I grew up in Norfolk, Virginia in the heyday of journalism. The Virginian Pilot arrived on our doorstep before I woke up, and my dad, a US Marine, would read the paper at the breakfast table, while also listening to an all-news station on a transistor radio he carried from room to room with him. After I came home from school, the afternoon Ledger-Star would be dropped on the porch, and we kids would divide it up to be read and put back together in time for dad to come home. Then, while mom cooked dinner, Walter Cronkite was delivering the TV news.
I was just a kid, so the Vietnam War and Watergate were beyond my comprehension levels, but I understood that the news was talking about serious stuff. In the atmosphere of the time, journalism mattered. It delivered truths that couldn’t be found in the other institutions around me, my parochial school, the church, the military.
In the late 70s, I was just another mopey teenager, but I was between generations. The anti-establishment music of the 60s was behind me, and the Smiths hadn’t been invented yet. Warmed-over synthesizers and disco were the only options. All the good drugs seemed to have dried up, and the bad drugs wouldn’t arrive in force until the 80s. Jimmy Carter was president, but it was the Jimmy Carter no one talks about anymore, the guy who looked the other way while the East Timorese were slaughtered and who started the military build-up that Reagan would continue. There was no inspiration to be found in politics.
So my mopey years were spent reading. I started delivering the Pilot when I was 13, waking up at five o’clock every morning, dragging myself out of bed and getting lost in my own headspace while the city slept. I’d read the paper from front to back, every article and, papers delivered by seven, go home and start reading other stuff. I kept the paper route until I was 16, when I was hired as a bar back in a disco. That’s another story entirely, but while the lifestyle of debauchery I saw under the disco ball piqued my curiosity, even then I saw it was vapid. It was just a job, bringing in beer money. Mostly I just barricaded myself in my room and read. Truth be told, I was pretty much a useless kid.
And stayed that way. The next decade was my lost years, and the less said about that the better. But somehow I ended up in northern California in the late 1980s. I lived in Chico, a college town of about 100,000 people, which sits in the middle of the agricultural land of the Sacramento Valley. To the east were the Sierra, Mount Lassen and the desert. To the west, the Coast ranges and then the ocean. Beautiful wide-open country.
That far-flung countryside is where I re-discovered journalism. Across northern California there were these old guys who peddled their own newspapers. They were all over the map politically. Bruce Anderson, of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, was some sort of communist, a Trotskyite, I think. In Glenn County, the Sacramento Valley Mirror was published by Tim Crews, a cranky right-wing Libertarian. There was some guy up in the mountains, I forget his name, who delivered his paper via airplane, circling over people’s houses and dropping a rubber-banded paper down to their driveways; I met him once, and I would describe his politics as “Insanism.” Down in San Francisco, three hours away, was the great alt weekly, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, published by Bruce Brugmann, a sort of lefty, but who had his own issues with organized labour.
I greatly admired these men, but not just because they were publishing papers. Rather it was their attitude. It was something I hadn’t seen before, or if I had seen it, it was lost in history. Their papers were full of what I now know to call adversarial journalism. They took on the powers that be.
I could give lots of examples from those papers, but the one that best illustrates the journalistic atmosphere was when Tim Crews was thrown in jail for contempt of court.
Crews had learned that a gun used in the commission of a crime had six years before been stolen by a cop. Law enforcement knew about the theft, but had done nothing until the new crime forced their hand. It’s a complicated story, but the short of it was that Crews was ordered to reveal his source for the story, and he refused, and so was thrown in jail for five days. “It’s fine that the judge found me in contempt because the feeling is absolutely mutual,” he later told a reporter.
Crews’ Sacramento Valley Mirror had a circulation of 2,600. Tiny operations like that can not easily operate when the publisher, editor, and primary writer is sitting in a jail cell. But when Bruce Brugmann, the urban lefty down in San Francisco, heard that Tim Crews, the rural right-winger in Glenn County, was sitting in jail for maintaining his journalistic integrity, Brugmann sent two of his reporters up to the valley to help run the paper in Crews’ absence. The devotion to good, adversarial journalism came before whatever political differences the men had.
