The Duty of Journalists: An Interview with James Corbett


Devon Douglas-Bowers I Politics & Government I Interview I May 22nd, 2014



Journalism today has, in many cases, become nothing but a joke. Many so-called journalists are essentially stenographers for the government and don't bother to truly look into a story, instead choosing to 'toe the government line' in order to maintain access to officials. It is this problem that has led me to interview independent journalist James Corbett regarding the duty and responsibility of journalists, how people can insert themselves into this ongoing conversation, and why independent journalism is important.






1. What do you define as a journalist? How does this conflict with what the mainstream media defines as a journalist?

The term "journalist" is not a job description and it does not define a fixed set of skills, duties and responsibilities the way "auto mechanic" or "accountant" does. Instead, it's a term used to describe a role that is determined by prevailing social relations in a given cultural context. The popular conception of a "journalist" in China is different from that in Qatar and different again from that in Montreal. Also, what we think of today as a "journalist" is different from what was thought of as a journalist 100 years ago or 200 years ago. Going back more than 500 years, it is difficult to say that anything we would define as "journalism" even existed. So in order to understand what we mean today by journalism we have to understand our own cultural context and expectations.

The primary factor underlying these relations today is the technological platform for the delivery of information. Just as the invention of the movable type printing press made something like a newspaper possible, so, too, is the internet making new forms of journalism possible. We are still living through this transformation and the new media of journalism (video reports filed by eyewitnesses via cellphone cameras, podcasts, liveblogging of events on social media, etc.) are still in their infancy, so it would be fair to say that we still don't know what a "journalist" in our current era looks like, only that it looks quite different from a "journalist" of 50 (or even 20) years ago.

This concept of course differs markedly from the mainstream definition of journalist, which means something akin to "one who reports for a mainstream media outlet." This concept is tied in with an institutional structure that includes a post-secondary education at an accredited institution that gives recognized qualifications and feeds into traditional print and broadcast media through well-recognized outlets. This was the primary concept of "journalism" in North America in the 20th century, and for whatever good it may have done on various stories it is widely acknowledged that by the end of the century media consolidation had left the industry in the hands of a handful of corporations, leading to the unanimous and unquestioning reporting of government-approved information we saw in the run-up to the Iraq War, in addition to other notable failures of reportage. The current deconstruction of this concept of "journalism" by the internet and associated technologies is having the effect of broadening our idea of what constitutes "journalism" and who can be a "journalist," leading perhaps to the most radical conclusion: in our current media paradigm, anyone with access to the requisite technologies (even just a smartphone with internet access) can become a journalist.


2. What would you say are the responsibility of journalists? Would you say that any journalistic integrity still exists?

The obvious answer is that journalists should be faithful to the material they are reporting, meaning that what is reported should be factual and evidence-based. But it is not enough to say this. There is also the question of context, meaning that a fact presented in isolation might give a certain impression of a subject, but presented in a greater context might give a wholly different (perhaps even contradictory) impression.

The problem of contextualization is not a minor one, because it is almost infinitely scalable. The problem is not merely providing context, but what context to provide and how far that context should be explored. The problem also extends to the nature of "news" itself, what is reported on and what is not reported on. There is no objective viewpoint from which these answers are ultimately decidable, meaning the outdated concept of "journalistic objectivity" has to be seen as nothing more than a ploy to make one editor's (or a group of editors') editorial decisions seem like they are unbiased. But why report on this piece of legislation and not that one? Why interview this person about the subject and not that person? Why include this quote from this government official and not this quote from this government detractor?

Instead of the old concept of "objectivity" in reporting, we are moving toward an era of intense subjectivity. "News" is more and more being sourced from (or at least filtered by) unabashedly biased organizations and individuals. If you follow the US State Department's Twitter feed you know exactly what to expect from them, just as you do when you follow the RSS feed of an organization like the Centre for Research on Globalization. Although this trend is lamented by those caught up in the outdated paradigm of journalistic "objectivity," this era at least potentially empowers the individual to arrive at a more thorough understanding of world events by seeing the various arguments presented directly by their sources (and exploring the source documents online), allowing for the creation of a type of "intersubjectivity" that is more honest than the supposed "objectivity" of old.

