Journalism, in its purest form, is a call to action. But that doesn’t make it activism.
Several weeks ago (yes I’ve been slow on the blogging despite my determination not to be …) my good friend Jesse Goldberg (he blogs at A Pedagogy of Living) who was also once not so long ago an editor-in-chief at The Lamron, posted a link and subsequent rant (Jesse may be sort of known for these) that led to a pretty excellent discussion on the topic.
Jesse was sharing this story about a “journalist” who runs CopBlock.org, a site that declares “badges don’t grant extra rights,” and brings together stories of police officers essentially misusing their badges to the public detriment. The site does this in the name of transparency and citizenship:
“We highlight the double standard that some grant to those in badges by pointing to and supporting those harmed. By documenting police actions … we can work together to bring about transparency and have a real impact.”
The site is content is controversial at best, and disturbing at worst – and from my take, informative to say the least. Adam “Ademo” Mueller is the site’s founder, and he was charged in August with wiretapping conversations with police when he secretly recording a conversation he had about some videos he had posted on his site.
The link naturally caught my attention: it read “journalist.” Any time Jesse posts about journalism, I must weigh in. See, we both went to the same wonderful liberal arts school, studied English and philosophy, and labored over our precious student newspaper together for far too many sleepless nights. And when each of us said goodbye to Geneseo, our paths diverged a bit more than before. Jesse became an academic with still-burning love for the news. I went to journalism school, and will forever wish I could remain an academic … forever.
The result of our conversation was some insight reminiscent of Wednesday’s pizza and wings, late-night to early-morning editing, and general tomfoolery. The result for our buddy Ademo was not so charming.
For fun, here’s what Jesse and I had to say about it. Feel free to scroll to the highlighted parts. (We got a little heavy at some points.)
JESSE: On the record means what you say can and will wind up published. If in fact he told folks he was a reporter and wanted to talk on the record, then he has a pretty good defense case. I hope.
JULIE: This is a really interesting question, but problematic factor to me right off the bat is whether or not he’s a “reporter” or an “activist” – and if what he is doing is journalism or carrying out a vendetta. A guy with a chip on his shoulder against the cops claiming that he’s a “member of the media” isn’t a journalist, even if he’s working for the public good. It may play out differently, and I’m all for free speech for citizens and journalists alike but I smell foul on his part.
JESSE: I understand what you’re saying, but the more work I do about activism (historical and contemporary), the more problematic I see the divide between activist and some other profession presupposed by the question, “Was he a journalist or an activist?” You can be an activist journalist, just like you can be an activist professor, an activist teacher, an activist lawyer, an activist sanitation worker. The terms activist and journalist are not mutually exclusive. I think we get the impression that they are because we think of journalists as having to be objective while we think of activists as having completely subjective “agendas” (think “interest groups”). I think that also is a mistake. Civil rights activists are bound together in a subjectivity that recognizes fighting for equal civil rights (voting rights, ending pay discrimination, etc.) as important and their work is primarily focused on helping a specific group of people (namely, the disenfranchised), but I’d dare to say that they are being totally objective by analyzing a problem and working for a solution because something is objectively wrong. If truth is an agenda, then fine, activists have agendas. But it’s the same agenda that journalists have when they sift through competing accounts or statistics to find true facts.
So to put a bow on that before I continue on a tangent, as I am wont to do, I think activism and journalism are a beautiful marriage. I’m sick of the CNN brand of “objectivity” (that I myself regarded as THE way to be a journalist for a long time) that says that any time you report on a story you must have two competing perspectives given equal time to say their piece and be quoted within the report of the story. But what happens when one side is clearly right? Your “balanced” coverage winds up giving people a platform to spread misinformation, which you (and by you, I’m basically saying CNN now) try to correct later by having your anchor or reporter make a note of some kind, but the damage has already been done. Instead, I’d love to see more activist journalism. I’d love to see more reporters willing to say, “You know what, here’s what the two sides have to say, but I’m not going to print an opinion from someone when that opinion isn’t backed by evidence. And I’m going to do research to find additional facts to let you know why those two sides don’t have equal weight in this argument. Because there’s something called evidence, and it is more heavily on one side than the other.”
And activist doesn’t mean “a vendetta against cops;” it means someone who sees a problem with the justice system (abuse of power by those with authority, for example, especially against those who are historically less empowered, such as children, women, and non-whites) and actively focuses their work on fixing that problem.
None of this is to say, of course, that there’s nothing fishy about what this guy did. He very well could have lied about being a member of the press, in which case that’s super sketchy because than anyone could just say they were a journalist and publish any private conversation saying that people should have known they were on the record. So yeah, if that’s the case, then shame on him. But that’s a different issue altogether from the presupposition of a dichotomy between activist and journalist.
