On Journalism and its Controversies (or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love Journalism’s Messiness)

Below is a brief reaction to this, which happens to have happened to a friend and former colleague of mine who was secretly filmed by James O’Keefe’s ‘Project Veritas’, a conservative activist site which acts through loathsome hits on those they disagree with by manipulating bits of secreted video and audio to serve specific political ends. This is the first in what I hope are semi-regular reactions to news events where I gather my thoughts on things. 

First, some back story. Dan Lamothe and I have known each other a long time – not quite 17 years, I’d reckon. We’ve sat on both sides of editorial decision-making hierarchies long ago while at the Massachusetts Daily Collegian when we were students at UMass, and we did not always agree with each other’s decisions (but here’s the thing, we didn’t have to – you can respect decisions you wouldn’t have made, and even at times political choices you wouldn’t have made) and we both worked our way through what it is to be a journalist, and what journalism may be, and what challenges confront journalism. When we were but young ambitious types, Dan and I at different moments were responsible for the editorial ‘voice’ of our University’s newspaper, and not to spoil anything about how the world works, but there too we often didn’t agree, and there too didn’t have to – I suspect if we dug back through our clip files we’d even disagree with ourselves; welcome to the human condition. When I was managing editor, Dan ably ran a news desk where he could focus on gathering, verifying, and sharing fact-based information with our public in their interest, and that allowed me to make the call on editorial voice, and how to maintain the news/opinion distinction in the paper overall. Later, Dan was Managing Editor and I ran the photo desk. And so, we reversed those roles. Our and our colleagues’ public was, most of the time, the tens of thousands of university students, and the surrounding towns in the Pioneer Valley who also had access to our paper (then, printed daily and also published online). Sometimes, our public became huge – particularly when an opinion piece caught attention online, or when we had to report on a story or topic prone to moral outrage – and we found ourselves in front of cameras or reporters describing and defending and defining what we do.  We dealt with our share of controversies then, though I suspect never would have anticipated what we’ve seen in the years since as far as journalism and its controversies.

In the roughly 13 years since Dan and I left UMass, our paths have diverged and converged at different moments. We both covered the eastern bit of Western Massachusetts around the same time, we both spent reporting time in DC – though at different times and covering different beats – and while he continues to perform journalistic roles ably, I have gone on to a career studying journalism. Where we might converge at this moment is that many are invited to judge how well we do what we do, which, of course, only intensifies when that can be bounced around the internet.

This is a way to suggest that I don’t think this current moment is new to the patterns of news and journalism and information which can be shared, examined, critiqued, and sometimes attacked, online or off-, nor are they new to Dan or many in the journalistic field. They are, however, increasingly a reality of our media spaces, and for that we need to unpack their complexities.

To make sense of this, I have thought through the approach Project Veritas took, the stories of these endeavours reported out in the Post and elsewhere, and reflected on these through my own conceptual frameworks which I have developed in my research. Here’s a summary of my view on journalism, distilled from that work: Journalism is a messy field. It’s messy because journalism is a field in society that operates as a microcosm within the macrocosm of society, and it is messy because ‘belonging’ to the field is not a clear cut in/out dynamic. The boundaries of journalism vary at times, and have become more porous as more actors have emerged to perform journalistic work. Journalistic identities are equally dynamic and diffuse as individuals embrace journalistic intentions while adopting various means in pursuit of informative ends, perhaps to hold power to account, and to inform a public in their interest by conveying meaningful facts – or opinion based on fact.

What this means for journalism in our present day is that for different people different things are relevant, whether considering what is journalism or which different things might come to define journalism. Journalism is a field replete with power dynamics, shifting agendas, and individuals who act in accordance to a range of understandings of society, of their role, of their publics, and of the world around them, and a range of understandings even of what journalism ‘is’. For this, I advocate seeing journalism as a field that is vast, rather than narrow, and for making sense and accepting that its forms will vary – and that we need to take into our discussions of journalism not only its familiar core (including the traditional outlets, like the Washington Post) but, sometimes, also including those problematic journalists found on the periphery.

