What Are Journalists For?

He Jests at Scars ...
New books dissected over email.
Jan. 5 2000 1:53 PM

What Are Journalists For?

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Dear Jack,

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The thing I find most disheartening about Rosen's book is probably best summed up by an oft-used Shakespeare line: "He jests at scars that never felt a wound." That is: Rosen's writing and thinking betrays almost no familiarity with what is actually required to produce good journalism. He criticizes reporters (mostly political reporters) who maintain that an adversarial relationship with government is healthy, believing instead that some fabled cooperation with civic groups would be better.

But what about when the adversarial relationship comes from government itself? Here's one example from my backyard: Shortly after taking office, the Giuliani administration in New York began stonewalling the most routine media requests for information. In one instance, a department denied a request by the New York Daily News, made under the local Freedom of Information law, for a list of all investigations commenced by an agency in the previous year. Just a list--as had been provided by every previous administration in recent memory.

What're the reporter and city editor supposed to do? Go to the publisher, and hope that the relationship will be healed through some kind of feel-good civic project between the paper and the mayor? Given the politically corrupt relationship that exists between the News' publisher and the mayor, that'd be the worst possible journalistic outcome. To its credit, the Daily News sued, and only under court order did the administration provide the information as it was legally required to provide.

That's an ugly and uncivil process, but it's also, under the circumstances, the best way to serve the public interest. Rosen's worldview is so far removed from actual journalistic practice that it can't even imagine such a scenario, much less grasp its importance.

I'll conclude by trying to give an answer to the book's title question. One thing that journalists should be for is independence. In my view, that doesn't require "objectivity" or neutrality or being boring or being good citizens--though it doesn't preclude any of those things either. It means simply that the task of gathering and presenting news must be kept as separate as humanly possible from pretty much everything: government, interest groups, and the publisher's own business plans. Rosen's book demonstrates so little understanding of that core journalistic value that it paints itself out of the picture.

Best,
Jim

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This week, a discussion of Jay Rosen's
What Are Journalists For? (click here to buy it). James Ledbetter is the New York bureau chief of theIndustry Standard. Jack Shafer is the deputy editor of Slate.

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