Kitty Kelley, journalism and our information feed

I’m about to say something I never thought I’d be saying aloud: I’ve come to respect Kitty Kelley, and I think she’s engaged in a valuable conversation about modern journalism.

WHAT?

Yeah, I know. She’s queen of the unauthorized biography. In the gilded halls of literature, “unauthorized” translates to “trashy beach read.” Her prose can be bulky and clumsy, and the narrative tone in her books often takes the tone of the “psssssssst!” style of gossip.

So how can I mention Kelley and journalism ethics in the same sentence? Because she’s made an excellent point in recent interviews and essays: Good journalism should, to some degree, be unauthorized. That’s how we get the real story.

Her recent essay for American Scholar mentions a case where CBS reporter Lara Logan (a veteran foreign correspondent) admitted on a CNN panel discussion that she avoided asking potentially controversial questions to the leaders of the American military in Iraq. Why? So she could sustain ongoing access and, she may have assumed, “candid” comments from the generals there.

The problem with that theory, of course, that another journalist (Michael Hastings from Rolling Stone) did ask those questions, and the end result of the release of that interview was the firing of General Stanley McChrystal.

Kelley may have said it best in her essay: I do not relish living in a world where information is authorized, sanitized, and homogenized. I read banned books, I applaud whistleblowers, and I reject any suppression by church or state. To me, the unauthorized biography, which requires a combination of scholarly research and investigative reporting, is best directed at those figures, still alive and able to defend themselves, who exercise power over our lives.

So where do we draw those lines when we’re reporting stories? You can’t find a better or more timely example of this than WikiLeaks. As a country that declares freedom of the press in our Constitution, we should be defending the utter freedom of information. But is WikiLeaks a brave stand for that sort of transparency, or an unethical unearthing of information that jeopardizes our safety?

No matter where you stand on the ethics or lack thereof regarding WikiLeaks, I think it’s incredibly curious that criminal charges (charges that are in some cases hard to definitively prove) has derailed Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ leader. It’s also curious to me that the next big revelation from WikiLeaks was supposed to be about a large financial institution. (The lines between our government and our corporations seem to get fuzzier all the time.)

I remember a few years ago reading an academic essay that called much of today’s journalism “Us vs. Them” journalism, particularly print journalism. Few reporters map out all the aspects of a story. Increasingly, as a way to engage the reader/audience, news stories are written as if they were feature stories. Reporters find the main point of interest to write about, and then in an attempt to offer “balance,” they find someone or something representing the polar opposite and include that in their story as a “counterpoint.”  It’s no wonder we seem to be so polarized in this country – our information feed certainly is!

The us vs. them mentality is everywhere, and it’s probably due to a number of factors: decreasing budgets for print, TV and radio news; a perceived shortening of our collective attention span; the need to tie every story into a bow and resolve it as if it was some sort of 1980s sitcom, with hugs and lessons at the end.

I’m not sure Kelley’s books have ever had the same impact as the WikiLeaks documents; knowing who Frank Sinatra slept with, or that Prince Philip has a short temper, is hardly equivalent. But while we can pass judgement on the importance of her work, I can’t deny that she’s exhaustively researched her subjects – and gets verification from sources.

The bigger lesson from Kelley is her willingness to look beyond the surface and dodge the spoon-fed stream of PR chatter to find the real story. It’s a reminder to me that when I’m trying to sketch out an outline of a story I’m writing, I also need to make that sketch (metaphorically speaking) in pencil, so that I can let the story tell itself and shape itself.

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