Morning Press Criticism
Ron Rosenbaum, who’s a fantastic journalist, has been writing some great stuff for Slate. Definitely make sure to read this piece in defense of the “write-around.” I was particularly taken by this passage:
Access itself is not all it's cracked up to be. There's the journalistic equivalent of Stockholm syndrome. I know, I've suffered from it. I find it hard to be as cutting, or even as critical, as I really feel about people who allow me to enter their zone of privacy. I blame my parents for teaching me manners—the best investigative journalists don't have the best manners. The best investigative reporters might be called "sociopaths for truth." I think you know the type I'm talking about. And the very best of these are often good at faking empathy and then coldly eviscerating the empathized-with one.
Some writers are built this way, happy to sacrifice the person for the story. But not enough anymore! Janet Malcolm famously wrote (in the opening of The Journalist and the Murderer) about the way writers gain the trust of their subjects and end up “betraying them without remorse.” It may have been true when she published the book, in 1990, but is it now? It sounds cold, but not enough reporters and writers are willing to betray or even alienate their subjects. If they do, they risk being denied access to other subjects. They’re no longer part of the club.
I’m not saying the measure of a story is how much it offends the subject. I’ve occasionally taught writing classes on long-form nonfiction, with smart kids at Columbia, NYU, Chicago—and sensitive, too. They often raise questions about the ethical issues, the emotional impact of writing critically about subjects.
And I suggest that there might be different rules for subjects who are and aren’t media-savvy and/or powerful. You almost want to protect the media-naive from themselves because it almost feels like stealing when they say something damning that you know will make a great pull quote.
But with the media-savvy and the powerful, one can’t be paralyzed by worry about hurt feelings. They rarely are.
“Sociopaths for truth”—so true. This really gets at the heart of why I often feel like I’m not cut out for journalism. I tend towards the, um, “sensitive” end of the spectrum, which in a lot of cases is not really a dispositional asset for a journalist. I wish I were more ruthless! Think Seymour Hersh cares if he hurts people’s feelings inside the Pentagon?
Alas, I do. The way I deal with this problem is by minimizing the amount of reporting I do about powerful people. I tend to focus my work on that latter category of people that Rosenbaum describes, those who aren’t “savvy and/or powerful.” There’s a lot of reasons I find reporting on “ordinary people” more sastisfying, not the least of which is that they aren’t on guard and inpenetrable, but if I’m honest with myself, I think a big part of the reason is that it allows me to be charitable towards my subjects, without feeling like I’m failing to “speak truth to power.”
OK, end confessional.