Access vs. close-reading journalism as a metaphor for educational standards

Access Holy Wood - On the Media

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ah, Watergate, the gift that keeps on giving. But aside from Woodward's access to well-placed anonymous sources, there's little resemblance between Watergate Bob and White House Bob. Watergate Bob used disgruntled mid-level bureaucrats to tunnel his way into the bowels of a White House scandal. White House Bob moves easily through closed doors and crafts meticulous narratives seen through the eyes of the powerful. As New York University professor Jay Rosen told the Washington Post, Woodward has, quote, "gone wholly into access journalism." He is, perhaps, its best practitioner, but mostly he offers intimacy without analysis. In Washington, access trumps analysis most of the time. Consider the coverage of special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's statements on indicted leaker Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Libby's lawyer declared that Woodward's disclosure proves that Fitzgerald was, quote, "totally inaccurate" when he said at a press conference last month that Libby was the first leaker. But in his opening statement, Fitzgerald said Libby was the first official known to have told a reporter, though he dropped that crucial qualifier later on. Despite the ambiguity, Libby's lawyer's assertion was duly reported as fact by news outlets ranging from ABC, to the Associated Press, to the Washington Post, to NBC, to Fox News. Fox's Jim Angle. [START FILM CLIP FROM FOX NEWS]

JIM ANGLE: It is clear that the timeline the special prosecutor is using is a bit off and, of course, that leads people to wonder what other things might be off. [END CLIP FROM FOX NEWS]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Professional insiders quote and wonder. Increasingly, it's the outsiders who do the close reading. This week, Pentagon officials acknowledged that U.S. troops used white phosphorous as a weapon against insurgents in Fallujah last November. First, the State Department denied it. Then the Pentagon admitted it but said it was used only to illuminate enemy positions at night. Now the Pentagon admits using it directly against combatants. Why these progressive admissions? Probably because a website called The Daily Kos got hold of the March edition of the Army's official field artillery magazine, which detailed the use of the weapon in Fallujah. Close reading. Access journalists leave that to the amateurs.
(c) 2005 WNYC Radio

An interesting take on the ubiquitous story about Bob Woodward's latest revelations in the Valerie Plame affair.

Since close reading is something I try to engage in, in general, and on this blog, in particular, I would like more attention given to it, in general. This story distinguishes between the value of the journalist as someone who has access to sources of information or as someone who has the ability, time, willingness, and/or courage to engage in a close reading of sources of information (I take 'reading' here to stand for the analysis of any discourse, even non-verbal).

I have heard it pointed out elsewhere (I think it was by a guest on The Al Franken Show) that it is interesting that Woodward started out as an outsider, somebody who was collating all possible information, partly because he and Bernstein didn't have proper access to the highest sources of information (they were Metro journalists - see All the president's men) and close reading was the only thing available to them. At least in this case, close reading (which I'd say intersects with the semantic field of 'investigative journalism') proved to be more valuable than access. The same (according to the source which I don't recall now) occured again in the run up to Iraq where some of the best stories were done by bloggers who only had access to publicly available materials. Judith Miller, on the other hand, had access to the highest levels of government, yet her reporting was disasterously one-sided.

Now here's for the analogy (and I use the word interchangeably with 'metaphor') with education and standards. Standards are often thought of as a universal value for which we need to go to the experts on any given subject. However, particularly in higher education, a close reading guided by a non-expert may prove more valuable than a simple handing down of facts and theories from the Olymp of academic achievement. This is seen in the ease with which disparaging subjects such as 'media studies' or other forms of 'social analysis' comes to pundits (the otherwise excellent Today programme will provide many examples). They might be right if they saw 'media studies' as a set of principles and facts to made accessible to students rather than an exercise in 'close reading'. This, of course, does not mean that much of 'media studies' and similar subjects is not taught with sufficient rigour and ends up lacking even the backbone of useful information (which, say, history or biology have available to them). In the same way, a journalist with no access to sources of information (even those publicly available) would not be of much value to anybody.