Monday, February 22, 2010

Tea Party Reporting As Case Study: What is Journalism's Role?

At his blog PressThink (tag lined "Ghost of Democracy in the Media Machine"), Jay Rosen, Journalism professor at New York University, hails recent reporting on the Tea Party by New York Times reporter David Barstow but asks:

Running through it is a narrative of impending tyranny…That sounds like the Tea Party movement I have observed, so the truth of the sentence is not in doubt. But what about the truth of the narrative? David Barstow is a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter for the New York Times. He ought to know whether the United States is on the verge of losing its democracy and succumbing to an authoritarian or despotic form of government. If tyranny was pending in the U.S. that would seem to be a story. The New York Times has done a lot of reporting about the Obama Administration, but it has been silent on the collapse of basic freedoms lurking just around the corner. Barstow commented on the sentence that disturbed me in his interview with CJR:

The other thing that came through was this idea of impending tyranny. You could not go to Tea Party rallies or spend time talking to people within the movement without hearing that fear expressed in myriad ways. I was struck by the number of people who had come to the point where they were literally in fear of whether or not the United States of America would continue to be a free country. I just started seeing that theme come up everywhere I went.

It kept coming up, but David… did it make any sense? Was it grounded in observable fact, the very thing that investigative reporters specialize in? Did it square (at all) with what else Barstow knows, and what the New York Times has reported about the state of politics in 2009-10? Seriously: Why is this phrase, impending tyranny, just sitting there, as if Barstow had no way of knowing whether it was crazed and manipulated or verifiable and reasonable? If we credit the observation that a great many Americans drawn to the Tea Party live in fear that the United States is about to turn into a tyranny, with rigged elections, loss of civil liberties, no more free press, a police state… can we also credit the professional attitude that refuses to say whether this fear is reality-based? I don’t see how we can.

Rosen's questioning is just that, a question. In the comments it's obvious that he is still thinking about the responsibilities of journalism in our current climate - and of journalists in general who encounter strongly-held ideas that run counter to fact but don't qualify them.

Should it be assumed that New York Times readers understand that the country is not on the verge of tyranny or does the nature of this pervasive "belief," evident in interviews in Barstow's article, evident in the momentum of the Tea Party, require Barstow to do some truth-telling? Or is it ok that he reports the "belief" but not the factual errors that it is based on?

Don't miss the comments.

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