Journalism with a Conscience  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   July/August 2002

Journalism with a Conscience   

People’s Witness: The Journalist in Modern Politics
By Fred Inglis
Yale University Press
416 pages; $29.95

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     


"People's Witness" has the scent of a stodgy history text, but hard-headed journalists shouldn't shy away. This book, they will find, brings fresh life to a momentous question: What is the role of conscience in reporting?

In tracing the evolution of 20th-century reporting, Fred Inglis frames the issue of conscience through mini-biographies of prominent reporters and writers, from Martha Gellhorn to Norman Mailer, Ernest Hemingway to I.F. Stone. One after another, these writers slide, tiptoe and sometimes stomp through the shifting grounds of fact-gathering and truth-telling.

"Often knowing too much," Inglis pithily observes, "they do not know whom to tell or how to make [the story] tell."

Inglis can be biting, but he takes an idealistic view. Fine journalism, he writes, "is truthful, faithful to the facts, bearing witness of human actuality to those who could not actually be there" and imbued with "adequate feelings and moral judgment." Beyond that, "political journalism is at its most respectable when it turns ideas into instruments to think well and with."

Inglis shows impatience bordering on disdain for the conventions of objectivity. Instead, he declares, "it is the duty of journalists...to tell the truth and expose lies."

These are hardly new thoughts. But where Inglis moves the debate forward is in showing how often history honors those journalists who find ways to turn everyday detail and observation into meaningful master narratives of their times.

He describes, for example, the reporting William Shirer and Edward R. Murrow did from Europe for CBS during early World War II. Reporting from Germany, Shirer "tried to tell Americans what he believed the Germans were up to," without getting himself thrown out of the country or kept off the air. In what Inglis calls one "brave piece of work," Shirer strayed from utter objectivity to comment, "Neither Germans nor foreigners in Berlin believe for one second that Hitler will stop now.... The goal is the domination of Eastern Europe."

CBS policies prohibited "emotionalism in reporting," but "no rules could stop Murrow's determination to bring out the extraordinary power of the historic drama he felt himself privileged to act in." In 1941, he "openly reminded his audience...that the future of world freedom was in their hands: America could no longer isolate herself from an omnivorous fascism."

Tough as it might have been, warning against fascism was easy compared with challenging American policy in Vietnam.

Inglis cites the work of David Halberstam, Gloria Emerson, Neil Sheehan and others, whom he labels "flowers of new journalism": "Every one of them came in the end to write in brave and uncompromising opposition to the war. Each found it necessary to contrive a quite new way of writing journalism in order to grasp and represent what was going on."

For Sheehan, to take one example, the method was "to try to measure the gap between what he saw and heard was going wrong and the official statements."

And, of course, Inglis cites the classic on-air declaration of Mr. Trustworthiness himself, Walter Cronkite, on Vietnam: "It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out, then, will be to negotiate...."

A professor of cultural studies at the University of Sheffield in Britain, Inglis brings internationalist and scholarly perspectives to his book, analyzing the British and European press as well as the American. His subjects include some who may be less familiar to U.S. readers, such as the BBC's John Simpson or the Australian John Pilger.

Not everyone will endorse all his choices, which tend to weigh leftward, but his thoughts about conscience and truth-telling underline vital matters. A striking connection here is how often these acclaimed journalists succeeded by taking risks at the right time, expressing truths that needed attention by surmounting, if not outright flouting, the professional rulebook.

What Inglis does not adequately do, in my view, is explain why some journalists succeed at this tricky task and others don't. The secret cannot simply be passion. Surely there are passionate journalists who are dead wrong--those who defended slavery or fascism or oppression. Their work fades with their discredited causes.

So how can we identify, early on rather than in hindsight, those journalists who have the proper blend of talent, guts and vision? How do teachers nurture them, editors develop them and readers differentiate their golden work from the dross?

Today, for example, can we know which of them are in our midst--writing for or against globalization, for or against military solutions versus political solutions to terrorism or the Mideast conflict?

Maybe one answer actually has to do with the journalistic procedures that Inglis, like most of us, sometimes seems to slight. He presents his journalist heroes as mavericks and rule-benders. But publishing also involves a cast of editors, producers and other quality-control people (a point he does specifically make, to be fair, about the Washington Post's Watergate coverage). It might be useful to look deeper at how the very processes of journalism filter in the needed messages.

Inglis doesn't have the answer to this, and it may be unfair to demand it. He does have a way of elegantly crystallizing his points. While other scholars debate whether the press inflates its impact, Inglis says simply, "We might even claim for journalism the position of prime shaper of the way everybody sees the world."

What explains the power of a well-timed message? "Listening to this, or reading it, abruptly closes the distance between events out there and our hearts within us."

And what is the ultimate test of the journalist as truth-teller? "What matters is to have been right, and then to have been decent."

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