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June 10, 2005

"When I’m Reporting, I am a Citizen of the World.”

That's a quote from CNN's Bob Franken. A tour through his press think shows why I ask the Big Journalism Deans: if schools like yours are supposed to spread the gospel, how do they know they have the religion right?

National Review Online has a new media blog, and the editors are asking readers to help name it. My suggestion was Right Justified. I doubt they will use it.

They’ve assigned a young reporter to the blog, Stephen Spruiell, 25. He has a Journalism degree, a Masters in Public Affairs from the LBJ School at the University of Texas, and a bit of Washington experience. Plus, he’s written pieces for the National Review. I predict he is going to do well if he stays with the media blog and develops it. This post explains his approach: “More than just looking out for liberal bias,” he says. Bravo. That would be an intellectual advance.

Most who are sold on one or another bias charge will duck the question (and some of you will duck it too) but here it is, anyway— a hard problem in press criticism.

You’ve told me how the press is biased, and you’ve also told me that a completely unbiased press is not possible in this world. In your view, what sort of bias should the American press have, given where it finds itself today?

This is not answerable in the religion of the mainstream newsroom. If Stephen Spruiell wants to go beyond looking for liberal bias he might take a crack at it. His corner of National Review Online debuted Tuesday. On Wednesday he wrote a clever item about an odd passage in Alan Feuer’s book, Over There: From the Bronx to Baghdad, published May 24.

Feuer is a New York Times reporter who was lifted out of the Bronx bureau and sent to Iraq at the start of the U.S. invasion. The book is “Two Months in the Life of a Reluctant Reporter,” and portions of it are satirical about being part of the press pack.

The Feuer book, which I have not read yet, has gotten publicity for instances of literary license (see Regret the Error.) The book has a narrator. The narrator’s name is not Alan Feuer, but T.R., which stands for This Reporter. The book is voiced in the third person. “T.R” did this. “He” did that.

Feuer is said to have been inspired by Norman Mailer, who was said to have been inspired by The Education of Henry Adams (1918). When Mailer did it his narrator was called “Norman Mailer,” or just “Mailer.”

Feuer invents a new character T.R., which adds an additional layer of indefiniteness, and raises the question of what else might be invented. Matters aren’t helped when Feuer says he has written a “book of recollected memory, not recorded fact.”

Skies darken for the author when New York Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis, in response to questions from a New York Observer reporter, says that “T.R.” is an unreliable narrator. She also says he was a reliable narrator back when he was reporting as Alan Feuer for the New York Times.

“In the book itself, Feuer acknowledges that he has taken liberties with his reminiscences,” Mathis wrote in an e-mail response to the Observer. “We very much believe that is the case.”

If I were Alan Feuer’s agent, I would be asking myself: how did we misplay this? (Book agent with an opinion? E-mail me.) Because if Catherine Mathis is calling you unreliable and you work for the New York Times, you miscalculated somewhere.

One of those “reminiscences” she talked about interested National Review’s new media blogger, as it interests me. Here’s the way Feuer, reluctant reporter, described a disagreement with CNN’s veteran correspondent, Bob Franken:

His quarrel with Franken had begun the very moment Franken had expressed his horror that Fox News anchors wore American flag lapel pins on the air.

“How can you be a patriot and a journalist?” Franken had asked. “They’re mutually exclusive occupations.” T.R., who considered himself both, had asked why Franken could not love his country, to which had come the answer, “America is not my country. I’m a citizen of the world.”

“Like Danny Pearl?” T.R. had asked. “You are American, Bob… it is a nonnegotiable fact.”

“My goodness,” Franken had said. “I think your employers at the New York Times would be horrified, horrified! to hear you say a thing like that.”

Which, if it happened that way, is quite the exchange. Thinking the story could be unreliable, Spruiell calls Bob Franken and asks him: did this happen? Franken doesn’t know he’s in Alan Feuer’s book. Franken says the story is not wholly accurate, but mostly. He says he didn’t say that being a patriot excludes being a journalist, or vice versa.

