There has been, as of late, a renewed discussion of what exactly makes an individual a journalist – a conversation no doubt sparked by The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald and his role in the PRISM leak and subsequent scrutiny of the National Security Agency. The debate has centered on the difference between journalism and activism, the blurred lines that separate the two, and what happens when someone presented as a journalist strays too far into blatant activism, as some have accused Greenwald of doing (Greenwald himself admits his own activist slant).
In the July 1 issue of The New York Times, veteran journalist David Carr takes his own crack at what he calls “the fight between objectivity and subjectivity.” The distinction, according to Carr, lies in the presence of an agenda. Activism comes with a driving agenda, whereas true journalism seeks only the truth of the matter. What Carr ignores is that this sacrosanct sort of objective journalism doesn’t exist. Whether written by activists or journalists, agendas are always present — even if a journalist's agenda is to sell themselves and copies of the publications for which they write. To think otherwise is naivete that misses the fundamental goals of media.
“Journalists are responsible for following the truth wherever it may guide them,” Carr writes. “I do think that activism … can also impair vision. If an agenda is in play … cracks may go unexplored.” But cracks will go unexplored with any type of journalistic output. As long as journalism is a field populated by human beings, it will be impossible to separate journalists from whatever intrinsically motives them. A search for Carr’s “truth” may sound noble, but it’s an empty aspiration. Often there is no pure, objective truth to be found, rather an issue that enters into the subjective and the arguable — a search not for what is true, but for what is right, and that begins to enter the realm of activism.
Greenwald himself posits what journalism should be: “to serve as a check on power.” He has certainly played this part well in recent weeks, but he too misses something. Trying to pigeonhole journalism into one packaged definition is useless. For the journalism that pits itself against the empowered establishment, there is also the journalism that seeks to forward and expand that power. With the internet and the expansion of media and journalism, both can and do run rampant. And, though Carr may find it regrettable, both have an agenda.
Why is neutrality in journalism so continually celebrated? It’s cowardly, toothless, and boring. A feigned objectivity in a field that runs on issues that demand a side be taken is an empty ruse. Unbiased pieces should breed more suspicion than clearly opinionated ones, a matter of overt versus covert agendas. At least with slanted journalism there is no pretense of neutrality, it doesn’t try to pretend it’s anything but an argument for what is right. Any journalist is going to have an agenda, so they might as well get it out in the open.