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Activism undermines journalism

Instapundit points to Amit Varma's observation about Journalism:

I'm one of those who takes the dharma of being a journalist seriously, believing that the vocation brings with it certain responsibilities ? but I don't think activism is one of them. The practical argument for that is that if all journalists took up activism for the causes they believed in, the good ones would eventually have no time left to actually write. More importantly, I believe that the function journalists ideally perform, of providing information and insight, is too important to be diluted by anything.

Job specialization is the hallmark of the last several hundred years. The journalist's specialized job is to distill "publick occurences"1 for readers.

Readers trust editing -- the facts journalists select, the words they choose, and the narrative they compose -- to be as fair a representation of circumstances as if the reader had served in the journalist's place. That is important because news is used for decision-making. News modifies the reader's mental map of reality. People don't keep reality in their head, just a map of it. That mental map is the only tool people have to plan their better future.

The handicap of news is that, as a distillation, it warps reality the way a magnifying glass sharpens what it focuses on at the expense of distorting it relative to what surrounds it.


Journalists who engage in activism assume to themselves responsibilities that belong to the reader: "Not only am I going to give you the 'facts', I'm going to make your decisions for you." The activist journalist presumes to know all the relevant detail in all the different maps of reality of every unique reader in an arrogance of excessive self-pride and self-confidence matched only by the journalist's contempt for the reader.2

Journalists crash on the rocky shoals of hubris whenever they are overtaken by siren-song phrases like "The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable", which was purloined, paraphrased, and mischaracterized from Finley Peter Dunne a hundred years ago. Telling a story is one thing, but perspective, proportion and context are everything.

Ultimately, journalist isn't a title. Journalist is an earned accolade, earned after the fact and earned afresh every day. I instruct new reporters and editors on their first day on the job to, "Write so that tomorrow you can look back on what you wrote today and feel proud about what you have done."

1 Publick Occurences was the first unrestricted newsppaper of the American colonies, published in Boston in 1690. Publication was stopped by the British after one issue.

2 That is the definition of HUBRIS. A related characteristic, HAMARTIAis a "term from Greek tragedy that literally means "missing the mark." Originally applied to an archer who misses the target, a hamartia came to signify a tragic flaw, especially a misperception, a lack of some important insight, or some blindness that ironically results from one's own strengths and abilities." For some reason, CBS Network News anchor Dan Rather and Memogate comes to mind, but CNN anchor Lou Dobbs runs a close second with his simplistic hammering at outsourcing without considering insourcing or other fungible transactions.


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This page was last updated: Tuesday, January 18, 2005 at 9:45:58 PM
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