Investigative Journalism Project Reveals Problem at Core of Mainstream Journalism

(Published in the German magazine Message: internationale Fachzeitschrift für Journalismus, January 2008)

Pro Publica, an initiative launched last month in the United States to help revitalize investigative journalism, is a great idea trapped by the worst aspects of the best instincts in contemporary corporate commercial journalism. The project reminds us of important values at the core of the craft of journalism, but also exposes the common political confusions of mainstream journalists that so often undermine their best efforts.

Launched with a multi-million dollar grant from Herbert M. and Marion O. Sandler, who made their fortune with the Golden West Financial Corp. they sold in 2006, Pro Publica’s goal is to provide serious investigate work that is increasingly rare in a mass-media system more focused on the bottom line than on higher values. Paul E. Steiger, who stepped down as managing editor of The Wall Street Journal this spring, will be the editor-in-chief.

Pro Publica plans to function as an independent newsroom staffed by some of the country’s top journalists, offering stories to a variety of media outlets under various distribution arrangements. There are potential complications in how the project’s journalists will work with commercial media — which will continue, of course, to operate in a competitive environment that tends to discourage cooperative ventures — but those will likely be worked out if the project produces quality journalism.

So far, so good. There’s a problem: Managers of the profit-hungry corporations that produce most of the country’s journalism have fewer resources to do their jobs, which predictably leads to less of the investigative journalism that requires time and money. The proposed solution: Committed journalists, backed by well-intentioned benefactors, step in to fill the gap through Pro Publica.

But the more vexing problem — and what may make the project, in the end, largely irrelevant — becomes clear in reading the mission statement of the group, which includes these crucial two paragraphs:

This newsroom will focus exclusively on truly important stories, stories with “moral force.” We will do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them. In so doing, in the best traditions of American journalism in the public service, we will stimulate positive change. We will uncover unsavory practices in order to stimulate reform.

We will do this in an entirely non-partisan and non-ideological manner, adhering to the strictest standards of journalistic impartiality. We won’t lobby. We won’t ally with politicians or advocacy groups. We will look hard at the critical functions of business and of government, the two biggest centers of power, in areas ranging from product safety to securities fraud, from flaws in our system of criminal justice to practices that undermine fair elections. But we will also focus on such institutions as unions, universities, hospitals, foundations and on the media when they constitute the strong exploiting or oppressing the weak, or when they are abusing the public trust.

This articulation of the “comfort the afflicted/afflict the comfortable” mission of journalism is fine. But the mission statement makes it clear that the focus will be to “uncover unsavory practices” that and can lead to “reform.” But what if the crucial questions that the contemporary world faces are not rooted in practices but in systems? What if we should focus not on the unsavory actions of people wor king in institutions, but on the nature of those institutions themselves? What if the goal should be not reform but a radical transformation of the hierarchical systems in which we live? What if, instead of chasing the latest scandal, the real work of investigative journalism should be a sustained critique of First-World imperialism and predatory corporate capitalism in the context of white supremacy and patriarchy? What if that’s the analysis that really gets to the core of an unjust and unsustainable world?

Those questions reflect my politics and ideology, my way of understanding how the world works. Maybe I’m right, and maybe I’m not. I don’t claim to be non-partisan or non-ideological. But no one else can make such a claim either, and therein lies the failure of Pro Publica and contemporary journalism more generally. Mainstream journalists typically will not understand their work as inherently political and ideological, even though that is the case of any attempt to understand how the world works. This invocation of “journalistic impartiality” is simply a reminder that most of contemporary corporate commercial journalism is trapped within those dominant systems of power.

Some critics have expressed concern that the Sandlers’ past support of Democratic Party candidates and liberal causes will skew the coverage of Pro Publica, [see Jack Shafer, “What Do Herbert and Marion Sandler Want? Investigating the funders of ProPublica, the new investigative journalism outfit,” Slate, October 15, 2007.] but that misses the point, for two reasons. First, there’s no more reason to doubt the group’s commitment to an editorial agenda independent of a particular party or politician than there would be for any commercial media outlet, in which journalists are beholden to owners. Second, the assumptions about power behind the liberal politics of people like the Sandlers are well within the conventional wisdom that embraces corporate capitalism and U.S. “leadership in the world” (which really means “domination of”) as the natural order; if not the mission statement of Pro Publica would have been quite different.

