Commentary Magazine


Topic: journalism

Scott Walker’s Reagan-Nixon Test

The brouhaha over the latest ambush interview of Scott Walker hadn’t even finished before the Wisconsin governor got some very good news that diminished the importance of some of his latest slipups with the press. The Quinnipiac University poll of Iowa Republicans published today showed Walker with an astonishing 12 percentage point lead over his nearest competitor among fellow Republican presidential hopefuls. But with success in a presidential race comes scrutiny, and Walker has been getting a lot of from sources that do not share the enthusiasm for his policies that exist among a broad spectrum of potential GOP voters. Though he’s polling well, his less-than-sparkling performance when grilled by liberal journalists about such ridiculous topics as evolution and whether President Obama is a Christian shows that he’s not only got a lot to learn about being a presidential candidate. The reaction to these stories also shows that he has a choice to make about what kind of a Republican he wants to be: Ronald Reagan or Richard Nixon?

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The brouhaha over the latest ambush interview of Scott Walker hadn’t even finished before the Wisconsin governor got some very good news that diminished the importance of some of his latest slipups with the press. The Quinnipiac University poll of Iowa Republicans published today showed Walker with an astonishing 12 percentage point lead over his nearest competitor among fellow Republican presidential hopefuls. But with success in a presidential race comes scrutiny, and Walker has been getting a lot of from sources that do not share the enthusiasm for his policies that exist among a broad spectrum of potential GOP voters. Though he’s polling well, his less-than-sparkling performance when grilled by liberal journalists about such ridiculous topics as evolution and whether President Obama is a Christian shows that he’s not only got a lot to learn about being a presidential candidate. The reaction to these stories also shows that he has a choice to make about what kind of a Republican he wants to be: Ronald Reagan or Richard Nixon?

With more than 11 months to go before they vote, nobody in Walker’s camp should be celebrating yet. But his streak to the top of the GOP field after a remarkably successful couple of months promoting his prospective candidacy should cause those anointing Jeb Bush as the overwhelming favorite and frontrunner to start hedging their bets. As I’ve written here before, Walker’s fights against union thugs and their Democratic enablers in Wisconsin made him a folk hero to Tea Partiers and other conservatives while his strong record of both electoral success and good governance along with a positive persona and commonsense approach to economics has endeared him to establishment Republicans too. His humble background also makes him attractive to a party that should have learned that nominating millionaires isn’t the way to shed their image as the party of the rich.

But nobody gets to be president without going through the gauntlet of intense press scrutiny that is part of any national campaign. No matter what you’ve gone through on a state level—even in a purple/blue state like Wisconsin—it doesn’t compare to playing in the big leagues of presidential politics. Walker has gotten a taste of that in the last month as he’s found himself being quizzed about topics that have no relevance to the presidential race. His fumbles when faced with these absurd questions became fodder for the national press that viewed his equivocations about Darwin’s theory and the president’s faith to be proof that he was either a troglodyte fool or an incompetent bungler waiting to be taken down by a ravenous liberal media much in the manner that an unprepared Sarah Palin was felled during the 2008 campaign.

But Walker isn’t taking any of this lying down and he has reportedly used these questions to help fuel his fundraising by asking supporters whether they are going to let the liberal media crucify him over nonsense. Some conservative writers agree. Over at the National Review, Charles Cooke writes that rather than Walker being wrong-footed, it was the media that was embarrassing itself by trying to make a meal out of such inconsequential stuff.

But as much as I sympathize with Walker, I find myself more in agreement with veteran media writer Jack Shafer who points out in a Politico magazine article that what he is going through is par for the course for any presidential candidate, liberal or conservative. Shafer’s right. The “gotcha” journalism Walker and his supporters are denouncing is as old as American democracy. But even if we concede, as we should, that conservatives face a higher bar than liberals and that the bias of the press ensures that they will focus more on trying to make candidates like Walker look stupid, that doesn’t absolve the governor of his obligation to rise above this test and to even turn it to his advantage.

Like it or not, every Republican has the same choice when faced with a biased liberal mainstream media. They can rage at the media or they can rise above it.

There is some advantage to running against the liberal press, as doing so is sure to engender sympathy with the conservative base. Sarah Palin has retained a large following, albeit not large enough to ever cause her to risk her niche as a political celebrity by facing the voters again, by doing just that.

