In the world of partisan punditry, there is no room for rational investigation. Journalism, with all its long hours of research, sensitive source maintenance, and fatiguing attitude of speculation is passé. Why waste time acting all reporter-ish when it's so easy to broadcast dancing bikini-clad girls singing "I've got a crush on Obama," or report details of Hilary's and Nancy's pantsuit selection? The American media implements a style of reporting that requires unsupported, vicious remarks, which are flung across party lines like chimp dung into the faces of the evil others. The ingredients that comprise the major networks are hatred, laziness, and fear, with a dash of irresponsibility.
Instead of being one who solely talks the talk, I decided to walk the walk and take a stab at investigative reporting. I mean, c'mon, how hard could it be? I'd make a few phone calls, jot down a couple notes, and order Chinese food. But before I overstuffed myself on celebratory MSG, I needed a lead.
When I heard that a California university student was being sued by a neoconservative Jewish journalist, I knew I had my story. The student is an American of Arab descent (we'll call him Pete). Pete had set up an unflattering -- to say the very least -- watchdog website about the Jewish journalist (whom I have named Jeremy) and his articles that all strike a very pro-Israel, anti-Palestine tone. Jeremy took Pete to small claims court and successfully sued him for $7,500. In most cases of he said-he said business, Jeremy claimed Pete's website was a pack of lies, while Pete claimed they were all true and the court ruling was a violation of his first amendment rights, namely the right to make a website voicing speculations about the claims of a certain investigative journalist.
The story should have died there. In fact, it sort of did. The court ruling received some moderate, localized attention, but then effectively died. Pete obtained some publicity when he attracted the attention of First Amendment Rights groups, who used him as a poster boy to illustrate the consequences of internet censorship gone wild. However, other than that, Pete and Jeremy were left to fight it out on their own.
That is, until I butted into the whole mess. When I heard about the story through one of my Another Leftist Wronged by the "Man" e-mail alerts, I was positively outraged. I am currently subscribed to two dozen such alerts. In fact, I have two unread newsletters sitting in my inbox right now -- one from a group that wants to save some kind of endangered mountainous wolf, and the other from PETA reminding me that it is never, ever, EVER okay to test lipstick on rabbits. I'm a liberal cause addict. I'm the idiot that gives out my cell phone number to these special interest groups, and worse than that, I do call my congress representative when it's time to rally the dreadlocked troops and really raise some hell about Uganda's endangered blue swallow. I should mention that it's not as though I have adopted a few special causes near and dear to my heart. Those that devote their lives entirely to a social need that is important to them have nothing but my awe and respect. My problem is that I try to do all of them, all the time.
That's why I needed to come to poor Pete's aid. There he was, an innocent university student being censored by the big, bad neo-con. I immediately e-mailed Pete and asked if he would be willing to let me interview him, and to my great joy, he acquiesced. With a brush-off of my palms, I leaned back in my office chair, crossed my arms, and smiled smugly at my laptop screen. Done, and done.
Fifteen minutes later, I remembered one of the basic principles of the investigative journalist profession: Get all sides of the story. It's an easy one to forget, what with a television universe chock full of Fox News and Crossfire. Good investigative journalists don't approach a story with an agenda. If I wanted to seriously consider myself something other than another liberal pundit, I had to -- oh dear God, No! -- call a conservative. I wanted to cry. Everything had been wrapped up so neatly. A liberal victim, a heroic journalist ... the ending practically wrote itself! Pete and I, hand-in-hand, skipping towards a left-leaning rainbow.
To soothe my ravaged nerves, I told myself that perhaps Jeremy would be difficult to get a hold of. Maybe he preferred to live the Howard Hughes lifestyle and refused contact with the outside world. A quick Google search brought me to his website, and alas, there was his contact information, big as life on the front page. But wait! Didn't partisan news shows always claim they invited representatives of opposite ideologies into their discussion, but some anonymous party declined? I could hardly be accused of being partisan if Jeremy, the rude bastard, refused to speak to me! Surely, fatigued from a lengthy court embattlement and busy with his hectic schedule as a journalist, Jeremy wouldn't waste his time speaking to some no-name blogger.
