Activism in Journalism

Dec 26, 2016
By: Jerry A. Goodson
In: Society

I recently went off on a tirade against Dan Rather for a post he made on his facebook page that didn’t set well with me. Rather made the call to his peers in journalism (as well as others) to participate in activism.

As a media consumer, I have certain expections from media producers. Those expectations include the basic tenets of Journalism Ethics and Standards:
(Source: WikiPedia)

  • truthfulness
  • accuracy
  • objectivity
  • impartiality
  • fairness
  • public accountability

Rather's liberal bias is well documented. Beyond his documented bias, spending any time on his social media page (facebook), it’s not hard to figure out where he stands politically.  I fully support his right to express them on that platform.  It does violate some traditional "rules" that would prohibit a professional journalist from sharing a personal opinion beyond discussions with family and friends, but first amendment rights are still protected for journalists.

Traditionally, a professional journalist publicly sharing an opinion would be regarded as a conflict of interest. That was a privilege reserved for editors in the editorial section, not for journalists who are supposed to project objectivity free from bias.  I lost an argument on that stance when I learned the Society of Professional Journalist relaxed that part of the code of ethics.

While taking exception to bias is understood, the problem runs deeper… even deeper than sensationalism in journalism.  Activism in journalism endangers the credibility of media and the confidence of the consumers in journalists.

The Worst Critics

Showing bias is nearly inevitable The longer a journalist remains in the profession, the more likely the consumers will pick up on the slant. A journalist’s worst critics aren’t those consumers who politically oppose them. No, a journalist's worst critic are other journalists.

In a discussion with a friend of mine, a journalism professional whose opinion I value deeply, I used Dan Rather's bias as the foundation of my position. My friend interrupted me by saying the other two of the "Big 3" (Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw) were "just as bad."  I was taken aback! Admittedly, I had very little exposure to Dan Rather growing up. I would only see glimpses of him on highlight reels while watching our favorite prime time show on his network.  It was primarily Tom Brokaw in our house.  My friend cited one example of Brokaw bias when he announced George W. Bush won Florida in a very close election in 2000.

I’m sure there are other examples Brokaw let his bias show, but I had to consider the source.  I spent years watching Brokaw, but I was not looking for his bias.  Now, it was being pointed out by a journalism professional who has a keen eye for it.  There was an entire website dedicated to highlighting Rather's bias (now defunct, as well as a scandal in his namesake (RatherGate).

I appreciate my friend's critical viewpoint.  If all journalists are that critical of their peers, it's a reflection they strive, individually, for journalistic excellence.

Advocacy and Activism

As our conversation segued from bias to activism, this is where my friend and I found a slight difference of opinion.

My friend was quick to point out the positive changes brought about in the early twentieth century with the muckrakers. It was the advocacy by those journalists that brought sweeping changes to the meat packing industry, child labor laws, and an early incarnation of the Food and Drug Administration.

I used the term advocacy in the summary of our conversation, but the term we used in our discussion was activism.  I didn’t articulate my position very well, but I wasn’t after a debate; I was after my friend's insight and opinion. It was only after some reflection I figured out I wasn't, at the time, making the distinction between advocacy and activism.

My positional stance wasn't against the advocacy my friend described in the investigative journalism in which the historical muckrakers engaged, but rather the participation in activism such as protesting and rioting.

Here's an excerpt of the facebook post made by Dan Rather:

Now is a time when none of us can afford to remain seated or silent. We must all stand up to be counted.
In normal times of a transition in our presidency between an incoming and outgoing administration of differing political parties, there is a certain amount of fretting on one side and gloating on the other. And the press usually takes a stance that the new administration at least deserves to have a chance to get started - a honeymoon period. But these are not normal times. This is not about tax policy, health care, or education - even though all those and more are so important. This is about racism, bigotry, intimidation and the specter of corruption.

But as I stand I do not despair, because I believe the vast majority of Americans stand with me. To all those in Congress of both political parties, to all those in the press, to religious and civic leaders around the country. your voices must be heard. I hope that the President-elect can learn to rise above this and see the dangers that are brewing. If he does and speaks forcibly, and with action, we should be ready to welcome his voice. But of course I am deeply worried that his selections of advisors and cabinet posts suggests otherwise.

To all of you I say, stay vigilant. The great Martin Luther King, Jr. knew that even as a minority, there was strength in numbers in fighting tyranny. Holding hands and marching forward, raising your voice above the din of complacency, can move mountains. And in this case, I believe there is a vast majority who wants to see this nation continue in tolerance and freedom. But it will require speaking. Engage in your civic government. Flood newsrooms or TV networks with your calls if you feel they are slipping into the normalization of extremism. Donate your time and money to causes that will fight to protect our liberties.

I retorted on my personal facebook page in this post:

Dan Rather, I'm not a journalism professional, but rather a journalism consumer.