Franken said, “What I said and what I meant is you can be a patriot and a journalist. My point was and is that we exhibit our patriotism by being journalists — that is, skeptics… What I said was, ‘When I’m reporting, I am a citizen of the world.’”

In Franken’s view, “Wearing an American flag while on the air leaves the impression that we are believing the U.S. government and not believing those who challenge the U.S. government, and that is a lesson we should have learned a long time ago from Vietnam — that we have to be skeptical about claims no matter who makes them.”

I found this little tour through Franken’s press think mildly fascinating (especially the “citizen of the world” part) and also timely for things I am trying to discern at PressThink. In my last post on Watergate as “newsroom religion,” I described part of it:

In the daily religion of the news tribe, ordinary believers do not call themselves believers. (In fact, “true believer” is a casting out term in journalism, an insult.) The Skeptics. That’s who journalists say they are. Of course, they know they believe things in common with their fellow skeptics on the press bus. It’s important to keep this complication in mind: Not that journalists are so skeptical as a rule, but that they will try to stand in relation to you as The Skeptic does.

Bob Franken is saying, “I stand in relation to the U.S. military as skeptic does to unproven claim.” Attempts to question him about the exclusivity of this stance, other possible stances, or situations where “skeptic” doesn’t apply will raise fundamental problems of belief and professional identity that are, in fact, untreatable within newsroom religion or CNN’s professional code.

Thus, a perfectly valid line of inquiry, “how does a citizen-of-the-world philosophy interpret the case of Danny Pearl?” (along with “You are American, Bob”) brings out in Franken a mild form of hysteria: “I think your employers at the New York Times would be horrified, horrified! to hear you say a thing like that.”

By unanswerable within the religion I mean: there is no “What J-School professors taught me…” reply. No safe, standard or given answer within the professional code. Journalists learn instinctively to steer away from matters the religion cannot handle. Spruiell had read my post:

Franken seems like a good journalist of the old school — a tradition that lives according to certain dogmatic principles, which PressThink’s Jay Rosen explored over the weekend in a piece about Watergate and journalism education. Rosen explained that such principles (such as constantly placing oneself in opposition to the government, seeing ones role as journalist as “carrying the mantle of the downtrodden,” etc.) are held to be “non-political” beliefs.

In fact, these beliefs are laden with political implications. As frequent NRO contributor Tim Graham put it when I asked him about this story, “Readers expect a certain amount of American-ness in their reporters. They expect that since the source of these reporters’ liberties is the U.S. Constitution, then perhaps they owe the U.S. a tiny bit of loyalty.”

Not “dogmatic” principles so much as ideas unconsciously, uncritically or superficially held. The preferred Watergate story I wrote about this week is an example of such an idea. “Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” is another. “We’re news, blogs are op-ed” another.

An embedded reporter is in a severe state of a dependency. You cannot take the language of an independent press into that state and expect it to work. (But if that’s all the religion has, you might commit that error…) My problem is not the cultural right’s problem with Franken and colleagues, also one of Spruiell’s complaints. He says that a “fundamental distrust of the military” has taken hold within the press.

I doubt this. People in National Review’s orbit should start distinguishing between mistrust of the Bush forces by the press, and when that may be in evidence, vs. mistrust of the (career) military. Here’s a Trudy Rubin piece that will help.

If you really had a “fundamental distrust” of the American miliary, would you put your life in its hands by becoming embedded? I recall Franken’s reporting during the initial invasion, and he seemed to me in fundamental awe of the United States military. One of Stephen Spruiell’s readers agrees. “When Franken was embedded with lead cavalry units during the initial Iraq invasion he was American and pro-American in spite of himself,” said E-mailer to NRO, Russ McSwain.

What alarms me is how superficial “we’re the skeptics” is as self-understanding; and how thinly reasoned the religion can be. I believe it is trivial to call yourself a citizen of the world when you know about Danny Pearl, and what would happen to you if taken captive in Iraq. It can only be a pose, because on assignment that idea doesn’t get you out of Dulles.

Franken’s qualifier, “When I’m reporting…” doesn’t help. Pearl was taken hostage when he was reporting, and not because anyone thought him citizen of the world. (Jew, American, reporter in that order.) If Franken believed what he said to Spruiell—being a skeptical journalist is a patriotic thing to do—then why would he need any “citizen of the world” category at all, even temporarily? Just be patriotic.

The answer has to do with what I said earlier: Journalists over years of experience learn to steer away from what their religion cannot handle. Franken’s position is (in my paraphrase):

When I am out there reporting, America is not my country because I have to be as skeptical of the U.S. position as any other. I have to doubt the claims of the U.S. military as I would doubt the claims of the insurgents. Therefore I report as a citizen of the world.

But his religion, which tells him to disclaim all attachments, cannot compute Alan Feuer’s view, which I would call semi-attached. I paraphrase it, as it is close to my own:

When you’re reporting you’re an American and you’re never not an American, which does not give you license to be credulous of state authority or pro-government in your report. It means you are part of the political community. You only distort things or lose touch if you pretend otherwise.

Now here’s how Franken puts Feuer’s position, according to Spruiell’s notes:

“My problem with ‘T.R.’ is that he comes from the school that you are supposed to accept as a premise what the military and government tell you. I concluded a long time ago that you are as skeptical of what they say as anybody who is advocating a point of view.”

Right there— did you catch it? Franken puts his colleague T.R. in the (profane) true believer’s position (“accept as a premise…” ), thus taking the skeptic’s role (holy) for himself. The religion also says to approach all questions of attachment (you’re never not an American) as issues of de-tachment (“you are as skeptical of what they say as anybody.”) Fluency in the faith returns when you do it that way.

Similarly, if someone presses any particularistic ID upon you (“You are American, Bob”) you immediately deny it, for purposes of your reporting, and revert upward to the more “general” category (“citizen of the world.”) Anytime you are accused of taking the view from somewhere, your faith requires you to say no, not true. You then re-assert the view from nowhere, the correspondent’s lonely burden.

And while all this is familiar, the unfamiliar thing is that rival belief systems are today out there bidding for journalists. Take 25 year-old Stephen Spruiell: blogger, reporter, critic, and, if he plays his hand well, future asset and traffic generator to the National Review site. Why isn’t he in the J-pipeline and headed for the St. Louis Post Dispatch or Chicago Tribune? Or take this guy, Ron Brynaert, a tenacious (lefty, stand alone) investigator with an instinct for where information and proof and the jugular are. He’s a natural: Why isn’t he on someone’s I-team?

One answer is: they don’t find room for themselves in the religion. Rival belief systems won them away. Maybe they find Big Journalism an unreliable narrator. Maybe they don’t buy what recent J-school grad Daniel Kriess (himself on his way to a PhD program) called, “the crusading oxymoron of non-political populism.” And that’s why I keep asking the Big Journalism Deans: if schools like yours are supposed to spread the gospel, how do they know they have the religion right?

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Mullahs: This is a Hoder Watch. So watch it. If anyone fits the category “citizen of the world,” it might be Hossein Derakhshan, also known as Hoder. He’s the free-thinking Iranian writer and blogger (also a resident of Toronto, New York, the BBC and cyberspace) who decided to take a chance and return this week to Iran in the run-up to the elections there. Hoder, a leading voice amid the explosion of political blogs in Iran, will no doubt be watched by the regime and could face arrest or harrassment.

See his post: Going home, finally. He’s asking for support, which means writing about his trip as a way of warning the regime that we’re watching, as well as donations if you are so inclined. You now understand the reason for: Mullahs: This is a Hoder Watch. So watch it

UPDATE, Sunday am: Hoder e-mails: “Thank you so much Jay. I’m really honoured. I’m now in Tehran in my parents home. Everything is ok. But is indeed filtered!”

At NRO, Stephen Spruiell gives an answer to my question: what sort of bias should the American press have, given where it finds itself today? See: A Journalism of Transparency. (June 13)

In comments, dialing in is Harry Shearer, comedian, radio host, and press blogger for the Huffington Post:

You quote a National Review writer thusly: “Readers expect a certain amount of American-ness in their reporters. They expect that since the source of these reporters’ liberties is the U.S. Constitution, then perhaps they owe the U.S. a tiny bit of loyalty.”

