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Wednesday, October 23, 2019

On Normal Journalism, with the Payment of a Debt and a Note on Triviality and Inertia

I've been in poor health this semester and hence blogging even less than usual. The difficulty in restarting has less to do with priorities--there are surely more important things to be doing, but activity begets activity, so making a start anywhere ultimately helps push everything along--than with the crushing inertia that comes from not writing.

Few contemporary events strike me as worth writing about, and the vast majority of things that people seem actually to write these days about strike me as especially and remarkably trivial. A fair measure of the importance of most of what we talk or write about, especially on social media, is to skip the daily papers and online media for a week and ask a few days later which stories it actually matters that one missed. I share the conventional negative reaction to many stories of outrage from, say, the President, or silly-season conduct from, say, some activist group or other. But restarting my engines to respond to such ephemera seems to give them unworthy dignity and attention and to be a poor use of energy that I ought to be husbanding with care. One loses a measure of engagement, which is indeed a loss. On the other hand, one gains a little of the long view, and appreciates the degree to which much day-to-day expenditure of energy, anger, action, and so on has a great deal to do with serving career, emotional, tribal, solidaristic, conformist, and self-amusement purposes as opposed to anything more lasting or other-regarding.

In this case, I can at least take finger to keyboard again for one decent purpose, which is to repay a debt. Many months ago Corey Brettschneider was kind enough to send me a copy of his no-longer-quite-new book, The Oath and the Office: A Guide to the Constitution for Future Presidents. Given my interest in oath, office, and honor, I was delighted by the focus of the book and wanted to alert blog readers to it. Time passed me by and the book has already made the journey to paperback, but I am happy to call attention to it just the same. Here is a useful review of the book by Josh Chafetz, much better than most of what now appears in the diminished New York Times Book Review. It's a worthy subject; regardless of whether I agree or disagree with Brettschneider's positions in particular areas, it's worthwhile for its focus on the oath and the concept of office, and hence on the centrality of the marriage of the official and the personal to the American political and constitutional system. I'm grateful to Corey both for the book and for his generosity in sending it to me--not to mention his patience.

Although, again, any given anecdata or daily-outrage story hardly seems reason enough to try to pick up my blogging duties again, I was also struck, as an institutionalist and someone interested in journalism, by a story this week concerning the Harvard Crimson. I don't consider it a major story; just one of many that justify gloom but not panic. Just the same, it struck me enough to write about, given its subject matter, its silliness, and the possibility that some of the young people involved could go on to the kinds of jobs where they might transmit misconceived views to a wider audience.

As newspapers will do, the Crimson published a workmanlike report of a protest by various Harvard community members who are part of a "student-led immigration advocacy group," calling for the abolition of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (I imagine this had mostly to do with immigration and less to do with customs.) As newspapers will also do, the Crimson sought comment from ICE, which did not respond, as well as the Harvard University Police Department, which came in for criticism at the march for prior actions.    

The response to these standard acts of journalism was a petition, replete with the obligatory banal hashtag, condemning the Crimson's actions and its temerarious insistence that it would follow journalistic norms in the future. Seeking comment from the agency whose abolition had been demanded, it declared, demonstrated "cultural insensitivity." Moreover, "In this political climate, a request for comment is virtually the same as tipping them off, regardless of how they are contacted." Of course any petition, regardless of its content, will find signers as honey draws flies. But I did find it remarkable that the signers included the Harvard College Democrats, among others.      

Had the paper called ICE not for comment but to ask why it had not taken action against some identified set of students, I could at least understand some of the objections. Of course, the paper did none of this: I am sure the reporter asked something along the lines of, "Hey, this group wants to abolish you. Any thoughts?" The notion that this is tantamount to tipping them off is absurd, at least if one operates on the assumption that the protest itself was not secret; that its organizers, who used daylight and bullhorns rather than convening in a crypt at midnight while speaking in whispers, wanted it to be noticed by others; and that some customs or immigration official or employee somewhere might pick up a free college paper or even accidentally walk through Harvard Square.

One might question the custom of calling official bodies for comment on the ground that official bodies in such cases, like eulogists and college presidents, are foreordained to say nothing interesting. This is true. But then, inconsequential and standard-issue statements are par for the course for the whole roundelay of protest and response, and I doubt anything ICE might have said would have been any more or less predictable than the statements of the protesters themselves ("definitely an issue that needs to be put into conversation," "unwavering solidarity," "the power that we have in all coming together," and so on), which the Crimson duly reported. 

The mistaken belief that calling ICE for comment on an event intended to announce loudly that ICE should be abolished amounted to reporting specific individuals to the agency's notice can at least be assuaged by the Crimson's explanation, and responded to by an appropriate apology on the part of the petition writers. Of greater concern are some other statements. According to the Crimson, the communications director for another group, a person with years of experience in journalism (and who, in fairness, said she understood the views of both sides), offered the view that "getting both sides isn't always what is fair, especially when one side has already made its views well known through the megaphones of government." I'm not sure how well this calculus applies to a story in the Crimson, for whose readers the megaphones of immigration policy protestors ring at least as loudly as those of ICE. But in any event, the notion that getting both sides is not always sufficient is not the same as saying one should not at least do that. (It's also far from justification for the petition's further demand, as far as I understood it, that the Crimson adopt a policy of not asking ICE for comment on stories for which it would normally be asked for comment.) Nor, for those who support the press and journalism as (at its infrequent best) a professional institution, is it encouraging to see various groups falling in line with the student group and pledging not to speak to the Crimson at all until it ceases "asking ICE for comment on stories about immigration activism on campus." As a former journalist, I'm all in favor of refusing to speak to the press, especially on, say, issues about which one doesn't really know much or stories that one thinks are foolish or trivial--but not as a means of trying to push a newspaper to adopt policies that will further contribute to the decline of professional standards.      

The Crimson is to be congratulated for acting unlike many contemporary institutions and instead making clear that it had no intention of changing its policy or of throwing anyone under the bus. Having done nothing wrong, why would or should it? Other papers (I doubt the New York Times will stop or slow its rapid decline as a newspaper until its standard answer to its staff's demands for town halls and meetings with top editors is "No") and not a few universities could learn from this. But we should worry at least a bit that people want from journalism what it can't and shouldn't give them--let alone that an increasing number of the people who want those things actually work in journalism. It may or may not be a dying institution; but there's little sense in sending it off to the morgue any more hastily. Of course one must make allowances for callowness or error among college students, and especially generous allowances for Ivy League students. But it's hardly suggestive of a better future for an institution we both still need, and need to get well soon.   


Posted by Paul Horwitz on October 23, 2019 at 02:29 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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