Abandoning Journalism When It’s Needed Most

Here’s the New York Times (11/24/08), reporting the Citigroup bailout:

In tense, round-the-clock negotiations that stretched until almost midnight on Sunday, it became clear that the crisis of confidence had to be defused now or the financial markets could plunge further.

Note the absence of any source here–that’s reporter Eric Dash, with the authority of the Times behind him, declaring that it was “clear that the crisis of confidence had to be defused now.” This is a striking departure from the paper’s typical style, in which assertions are generally sourced to somebody–if only to “officials.”

The absence of the usual sourcing suggests that the Times believes that Citicorp’s troubles were a crisis too big for its usual journalism: Readers needed to be to be told that the need for immediate action was a fact, not a claim.

If that’s the motivation, then the New York Times has it backwards: When a crisis is truly serious, and action or inaction can have catastrophic consequences, it’s all the more crucial that readers–which is to say citizens–know where information is coming from, so they can make an informed judgment about what the source’s interests are and whether the source’s pronouncements have been trustworthy in the past. (Is the source “Citigroup executives” or “government officials,” both of whom are mentioned earlier in the paragraph? If so, then the answer to the latter question is clearly no.)

If you believe in journalism, then you believe that times of danger require more journalism, not less.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.