Journalist or activist — who speaks (more) truth to power?

By Caitlin Kelly

The ongoing firestorm surrounding the leaks by NSA contractor Edward Snowden to activist/journalist Glen Greenwald prompted New York Times media columnist David Carr this week to ask the question — who should we (most) believe?:

In a refracted media world where information comes from everywhere, the line between two “isms” — journalism and activism — is becoming difficult to discern. As American news media have pulled back from international coverage, nongovernmental organizations have filled in the gaps with on-the-scene reports and Web sites. State houses have lost reporters who used to provide accountability, so citizens have turned to digital enterprises, some of which have partisan agendas.

The question of who is a journalist and who is an activist and whether they can be one and the same continues to roar along, most recently in the instance of Glenn Greenwald’s reporting for The Guardian on the secrets revealed by Edward J. Snowden.

Sometimes, a writer’s motives or leanings emerge between the lines over time, but you need only to read a few sentences of Mr. Greenwald’s blog to know exactly where he stands. Mr. Greenwald is an activist who is deeply suspicious of government and the national security apparatus, and he is a zealous defender of privacy and civil rights.

He is also a journalist.

In some countries, the question is less pressing, perhaps, but in the United States, “objectivity” is professionally expected, and demanded, of anyone who purports to be a news journalist.

English: Globe and Mail newspaper staff wait f...
English: Globe and Mail newspaper staff wait for news of the D-Day invasion. Toronto, Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been writing freelance for The New York Times since 1990 — an organization ferociously guarding its reputation. Every freelancer who writes for the Times is sent a long and detailed ethics code we’re all expected to abide by; this includes not accepting free trips, writing about people we know personally or covering a firm or product in which we have a financial interest.

The word “journalist” is, though has many different variations, sort of like the word “antique” — someone who rewrites press releases and hits “publish” or who trills about mascara and shoes is, in some eyes, as much a journalist  as someone with the respect and stature of Pulitzer Prize winners, like Katherine Boo or the late David Halberstam.

One of the reasons this matters more now is that many younger readers don’t look to standard media outlets, like newspapers, radio or television, to find out what’s happening in the world.

They only want to know what’s happening in their world, or to their friends or political allies.

Now some bloggers are doing what journalists traditionally have done — bearing witness firsthand — like this one, whose powerful account of the violence against women in Tahrir Square in Cairo is deeply depressing, but essential to know.

English: Tahrir Square, with the Egyptian Muse...
English: Tahrir Square, with the Egyptian Museum on left, circa 1940s Cairo (over 70 years ago). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She’s both a journalist, (by reporting this) and an activist; Opantish is a group fighting sexual assault on women:

Yesterday, June 30th, some friends and I joined a march
from Saray el Kobba to the presidential palace calling for Morsy’s
departure and also rejecting military rule. The atmosphere was largely
festive, with singing, chanting, banners and flags. After we joined
other marches congregating at the palace we stood around drinking iced
coffee in the shade, disoriented by the safe, upbeat atmosphere after
days of anxiety and with the knowledge that things would surely be
violent elsewhere in the country. I left to go to Tahrir and work with
Opantish, which was operating that evening.

Like many, I was stunned by how Tahrir and the surrounding streets
were carpeted by people protesting, mostly chanting against Morsy. I had
not seen so many people out around Tahrir before, not in the 18 days
that unseated Mubarak in 2011 or at any other time. Military helicopters
frequently circled the square, at one point bizarrely dropping Egyptian
flags onto the crowd in a blatant gesture of political partiality.

The atmosphere felt more threatening to me immediately after getting
out of the taxi near Tahrir, at which point it was still daylight. I
don’t understand what kind of subliminal group psychology contributes to
this, but it seems like there is some consensus that Tahrir and
downtown are areas where it is particularly ok to harass women. I don’t
know if geographic locations develop  certain reputations, and therefore
bring this behavior out in people.

I started my shift with Opantish at around 7 30 last night. We did
not wrap up until after 3 in the morning. We received 46 reports of
cases of mob sexual assault in and around Tahrir.

I’ve been making my living as a journalist since university, and have been a reporter for three major dailies, The Globe and Mail and Montreal Gazette, in Canada and the New York Daily News, the U.S.’s sixth-largest daily. In those jobs, I was expected to be fair to both sides, giving, whenever possible, both versions of whatever story I was covering. Although some stories — like this one about mobs of men attacking and raping women — really don’t have a defensible or rational “other side” to seek and share.

A Dutch female journalist was raped by five men, in return for trying to do her job. Should she, as some comments suggest here at Jezebel, an American feminist website, not have gone to Tahrir Square at all?

New York Daily News front page on August 9
New York Daily News front page on August 9 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The one place I can take the gloves off, intellectually speaking, is in my books — and I have. In them, I’m able to ferociously and unapologetically state my personal opinion, and advocate for or against anything I want.

My first book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” includes interviews with 104 men, women and teens, some who love guns and others traumatized by their use. A few critics cringed at my graphic descriptions of what a bullet does when it hits flesh.

My second book — published this month in China — describes my experience, and that of many others nationwide, working for low wages in a store, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.” I took my employer to the woodshed in its final chapter, fed up with terrible pay and escalating demands, rude customers and an ongoing lack of corporate support for front-line workers everywhere, not just our suburban New York mall.

I later received dozens of private emails, from retail workers past and present, thanking me for speaking out, telling the ugly truths behind the bright lights and costly ad campaigns. I was glad to be able to tell their stories.

Someone has to.

Where are you getting your information about the world?

Are you out there actively fighting for or against a cause — and writing about it?

Who — if anyone — do you believe?

18 thoughts on “Journalist or activist — who speaks (more) truth to power?

  1. I tend to believe the reporters on the ground who are immersed in actual reality (as you were). We have all seen how governments and corporations twist things for their own purposes and ends. I tend to think Snowden is a hero for exposing the surveillance of American people and admire whistleblowers in general for the risks they take.

  2. I know that sometimes journalists and activists can’t be the same thing, especially when objectivity is compromised. There are plenty of activists who purport to be journalists on how “terrible” is, but when you look at the facts, there are numerous inaccuracies to even eyewitness accounts, and you see that it is all just more propaganda against Israel.

  3. Read everyone. Don’t completely believe anyone. Everyone is telling portions of truth. No one knows the entire truth or is wiling to tell it. And everyone is biased. That’s what I think.

    But I actually don’t keep up very well with current events. Most of what is happening in the world at any given moment seems an awful lot like something that has happened before elsewhere and the fact that this seems to have been the case most of my life depresses me. The same things keep happening, and we keep responding in more or less the same unhelpful ways. And we keep acting shocked over tragedies we should have expected, if not actually prevented. I can’t really take the idea that we don’t seem to learn from our mistakes–not in less than 50-100 years at least. And then very soon after we learn our lesson, we forget all over again.

    Snowden is a prime example. Didn’t we know that? Why on earth are we surprised? Where have we been that we didn’t see that coming? In a cave?

    But I think it’s a very good thing that others don’t feel that way and can take it and can keep trying.

    1. I agree. Much of the “news” is not new at all.

      One of the reasons, I think, we keep seeing the same five stories is that politicians care only about re-election with two to four to six years — so all the problems we elect them to fix or resolve they ignore because so many of them require much longer-term planning and cooperation. If they’re around to reap the glory and benefits, they don’t fight for it.

  4. Excellent post on a very important topic, Caitlin. As a journalist of the (very) old school I point out that a lot of the journalist/activist confusion is caused by the failure of many new school journalists to even try to get the truth of a story. Instead, they just report a couple of opposing views and leave it at that. Especially true of TV, of course.

    1. The problem — not an excuse but it is a problem — is that pay rates, esp. for web writing – are a joke. Like $150 for a post. There is no economic incentive to dig deep(ly) and clearly no larger moral or ethical one beyond that.

  5. I take everything I read with due pinches of salt. Journalism in New Zealand – and, I guess, elsewhere – has become commercialised, shallowed, reduced to entertainment. TV presenters are hired for their looks, news is organised not for insightful depth but as a device to lure an audience.

    Twenty years ago, I was freelancing for New Zealand’s main metropolitan daily, the Dominion. Its features editor was a craggy, outspoken, old school curmudgeon of a journalist who’d forgotten more about the craft of it than I’m ever going to know – and who taught me more, on the hoof, than I could ever have learned in a class.

    It was thanks to him that, with disingenuous straight face, I asked a British Rear-Admiral whether his warship was nuclear armed, knowing very well he couldn’t answer – and that if it was nuclear armed, it wouldn’t be in New Zealand waters. The response gave me the angle on the story and a headline, and it wasn’t at the expense of the Rear-Admiral, either.

