Do journalists have any obligations beyond their self-interest?

One current Atlantic reporter and one former one agree that the answer is "no."

Published September 9, 2008 10:26AM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II)

Yesterday, The Atlantic's campaign reporter Marc Ambinder and Matt Yglesias had a somewhat disagreeable exchange about the role journalists play in constructing campaign narratives, and specifically how journalists have been enabling the McCain campaign to tell one demonstrable lie after the next with no repercussions. Though I was off peacefully minding my own business at the time, my good name was brutally dragged into their confrontation in a way that raises several important points worth examining.

The exchange began when Ambinder asserted that the McCain campaign's claims about Sarah Palin's having stopped the "Bridge to Nowhere" are "technically true but functionally false" (in fact, the claims are false in every sense, including the technical one). Ambinder then mildly though indifferently wondered why the McCain campaign is able to spew such obvious falsehoods with no consequences -- as though Ambinder and his colleagues covering the campaign have nothing whatsoever to do with that dynamic other than passively observe it from a distance:

No blowback, though: the electorate doesn't seem to penalize campaigns for deliberately distorting the record of their candidate and their opponent. It's probably an artifact of twenty years' worth of campaign advertisements and has something to do with the way consumers process news. In any event . . . .

In response, Yglesias correctly pointed out that McCain's ability to get away with endless lying actually has "something to do with the way the campaign press reports news" and that -- in stark contrast to how the press invented multiple false stories in the 2000 election to depict Al Gore as a chronic liar -- the media simply passes along McCain's lies (sometimes debunking them) without ever embracing the narrative that the McCain campaign is continuously spouting falsehoods. As Yglesias concluded: "There are a few dozen people, of whom Marc is one, in a position to create this narrative. They've chosen not to do so, but that's a decision they've made not a fact about 'the way consumers process news.'"

That point didn't sit well with Ambinder, who scoffed at what he characterized as Yglesias's claim that "it must somehow be the press's fault that John McCain is enjoying a post-convention something-or-other because Americans don't realize that he's a lying liar, or whatever," and Ambinder then added this:

To move to a Greenwaldian debate about the duties, obligations and frustrations of the press -- well -- read elsewhere if you want to play that game. I'll abstain.

Marc Ambinder is a professional journalist. But in defending the role he and his colleagues play in covering our elections, he won't be bothered by dreary, annoying "debates about the duties, obligations and frustrations of the press." That -- he announced with finger-snapping, eyebrow-raised, head-swaying defiance -- is a "game" that Marc Ambinder doesn't "play."

It isn't particularly surprising that journalists view debates over their "duties and obligations" as sanctimonious, worthless, boring irritants -- a frivolous little "game" that is the last thing they're going to indulge. After all, they have campaign planes to catch, Steve Schmidt gossip to be dished along, petty scoops to uncover, and the daily drama of the election to be dissected. They're not going to be sidetracked from those fun and exciting pursuits by haughty objections from interlopers about the destructive role they're playing in our elections, or by ponderous debates from non-members about their so-called "obligations" to scrutinize candidates' claims and expose the falsehoods of political leaders. Please.

My self-righteous, dour hectoring in shrilly raising such humorless and overly-earnest points is certainly one of the reasons why -- as the media gossip site Jossip recently (and, for me, quite painfully) noted -- I "often get trashed talked in pundit circles and at media parties." As Atrios reminded me yesterday via Twitter about Ambinder's pronouncement: "Do not question the rites of the high priests. The mass is in Latin for a reason."

While it's not surprising that the journalists who shape our campaign coverage think that way, it is unusual to see it expressed as explicitly and brazenly as Ambinder expresses it here. It's far more common for journalists to maintain the pretense that they are members of a "profession" which, by virtue of the impact they have on the country and the privileges conferred on them by it, does actually entail "duties and obligations," and that those "duties and obligations" are a matter of legitimate public interest and debate. Some form of ignoble credit, I suppose, is due Ambinder for candidly acknowledging his petulant indifference to such notions ("read elsewhere if you want to play that game. I'll abstain").

* * * *

More notably, Yglesias, while criticizing Ambinder's narrow point about the role journalists play in enabling the McCain campaign's specific falsehoods, proceeds, in reply, to embrace Ambinder's overarching view about the duties of journalists (or, more accurately, the lack thereof):

Maybe it's just me, but I found Marc Ambinder's reply to my post on the press and perceptions of John McCain to be tellingly defensive. Nowhere did I write that the press should be blamed for McCain getting a bounce from his convention and nowhere did I attempt to start a "Greenwaldian debate about the duties, obligations and frustrations of the press" . . .

As for the duties and obligations of the press, unlike Glenn Greenwald I don't talk about that stuff because I've had the opportunity to work alongside a lot of journalists over the years and know that, self-righteousness aside, working journalists don't in practice operate as if they have any particular duties or obligations beyond the basic self-interest that drives people in all lines of work.

