David Carr — Good Point, Weak History

David Gregory said out loud to one of our new model journalists what many of the old variety have, I fear, been thinking: “The question of who’s a journalist may be up to a debate with regard to what you’re doing.” The host of NBC’s Meet the Press was questioning the bona-fides of Glenn Greenwald, who had published, in the Guardian, information from secret documents that Edward Snowden had obtained.

The implication was that were Greenwald not considered worthy of the title journalist — because he has an overt point of view — he might not be subject to First Amendment protections: “Why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?” Gregory actually asked Greenwald on Meet the Press.

This is, of course, absurd.  The First Amendment was never intended to protect only objective journalists — in fact it wasn’t designed to protect journalists at all; that term was not in use in James Madison’s America. The First Amendment is concerned with preventing “abridging” of “freedom…of the press.” And many of those who operated presses in Madison’s time did so because they had a point of view to promote — because, in the current vernacular, they were “activists.”

After he helped draft the First Amendment Madison noted how important “a circulation of newspapers through the entire body of the people” is “to liberty.” Why? Because it “facilitates a general intercourse of sentiments” – i.e. opinions. In fact, when, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “journalism” is first used in English, in 1833, it is defined as “the intercommunication of opinion and intelligence.”

In his New York Times media column this week, David Carr comes down on the right side of the Glenn Greenwald question — if it can be considered a serious question: “Mr. Greenwald is an activist who is deeply suspicious of government and the national security apparatus, and he is a zealous defender of privacy and civil rights,” Carr writes. “He is also a journalist.”

In defending Greenwald’s right to be seen as a journalist, Carr notes correctly that “the fight between objectivity and subjectivity is a fairly modern one.” In fact, the whole notion that journalists should be “objective” was the product of a relatively short — 150-year-long — and anomalous period in which it was possible to make a good business out of selling news, “intelligence.” But for most of human history — and even, often enough, during those 150 years — people routinely said or wrote what was going on to make a point about what was going on.

Carr’s history is wrong, however, when he writes: “In the 1800s, journalism was underwritten by powerful people, the government or political parties.” Beginning in the 1830s in the larger cities, newspapers became good — and increasingly substantial — businesses. They were usually allied with political parties, but they were not “underwritten by” those parties — or anyone else, besides their owners.

Carr’s more significant error is to treat, near the end of his piece, a strong political perspective — “activism” — as if it were some sort of foreign and suspect substance in journalism, which might “impair vision” and lead to “tendentiousness”; as if it were something right-thinking journalists must tolerate.

In fact, a significant percentage of the greatest works of American “journalism” — from Tom Paine’s “Common Sense” to Horace Greeley’s “Prayer of the Twenty Millions” to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring — were works of opinion, buttressed with various forms of “intelligence.” The presence of opinion in journalism — in columns, blogs, tweets and Glenn Greenwald’s investigations — needs no apology.

About Mitchell Stephens

Mitchell Stephens, a professor of Journalism in the Carter Institute at New York University, is the author most recently of "Imagine There’s No Heaven: How Atheism Helped Create the Modern World" (Palgrave Macmillan), "Beyond News: The Future of Journalism" (Columbia University Press) and "Journalism Unbound: New Approaches to Writing and Reporting" (Oxford University Press). He also wrote "A History of News" (Viking, Penguin, Oxford) and "the rise of the image the fall of the word" (Oxford), along with two widely used journalism textbooks.
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