JULIE: This is where you and I differ I suppose: You cannot be an activist and journalist on the same subject. They are mutually exclusive in their purist forms. If we don’t agree on that, that’s OK. But if only for the sake of appearances, sorry, they have to be separate. As a journalist, you have to know where your obligations are: to your audience, not to your own idea of what is right and wrong. As a journalist you have to know your willingness to forfeit your own opinions on behalf of the audience. If you do not, they will never be able to trust you. And you probably shouldn’t be trusted. I get where you are coming from with the idea that the CNN brand of journalism is objectivity at its worst – what you call their brand of objectivity is actually the idea of “fair and balanced” at its worst. A good journalist isn’t an activist. A good journalist is a blank slate, entering a conversation with a thirst for figuring out the answers and the truth, not entering a conversation seeking to validate his or her own deeply held truths.
JESSE: I guess I have the ideal activist in mind: an individual whose own opinion of what’s right and wrong is in line with what actually is right and wrong (and journalism does, I believe, to a certain extent assume the existence of objective truth, so this would extend to the moral realm as well, no?). If someone’s opinion is right, and there is in fact a problem with the justice system at the level of police power, then I don’t see how there’s something wrong with that person having an emphasis on that problem in their journalistic work. I’m not saying they write articles with lies in them, or refuse to publish evidence which is contrary to their position, but I am saying that they can choose to be a kind of beat reporter, to pick up on cases of alleged abuse of police power, and to keep pushing on those cases through new mediums such as blogs or video-journalism — assuming they’re being honest and getting people on the record without deceiving them.
I also think (not surprisingly) this relates to a very deep problem in moral philosophy (one personified very directly in Geneseo’s Phil faculty in the divide between Carlo Filice and Ted Everett, by the way) which Aristotle struggles with in the Nicomichean Ethics. How does one balance holding a moral position and acting on it in an expression of virtue while retaining the epistemic virtue of rationalism, which itself prevents one from ascending an opinion to the level of conviction because it is always possible that one is in fact wrong. In my own experience, I think that it is possible for someone to come to a moral position based on rigorous reasoning and sifting through evidence and then to act on that position, while remaining epistemically open to contrary evidence. So you’re not looking to validate your own opinion, and you’re perfectly willing to accept contrary evidence if presented with it, but in the meantime you will act in accordance with your moral positions. Since this is possible in everyday life, I think it is possible in journalism. A journalist could come to a moral position and do all they can to act in accordance with that position (thereby expressing the moral virtue of acting on one’s convictions as opposed to being a passive person who does not act on one’s moral agency) while simultaneously remaining open to learning contrary evidence, publishing it if they find it. So they’d not be merely looking to validate their own opinion, because they’d be open to changing their minds as any truly rational person ought to be, but in the meantime their actions could be reflective of their convictions.
JULIE: Your answers are too thorough for my work environment. Which brings me to: I think that journalism, in some sense, has to be utilitarian. Yes, journalists are seekers of objective truths, but equally importantly, perhaps even more importantly, a journalist’s obligation is to the audience. Not what is right or wrong at the core of ethics, but what is right or wrong for the reader of your work. So, a journalist enters a kind of contract with his/her audience, forfeiting morality for applied ethics. Of course, any thinking and feeling human being/moral agent will come to a moral position, but the crux of journalism is in the willingness to abandon it, not in the marriage of the two. And here is where you are supposed to turn that on its head by saying that the willingness to enter into that contract is in itself a moral position, but my response is: a journalist makes it the only moral position. The obligation to reporting truth to others has primacy over all other values. In everyday work and decisions, the journalist has to have that in mind. I do not think that subject of the article you posted was acting in accordance with that ideal. His work may be considered some lesser form of journalism, or better yet, activism that borrows from the methodology of journalism. But it’s not good journalism, from my understanding.
JESSE: I think the contract analogy makes sense. And in the end I guess I’m expressing a desire for more activist-journalism (noun-phrase), and mistakenly trying to incorporate that into the definition of pure journalism.
I think over my time with The Lamron I began to be frustrated by what you describe as the utilitarian streak of journalism present in the contract analogy you so poignantly described, even as I so whole-heartedly embraced it when I began. But I do think that society as a whole needs both pure journalists and “activist-journalists,” just like I think the higher education community needs both purely disinterested professors and “activist-professors.” I guess that at the moment I just happen to prefer the latter in both cases.
JULIE: I actually couldn’t agree/sympathize with you more. But in my time with and apart from The Lamron, I’ve learned that the definition and profession of journalism is so muddled that I think it’s really important to draw distinctions between a journalist and your crafty ‘activist-journalist’ (journivist? actournist? …) There is a lot of “journalism” that isn’t journalism. And there are parts about non-journalism that I yearn for, too, both as a member of society and as a journalist. Cheers to thinking about this stuff. I’m highly anticipating other Lamronites weighing in, but I surmise that this thread might be as dead as an editorial discussion on a Tuesday night at 11 p.m. *cue chorus of peepers*
I think our words speak for themselves but I will leave you with just one more thing, because it’s my blog and I get to put the nail in the coffin:
The best, more genuine call of action is the actionable statement that doesn’t ask you to do anything, but makes it impossible for you to do anything but take action.