In exploring the more troublesome aspects of this consideration in a lot of my work – at times grappling with unpleasant actors – I have found this is certainly not a project that is easily embraced. However, in doing so I have found ways to carve paths to see where problematic iconoclasts who claim to be doing journalism might be seen as such, and in doing so push those of us interested in journalism to consider things we disagree with personally or politically in order to better see where these might reflect blind spots in our own approaches to understanding journalism, and society. This means sometimes finding journalism where it emerges in a disruptive, even uncomfortable, form – as with Gawker – and sometimes it sees journalism only in moments, as with the work of WikiLeaks, whose output has been inconsistently journalistic. Sometimes it is finding that media claiming to be journalistic are not journalism at all – as with Project Veritas, whose intention seems quite clearly focused not on gathering, verifying, and sharing information for a public in their interest, but rather on manipulating contexts and narratives to suit specific agendas and hopeful outcomes.

I try to understand journalism on six measures, and we can apply these to the work of Project Veritas as well to judge its positioning of itself as journalism.

The first three are: Journalistic identity, intention, and realisation. Journalistic identity refers to whether someone express a journalistic identity, and how strongly. This is not a sufficient criterion as anyone can claim to be a journalist, but it is a necessary first point of evaluation. Journalistic intention can then be found when exploring the expressed intent of a media piece (is it to inform as journalism, or is it instead a bit of media – like a tweet, or a photo – that was created for one purpose, only later proving newsworthy). Finally how that work is ‘realised’ as journalism considers whether the information shared drive further coverage of that information (the content), or whether ensuing coverage focuses on the act of disclosure itself (here, for instance, we could ask if Lamothe’s statements gather further coverage and news attention, or rather, as appears the case at the moment, whether coverage focuses instead on O’Keefe’s manipulative tactics).

Alongside these three aspects there are also: role performances, role perceptions, and role expectations. Respectively, these explore how strongly or weakly journalistic roles are performed, and how strongly or weakly they are conceived of (as primarily activistic or as primarily journalistic), and how an actor understands what is expected of them by their audience (what is the perceived expectation of their work, and how is their work attuned to that expectation – is it towards raising ire, or towards informing, for instance).These six criteria can be explored, among other methods, by analysing content for markers of the way individual media actors see their media work, including how this is expressed in public statements, on websites, in news they produce, etc. Analysis focuses on the way journalism is performed publicly as journalism is, all in all, an aspect of our societies defined by its public communication (to differentiate it from personal communication) and reliant on public recognition of its values and contributions.

Enter O’Keefe and colleagues, who do claim on their pages to be journalists working to investigate corruption thereby inviting us to consider their fitness within the journalistic field. On the six measures I explore, hidden cameras, misconstrued conversations, and agenda-serving editing tricks don’t reflect journalistic role perceptions or role performances as much as they do a political and activistic one, which is reinforced by reviewing their stated mission online and O’Keefe’s many public statements. While its work is done to appeal to a conservative public (here I would point out that I do defend politically-oriented news as journalism, where bias is evident but facts are established verifiably within reporting that is meaningful for certain publics). In its work, Project Veritas may match its public’s political ideals and perhaps their expectations of O’Keefe, but this is not reflective of a journalistic expectation in the broadest sent nor is it in that public’s interest to be misinformed by suggesting that opinion and news are the same thing (it is also worth noting that we should not assume the public as unaware; O’Keefe’s public may see through the manipulation and recognise it is not journalistic, and still find it appealing as it reinforces their political allegiances. It’s still manipulative, and malicious, but it’s a political hit job then, not fact-based news).

Looking further into the backstory of O’Keefe and the intentions become clearer, and the wilful misleading of another Post reporter by another Project Veritas member who lied about Roy Moore reinforces this initial finding. All of this is to say that even for someone like myself who has at times gone to the mat for a range of troublesome and unpleasant media actors doing work that challenges our notions of journalism, ‘Project Veritas’ does not reach that threshold, using even the widest of interpretations of journalism. What about the claims of bias and political influence on the Washington Post and its reporting? Well, I feel they’re misplaced. One of the reasons people subscribe to the Post and read both its news and its opinion pieces are they are clearly delineated, and you know that there’s a line between the two and this is the case across media outlets. It is also beyond foolish to think journalism does not contain aspects of both – journalism regularly includes reporting both fact-based news, and opinion based on fact within its pages.

You’d be hard-pressed to find in Dan’s reporting political opinion writing as you would on the pages filled by his colleagues in the opinion section (while I don’t read all of Dan’s work, and I don’t read all the opinion pieces, I’ve read enough of both to easily find the distinctions). This is hardly the first time a news outlet has found itself under attack by those who hold differing opinions on the content of its news and editorial pages, even where these attacks aren’t particularly well-substantiated. This is also not the first time the Post itself has come under fire (and for what it’s worth, depending on when you dip in and where you look, the Post has been called either conservative-leaning or liberal-leaning throughout its history). Finally, while there is an argument to be made for keeping distinction between news and editorial, there is as strong an argument calling for us to consider how we weigh this distinction and how strongly we commit to a paradigm whose utility has been increasingly questioned for offering ‘a view from nowhere’ rather than information to a public for understanding the world around them.

All of this suggests that, as is the case for so much of what goes on in our societies, we are seeing the dynamics of journalism as but a microcosm of the messy macrocosm of larger society, and how perspectives on what ‘is’ news and what is opinion and what is bias is often constructed based on our own particular views. And I would dare suggest that if we are to look honestly at these, we might find ourselves disagreeing with ourselves from time to time. Such is the human condition. However, to move beyond this to explore an increasingly complex media space, we need to contend with journalism’s messiness in order to make sense of journalism for the Post and to hold O’Keefe’s Project Veritas to account, as it claims to be doing journalism.

While what I present here is in no way a fulsome analysis, it is a reflection on ways we can think about the complexities of journalism when this complexity is thrown in front of us. For those who have chosen to plough journalistic furrows, as Dan has, the challenge is to keep a level head amid all the noise. For those like myself, who have taken exploring journalism as our work (even when presented as flippantly as ‘Veritas’ presents its journalistic identity, appropriating the language of journalism while pursuing activism) we still must take it seriously. Those who claim to be doing journalism invite us to critically unpack their claims so we can distinguish between those working for a public in their interest, and those whose media work is distinctly otherwise. In order to further our own understanding of what is going on around us, taking their claims seriously (but not for granted) allows us to then engage critically with them, and judge their merits, and better understand the journalism around us for what it is: messy, complicated, and not always to our personal taste. I conclude a recent book I published with a sort of wish list of what I might prefer in the journalism around us as a little less messy, and a bit more idealistic – a journalism as we might want to experience it. However, I caution: “that would be imagining a journalism we don’t have, rather than dealing with the one we do.”

On a personal note, I’ve seen among our friends a lot of defences of Dan, and I’m heartened by them. He does good work, he’s done good work, he’ll continue to do good work. Of this I feel I can rest assured, so I’m not going to defend Dan because Dan doesn’t need defending. What he said, whether taken out of context or not, contained nothing controversial about journalism or the Washington Post for those who keenly observe either, nor did they besmirch Dan’s name or reporting in my mind (there are plentiful examples of  Dan’s exemplary work). I sympathise with Dan as he needs to deal with all of this, but suspect he’ll come out fine. I suspect he is also embodying the unflustered spirit of the late Red Sox GM Lou Gorman knowing that whatever comes next, “the sun will rise, the sun will set, and I’ll have lunch.” 

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