Mondale lost to Ronald Reagan, although he also claimed “America Needs a Change.” And in 2008 Barack Obama was the candidate with a double-barreled promise he’d fulfill: “Change We Need” and “Change We Can Believe In.”

Only Richard Nixon ran a campaign we could really believe in, proclaiming in 1968 that “Nixon’s The One.” That, among all campaign claims, seems indisputable.

Perhaps Sullivan and practicing and prospective journalists might consider what two very different Americans said about change and reform. In 1910, Henry Adams, no wild-eyed radical, wrote: “The whole fabric of society will go to wrack if we really lay hands of reform on our rotten institutions. From top to bottom the whole system is a fraud, all of us know it, laborers and capitalists alike, and all of us are consenting parties to it.”

Fifty-eight years later, wild-eyed radical Abbie Hoffman added a gloss to Adams’ observation: “I don’t consider (the Daily News) the enemy, in the same way that I don’t consider George Wallace the enemy. Corporate liberalism … Xerox … the New York Times, Harvard University – that is where the real power in America lies.” He would have added Wall Street, were he alive today.

Americans are offered hardly any opportunity to consider whether or not what Adams and Hoffman said about their society is true, or at least true in part. It just might propel them to examine the political system they live in, and how to change it so they can experience “change for the better” in their daily lives and in their communities.

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