If you present the Tea Partiers' fear of impending tyranny without editorial comment, you are endorsing their beliefs. On the other hand, if you present the Tea Partiers' fear of impending tyranny without editorial comment, you are making fun of them.
This is the confabulatory conundrum presented by NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen's unpacking of a single sentence—"It is a sprawling rebellion, but running through it is a narrative of impending tyranny."—in David Barstow's lengthy New York Times account of the Tea Party movement. Rosen writes:
That sounds like the Tea Party movement I have observed, so the truth of the sentence is not in doubt. But what about the truth of the narrative? David Barstow is a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter for the New York Times. He ought to know whether the United States is on the verge of losing its democracy and succumbing to an authoritarian or despotic form of government. If tyranny was pending in the U.S. that would seem to be a story. The New York Times has done a lot of reporting about the Obama Administration, but it has been silent on the collapse of basic freedoms lurking just around the corner.
In a response, Stephen Baker makes the error of conflating Barstow's story with a later interview Barstow gave to the Columbia Journalism Review. But his essential point—that the deadpan style can cut either way—is still valid:
My feeling, shared by some of the commenters to Jay's post, is that by swiping aside their motivating fear as delusion, the writer reinforces the widening gulf in the country. He lets us know that the people he's writing about are nuts. At that point, anyone with even a shread of sympathy for the Tea Partiers writes off the report as biased (which is what they expect from the NYT).
Who's right? Rosen has very high praise for Barstow's expensive five-month investigation, but this debate actually reveals the fiction that lies at the center of objective journalism. For Barstow to verify the Tea Party claims, he must either spend another five months and tens of thousands of dollars chasing down who-gave-Jack-Ruby-cancer leads or openly dismiss their premises in a way that New York Times reporting is not supposed to do. It's hard to get bent out of shape about Barstow's uninflected report that Tea Partiers are wary of government's natural tendency toward tyranny. But one feature of the mainstream media — you might even call it a narrative that runs through a sprawling industry—is how much emphasis everybody is always putting on concealment. Given that there's nothing in Barstow's piece (beyond the laboriously constructed Everyperson "throughline" these features always have) that you couldn't have picked up from Facebook over the last five months, this seems like another way that news organizations are no longer efficient vehicles for news.
In any event, it's good to know that the Times is damned if it does and damned if it doesn't. As the Times should always be. Until it is extinct. Which I hope will be soon but I know will be never.
And a word about Jay Rosen, whom I had only been dimly aware of through the fearful or admiring reports of friends and colleagues who described him as an institutional figure dating back to the time of the Thetan massacre. The emergence of the Twitterized Rosen has completely knocked my socks into a cocked hat in the middle of next week. Wherever you come down on any individual point, Rosen's tweets on journalism and where it's headed make up the most flexible, biting and truthful work of media criticism being done today. He's really a machine on this stuff. I'd like to give him a nickname, but Jay the Machine Rosen doesn't scan and Screamin' Jay Rosen is derivative. Handsome Jay Rosen might work. Frozen Jay Rosen doesn't make sense and Chosen Jay Rosen would be anti-Semitic. Or maybe it would be philo-Semitic. Discuss.