Journalists should hate what they cover

This post originally appeared on Discourse Blog, a worker-owned politics and culture website. Subscribe to Discourse Blog here.

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Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that NBC News senior business correspondent and MSNBC host Stephanie Ruhle had appeared in a September promotional video sponsored and produced by JP Morgan Chase, one of the country’s largest banks. That one sentence is enough to convey that Ruhle committed a blatant and serious breach of ethics. The circumstances around the promo are muddied by corporate communications and the inside baseball of whatever it is TV people do all day, which to me is largely gross and uninteresting; you can read about it in the Post if you want. Ruhle fucked up. We do not have to make it more complicated than that. 

The greater point here is that Ruhle is a shitty financial journalist for the very simple reason that she clearly does not hate the people and companies that she covers. Like many of my navel-gazey blogs taking shots at one Bad Media Person in particular, this isn’t really about Ruhle. She’s just a perfect ambassador for the trend given this recent story and the fact that she was quite possibly romantically involved with the MAGA former CEO of Under Armour while also giving him business advice presumably on how to stay CEO of Under Armour (he didn’t). Instead, this is going to be another blog about what journalism should be. Sorry.

To me, journalism is a couple of things. Like my former colleague Hamilton Nolan wrote, it’s an action: you talk to people and write down what they say, or tell other people about facts that you found out. Good and bad people do journalism, the act, in service of good or bad causes all the time. Where things get complicated, I think, is when you start to debate how that action should be applied and who, generally speaking, it should be used against. 

The answer to this is actually not that complicated. Journalism should be used as a tool to mitigate the natural imbalances of power that arise in any society. If a person or group or institution has power over another person or group, then it is the correct and moral function of journalism to challenge that power. This is a very broad definition, that, if pressed, I think most people who regularly do journalism would agree to, even the super weird ones like the guy at the New York Times who doesn’t vote. We are not talking about bias or anything at this point. 

Where I might lose some of the journalism-doer crowd is the part that makes the Ruhle anecdote so incredibly disgusting to me. The problem is that in our current American society and general global world order, the systems of institutional power, driven largely by financial interests are so insanely fucked up and corrupt that, logically, if you agree with that bit about journalism above you must absolutely hate everyone involved in those systems by default if you want to do “good journalism.” 

The problem is that I would say a large majority of journalists, like Ruhle, do not live up to this. This exists on every beat. There are war correspondents who, after seeing people shot or blown up or beaten, still get all horned up when the president of the United States launches some multi-million dollar missiles at guys who probably ate less than a penny’s worth of rice for breakfast. This is a massive and well-documented problem in tech media, which is rife with morons who genuinely believe that like startups or whatever are going to make the world a better place instead of just inventing more exciting ways to widen the gap between the rich and poor. Back when I was a tech journalist there was a guy at one of the outlets whose entire job was to get “scoops” from Facebook PR and write breathless stuff about them and now he’s an investor at a VC firm. 

I don’t mean this to say that, say, if you’re an entertainment journalist you should hate movies. But you absolutely should hate the current economy and systems of power that make movies, that determine who gets money to create things and how that money is spent. You also probably shouldn’t take a job from someone you just got paid to write a profile about. My primary beats right now are politics, media, and sometimes conflict. I do not hate journalism, obviously, nor do I hate the general idea that people should be governed and supported by some form of generally democratic structure. But I do absolutely hate the people in power right now. I hate the structures that we have that govern the media industry. I hate the people who run the media industry. I hate the people who choose to run for office, even Bernie Sanders, even though he seems to be a wholly decent human being. He has power, he cannot be trusted. If I trust even a single one of them I am going to be actively worse at my job. The fact that the world is the way it is should make you furious. If you are doing journalism right now in this current moment in the world that we live in and you are not absolutely red-ass livid nearly every day you are not very good at your job. That sounds like a pretty unhealthy way to live, you might say. Yes. But needless to say, if you find yourself in a position to smile for the camera in a commercial for a company you cover, the act you’re performing is about as far as you can get from the title on your business card.

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