I’m generally more interested in following politics via the blogosphere, rather than commenting directly, but, you know, David Brooks’s post last night was kinda stunning:
I understand the complaints, but I thought the questions were excellent. The journalist’s job is to make politicians uncomfortable, to explore evasions, contradictions and vulnerabilities.
Is that really the job of the journalist? To be sure, I double-checked with the Society of Professional Journalists, who publish a Code of Ethics. From the Preamble:
Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility.
Nowhere I can find does it talk about making people feel “uncomfortable.” Now, what Brooks is getting at is that journalists should ask tough questions — of course. No one disputes that.
The issue and disconnect, I think, is the topics covered in those questions. Because a journalist could spend 10 or 15 minutes of a debate asking Obama over and over to prove he is not a terrorist — making him “feel uncomfortable”? Yes. “Exploring vulnerabilities”? To the extent the Republicans might somehow use this tactic against Obama, perhaps. In the public’s interest?
I don’t think so.
And “public enlightenment,” which appears in the first sentence of the Code, is what seems to me to be paramount here. Leonard Witt, at the Public Journalism Network, comments on this, referencing something Brooks mentions, a tour of flag factories during Bush v. Dukakis:
Gee David, you forgot to mention that while H. W. Bush was touring the flag factories during the 1988 election the Republicans were also running the racist Willie Horton ads. In fact, it was exactly the very trivia and sleaze that David Brooks thinks is good journalism that led to the public or civic journalism movement. …he thinks manipulative questions are good journalism.
Which really gets at the heart of this problem: The journalists job at a debate isn’t making politicians feel uncomfortable or explore evasions and vulnerabilities — it’s to moderate the debate.
Moderate: “to preside over” (m-w.com).
The center of attention at a debate should be the candidates. But journalists, and we’ve seen this from others besides ABC last night (ahem, Tim Russert), put themselves in the center. By pursuing the frivolous. By avoiding issues important to the Democratic Party’s voters. By reducing our politics down to “10 second answers” and a “show of hands.”
Because, surely, if a show of hands is good enough for kindergarteners choosing between chocolate and vanilla cookies, it’s certainly good enough for a Presidential debate.
Update: Highest rated debate of the entire primary so far. Only reinforces what happened: ABC is only giving The People what they want, no?