Journalism, Even When It's Activism

By Carr, David | International Herald Tribune, July 2, 2013 | Go to article overview

Journalism, Even When It's Activism


Carr, David, International Herald Tribune


The question of who is a journalist is important, partly because when it comes to divulging national secrets, the law grants journalists special protections that are afforded to no one else.

In a refracted media world where information comes from everywhere, the line between two "isms" -- journalism and activism - - is becoming difficult to discern. As the U.S. news media have pulled back from international coverage, nongovernmental organizations have filled in the gaps with on-the-scene reports and Web sites. Statehouses have lost reporters who used to provide accountability, so citizens have turned to digital enterprises, some of which have partisan agendas.

The question of who is a journalist and who is an activist and whether they can be one and the same continues to roar along, most recently in the instance of Glenn Greenwald's reporting for The Guardian on the secrets revealed by Edward J. Snowden.

Sometimes, a writer's motives or leanings emerge between the lines over time, but you need only to read a few sentences of Mr. Greenwald's blog to know exactly where he stands. 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.

He is also a journalist.

Taxonomy is important, partly because when it comes to divulging national secrets, the law grants journalists special protections that are afforded to no one else. To exclude some writers from the profession is to leave them naked before a government that is deeply unhappy that its secret business is on wide display.

In that context, "activist" has become a code word for someone who is driven by an agenda beyond seeking information on the public's behalf. I found out as much last week when an article I wrote with a colleague about WikiLeaks called Alexa O'Brien an "activist."

Ms. O'Brien is certainly that. She played a crucial role in the digital outreach of Occupy Wall Street, was involved with the U.S. Day of Rage rally and began covering the Bradley Manning trial partly to protest the lack of information and transparency in the case.

But she also describes herself as an independent journalist, and for that matter, so have I in a previous column. She asked for (and received) a correction in The New York Times, pointing out that I had cited her work in my column.

"You are reading my journalistic work, using my journalistic work, capitalizing off my journalistic work, and linking to my journalistic work about the largest criminal investigation ever into a publisher and its source," she wrote from Fort Meade, Maryland, where she has been comprehensively transcribing the Manning trial.

In other words, if I believed she was executing a political agenda rather than a journalistic one, why was I referencing her work?

The notion of journalist as political and ideological eunuch seems silly, even to some who call themselves journalists.

"Truth is not the hole in the middle of the doughnut, it is on the doughnut somewhere," a veteran reporter whom I worked with at an alternative weekly in Minneapolis once told me.

What he meant was that articles that strive only to be in the middle -- moving from one hand to the other in an effort to be nicely balanced -- end up going nowhere. I was just out of journalism school, brimming with freshly taught tenets of fairness and objectivity, and already those values were in question.

Still, the fight between objectivity and subjectivity is a fairly modern one. In the 1800s, journalism was underwritten by powerful people, the government or political parties. …

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