Does any media person in New York and Washington ever read any history? Viewed from the English side of the Atlantic, there is a weird debate going on in the United States over journalism and partisanship. Irrespective of the opinions, the really peculiar thing is that the disagreement is happening at all.
The electronic spying revelations made by Edward Snowden and reported by Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian have spawned a side-exchange of fire among American journalists in which Greenwald is accused of partisanship. His strong opinions, it is implied or said, disqualify him from the status of reporter and should place his stories under suspicion. This is poor logic and wilful ignorance of the past. Much better to ask: is this stuff true?
Jack Shafer, the inimitable US media critic, does read history and here he collects the American material to rebut the idea that you should or can have journalism without strong ideas and passions. Here also is an interview given by Nick Lemann reminding us that, once, all journalism was opinion.
I find the American discussion of this very odd to read, not least because I’ve been looking at what the changes of the last two decades (digital technology, the internet) do to journalism for a book which comes out in the UK and US in September. My perspective is more Anglo and European than the strictly stateside Greenwald debate, but the conclusion is the same. Journalism is not a branch of mechanical science.
You can try to define which journalism is good and why. You can try setting rules which dial the amount of opinion and stance up or down. But any definition of good journalism which tries entirely to rule out opinion, judgement and (following naturally from those two) partisanship won’t recognise reality. You can’t take clouds out of the sky and you can’t take the journalist’s view out of journalism. Apart from anything else, journalism involves selection. To select, you must think.
And it was always thus. The past may be another country but that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn anything useful from it. The first stirrings of journalism were messy, opinionated and scandalous; the material was stolen and hacked about, full of superstition, sensationalism, outright lies and arguments paid for in cash. It was polemic and passion, front to back.
OK, you may say, journalism could improve and it did. But in gradually acquiring more interest in disclosing new facts and ensuring that they were true, journalists in 19th century Europe and America still organised the facts with ideas, judgements and views. The strict separation of fact and comment – in print at least – became only a strict professional doctrine in the US and in the 20th century. The arguments which raged in Europe were not about whether points of view were legitimate but about whether or not they were open, declared and transparent. The argument goes on today – and it’s the more interesting one to have.