Thursday, June 13, 2013

In defense of political journalists

A street in Tainan
Rather than actually counter arguments, critics of journalists often come up with theories about ulterior motives, as if everybody were willing to sell their soul 

If this writer could somehow encompass all the character traits of which he has been accused over the years, or if he were afflicted by all the mental conditions that self-made psychiatrists have identified in him, he would have been institutionalized long ago, and would be sharing a dank cell with Cinicinnatus C. 

Who is this writer? What is he? He writes about politics, mostly, as a journalist who also often tips his toe into the dangerous waters of opinion. He is motivated by an urge to explore, to understand, and to tell. He does it because he cannot conceive of himself doing anything else, and because he suffers from a serious case of hypergraphia. He regards his work as a responsibility — not only to conduct his work honestly and professionally, but also to demonstrate an ability to learn, to grow, and to progress, even if, in the extreme, this results is positions that contradict his previous work. He believes, above all, in the need to be the antithesis of stasis. 

The late Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscincki, writing about Herodotus, perhaps put it best: “The man who ceases to be astonished is hollow, possessed of an extinguished heart. If he believes that everything has already happened, that he has seen it all, then something most precious has died within him — the delight in life.” 

It would be reasonable to assume that most journalists, at least those who regard the profession as a calling rather than simply a job, are animated by feelings that approximate those stated above. And yet the expectation from readers, many of whom seem to take devilish pleasure in hating journalists, is that reporters should be little more than propagandists, that their work should not challenge their assumptions, but instead support, or reinforce, their preconceived ideas. When a journalist refuses to do that, those readers react in horror, and rather than parry with a solid counterargument, they come up with sundry reasons to explain why the journalist has lost his way. Here are some of the theories that have been advanced with regards to this writer over the past two years. Every single one of them does away with human agency, with free will; each one hints rather emphatically at ulterior motive:

He criticizes the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) to please his masters, the “green camp,” and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP); he publishes an article about Chinese espionage in the Wall Street Journal on the orders of the Liberty Times and/or the DPP to make the KMT and the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration look bad ahead of an important U.S. arms sales announcement; he calls for expatriate humility because he suffers from Stockholm Syndrome after the KMT threatened to expel him for his piece in the Journal; he “hates old people”; he points out successes in the Ma administration because he needs to maintain access to high-ranking officials; he writes for the money and therefore cannot be trusted (a theory that could only be advanced by someone who has never worked as a journalist); or he “shifted to the right,” as a friend wrote recently, because he is angling for a cushy job at a think tank in Washington, D.C. 

All of this is wrong — cheap, and downright insulting, in fact. Things are far more simple, or complex, depending on how one looks at it. Most journalists worth their salt will not sell their souls, period. They accept crappy salaries, equally crappy work hours, constantly fight with their bosses so as to be able to do their job, and will even accept pay cuts, demotions, to join news organizations which they perceive are closer ideologically to their own views. 

If this writer’s sole motivations were glory, comfort and riches, he would not have abandoned a promising career in Canadian intelligence, let alone write a highly critical book about the agency he’d worked for, at some personal risk. He would not be constantly subjected to criticism — threats, even — from managers at his current job. Every day, other journalists go through similar trials as they conduct their work, and will on occasion put their personal safety on the line for the sake of a story (this much cannot be said of their critics). Yes, there are bad journalists oout there, plenty of them, unfortunately. But not all of them are rotten, and in fact, the rotten ones are those who ceased to be astonished, who have seen it all. 

This writer’s views on politics in Taiwan have indeed shifted in recent years, but not for the reasons invented by his critics. He has made a journey, and if he has become more critical of the green camp, it is because he generally sees it to be failing, its ways self-defeating, its constituents incapable of moving beyond a past that long ago ceased to be valid. Money, future jobs, the urge to please power, Stockholm Syndrome, have nothing to do with it. 

We’re human, we make mistakes, and we’re certainly not always right. But give us some credit: we have free will, agency, and we are not, despite the polluting, corrupting nastiness of the politics we come in contact with on a daily basis, cynics who will sell our principles for the sake of a few more dollars, or the chance to secure a more prestigious job in the uncertain future. We’re not all Adrian Leverkuhns. Most of us have a rigidly ethical and principled approach to journalism and will never agree to write something we don’t believe to be true.

No comments: