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Journo Listless
September 2010


This is the end of a summer that reminded the US media of its power to strike fear into the hearts of those in charge of safeguarding sensitive data. First came the enforced resignation of General Stanley McChrystal and the kerfuffle over WikiLeaks publishing 91,000 classified documents; then the Washington Post broke Top Secret America, Dana Priest's and William Arkin's two-year investigation into government-hired private intelligence agencies that seem to make the country less safe rather than more.

Soon, the media discussed the need for whistleblowers to keep an eye on government, and what the new challenges and possibilities of investigative reporting meant for the old credo that every news organisation had only its credibility and reputation on which to rely. Such debates are an important part of media self-reflection, if only because they offer a welcome excuse to leave day-to-day reporting for a more introspective mode. However, while the resignation of a top military officer and the leaking of documents on the internet raise all kind of ethical questions, the real question remains unanswered: is this really what journalism should be about — that people with something to hide had better watch out? 

Perhaps it wasn't just a coincidence that the Financial Times printed an obituary of Dan Schorr beneath an article on online leaks and open-source information in its Analysis section. The headline read: "Veteran American newsman who helped shape a golden age." Investigative reporting has a long tradition, particularly in America, where Watergate is still seen as a political and journalistic highpoint. The obituary said that Schorr proved in his writing that he was a "gentleman liberal", who could be a "street fighter when what he perceived as journalistic principles were at stake". 

The image of the newspaperman as a suave but ballsy figure, whisky in hand, wiring information that only he could obtain to a smoke-filled newsroom is now incredibly remote. It may or may not have been a golden era, but it is as far away now as the portrait which the television series Mad Men — a hit on both sides of the pond — provides of the advertising industry in the early 1960s. 

What this indicates, however, is not that our idea of information and how we distribute it has changed, but that there is a distinct, almost moral, difference between providing information and telling a good story. 

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