Watching lots of incidents like this unfold, I decided I wanted to be a journalist of that style, and so I started a new career. I had no idea what I was doing at first, but here we are, 25 years later, and for better and worse it’s been my life. Moving forward, I’m committing myself to continuing the tradition of adversarial journalism.
There’s nothing new about adversarial journalism. In fact, it’s what Joe Howe was practicing when, on January 1, 1835, he detailed in pages of his newspaper, the Novascotian, the corruption of government officials in Halifax. Wrote Howe:
I will venture to affirm, without the possibility of being contradicted by proof, that during the lapse of the last 30 years, the Magistracy and Police have, by one stratagem or other, taken from the pockets of the people, in over exactions, fines, &c.&c. a sum that would exceed in the gross amount £30,000 ; and I am prepared to prove my assertions whenever they are manly enough to come forward and justify their conduct to the people. – Can it not be proved, and is it not notorious, that one of the present active Magistrates has contrived for years, to filch from one establishment, and that dedicated to the comfort of the poor and destitute, at least £ 300 per annum? Can it not be proved, that the fines exacted in the name and on the behalf of our Sovereign Lord the King, have annually for the last 30 years exceeded £200 ; and of this sum His most Gracious Majesty has received about as much as would go into the Royal coffers, if the long dormant claim of the Quit Rents was revived imprudently. Is it not known to every reflecting and observant man, whose business or curiosity has led him to take a view of the municipal bustle of our Court of Sessions, that from the pockets of the poor and distressed at least £1000 is drawn annually, and pocketed by men whose services the Country might well spare.
This was dangerous stuff. Howe was charged with seditious libel, “seditiously contriving, devising, and intending to stir up and incite discontent and sedition among His Majesty’s subjects.” As John Ralston Saul points out, the subsequent trial and Howe’s acquittal gave birth to the free press in Canada. This is important: The very birth of a free press in Canada was a result of adversarial journalism. That’s precisely what journalism is for—to hold the powerful to account.
Seven years ago, long before he became a household name due to the Edward Snowden leaks, Glenn Greenwald explained:
An adversarial press does not mean that the media automatically and reflexively contradicts what the Government says or does. That is called being a mindless “contrarian,” not “adversarial.”
An adversarial process is designed to uncover deceit and falsehood by ensuring that claims and arguments are subjected to meaningful scrutiny by some opposing force. An adversarial press means that it views its function as a watchdog over the Government, as a check on its power. It fulfills that function by viewing Government statements and actions skeptically and with the intent to scrutinize them and determine their truth, rather than mindlessly convey what the Government asserts. It means that there is a difference between a free press and Pravda.
The media abdicates its function, and becomes a propaganda arm of the government, when it simply repeats verifiably false Government claims without pointing out…that the statements are false and objectively contradicted by clear evidence. And our media does that all the time.
Greenwald is now bringing adversarial journalism to the world stage, addressing issues of the surveillance state and torture. That’s important work. But local journalism can also be adversarial, I believe.
You can see much of my past work through the lens of adversarial journalism, and I will continue in that vein. It is the heart of my new venture, its purpose for existence. That’s not to say there won’t be much more on the site, which I’ll explain in coming days, but the new enterprise won’t be a success unless it is primarily a check on power, holding the powerful accountable. Anything less is failure.
This is one in a series of blog posts discussing issues in journalism and introducing my online news site. If you’d like to receive an email notification and link to these blog posts, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with “update me” in the subject field.
The series so far:
I’m starting an online news site
Advertorial: an unnecessary evil
Why we need a subscription-based news outlet
Chasing web hits: media rope-a-dope leads to dumbed-down content
Why comment sections are the cesspool of the internet, and what I’m going to do about it