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The future of journalism: ‘Take a Stand’

By Eric Black but really by Brent Cunningham
If you would like to spare yourself a bunch of hazy, crazy soliloquizing by me, you can skip everything below and just read “Take a Stand,” a smart, brave piece by Brent Cunningham, managing editor of th

If you would like to spare yourself a bunch of hazy, crazy soliloquizing by me, you can skip everything below and just follow this link. It goes to “Take a Stand,” a smart, brave piece by Brent Cunningham, managing editor of the esteemed Columbia Journalism Review. Cunningham posits what he calls a new “way forward,” basically a new mission and a new attitude, for mainstream journalism.

(CJR, for reasons you can imagine, no longer puts all of its content online right away, and this piece isn’t up yet. But I obtained permission to post this version of it.)

Cunningham starts with a critique of “reactive” journalism (writing about things that have “happened,” often orchestrated, sometimes not), and calls for journalism to perform “other, more important roles; investigator, explainer, and, I would add, arbiter of our national conversation.”

Cunningham thinks there is a way for journalists to do this without being so ideological that they lose credibility and whatever is left of a reputation for fairness and open-mindedness. I’m not so sure. Fairness is in the eye of the beholder and I am skeptical whether the more polarized portions of the audience would accept an “arbiter” who didn’t come down on their side in disputed matters. But I also think that, as with the U.S. health care system, the status quo of traditional U.S. journalism is not an option.

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Sections of the Cunningham piece had me cheering in my easy chair because it spoke to some of the reasons that I write here now, instead of the Strib where I scribbled for 30 mostly happy years.

Over the last few of those years I felt more and more imprisoned by what I call the norms of journalism, especially the mega-norm of objectivity.

Objectivity in journalism sounds like a noble goal. The more reflective among the craft acknowledge that it can’t be achieved, but tend to say that in striving for it, the best, fairest and most credible work will be done.

I’m no longer on board that train for reasons that I’ll hint at below, (but try to stop before I am fully foaming at the mouth).

Problems with objectivity

In the last of those reaching-for-the-unreachable-star years at the paper (that’s a “Man of LaMancha” reference by the way), I felt that trying to preserve the illusion of objectivity was:

1. Not really fooling anyone; and

2. Used as an excuse for journalism that was timid, formulaic and borderline dishonest.

There’s a longer list that I’ll save for another day. But I’ll just tarry a moment on that last word, “dishonest,” and try to use it to illustrate a few of the issues that pushed me off the objectivity train.

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The vast majority of what is written in newspapers under the old model is technically accurate, in a cramped sense that feels safe to those steeped in the journo-norms, but is sometimes well short of truth or honesty. (You’ll find that journalists are a lot more comfortable with a vocabulary about “accuracy” than one about “honesty.”)

For example: You cover a public appearance by a certified newsmaker, let’s say an elected official. Official says something that’s in the vast grey area between really true and really false. (A huge portion is in this area.) Reporter can quote the grey material and leave it at that. It’s “accurate” in the sense that the official spoke the words. You can also leave the quote out. A journalist has tremendous discretionary power over such matters, which is one reason that the objectivity model won’t get you very far.  There is no reliable scientific or even convincing pseudo-scientific method of deciding what goes in and what comes out. Leaving the half-truth out is the path of least resistance and will probably cause the whole process to go more smoothly. (Note the word “timid” in No. 2 above.)

You can also quote the half-truth and then dissect it a bit, emphasizing the half-truthiness of it. (You may be able to quote an expert or a document so that the judgment of half-truthiness doesn’t seem to be coming from you.) Many journalists are doing more and more of this kind of truth-squadding. That’s a good thing and, in my view, the more the better. It’s a step in the direction of Cunningham calls “arbiter of our national conversation.”

We can never, for reasons of time and space limitations (among other reasons), truth squad every important half-truth. So you are back to that discretionary power. But once you exercise it — since it is clearly an act of discretion — it was a choice you made and you are accountable for it. And you will soon very likely be accused of tipping your bias by truth-squadding this statement by this speaker when you failed to truth-squad that statement by that speaker (presumably from the other party).

