It’s not stenography…and it’s not always nice
No one likes having her secrets exposed.
No person, no government.
And that’s why having a journalist as a friend is always a dicey proposition – for a good journalist, the story will trump the friendship.
When a story affects a working spouse, watch out! The story trumps again.
When a story affects a government, it’s only natural and healthy that the journalist and the government will also find themselves on opposing sides.
We’ve seen this week that it isn’t just in China, North Korea, Russia, Turkey or Cuba that journalists have issues with governments asserting their power. Right in the United States, AP and Fox have felt the heavy hand of investigations, intrusions and, yes, intimidation.
The problem is, there’s a fundamental power mismatch on the side of the government. When a friend is aggrieved at a journalist, the friendship may blow up, but life goes on. When a spouse feels exposed by a story, marital relations will suffer and tempers will flair, but (one hopes) the relationship will survive. When a government feels wronged, the full weight of subpoenas, wiretaps, email intervention and even indictment and trial can come down.
To those outside the profession, it sometimes seems that there should be a bright line. Just don’t break the law, right? Just don’t endanger national security, ok? [Three former U.S. Justice Department officials basically made this case in the New York Times this week, saying Stop The Leaks].
The problem is journalism isn’t nice. And it’s not stenography.
It isn’t simply recording official pronouncements. It isn’t just following official release timetables. It isn’t just the happy smiles stuff.
Journalism is about the messy bits. It’s about pursuing the murk. It’s about poking about in places that friends, spouses and government officials would rather be left alone. It’s about balancing what’s called national security with the good that can come from transparency. And that’s what makes journalism powerful and important – and also difficult and messy.
My experience was born out of reporting in China in the 1990s when practically anyone Chinese who spoke to me was breaking the law. The risks on my side were small; the risks on theirs were substantial. While I tried my utmost to protect my sources, I am not a spy, I am very recognisable and I know I am no match for any security service, in China or elsewhere.
Even today, China’s secrets law defines a secret as: “matters which, if divulged, would harm national security and interests in the areas of politics, economics, national defence, and diplomacy.” In other words, just about anything. Try staying on the right side of THAT line.
Press critic Jack Shafer this week published a provocative blog in which he asks of Fox reporter James Rosen: Did he “get caught and get his source in trouble because he practised poor journalistic tradecraft?”
I’d say NO journalistic source-hiding trick or subterfuge could ever stand up to a determined government investigator – that’s why the first thing a reporter has to do is ensure her source understands the risks and also the odds of discovery.
But if the source understands that and has a story to tell, if there’s a story to be uncovered, and if there is a passion and need to bring transparency to issues that should be aired, then the journalistic process is in fact in the ultimate interests of society. And a wise government, no matter how aggrieved it may feel, should understand that.
The reporter as stenographer is on the same side as power – as he is just taking down what is on the surface.
The reporter as digger will always have tension with power – as what is below the surface has the potential to be subversive. But what is below the surface also has the potential to be instructive and illuminating. And in its uncovering, it can help a society improve.
So journalism is not stenography. It isn’t nice. It often isn’t comfortable. And sometimes it isn’t right.
But it is necessary.
David Schlesinger is the former Editor-in-chief of Reuters News and Chairman of Thomson Reuters China, and founder of Tripod Advisors.