Conspiracy to commit journalism | Pressthink

Investigative journalism and the secret state are natural enemies. Even with an enlightened government and relatively untroubled times, their relationship will be uneasy at best.

Today, they’re in a state of undeclared war. Surveillance states and most of their fellow travellers are in too deep to pull back voluntarily. Some will be uneasy about how far things have gone but changing one’s mind is never a comfortable business, particularly if it has to be done in public.

Those opposed to overly intrusive and secret surveillance need to figure out the best ways to increase that uneasiness and offer palatable means for players to defect. The playing field needs to once again be tilted towards openness as the primary operating principle. To do that, unearthing secrets, valuable though it may be, is not enough.

It’s exactly these issues that Jay Rosen takes up in this recent piece at Pressthink.

A conspiracy to commit journalism has to operate in the open. Its methods go beyond investigation, careful editing, truth and accuracy, telling a good story that brings complex issues home. There is inescapably a political element. Release-the-information coalitions can only form around broadly shared goals. People who disagree on other things are likely to agree on the need for sunlight. Those who would expose the misdeeds of an agency like the NSA need good arguments, not just good sources and good lawyers. Not the reach but the overreach of the surveillance state should be the object of their critique. It’s not enough that your story be right on the facts. Your thinking has to be right on the money. It has to speak to ends that are almost as universal as the emotion of fear, an always-on power source for the “collect it all” consortium.

Those who would expose and oppose the security state also need good judgment. What to hold back, when not to publish, how not to react when provoked, what not to say in your own defense: alongside the forensic, the demands of the prudential.

The Guardian’s delayed reporting of a heavy-handed approach from the UK government well over a month ago is an example of exercising good political judgement, of knowing when “to hold back”.

Rosen: “All day today, people have been asking me: why did The Guardian wait a month to tell us about, ”You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back?” Michael Calderone of the Huffington Post asked Rusbridger [editor of the Guardian] about that. His answer:

“Having been through this and not written about it on the day for operational reasons, I was sort of waiting for a moment when the government’s attitude to journalism –- when there was an issue that made this relevant,” Rusbridger said.

That moment came after Sunday’s nine-hour airport detainment of David Miranda, partner of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist at the center of the NSA surveillance story.

“The fact that David Miranda had been detained under this slightly obscure schedule of the terrorism act seemed a useful moment to write about the background to the government’s attitude to this in general,” Rusbridger said.

Rosen continues: “Hear it? The holding back. The sensation of a political opening, through which the story can be driven. The alignment of argument with information. The clear contrast between a terror anyone can identify with — being detained for nine hours while transiting through a foreign country — and the state’s obscure use of terrorism law. These are political skills, indistinguishable from editorial acumen. In a conspiracy to commit journalism we must persuade as well as inform.”

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4 Responses to Conspiracy to commit journalism | Pressthink

  1. Paul Frijters says:

    I dont agree with Rosen. He essentially wants conflicting things: for the journalists to be both whiter than white, as well as being savvy political players interested in spin, ie, in marketing and impressions. Those two are somewhat incompatible, don’t you think?
    More generally, I would not want journalists to be too defensive and apologetic in their ‘war’ with the security apparatus of the state. Exposing that security apparatus is a good thing and they are entitled to make mistakes, have fun, and be cocky about their achievements. Journalists are only humans, after all.

    • Ingolf says:

      Your reading is very different to mine, Paul.

      I don’t see Rosen wanting journalists to be “defensive and apologetic” and whether they want to have fun or be cocky is, I’m pretty sure he’d agree, entirely their own business.

      His focus in this piece, at least as I read it, was editorial efficacy. To make best use of raw journalistic output, it needs to be intelligently deployed. That might mean holding back, or changing the slant, or better blending the flow of material into a cohesive, persuasive whole. I don’t see how any of that need be in conflict with journalistic integrity. If anything, quite the contrary.

      • Paul Frijters says:

        hmmm, no point making a mountain out of a moleheap, particularly on a topic we agree on anyway, but his piece somewhat bemuses me. You seem to think he is just saying ‘be smart’.

        btw, on the topic of your previous post, I do in fact have some examples in mind of twisted readings of information-related laws to serve the interests of those in government here in Australia. The ABS is a good example of an organisation whose top has converged on a peculiarly self-serving interpretation of the law, and students of mine have run up against councils whose efforts to disclose lobby-relevant information is, shall we say, less than minimal.

        • Ingolf says:

          Maybe what left you feeling a little bemused is Rosen’s ready acceptance of journalism as advocacy.

          I guess in anything but the most basic factual reporting, some sort of slant (intentional or not) is unavoidable. His form of “being smart” seems to take advocacy as a given and then concentrate on how best to persuade, particularly at the editorial level.

          Mind you, to be fair to him, he’s clearly concerned with trying to be as fair/objective as possible (e.g. “Not the reach but the overreach of the surveillance state should be the object of their critique.”)

          Anyway as you say, I think we pretty much agree on this topic.

          Re FOI stuff, I can well imagine.

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