Thursday, July 12, 2012

More on Pulitzer’s legacy in context of fracking debate --- Are core media values changing with tools, expectations?

Last week I wrote about the role and influence of the media in the anti-fracking debate during a time when the tools and form of reporting are evolving almost as fast as the fracking story.

In response, anti-fracking activist Michael LeBron raised some good points, which give me another chance to circle back to one of my favorite subjects – the function of media. In my July 7 post, Does Gasland controversy reflect reporting in the 21st Century, I cited this quote by Joseph Pulitzer as the embodiment of values once embraced by traditional daily newspapers:

Always fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption, always fight demagogues of all parties, never belong to any party, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty.

I then questioned whether these ideals are falling from favor amid reporting generated by citizen journalist often aligned with or motivated by specific causes, or politically canted coverage from outlets like Fox News. (And I will here add MSNBC.)

Lebron is a New York City resident, artist, and board member of Damascus Citizens for Sustainability who has been an anti-fracking activist since the early days of the dispute, when water wells began going bad in Dimock, Pa. in 2009. This is what he had to say:

Tom, I'm not sure what you are saying. From the quote you selected, it sounds to me like Joe Pulitzer was an advocate for advocacy journalism!

If it could only be said that truth resides in objectively measurable phenomena and with a public that has the patience to take the time needed to observe them. This begs the question as to whether or not - in the absence of having all the relevant phenomena that is observable at the ready (indeed, who decides what is relevant?) - it is possible to observe in a way that is lacking in subjective bias and that will lead to "the truth". But isn't good science more about asking the right questions, questions that lead to ... not answers, but better answers? Ask Tony Ingraffea. [the Cornell University engineering professor and industry consultant now opposed to fracking.]

Having said that, in a society where great concentrations of wealth hang on selected definitions of "truth" and use all the tools at its disposal to aggressively frame them, "better answers" be damned if they depress 3rd quarter results, "advocates" * must provide a counterbalance by seizing the tools of journalism that have been democratized to such a great degree by the advent of the digitization era. In this age, mankind's survival may depend on it.

* and btw, aren't FOX, MSNBC, etc advocates? Why are the Michael Moores and Josh Foxes always the ones to be characterized as advocates? It is sort of like the distinction between "collateral damage" which is what the United States does, and "terrorism" which is what the folks without the drones and smart bombs do, but I digress.

Some of us think that ALL journalists are advocates. What is called "good" or "old fashioned" journalism is simply a journalism that is skilled at masking - or simply oblivious to - its own subjectivism, and that advocacy journalism is much more honest and ethical because it accepts its inevitable subjectivity.

My response to Michael:

You raise some great points. My quote of Pulitzer reflects a broad ideological baseline once paraphrased in newsroom as “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” This was the starting point for mainstream newspapers aimed at working class readers, and yes, there is no doubt that it’s a liberal one. I feel need to apologize for that. The media has always been a critical watchdog of power and an agent of reform in truly free countries. Somewhere along the line, I’m going to say during the Rush Limbaugh/Karl Rove/ Fox News era, big institutions saw they could effectively attack this liberal line and present it as bias, rather than as a natural watchdog function necessary for a government “of the people.”

Getting back to Pulitzer as an activist. Yes, he was an activist along very broad lines -- the popular press being a just equalizer for the commoner, a counterweight to the influence of wealth and power that became dangerously centralized during the Gilded Age. Pulitzer’s career spanned a time when newspapers served the working class in pre-union days of unparalleled accumulation of wealth and exploitation. But I don’t see that Pulitzer was advocating that reporters be married to any particular cause. On the contrary, he was urging them to be “drastically independent.” Everybody has his or her own interpretation and comfort level with this. I personally feel I operate better allowing myself a bit of distance between both sources and story, and my training and disposition lend themselves to this approach. I admit judging this tends to be a fine line for reporters who are diving headlong into personal and compelling story lines. While examining and critiquing the very important work of Josh Fox, I will always be open to views from people who disagree, and also to the possibility that my own views are not infallible. This is just my frame of reference, and it doesn’t diminish what Fox or Michael Moore (or any of their followers) have done.

Having worked at mainstream newspapers for decades, I can safely say that being both open minded and critical were points of pride and value in the newsroom, and that those (not on the Op Ed desk) who held strong views were very aware when their own thinking might be encroaching on a story. The newsroom culture was also marked by free thinkers from diverse backgrounds with broad knowledge of the communities and beats that they covered, and a way of connecting with their readers’ interests. Yes, there is plenty of what Fox criticizes as “he-said-she-said” journalism (often made necessary by keeping up with the most relevant and provocative issues of public interest on relentless deadlines), but I will argue there is a place for that along side of the investigations.

Times are changing, and I am not a person who fears change and who is looking at the good old days through the rosy mist of nostalgia. The new degree of freedom, power, and immediacy the Internet brings to challenge, express, and explore views is a good thing. I hope that the good things that traditional institutional reporting brings – resources, experience, talent, reach, and competiveness -- can coexist with the decentralized and very able voices of citizen journalists. If they can, I believe we are heading into another golden age of reporting.

1 comment:

  1. Tom,

    Perhaps a small point but I don't think so: Michael and I partnered up on shale gas drilling issues in early summer, 2008.

    This is important because this was before NY Governor Paterson signed the horizontal fracking legislation in July, 2008

    I had written the Opposition Brief for the NY Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee about the horizontal fracking legislation, and together with a few others including people who first clued your former newspaper, Binghamton Press and Sun Bulletin, into the shale gas scene and the paper then started covering it, Michael and I were critically important in clueing in the vast majority of the NY professional environmental organizations to the really, really big deal this was.

    Michael and I were extremely active in educating the first generation of NY fractivists and in lobbying the Governor to sign the executive order that was the de facto moratorium for shale gas drilling for NY that still exists today, four years later.

    Later that year, in November, 2008 Michael and I were the very first persons in New York State to testify to the NY Departmant of Environmental Conservation, in Allegany County, NY, about the huge issues involved in the shale fracking that they were trying to understand.

    He deserves considerable credit for his early work - the important Dimock work followed later, as you pick up on, in 2009. That, of course was important in revealing for the world some of the first huge environmental impacts of shale drilling in the just-over-the-border county of Susquehanna, PA.

    The Dimock water contamination by the driller Cabot resulted in the driller signing two consent orders in which they admitted polluting the waters of PA; specifically the water wells of about 30 families. They were subsequently fined $10 million dollars and ordered to stop drilling in the region for a long time.

    Stanley R Scobie, Ph.D., Senior Fellow, Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy.