The ‘Who Is a Journalist?’ debate picks up steam, substance

Editor’s note: This is an opinion column by George Salamon.

The early shots in the “Who Is a Journalist?” debate, ignited by the Edward Snowden-to-Glenn Greenwald leaks about NSA surveillance, were of lightweight caliber. (See “Who Is a Journalist? The New Republic Tickles but Does Not Tackle the Question,” GJR, June 27) Now that a couple of journalistic heavyweights have entered the fray, the debate has gained steam and substance. Or, their contributions to it could put an end to what some see as a silly or insidious charade.

Margaret Sullivan, public editor at the New York Times, joined in on June 29 with a column headlined “Who’s a Journalist? A Question With Many Facets and One Sure Answer.” Sullivan’s “admittedly partial definition”? Here it is: “A real journalist is one who understands, at a cellular level, and doesn’t stay away from the adversarial relationship between government and press – the very tension that America’s founders had in mind with the First Amendment.”

Sullivan does not tell us if that “adversarial relationship” should exist as well between press and powerful institutions other than the government itself – say, our military-industrial complex or Wall Street? And should such a relationship become less adversarial in covering the government’s war against enemies of the state, even when members of the press and other citizens do not perceive them as enemies posing a real and imminent threat? But Sullivan may return to the debate to explore its “legislative and legal questions” and address issues her partial answer skirts.

Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone, on the other hand, launched a full-throated attack on the very existence of the debate two days before Sullivan’s column appeared: “This whole discussion (‘Who Is a Journalist?’) is taking place in a phony ‘debate’ that’s now being cooked up about the legitimacy of advocacy journalism.” Glenn Greenwald, as Taibbi points out, is “open about (his) advocacy,” but readers should bring to his articles the same skepticism they bring to articles by journalists “who claim not to be advocates,” and not with more, as critics of Greenwald insisted.

That’s because, Taibbi insists, “there is no such thing as journalism without advocacy,” and that to suggest otherwise “is just silly.” Taibbi claims that “objectivity is a fairy tale invented purely for the consumption of the credulous public, sort of like the Santa Claus myth. Obviously, journalists can strive to be balanced and objective, but that’s all it is, striving.” An excellent observation that is as applicable to journalism as it is to all human endeavors.

For that reason, among others, Taibbi sees this “new debate about Greenwald and advocacy journalism” as “insidious.” And here he touches on those issues Sullivan has not yet addressed but may still address: “Journalists of all kinds have long enjoyed certain legal protections, and those protections are essential to a functioning free press. The easiest way around those protections is simply to declare some people ‘not journalists.’…Who are these people to decide who’s a journalist and who isn’t? Is there anything more obnoxious than a priesthood?”

I’d bet that Taibbi’s piece will not end the debate. But I wish those who intend to join in will read it and reflect on the two questions he asked. Especially those journalists who judged and condemned Greenwald but have never themselves been “real journalists” by Sullivan’s partial definition.

Salamon taught German literature and culture at several East Coast colleges, and served as staff reporter for the St. Louis Business Journal and as senior editor for Defense Systems Review. He has published three academic books and contributed articles to the Washington Post and the American Conservative.

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