Hey Matt Taibbi: All Journalism is Not ‘Advocacy’

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The Big Picture –
By Glynn Wilson

Hey, let me say at the outset before people start bashing me on Facebook that I like Matt Taibbi. He’s a fine writer for Rolling Stone magazine and produces some of the most insightful journalism in America today, at least on business and economic matters.


He got more right about the Bush Great Recession and the Bush and Obama financial bailouts than any other journalist in the country. He even did the best piece anywhere on what really happened in my home county’s bankruptcy. He didn’t get the whole story, but he did a better job explaining why Jefferson County, Alabama, went bankrupt due to the corrupt financing scheme for a new sewer system than the New York Times or the Birmingham News or anybody else.

As for his latest missive, however, Hey, MSM: All Journalism is Advocacy Journalism, it is very important that people hear a counter argument.

For this story, I’m afraid Matt just doesn’t have the experience or academic knowledge to dismiss all journalism as advocacy. In fact, I don’t think he really knows what he’s saying in this debate or what the implications are for taking this position.

For that matter, I don’t think Glenn Greenwald or David Gregory are equipped for this story either. It is certainly clear that Andrew Ross Sorkin has no idea what he’s talking about.

I wish I could say that there is someone left at the New York Times who is in a better position to take on this argument. Alas, they are all long gone. And that’s too bad. Thank you Jayson Blair and the business editor. You did more harm to your company and your country than you know.

How do I explain something in one opinion column that will be summarized in 140 characters on Twitter and get people to understand what the argument is really about? I’m working on a book and a documentary to try to explain it. It will take time.

But I swear I think this is a central question for our time and must be addressed if we are to move forward as a democracy and be in a position to lead around the world on some very important questions, especially on climate change due to global warming from the burning of fossil fuels.

This is not something you can explain in a Facebook comment. You have to understand a little about the history of the debate on “advocacy journalism.” I am in a unique position to understand this debate, especially as it concerns environmental journalism, since I was there in the early days of discussing this in journalism circles and the academic literature.

So let me take you back to the 20th century for a few minutes and then bring people up to date. This may very well be something of a parable, but I will try to make it as clear and explicit as possible.

First you have to understand that this thing called “objective journalism” was not mentioned in the chapter of Genesis. It was not around during the Big Bang either. Nor was it even part of the American lexicon in 1776.

Ben Franklin’s newspapers didn’t practice it. In fact, Franklin himself wrote anonymous letters to his own newspapers in those days (sound like blog comments?) trying to persuade people to start a revolution against the British, and on other subjects to promote civic mindedness on the part of his fellow colonists.

Objective journalism was an American invention, pioneered by a man few Americans have ever heard of named Adolph Ochs. You can Google him but you won’t find much. He was the publisher of the Chattanooga Times in the late 1800s, but considering the ignorance of the religious population of East Tennessee in those days (home to the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial on Darwin’s evolution being taught in the schools a few years later), he must have grown weary of trying to educate them. So he moved to New York and bought the New York Times, which was about eighth in circulation in a town with many competing newspapers that sold for a penny.

Much has been written about this in journalism textbooks over the years, but I swear I taught out of probably 30 different textbooks for nearly 10 years and I don’t think any of them got the story right. It was, and is, my contention that the early journalism historians who wrote the first textbooks that still get cited today were not very good journalists (as they say, those who can, do. Those who can’t teach).

I know for a fact that they all still have a hard time defining objective journalism. I won’t bore you with all the different strains of the tortured language they use, because they are all wrong anyway. One of the reasons they are wrong is that these journalism historians didn’t know much about math or science (which is why they taught journalism, not a science). From my own experience, even in the 1990s in the Master’s program at the University of Alabama and the Ph.D. program at the University of Tennessee, these historians tend to be pretty religious. (I won’t name names here but there are plenty of people out there who know what I’m talking about).

No one at the New York Times has ever bothered to write a detailed account of what this means, in part because that paper and now Web news company is a publicly traded corporation on the U.S. stock exchange and is in the business of making the most money possible from practicing journalism. To go back and tell people it is not about the money would seem hypocritical at best.

That’s what it’s about now. The money.

That’s what it became in the 20th century. Objectivity became something to practice by printing “both sides” of a story so as not to piss off any potential readers and subscribers and to maximize the audience, the reach, and yes, the profit margin.

