SINN: The case for the subjective journalist

This month is prize month in the world of journalism. It’s also the end of my first college semester as a student of journalism.
Apr 22, 2014


As the Polk and Pulitzer awards rolled out this year’s exceptional cast of recipients, I looked over the best of the best in this field I’ve chosen to study. I wanted to know: To whom should I look as a leader of the craft and the industry? 

Today, journalism is rapidly changing — not just on the tides of globalization and technology, but also in tone.

In the past months, I have made my first leap into this field. I’ve studied news and reporting in class for the first time, and have been working as an intern for School News Network, a periodical run out of the Kent Intermediate School District.

What I have learned, above all, is objectivity. The journalist’s job is to write from behind the story, deliver balanced facts and attribute everything to creditable sources.

While learning, I’ve also reached my 21st community column for the Grand Haven Tribune. For almost two years now, I have been entrenched in arguing my own opinions.

So, it’s been quite a transition — practicing traditional, industry-standard approaches to news. But the truth is, there are merits to both styles. The two are traditionally mutually exclusive. But perhaps the most hard-hitting award-winning journalist this year has conducted groundbreaking and crucial work by stepping over this fall line to pursue deeper, personal reporting that is fair and yet impassioned. 

Journalist Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian newspaper, along with colleagues Laura Poitras and Ewen McAskill, won the Polk Award for their reporting on national security. Together, they broke to the world the disclosures by Edward Snowden about the NSA’s surveillance tactics. What Greenwald accomplished is profound, but the way he works raises even more questions for his compatriots and competitors in the industry.

Op-Ed columnist Bill Keller of the New York Times published a conversation with Greenwald — an argument, really — about the role of the journalist. Keller practices what he considers “aggressive but impartial reporting,” while Greenwald believes that neutral and unbiased reporting begets a “suffocating restraint” that limits journalists and forces them to hide behind their words, avoiding the hard truths of their stories.

Greenwald goes on to say, “Human beings are not objective-driven machines. We all intrinsically perceive and process the world through subjective prisms. What is the value of pretending otherwise?”

Looking at Greenwald’s most recent work, he has achieved the mission of journalism through this very conduct. He considers journalism to be activism, which inspired me to look at what I do in that way. Activism really can be the role of this niche called the Opinion page. Greenwald’s insistence that this mode is the heart of journalism helps me feel fortunate for the opportunity I have to share this kind of writing.

Greenwald’s conduct is certainly nothing textbook. His approach is like the new school you can’t find in any school — yet. It contradicts everything I’ve learned this semester. It merges these two realms — the one that gives me a voice simply as a human being, and the one that I hope will place me into a career someday.

Although I’ve talked smack to it all year, my journalism textbook does yield some vital wisdom. It quotes writer and critic Cyril Connolly: “Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice; journalism what will be grasped at once.”

An article, especially one as unpolished and laced with naiveté as this one, may be read just once. But the journalist’s execution, his own way of the sword (pen, actually), leaves a lasting mark on the world’s perception of events that resonate throughout history. This is especially true in work so profound as the exposure of the surveillance state.

Sometimes, the issues require a heart as well as a head. Today and moving forward, the mighty pen-sword of the reporter needs a sharper edge.

— By Alexander Sinn, Tribune community columnist



In my view, journalism is objective and should simply provide the relevant information and permit readers to draw their own conclusions; "subjective journalism" which is a contradiction in terms, or "activism" in Greenwald's terms is fine if it appears clearly labeled as "Opinion" or is included in a personal blog.

Sinn seems to recognize that his writing opinion pieces as a Community Columnist is not journalism, but then demonstrates his confusion by stating "But perhaps the most hard-hitting award-winning journalist this year has conducted groundbreaking and crucial work by stepping over this fall line to pursue deeper, personal reporting that is fair and yet impassioned.  "

If the Snowden stories merely gave facts, there might be an argument that he is functioning as a journalist (as there is indeed an argument to be made that Greenwald aided and abetted Snowden's traitorous behavior) but one can't rely on the objectivity behind his "facts" when he is functioning as an activist.

Two examples - when Valerie Plame was exposed as an employee of the CIA, Greenwald supported the imprisonment of Scooter Libby (even though he was not the leaker) and complained about the commutation of his sentence. Now Snowden steals over a million documents implicating national security matters, has them publicized by Greenwald, flees to Russia and gives cover to Putin, and Greenwald argues that he should be pardoned. Greenwald is a communist and a homosexual, and has written supportively about about both - is that work of a "journalist" or the work of someone who is attempting to enlist public support for his favored causes?

I suggest the young Mr. Sinn choose carefully whether he wants to be a journalist or an activist because no matter what he says, the two cannot be successfully melded except to the detriment of what was known as a "profession" in the past. There is no profession of activism or community organizing. With the mainstream media being a cheerleader for Obama, and people beginning to understand how they have been misled, I believe objective journalist will be a much safer place to be in the near future. (Recall, when Greenwald supported the traitorous activities of Snowden, thus hurting Obama who either commenced or endorsed the spying, Greenwald was himself attacked by faux journalists at MSNBC like David Gregory and the activists at left wing Salon and Daily Kos.


Alexander Sinn: Vlad brings up some very good points/food for thought, up until his last paragraph, that is. (more on that later) I believe there is a great need for journalists who have the desire to ambitiously and objectively dig deep for the facts, who have the ability to present them in an unbiased, balanced manner, with both an historical perspective and an eye on the long-term. There is a dearth of this in the journalism field, and it shows. For example, in the last few days, I've read all kinds of comments on these pages from which one would despair at the seeming lack of facts and knowledge. They are apparently being fed lots of 'news' that is simply biased and non-objective, but they believe it because the bias contained within fits their intellectual narrative.

After reading nearly all of your community columns, I predict you have the intelligence, the thoughtfulness, and the ability to ascertain when a writing task requires the objective presentation of the facts, only, and when a task calls for thoughtful interpretation of those facts.

I look forward to seeing your name in the by-line on future important work.

Vlad: I think there is a place for activist journalism, and it is evident in the growing number of very good websites, where important, well-credentialed, experienced - and often young - writers very often do the heavy lifting, digging deeper and providing context with the facts, who give historical background, and look at the big picture. Sometimes they have an agenda to go along with those facts, but I believe thinking people can extrapolate and form their opinions, whether they are pro or con. There is some very good, balanced writing at the Salon, the Daily Kos, Politico, the Atlantic, etc.

As for the Valerie Plame reference/comparison, I find it telling you put the onus on Greenwald by highlighting what you think shows hypocritical and self-serving motives. I prefer to put the onus on the mastermind behind the outing of Valerie Plame - Dick Cheney, who orchestrated it as part of his mission to deliver to his neo-cons friends a basket full of Iraq War. He wasn't about to let anything like outing a CIA operative (and more than one) get in his way of the lies about WMD that was the cornerstone of the war propaganda.

But we can't prove it by his recollections, because when investigated by the FBI, he couldn't remember a thing about it.

Obama is doing exactly as a good president should. He is not about to support Snowden and the leaking of classified information of national security; those are the facts, and he is 'reporting' on those facts in an objective manner that is part of his job description, but he then used those facts to become an 'activist' by opening a national dialogue about the need for changes in the NSA.

Obama unveils plan to change NSA data collection...

Could it be that Obama is actually attempting to create a "safer environment" in terms of the NSA for not only journalists, but even...activists?


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