One time Wichita Eagle editor W. Davis “Buzz” Merritt Jr. helped launch the movement that goes by the name of “public” or “civic” journalism. As author Doug Underwood describes the philosophy, “Journalists are encouraged to get involved with citizens and public officials in solving community problems rather than commenting from the sidelines.”
Commenting from the sidelines provided by the Topeka Capital-Journal, Merritt took an unseemly swipe at an unlikely subject, the Sandlian Center for Entrepreneurial Government, a project of the Kansas Policy Institute.
The critics of public journalism fault it for its willingness to abandon the traditional fact-based, non-partisan school of who-what-when-where-why journalism for a more subjective, freewheeling approach. The critics would have a field day with Merritt’s unprovoked attack on the Sandlian Center and its director Michael Austin.
On November 10, the Wichita Eagle published an unprovocative editorial by Austin headlined, “Kansans voted for growth, not stagnation.” Austin works under the premise that “[g]overnment is essential to a civilized society.” That conceded, he argues that the larger government has grown in Kansas–and this much is undeniable–“the bigger the burden on families and commerce.”
Austin then offers a calmly rational and fairly detailed synopsis of what the Sandlian Center hopes to do: “We’ll advise how government can better listen to Kansans, helping them keep more of what they earn while enacting the best policy to grow private wages and jobs. We’ll provide pathways to sensible regulations, ensuring public safety and encouraging new innovative businesses to keep prices low for Kansans. Most importantly, we’ll teach public organizations to provide better services at a better price to reverse the trend of out-migration seen in Kansas and Wichita.”
Merritt can barely contain himself. Although he alleges to believe in “[u]seful, constructive thinking and bipartisan political action,” his ad hominem rant against Austin and the Sandlian Center belies his professed philosophy. Some sample excerpts:
“Those unattributed assertions, non sequiturs and drive-by conclusions without citation of sources were courtesy of Michael Austin, a refugee from the failed Sam Brownback administration.”
“The institute’s introductory dose of extreme libertarianism was delivered in a publicity handout printed, unchallenged, Saturday on the Opinion page of The Wichita Eagle.”
“It apparently is the first barrage of a new front in an old, senseless and dangerous war against all government at every level.”
“Absolutist positions such as Austin’s piece asserts are a sign of weakness rather than strength; of fear rather than confidence.”
“The far right’s determined, heavily financed and, so far, successful effort to turn back the clock to the Gilded Age of the 19th Century was very much on the ballot last week . . . “
Speaking of “unattributed assertions, non sequiturs and drive-by conclusions,” Merritt insists that the Sandlian Center is “a new offshoot of Charles Koch’s Kansas Policy Institute.” KPI guards its donor lists zealously. Austin has no idea if Charles Koch has given the KPI a dime let alone enough to secure naming rights. In his calmer moments, Merritt must sense that this reflexive reductio ad Kochum is unworthy of a journalist.
If not in name, public journalism rules today in the American media. In some newsrooms, it is very nearly a job requirement. Unchecked by dissenting voices from within, too many journalists feel free to express their unmoored opinions as fact.
Even journalism gurus like Merritt feel free to slash and slander. He accuses Austin of anti-government extremism and absolutism as though this conservative reformer were Timothy McVeigh. Had he not seen Austin’s photo, Merritt might well have tacked racism on to his list of sins.
To its credit, the Topeka Capital-Journal gave Austin a chance to respond. To Austin’s credit, he refused to respond in kind.