COLUMN - From Tom Paine to Glenn Greenwald, we need partisan journalism

(Jack Shafer is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)

July 16 (Reuters) - I would sooner engage you in a week-long debate over which taxonomical subdivision the duck-billed platypus belongs to then spend a moment arguing whether Glenn Greenwald is a journalist or not, or whether an activist can be a journalist, or whether a journalist can be an activist, or how suspicious we should be of partisans in the newsroom.

It’s not that those arguments aren’t worthy of time, just not mine. I’d rather judge a work of journalism directly than run the author’s mental drippings through a gas chromatograph to detect whether his molecules hang left or right or cling to the center. In other words, I care less about where a journalist is coming from than to where his journalism takes me.

Greenwald’s collaborations with source Edward Snowden, which resulted in Page One scoops in the Guardian newspaper about the U.S. National Security Agency, caused such a rip in the time-space-journalism continuum that the question soon went from whether Greenwald’s lefty style of journalism could be trusted to whether he belonged in a jail cell.

Last month, New York Times business journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin called for the arrest of Greenwald (he later apologized) and “Meet the Press” host David Gregory asked with a straight face if he shouldn’t “be charged with a crime.” NBC’s Chuck Todd and the Washington Post’s Walter Pincus and Paul Farhi also asked if Greenwald hadn’t shape-shifted himself to some non-journalistic precinct with his work.

The reactions by Sorkin, Gregory, Todd, Pincus, Farhi, and others betray (dare I say it? ) a sad devotion to the corporatist ideal of what journalism can be and, (I don’t have any problem saying it) a painful lack of historical understanding of American journalism. You don’t have to be a scholar or a historian to appreciate the hundreds of flavors our journalism has come in over the centuries. Just fan the pages of Christopher B. Daly’s book “Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism” for yourself. American journalism began in earnest as a rebellion against the state, and just about the only people asking if its practitioners belonged in jail were those beholden to the British overlords. Or consider the pamphleteers, most notably Tom Paine, whose unsigned screed “Common Sense” ‘shook the world’, as Daly put it.

Untangling the Revolutionary War press from Revolutionary War politics proves impossible, as James Rivington, publisher of the pro-Crown New York Gazetteer understood implicitly. Rivington left the city when the rebels swept in and returned when the British drove them out, Daly wrote. A Philadelphia publisher merely changed his newspaper’s political stripes depending on which army held sway.

Judith and William Serrin’s anthology, “Muckraking: The Journalism That Changed America”, establishes the primacy of partisan, activist journalism from the revolutionary period through the modern era. Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison battled slavery in the 1830s with his newspaper, the Liberator. Elijah Lovejoy performed similar service in the Alton Observer, and in 1837 an Illinois mob attacked and killed him for his anti-slavery journalism. Beginning in the 1840s, Frederick Douglass used the press to fight for the freedom of his people, later writing, “It did not entirely satisfy me to narrate wrongs; I felt like denouncing them.” Imagine the Sorkins, Gregorys, Todds, Pincuses, and Farhis of those days telling Douglass he was doing journalism wrong!

No politically contentious issue has ever escaped the eye and the pen of partisan and activists journalists. Labor journalist John Swinton used his press to campaign for working people in 1884. Helen Hunt Jackson confronted the treatment of American Indians in 1885. John Muir defended the Yosemite Valley from the timber industry in 1890. Jacob Riis recorded tenement poverty in “How the Other Half Lives” in 1890. And Ida B. Wells exposed the South’s causal lynching practices in 1892.

The muckrakers of the new century revealed Standard Oil’s bullying ways, political corruption in cities, the states, and the U.S. Capitol; patent-medicine and insurance swindles; unhealthful food; the sale of convicts to contractors; and more. In later decades, the communist press (yes, the communist press) alerted readers to the perils of silicosis and campaigned against color-line in Major League Baseball. The photographs of Dorothea Lange for the Farm Security Administration in the late 1930s and Margaret Bourke-White for Life magazine in the 1930s and 1940s provided a window on poverty.

From the end of World War II until the civil rights movement began its ascension, the partisan and activist journalism faded but didn’t disappear, its practice crimped perhaps by the so-called “Great Consensus” that had evolved, as Daly wrote in “Covering America”. Part of its demise can be attributed to changing social attitudes. To write against segregation in the 1950s marked you in many corners as a disruptive partisan or activist, not a journalist. By the time the civil rights protests became a TV miniseries, to write in support of segregation made you suspect. After the March on Washington in 1963, support of full citizenship for African-Americans was the default mode for the mainstream press. In other words, the once-radical became the norm, and after it did, those who criticized American apartheid in the approved language were no longer marginalized as activist or partisan journalists.

In the 1960s, the best opinionated, fact-based journalism appeared in such books as Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” (1962), Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” (1963), Jessica Mitford’s “The American Way of Death” (1963), Michael Harrington’s “The Other America” (1963), and Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe at Any Speed” (1965).

The lefties at Ramparts magazine broke stories on Michigan State University fronting for the CIA (1966), the use of napalm in Vietnam (1966), and the CIA funding of the National Student Association (1967). Later revelations in the early to mid-1970s by the New York Times and the Washington Post (and others) about the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, and intelligence agency abuses were, at their root, as partisan as any of the NSA investigations Glenn Greenwald has contributed.

Remember, as Christopher B. Daly recently pointed out, Daniel Ellsberg chose to leak the Pentagon Papers to New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan because he (1) trusted Sheehan from their years in Vietnam, and (2) had recently read a long essay-review Sheenan had written for the paper’s book section titled “Should We Have War Crime Trials?” As Daly writes, “Three months later, Sheehan wrote the first front-page article in the series that became known as the Pentagon Papers.”

I could continue my honor roll of partisan journalism through the ages, Ms. magazine cultural critiques, muckraking by the Village Voice and other alt-weeklies, Mark Dowie’s piece in Mother Jones on the exploding Ford Pinto (1977), the Progressive magazine’s H-bomb expose (1979), the overtly techno-libertarianism of the Louis Rossetto-era Wired magazine, and skipping to very fast-forward, Jeremy Scahill’s book “Blackwater” (2008), David Corn’s “Romney tape” (2012), and Radley Balko’s new book about the SWATing of America, “Rise of the Warrior Cop”. But I think you get my drift.

My paean to activist and partisan journalism does not include the output of the columnists and other hacks who arrange their copy to please their Democratic or Republican Party patrons. (You know who you are.)

Nor do I favor the partisan journalists who insult reader intelligence by cherry-picking the evidence, debate-club style, to win the day for their comrades. Read a few of the articles I cite above and then ask yourself: Where would we be without our partisan journalists?

Jack Shafer