But Republicans who want to win need to emulate Ronald Reagan’s example and smile and shrug off the brickbats hurled at him by liberal journalists. A similarly good-natured George W. Bush did the same for as long as he could until the backwash of the Iraq War and the 2008 economic collapse overwhelmed him.

Instead, all too many conservatives opt for the Richard Nixon approach to the media, labeling them as enemies and snarling defensively at their attempts to trip them up.

The point is, the best way to deal with “gotcha” journalism is not to harp on the stupid questions you’re asked but to simply answer them in ways that don’t provide your opponents with juicy sound bites. The fault lies not in the press for asking Walker to give them some good material but with the governor for stumbling over questions that could be answered easily without saying something dumb or embarrassing. If Walker is going to be undone by a few easy questions now, how is he going to handle even worse as the campaign heats up?

Scott Walker has shown that he has the talent to win tough races and to be undaunted by liberal press. That’s part of what makes him such an attractive presidential candidate. But he won’t do it by whining about “gotcha” journalism. It’s time for him to be Reagan, not Nixon. If he can’t, his lead won’t last.

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Forget O’Reilly, Fox Is Still the Real Target

When you host the most-watched cable news show and do it on the Fox News Channel, you’ve got to expect your share of brickbats from the left. So it was not terribly surprising that in the wake of the Brian Williams scandal, some on the left would seek to take down someone on the right, especially one of the stars of the dominant cable news channel that liberals love to hate. But as much as the commentary about this non-scandal that is being hyped as one has understandably revolved around Bill O’Reilly and his incendiary personality, it has little to do with him and everything to do with the antagonism that the left feels toward his network.

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When you host the most-watched cable news show and do it on the Fox News Channel, you’ve got to expect your share of brickbats from the left. So it was not terribly surprising that in the wake of the Brian Williams scandal, some on the left would seek to take down someone on the right, especially one of the stars of the dominant cable news channel that liberals love to hate. But as much as the commentary about this non-scandal that is being hyped as one has understandably revolved around Bill O’Reilly and his incendiary personality, it has little to do with him and everything to do with the antagonism that the left feels toward his network.

Despite the attention being lavished on this story by Fox rival CNN, there’s not all that much here to unwrap. The story published by Mother Jones magazine has an inflammatory headline comparing O’Reilly to Brian Williams, but even if you take the piece at face value—which is unjustified by its clear bias and use of innuendo—the comparison is pure hyperbole. There’s no dispute about O’Reilly being on the scene in Buenos Aires as riots convulsed Argentina as the Falklands War came to a disastrous end for that country. Nor is there are real dispute that those riots were violent and that people were shot there. The only possible point on which O’Reilly can be called out is whether reporting from Argentina can be termed “war reporting” or “combat” since he was not in the Falklands but rather on the Argentina home front.

It is, at best, a semantic point. Especially since there was no frontline war reporting going on as there were no journalists with the combatants. Perhaps it does count as an exaggeration of some sort. But surely O’Reilly is right when he says that he was sent to Buenos Aires to cover the war, not to do a travel feature. This was not frontline reportage but suffice it to say that when someone is shooting in your vicinity, it is entirely understandable if you think that feels like combat. Though reporting on the mayhem in that city as the country unraveled may not make him another Ernie Pyle or the moral equivalent of the late Michael Kelly or the other intrepid journalists who were embedded with U.S. troops during the invasion of Iraq, neither does it merit any comparisons with Williams or anyone else who embroidered stories out of whole cloth.

As for the claims that he exaggerated his experiences during the riots, there’s not much to this either. No one denies he was there in the thick of it during the riots. As O’Reilly said on Howard Kurtz’s Reliable Sources show yesterday on Fox, the prime witness against him there is former CBS colleague Eric Engberg, a longtime antagonist whom O’Reilly has already publicly accused of “bigfooting”—a practice by which big names parachute into a story that was reported by another journalist and take all the credit. As O’Reilly says, there’s no proof that Engberg was on the scene of the action which he now says was no big deal even though CBS ran O’Reilly’s footage. Taken in perspective, it’s obvious the sources of the attack on O’Reilly are more interested in settling scores with the abrasive host than in maintaining any sort of standard of journalism.

So as much as a lot of people would have been delighted to learn that O’Reilly’s claims about Argentina were faked, there’s not much smoke to this story, let alone fire. But what is interesting about the whole thing is the way CNN has latched on to it and reported it relentlessly as if it were another cop shooting a black youth in Ferguson, Missouri, even as the rest of the liberal mainstream media largely passed on it.

CNN’s motives here are as transparent as that of Engberg. It’s been a long time since CNN was the dominant cable news network. Currently Fox’s viewership in almost every hour of the day exceeds the combined audience of CNN and MSNBC. Their effort to take down the leading prime time host on FOX, even if his show is opinion rather than hard news like Williams’s NBC broadcast, shows how desperate the network is to destroy its rival.

As we have come to see, Fox isn’t just the most-watched cable news outlet. It is the scapegoat for all of the anger harbored by both liberal journalists and politicians toward those who question their policies. It is no accident that both President Obama and Attorney General Holder regularly use Fox as a punch line in their speeches to tame liberal audiences. It is not so much an antagonist as it often pursues negative story lines about the administration that mainstream liberals ignore as it is a metaphor for the Democrats’ inability to silence dissent against their beloved president or his policies.

Fox’s conservative bias is no secret, though it is far more balanced at times than the openly and almost uniformly left-wing voices heard on MSNBC and often fairer than the supposedly down-the-middle CNN. The channel’s popularity is a function of the fact that almost half the country feels disenfranchised by mainstream outlets that cover up their liberal tilt with a veneer of faux objectivity.

This motive wouldn’t protect O’Reilly if he was actually caught in a Williams-style lie. But he wasn’t, so the intense focus on him on CNN tells us more about liberal resentment than it does about his supposedly fast-and-loose style.

Perhaps O’Reilly would be better off just ignoring the attacks as pinpricks from a jealous rival. But it’s hard to blame him for defending his reputation, especially when characters like Engberg are concerned. But though his furious response may have given this story some extra life, all it really has done is give us another opportunity to ponder the left’s pointless Fox obsession.

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Public Trust in Media at an All-Time Low

According to the most recent Gallup survey:

Americans’ confidence in the media’s ability to report “the news fully, accurately, and fairly” has returned to its previous all-time low of 40%. Americans’ trust in mass media has generally been edging downward from higher levels in the late 1990s and the early 2000s.

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According to the most recent Gallup survey:

Americans’ confidence in the media’s ability to report “the news fully, accurately, and fairly” has returned to its previous all-time low of 40%. Americans’ trust in mass media has generally been edging downward from higher levels in the late 1990s and the early 2000s.

A few data points worth noting:

  • In the last 15 years, the percentage of Americans expressing a great deal or a fair amount of trust in the media was 55 percent. The drop in trust in the media has been trending downward since then — and is now 15 points below what it was in 1999.
  • Trust among Democrats, who have traditionally expressed much higher levels of confidence in the media than Republicans have, dropped to a 14-year low of 54 percent in 2014.
  • Republicans’ trust in the media is at 27 percent, one percentage point above their all-time low, while independents held steady at 38 percent — up one point from 37 percent in 2013.
  • Democrats — with a majority of 52 percent — are most likely to think the media are just about right, while a mere 18 percent of Republicans feel this way about the news. More than seven in 10 Republicans say the media are too liberal.
  • Americans are most likely to feel the news media are “too liberal” (44 percent) rather than “too conservative,” though this perceived liberal bias is now on the lower side of the trend. One in three (34 percent) say the media are “just about right” in terms of their coverage — down slightly from 37 percent last year.
  • Nearly one in five Americans (19 percent) say the media are too conservative, which is still relatively low, but the highest such percentage since 2006. This is up six points from 2013 — the sharpest increase in the percentage of Americans who feel the news skews too far right since Gallup began asking the question in 2001.

Gallup’s bottom line:

Though a sizable percentage of Americans continue to have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media, Americans’ overall trust in the Fourth Estate continues to be significantly lower now than it was 10 to 15 years ago.

As the media expand into new domains of news reporting via social media networks and new mobile technology, Americans may be growing disenchanted with what they consider “mainstream” news as they seek out their own personal veins of getting information… the overarching pattern of the past decade has shown few signs of slowing the decline of faith in mass media as a whole.

The declining trust in mass media is part of a broader trend in which confidence is down among many institutions, but most especially among our political institutions — media, Congress, the Democratic and Republican parties, and the presidency.

Much of the loss of trust is well earned, and so the task of leaders in these institutions is to take steps that restores credibility in them. There’s no quick or easy way to do this; if it happens it will be the product of responsible conduct and moments of real excellence, done consistently and over an extended period of time. Here’s to hoping that 2015 will mark the beginning of this vital project. Because I’m one of those conservatives who believes that the corrosive skepticism and cynicism we’re witnessing is harmful to us, to our trust in one another and to our confidence in America and the future.

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Journalists to Obama: Let Us Do Our Jobs

For a recent issue of the New York Times Magazine, outgoing White House press secretary Jay Carney sat for the magazine’s weekly interview feature. Since the American mainstream press can never stop talking about itself, the tough line of questioning of the interview concerned the Obama administration’s infamous war on leakers and shameless spying not only on journalists but on their parents. Carney had a revealing response.

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For a recent issue of the New York Times Magazine, outgoing White House press secretary Jay Carney sat for the magazine’s weekly interview feature. Since the American mainstream press can never stop talking about itself, the tough line of questioning of the interview concerned the Obama administration’s infamous war on leakers and shameless spying not only on journalists but on their parents. Carney had a revealing response.

Here’s the exchange:

One serious accusation that has come up throughout your tenure is that this is an Orwellian administration, the most secretive ever. I know — because I covered them — that this was said of Clinton and Bush, and it will probably be said of the next White House. I think a little perspective is useful. What I really reject — and would have rejected as a reporter covering this place — is this notion that whether a reporter is successfully doing his job depends on information he is being handed through the front door from the White House.

But won’t all these leak investigations produce a chilling effect? Len Downie [the former Washington Post editor] sat in this office as he was preparing a report about how we were producing a chilling effect, and I was able to take a copy of The Post and drop it on the table and point to yet another unbelievable national security leak. Reporters are still able to get stories and information that the administration clearly does not want them to have.

Carney has a point that such accusations are leveled at each administration. But notice his answer to the second question there. His rebuttal to the press taking offense at his boss’s attempts to prevent them from accessing information is that, hey, some stories are still getting through. In other words, the Obama administration’s information suppression isn’t perfect, and therefore isn’t objectionable. Come back to him when he’s put you completely out of business, and maybe you’ll have a point.

It’s kind of an amazing answer when you think about it. But it’s also completely characteristic of this administration. Carney was a journalist. And like most journalists, he went to work for President Obama. (That’s an exaggeration: most journalists may have wanted a job doing officially what they were doing unofficially–spinning shamelessly for Obama–but only a select couple dozen got the opportunity to fulfill their dream of silencing a free press and spouting robotic talking points.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Carney’s response–that sometimes news is occasionally produced despite Obama’s best efforts–has not convinced journalism groups. Via George Washington Professor Jonathan Turley, 38 such groups have sent Obama a joint letter of protest. They write:

You recently expressed concern that frustration in the country is breeding cynicism about democratic government. You need look no further than your own administration for a major source of that frustration – politically driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies. We call on you to take a stand to stop the spin and let the sunshine in.

Turley comments:

Once again, the White House has a virtually army of commenters and blog surfers who continually deflect such criticism by referring to how much worse the Republicans are or simply changing the subject. However, the mounting attacks on civil liberties by this Administration has gutted the foundational principles of the Democratic party and virtually destroyed the American civil liberties movement. What is left the power of personality over principle. However, this will not our last president. When he leaves, he will leave little in his wake beyond hypocrisy for those who have remained silent in the face of the abuses. It is the victory of the “blue state/red state” construct that maintain the duopoly of the two parties. Each party excuses its failures by referring to the other as the worst of two evils. For years, Democrats and liberals have supported Obama as he has attacked the defining values that were once the Democratic party. The fact that this letter is even necessary is a shocking statement on the state of American press freedom.

Turley makes an important point, not only about press freedom itself but by the partisan nature of excuse-making. We often play the game of “what if a Republican did this?” Well, barring an American metamorphosis into a one-party state, a Republican will at some point be in that position. Obama will have set a precedent in his at times ridiculously obsessive control of the news, and the Democrats will have not only enabled or defended it, but the left-leaning journalists among them will have been lining up for jobs to help them do so.

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Dan Rather’s Obsession

Dan Rather was once among the most powerful figures in American media. Which is why watching him today is a particularly poignant and painful thing. 

Consider Mr. Rather’s appearance with CNN’s Piers Morgan Monday night. When asked about the recent, erroneous Benghazi report on 60 Minutes that led to a leave of absence for reporter Lara Logan, Rather compared that story to the one that ruined his career:

“With our story, the one that led to our difficulty, no question the story was true. What the complaint… was ‘Okay, your story was true, but the way you got to the truth was flawed. The process was flawed.’ That’s not the case with the Benghazi story. Unfortunately, and there’s no joy in saying this, they were taken in by a man who was a fraud.”

Now for some context.

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Dan Rather was once among the most powerful figures in American media. Which is why watching him today is a particularly poignant and painful thing. 

Consider Mr. Rather’s appearance with CNN’s Piers Morgan Monday night. When asked about the recent, erroneous Benghazi report on 60 Minutes that led to a leave of absence for reporter Lara Logan, Rather compared that story to the one that ruined his career:

“With our story, the one that led to our difficulty, no question the story was true. What the complaint… was ‘Okay, your story was true, but the way you got to the truth was flawed. The process was flawed.’ That’s not the case with the Benghazi story. Unfortunately, and there’s no joy in saying this, they were taken in by a man who was a fraud.”

Now for some context.

Mr. Rather’s 44-year career at CBS (24 years of which he spent as the anchor of the CBS Evening News) ended because of his role in a story that blew apart. The 2004 story was meant to smear President George W. Bush a few months before his reelection. The problem is that it was based on forged National Guard documents that were almost immediately revealed as such. Yet Rather insists to this very day that the forged documents were accurate. 

This claim is a hallucination, as this 224-page Report of the Independent Review Panel (convened by CBS) makes clear. But Rather would not let it go. After being fired in 2006, he filed a $70 million lawsuit against CBS and its parent company, Viacom, claiming he had been made a “scapegoat,” which was subsequently dismissed in its entirely. Mr. Rather of course appealed. And in 2012, while promoting his book Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News, the former CBS reporter continued to insist the forged documents were accurate. “I believe them to be genuine. I did at the time, I did in the immediate aftermath of it, and yes, I do now,” he said.

This story fascinates me in part because of its insight into human psychology. Mr. Rather is emotionally unable to accept that the National Guard story was false and built on lies, that his effort to bring down an American president brought him down instead. And so he keeps returning to the scene of the crime, hoping to clear his name, convinced that one more adamant declaration that his story was true will magically make it so. Unfortunately, and there’s no joy in saying this, Rather doesn’t have the self-awareness to know that each time he does this, he becomes a more pitiable figure.

“To the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” These are the words of Captain Ahab as he tosses his harpoon toward the great white whale. But they could just as easily be Dan Rather’s. 

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“Hardball” Host Can’t Answer the Question

If you’d like to see what happens when an arrogant, thin-skinned journalist is asked a legitimate question about a silly (but revealing) comment he once made, you can’t do much better than viewing this clip of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews.

C-SPAN’s Steve Scully—one of the most objective and decent journalists in America today—asked Matthews if he still felt toward Barack Obama today the same “thrill” that went up his leg in 2008.

The response by Matthews is filled with bitterness and self-righteousness. “If you had done your reporting over at C-SPAN, you would have checked that I said the exact same thing in 2004 after I heard his address up here in Boston,”” according to Matthews. “I want to help you with your reporting,” Matthews says later. And it gets worse from there, with Matthews—who for some inexplicable reason characterizes his work as “reporting”—constantly trying to put down Scully, including calling him a “jackass.” Matthews is enraged because Scully asked Matthews a question Matthews faces from “every horse’s ass right winger I bump into.”

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If you’d like to see what happens when an arrogant, thin-skinned journalist is asked a legitimate question about a silly (but revealing) comment he once made, you can’t do much better than viewing this clip of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews.

C-SPAN’s Steve Scully—one of the most objective and decent journalists in America today—asked Matthews if he still felt toward Barack Obama today the same “thrill” that went up his leg in 2008.

The response by Matthews is filled with bitterness and self-righteousness. “If you had done your reporting over at C-SPAN, you would have checked that I said the exact same thing in 2004 after I heard his address up here in Boston,”” according to Matthews. “I want to help you with your reporting,” Matthews says later. And it gets worse from there, with Matthews—who for some inexplicable reason characterizes his work as “reporting”—constantly trying to put down Scully, including calling him a “jackass.” Matthews is enraged because Scully asked Matthews a question Matthews faces from “every horse’s ass right winger I bump into.”

How dare one journalist read an accurate quote from another and ask if he still holds those same views.

The irony abounds. Chris Matthews hosts a show called “Hardball”—yet when asked about his previous statement, he whines and complains as if the question itself is illegitimate. And unlike Matthews, Scully is respectful to his guests and doesn’t constantly interrupt them.

Of all the people I have met in the political class over the decades, those with the thinnest skins tend to be journalists. They are antagonistic toward politicians and revel in their effort to “afflict the comfortable.” Yet when the tables are turned in even the most gentle of ways, many of them (though certainly not all of them) become petty, small-minded, and ad hominem in their response. It’s no wonder the American public holds journalists in such low esteem.

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“Literary Journalism”: What It Is, What It Is Not

This morning, over at Critical Mass (the blog of the National Book Critics Circle), Geoff Dyer reveals the five “works of literary journalism” that he likes best. Dyer won the Circle’s 2011 criticism award for Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, a collection of essays. It’s not his fault that his list of favorites is dull and vapid. The classification of “literary journalism” is dull and vapid.

As a term, literary journalism is first cousin to “literary fiction,” another dull and vapid classification the republic of letters could do without. Apparently, literary journalism is fancy journalism, highbrow journalism. It is journalism plus fine writing. It is journalism with literary pretensions. But here’s the thing about literary pretensions. They are pretentious. They are phony. Good writers don’t brag about writing literature, which is a title of honor. Good writers accept the moral obligation to write well — that is, they subjugate themselves to the demands of the text under hand — and they leave the question of literature, the question of lasting value, up to the literary critics.

The word journalism does not denote a genre, but a venue. Journalism is what gets printed in journals and their digital successors, including blogs and even Twitter. Literary journalism is periodical writing about literature. I am a literary journalist, because I write about books for COMMENTARY. Edmund Wilson is the patron saint of literary journalists. But when he wrote book-length criticism that was not originally conceived as a series of contributions to the journals (Patriotic Gore, for example), Wilson was no longer writing as a journalist. And when he wrote journal pieces like those collected in The American Earthquake but originally published in the New Republic (about “the arts of the metropolis, from Stravinsky conducting Pétrouchka to Houdini, nightclubs and burlesque shows, Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush, the painting of O’Keeffe and George Bellows,” as his biographer describes them), Wilson was no longer writing as a literary journalist.

Most of what gets referred to as “literary journalism” is some combination of history and travel writing — history because it undertakes to determine what happened in a past, travel writing because it depends upon first-hand observation in addition to documented evidence. Those who object that journalism (of any kind) is not history are doing little beyond disclosing their own prejudices and assumptions. “The question in history,” Michael Oakeshott wrote, “is never what must, or what might have taken place, but solely what the evidence obliges us to conclude did take place.” Thus the historian and the journalist share the same obligation — an obligation to the evidence. What did take place might have taken place five minutes or five centuries ago, but as long as it belongs to the past, historian and journalist share the same interest in it.

Nor do their objectives differ, no matter how far apart their methods and prose might seem to put them. Oakeshott again: “The historian’s business is not to discover, to recapture, or even to interpret; it is to create and to construct.” Both historians and journalists recreate the past in the name of reporting what the evidence obliges them to conclude took place. Historians may claim to be more comprehensive and objective; “literary” journalists, to be more compelling and timely. But these claims are justified merely by the fact that some historians and some journalists have bought into them. They are self-advertisements, not logical distinctions.

There is no reason for anyone to repeat them, nor to compile lists of their favorite “literary journalism.”

This morning, over at Critical Mass (the blog of the National Book Critics Circle), Geoff Dyer reveals the five “works of literary journalism” that he likes best. Dyer won the Circle’s 2011 criticism award for Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, a collection of essays. It’s not his fault that his list of favorites is dull and vapid. The classification of “literary journalism” is dull and vapid.

As a term, literary journalism is first cousin to “literary fiction,” another dull and vapid classification the republic of letters could do without. Apparently, literary journalism is fancy journalism, highbrow journalism. It is journalism plus fine writing. It is journalism with literary pretensions. But here’s the thing about literary pretensions. They are pretentious. They are phony. Good writers don’t brag about writing literature, which is a title of honor. Good writers accept the moral obligation to write well — that is, they subjugate themselves to the demands of the text under hand — and they leave the question of literature, the question of lasting value, up to the literary critics.

The word journalism does not denote a genre, but a venue. Journalism is what gets printed in journals and their digital successors, including blogs and even Twitter. Literary journalism is periodical writing about literature. I am a literary journalist, because I write about books for COMMENTARY. Edmund Wilson is the patron saint of literary journalists. But when he wrote book-length criticism that was not originally conceived as a series of contributions to the journals (Patriotic Gore, for example), Wilson was no longer writing as a journalist. And when he wrote journal pieces like those collected in The American Earthquake but originally published in the New Republic (about “the arts of the metropolis, from Stravinsky conducting Pétrouchka to Houdini, nightclubs and burlesque shows, Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush, the painting of O’Keeffe and George Bellows,” as his biographer describes them), Wilson was no longer writing as a literary journalist.

Most of what gets referred to as “literary journalism” is some combination of history and travel writing — history because it undertakes to determine what happened in a past, travel writing because it depends upon first-hand observation in addition to documented evidence. Those who object that journalism (of any kind) is not history are doing little beyond disclosing their own prejudices and assumptions. “The question in history,” Michael Oakeshott wrote, “is never what must, or what might have taken place, but solely what the evidence obliges us to conclude did take place.” Thus the historian and the journalist share the same obligation — an obligation to the evidence. What did take place might have taken place five minutes or five centuries ago, but as long as it belongs to the past, historian and journalist share the same interest in it.

Nor do their objectives differ, no matter how far apart their methods and prose might seem to put them. Oakeshott again: “The historian’s business is not to discover, to recapture, or even to interpret; it is to create and to construct.” Both historians and journalists recreate the past in the name of reporting what the evidence obliges them to conclude took place. Historians may claim to be more comprehensive and objective; “literary” journalists, to be more compelling and timely. But these claims are justified merely by the fact that some historians and some journalists have bought into them. They are self-advertisements, not logical distinctions.

There is no reason for anyone to repeat them, nor to compile lists of their favorite “literary journalism.”

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Gannett Reporters Sign Walker Petition

On Sunday, Gannett’s Wisconsin team broke the news that 29 Wisconsin judges had signed a petition to recall Gov. Scott Walker. Today, in an embarrassing follow-up, the paper’s publisher reports that 25 Gannett reporters apparently signed the petition as well. So, thanks for ruining it for the whole news team, guys:

In the interest of full transparency, we are informing readers today that 25 Gannett Wisconsin Media journalists, including seven at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, signed the recall petition. It was wrong, and those who signed the petition were in breach of Gannett’s principles of ethical conduct.

It is little consolation to us that none of the editorial employees who signed a petition has any involvement in our news or political coverage or decides how those stories are developed and presented. None of the employees serve on the investigative team. Had they been directly involved, we would identify them.

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On Sunday, Gannett’s Wisconsin team broke the news that 29 Wisconsin judges had signed a petition to recall Gov. Scott Walker. Today, in an embarrassing follow-up, the paper’s publisher reports that 25 Gannett reporters apparently signed the petition as well. So, thanks for ruining it for the whole news team, guys:

In the interest of full transparency, we are informing readers today that 25 Gannett Wisconsin Media journalists, including seven at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, signed the recall petition. It was wrong, and those who signed the petition were in breach of Gannett’s principles of ethical conduct.

It is little consolation to us that none of the editorial employees who signed a petition has any involvement in our news or political coverage or decides how those stories are developed and presented. None of the employees serve on the investigative team. Had they been directly involved, we would identify them.

