Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Good journalism

I've been thinking a lot about good journalism lately, upon my return to the US. I was a bit of a critic of the Mexican media while in Mexico (particularly when I was misquoted in Proceso – to their credit they ran a correction) but since coming back to the US, I've found myself bombarded by trash and roaring rhetoric too. Sadly, it's not only coming from Fox News.

What I've been seeing way too much of (for my liking) is well-reported, yet completely unbalanced pieces of long-form journalism. The ones that have struck me most were in Rolling Stone (whether it be the McChrystal profile by a former colleague Michael Hastings, which was extremely well-reported but too sensational for my taste, given the way military folks talk about everyone – but hey, they did break the chain of command) to Matt Taibbi's rantings and ravings about everyone and their mother.

I've got to admit, I don't really get Matt Taibbi. He spits vitriol out at other journalists and everyone who gets in his way. Is it a schtick to provoke people, to rile up the reader? He even called my old boss, Fareed Zakaria, "maybe this country’s preeminent propagandist."

I worked for Fareed, and he is anything but a propagandist. He's a damn smart guy who gets a lot of things us normal journalists don't. In fact, Taibbi went on to say "whereas most writers grow up dreaming of using their talents to stir up the passions, to inflame and amuse and inspire, Zakaria shoots for the opposite effect, taking controversial and explosive topics and trying to help rattled readers somehow navigate their way through them to yawns, lower heart rates and states of benign unconcern."

Helping to explain complicated issues so that the reader understands them is NOT propaganda.

But riling up readers, stirring their passions, is that really what journalists are supposed to do? Angling the story so that every time, it is a "stick it to the man" piece, even if the man doesn't deserve it to be stuck to him that time? I don't think that's the way journalists are supposed to work. Inform readers so they can make up their own minds and get angry if they want to. Give them the facts, as objectively as you possibly can. (No one can help a little bias here and there, but if you at least recognize it and try to keep that in check, then you're doing your job.)

I don't really know where I'm going with this, and perhaps I'm wrong to single out Rolling Stone, because maybe I'm simply out of touch with what people want to read. Personally, I used to like Rolling Stone when I was about 13, and I would have much preferred a Michael Hastings counterinsurgency analysis than a McChrystal-and-crew drink and say stupid things story. And I never liked Fox News or anything on that network aside from the Simpsons.

It just seems odd to me. I've had several conversations recently with people and they keep telling me how much they miss Walter Cronkite. I also had a conversation with a New York journalist the other day, during which I mentioned Tom Ricks, one of the greatest Pentagon correspondents this country has known. She said, fine, he may be good, but no one knows who he is because he doesn't have a talk show and isn't a celebrity. Give her Anderson Cooper anyday.

Again, I dunno. Maybe I'm getting old. I welcome comments telling me to get with the 21st century or something.

1 comment:

  1. The problem with Taibbi and people like him is that, even if you like him, when he turns the guns on someone you enjoy, it's annoying and unfair. He refuses to deal with both sides of the balance, why someone who wrote something stupid or might have an annoying tick is not worthy of scorn, but maybe a gentle rejoinder. Another example of this is Drew Magary, the sports writer. I think he's fucking hilarious, one of the funniest people I've ever read, but it's so relentlessly mean-spirited that it can be draining and make you feel like you are participating in something unseemly.

    This is of course far more the case for people who are less talented, and who have no insight within their tirades. It just comes across as the rantings of an angry 15-year-old.

    On balance, I like the turn toward irreverence in serious media in recent years, and those two guys above are great for pushing against bubbles of popularity around certain writers (i.e. Friedman and Peter King), but this is certainly a negative side-effect.