KOK Edit: Your favorite copyeditor since 1984(SM)
KOK Edit: your favorite copyeditor since 1984(SM) KOK Edit: your favorite copyeditor since 1984(SM) Katharine O'Moore Klopf

Thursday, October 27, 2005

The New McCarthyism, Take 7

I should engage in some self-disclosure here: From 1980 to 1982, I was a reporter for the Beaumont Enterprise-Journal (Texas), now known as the Beaumont Enterprise. My surname at the time was Pijanowski; how it became O'Moore-Klopf is a story for another day. Back then, I held myself rigidly to the code of the righteous journalist: no supporting any political or social causes in my personal life, because I might be biased, or be thought biased, when it came time to write news stories. But that was eons ago (from when I was 21 to when I turned 23), I've been a copyeditor of books and not a journalist for almost 22 years now, and I've been through plenty of things that have altered my viewpoint on the definition of conflict of interest for journalists.

Veteran journalist, book author, and financial analyst Hal Plotkin didn't post today about about copy editor Tim Mahoney's suspension from the St. Paul Pioneer Press. But tonight I did find a post of his from just over a year ago that eloquently says so much of what I believe about this case. The best part?

What do Winston Churchill, Patrick Henry, Benjamin Franklin, Upton Sinclair, Alan Cranston, William F. Buckley, Jr., and Al Gore have in common?

All of them were journalists before, and in some cases also after, they became political figures.

They are among the hundreds, perhaps thousands of other important leaders who made their living by reporting or commenting on public affairs—a group that includes everyone from Georges Clemenceau, a major force during France's Third Republic, to the former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 it was an ABC news reporter, John Scali, who helped avert nuclear catastrophe by serving as a secret go-between for the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union. For centuries, in democratic countries journalists have often been key participants in matters of state and community.

The people running today's biggest media empires are trying to put an end to all that, even if it means breaking the law.

You've probably heard their disingenuous, self-serving argument. It's one that most non-journalists, and many journalists as well, have accepted without too much thought. It goes something like this: the public won't trust media reports if the people who write them participate in politics in any way, including during their non-working hours. Journalists must be impartial observers and not be involved in the communities they cover. This, the standard reasoning goes, is the only way a media outlet can maintain a reputation for objectivity, or at least its fig-leaf step-cousin, "the perception of objectivity," for which most editors settle.

On the surface this seems like a sound argument. So plausible, in fact, that it has enabled one of the biggest thefts of the last century, the robbery of virtually an entire
profession's most basic and fundamental constitutional rights.

If journalists want to keep a roof over their head (or, as President Bush might say, "put food on their families") they can't make contributions to political campaigns. They can't run for office, even for their local school board. In many cases, they can't even contribute to groups such as Planned Parenthood without risking their jobs and income. The cherished American freedoms we were taught in school, the freedom of speech and the right to associate with whomever one chooses, no longer apply to journalists. Unless, of course, they happen to own their own media outlets.

One predictable consequence of forbidding journalists' political expression is that it makes it less likely they will ever realize their full potentials as citizens or turn to careers in public service. This is not just unfair to journalists; it also damages our society. Our culture is cheated and its options are narrowed when any group is excluded from political participation. As the historical record attests, that is particularly true of journalists, who are often more knowledgeable, well-informed, thoughtful and socially-conscious than the lawyers and corporate shills who dominate political life in America today.

This is something that has bothered—no, make that deeply, deeply offended me—during all my years working for different media outlets, large and small. Most of my bosses have been perfectly reasonable people. But few of them ever thought twice when it came to forcing me to give up my constitutionally protected First Amendment rights to freedom of expression and association.

Think about this. We are talking about a profession whose practitioners are trained and paid to think, investigate, compare and contrast, talk, interview, write, analyze and report. When you look at the people currently running our government, do you see a surplus of those skills?

Journalists have lost their freedoms in the same way that poor frog adjusted to gradually heating water until it finally boiled to death. Over the last few decades corporate forces have slowly but steadily taken away basic constitutional rights from nearly every working journalist in the United States.

The New McCarthyism Take 2 Take 3 Take 4 Take 5 Take 6 Take 7

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