Apparently it was Janet Malcolm who said that every journalist “who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”
Shoutout to Google for helping me out there, but I also want to shout out my newfound eidolon, Janet Malcolm. Her next sentence develops her point further: “He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”
She is not attacking the heart of journalism; that ticker, the ruthless pursuit of society’s truth, remains. But don’t forget what reporters actually do as the heart beats.
Imagine a TV reporter on the ground in the Vietnam War. I picked an extreme of journalism, sure, but that reporter, conveying the horrors of war, displays interviews with distraught citizens who give crisp details about their fresh trauma.
Though he seems innocent, the reporter does not try to help that victim of war tragedies which he features. Rather, he hopes to reveal the truth of the war-victim’s experience to the rest of the world.
Many contemporary partisans idolize journalists, and may be justified. How else can such fierce attacks from the likes of Donald Trump on independent journalism be deflected, if not by idealizing that journalist? Besides, all Americans value truth. Journalism, so it would seem, is the work of heroes.
But with this assessment, we mistakenly conflate the journalist’s purpose and his actions.
After shooting incredible footage that reminds him of the raw power journalism can have, the hypothetical TV reporter, along with his cameraman, packs up and makes his way back.
Yes, that reporter could have died in the line of duty. I do not deny that it takes courage to step into danger for a higher purpose of revealing truth.
Consider, however, that the more he can get the subjects of his story to trust him, the more of their truth he can reveal to the world in order to do his job well. And while the subjects of his story have to continue with their lives of horror, he re-enters into a world of safety.
For now, at least, the trust he gained from the story’s subject was only good for himself and the story, but not the subject.
What do we call someone who manipulates others to get their trust, uses it for his or her own gain, then has no interest in helping those same individuals at the end of the day?
A Machiavellian, I would argue.
Journalists seek truth for its own sake. Reporting, however, can be quite dirty: defensible by law, defensible as it upholds standards of a liberal democratic society but not always defensible in its own reality.
So why do they do it? Why does the New York Times exist? The Observer? My own byline title?
To put it briefly, you asked for it. Independent journalists do what we do to uncover the truth without limits because that is the assignment from a society that proclaims to need it.
You can contact Liam at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this Inside Column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.