WikiLeaks and Glenn Beck show that journalism is becoming more influential—but also more reductive.

Stories from the Financial Times. 
Jan. 8 2011 5:41 AM

The New Power of the Press

WikiLeaks and Glenn Beck show that journalism is becoming more influential—but also more reductive.

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In the past year, journalism, which in the West sees itself as beset by decline, has vastly increased its power. Three large developments have made the implicit, yet huge, claim that journalism, our way of knowing what is happening in our complex world, is essentially a matter of competing high-decibel political dispute and total transparency.

Taken together, these developments—the takeover of U.S. politics by the broadcast media; the revelations about governments around the world from the WikiLeaks Web site, and the Daily Telegraph exposé of business secretary Vince Cable's true feelings about the UK coalition government—ensured that the media ended the year with large victories over politics and politicians. What's more, all three were claimed in the public interest. Yet it could as easily be said that they were morally indefensible. At the very least, each demonstrated that the line between public interest and moral indefensibility is thin and getting thinner.

These journalistic innovations are seen by their champions as greatly expanding the scope and power of journalism. This is correct. But they can also be seen as three great reducers; each reducing the worlds it describes to simple formulas and ignoring a complexity that journalism, by its nature, already struggles to capture. What are the effects of these new sources of power? And can such power, used in such a way, really be said to be in the public interest?

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Journalism began to exert real power from the mid-19th century and from the first its ethics were held in low regard. Fictional representations, such as those found in Charles Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-1844) and Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now (1875) were particularly scathing. Its ethical norms, fraught at the best of times, were and are most tested in its coverage of politics and politicians, subjects that lie at the core of the democratic mission it claims for itself. The two professions were bound to clash. They fish in the same pond, civil society, for the same fish—called voters by politicians, the audience by the media. Both now also fight, with increasing intensity, for the right to define the public interest.

The public interest is often defined as that which aids the citizen to be more fully a citizen—from information on votes cast and public money spent to revelations of state or corporate corruption. In more than 30 years of journalism, mostly for this paper, I've seen this concept develop; from a view that ferreting out as much information as possible was good for society (as well as for one's career), to one framed in much more aggressive and polemical terms. In the labour and industrial correspondents group of the 1980s—a club of reporters covering British industrial relations and policies—three of my colleagues were Peter Hitchens, Trevor Kavanagh and Richard Littlejohn. As their careers moved from reporting to comment, each developed popular, highly charged newspaper columns that worked best when skewering ministers and other public officials, generally of the left. Their opinions expressed a depth of contempt that, in modern times at least, was unprecedented. But they became models to be followed.

During this period, investigative journalism became in some hands—John Pilger's in the U.K. and Michael Moore's in the U.S.—not just revelation but condemnation. I was at a meeting of Guardian journalists when a distinguished investigative reporter, with a record of revelations that on any criteria were in the public interest, argued that British parliamentarians should, in principle, be regarded with suspicion. The public interest has, more and more, come to be defined as that which can be shown to damage public figures.

The first of last year's great reducers did not begin its work in 2010 but did reach a kind of apogee then. In the U.S., a journalism of extreme polemics has, under the heading of free speech, progressively built broadcasters such as Glenn Beck and Jon Stewart into major political figures. Political discussions for broadcast, once characterised by polite if insistent interviewing, developed under ratings pressure into a forum in which "shock jock" presenters would encourage guests into frenzied mutual denunciation.

In August last year, Glenn Beck, the most prominent of the rightwing talk-show hosts on Fox News, organised a "Restoring Honour" rally in Washington for his followers, aimed at reviving pride in America and its values. In October, Jon Stewart, liberal comedian and host of The Daily Show, organised a "Rally to Restore Sanity" as a counter to Beck. The interventions by these two contrasting media figures into the nation's capital, still the world's most potent political centre, made for a quite unsubtle joint statement: these broadcasters, more than the parties or the leading politicians, perhaps even more than the president, represented the masses and their interests.