    I can’t find journalists like that in the media today. Or their pupils. I think in old-school terms, every story still had a spin to it – but the spin was directed towards authenticity – towards techniques for getting that story out, and exposing the issues. We’ve lost that today. And I don’t think the diffusion of news via activism is a substitute; it’s fodder for the entertainment-mongers, but as you point out, directed to ends of its own. These don’t, to my mind, constitute investigative journalism.

    Which is why I don’t believe everything I’m reading about the Snowden scandal. There will be two sides to that story. Or more. Time will doubtless reveal them.

    1. It’s very disturbing to me that a generation of people who actually know how to report are all being fired or retiring — and often being replaced by 20 year olds with no understanding of these principles, seduced by tech.

  6. This (your final question) is a tough one to answer. I was reared to believe all men(and women) are liars (according to new testament.) After being duped myself for 19 years, I rarely take a story at face value. It might be more beneficial to state whom I do not believe: Fox News and any station or reporter that uses histrionics to convey their journalism. No Pentecostal persuasions will work on me. If there is a story about the rich and powerful overpowering the poor and weak, I will almost always believe it, because I’ve lived it, and because, according to Durant, thus it has been since nearly the beginning of time. As for sources, I have some favorites…Sylvia Poggioli, Rene Montagne, David Brooks, you….

  7. Fascinating post and discussion. But is it really a generational thing?

    Journalism has been around for centuries, and the technology for getting journalism to the masses has always changed. Perhaps where there’s any issue is that journalism is changing so quickly and, as human beings are inherently lazy creatures, we just want the ‘news’ quickly and efficiently – headlines, weather, sports results. I’m amazed at how many people – of all ages – rely on their Twitter feeds to keep them ‘informed’.

    How does the deep, exploratory journalism happen? As you say, are the broadsheets committed to it? Are there financial incentives?

    Thankfully in Australia we have a fairly free and open media, and the government-owned Australian Broadcasting Commission remains committed (more or less) to investigative journalism.

    We certainly need the media in our democracies!

    1. It’s generational in that many younger people — an accelerating trend for 20 years — do not read the newspaper. So, what are their reliable sources of objective news?

      Ironically, it is newspapers that — some — still invest the time and money in skilled reporters and the time and money for them to do “deep dives”. Also, National Public Radio.

      Are you familiar with ProPublica? They do it here as well.

  8. Nice post Caitlin. I’m a fan!
    I still get my news from traditional, supposedly ‘impartial’ sources. But I have a deep appreciation for the insight Journo-activists contribute to our understanding of issues.

    And I see no conflict of interest when journalists are also activists because as you point out in your post, the idea that there’s always another side worth considering is simply not the case.

    In the end, a competent journo-activist may be more inclined to consider an alternative view if only to strengthen the objective legitimacy of her position. This is journalism at its best.

    1. Thanks!

      Employers, depending where you work (i.e.a newspaper or wire service) have some very strict rules about what activities — i.e. political — their staffers are allowed to do, to protect their brand of objectivity.

  9. Nemesis

    “There are a lot of ways to practice the art of journalism, and one of them is to use your art like a hammer to destroy the right people — who are almost always your enemies, for one reason or another, and who usually deserve to be crippled, because they are wrong. This is a dangerous notion, and very few professional journalists will endorse it — calling it “vengeful” and “primitive” and “perverse” regardless of how often they might do the same thing themselves. “That kind of stuff is opinion,” they say, “and the reader is cheated if it’s not labelled as opinion.” Well, maybe so. Maybe Tom Paine cheated his readers and Mark Twain was a devious fraud with no morals at all who used journalism for his own foul ends. And maybe H. L. Mencken should have been locked up for trying to pass off his opinions on gullible readers and normal “objective journalism.” Mencken understood that politics — as used in journalism — was the art of controlling his environment, and he made no apologies for it. In my case, using what politely might be called “advocacy journalism,” I’ve used reporting as a weapon to affect political situations that bear down on my environment.” – Hunter S. Thompson, Better than Sex (22 August 1994)

    “Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits — a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo-cage.” ― Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream

    [NoteToMsMalled: I thought a little Hunter might liven things up a bit. Sadly, a scheduling conflict once prevented our working together… If you ever want to visit Ralph Steadman, however…]

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