Yesterday at the conference, I attended a journalism talk featuring some great panelists* that I nonetheless found sort of troublesome. The real problem was that all of the panelists tacitly accepted a rather odd premise: that there exists this dichotomy between objective journalism and partisan journalism. If you’re not doing one, you’re doing the other.
But it seems to me that partisan journalism would be just as bad as objective journalism, because “partisan” implies that the journalist in question is playing for a team. Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, it suggests the journalistic project involves catering to the prefabricated ideological leanings of your audience and professional community.
If you want to see what’s wrong with partisan journalism, look no further than the final speaker of CPNC Day 1: Paul Begala (pictured, right). Begala might be a perfectly good guy, but he’s a professional who has some pretty perverse incentives. He used to be a Democratic strategist, but now his job is to sell books and boost ratings, which he does by filling a niche as The Democrat on CNN talk shows. The way to fill that niche, and do it well, isn’t to offer honest, original insight—it’s to regurgitate DNC talking points in a reasonably entertaining fashion. And that’s pretty much what he did at CPNC, rocking us young liberals gently to sleep with some soothing lullabies about how FOX News is the Great Satan and we’re all so smart and awesome.
Ironically** a journalism ecosphere that blended that form of commentary with straight reporting as a matter of course would produce a lot of the same problems as the current model. We would continue to get “both sides” of a story, and any take on current events that did not lie somewhere in that continuum of acceptable discourse would be neglected. (If you want to see why that’s a problem, think back to 2003, when the bipartisan consensus was that a vote against the Iraq War was a vote for Islamocommunazism.) Even if major media outlets were more closely identified with movements instead of parties (sort of like how The Nation is liberal but not capital-D Democratic, while FOX is very much capital-R Republican), you would wind up in an environment where they catered to those movements without offering a whole lot of challenging or useful internecine criticism.
Now to be fair, all the panelists were pretty good journalists, and I don’t think they were intentionally advocating that style of reporting. But I think the subtext of the conversation, to a certain extent, was that they were all batting for a team. And sure, that’s always going to be true, to an extent—I mean, I do it too—but I think we need to be very conscious of the fact that this will always be in tension with one of the fundamental responsibilities of a journalist: constant, vigilant skepticism. I may be a liberal in a liberal community with a primarily liberal audience, but I also need to recognize that the best way to serve that audience is by always making the effort to stand a little bit outside of it.
In other words, the hardest thing about being a journalist isn’t the aloneness. But it might very well be the struggle to achieve and sustain that aloneness when every fiber of your being resists.
**Or maybe not ironically? I don’t know. Shut up.