Who Owns the Fourth Estate?
Rosen's notion of journalists as "trustees" of the public draws credibility from envisioning the usual suspects when one thinks of them: the nonstop mouths on a Washington chatfest. But where's the argument for considering it a duty that falls equally on all journalists, let alone artists? Perhaps we impose it by custom on the political hunter-gatherers of the New York Times and Washington Post, expecting them to gather allegedly neutral facts about public life like robots picking cherries. But do we include the Slate-istas, churning out in-group chatter as if it were reportage? The celebrity sighters of "Page Six"? The compulsive book-borrowers of the New York Press? Monitors of automobile or advertising industry gossip in the trades? Critics of all stripes, inevitably weighing elements of artistic and scholarly life with a mental hand on the scales?
Public journalism's agenda is partly to make every journalist "major" in political philosophy, a favorite of its leaders. But do we welcome such an oppressive attempt to impose an academic mentality, perhaps leading to opening quotes from Rousseau in the columns of Liz Smith? To some extent, Rosen concedes in his frequent references to the "serious press" that public journalism as philosophy relies on a fallacy of synecdoche. It takes one part of the press--reporters who cover politics and governmental affairs--and suggests they represent all, leaving out critics, obituary writers, city columnists, the outdoors specialist, the editorial cartoonist and others.
Public journalism also contains what can only be described as a reportorial paradox. While Rosen and peers speak often of journalists thinking about making things better, they never comment on the logical implication that making things better includes not making things worse. If that's so, the journalist, like the doctor, should begin with the Hippocratic principle: First do no harm.
Notice, though, how that principle immediately threatens the flow of information expected from a reporter. She's covering the chief do-gooder in town, who's also lightly harassing his secretary. If she reports the ugly behavior, all sorts of good projects will go unachieved. If she doesn't, she's already reasoning away potential news. Analyzing what the reporter should do could lead in various directions, but the logical problem remains: Public journalism presumes a Hippocratic principle that may undermine the straightforward reporting of information.
Finally, Rosen's professed pragmatism clashes with his inclinations as a journalistic reformer. If the classical pragmatism of Dewey and James stands for anything, it's an anti-essentialist view of concepts. In defending public journalism's aim to make journalists active citizens and amateur political philosophers, Rosen charges hidebound traditionalists like Gartner with "essentialism," saying, "An experimental attitude is anti-essentialist." Yet what could be more essentialist than arguing that ordinary citizens who choose to write, report and share their writings must take on a concern for the state and its welfare as an obligation?
To be fair, Rosen's rhetoric and vocabulary vary. Sometimes he suggests that public journalism is less a declaration of the rights and duties of journalists than a way to nudge them into nonobligatory but desirable behavior. And the pragmatist may well be damned if he does and damned if he doesn't: impliedly essentialist if he accepts a traditionalist's version of journalism's responsibilities, impliedly essentialist if he actively seeks reform.
In the end--oddly for a thinker who professes to be a pragmatist and rejects the mainstream media view that journalists "are not in the philosophy business"--Rosen emerges more as a reporter and policy activist than philosopher. Instead of a Critique of (Allegedly) Pure Journalism, comparable to Dewey's The Public and Its Problems or Lippmann's Public Opinion, Rosen's book swings between an If It's Tuesday, It's the Poynter Institute diary form, a Faith of My Brethren inspirational tome that effectively defends the movement against attacks, and a clearly appealing Ethics for the New Journalistic Millennium, offering a slate of recommendations. The combination, one suspects, creates a book that will deepen the understanding of its subject among all interested parties, but change few minds.
Is it unfair to expect public journalism, still but a cultural infant, to plumb theoretical depths in an introductory effort by its most articulate champion? Perhaps. Taken as a plea for better education of journalists in political theory, so they can transcend the naïveté of mainstream journalistic thinking about "objectivity," What Are Journalists For? makes an important contribution to greater intellectual sophistication in newspaper journalism--the only quality likely to save the latter in an age of competition from shrewd, well-educated Net journalists and their wares. Rosen notes the "weak tradition of debate within the culture of the press" and tries to goose it into robustness, forcing the lame "bystander" image of the press to confront insider E.J. Dionne's recognition that "the press is now an intimate part of everything having to do with elections."
Still, until public journalism's high priests figure out why the First Amendment doesn't protect the right of journalists to be blithe, selfish, sensationalistic, solipsistic and irresponsibly entertaining--much like comics, novelists and painters not badgered into winning good citizenship medals--public journalism will be less a philosophy or no-brainer social policy than a useful form of critical jawboning. In that exercise, enlightened academics and born-again reporters ought to urge the still benighted to take off their intellectual blinders and, as James Carey advises, look at themselves differently. Anything more than that awaits the Kant of media studies, a position still open despite all the foundation money in the world.