The following day, I assumed the 1 Message Unread in my mailbox was an alert I'd been expecting about the endangered Puffin bird, but no. It was something far more sinister:
You can reach me on my cell at *** *** ****
DAMNIT! For a terrible few seconds, I found myself paralyzed from dread. Did this truly mean I had to an act like an adult and talk to someone who didn't agree with my personal agendas? But if the big boys and girls on the network news channels didn't have to do it, why did I? Why couldn't I bring my opinions and biases to the table and tell this Jeremy fellow off, Crossfire style? The simple explanation was that doing so would be wrong, unprofessional, the opposite of journalism, and it would accomplish nothing.
Investigative journalism is tough for this very reason. It doesn't allow room for the irrationality of an opinion. Journalists, and more specifically good journalists, tirelessly research facts and ask questions from a vast array of sources precisely so they can approach a honed idea of the truth. Pundits, i.e. the talking heads, are the opposite of journalists. They base careers on their opinions. They yell, belittle, and cut the mics of their guests so no one can challenge their ideologies and they remain alpha dog. At the end of their thirty-minute masturbatory monologue, nothing is accomplished, but we're a little worse for the wear after having watched the train wreck.
I called Jeremy, and yeah, he was a nice guy. As it turned out, and believe me, no one could possibly be more disappointed than I, Jeremy was right. Pete hadn't simply set up a website debunking supposed claims Jeremy had made in his pieces. Pete had made wild, unsupported claims, and also began harassing Jeremy's employers, which eventually cost Jeremy his job because of all the undesired attention. Sadly, Pete was also very nice on the phone, but holes immediately appeared throughout his story. He had no proof that Jeremy ever lied. While Jeremy accrued legal fees in court, Pete had a lawyer working pro-bono for him, even though Pete's father is extremely wealthy, and Pete himself is a young entrepreneur with a highly lucrative business. Despite his cozy financial situation, Pete had been asking the public for monetary donations for his trial expenses. Something is rotten in the state of California.
A disheartening combination of ADD and the desire to be liked by everyone stopped me from asking the bolder questions of Jeremy and Pete. I got the gist of the story and got the hell off the phone. It takes nerves of steel to ask tough questions of anyone let alone persons in positions of great power and authority. I found myself unnerved by nobodies like Jeremy and Pete, but imagine if I had been on the phone with President Bush, Condoleezza Rice, or Dick Cheney (though let's be honest, nobody talks to Dick.) Would I be brave enough to push the envelope? It's easy to see how journalists could let themselves be wooed by expensive gifts, lavish dinners, and the possibility of forging friendships with the political and cultural elite. It's so much easier to take kick-backs than be a reporter. No one likes a busy-body, especially politicians. Heck, that's why the White House has gone to such measures to silence the press.
What I didn't learn from talking to Jeremy and Pete, I read straight from the court transcripts whilst cringing all the while. There, in the brutal clarity of black and white ink, my comrade Pete unraveled himself from the protective innocence of his victim's cocoon, revealing his true shape as an obsessive, juvenile, zealot mutant of a butterfly. I didn't like reporting the facts. Indeed, I
hated it, but it was the right thing to do, and by doing it, I inched my way closer toward the truth. The idea of balanced investigation is essential to good journalism. For every liberal one talks to, a conservative needs to be placed upon the opposite end of the scale to even things out.
Say you're MSNBC, or Fox, or NBC, or ABC, or CBS, and you decide to put a military general on your payroll as a war expert, would it not be unreasonable to then interview Iraqi civilians or a surgeon during the evening news and explain what a landmine does to a person when shrapnel rips into their legs? Don't think of it as appeasing the leftists. Think of it as doing good journalistic investigating. The major news sources of America are certainly bias because their journalists are entrenched solely with one side of the conflict, and the resulting investigative work wouldn't exactly make Edward R. Murrow well up with pride. And no, Murrow probably wouldn't dig shoddy tributes to his memory either even if you pride yourself on being a lefty, and therefore somehow "balanced."
Journalists give a voice to those who cannot speak. They are the sentinels between propaganda and the people. Through their diligence and discipline, we learn the truth, or as close to it as we meek humans can reach. If journalists refuse, because of their own weak principles and constitutions, to seek out every reservoir of truth available to them, they have no business holding the title of a such a honorable, difficult, essential profession. All star-struck, lazy, partisan applicants need not apply. If your morals are weak, your lifestyle tastes expensive, your desires superficial, consider the over-saturated marketplace of the pundit, and consult with any of the major news networks for opening positions.