The Land of Perfect Journalism

In a joking story about the land of perfect justice, a tailor is convicted of doing something that, he says, that any tailor would have done. As he was a very tall tailor and the gallows was quite short, he couldn’t be hanged. So, following his logic, a shorter tailor was found and hanged instead.

I thought of this as I watched former New York Times reporter Judith Miller on The Daily Show. She said, “It was really, really hard to do this kind of reporting. I wasn’t alone; I had lots and lots of company.” That, in large part, is her justification for having helped mislead the United States into its disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq. Any journalist would have done the same.

Thing is, her work was no more journalism than the charge of the Light Brigade was war: “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre,” as Pierre Bosquet observed. Her work in Washington was what Stephen Colbert described as, essentially, stenography: “The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put ’em through a spell check and go home.” She told Stewart that she asked her sources about weapons of mass destruction and they had never been wrong, so she reported what they said as truth.

As Maureen Dowd says, “It took a Herculean effort of imagination, manipulation and deception to concoct ‘the information’ that propelled the invasion, occupation and destruction of a country that had nothing to do with 9/11.” Miller was part of that; journalism was not.

Miller, certainly, was no journalist. She just played one at The New York Times. She recently proved that by sitting down for an interview with trickster faux-journalist (or “entrapment journalist” as Steve Myers calls him) James O’Keefe. She says something that, while true, doesn’t apply to either of them (though it is self-serving). She says to O’Keefe, “I think journalists who poke holes in comforting narratives tend to be subjected to a fair amount of scorn.” She goes on to claim, “That’s what journalism is: trial and error.”

As Myers writes, “The best investigative journalists try to disprove their hypotheses. They try to verify and confirm, even when they’re tempted by the sexy quote. They know that while journalism is iterative, the truth is rarely singular or simplistic. In the process of forming the whole picture, they make their stories stronger.” But that’s not what Miller has done, nor is what O’Keefe practices anything like it at all. Both of them search selectively and to pre-established ends, participating in no real exploration, Miller limiting herself to those she trusts and O’Keefe looking for the bits and pieces he can string into a new narrative that will destroy his target. Neither is a journalist, Miller’s years at The New York Times notwithstanding.

Real journalism takes work and time and, often, obscurity. It never stops with sources (as Miller does) nor does it depend on editing (as O’Keefe believes). It relies on a passion for truth and on persistence, on never being satisfied. It requires commitment to the act of journalist and complete indifference to being a journalist.

Real journalism follows the example of I. F. Stone, who patiently explored document after document seeking, through patience and diligence, what others had missed—not simply accepting what others say, no matter how right they may once have been. Real journalism requires letting the information one finds speak rather than manipulating it into your own narrative. Neither Miller nor O’Keefe are interested in any of this.

The substance, after all, is something much harder. And finding it takes real work, not appearance on TV.

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