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Ernest Miller Ernest Miller pursues research and writing on cyberlaw, intellectual property, and First Amendment issues. Mr. Miller attended the U.S. Naval Academy before attending Yale Law School, where he was president and co-founder of the Law and Technology Society, and founded the technology law and policy news site LawMeme. He is a fellow of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. Ernest Miller's blog postings can also be found @

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October 05, 2004

Journalism's True Enemies

Posted by Ernest Miller

Jay Rosen is analyzing the continuing aftermath of the CBS memo debacle (Political Jihad and the American Blog: Chris Satullo Raises the Stakes). He points to an op-ed by Philadelphia Inquirer editorial page editor Chris Satullo that has much to say (in 668 words) on the subject (Cries of 'media bias' hide sloppy thinking).

Satullo, like Rosen, takes a very balanced view of bloggers and big media, seeing them as symbiotic, benefiting each other. He properly denigrates excessive blog triumphalism as well as big media snobbery. He also says that we must fear "Orwellians" whose "goal isn't better journalism. It's to bully reporters into submission, so that propaganda may flourish."

Well, yes, there are plenty of folk who would prefer to be in charge of the propaganda machine rather than have to survive in a marketplace of ideas. But I don't think "Orwellian" is the right term.

Why? We live in a nation with perhaps the strongest protections for freedom of speech and the press history has ever known. The First Amendment remains a strong bulwark against the prisons and worse that journalists must face in many areas of the world.

So, I ask, what tools are these "Orwellians" using to "bully reporters into submission"? Why are these reporters cowed by the bullying? Why should they fear Brent Bozell? Why is Satullo claiming that "What matters is that journalism survive..."?


Yes, journalism is in crisis. But the enemy is not external "Orwellians" - whoever they are. The "enemy" is within journalism. The "enemy" is whenever an organization ostensibly dedicated to news decides to act like a politician and stonewall. The "enemy" is when a news organization shades its coverage to serve corporate interests. The "enemy" is those who practice poor journalism.

And how do you fight these "Orwellians"? Not with a circle-the-wagons cry of "political jihad" against critics (which only does the "Orwellians'" job for them) but with a renewed commitment to better journalism. If, as Satullo claims (and I agree), journalism is "the craft of speaking truth to power with factual care" then journalists have to hold themselves to that standard.

Satullo says that the battle cries of the Orwellians are "Bias! Arrogance! Monopoly!" Why do the Orwellians use these cries? Why do they resonate with the public? Is it perhaps because there is truth in them? A truth that should be spoken to power?

If journalists weren't so busy claiming that they were objective and, instead, insisted on transparency and accountability, there would be little to be feared from cries of "bias." The forged CBS memos are about CBS News' failure as an institution, and one of those failures was clearly arrogance by the organization and hubris on the part of Dan Rather. And the major news organizations are, and have been, gatekeepers, if not monopolies. As corporations, they want to remain gatekeepers, because it tends to be profitable.

Satullo actually points towards this:

By journalism, I don't mean getting paid $4 million a year to have nice hair and interview Kelsey Grammer. I mean the principled, difficult search for the most thorough, accurate, fair-minded account of current matters that flawed human beings can attain.

Journalism, done right, buoys democracy; hence its place in the First Amendment.

Media conglomerates are not a synonym for journalism. They employ some journalists, and many who only pretend to be. They enable the craft, but also inhibit and cheapen it.

Journalism has enemies, but where there is freedom of expression, then the only enemies journalism has to worry about are those who would destroy it from within by "inhibit[ing] and cheapen[ing] it."

Worrying about "Orwellians" is only a distraction from the real enemies of journalism (bad journalism) and the only tool needed to defend journalism in a nation with freedom of expression (good journalism).

PS I don't think journalism has an explicit place in the First Amendment. Freedom of the press is about government regulation of distribution, not journalism.


The conversation continues on the comment section of Rosen's post: Political Jihad and the American Blog: Chris Satullo Raises the Stakes.

Comments (3) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Blogging and Journalism


1. Albert Gedraitis on October 7, 2004 04:39 PM writes...

I agree with much of what Ernest Miller has to say on the Satullo / Rosen debate-startup regarding the vocation of journalism and the place and task of journalism institutions in our society, which is a democratic one.

However, I think the definition most are falling back on, is somewhat tendentious. As in this paragraph from Miller quoting the earliers, "And how do you fight these 'Orwellians'? Not with a circle-the-wagons cry of 'political jihad' against critics (which only does the 'Orwellians' job for them) but with a renewed commitment to better journalism. If, as Satullo claims (and I agree), journalism is 'the craft of speaking truth to power with factual care' then journalists have to hold themselves to that standard."

The important part of this formulation (and that's all it is, and I do not agree with it) is "factual care." But that leaves out something perhaps even more important-namely, the task of being able to bring to light one's own buried presuppositions in the most ultimate sense, and also to see deeply into unacknowledged presuppositions of others who engage in the metadiscourses of journalism, as well as have more grace at hand than merely to sneer at those who do not so engage but have a more visceral discourse to express their take on problems and issues in the society.

Yet even here I am giving more tilt in my own formulation in favour of the lousy definition Satullo, and apparently Rosen, and Miller fixate on. Not all valuable journalism takes on power; not all power lies, at least not all the time; and many journalists do lie most of the time, some because they enjoy doing so.

