In this opinion site, I often take shots at PostMedia dailies for failures to contribute intelligently to a broad discussion of community issues. The conduit between the Fraser Institute and the Vancouver Sun – a channel for both ideas and people loyal to those ideas – clearly illustrates the Sun’s aims and motivations. I read online newspapers from around the English speaking world and there remain some very good ones and there is a decent chain in the USA – The McClatchy Company.
McClatchy’s Washington bureau chief John Walcott delivered a speech in 2008 while accepting the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence from the Nieman Foundation. Walcott made interesting statements:
…the skeptical reporter that remains in me, even after 19 years as an editor. . . .it was at the heart of who I.F. Stone was, what his legacy to us is and what’s been missing in American journalism in recent years, not just in the coverage of the Bush administration’s case for war in Iraq, but also in our coverage of the Wall Street machinations, congressional abdications and regulatory alterations that have brought our economy and the well-being of so many Americans to the present precipice.
I.F. Stone wrote that he was “an independent capitalist, the owner of my own enterprise, subject to neither mortgager, factor or patron … beholden to no one but my good readers.”
Not once — not one time — has [McClatchy’s newspaper management] second-guessed our editorial decisions or our stories, even when bigger and better known news organizations were reporting the opposite. Not once has either of them bent to any political or economic pressures or let any of the heat that they’ve taken trickle down to us.
…we sought out the dissidents, and we listened to them, instead of serving as stenographers to high-ranking officials…
Power and money and celebrity can blind you. Somehow, the idea has taken hold in journalism that the value of a source is directly proportional to his or her rank, when in my experience the relationship is more often inverse.
Instead of being members of the Fourth Estate, too many reporters have been itching to move up an estate or two…
Being an outsider, a gadfly, a muckracker, isn’t always as much fun as being an insider, a celebrity journalist on TV and the lecture circuit. Worse, in these troubled economic times for the news media, it makes enemies, sometimes powerful ones, and it can offend readers, advertisers — and, as conditions in our business continue to worsen — potential employers in public relations and other industries.
There was simple laziness: Much of what the Bush administration said, especially about Iraq and al Qaida, made no sense, yet very few reporters bothered to check it out. They were stenographers; they were not reporters. . . very few reporters checked out their stories, and too many just ran with what they were handed. Instead, they handed bullhorns to people who already had megaphones.
Harry G. Frankfurt, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Princeton, puts it this way in a marvelous little book called, “On Truth” (which is the sequel to “On Bullshit”): “It seems ever more clear to me that higher levels of civilization must depend even more heavily on a conscientious respect for the importance of honesty and clarity in reporting the facts, and on a stubborn concern for accuracy in determining what the facts are.”
That is what I.F. Stone always sought to do, and I think it’s what journalists should always strive to do. If, in the short run, doing so seems costly, I think we’ve all seen, in Iraq, in Afghanistan and now on Wall Street and on Main Street, that the costs of not doing so are far greater.
I believe that most long time Vancouver journalists and quasi-journalists lack the courage of I.F. Stone and choose to be blind to valid criticisms of their work, blinded by power, money and celebrity. They have arrogance that seems to preclude honest self-evaluation.
Can anyone visualize any British Columbia newspaper people making a speech like that of John Walcott? Could you imagine an editor of the Vancouver Sun or Province or political columnists like Vaughn Palmer, Mike Smyth or Keith Baldrey?
There is a great piece by newly retired LA Times writer Mark Heisler at Truthdig. Titled Confessions of a Dead Tribune, it includes this, which describes the bargains still-employed journalists make to survive in today’s mainstream media,
“Of course, I’ll miss it. At least, I’ll miss the guys and dolls in the department and being “Mark Heisler of the Los Angeles Times.”
“Otherwise, it was harder to work there daily, as if Someone Up There was saying, “You’re lucky you’re still here—and here’s what else you’ll have to do to stay.”
“Of course, that Someone Up There had Someone Even Higher, telling him the same thing.
“Unfortunately, compromising what we did was so entrenched as a way of life, we barely remembered things were ever different, while learning we would be making new, bigger compromises.
“(Zell and the New Wave had a term for remembering, or clinging to what we had been taught were the principles underlying everything we did: “journalistic arrogance.”)
Heisler does not say it but his is a sad ending, faced by so many formerly fine journalists.