Fair and balanced…. blech……
A great deal of this has been precipitated by Josh Wolf’s release after 226 days in jail for refusing to turn over to police video materials that he shot during a street demonstration.
The issue about ‘who is a journalist’ seems to revolve about the larger issue of ‘what is journalism’. Last week I gave a lecture at SUNY Stony Brook to the journalism department. The students there were aghast at the notion of an open platform where any ‘citizen journalist’ might publish. “They are not trained journalists”, they argued. (As they are paying thousands of dollars for such training, they might well be aghast that anyone can call themselves journalist, sans a diploma that would seem to say so).
The core issue for them, (and for many of the folks on b-roll) is the question of balance. A ‘real’ journalist presents a balanced story. When anyone can get their hands on a camera, you run the risk of ‘advocacy’.
My reply is, ‘so what’?
What is wrong with advocacy?
I would rather say that the problem with television journalism today is a distinct lack of advocacy; a lack of passion.
The ‘original’ journalists were all driven by passion and wrote as advocates. Thomas Paine, great journalist, was surely an advocate for a certain point of view. And good for it as well. He never asked for George III’s response to his ‘reporting’.
In the late 80s, when I did my first VJ stories from the Gaza Strip for MacNeil/Lehrer, I was confronted by Robert MacNeil over the ‘lack of balance’ in the pieces they had just purchased.
I had spent a month living in Jabalya Refugee Camp in the Gaza Strip. I lived with a Palestinian family. It was the first intifada. Many US television crews came to Gaza every day to ‘report’. They would arrive with Israeli film crews and military protection. They would do stand ups near the Israeli army posts, shoot some b-roll and then leave. Kids would wait for the TV crews and dutifully throw a few rocks from the distance. It was all kabuki theater, and it was all fake.
Living in Gaza for a month, I experienced first hand what drove the passions that fed the Intifada, and would later drive people to strap on explosives and blow themselves up. It is a pretty brutal life.
When I presented the pieces to MacNeil, he complained that there was no ‘balance’.
“Where is the Israeli perspective on this?” he wanted to know.
There was none. And there was not supposed to be one. I was not looking for balance. I was looking for a piece that would allow the viewer to feel what the Palestinians felt, and so to understand why they were so angry.
“When you do a piece on Soweto in South Africa”, I asked MacNeil, “do you include Praetoria’s point of view? “When y0u do a piece on the Gulags, do you we ask ‘where is Moscow’s point of view on this?’ When you do a piece on 4 little girls killed in the Birmingham bombings, do we ask ‘where is Lester Maddox’s point of view on this?’.
He got my point.
This notion of ‘balance’ is a relatively recent phenomenon in journalism. When Upton Sinclair wrote ‘The Jungle”, an expose on the meatpacking industry, it was first class journalism. No one then asked for the meat industry’s perspective.
The problem with balancing every story is that it leads to Oatmeal Journalism. Well, there is this.. but there is also this. There is this… but then again there is also this. Journalism has lost its teeth. And its bite. And for many its interest.
The same Oatmeal mentality now often infects politics. Hillary Clinton and John McCain are both Oatmeal Politicans. Midde of the road on everything. All sides pandered to.
We need something with some bite.
It won’t hurt.
What would you rather have? Oatmeal… or spicy curry?