Plenty of smarter, braver journalists than me have navigated these thickets with skill and fortitude, and plenty of good work has been published within the constraints of the norms. But for me, ultimately, I had to get out of the constraints to do work about which I could feel more consistently OK.

That’s still a work in progress. But here, on MinnPost, if I chicken out on writing the most honest story I can, I can blame only my own lack of intestinal fortitude.

OK, end of me soliloquizing. I did call Cunningham and told him of my skepticism that a journalist as self-appointed arbiter would be accepted as fair by those who disagreed with the ruling. His reply:

“Yes, surely, there are diehard ideologues on the right or left who are unreachable from somewhere between those poles. But the audience in the middle is the one worth going for.”

‘Painful change’

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Here, for those who don’t click through to the whole piece, are a few of the passages of the Cunningham piece that got me jazzed:

“American journalism, too, is in a protracted moment of painful change. Both its business model and its sense of mission are in full retreat. Much experimentation is under way, with different financial-support structures, narrowereditorial missions, collaborative projects, etc. There is an urgency, a humility, at news outlets about the need to rethink things that is long overdue. So the press needs a new mission, and the nation needs someone to help initiate and lead the discussion of what kind of place America will be in the twenty-first century. It is not at all clear that our best news outlets have the will to become true arbiters of our public discourse, but given the increasing inadequacy of the journalistic status quo, and the nature of the challenges facing the country, such a mission shift could offer a crucial way forward for both the press and the public.

“For the press to lead that discussion will require that it make a form of dissent more central to its mission. Not the tedious dissent of partisan rhetoric, but rather dissent in the sense of refusing to accept that the range of possible solutions to the nation’s problems must necessarily come from the centers of power and influence — the White House, Congress, the think tanks, corporate America. As we have seen time and again — on issues like campaign finance, health care, agricultural policy, and social welfare — these institutions are too wedded to the status quo to lead a discussion that is broad and fearless enough to challenge the systems and assumptions that shape America’s politics, its economics, and its civic and social life.

“Such a mission would mean radically realigning a newsroom’s resources and priorities toward the goal of broadening the discourse on important issues — even if it required narrowing the scope of what it covers. The press would have to pay less attention, for instance, to breaking, event-driven news and more to sustained coverage of ideas and — crucially — solutions. It would have to stop reflexively marginalizing ideas and voices that come from the fringes simply because no one ‘official’ is embracing them. It would have to rekindle the notion that journalism is not just a check on power, but, when necessary, its adversary. It would have to crusade for some things, and denounce others. News outlets would have to explain themselves and their decisions, and be clear about what they stand for and what they stand against.”

Here’s the section where Cunningham suggests a possibility that I’m not so confident is possible, especially at the level of audience perception:

“There is a way to lead the conversation without being politically partisan — to initiate the debate, shepherd it, report out the various positions, ideas, and arguments; to reach conclusions based on the understanding and expertise that are developed in this process, about what ideas and policies make the most sense for the collective good. Then make those ideas and policies, and the assumptions that support them, dominant narratives in the day-to-day coverage. Through it all, let the public see how those conclusions were reached.”

Here’s where Cunningham seems to be smoking whatever I’m smoking on the objectivity norms:

“The pursuit of objectivity has become a trap that sets the best-intentioned reporters and editors up for the failures of false balance and he said-she said story frames. Furthermore, it allows demagogues on the right and the left to dismiss the press as hopelessly biased when it fails to achieve ‘objectivity.’ The homogeneity of the mostly white, middle- and upper-middle-class decision-makers in our newsrooms, meanwhile, coupled with the offend-no-one ethos of their corporate managers, have smothered (publicly, at least) the kind of outrage that one should expect in the face of betrayals of public trust — such as the one on display in our current financial crisis.”

Here’s where Cunningham dares journalism to stop being mau-maued by its critics:

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“In other words, journalism would need to begin to change the narrative about itself. It is a narrative that has been created by the press’s own failures, its arrogance and shortsightedness, but also by a forty-year campaign by segments of the political right to vilify the press as a ‘liberal’ cabal, and a more recent and less coordinated effort by elements on the left to portray it as a corporate stooge.”