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A Plea to All Journalists

Posted: 2006-10-26

This essay comes from: Local Man (a blog) by Doug McGill .

Comments from Annie: This essay has captured the ethical imperative of honesty. And in this New Age of New Journalism and New Media, we are all part of a news dialogue. The readers and contributors to Susan's website are part of a dialogue that excludes political, religious, or commercial stakes or backing. A benefit of participating here is the opportunity to experience a community and perhaps as an offshoot invest that strength tenfold in facilitating change.

Doug McGill is an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota and a blogger at McGillReport.org.

October 24, 2006

A Plea to All Journalists

All of you journalists who are reading me for the first time and feeling the sap of anger rise (I know from emails that some of you feel that way), please hold your fire. At least for a little bit.

Hear me out.

I sound to some of you, I know, like a sanctimonious jerk who?s ignoring all the great journalism that?s being done today, and the courageous journalists who are doing this work day after day, including at places like The New York Times (my alma mater) and other mainstream news citadels.

I acknowledge all of this great journalism. I deeply bow to it and I try to follow it -- and the courageous journalists who make it -- as personal and professional models. Here?s all I am saying: the overall system of journalism today, including not only (or primarily) newspapers but all mainstream TV and radio and print news media, is basically busted and, in a critical way, corrupt.

So much of our journalism is corrupt because it's forgotten its essential social purpose and mission, and now usually serves primarily commercial instead of civic aims. And this corrupted journalism, which is most deeply rotten perhaps in television but is by no means limited to that medium, is itself making our country toxic and is leading our country to unimaginable disaster.

If you disagree with this diagnosis, I sincerely ask you to explain to me almost all the hallowed and supposedly autonomous institutions of journalism ? especially our best newspapers where many distinguished journalists ply their tough and honorable trade -- cheered and bascially held the petticoats of our mendacious leaders as they marched us into the new Vietnam that is Iraq?

And how does it happen that in recent weeks -- during which time it has become abundantly clear that Iraq is engulfed in a bloody civil war and that the U.S. government leaders who are prosecuting this war are reckless and petty and incompetent ? how does it happen that the new press spokesman for this same government is having one after another fawning feature profile published about him by the White House correspondents of our nation?s great newspapers?

Are you, my friends, really going to argue that these weightless, starstruck, fawning profiles of Tony Snow are not essentially early bids by White House correspondents to gain favor and access with him, and through him to his boss? Are you really going to maintain that these pieces were written to expose the honest truth as their writers knew the truth, and not primarily to advance the personal careers of those writers by keeping themselves and their employers close to power?

Isn?t the time to end these games? Come on, my friends, I'm all for using BS when we absolutely need to. But please let?s not BS ourselves and each other. Let's just not do it.

If our president and his henchmen aren't going to be grownups who face their own selves honestly and act for the public good at whatever the personal cost, let's at least do so ourselves. Let's at least try. Let's try for the sake of our profession, our country, our souls, and for the lives of those we love.

What do we have to lose?

If we win at our personal career and competitive games but we lose the overall war -- which is not to gain "victory in Iraq" but to win back our lost friends in the world and to make some headway against a range of economic, environmental, health, and global terrorist threats -- what have we won?

If we think about it for a minute, we might ask what it really means that we base the stories we write, and how we write them, on personal career calculations when we write about government power.

When we do that aren?t we selling out our country, which needs us tell the truth?

If we delay telling the truth now in exchange for access which, we might rationalize, will give us the chance to tell even greater truths tomorrow, aren?t we basically selling out our country that desperately needs us to tell the truth right now? Our country needs the truth right now, because we are at war.

We can tell ourselves that the closer we are to the President of the United States, the better we'll be able to tell the truth of what happens inside his charmed, or damned, oval. But that's a mug's game and we know it. And the President knows it and uses it, and so do any number of powerful figures who use access like the stuffed rabbit at the dog races.

We all know the dog never catches the rabbit.

So why should we chase it?

Or, we might simply consider the means-and-ends ethics involved in game. The idea that might tempt us is that retailing untruths and deceptions, ultimately we'll reach the truth. But what makes us think this strategy would even work? When was the last time that being obsequious and disengenuous and fawning won us any respect, or anything of lasting worth?

Or, we could just do some math.

Let's say that on some magic day, say in six months or a year, that the magic day comes and we get our absolute access to power's inner sanctum, and we score a great professional coup. By that time, the way things are going in Iraq, there could be another few tens of thousands of deaths of Iraqis and Americans, and countless more maimings.

On what grounds can we morally wait before publishing the full truth?

Let's imagine that one day we decided just to tell the truth, and we got kicked out of the White House press corps (or name your inner sanctum of power). Tony Snow wouldn?t be our best friend any more. We might even get busted back to the metro desk, or even to the obit desk, on our own paper.

Well, who knows, in some way that move in itself could actually make our careers. I'll bet it's what we'd want carved on our tombstones, when all is said and done. And from that day onwards, we could base our journalism on reporting and writing the truth, and let the cards fall where they may.

Stephen Crane once upon a time did that. So did Ida Wells, Hutchins Hapgood, Jacob Riis, Nellie Bly, and Lincoln Steffens; and Robert Capa and W. Eugene Smith and James Nachtwey; and David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan and Jessica Mitford and Rachel Carson; and Gao Yu and Christine Anyanwu and Anna Politkovsakaya; and so many others.

Right in our White House press room seats, or wherever we happen to sit as journalists, why don?t we muster the guts of an Anna Politkovsakaya? Write the truth and let the chips fall where they may.

What have we got to lose?


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