In the immediate aftermath of last weekend’s historic March For Our Lives events across the U.S., some of the day’s organizers, students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where a mass murder of 17 students occured on St. Valentine’s Day, appeared on CNN’s Reliable Sources show and spurred a national debate on the relationship between journalism and activism.
The show’s able host, Brian Stelter, was interviewing a student who came to the D.C. march in order to cover it for her student newspaper.
Given that many of their high school classmates were in town having become activists, Stelter asked her, “Do you see a difference right now between journalism and activism in what you are doing?”
The student, Rebecca Schneid, replied, “I think that for me, the purpose of journalism is to raise the voices of people that maybe don’t have a voice, and so I think that in its own right, journalism is a form of activism…I think the partnership of the two is the only reason that we are able to make a change.” She later added, “It’s the journalists who present the facts and elevate the voices of the oppressed that allow for actual change to occur.”
Stelter wrote up the exchange as a post on his Reliable Sources blog, noting that there were thousands of reactions, replies and retweets on Twitter and “disapproving stories” on conservative websites. Responses included a National Journal politics editor who wrote that “journalism isn’t activism; it’s presenting the facts, honestly and objectively,” claiming that it’s Schneid’s mentality “that’s killing trust in our profession.”
On the other hand, as Stelter wrote, a Los Angeles Times national correspondent argued that “journalism is activism in its most basic form…the entire basis for its ethical practice is the idea that a democracy requires an informed citizenry in order to function. Choosing what you want people to know is a form of activism, even if it’s not the march-and-protest kind.”
Well, the young Ms. Schneid is right on! Journalistic activism is centered on truth and the public’s right to know.
It was Thomas Jefferson, quite the activist in his day, who said that if he had to choose between a nation without a government and a nation without a newspaper, he’d sooner choose a nation without a government.”
Alexander Hamilton, of recent hip-hop fame, wrote in founding his own newspaper, “It is the press which has corrupted our political morals, and it is to the press we must look for the means of our political regeneration.”
Then there’s the political theorist Hannah Arendt, whose post-World War II work on totalitarianism is still the gold standard, who identified the demagogue’s “murder of the moral person in man” as a key to his success, and the defeat of the demagogue is “a cultivation of a constitutional conscience in the hearts and minds of citizens.”
So it is in the Biblical Pontius Pilate’s nihilistic expletive, “What is truth?” where the ground of tyranny lies, and where tyrants, or would-be tyrants, justify the use of lies and “fake news” for their advancement. They undermine the public’s “use of our most powerful asset – our humanity – to nip demagogues in the bud,” as Arendt put it.
The Washington Post’s recently adopted slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” is a powerful affirmation of the role of a free and responsible press in the protection of human freedom and democracy. A purely “objective” view of journalism would claim the journalist cannot care whether or not “democracy dies,” but must simply report what he or she hears without prejudice.
Indeed, a lot of U.S. journalism had been corrupted by that view, such as in the era when no serious challenge to the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq was mounted in 2002. The norm had become to sit Hitler and Churchill side-by-side, metaphorically speaking, and just referee.
That’s changed with Trump, at least for those news organizations unlike Fox that aren’t just his propaganda arm.
To the extent the notion had been compromised before, the fight for the truth and the public’s right to know has enjoyed a revival in the last year or so.
Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected].