Home > Andrew Sullivan, Journalism, Osama bin Laden > The Immorality of Journalistic Social Responsibility

The Immorality of Journalistic Social Responsibility

In 2005, The Economist ran a special report on the unintended consequences of corporate social responsibility. Instead of being ethical, executives attempts at advancing social policy confounds the purpose of business and government.

[B]usinesses should not try to do the work of governments, just as governments should not try to do the work of businesses. The goals of business and the goals of government are different—or should be. That, by the way, is why “partnership” between those two should always arouse intense suspicion. Managers, acting in their professional capacity, ought not to concern themselves with the public good: they are not competent to do it, they lack the democratic credentials for it, and their day jobs should leave them no time even to think about it.

The last few days have illuminated a similar paradox with journalists. Journalism should seek to maximize information as companies do for profit. The Fourth Estate has a duty to inform the electorate just as much as managers have a responsibility to their shareholders.  Only in clear cases where no public benefit could be gained – like publishing nuclear designs or troop locations – should journalists censor themselves. Companies similarly can exercise ethical judgement. But the duty of the press should not be confused.

The Bin Laden Photos

I sympathize with the motives of the administration to not make a “trophy” and to seek to protect the troops and other people at risk from any backlash. But I’m puzzled by journalists that argue that the government should not release the photos of Bin Laden.Would these same journalists refuse to print the photos if they were entered into the public domain? We may need quasi-sociopathic journalists that want as much information out to the public as possible. Journalists shouldn’t see themselves as gatekeepers for the state, but as orchestrators of a never-ending siege.

Instead of manning a battering ram, the New York Post, Los Angeles Times, and other editorial boards started shoveling a moat. I don’t see a hard distinction between conventional journalists and opinion journalists. Most surprising might be Andrew Sullivan, usually a First Amendment absolutist. He writes, “To put his head on a digital spike and display his mangled head is, indeed, not the Western way. We are better than that.”

I’d hope we’d be civilized enough not to celebrate the image. I wouldn’t want a poster of it hung in the Freedom Tower or in the Pentagon, but when did publication become the same thing as celebration? I wonder if Andrew’s fear doesn’t reveal more about what we think deep down about ourselves. I’ll be disgusted with the inevitable celebration of the image from many of our countrymen. I expect the government to have paternalistic inclinations, but the constitution doesn’t give journalists the freedoms it does to serve the interests of the state. The government made a decision to kill Osama Bin Laden. It’s not the job of journalists to aid the government in altering the consequences of the decision. It’s not as if releasing the photos would be incontrovertibly dangerous the way it would for nuclear secrets. Journalists are not equipped to decide in advance whether censoring itself promotes the public good. They are betraying their obligations as journalists by failing to inform the electorate.

Maybe the government is right not to release the photos. The negative consequences could outweigh any benefits, but journalists are neither elected officials nor merely private citizens. A watchdog press calling on the government to censor itself should make every citizen uncomfortable.

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