The paper’s publisher really beats himself and the staff up in the apology today, which makes you wonder – if this lapse was taken so seriously by Gannett, why wasn’t it disclosed along with the initial story on the judges yesterday? You would imagine the Gannett i-team noticed that some of their fellow reporters’ signatures were on the list when they were first reporting the story. Waiting a whole day makes it look like the paper was forced into disclosing it, even if that wasn’t actually the case.

But it’s hard to get too worked up over this. When it comes to ideology and journalism, Jay Rosen seems to have the most reasonable philosophy. Having strong political opinions doesn’t preclude someone from being a quality reporter, and acknowledging those political opinions is probably a good step toward building trust with the public. At the same time, these journalists who signed the petition were in violation of Gannett’s own ethics rules. And considering the fact that Gannett was reporting on the potential ethical lapses of public officials, that blunder certainly undermines its credibility.

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Why is WaPo Partnering With the Chinese Communist Party?

The Washington Free Beacon’s Adam Kredo has a great item out this morning on the Washington Post’s advertising partnership with the Chinese Communist Party. Apparently, a Chinese government-controlled media outlet has purchased its own news supplement – complete with Washington Post masthead – that is published in the Post’s print and web editions. Ostensibly this is considered an “advertisement,” and is handled by the Post’s advertising department, but critics say the supplement is so poorly labeled that many readers likely believe they’re reading the Post’s own reporting – but are actually reading Chinese government propaganda.

Kredo spoke to journalism ethics experts who explained why the relationship is problematic:

“They need to address the proverbial elephant in the living room—why are you carrying a Communist government-sponsored publication?” asked Lois Boynton, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

“It raises some ethical issues for the Post,” said Boynton, who criticized China Watch for intentionally obfuscating its origins.

“There are issues of transparency associated with who publishes China Watch,” she said. “The ‘about’ blurb doesn’t provide that detail. Although many people may know that China mainstream media is government-controlled, it may not be clear for all readers.”

“Readers go right through this section as if they’re moving through the hard news to the more in depth reporting, never realizing that they’re being inundated with Chinese government propaganda,” said Stephen Yates, a former national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney. “It doesn’t hit a person that they’ve arrived at an ad supplement filled with things that have passed Chinese Communist Party filters.”

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The Washington Free Beacon’s Adam Kredo has a great item out this morning on the Washington Post’s advertising partnership with the Chinese Communist Party. Apparently, a Chinese government-controlled media outlet has purchased its own news supplement – complete with Washington Post masthead – that is published in the Post’s print and web editions. Ostensibly this is considered an “advertisement,” and is handled by the Post’s advertising department, but critics say the supplement is so poorly labeled that many readers likely believe they’re reading the Post’s own reporting – but are actually reading Chinese government propaganda.

Kredo spoke to journalism ethics experts who explained why the relationship is problematic:

“They need to address the proverbial elephant in the living room—why are you carrying a Communist government-sponsored publication?” asked Lois Boynton, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

“It raises some ethical issues for the Post,” said Boynton, who criticized China Watch for intentionally obfuscating its origins.

“There are issues of transparency associated with who publishes China Watch,” she said. “The ‘about’ blurb doesn’t provide that detail. Although many people may know that China mainstream media is government-controlled, it may not be clear for all readers.”

“Readers go right through this section as if they’re moving through the hard news to the more in depth reporting, never realizing that they’re being inundated with Chinese government propaganda,” said Stephen Yates, a former national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney. “It doesn’t hit a person that they’ve arrived at an ad supplement filled with things that have passed Chinese Communist Party filters.”

In addition, Kredo reports there are questions about whether the partnership violates the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). The law requires agents being paid by foreign governments – i.e. lobbyists or political consultants – to register their affiliations in a database and disclose them publicly. But there is a gray area here when it comes to FARA. For example, while a lobbyist may have to register under FARA if he has a financial relationship with the Russian government, news organizations controlled by the Russian government that are aired in the U.S. (i.e. Russia Today) do not have to register in the same fashion. It’s a loophole that allows foreign governments to duck the rules.

While FARA violations are rarely prosecuted, this could still increase pressure on the Post to rethink its current partnership. Considering the Post editorial page’s typically exemplary coverage of the Chinese government’s human rights abuses, it would be nice to see the advertising department update its standards to follow suit.

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