It was July 22, the last day of “Journalism and Reporting,” the summer class I was teaching at Georgetown University. For the last day, I made the point I had made on the first day.
There’s no such thing as objectivity. But there is such a thing as honor.
This is at the heart of the Journolist scandal. The Journolist was an Internet community of journalists who reinforced each other’s liberal bias and plotted strategies for ensuring the most favorable coverage for the Obama administration. The scandal has revealed again – as if more evidence was needed – that the American media is liberal. But the deeper tragedy involves the self-termination of conscience evident in the Journolists’ boosterism. The real sorrow is the total absence of conscience, and of honor.
In my class on journalism, a summer course for high school students, we saw several movies and documentaries. There was “The Black Press: Soldiers without Swords,” about the history of African-American newspapers. There was “Shattered Glass,” about infamous New Republic fantasist Stephen Glass. There was “The Insider,” about tobacco company whistle blower Jeffry Wigan There was a documentary about the life of Cameron Crowe, who started writing for Rolling Stone when he was 16. And, of course, there was “All the President’s Men.”
All of these films have one thing in common: they all involve, to a greater or lesser degree, journalists having to grapple, against tremendous pressure, with their conscience – and in the process often have to go against their own beliefs and the beliefs of their friends and colleagues. In “Soldiers without Swords,” during World War II a black newspaper publisher is a called in by the Attorney General of the United States, who tells him to stop agitating for Civil Rights. The publisher refuses. In “The Insider,” journalist Lowell Bergman has to battle his own colleague at CBS, who spiked an interview he did with a tobacco whistle blower. “Shattered Glass” celebrates the quiet honor of Charles Lane, who went against his fellow New Republic journalists, who were bedazzled by Stephen Glass, liar. Even “All the President’s Men,” a clear-cut case of presidential abuse of power, has Bob Woodward, Republican, have a moment of doubt about what he is doing.
Even the story of Cameron Crowe involves this dynamic. My class of 15 and 16 year-olds did not see “Almost Famous,” the film based on Crowe’s early life, because it is rated R; instead we watched a short documentary about Crowe and the making of the film. In “Almost Famous,” Crowe is a 15 year-old writer for Rolling Stone who gets to go on tour with the band Stillwater. There are drugs, drinking, girls and rock and roll. Crowe’s character begins to notice that the leader of the band is not treating one of the groupies very well. He finally tells her that she is being used and better wake up. The band tries to kill the story, telling Rolling Stone the kid made everything up. The story is killed, but then the lead singer admits it’s all true. The story runs.
Honor and conscience. I told my students: They are what make you give a fair and honest quote to a source you may not like. It’s what makes you recognize the basic humanity of a politician you hate. It’s what makes you risk a job because you think you’re editor is asking you to do something immoral. It’s what made the conservative Weekly Standard do a cover story on the conservative Hillsdale College when there was a damaging scandal there. It’s what made me – a conservative – sick when Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity began attacking President Obama roughly 38 seconds after he was elected. It’s what made Lowell Bergman fight “60 Minutes,“ his employer, when they punked out on airing a tobacco insider’s testimony because they were scared of lawyers. It’s what should make Andrew Breitbart apologize for releasing a misleading tape.
I told my class: It’s what makes you stand up to a glamorous rock star you are covering, a person who is abusing another human being, and call him out.
What is so awful about the Journolists is that very few of the people on it seemed to step back from the bitter, childish left wing and hateful groupthink. And why should they? They all know the same people, went to similar schools, and have the same politics. Celebrating the election of Obama was one thing. But when the Journolists’s anti-Palin tsunami rose just seconds after she was named the nominee, almost no one spoke up and said, “Hey, we’ve know this woman for three minutes. Let’s have a sense of fair play. Let’s get the facts.”
The truth is, most journalists are liberal, and most of them lie. And they lie because of bias, but more importantly because they have no sense of honor. A few years ago a journalist friend of mine told me that a paper in DC had rewritten a story of hers to make the subject look bad. My friend complained. The editor’s response was this “The girl in your piece is fat. I was fat when I was her age. She’ll get over it.” This editor now has a senior position at TBD.com, a news website being run by media giant and ABC owner Allbitron. Being liberal is one thing. But a man with no conscience is called a psychopath.
Recently in Slate, press critic Jack Shafer, a liberal who poses as a libertarian, expressed frustration because that he wants to find a juicy topic to write a long-form piece about (this in the wake of the Journolist scandal). Slate calls such long-form pieces “Frescas.“ It’s where a journalist can really dig deeply into a topic and go on for pages. Shafer, who came up dry when his editor asked him to do a Fresca, turned to his readers to supply a topic.
Forget the embarrassment of this for a second, the Jabba-the-Hut-like indolence that could only happen to a journalist embedded deeply into procrustean bed of subsidized media job security (help! I admit I have no passion and can’t do my job!). Forget the unspoken blackballing of certain topics (is the Catholic Church as a fortress of common sense and sanity despite 40 years of liberalism a Fresca? The development of clear fetal pictures and how it relates to abortion? The pathetic state of rock criticism?)
Forget all of that, because I have a Fresca for Shafer. Go back through the hiring records of Slate, CBS, ABC, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the rest of the mainstream media. Reveal not only who was hired, but who was not. Go back thirty years. Do interviews. Talk To the people who were not hired, whose pieces were rejected, who never made it into the club. Go Woodward and Bernstein, without regard to who or what might turn up. Interview the gifted writers who were sent to Siberia or had to change careers because they were denied entry. Do a series on how it has affected coverage over the last 40 years. Blow up the Politburo and produce a real hidden history of the United States.
That ain’t a Fresca. That’s a book.
Mark Gauvreau Judge is the author of several books, including “Damn Senators,” “God and Man at Georgetown Prep,” and most recently, “A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.” His articles and essays have appeared in various publications.