By Christopher B. Daly
Bill Keller, former executive editor of The New York Times and keeper of the flame of traditional reporting, has squared off with Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who disclosed the Snowden leaks and an avatar of advocacy, in a debate over the meaning and future of journalism. Their debate is well worth reading and contemplating.
Here’s my take: they are actually talking past each other. Each participant represents a different definition of journalism and cannot fathom the other’s values. As I argue in my book, Covering America, they come from competing visions of the essence of journalism, each of which has a long record.
Keller stands squarely for the tradition of responsible, dispassionate, nonpartisan, factual reporting. This was articulated forcefully by Adolph Ochs, the great-grandfather of the current Times publisher, when he bought the Times in 1896. Keller seems to believe that this tradition is the only legitimate one and that all others represent a deformation or corruption of “real” journalism.
Greenwald stands squarely for the tradition of journalism that prizes journalism for its ability to change the world. This is the polemical, analytical, interpretive form of journalism that considers advocacy the essence of journalism. Practitioners like Greenwald often look down on the reporting tradition as a weak, hypocritical, trouble-avoiding compromise.
It may come as a surprise that the advocacy tradition is actually older (much older) than the reporting tradition. In America, the first newspaper launched in 1704, and for more than a century after that, most journalism in America was a fact-free zone of argument and advocacy carried out by the likes of Sam Adams and Tom Paine.
The first full-time reporter in America (the obscure figure George Wisner of the New York Sun– pgs 61-62 in Covering America) wasn’t hired until 1833, and it took decades to establish the idea that the proper contents of a newspaper were value-free “facts” gathered by non-partisan professionals.
Personally, I don’t think one tradition is inherently more virtuous or more valuable than the other. I admire the best in both worlds.