Islands in the Mire

Try to imagine, if you will, a person buried alive, growing desperately weak, fighting and struggling…

to reach up through the dirt in order to grab some nearby stones to pile on top of his grave.

That’s what watching the contemporary scene of mainstream journalism is like these days. Every day there’s some new bit of incremental suicide. Just take the last week. We had mainstream reporters taken by surprise because a reporter used access to a source in order to report the news rather than as an end in itself. I especially loved the TV journalist midway through this Jon Stewart segment who scolds Michael Stanley, saying that he won’t be given access to the same sources in the future. We had writers like Caitlin Flanagan continuing to write out their own mental hang-ups as if they were peer-reviewed social science and being given significant soapboxes by major press organizations to do so.

And we had David Weigel, resigning because in a listserv he expressed opinions about the people he covered.

Nobody wants the press to be objective. Demands for objectivity are the same as diving to the ground clutching your ankle in the World Cup: they’re meant to play the referee into calling a foul (or refusing to call one). What most readers want is a press that cares about the truth. This is not the same thing as objectivity. Most of the time it’s exactly the opposite, particularly when the truth is subtle, contradictory or ambiguous, as it often is. If I came across a reporter covering American politics who did not have pungent, strong opinions about the personal character of most of the people he was covering, I’d assume he was a dullard, incompetent, a zombie or an alien. Or some mixture of those.

A reporter who is interested in the truth is going to need to have the mental discipline to see issues from multiple angles, and to have a lack of ego when it counts, to have the ability to detach from their own customary or comfortable perspective. That also is not the same thing as objectivity, and it most certainly is not the lack of a customary perspective. Journalism is not compiled at the Vulcan Science Academy.

What reporters need is skill with the getting and processing of information and the ability to communicate what they’ve learned clearly, vividly and concisely. As far as I can see, that describes Weigel pretty well. But his bosses decided to act as if they were a bunch of Victorian spinsters getting the vapors at the sight of a man’s naked ankle because of his public comments, when they’ve very evidently tolerated (even welcomed) reportage and commentary with vastly more contempt for truthful inquiry, simply because its author didn’t slip up and reveal his or her axe-grinding enslavement to some spinner’s brand in a public comment.

Right, I know, here comes the usual recital of past Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporting that we’re supposed to be so eternally grateful for that we imagine that those few islands of dedication justify an endless swampy expanse of hackery. No matter how pretty those verdant outposts are, they can’t hide the stench of decay from the surroundings.

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