Monday, October 15, 2007

Outsourcing the Search for Truth

In an implied rebuke to junk journalism, a rich California couple is underwriting investigative reporters to give away their work to mainstream media. It won’t work.

Acting in a free-lance role, a nonprofit organization, Pro Publica, will offer long-term projects to uncover misdeeds in government, business and organizations on an exclusive basis for newspapers, magazines or other media outlets.

To start, their offers won’t thrill thin-skinned editors. Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, is quoted as being “open to using work from an outside source, assuming we were confident of its quality,” but adding that “we’ll always have a preference for work we can vouch for ourselves.”

Beyond that hurdle is the fact that the backers are Herbert and Marion Sandler, former chief executives of Golden West Financial Corporation, one of the nation’s largest mortgage lenders, who are major Democratic political donors and critics of President Bush.

Pro Publica will be staffed by distinguished journalists, but even so, how will it overcome the long-standing prejudice against outsourcing the search for truth along with the current climate of distrust over ulterior motives?

Over eighty years ago, in “Public Opinion,” Walter Lippmann wrote that journalism suffers from “the failure of self-governing people to transcend their casual experience and their prejudice by inventing, creating and organizing a machinery of knowledge.” He proposed that social institutions use reason and intelligence to “work by a steady light of their own” so that journalists could concentrate on amplifying and transmitting that light to the public.

Now we have machineries of knowledge, but their aim is to hide the truth. If the Sandlers want to use their money to remedy that, it might be better spent training motivated poor kids to become journalists with the now outdated ambition to do good rather than do well.

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