Miller speaks of "hubris" in the case of Rather. Yes, indeed; but that is to limit oneself to tha lanaguage of virtue/s which has its place, altho it has more abstractive height than depth, so dialectically it only renders the shallowest depth of what I take to be the truth about Rather. Rather, rather, had journalismitis, the obsessive-compulsion to fake a truth (because he functions in the shallow end) in order to bring someone down and render them below him in the social order. Since he's paid $7 Mill a year (a status index in our society, forget the economics of it), he has to bring down someone big. Especially in his so advanced years. Rather should have been retired some time ago, so in the end, it's his superiors, trading on the face (as they say) who failed us as much as did the failed steward of his vocation himself, and his equally compulsive underling, Mapes.

The corporation CBS/Viacom should be fined a Billion dollars, and the culprits Moonves, Rather, Mapes, etc, should all be severely punished for their attack on the public, and the purposeful spreading of disinformation that hurt us all whatever our political persuasion or lack thereof.

To centre the definition of journalism around power and not to offer us concrete power-termed thot in the case at hand is pathetic. And, to centre the defintion of journalism around power, outside the case at hand and in general, is just to use the power of metadiscursive journalism to set the terms for its own self-appraisal. The same kind of game Moonves is playing right now, and Viacom's boss as well. He's the ultiamate responsible here; he let these self-serving anti-journalists, betrayers of their vocation, loose on us, the public at a critical time in the process of our nation's democratic functioning.

Disposing of the false definition of journalism, and broading our sense of the journalistic task, allows us to then spotlight a defiintion of political journalism. We see that Rather and pack were not pursuing political journalism in this case either; their pursuit was character smear, and now Rather the Smear Artist gone agog claims that he is being smeared when held responsible. He seems to be without conscience and to have no idea that hurts us, his vocation, Satullo's, Rosen's and Miller's. None of them really has the insight as yet, nor apparently the guts if they do, to grapply with the reality.

All the foregoing goes to say why we need the more gracious elements of journalism's possible content, as well as the non-meta discourses in the more visceral vein that come from the news-political laity writing in their blogs, etc. After all, in answer to Locke, there were the Dissenters who didn't want the suffocating uniformity of Lockean Anglicanism with all its "tolerance." They had ideas of their own; they had alternative worldviews, and they were willing to spell those views out. And before them, there were the debating factions of the Revolutionary Army under Cromwell, out of which came the Diggers (the earliest Christian socialism in the English language) and then all sorts of Ranters, Revelators, Hallucinators, and Sexual Heretics. These are the roots of freedom of speech in our cultural tradition. A huge unruly multitiude, some of whom spoke truth to power. But probably not all that many. Most of us are wrong most of the time, and few writers of any kind discourse exceed the 95% rearrangement of clichés that Roland Barthes said most discourse is composed of,

In all the current usage of the New Testament phrase, "speaking the truth to power," everything is geared to the presupposition that journalists are defined by a political task, know what truth is better than anyone else, know what's progressive (Rosen is damned by his high presumption in this regard), knows what's progressive for society better than anyone of any other worldview than the one he shares with Salutto, and assumes that especially the government and the corporations have no truth and must be under constant attack.

Miller goes one: "And how do you fight these 'Orwellians'?" Poor ol' George Orwell! The mean use of the term here suggests an affinity with the caricatures that Rosen and Salutto and the posters create to demean Hugh Hewitt and Brent Bozell. Someone in all that posted slaughterhouse following Rosen's piece, I believe, did point out that Bozell, disagree with his poilitics and worldview as much as you or I may, doggedly documented the doggerel pawned off as news by news media of decades past. It's just not honest to give so one-sided a non-evauulatinon, another smear.

Miller continues: "Not with a circle-the-wagons cry of "political jihad" against critics (which only does the "Orwellians'" job for them) but with a renewed commitment to better journalism." Well, there's something fine buried in here. Why can't Miller say it clean, so that someone of another outlook can access and register a point of contact without being pre-empted, co-opted into all the questionable verbiage-which is from his source, but which he repeats to give his sentences here colour rather than calarity. I have to wade thru the gross, the calumnious "political jihad" and again the abusive "Orwellian" just to get to "better." But isn't that the issue at hand?

What is "better"? Since we don't agree on what journalism is, we don't have any idea of what "better journalism" is. Since it is something so vast in the proferred (erroneous, disagreeable) definition, we can't get down to practice of a vocation we might otherwise secularly agree is simply "political news-composition and delivery." With care for facts, and concern to understand viewpoint, not just among the laity, but conflicted viewpoint held unconsciously and often meanly by those who want to be politicians and exercise pollitical power thru daily story writing and presenting, like Rather and ilk.

Miller: "If, as Satullo claims (and I agree), journalism is "the craft of speaking truth to power with factual care" then journalists have to hold themselves to that standard." It's not good enuff!

Albert Gedraitis

Permalink to Comment

2. Anonymous Howard on October 12, 2004 05:50 PM writes...

"PS I don't think journalism has an explicit place in the First Amendment. Freedom of the press is about government regulation of distribution, not journalism."

And with one postscript Ernest Miller removes any credibility whatsoever he built up in the past or ever hoped to build in the future. That is the most asinine statement I have ever read about journalism and the First Amendment. Hell ...about constitutional law.

Okay, where does journalism belong?

Permalink to Comment

3. Ernest Miller on October 12, 2004 06:24 PM writes...

Journalism is protected by the First Amendment, but it is not privileged as a craft. "Press" does not refer to journalism as we understand it, but to publishers.

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