But that’s not really how it started out. The idea — and there was a big debate in the early 20th century about this — was to “educate” the readers of mass circulation daily newspapers about science and public affairs at a time when radio was new and and there was no such thing as television, and of course no Internet or Facebook. This was supposed to be critical for the survival of American-style democracy and to spread this idea of liberty and freedom around the globe.

I can’t give you the entire history here in one column, but there are a few essential details that could begin your research if you’re interested in knowing more. Look up a writer named Walter Lippmann. He never worked for Ochs, but he was aware of the debate and tried to advance the argument about what I call “scientifically objective journalism.” He wrote a book in 1922 called Public Opinion. You can still find it in many university libraries. It outlined this idea of using newspapers to educate the public.

While Lippmann started out as one of the early 20th century’s “muckraking journalists,” producing exposés on corporations like the Standard Oil company and their overbearing influence on U.S. politics (sound familiar today?), the book made Lippman famous. He went on to become the most widely circulated editorial opinion columnist in America history. At one point around the time of World War II he had like 50 million readers. Nobody has that kind of reach today, except maybe Glenn Greenwald — at least this week. Lippmann had that size audience for decades.

Something else happened too. As an influential thinker, Lippmann was invited to become part of the U.S. establishment and to advise the government on how to deal with the growing problem of “propaganda,” especially emanating from Germany. You already know what happens to independent thinkers when they are co-opted by the establishment.

So by 1925, Lippmann decided to change his mind and write another book. It was called The Phantom Public. In it, he let the newspapers off the hook as “educators,” and decided that “the masses” or “the people” were too stupid to educate. So it was going to be up to “elites” to decide public policy and tell the people what to think.

There you have it. The foundation for Rush Limbaugh’s claim about “Northeastern liberal elites,” which Fox News stole from him and he stole from George Wallace.

Chain newspaper publishers like William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer, Samuel Irving Newhouse, Sr., and Ochs’ successor Arthur Hays Sulzberger, along with the Associated Press, were then free to pursue their economic interests without fear of being responsible for the consequences of their two-sided reporting, which has now erupted into an all out global war on the Web.

Fox News obliterated the very idea of objective journalism when it chose the slogan “fair and balanced” for its blatantly patriotic, pro-American, ideologically conservative and politically partisan Republican entertainment network. No, Fox is not a news network. It just pretends to be one to make money. (That’s not an advocacy opinion, by the way. It’s a verifiable fact).

One of the things Ochs pioneered was science journalism. The New York Times still had the best science section of any newspaper in the country until a few years ago, when it started going downhill like everything else after the Jayson Blair scandal and the rise of bloggers.

Now let me tell you about the advocacy debate on environmental journalism in the 1990s.

After the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince Williams Sound, Alaska, in the spring of 1989, I was one of hundreds of reporters hired to do something new: Cover the environment as a specialty beat.

Newspapers saw that there was a growing readership for these kinds of stories (a market if you will), so they started hiring specialists. I had published a few stories then that fit the bill since the natural environment and pollution were something I was interested in writing about. I had written about the water wars between Alabama and Georgia, the Cahaba River, and the plan for a dam on the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River.

The job offer came from my old stomping grounds in Baldwin County on the Alabama Gulf Coast, where I got my start in newspapers right out of the University of Alabama at the Baldwin Times in Bay Minette. In the summer of 1989, I moved to Gulf Shores and started breaking news and investigating news about oil companies planning to dump their drilling waste in coastal waters, dying dolphins, and ultimately the Navy’s plan to make off limits a 200 square mile area in the Gulf to test ships out of Pascagoula for hardening against an atmospheric nuclear blast.

My reporting led to the mothballing of the EMPRESS II, which was also written up eventually by USA Today, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Tampa Tribune, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the New York Times. But the heat from the political and military brass also got me fired. Such is the objective journalism business sometimes.

But that move also led me back to academe in 1993, where I found out there was an ongoing debate about whether environmental journalists were by their very nature “advocacy journalists.” As far as I know, no one had ever asked this question about sports reporters, even though much of what they wrote was all about being “good for the sport.” No one had ever asked that question about food writers or those who covered the “crime” or “cop” beat. I mean how can you be against eating good food, or for crime? As far as I know, the first time any journalist was ever accused of being an “advocate” and thus not “objective” occurred in the early 1990s, when a number of the early specialists in covering the environment were fired for allegedly being “too green.”

