Are We Bidding Farewell to Advocacy Journalism?

With the passing of Daniel Schorr and the forced retirement of Helen
Thomas, are we bidding farewell to "advocacy journalism," the journalist
who makes news rather than reports it? I think not. All journalism is
advocacy of one sort or another.

That Thomas and Schorr have no clear successors hardly demonstrates
the passing of advocacy journalism. A journalist's questions neither are
nor can be merely neutral and descriptive. Advocacy journalism remains a
staple of the D.C. press corps, but it is advocacy on behalf of the
privileged and the powerful.

Compare two questions at President Barack Obama's first press conference:

Question 1:
"What is your strategy for engaging Iran? And when will you start to
implement it? Will your timetable be affected at all by the Iranian
elections? And are you getting any indications that Iran is interested
in a dialogue with the United States?

Question 2: "Mr. President, do you think that Pakistan and
[the other country was inaudible, according to a transcript] are
maintaining the safe havens in Afghanistan for these so-called
terrorists? And, also, do you know of any country in the Middle East
that has nuclear weapons?"

On the surface, the first question simply asks the president about
his plans and updates on diplomacy with Iran. But every question is
asked from a particular set of interests and reflects at least some
initial orientation to the issue.

Question 1 accepts a U.S. obligation to "engage" Iran. Only the
timetable is up for debate. And dialogue suggests an offer of a
respectful conversation among equals.

Of course many readers will say - "well of course, Iran is about to
acquire nuclear weapons and has a very bellicose president." Such a
response, however, begs two questions. In the wake of Iraq, just how
solid is our "knowledge" of Iran's nuclear weapons program?

The second question, from Helen Thomas, really raises some of the issues that are simply assumed or wished away in the first.

In conventional press commentary, the first reporter, Karen Boeing of
Reuters, is just reporting. The second is practicing advocacy
journalism. National press criticism, where the press looks at itself,
further protects the powerful and the privileged by singling out
questions and reporters who implicitly or explicitly challenge the
status quo as advocates not reporters.

Erwin Knoll, my late senior colleague at the Progressive, was
longtime White House correspondent for Newhouse Newspapers. Time
Magazine once labeled him President Lyndon Johnson's toughest
questioner. After he received the honor, LBJ never again called upon
him. Apparently even the appearance of toughness is enough to lose
access, so precious to aspiring D.C. reporters.

Erwin often amused himself with lists of questions the press should
ask the president. I'd like to compare two imaginary ones of my own.
Walter McMagic Market: "Absent congressional action, the death tax is
scheduled to revert to a level where many small- business owners worry
they can't leave their farms and shops to their sons and daughters. Will
you advocate reform to prevent that?"

Rudolf "Red" Prole: "Mr. President, some reports suggest that
government subsidies to the wealthy have left us with levels of
inequality not seen since the Gilded Age. Would you support a wealth tax
to keep us from becoming a plutocracy?"

Both questions have or imply a political agenda. Particular terms
color and inflect the issues in different ways. Even if a president's
answer strives to change the thrust of a question, the initial salvo
alters debate. It is now out there in cyberspace and in our

As George Lakoff has suggested, once Nixon told us "I am not a
crook," no matter how lucid his defense, an image had been planted. Not
irrevocably so, but in ways that take a toll and exact a price.

Questions can have similar impact.

In both my press criticism and my own journalism, I'll subscribe to
Bill Moyers' advice in his final broadcast: "I take my cue from the late
Edward R. Murrow. Ed Murrow told his generation of journalists bias is
OK as long as you don't try to hide it. So here, one more time, is mine:
Plutocracy and democracy don't mix. Plutocracy, the rule of the rich,
political power controlled by the wealthy."

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