Investigative Journalism Project Reveals Problem at Core of Mainstream Journalism

By Robert Jensen

Published in Message: internationale Fachzeitschrift für Journalismus (Germany); and Common Dreams · January, 2008

Pro Publica, an initiative launched last month in the United States to help revitalize investigative journalism, is a great idea trapped by the worst aspects of the best instincts in contemporary corporate commercial journalism. The project reminds us of important values at the core of the craft of journalism, but also exposes the common political confusions of mainstream journalists that so often undermine their best efforts.

Launched with a multi-million dollar grant from Herbert M. and Marion O. Sandler, who made their fortune with the Golden West Financial Corp. they sold in 2006, Pro Publica’s goal is to provide serious investigate work that is increasingly rare in a mass-media system more focused on the bottom line than on higher values. Paul E. Steiger, who stepped down as managing editor of The Wall Street Journal this spring, will be the editor-in-chief.

Pro Publica plans to function as an independent newsroom staffed by some of the country’s top journalists, offering stories to a variety of media outlets under various distribution arrangements. There are potential complications in how the project’s journalists will work with commercial media — which will continue, of course, to operate in a competitive environment that tends to discourage cooperative ventures — but those will likely be worked out if the project produces quality journalism.

So far, so good. There’s a problem: Managers of the profit-hungry corporations that produce most of the country’s journalism have fewer resources to do their jobs, which predictably leads to less of the investigative journalism that requires time and money. The proposed solution: Committed journalists, backed by well-intentioned benefactors, step in to fill the gap through Pro Publica.

But the more vexing problem — and what may make the project, in the end, largely irrelevant — becomes clear in reading the mission statement of the group, which includes these crucial two paragraphs:

This newsroom will focus exclusively on truly important stories, stories with “moral force.” We will do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them. In so doing, in the best traditions of American journalism in the public service, we will stimulate positive change. We will uncover unsavory practices in order to stimulate reform.

We will do this in an entirely non-partisan and non-ideological manner, adhering to the strictest standards of journalistic impartiality. We won’t lobby. We won’t ally with politicians or advocacy groups. We will look hard at the critical functions of business and of government, the two biggest centers of power, in areas ranging from product safety to securities fraud, from flaws in our system of criminal justice to practices that undermine fair elections. But we will also focus on such institutions as unions, universities, hospitals, foundations and on the media when they constitute the strong exploiting or oppressing the weak, or when they are abusing the public trust.

This articulation of the “comfort the afflicted/afflict the comfortable” mission of journalism is fine. But the mission statement makes it clear that the focus will be to “uncover unsavory practices” that and can lead to “reform.” But what if the crucial questions that the contemporary world faces are not rooted in practices but in systems? What if we should focus not on the unsavory actions of people wor king in institutions, but on the nature of those institutions themselves? What if the goal should be not reform but a radical transformation of the hierarchical systems in which we live? What if, instead of chasing the latest scandal, the real work of investigative journalism should be a sustained critique of First-World imperialism and predatory corporate capitalism in the context of white supremacy and patriarchy? What if that’s the analysis that really gets to the core of an unjust and unsustainable world?

Those questions reflect my politics and ideology, my way of understanding how the world works. Maybe I’m right, and maybe I’m not. I don’t claim to be non-partisan or non-ideological. But no one else can make such a claim either, and therein lies the failure of Pro Publica and contemporary journalism more generally. Mainstream journalists typically will not understand their work as inherently political and ideological, even though that is the case of any attempt to understand how the world works. This invocation of “journalistic impartiality” is simply a reminder that most of contemporary corporate commercial journalism is trapped within those dominant systems of power.

Some critics have expressed concern that the Sandlers’ past support of Democratic Party candidates and liberal causes will skew the coverage of Pro Publica, [see Jack Shafer, “What Do Herbert and Marion Sandler Want? Investigating the funders of ProPublica, the new investigative journalism outfit,” Slate, October 15, 2007.] but that misses the point, for two reasons. First, there’s no more reason to doubt the group’s commitment to an editorial agenda independent of a particular party or politician than there would be for any commercial media outlet, in which journalists are beholden to owners. Second, the assumptions about power behind the liberal politics of people like the Sandlers are well within the conventional wisdom that embraces corporate capitalism and U.S. “leadership in the world” (which really means “domination of”) as the natural order; if not the mission statement of Pro Publica would have been quite different.

By detaching from the need to make a profit, Pro Publica takes the first step of freeing journalists from the constraints that so often limit the craft. But journalists cannot spring the trap unless they abandon the naiveté that leads to the idea that they can hover above politics — understood not merely as the struggles between competing configurations of elites but more basic questions about the distribution of power.

Yes, it’s important for journalists not to become shills for a particular party or cause; independence is at the core of modern journalism. Yes, journalists should always avoid dogmatism; ideological positions can easily calcify and inhibit critical inquiry. But if we understand politics and ideology as a feature of human thought and always present — everyone works from a set of assumptions about the nature of people and power, and everyone has an ideology whether or not they acknowledge it — then we can see the limits of this approach. Journalists’ claims to be outside politics and ideology simply mean that they will be trapped within conventional politics and captured by the dominant ideology.

I think Pro Publica is correct in focusing on business and government, “the two biggest centers of power.” But instead of seeing the problems as ranging from “product safety to securities fraud,” what if the group investigated the commodification of everything in a capitalist system and the fundamental illegitimacy of corporate structures? What if instead of pointing at “flaws in our system of criminal justice to practices that undermine fair elections,” Pro Publica journalists covered how the law legitimizes the everyday crimes of the powerful and how money-dominated pseudo-elections eliminate meaningful democracy?

Again, maybe my analysis of an appropriate mission for journalism is right, maybe it’s wrong. But it’s no more or less political and ideological than Pro Publica’s.

Some may argue that this critique is unfair. After all, the problems we face in the United States are hardly the fault of journalists, and one can’t expect journalists alone to solve them. I agree — a degraded political culture has to be addressed at many levels. I believe that independent journalism has a role to p lay, but only if journalism as an institution abandons illusions of neutrality, confronts its place in a corporate commercial system, and makes clear its own political commitments.

This piece was originally published in the German magazine Message: internationale Fachzeitschrift für Journalismus, January 2008.