Monday, August 07, 2006

The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, which Editor & Publisher reports has 3,500 members who teach and study journalism and related subjects, made an important statement at its convention in San Francisco last week.

The association passed a resolution calling on the Bush administration to cut out its "anti-press policies and practices." Jay Rosen provides the text of the resolution here. Among other points, the resolution decries the administration's stonewalling in the face of information requests, its "massive reclassification of documents" that had been available to the public, and its use of the courts "to pressure journalists to give up their sources and to punish them for obtaining leaked information."

This public declaration, which resolution author David T.Z. Mindich of St. Michael's College says in E&P is "the first statement against general anti-press policies in an administration in at least 30 years," is a risky venture. The press is currently on the losing end of a public relations battle aiming, for political purposes, to discredit its members as liberal partisans who are out to sink this administration at any cost. (See the comments to Rosen's post for a couple of examples.) Journalism educators have a responsibility to produce journalists who are truth-seekers, not partisans or standard-bearers for narrow political ideologies, and therefore they hold a certain responsibility to remain, as a group, neutral in matters of partisan politics.

For discerning readers, this resolution succeeds in maintaining that political neutrality while affirming the values that journalists are obligated to uphold and defend. The preamble acknowledges that "The relationship between the presidency and the press has always been uneasy" and that "When each side conducts its duties with honesty and integrity, both hold the power of the other in check." And the language in the specific condemnations of press-related policy is neutral on questions of broader foreign and domestic decisionmaking, as in this observation: "While we do not take sides on the issue of whether 'enemy combatants' should be detained without charges by the United States government, we are troubled by the administration's failure to provide names and other vital information. When a democratically elected government holds people indefinitely without charges, it is the press's role to shine light on the practice so that citizens and their elected representatives can debate that policy and decide its merits."

In my book, in a section on writing with authority, I argue that news reporters and editors should not take political positions. They should favor no party, no tax policy, no position for or against subsidies or foreign conflicts or oil drilling or the minimum wage. While journalists may hold personal biases on these issues, they must subsume those biases in favor of reporting a full and fair story that gives differing opinions a fair shot.

But I also argue that there are natural, nonpartisan biases which journalists must hold and even promote for the good of our country. They are, most prominently, a bias toward honesty in public conduct, a bias toward openness in government affairs, and a bias toward the public's participation in democratic processes. In these realms, I believe, the journalist is not only entitled but is obligated to be an advocate.

That means exposing falsehoods promoted by Democrats, Republicans and independents alike. It means clamoring for access to government activities and documents. It means promoting robust debate among adherents of competing ideas and ensuring that the best possible truths are on the table for citizens to decide what's right.

By calling attention to, and condeming, administration policies that mislead the public, obscure the truth and erect barriers between citizens and their government, the AEJMC's resolution serves these ends.

It's not up to news journalists or journalism educators to lay out which paths our communities should follow or who should lead us on these paths. But it is up to us to help citizens understand the paths we ARE following and explore alternative paths we COULD follow, and it is our right and duty to challenge anyone who interferes with this responsibility.

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