5.4 4. Think Independently

This is similar to the principle described Chapter 2 of opening your mind. It can cover many habits, but independence of thought may be the most important. Creators of media, not just consumers, need to venture beyond their personal comfort zones.

Professional journalists claim independence. They are typically forbidden to have direct or indirect financial conflicts of interest. But conflicts of interest are not always so easy to define. Many prominent Washington journalists, for example, are so blatantly beholden to their sources, and to access to those sources, that they are not independent in any real way, and their journalism reflects it.

Jay Rosen calls out another non-independent frame of mind among the top journalists, particularly in Washington, referring to it as the “Church of the Savvy.” According to Rosen, these journalists see themselves as having no ideology but actually share a profoundly deep one:

Savviness! Deep down, that’s what reporters want to believe in and actually do believe in—their own savviness and the savviness of certain others (including [political] operators like Karl Rove). In politics, they believe, it’s better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It’s better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere or humane.

Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be. (And to be unsavvy is far worse than being wrong.) Savviness—that quality of being shrewd, practical, well-informed, perceptive, ironic, “with it,” and unsentimental in all things political—is, in a sense, their professional religion. They make a cult of it.

Yet aren’t we all part of a similar cult in our own lives, or sometimes tempted to be? It’s certainly more comfortable to hang out with people who share our own world views, and to seek them out when we’re looking for more information. Being independent as a questioner and pursuer of what’s actually happening—and I don’t care here whether you’re paid to be a reporter or not—can get in the way of comfort.

Independent thinking has many facets. Listening, of course, is the best way to start. But you can and should relentlessly question your own conclusions after listening. It’s not enough to incorporate the views of opponents into what you write; if what they tell you is persuasive, you have to consider shifting your conclusion, too.

Whether you’re a blogger or a paid journalist, independence isn’t likely to stretch so far as revealing your employer’s dirty laundry or even your own dissatisfaction with what the enterprise is doing. That said, loyalty has its limits; I’d like to think I’d speak out if an employer acted in grossly unethical ways, though I’d probably quit first. In general, however, we should expect that criticism of this kind is normally done in person, behind a closed door. An organization decides its own level of public disclosures, and some internal criticism—especially the kind that might be fodder for a plaintiff’s lawyer—is unlikely to see sunlight.

This brings us to the truly new principle: embracing much more openness than ever before.

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