Phone Hacking and Jane Jacobs (Roberts/Jacobs emails: 3 of 3)

After I posted on the relation between Jane Jacobs’s ideas and the British phone-hacking scandal, Jim Jacobs, one of her sons, wrote to me. The first back-and-forth emails in our discussion are here and here. Finally, I wrote:

Thanks for more explanation. You’re quite right that exposure of the truth is at the heart of journalism and is utterly counter to what governments want. In this sense good journalism and governments are opposites — or rather opponents. In this sense, also, journalism is inherently populist whereas governments rarely are. Businesses are inherently populist.

On the other hand, journalism is not a standard commercial enterprise. This is why at many publications there is strict separation between advertising (devoted to raising money) and “editorial” (which spends it). They don’t want what they print to be affected by commercial considerations. That is utterly different than a conventional business. Powerful newspapers, such as the NY Times, see themselves (rightly) as far more than mere commercial enterprises — which is one reason the NY Times has lost so much money lately. It is one reason the NY Times took so long to get a sports section and why they barely have a gossip column. I have seen too many “undercover investigations” and “hidden camera” interviews to believe that journalists find anything wrong with deceiving for the sake of the task. They usually identify themselves, true, but so do police officers.

Exclusivity varies with organizational needs. Journalists do mix with everyone to get stories but that’s because of what they do; it couldn’t be otherwise. Some religions (which are far more guardian than commercial) make a big deal out of missionary work — again, the details of their enterprise demand it. Along the same lines, some businesses try to appear exclusive — the nature of their brand (luxury) demands it.

I agree that journalists trade information and favors with powerful sources. (But think it bad form to pay for interviews.) Whether this is different than governments forming alliances and signing treaties I don’t know.

Because journalism is actually a business, there are necessarily some commercial values, such as avoiding waste, being efficient, and so on.

In contrast to trading and rulers, which have been around for many thousands of years, powerful newspapers and powerful journalists are no more than a few hundred years old, if that. So there has been less time to clarify values. But there’s a reason they’re called the “fourth estate” — two of the other estates being religion and government.

And you’ve heard the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword” — implying that the pen and the sword are on the same playing field. I can’t imagine anyone saying “the jacket is mightier than the sword” or “the carton of milk is mightier than the sword”.

To which Jim replied:

As I mentioned before, Jane had real trouble finding good names for the two syndromes. You can see it in the part of Chapter 2 where she talks about names – first A & B, then heroic is rejected, etc. and finally she ended up with commercial & guardian. She later regretted the choice because these names can be quite misleading. Activities using the commercial syndrome don’t need to make money or be ‘commercial’ – most good science, for example. Activities using the guardian syndrome don’t need to be guarding anything – classical music, for example. Writing can be either, depending on its use. Advertising shares much with propaganda writing – deception, ostentation, fortitude, etc. No wonder advertising and journalism need to be kept apart! Too much charitable work will ruin any business’ profitability, but it isn’t inherently at odds with the moral syndrome. Nor are stupid business decisions.

I agree that journalists do use unscrupulous means to get their information – like hacking phones. It works. It’s effective. But it isn’t right, and in the end, like all unethical behavior, there’ll be a comeuppance. But what’s wrong for a journalist is right for a police detective, as Jane explains.

Religions are guardian activities, as you say, and missionary work can be either charity or largesse, or a mix. It’s not an aberration that missionaries were traditionally expected to remain aloof from their flocks, just as religious leaders were. Although a luxury goods dealer may sell its goods to royalty, it should itself operate ‘commercially’, being non-exclusive in its dealings with suppliers, rich foreigners, etc. Journalists get much of their material from government, and to government the selling of information is treason. Don’t expect government to give such activity any blessing! Unlike the breaking of a contract, the breaking of a treaty between governments is considered ‘strategic’ (the Hitler/Stalin pact, for example). Between governments the aberration is a contract (Alaska purchase, for example).

Journalism may be older than one would guess. Sometimes it’s hard to tell after ages of editing and translation. Homer probably wrote propaganda, but Herodotus and Thucydides, although usually thought of as historians, seem much like journalists to me – their values certainly align with those of journalists.
And just as the sword and shield can be used to make dinner (paella may have originated as a soldier’s meal, prepared on a shield) so may the pen be made to serve both commercial and guardian work – and be mighty in either role.

And there you have it.