Sunday, May 31, 2009

Superior journalism as Jonathan S. Landay and Warren P. Strobel do it.

Journalism is the profession that is supposed to keep us abreast of what is going on in the world, so its reports become an archive of events and activities as they transpire. But good journalism needs also to be examining the claims of officials, to see how they match with the public record. Good journalism has to be more than, as someone has said, a stenographer; it should be reminding us, the public, of things we tend to forget, matching official statements against events and statements in the past. In fact, the public has a short memory, and some of us have a notably short memory, a problem I have had since …, well, as long as I can remember [!] . So journalists need to help us remember what officials have done and said that bear upon what they are doing and saying in the present.

Officials need to be scrutinized -- what they say about themselves and the world – for how accurately they represent the truth, at least as it can be known, a process that entails matching their public affirmations with the available public record. This professional service is necessary because officials have agendas of their own; they want the public to understand situations as they do, in order to justify their perspectives, their past decisions, and their projects. Politics is a continuing debate about how situations should be defined and so is often, by implication, about the past as well as the present. And because definitions of situations affect the interests of public officials, the public statements of officials can be contorted by their interests. The interested viewpoint of officials and the professional obligation of journalists to examine the statements and activities of officials in the light of the public record places journalists and officials on opposing sides. The interests of one clash with the interests of the other.

So a common device of politicians is to dismiss those to bring up embarrassing details as already biased "on the left" or "on the right."

We have recently heard a speech by former Vice President Dick Cheney that has been available for the scrutiny of journalists. As the speech rehearses policies of the Bush administration, it invites such scrutiny. I wonder how many journalists have examined his speech in light of the public record, to see how faithfully the Vice President represented the past. Certainly a fine example of good journalistic practice was the work of Washington DC McClatchy journalists Jonathan S. Landay and Warren P. Strobel, who went through the Cheney speech and found as many as ten “omissions, exaggerations and misstatements.” [Click on the title for a link to their article.]

I wonder how many other journalists have provided this service to their readers? I don’t remember seeing anything like it elsewhere, except for Frank Rich’s statement in the New York Times today.

Dictators in many countries simply control the news by abusing journalists, intimidating, imprisoning, even assassinating those who stubbornly insist on presenting embarrassing and “inconvenient” truths as they know them. In our country we hope our journalists will avoid censoring themselves. When they become reluctant to point out the failures of leaders we all lose, no matter which side we are on in a specific debate.

We now have a new administration. They will have their own perspective, policies, and projects, like the previous one. Lets hope the journalist profession does a better job with this adminstration than they did with the past.

No comments: