Froomkin shared a story that David Corn—the White House correspondent for Mother Jones magazine, who also happened to be sitting in the front row of the audience during the Froomkin/Rosen talk—had told him during yesterday’s PDF proceedings. During the 2004 Republican National Convention, Corn found himself in a bar with several WaPo reporters and editors, who were talking in strong terms about what a poor acceptance speech the president had just delivered. The next day, Corn read those same journalists’ coverage of the Bush speech in the Post—very little of which reflected the feelings they’d expressed the night before. Which is to say, their true feelings.
“My explanation for this—or my language for it—is that there’s an innocence agenda in the press,” Rosen said, describing the externalized profession of “Hey, I don’t judge” that the press uses, ultimately, to seduce sources. That agenda, Rosen said, “comes from the inability to justify modern professional journalism in any other way than objectivity. And the demand for something stronger, better, more truthful just has never been met.”
Take, for example, journalists’ tortured relationship with the word “lie.” “The traditional media is so incredibly averse to that word—and especially when applied to President Bush—it isn’t even funny,” Froomkin said. But “it’s inappropriate squeamishness.” The rule for most mainstream news organizations, he noted, is that you can’t come out and call someone a liar unless you have proof that the person’s intention was to deceive—which rather absurdly puts the burden of proof on a confession, rather than an external judgment based on fact. “My wife, who is a federal prosecutor, just thinks this is the funniest thing,” Froomkin said, as the crowd laughed along with him.
The caution that has come to define so much of journalism’s culture and products is “really the antithesis of what I think journalism should be,” Froomkin said. “Which is: you call it as you see it.” Or, as Rosen put it: “‘Safety First’ is a terrible principle for journalists.”
In accountability journalism at its best—and, really, journalism more generally at its best—“you’re truth-telling,” Froomkin said. “You’re shouting it from the rooftops, and if that means people are constantly getting mad at you, so be it.”
Instead, much of the mainstream reporting we have today is diluted, triangulated, watered down, and weak. “It’s kind of a self-inflicted lobotomy for journalists,” Froomkin said. “You’re cutting off the most important parts of the journalistic brain”—the ability to make determinations based on accumulated knowledge.
“You have to try to imagine overlapping fears,” Rosen interjected. “A newsroom is an apparatus of social control. It is organized in part to de-voice the individual journalist.” And news organizations, he continued, are “in a situation in which, the way the world is going, that’s not what’s valuable.” We’re in a culture, instead, that creates and promotes journalistic celebrities whose fame is largely independent of the news organization they represent. And “it’s scary,” Froomkin said, “for them to think that the individuals might walk away from the brand.”
Froomkin was careful to blame the state of affairs not on individual press members—or even on press members in the aggregate—but rather to frame the problem as an institutional deficit. “The White House press corps is made up of terrific people who work hard under hard conditions,” he noted. But “the corporate structures of the modern newspaper hold back these very knowledgeable beat reporters from calling it like they see it.” So “the key is to free the people from these strictures.”
But that freedom had better come soon. “By playing it safe,” Froomkin said, “they’re making themselves irrelevant.”