In this new paradigm, journalistic integrity involves not only being faithful to the facts, but also up front with the audience about biases and issues of context and viewpoint. Journalists who pretend not to have a position on various issues are decreasingly trusted by the public, and those who come from a clearly defined point of view are viewed as being honest. This is a profound transformation in expectations.


3. Would you say that independent journalism is in danger with the rise of the federal Shield Law and the death of net neutrality?

Independent journalism, especially online journalism, represents a profound threat to a status quo that has been bolstered by a highly regulated and highly censored corporate news system. As a result, it is no surprise at all that there are several different vectors from which independent online journalism is under attack. The so-called "Shield Law" being debated in the U.S. is dangerous if for no other reason than that it would set the precedent for the federal government to define specifically what type of journalists would or would not be covered by various legal protections, thus potentially limiting the scope of First Amendment protections to those journalists thus described. This opens the door to accreditation or employment being considered a necessary prerequisite for a "journalist" and thus threatens to return us to a 20th century paradigm wherein the major newspapers, tv and radio stations (and, in our current era, their affiliated websites) would have no effective competition.

Similarly, the elimination of net neutrality threatens to create a system whereby those who cannot afford to pay for top-tier bandwidth (i.e. non-corporate, non-foundation funded entities) would be relegated to a slower, less accessible tier of the internet, thus necessarily reducing their potential audience. This would again create a de facto mirror of the former media paradigm whereby prohibitive publication costs (the cost of a printing press or tv or radio station in former times, the cost of upgraded internet service in modern times) would create an uneven playing field between corporate/foundation/government media and their independent competitors.


4. Due to there being so many different views on current and past events (eg People supporting Putin because he is against the West) as well as polarizing figures and pseudo-alternative media outlets, do you think it's still possible for the alternative media to make a major impact?

It is possible for alternative media to have an impact, of course. However, there is the possibility of genuinely important and unique information and perspectives being drowned out in the flood of noise being generated from all corners of the internet. It is a question of whether or not one has faith in the ability of the crowd to filter out the noise and promote the content worth promoting through the concept of "spontaneous order." For those who do not believe this to be possible, they will yearn for a system whereby the flood of noise is filtered out through some type of system (government-approved journalism, cost barriers for top-tier internet service, etc.). For those who do believe in the "wisdom of the crowd," the fact that so many people are participating in the grand conversation that is happening online is not something to be lamented, but celebrated. From this perspective, the more viewpoints that exist for us to consider and choose from, the better.

I am of the latter variety, in that I believe in the principle of spontaneous order, and do trust that the genuinely newsworthy and important information will rise to the top when everyone is allowed to participate freely and evenly in the process of news gathering and interpretation. This is not a popular point of view.


5. What are some of the reasons you think independent journalism is important? What do you think of credentials and the role they play in shaping the media?

Independence in journalism is vital in a society where there are so few people with such large megaphones for disseminating their point of view on any subject. Rupert Murdoch owns newspapers, film production companies, television news outlets and publishing imprints that literally span the globe in terms of reach and influence. Michael Bloomberg, Sumner Redstone, Jeff Bezos, Pierre Omidyar and other billionaire media owners are now involved in bringing people "all the news that's fit to print" via established media outlets from CBS News to the Washinton Post to supposedly "adversarial" online entities like First Look Media. It is a simple truism that these outlets will never report anything from a perspective that is fundamentally damaging to the business interests of their owners.

Now, thanks to the rise of internet technologies, we have for perhaps the first time in human history a relatively level playing field between these media monarchs and the average person blogging from their living room in Hoboken, New Jersey or Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The phenomenal nature of this revolution is only now beginning to be realized, and the power of the independent media is being glimpsed in raising levels of awareness on issues (like "false flag terrorism") that have previously been verboten in the status quo media. We, as a species, are on the cusp of a monumental moment in our history; either we will seize this opportunity to overthrow the previous paradigm wherein the rich and well-connected had a stranglehold over what information we receive on a daily basis, or we push this revolution to its end and eliminate the gatekeepers altogether. As with many such struggles, the choice is ultimately ours to make, but if we don't recognize the importance of this decision it will be made for us by the very rich and well-connected who stand to gain the most from the preservation of the old status quo.