Are we bidding farewell to advocacy journalism?

Posted Aug. 16, 2010, at 6:11 p.m.

With the passing of Daniel Schorr and the forced retirement of Helen Thomas, are we bidding farewell to “advocacy journalism,” the journalist who makes news rather than reports it? I think not. All journalism is advocacy of one sort or another.

That Thomas and Schorr have no clear successors hardly demonstrates the passing of advocacy journalism. A journalist’s questions neither are nor can be merely neutral and descriptive. Advocacy journalism remains a staple of the D.C. press corps, but it is advocacy on behalf of the privileged and the powerful.

Compare two questions at President Barack Obama’s first press conference:

Question 1: “What is your strategy for engaging Iran? And when will you start to implement it? Will your timetable be affected at all by the Iranian elections? And are you getting any indications that Iran is interested in a dialogue with the United States?

Question 2: “Mr. President, do you think that Pakistan and [the other country was inaudible, according to a transcript] are maintaining the safe havens in Afghanistan for these so-called terrorists? And, also, do you know of any country in the Middle East that has nuclear weapons?”

On the surface, the first question simply asks the president about his plans and updates on diplomacy with Iran. But every question is asked from a particular set of interests and reflects at least some initial orientation to the issue.

Question 1 accepts a U.S. obligation to “engage” Iran. Only the timetable is up for debate. And dialogue suggests an offer of a respectful conversation among equals.

Of course many readers will say — “well of course, Iran is about to acquire nuclear weapons and has a very bellicose president.” Such a response, however, begs two questions. In the wake of Iraq, just how solid is our “knowledge” of Iran’s nuclear weapons program?

The second question, from Helen Thomas, really raises some of the issues that are simply assumed or wished away in the first.

In conventional press commentary, the first reporter, Karen Boeing of Reuters, is just reporting. The second is practicing advocacy journalism. National press criticism, where the press looks at itself, further protects the powerful and the privileged by singling out questions and reporters who implicitly or explicitly challenge the status quo as advocates not reporters.

Erwin Knoll, my late senior colleague at the Progressive, was longtime White House correspondent for Newhouse Newspapers. Time Magazine once labeled him President Lyndon Johnson’s toughest questioner. After he received the honor, LBJ never again called upon him. Apparently even the appearance of toughness is enough to lose access, so precious to aspiring D.C. reporters.

Erwin often amused himself with lists of questions the press should ask the president. I’d like to compare two imaginary ones of my own. Walter McMagic Market: “Absent congressional action, the death tax is scheduled to revert to a level where many small- business owners worry they can’t leave their farms and shops to their sons and daughters. Will you advocate reform to prevent that?”

Rudolf “Red” Prole: “Mr. President, some reports suggest that government subsidies to the wealthy have left us with levels of inequality not seen since the Gilded Age. Would you support a wealth tax to keep us from becoming a plutocracy?”

Both questions have or imply a political agenda. Particular terms color and inflect the issues in different ways. Even if a president’s answer strives to change the thrust of a question, the initial salvo alters debate. It is now out there in cyberspace and in our subconscious.

As George Lakoff has suggested, once Nixon told us “I am not a crook,” no matter how lucid his defense, an image had been planted. Not irrevocably so, but in ways that take a toll and exact a price.

Questions can have similar impact.

In both my press criticism and my own journalism, I’ll subscribe to Bill Moyers’ advice in his final broadcast: “I take my cue from the late Edward R. Murrow. Ed Murrow told his generation of journalists bias is OK as long as you don’t try to hide it. So here, one more time, is mine: Plutocracy and democracy don’t mix. Plutocracy, the rule of the rich, political power controlled by the wealthy.”

John Buell is a political economist who lives in Southwest Harbor. Readers may contact him at jbuell@acadia.net.

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