The Journalist As Professional: Are There Limits To Dis-interestedness?
In the United States in the 20th century, journalism became a profession. As part of her professional identity, the journalist is expected to be neutral, objective, and to cover both sides of a story. Though the term is a bit forbidding, it is better to think of the professional journalist as disinterested. The true professional must not cater to any special interests, and especially not to those who might be in a position to confer special favors on said professional. Instead, it’s her job to describe as accurately as possible the particular person, event, or story in question and to place the particular story in appropriate contexts. The accuracy part of the job means getting all the facts right and, insofar as possible, confirming the story with all relevant parties. We might call this the “Associated Press” or “Reuters” approach. A somewhat higher bar entails providing appropriate context, often requiring both broad historical and scholarly knowledge. We might call this the “New York Times” or “Wall Street Journal” approach.
A test of disinterestedness is the reaction of those who consume the news. When NPR gets an equal number of complaints from the political left and the political right about its coverage of conflict in the Middle East, that’s a sign it is doing its job in a disinterested way. But what does it mean to be disinterested during the presidential campaign of 2016? Has the Trump candidacy made a mockery of the profession of journalism—a profession that Trump both depends on and explicitly condemns?
In the last two decades, it’s become difficult to maintain the high bar of disinterestedness. Postmodern thinkers contend that disinterestedness is an impossible and perhaps not even a worthwhile goal. (“We are all interested; let’s admit it and may the better interested win!”) The 24/7 news cycle puts tremendous pressure on even the most dedicated journalists to cut corners, lest they be scooped. And the advent of social media has nudged many journalists both to put out information very rapidly and to tweet or blog their personal opinions about events of the day. I personally regret this trend—“How,” I ask, “are we to read John’s stories as if they were disinterested, when we know that he has just posted his personal view on the very same topic?”
Decades ago, ‘disinterested coverage’ was associated with the much honored CBS news team—led initially by Edward R. Murrow and then by Walter Cronkite. Indeed, Cronkite would close his nightly newscast with the bald assertion, “And that’s the way it is.” It’s therefore worth remembering that on deliberately rare occasions, both Murrow and Cronkite made clear their own views. Murrow famously broadcast a series of critiques of Senator Joseph McCarthy—and those critiques, along with the televised Army McCarthy hearings, ultimately led to the downfall of that nefarious senator. More than a decade later, after travelling to Vietnam, Cronkite reported that the war was not winnable; it was a stalemate, and negotiations were the only rational alternative. Famously, then President Johnson turned off the television and declared, “If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
These issues have been recently thrown into sharp relief. In the opinion of many people (including me), Donald Trump is a psychologically-damaged and unprecedentedly ignorant candidate for the most powerful position on the planet. He has disregarded the rules and assumptions of American politics as they have evolved over the decades; his election could well be a disaster for the country and for the world. Under such circumstances, what is the recommended course of action for reporters who wish to maintain their disinterested professional stance?
According to a prevailing narrative, Trump’s candidacy was initially so anomalous that reporters presented it as a compelling form of entertainment. Enormous free publicity helped to propel him to the nomination. Then, this narrative continues, feeling guilty (as their predecessors did for their initial acceptance of the governmental narratives of both the Vietnam and the Iraq wars), reporters have leaned in the other direction, maximizing Trumps’ flaws, while paying relatively less attention to those of Hillary Clinton. Liz Spayd, the Public Editor of The New York Times, recently lamented that many readers no longer pay attention to that ‘newspaper of record’; it is now seen as being blatantly partisan—indeed, highly interested in one outcome of the election.
As one who studies the professions, I’ve come to this conclusion: in extreme cases, professionals should be prepared to drop their disinterestedness, explain why they are doing so, and seek to return to professional disinterestedness as soon as possible.
But what constitutes an extreme case? It’s one in which the very society in which they have been allowed to practice their profession is under attack. It’s not hard for anyone to understand why journalists who objected to Hitler’s stated aims and his calling for blatant acts of violence should have focused the spotlight squarely on these activities and explained in detail why they went against all of the assumptions and presumptions of Weimar Germany. One could make the same point with reference to Stalin’s pogroms or Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Of course, we know what would have happened–what too often did happen–to journalists who described and contextualized what was happening in these totalitarian societies. And yet, had enough journalists (and other professionals, like lawyers) initially opposed the regimes more vocally and more vociferously, the terrible outcomes might have been avoided. Indeed, I think that it is precisely those fears that motivated Murrow in the 1950s, and Cronkite in the 1960s, to declare their ‘interests.’
What of today? I think it is proper for journalists to describe in detail what Donald Trump is doing, what it means for society today and tomorrow, and how it violates all sorts of norms and assumptions that have characterized American political life, domestically and abroad, for many decades. The journalists should be prepared to explain—and explain again―what they are doing and why they are doing it, and how, if Trump were elected, the fundamental values and processes of our society will be at serious risk. They should apply a similar critique to other candidates—in this case, candidates for major parties running for president. But they should not ‘pretend’ that there are two equally plausible sides to every story! And they should voice the hope that when (or even if) the political scene returns to a more normal state, they will eagerly and proudly again wear the robe of disinterestedness.