Of course the people who accused them of this were advocates — public relations men for corporations that had an interest in being legally allowed to pollute our air and water.

When I was first asked my opinion of this after helping to found the Society of Environmental Journalists in 1990 at a science conference in New Orleans, my first response was in the affirmative. Not knowing the full scale of the implications of the charge, I believe I said something to the effect that, “How can one not be an advocate for a clean environment? Isn’t everybody? Why it’s as American as apple pie and baseball.”

But after getting into this argument in an academic setting, when there were actually journal articles published on this very subject that advanced certain professors’ academic careers, I did more research and concluded that it would be a mistake to label them as advocates. But that did not reach the New York Times in time.

Mas Frankel, who was editor of the Times during this period from 1986 to 1994, was influenced by the critics and railed himself against reporters who were “too green.” He forced one of the Times own environmental beat reporters to downplay the threat from dioxin, a byproduct of paper bleaching, which was a major controversy for awhile. I also wrote quite a bit about it since one of the nation’s most important paper mills that pioneered a cleaner bleaching process was based in Cantonment, Florida. Its waste water drained into Perdido Bay and the Gulf in Baldwin County, Alabama. The bay was largely a dead zone there for awhile.

Obviously, the newspaper industry had an interest in protecting the paper industry. So if anyone should have been labeled an advocate, it was the executive editor, not the reporter covering the controversy. But you know the newspaper industry. It rarely reports bad things about itself.

Now let’s take the discussion up an intellectual notch.

One of the first comments I received on Facebook when I first saw this story was from a someone who immediately agreed with Matt and expressed a view I will explain in a minute as a “Post-Modern” view. “Articles are not written in a vacuum devoid of human emotion, thought, experiences, prejudices, etc.”

True enough in a way, although I do believe it is possible not to be prejudiced. The example I have used over and over again to try to get conservative, Republican friends of mine to understand is this. I did not criticize President Bush because he was a Republican. I did it because I knew what he was doing was bad for the country. That is to say, going to war on a trumped up, false intelligence charge that Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction was NOT in the national interest — in the short term or the long term. How many times does an objective journalist have to get things right before people start to listen?

I think the commenter meant to use the word “bias,” because we all have them. But that does not mean that one’s personal biases always rule the day. Not in journalism, and certainly not in science, where the term “objectivity” comes from.

I spent a lot of time in college classrooms and bars for several years while working toward a Ph.D. having this discussion about “Post Modernism,” which to oversimplify for the sake of this piece says that we can never really “know” anything, and the counter quantitative argument that yes, there are some things we can know. I would not go so far as my good friend E.O. Wilson, who says eventually, with enough research, we can explain everything.

But I am quite certain that there are some things we can know, and that when we know these things, we have an obligation to report them factually. This means it would not be scientifically objective to report the other side and give it equal time in the news, because to do so would be to mislead the public. It might help news organizations get and keep prejudiced readers and subscribers, or radio and television stations listeners and viewers, as we have seen over the past few years with Rush Limbaugh and Fox and the Newhouse papers. It might bring in the hits to their Websites and keep those corporate advertising dollars flowing. But there is no way that should be called “objective journalism.”

Objective journalism should be judged on whether it is an accurate portrayal of the facts, not on whether it is equally wrong ideologically or politically. As long as we have this discussion while ignoring the real roots of the term “objective journalism,” we all lose. We not only discredit the craft of journalism. We do harm to our country and to the very ideal of democracy.

It does not matter whether you “believe” or “think” this democracy should be a purely capitalistic one in the Social Darwinian sense, or more socialistic, fair, just and compassionate. Belief is not the thing. It’s basic philosophy 101: There are matters of fact, and there are matters of opinion.

I know it may appear that in this era of hyper blogging and social twittering and comment typing hysteria, it looks like all that matters is your opinion. But I’m with HBO’s “The Newsroom” and can’t wait for season two in July. There has to be a better way.

Caving in to those who want to label all journalism as “advocacy” is professional capitulation. I, for one, will not capitulate.

© 2013, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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