February 8, 2011

Flotsam & Jetsam: Personal to Bill Keller

Sam Smith

Whatever Julian Assange's faults may be, he has produced better stories than I have seen in the New York Times in a long time, he didn't trash his sources to maintain an overblown sense of respectability, and he didn't work for a newspaper that has supported two of the dumbest wars in American history, wars that have also helped disintegrate the American economy.

Further, if one were to share private information with anyone, it appears it would be far safer to do so with Julian Assange than it would be with you or your newspaper. In the latter case, we have now have the model of what can happen: the hand that feeds you is not only bitten but thoroughly trashed in your magazine. This is not only bad for you but for every journalist who relies on people trusting them enough to tell them things. In your effort at self righteousness you have harmed all journalism.

The proof of journalism is in the result, not in the NY Times personnel manual. For example, Frederic Douglass, Mark Twain, or HL Mencken could never gotten a job at today's NY Times, but they certainly were excellent at the trade.

Further, you folks aren't anywhere near as interested in investigative journalism as you pretend. Six years ago I wrote about this:

|||| The old media considers itself an exclusive institution like a club, church, or the Masons, entitled to judge internally how both members and pretenders are supposed to behave. The lack of respect shown by the new journalism to these rules appalls the anachronic press.

- The media used to be on the outside looking in. Now thanks to the rise of corporatism and journalistic social climbing, it has become part of what it is covering. The result is a severe loss of independence. For example, the term White House correspondent has become a contradiction in terms because even if a reporter tries to do a good job there, the slightest rebellion against the collegial rules of the palace puts the courtier parading as correspondent in danger of losing favor and sources. And what precisely do these sources provide? They tip the reporter off to a cabinet secretary's pending resignation but not, say, to his million dollars stashed in a Cayman Island bank. White House reporting has become a stenographic rather than journalistic activity, as has the coverage of other American institutions.

- The nature of the corporatized press limits the desirability of investigative reporting. A successful investigation is a risky way to climb the media ladder for the reporter and a threat to the next quarterly return for the boss.

But since you still need news, one way to make it seem as though you are doing something is to outsource your journalism to groups like the Center for Public Integrity or the Project on Government Oversight. Gone is the day when every reporter was meant to be a project on government oversight; now you let POGO do the investigation, you write it up, and if the story's wrong it's not your fault but POGO's. Nice deniability, just the thing a corporation likes. On a single day, for example, three reports by grantees of the Fund for Constitutional Government (on whose board I sit) were featured in the NY Times. Such groups have become a timid media's secondhand nose.

Groups like the aforementioned, independent investigators on the Internet, and lonely holdouts from journalism's past are all doing something much closer to what American journalism is meant to be about than the censored, spun, and desiccated version you find daily in the same elite media that pompously patronizes those who refuse to be servile sycophants like themselves.

The former, however, will increasingly get the story while the latter continue to tell you not to worry, everything's just fine or recite fairy tales about Iraq and why it needs invading. ||||

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