A Citizen Speaks

'IT'S amazing how everyone is aware of his rights!" said a black African editor whose own newspaper lived on the brink of shutdown by the government. In that short phrase he summed up what most impressed him about Americans, after six months here to study our media.

A citizen's sense of rights impels him to speak out. It's also, of course, an inclination that journalists feel and must watch closely.

Beyond that, professionals in the media need to resist the temptation to exploit the citizenry's underlying concern about their society by turning crime, family relations, sexual harassment, and other hot topics into tabloid TV and fast and loose docudrama.

All's not lost: American journalism still has a front rank - The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNBC for business news, and CNN for crisis news, to list a few I follow.

Journalists, acting as surrogates for citizens, have the opportunity to visit war zones, enter executive suites, ride election campaign buses, and strike up conversations with waiters, taxi drivers, and doormen when sizing up what's going on. The rules of journalism require that we state who we are so the sources are forewarned they may be quoted. The journalist must be a political independent so long as he or she is practicing the trade. This means avoiding any label as talk-show liberal or conservative. It would rule out revolving-door movement of talk-show hosts and columnists into and out of partisan political or government roles.

Former political operatives like Chris Mathews do bring an insider's perspective, an ability to discount surface evidence, that is hard to match. And the pairing of speakers voicing opposing-party views can help articulate differences. But we have seen a confusion develop on the issue of objectivity as partisan practitioners, such as lawyers, migrate from the role of source to commentator to host.

The journalist should have no stake in the outcome of his reportage. He is not a propagandist. It is often broadly claimed that there is no such thing as objectivity in reporting. But there is. The rules of sourcing, exposition, and evidence should enable even the B-talent reporter to get the story right. Add to this intelligence, focus, hustle, courage, and self-knowledge - the latter to remember one is not part of the story - and reportage gathers luster. To generalize that reporters can't be objective would be like saying musicians never have perfect pitch.

Nor is it correct to say that journalism freezes out the views of other citizens. The media give varied types of access to non-journalists: as news sources, in poll results, and in letters, guest columns, and broadcast call-ins.

Journalists must have a strong sense of citizenship in order that their publications or networks can aspire to effect needed change in the world. Lacking such aspiration, a publication will not attract and keep high-caliber talent. Great journalism is fired not by cynicism or big salary, but by a simple, purifying hope to get our civilization's story right. Great damage comes from getting the story wrong. Whole peoples can be destroyed when untruths are left unchallenged because of cultural, class, or ideological blinkers.

The higher citizenship is universalist as well as local. The best executives and politicians do distinguish, admirably, between their roles as heads of organizations and government and as citizens with an allegiance to their society. They bring as much unity as they can to those two roles. To run an organization well can be a citizen's most effective expression of citizenship. The citizen's rights should be served by the professional's sense of responsibility.

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