Journalists serve a specific function in society—to help maintain an informed populace, so that they might better participate in government. The earliest American political journalists were unabashed partisans, but that kind of open advocacy has fallen out of favor, confined to the op-ed page and replaced by the rarely attained ideal of objectivity. There are two basic philosophies as to how journalists can achieve that ideal. The first model calls on the journalist to gather information, and to adjudicate conflicting claims in order to uncover an underlying truth. Those who are more skeptical, or simply cagier, about absolute truth claims pursue their goal through a second model, in which the reporter simply gathers and transmits those conflicting claims, leaving it to the reader to decide whose claims best reflect reality.
Both philosophies are defensible, and no journalist is an absolute exemplar of one or the other. But one can learn a lot by observing when he or she follows each philosophy. When does our intrepid reporter make declarative statements, using the authorial voice? When is the truth value of differing claims left ambiguous? Let’s take a look at Ben McGrath’s profile of the Tea Party movement in the Feb. 1, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.The main thrust of the article is that the Tea Party phenomenon runs broad and deep, cutting across a broad cross-section of American society. McGrath uses both authoritative and ambiguous voices to advance this argument.
McGrath tells the reader that Democrats “mistook” the meaning of Doug Hoffman’s defeat in the NY-23 special election and “made the mistake” of criticizing Scott Brown. Indeed, Schumer’s criticisms “invited talk” of a challenge in November(48). When McGrath ratifies Democratic claims, it follows on the lines of David Axelrod, who “admitted” that they underestimated the strength of Brown’s support in the Bay State (48). McGrath is also more than happy to use the authorial voice to describe the existence of republicans in New York City as “tremors in the social bedrock, if not the earth’s crust,” and to explain that the Teabag volunteers were “not crazed sign-carriers, but quietly dedicated engineers, and winemakers and singers.” (48)
By contrast, when Democrats point out the extensive support undergirding Tea Parties from major establishment organizations like Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks, McGrath can only sympathetically observe that the outfit has an annual budget of “only seven million dollars a year.” He notes “a blog post linking” Armey’s outfit to a strategy memo, but also that the memo was written by a volunteer. So, what’s the truth? McGrath gives us no way of knowing. Perhaps thinks the question irrelevant , as suggested by his earlier remark that the Armey men would “be cause for greater skepticism” if those TP folks weren’t already on the job. How important was Armey specifically, or other lobbying interests in general? Again, McGrath gives us no way to know.(47)
When the TPers themselves level their charges, of communism, Islamism, and subversion, they never “dismiss” countervailing evidence, or “mistake” anything. Their declarations sit without comment. Their sincerity is unimpeachable, and the veracity of their statements unquestioned. When one TPer declares that environmental causes are now the refuge of “weirdos” who want “all buildings, all industry, all fossil fuel would stop,” McGrath never intervenes, as he consistently does when discussing the critics of Tea Party Nation (44). Similarly, the origin of life on Earth is evidentially all a matter of perspective, just like the nature of “Barack Obama’s past associations with figures like Bill Ayers and Bernadette Dohrn.” (45)
Perhaps the clearest example of this contrast comes in the one passage of the article in which McGrath acknowledges that facts actually matter. McGrath begins his account of the 9.12 rally in Washington by telling us politics comes down to numbers, before offering attendance figures that range from ABC’s “lowball” 60,000 to a 2,000,000 driven by the “natural excitement surrounding 9.12.” (42) This is not incidental information. McGrath, as author and adjudicator, tells us that Tea Parties matter and that they represent large numbers of people. This would seem to make the ACTUAL NUMBERS significant. He even quotes one TPer declaring that “there are more of us than there are of them.” (42) Another pair of TPers marvel at how clean they left the Mall, despite a gathering rivaling the size of Obama’s inauguration, ascribing it to “the caliber of the people involved.”(46) Again, the actual facts would be relevant here. But McGrath gives us no basis on which we can decide what the actual numbers are, only the tell that the ABC number is a “lowball,” leading the reader to assume that the higher estimate is closer to the truth. But what is the true number? And why won’t McGrath intervene here, as he does so frequently in the article? For that matter, in what sense is the political enthusiasm of the TPers a “natural excitement?”
Ben McGrath is an experienced writer. He knows when he is using ambiguity and authority. And he consistently uses them to ratify the self-serving image of the TPers. He may not be much of a journalist, but he has a hell of a future as a publicist for Tea Party Nation.