Don’t conservatives, and Christians, and the Founders, believe that the source of these reporters’ liberties (and those of the rest of us) is (to use one formulation) Nature and Nature’s God, not the Constitution? Isn’t it an article of conservative faith that it is liberal dogma to suggest that rights originate in government or in government documents, even founding documents? Shouldn’t the guy from National Review get his theology of rights straight?

Good questions. See Brian O’Connell’s reply. First to comment on this post was Oliver Willis: “Why should Spruiell bother going into journalism when he can sit back and draw a nice paycheck from the conservative apparatus for simply echoing the ‘liberal bias’ charge with his fellow right-wingers?”

I asked Willis: In your view, what sort of bias should the American press have, given where it finds itself? His reply:

The media should be analyzing claims and researching them against the factual data. Plain and simple, but even this simple function is not done by the modern media, preferring instead to throw its hands in the air and make the claim that “it’s all the same” and simply allow those with the loudest megaphone to set the terms of the debate. Right now, the right’s megaphone is loudest which is why I’ve been trying to get my side to get equally loud….

Frankly, we can do all the hoping and pining for the long lost responsible media but it isn’t ever coming back. The press is useless and has to be played.

Willis at his blog (Beat the Press) says he now agrees with the Bush White House: the press is just a special interest: “…it should now be clear to progressives that the media is most definitely a special interest group that you need to slap around in order to get democracy accomplished.”

Steve Lovelady, managing editor of CJR Daily, in comments:

I don’t think this is real tricky.

Obviously, the job of the reporter is to report what he sees in front of his eyes, whether it redounds to America’s credit or not.

Reporters (in Iraq or anywhere else) have one responsibility, as John Kifner, probably the best reporter at the New York Times, explained it long ago: “Go. See. Come back. Tell.”

That’s really about it.

Right. This I would call the “soft” anti-intellectualism of newsroom religion, the same sort of attitude that calls a think piece a “thumbsucker.” It’s more of a pose struck than a serious position, however.

“Franken is claiming to be a citizen of the world, a citizen of everywhere. Instead, he is a citizen of nowhere.” Ernest Miller responds to this post at Corante. He concludes: “Wouldn’t it better and more honest to say, ‘When I’m reporting, I am fulfilling my duties as a citizen of the United States’?”

Mark Anderson also has a response at his Poor Richard’s Almanac:

American news media is unquestionably one of the most parochial, narrow-minded news media systems on earth (They certainly fall short of Britain, France, Germany, and Japan in range of widely disseminated opinion). The idea that the most serious problem facing it is detachment from the US boggles the mind.

The most serious problem? I don’t know where Anderson got that.

Jeff Jarvis responds to this post: At the Temple.

The problem with this objectivity doctrine is that reporters and editors didn’t just make themselves adherants of a religion, they made themselves monks, even gods: higher beings who do not suffer from the human foibles of opinions and viewpoints and who think having open conversations with those who do is below them.

But the truth is that they are Americans covering an American war and smokers covering a smoking ban and Catholics covering church sex scandals and Jews covering Israel and citizens covering politics. They are not above or apart from us. They are us.

Read journalism professor Andrew Cline’s confession: I haven’t been teaching the religion.

Dean Esmay responds:

In short, the press used to want us to succeed, saw themselves as part of it, and it showed. Even when you read the great Ernie Pyle’s work, while it was often skeptical, you had no doubt for an instant that Pyle considered himself an American first and foremost.

Esmay points to Arthur Chrenkoff, “a Polish-born Australian” who is doing “the job our own press should be doing every day,” by which he means news about progress and signs of life in Afghanistan and Iraq.

On that theme see also my post from May, 2004: The News From Iraq is Not Too Negative. But it is Too Narrow.

Previous PressThink posts on the religion of the newsroom:

Posted by Jay Rosen at June 10, 2005 5:32 PM