This is a commonly voiced defense of journalists, but it's grounded in a false premise. It's simply untrue that "people in all lines of work" are driven by nothing other than "basic self-interest." It may be true of some people in some lines of work, but it's certainly not true of all people in all lines of work, and it's hardly unrealistic or unfair to expect people in particular professions to conduct themselves in accordance with principles other than base self-interest.

In fact, most professions, by definition, receive benefits and privileges and, in exchange, impose duties and obligations on their members that are not only separate from, but which conflict with, "basic self-interest." Doctors can't recommend unnecessary surgeries, and lawyers can't urge their clients to pursue pointless lawsuits, even if those surgeries and lawsuits will enrich the professional. They have obligations to act contrary to their self-interest in exchange for the privileges and entitlements they receive (doctors have a monopoly on providing medical services and lawyers have one on providing legal services).

Some people in those professions violate those principles, while others adhere to them only out of "self-interest," but some adhere to them out of actual conviction or sense of duty. More generally, all sorts of people -- including journalists -- make all kinds of choices that have nothing to do with their self-interest, and which even conflict with it. Notwithstanding Yglesias' personal experience "over the years working alongside a lot of journalists," the notion that most everyone acts only out of self-interest is false, and the belief that we can and should expect nothing more of journalists is quite destructive.

After all, if -- as Yglesias argues -- journalists are driven by nothing more than self-interest and nothing more can or should be expected of them, then what possible basis does Yglesias (or anyone else) have for ever criticizing anything that journalists do? If, as is almost certainly the case, many journalists perceive that meek and passive or complict coverage of the Bush administration or the McCain campaign advances their self-interest -- by allowing them to curry favor with important sources, gain access, please their bosses, develop relationships with the next potential President of the U.S. -- then aren't they doing exactly what Yglesias expects them to do and thinks they ought to be doing? How can they be criticized for any of that?

Once you posit that journalists have no obligation to do anything other than advance their self-interest, then all media criticism becomes incoherent. So what if journalists pass along McCain's lies without pointing out that they're false? So what if Judy Miller gets herself on the front page by disseminating the false war-fueling claims of unreliable sources? So what if campaign journalists fixate on petty though titillating matters, or ignore weighty though complex stories of high-level government lawbreaking, lawlessness and barbarism, or mindlessly pass along misleading Government assertions, or concoct false though dramatic and ratings-generating narratives about Al Gore? According to Yglesias (and many others), they have no duty or obligation to do anything else. Their only consideration is advancement of their self-interest, and that's how it should be.

Beyond that, the claim by journalists that they have no duties beyond self-interest is fundamentally at odds with so much of what they do and demand in other contexts. Journalists receive a whole litany of societal privileges, both in law and in practice, precisely because they're obligated -- at least in theory -- to fulfill duties to the public interest, not merely their self-interest.

When it comes to criminal investigations, subpoenas and other legal process, they have all sorts of legal protections that are unavailable to non-journalists. They are currently demanding, and are about to receive, a federal law to shield them from having to disclose their sources. Governments at all levels provide them special access and rights unavailable to the public generally. Police often have stringent rules limiting the arrest of journalists in the course of performing their duties. All of that is grounded in the premise that journalists have the duty and obligation to serve the public interest, not merely their self-interest. If self-interest is their only concern, then what possible rationale exists for granting them any of those privileges? If they have no duties and obligations other than to themselves, then they should be questioned, subpoenaed, arrested, and forced to wait in line in exactly the same way everyone else is.

Finally, the belief that most journalists actually do act out of perceived self-interest is one which I share (that's what mostly explains their behavior over the last eight years), but that belief isn't inconsistent with arguing that they ought to do otherwise, or that they are failing to fulfill duties that they have. Highlighting the passivity, mindlessness, frivolousness or falsehood-enabling and sycophantic behavior of particular journalists can generate embarrassment, shame and widespread criticisms and can discredit their media outlets -- results which can drive journalists to change their behavior due precisely to self-interest (i.e., a desire to avoid those criticisms and to negate the reputational damage). But for those criticisms to make any sense, one has to believe that journalists have actual duties and responsibilities beyond mere self-interest. Those who believe self-interest is and ought to be their only concern have no coherent basis for ever criticizing anything journalists do.

UPDATE: Ezra Klein has some excellent insights on several different though related points (h/t Bystander). The points he makes tell only part of the story of how and why the media behaves as they do in covering elections, but those points are very well made and worth considering (though Brad DeLong offers some pointed and persuasive objections to them).

UPDATE II: Thank you to all the emailers and commenters who have left consoling notes, but the word "painfully" in this post was sarcastic, not literal.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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