Friday, September 16, 2011

Think Tank "Journalism"

I admire Rob Bluey's determination and initiative. He's a conservative blogger at the conservative Heritage Foundation, and he seems to be intent on revolutionizing or at least reinvigorating journalism at a time when so many of of legacy media have become more preoccupied with the bottom line than the public good.

Yesterday, Bluey popped up with another in a series of posts on of discipline he calls "thinktank journalism."

Bluey's case for think tanks getting into the journalism business seems to be that that they cover "stories that are often ignored by other media outlets." And according to Bluey, that means think thanks are "re-shaping" journalism.

If only it were that easy. Bluey's plug for "thinktank journalism" seems geared more toward crafting a new pitch to entice Heritage's donors than developing the kind of intellectual rigor that Heritage is known for.

My issue with Bluey and those he praises in his posts is twofold.

1) What they are producing is investigative, but it certainly isn't journalism. That's not to say it isn't factual -- it just isn't put to the same kind of contextual stress-testing as real journalism.

2) More importantly, many of the conservative-leaning "watchdog" sites commit the sin that journalists hold in greatest contempt -- hypocrisy. They demand transparency of politicians, government and people who receive government benefits, yet they hide the sources of their funding.

Worse yet, they encourage readers to donate anonymously, encourage them to take charitable tax deductions and then pretend they they don't receive government support for their work. Those deductions are often referred to as "tax expenditures," and conservatives have been villfying them for years.

Bluey and Heritage, to their credit, are open about their point of view. Heritage's mission "is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense." Bluey's very job was conceived as a part of that mission, and that may be important work. But it's certainly not the mission of journalism.

To be clear, I'm not arguing here that Heritage -- or any other think tank of any persuasion, for that matter -- should not be digging around government programs and politicians. They can be great, vital sources of information -- and fodder for real journalism. In my days as a Capitol Hill reporter for a daily newspaper, I spent a lot of time in the auditorium at Heritage because I got great material from great thinkers.

But neither Bluey nor Heritage nor and other "think tank journalist" should pretend that what they're posting is real journalism. It's not, and it never will be.

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