A lot of ink has been spilled this week over how Salon's Joan Walsh called out liberal reporters Ezra Klein and Ryan Lizza for daring to criticize the rollout of the ObamaCare exchanges. Without rehashing and relitigating it all, there are a few points that deserve additional attention.
The first is this: This internecine spat marks a very interesting reversal. A couple weeks ago, it was center-right journalists who were chided for speaking out against conservatives' defund strategy. How quickly things change. It's nice to know the other side has troubles, too.
But the bigger points are less about politics and more about journalism. For instance: What is the role/responsibility of journalists who have an admitted political philosophy (i.e. journalists who have dropped the pretense that they don't have a point of view)?
Klein (of The Washington Post) and Lizza (of The New Yorker) are both left-leaning journalists, but they are not supposed to be "activists." Unfortunately, this explanation also raises questions involving semantics. For example: "What's an activist?" "Aren't all journalists — all people — activists?"
A "journalist" ought to be primarily interested in the truth or educating his or her audience, while an "activist" is primarily interested in advancing a politician, party, or cause (and, thus, may withhold unpleasant or inconvenient truths.)
The trouble is when the journalists go off the reservation, and activists (like Walsh) engage in a form of lobbying that essentially boils down to working the refs.
Why do they go to the trouble? It is especially harmful for Democrats if someone respected by the left is critical of a liberal program or policy. (This, of course, is a mirror of what happens on the right.) By shaming these journalists, the goal is to create a disincentive for future intellectual honesty. The message is simple: Get back in line.
On the right, this is especially nasty, because the perception is that the entire mainstream media leans left. As such, the expectation is that center-right journalists are aiding and abetting the enemy when the write something that might undermine their "team."
That's one way of looking at things. But I would argue there is a proper role for ideological journalists, and Klein and Lizza are performing it.
A primary role is to police your own side.
As Jonathan Cohn argues over at The New Republic, one "reason for liberals to make a fuss about these problems is that liberals are the ones who believe in government."
This is exactly right. Liberal journalists owe a stronger allegiance to their political philosophy than to a party or a president or a policy. If they really want universal health care coverage to work, then giving their side a free pass won't help matters. In the long run, this would only delude Democrats into thinking everything is okay, thus making them susceptible to epistemic closure.
People who are invested in something have an incentive to speak out when they see problems. It would often be easier to look the other way, but you don't do that when you care. For example, because I disdain ObamaCare, I was critical of the defund strategy — which I perceived would ironically harm the cause of getting rid of the law. That might have made me a bad Republican, perhaps, or a bad Tea Party member, but it didn't make me a bad conservative. And — since my prediction that the defund effort was unachievable was, in fact, correct — it also makes me a good journalist. (I can't mislead my audience. My job is to tell you the truth.)
Unfortunately, some view this sort of intellectual honesty as apostasy. "We don't need liberal opinion journalists to join the pile-on. We need them to provide the context others won't," writes my friend, liberal sparring partner, and fellow The Week columnist Bill Scher at the Campaign for America's Future.
(Again, this same sort of thing happens on the right. If I seem to be more critical of conservatives than liberals, it's only because I care more about the conservative movement, and see this as a moment where soul searching and introspection is an existential necessity.)
This raises the question about the proper role of journalists who have a political philosophy. You might say, "Well if you're just going to write what everyone else writes, why should a media outlet that wants to advance progressive or conservative ideas pay you?"
Philosophical journalists play an important role in terms of diversity. But the benefit is mostly baked in to the cake. In other words, their value is in their existence, not in their output. I am a temperamentally conservative person who has a conservative disposition. And I'm willing to concede that that worldview will naturally influence the things I choose to write about (selection bias), as well as the way I cover stories. That, in a nutshell, is the benefit for conservatives.
My guess is that Klein and Lizza would generally agree. If you're looking for a hack or a cheerleader, you might want to look somewhere else. Like maybe Salon.
Bill Scher and I recently debated this very topic on Bloggingheads. Watch it below: