an initiative launched in December 2007 in the United States to
help revitalize investigative journalism, is a great idea trapped
by the worst aspects of the best instincts in contemporary corporate
commercial journalism. The project reminds us of important values
at the core of the craft of journalism, but also exposes the common
political confusions of mainstream journalists that so often undermine
their best efforts.
with a multi-million dollar grant from Herbert M. and Marion O.
Sandler, who made their fortune with the Golden West Financial
Corp. they sold in 2006, Pro Publica's goal is to provide serious
investigative work that is increasingly rare in a mass-media system
more focused on the bottom line than on higher values. Paul E.
Steiger, who stepped down as managing editor of The Wall Street
Journal this spring, will be the editor-in-chief.
plans to function as an independent newsroom staffed by some of
the country's top journalists, offering stories to a variety of
media outlets under various distribution arrangements. There are
potential complications in how the project's journalists will
work with commercial media - which will continue, of course, to
operate in a competitive environment that tends to discourage
cooperative ventures - but those will likely be worked out if
the project produces quality journalism.
So far, so
good. There's a problem: Managers of the profit-hungry corporations
that produce most of the country's journalism have lesser resources
to do their jobs, which predictably leads to less of the investigative
journalism that requires time and money. The proposed solution:
Committed journalists, backed by well-intentioned benefactors,
step in to fill the gap through Pro Publica.
Publica's mission statement makes it clear that the focus
will be to "uncover unsavory practices" that and
can lead to "reform." What if the goal should be
not reform but a radical transformation of the hierarchical
systems in which we live?
the more vexing problem - and what may make the project, in the
end, largely irrelevant - becomes clear in reading the mission
statement of the group, which includes these crucial two paragraphs:
will focus exclusively on truly important stories, stories with
"moral force." We will do this by producing journalism that shines
a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures
of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them. In
so doing, in the best traditions of American journalism in the
public service, we will stimulate positive change. We will uncover
unsavory practices in order to stimulate reform.
do this in an entirely non-partisan and non-ideological manner,
adhering to the strictest standards of journalistic impartiality.
We won't lobby. We won't ally with politicians or advocacy groups.
We will look hard at the critical functions of business and of
government, the two biggest centers of power, in areas ranging
from product safety to securities fraud, from flaws in our system
of criminal justice to practices that undermine fair elections.
But we will also focus on such institutions as unions, universities,
hospitals, foundations and on the media when they constitute the
strong exploiting or oppressing the weak, or when they are abusing
the public trust. http://www.propublica.org/whatwelldo.html
of the "comfort the afflicted/afflict the comfortable" mission
of journalism is fine. But the mission statement makes it clear
that the focus will be to "uncover unsavory practices"
that and can lead to "reform."
But what if the crucial questions that the contemporary world
faces are not rooted in practices but in systems? What if we should
focus not on the unsavory actions of people working in institutions,
but on the nature of those institutions themselves? What if the
goal should be not reform but a radical transformation of the
hierarchical systems in which we live?
What if, instead of chasing the latest scandal, the real work
of investigative journalism should be a sustained critique of
First-World imperialism and predatory corporate capitalism in
the context of white supremacy and patriarchy? What if that's
the analysis that really gets to the core of an unjust and unsustainable
detaching from the need to make a profit, Pro Publica takes
the first step of freeing journalists from the constraints
that so often limit the craft. But journalists cannot spring
the trap unless they abandon the naiveté that leads
to the idea that they can hover above politics.
questions reflect my politics and ideology, my way of understanding
how the world works. Maybe I'm right, and maybe I'm not. I don't
claim to be non-partisan or non-ideological. But no one else can
make such a claim either, and therein lies the failure of Pro
Publica and contemporary journalism more generally.
Mainstream journalists typically will not understand their work
as inherently political and ideological, even though that is the
case of any attempt to understand how the world works. This invocation
of "journalistic impartiality" is simply a reminder that most
of contemporary corporate commercial journalism is trapped within
those dominant systems of power.
have expressed concern that the Sandlers' past support of Democratic
Party candidates and liberal causes will skew the coverage of
Pro Publica, [see Jack Shafer, "What Do Herbert and Marion Sandler
Want? Investigating the funders of ProPublica, the new investigative
journalism outfit," Slate, October 15, 2007. http://www.slate.com/id/2175942/]
but that misses the point, for two reasons.
First, there's no more reason to doubt the group's commitment
to an editorial agenda independent of a particular party or politician
than there would be for any commercial media outlet, in which
journalists are beholden to owners. Second, the assumptions about
power behind the liberal politics of people like the Sandlers
are well within the conventional wisdom that embraces corporate
capitalism and US "leadership in the world" (which really means
"domination of") as the natural order; if not the mission statement
of Pro Publica would have been quite different.
from the need to make a profit, Pro Publica takes the first step
of freeing journalists from the constraints that so often limit
the craft. But journalists cannot spring the trap unless they
abandon the naiveté that leads to the idea that they can
hover above politics - understood not merely as the struggles
between competing configurations of elites but more basic questions
about the distribution of power.
claims to be outside politics and ideology simply mean that
they will be trapped within conventional politics and captured
by the dominant ideology.
important for journalists not to become shills for a particular
party or cause; independence is at the core of modern journalism.
Yes, journalists should always avoid dogmatism; ideological positions
can easily calcify and inhibit critical inquiry. But if we understand
politics and ideology as a feature of human thought and always
present - everyone works from a set of assumptions about the nature
of people and power, and everyone has an ideology whether or not
they acknowledge it - then we can see the limits of this approach.
Journalists' claims to be outside politics and ideology simply
mean that they will be trapped within conventional politics and
captured by the dominant ideology.
I think Pro
Publica is correct in focusing on business and government, "the
two biggest centers of power." But instead of seeing the problems
as ranging from "product safety to securities fraud," what if
the group investigated the commodification of everything in a
capitalist system and the fundamental illegitimacy of corporate
structures? What if instead of pointing at "flaws in our system
of criminal justice to practices that undermine fair elections,"
Pro Publica journalists covered how the law legitimizes the everyday
crimes of the powerful and how money-dominated pseudo-elections
eliminate meaningful democracy?
my analysis of an appropriate mission for journalism is right,
maybe it's wrong. But it's no more or less political and ideological
than Pro Publica's.
argue that this critique is unfair. After all, the problems we
face in the United States are hardly the fault of journalists,
and one can't expect journalists alone to solve them. I agree
- a degraded political culture has to be addressed at many levels.
I believe that independent journalism has a role to play, but
only if journalism as an institution
The above article was published in the German magazine,
Message: internationale Fachzeitschrift für Journalismus,
Robert Jensen is a journalism
professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of
the board of the Third
Coast Activist Resource Center. His
latest book is Getting
Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press,
2007). He is the author of The
Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege , Citizens
of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity and Writing
Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream
(Peter Lang). He can be reached at
his articles can be found online at http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/index.html.
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