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“Real journalism” is not about exposing what is hidden, but what diminishes individual rights 7/11/08

Posted by Steve Boriss in Journalism.
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The Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) appropriately praises the NY Times for exposing a rent control scandal involving powerful Democrat Charlie Rangel, even though the Times is generally perceived as a Democrat-friendly paper. Less appropriately, they go on to condemn blogs for not having the same instincts to publish such stories because “they too often pursue personal agendas, or partisan ones.” Actually, the partisan instincts of blogs have led to many such hits on powerful politicians, including Sen. Trent Lott, Sen John Kerry, and Attorney General Gonzalez.

But of greater concern is that the CJR calls this type of journalism — exposure of personal matters that politicians are trying to hide — “real journalism.” But, is it? Yes, the Founders certainly wanted newspapers to attack politicians, but not because of the bad things they might do in their personal lives. Rangel’s sweet deal with rent control apartments wreaks of corruption, but it is hard to say that it is particularly harmful to the nation. Similarly, Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky was despicable, but had done no discernible damage to the Republic.

The Founders were not particularly concerned about what politicians were hiding, but what they might do to infringe upon the individual rights of our citizens – their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. When politicians call for reinstatement of radio’s proven speech-suppressing Fairness Doctrine, the Founders would have considered it to be “real journalism” for papers to attack this position, whether it was declared in a dark closet or on the floor of Congress. Similarly, newspapers should have been at the forefront in the attacks on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill which eliminated speech against politicians in the 60 days before an election. Journalists often would be fulfilling their responsibilities to the American experiment better by reporting on issues like these that are hiding in plain sight.

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