A journalist may not be a moralist

by Nazarul Islam | Published: 00:00, Jun 25,2020


Demonstrators protest at the killing of Michael Brown, in August 2014, outside Greater St Marks Family Church in St Louis. — Getty Images/Scott Olson

THE late SR Ghouri introduced me to the brave new world of journalism. This was 1977, another turbulent year for Pakistan and politics. This was also the year of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a prisoner of conscience, gasping for freedom in Russia. Journalism has since never remained silent which happens to be its greatest virtue and, perhaps, its greatest drawback. Because, it must voice the opinion on the spot while the echoes of wonder, claims of triumph and signs of horrors are still in the air.

Journalism has allowed our readers to witness history; fiction gave readers an opportunity to live that. Obviously, the classical understanding of journalism would mean that it should be fair, objective and seeming to be objective,  but the controversy today has ignited a debate about whether that definition could work any longer.

Any discussion also may inadvertently lead to race relations, depicting how the media has covered race and, importantly, diversity within the secure confines of our newsrooms.

While the NYT’s clarification after an outrage over its piece may seem like a big moral call, there is also a commercial and a business aspect to it, which cannot be ignored.

Abe Rosenthal, the former editor of the New York Times, was a very conservative editor and he was known to be very strict with reporters who tended to veer too far to the left. When he died, a line was engraved on his tombstone that said: ‘He kept the paper straight’. Now the question is: what does it mean to keep the paper straight?

As for me, writing today has provided an illusion of control, followed again by realisation that it was just an ‘illusion’, something that people will add to its baggage, which may or may not be relevant. We need to understand how straight can a publisher keep the paper these days in such polarised times all around this world. An example could be America where president Donald Trump allegedly hurls abuse at the fraternity.

And in Pakistan, while prime minister Imran Khan may not do it directly, but so many people on social media and elsewhere have attacked journalists all the time. Today, many things are getting mixed up. There is politics and there is culture. And then, there are the all-important business models.

There was a time when advertisers paid you a lot of money. So your subscribers paid you some for the copy of the paper and advertisers paid the rest. Now advertisers are paying less because they have less money because of the economy and because advertising is available on the web at much lower prices.

So newspapers and media organisations now have to get subscription revenues on the web. But there is a general belief they have to agree with what you are saying since people will fund what they agree with and so will foundations.

And so while taking all these calls, the business aspect also needs to be kept in mind.

In August 2014, 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr was fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Among the reporters who went to cover the incident was Lowery, then with the Washington Post.

Lowrey soon had a dust up over the incident with MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough on CNN’s morning show. After that event, Lowrey began talking about race issues from inside the Washington Post’s newsroom in a way which the editors did not approve of. He was then asked to leave the organisation by Marty Baron, the executive editor of the Washington Post, who comes from a more conservative school of thought.

Journalists in the United States believe that this churn in American newsrooms started with Lowrey’s experience. So Ben Smith, in his famous article, has spoken to journalists from different newsrooms and generations. The question has remained: what are the core values? Is it the truth or is it the perception of objectivity?

The controversy began with the NYT publishing an op-ed by senator Tom Cotton, calling for the use of troops in American cities. Cotton’s article was in response to the widespread protests taking place across the country over the killing of 44-year-old African-American George Floyd by a police officer earlier in May.

Many took offence to the NYT publishing such a piece, including many NYT staffers. Following the uproar, the NYT editors issued a statement saying the piece did not meet their editorial standards.

Journalism without a moral position is impossible. Every journalist is a moralist. It is absolutely unavoidable. A journalist is someone who looks at the world and the way it works, someone who takes a close look at things every day and reports what he or she sees, someone who represents the world, the event, for others. A journalist cannot do work without judging what is seen by the inner eye.


Nazarul Islam is a former educator based in Chicago.

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