By detaching from the need to make a profit, Pro Publica takes the first step of freeing journalists from the constraints that so often limit the craft. But journalists cannot spring the trap unless they abandon the naiveté that leads to the idea that they can hover above politics — understood not merely as the struggles between competing configurations of elites but more basic questions about the distribution of power.

Yes, it’s important for journalists not to become shills for a particular party or cause; independence is at the core of modern journalism. Yes, journalists should always avoid dogmatism; ideological positions can easily calcify and inhibit critical inquiry. But if we understand politics and ideology as a feature of human thought and always present — everyone works from a set of assumptions about the nature of people and power, and everyone has an ideology whether or not they acknowledge it — then we can see the limits of this approach. Journalists’ claims to be outside politics and ideology simply mean that they will be trapped within conventional politics and captured by the dominant ideology.

I think Pro Publica is correct in focusing on business and government, “the two biggest centers of power.” But instead of seeing the problems as ranging from “product safety to securities fraud,” what if the group investigated the commodification of everything in a capitalist system and the fundamental illegitimacy of corporate structures? What if instead of pointing at “flaws in our system of criminal justice to practices that undermine fair elections,” Pro Publica journalists covered how the law legitimizes the everyday crimes of the powerful and how money-dominated pseudo-elections eliminate meaningful democracy?

Again, maybe my analysis of an appropriate mission for journalism is right, maybe it’s wrong. But it’s no more or less political and ideological than Pro Publica’s.

Some may argue that this critique is unfair. After all, the problems we face in the United States are hardly the fault of journalists, and one can’t expect journalists alone to solve them. I agree — a degraded political culture has to be addressed at many levels. I believe that independent journalism has a role to p lay , but only if journalism as an institution abandons illusions of neutrality, confronts its place in a corporate commercial system, and makes clear its own political commitments.

Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. His latest book is We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out (Monkey Wrench Books). Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing (Media Education Foundation, 2009), which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist. An extended interview Jensen conducted with Osheroff is online. He can be reached at: rjensen@austin.utexas.edu. Twitter: @jensenrobertw. Read other articles by Robert, or visit Robert's website.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Brian Koontz said on January 30th, 2008 at 8:12pm #

    What you’re describing as your own want is populist media, and that will never be funded by the powers that be. You seem to believe that the left can “convince” or shame faux-journalists into becoming real journalists, but shame only works on people who are already real journalists. Those who report for CNN, or Fox News, have already sold out.

    We need to write off the corporate media as the trash that it is. Honor populist media like Democracy Now!, The Real News, and this very website. There is this insane longing for a time when mainstream media was respectable, but that golden age existed only in some people’s minds.

    The sooner we all write off the corporate media, the sooner we’ll get to where we want to go.

  2. Wingnut said on January 31st, 2008 at 10:13am #

    Hi gang!

    Bob said…

    “What if, instead of chasing the latest scandal, the real work of investigative journalism should be a sustained critique of First-World imperialism and predatory corporate capitalism in the context of white supremacy and patriarchy? What if that’s the analysis that really gets to the core of an unjust and unsustainable world?”

    Yeah, what if?

    http://blog.acton.org/index.php?url=archives/2153-Natural-Capitalism.html

    Be sure to come back to THIS fine news-blog when you’re done reading there. Rem control-mousewheel is sometimes available for in-browser font-sizing… makes online reading easier. Bob, good article… interesting topic. Brian… I wish I could disagree with your comment… out of pure hope for mankind. But I can’t. Sigh.

    Wingnut
    Anti-cap
    Michigan USA

  3. Barbara said on February 1st, 2008 at 12:16am #

    Please forgive if this merely restates in a more obvious way what the article implies in its questions.

    But, in its naming of “business and . . . government” as “the two biggest centers of power”, with “product safety to securities fraud” and “flaws in our system of criminal justice to practices that undermine fair elections . . . also . . . such institutions as unions, universities, hospitals, foundations and on the media” as the range of subjects to be investigated, I see avoidance, forgetfulness, and perhaps tooth-extraction. Certainly this prospectus ignores the breadth and depth (not to mention stench) of corruption in business, government, and named institutions (and deletions of uncorruptible ones). Banks and the military are left unmentioned, also aspects of the legal system other than those categorized as “criminal” — despite the fact that in the great majority of “crimes” prosecuted, there is no victim except the defendant/prisoner (the point at which all recourse to justice vanishes). Additionally, seemingly forgotten is the public document produced, signed, and published, in prominent newspapers of record in this country in 2000, by eminent lawyers, judges, and law professors, that declared that “criminal justice system” not “flawed,” but so utterly corrupt as to be incapable of reform, calling for its dismantlement.

    Unconsidered: U.S. citizenry’s lack of familiarity with, much less practice of, solidarity; while a solidarity of resistance is to U.S. a foreign land and tongue.

    Unaddressed: the technologically and psychologically sophisticated violences by which the security state/supra-state (the tip of an ever more solidly inter-locked iceberg?) operates, employing financial, spatial, and accessibility controls that approach the totalitarian in scope and scale; along with perverse consequences attendant on different forms of deviation or demur, rewarding (usually) the worst, and punishing (often) the best or the most vulnerable. The evidence suggests these controls and consequences to be sufficiently ubiquitous and swift, to confine to designated channels whatever flows of information the proposed investigations might set in motion. Moreover, how is one to evaluate these investigations, or those who make them, given the intent to collaborate with the five — or are we now down to four? — communications conglomerates and their Pentagonal ghost-writers? How is one even to guess at if/when independence and integrity may have been traded for something else?

    Submitted with much appreciation and warm praise for, and respectful encouragement to, Robert Jensen and all the Dissident Voices.

  4. AngieatWhatNewsShouldBeDotOrg said on February 5th, 2008 at 11:44pm #

    Jensen, apparently believing like I do, that the range of problems these newly funded ‘Pro Publica’ journalists are supposed to be tackling, “from product safety to securities fraud” is laughably narrow, asks wouldn’t if be better if instead:

    “the group investigated the commodification of everything in a capitalist system and the fundamental illegitimacy of corporate structures? What if instead of pointing at “flaws in our system of criminal justice to practices that undermine fair elections,” Pro Publica journalists covered how the law legitimizes the everyday crimes of the powerful and how money-dominated pseudo-elections eliminate meaningful democracy?

    My “what if” is much simpler and plainer than that. What if this group of journalists started with the premise that each human life on this planet was equally worthy and so the most important news stories are those stories which concern the greatest number of people in the most serious (life-and-death) ways? To see what this news looks like, see my website: http://www.WhatNewsShouldBe.org . What if journalists heeded the challenges presented to them 40 years ago by Martin Luther King Jr. just 4 days before he was gunned down – the challenge “to develop a world perspective” and the challenge “to rid our nation and the world of poverty.”

    Pro publica advises that their “newsroom will focus exclusively on truly important stories, stories with “moral force.”

    Please tell me, Pro Publica, on how you can do that if your news stories don’t address the needless death each year of 11 million kids? Please tell me how any entity that calls themselves a newsroom or a news publication can claim to provide news when it doesn’t address the stories which affect the largest number of human beings in the most serious way? How many left wing alternative news internet & other entities will continue NOT prominently addressing THE MOST PRESSING PROBLEMS FACING HUMANITY TODAY – like the very dismal state of humanity itself, with 41 percent of it without sanitation; 17 percent without clean water; and 25 percent without electricity? That’s my litmus test for “TRULY IMPORTANT STORIES, STORIES WITH ‘MORAL FORCE’, those that address the most pressing problems facing humanity. What’s your litmus test?

    Angie
    http://www.WhatNewsShouldBe.org
    P.S. – For a link to King’s complete sermon, and for footnotes for all the above statistics, as well as information on the accuracy of such statistics generally, see my website, http://www.WhatNewsShouldBe.org , and more particularly, to read a discussion on how those in power don’t even see fit to accurately count humanity or quantify its needless death & suffering even though everyone knows that to solve a problem you first have to know its scope, see http://mysite.verizon.net/vze25x9n/wnsb/id15.html . That story alone would make for incredibly important investigative journalism that still needs to be done. Is there anything more important than the daily UNNECESSARY death and suffering that takes place in this world today on an unimaginable scale? If not, then there’s no more important news story. It’s that simple.