I've always been taught journalists were supposed to REPORT THE NEWS, not CREATE the news.

If you want to be an #activist, fine... then quit calling yourself a #journalist.

My friend and I were getting into some great depth on the effects of credibility and effectiveness of the media before we had to cut our conversation off to participate in the event we were attending.  One of the most profound points made was there is no such thing as total objectivity.  In an honest self-assessment, my friend acknowledges there was a certain lack of "poker face" needed to conceal bias in reporting on politics.  If two journalists are standing next to each other reporting on the same thing, there are still two different points of view.  Each journalist will see things differently based on their personal beliefs and past experiences and observations.  

Troubling Trends and Unintended Consequences

I am not disputing Rather's feeling of justification for making the call for everyone, including "all those in the press," to engage in activism.  In context, we have a rogue president elect.  Excluding the extremes of blindly opposing or blindly supporting Donald Trump as our new president, the rest of us do share a grave concern over his reckless social media posts (Twitter, to be specific), and other seemingly reckless remarks and actions that have direct impact on the U.S. stock market, as well as foreign diplomatic relations.  

I contend the media has a role in, but does not include the direct engagement of activism.  (If you haven't already, read my post Intelligence Agencies)

My dissent with journalists taking an active role in directly engaging as a participant in activism is the inherent responsibilities and privileges that come with pinning on press credentials.  Displaying those credentials is equitable to advertising their presence is passive.  There is a certain trust... a "professional courtesy" that should be extended to members of the press as observers, as reporters, and as historians preserving the accuracy of events as they are taking place.  

If you search Google for incidents where journalists have been arrested in the U.S., you won't come up short.

The immediate example I could think of was Pete Santilli.  Santilli was an active participant in protests in Nevada and Oregon that centered around Cliven and Ammon Bundy.  Santilli was arrested earlier this year in Oregon for his participation in the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.  The charges against him were dropped when the prosecutor announced pursuing charges weren't "in the interest of justice."  

Here's an excerpt of an article reported by Oregon Public Broadcasting:

Santilli's attorney, Thomas Coan, argued that his client's presence as a journalist at the wildlife refuge was protected by the First Amendment. He said he'd been pushing for the government to dismiss the charges against Santilli.

"This is something that we've been pushing for, for a long time," said Tom Coan, Pete Santilli's defense attorney. "I have always believed that Pete never had any criminal intent in what he did out there ... He came out here with the intent to report and to document and to lawfully protest."

Here's another relevant excerpt regarding Santilli's "ambiguous role" from the LA Times:

Federal officials once again zeroed in on Santilli's ambiguous role, noting that he had continued to broadcast calls for protesters to come to Oregon and had spoken out against the mainstream media at a news conference with the occupation's leaders.

"I think right now they're throwing a bunch of stuff against the wall to see what sticks, so I guess we'll have to see how this plays out," Jordan said Thursday. But most important, Jordan said, "his role as a reporter is being challenged here in both cases."

** Note:  The quote is from Deb Jordan who is described earlier in the article as Santilli's broadcast partner and "partner in life." **

Santilli was indicted on several counts for his engagement in activism during the 2014 standoff between a militia group and federal agencies in Nevada.  Although he was acquitted in Oregon, he remains in jail awaiting trial in Nevada.  

Journalists hiding behind their press credentials to engage in illegal activity endangers exclusive and protected access from journalists in the future.  I appreciate a journalist can embed with various groups during criminal activities as an observer for the sake of telling the story.  I appreciate the press is given special access for a look inside certain government operations during unusual events.  If activists such as Santilli continue demanding protections under the first amendment to engage in criminal activity, it will erode the faith and trust in the historically self-policed profession we Americans rely on for information.  

I used Santilli as my example because while I don't support the methods deployed by him and his fellow protestors in Oregon, I do support their cause and ultimate goal.
(Evidence can be found in my Open Letter to the Bundy Family in response to their occupation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge)

Santilli engaged in the very kind of activism Rather encourages 

I've had measured difficulty in defending my position based solely on the content of Rather's post.  When I took my position, I wasn't aware of Rather's past of blatant bias or scandal in his journalistic practices.  After reading that post, I started reading some of his others to evaluate the veracity of my initial assessment.  Rather's statements weren't overt, but I didn't make my judgement based solely on the content of his post.  I sought out the spirit and intent of his message, as well.   

I'm perfectly content with keeping journalists in their proverbial bubbles as reporters of facts.  Staying in their roles as journalists removes any confusion of what agenda they're trying to advance.  Activism by journalists can be detrimental to both sides of an issue.  Using Santilli as an example, again, do a Google search to try to find if Santilli is an informant for the FBI.

My contempt with Rather isn't with his opposing political ideals.  Rather has lost sight of what excellent journalism enshrines:  truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, and public accountability.  Until the mainstream media embraces those ideals, public confidence in the media will continue to erode with Journalism Ethics and Standards.



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