It was not an attack on ‘freedom of the press’, the assassination attempt on Peter R. de Vries, but an attack on the rule of law, a sign on Dam Square reported that NRC showed.
Indeed, a horrific liquidation, it appears to be according to ruthless mafia methods: murdering the brother of a key witness, the lawyer and his successor.
Only, motive and effect do not coincide here. This one liquidation touches much more: the entire legal order, the fight against the disruptive narco-mafia, but also journalism. Like the terror murder of the editors of Charlie Hebdo – a direct attack on freedom of the press – also had a much broader political and social effect.
NRC columnist Folkert Jensma spoke of an ‘attack on the rule of law’. But one that simultaneously affected “the right to a fair trial, to representation in the media and to the promotion of all other interests that De Vries served”. That was also the line of the Comment, which concluded that the attack affects the rule of law and the freedom of lawyers, public prosecutors, judges and journalists. What was confirmed by threats to the program RTL Boulevard in which De Vries was a regular guest.
In the meantime, in all sorts of variants, the question arose as to whether De Vries was a journalist or something completely different. After the attack, a portrait inventoried his roles: TV personality, opinion maker, program maker, aspiring politician, agent, confidant.
That question is now an afterthought, but one that says something about what is expected of a journalist. With his role as advisor to a key witness, De Vries would have lost the distance needed for journalism.
That may be, and yet it is also not so clear. In 2021, many journalists are simultaneously TV personalities, commentators and their own ‘brand’ – albeit not nearly as strong as the unique De Vries. The idea that journalists should be disinterested observers, free from subjective preferences or involvement, is also relatively recent – roughly a century and a half old – and partly passed or amended.
Once politicized, partisan journalism was the rule rather than the exception in Europe and the US; newspapers were vehicles for polemic and pamphleteer in the coffeehouses of the Enlightenment, where heated debates about political revolutions set the tone rather than cool analysis.
Only later in the nineteenth century – with urbanization, literacy and technological innovations such as the telegraph and better printing techniques – did ‘objective journalism’ become the ideal in America, complete with editorial organization and professional division of labour. Partly influenced by scientism (a rock-solid belief in scientific facts and social engineering) and the desire of owners and advertisers to reach the widest possible audience. This includes journalists just the facts give (the title of a book by David Mindich what I’m basing this on). In Europe, newspapers remained party organs for much longer, an embedding that was only abandoned after the Second World War.
Besides, even the first ‘modern’ Anglo-Saxon journalists were sometimes more than cool observers. The ‘explorer’ Stanley, who went in search of Livingstone in Africa, was also a journalist, with a carbine and already sent on a report by the New York Herald. Later he started working as an agent for the Belgian King Leopold, who established a genocidal reign of terror in Congo. In short, journalistic observation was not always so disinterested.
It was not until the 1950s that this ideal became the norm. With the duo Woodward and Bernstein, and their Watergate scoops, the symbolic peak of the passionate but impartial journalist as a new cultural hero is reached in the 1970s.
That professional ideal is undiminishedly powerful – and fortunately, as long as it serves the public good, such as the revelations in the Benefits scandal. But the ideal has changed, now that criticism of ‘the media’ has become commonplace. Every journalist can now have a say about framing, unconscious bias and everything that – it has become a cliché – an objective view from nowhere makes impossible.
At the same time, #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and climate activism have contributed to a renewed call for “moral clarity” in journalism. Like the committed black journalist Ida B. Wells (born into slavery) in the late nineteenth century did more on her own to denounce lynchings in the US than the established (white) media combined.
However, social engagement does not mean that ‘objectivity’ should be thrown away with the bulky waste, next to tube radio or WordPerfect. You can dismiss objectivity as a hopeless yearning for a divine gaze, but it is more an artisanal method: first examining facts, then drawing conclusions. It was born from the realization that journalists also speak from their own position and background.
Anything else. Janet Malcolm famously noted that every journalist sometimes realizes that he is an impostor somewhere, because the story always outweighs the people whose trust he gains to be able to tell it.
Would it? Peter R. de Vries cherished warm ties with many relatives in business, even years later. So yes, of course it’s about the story, but fame, awards or ratings are ultimately by-catch in journalism that wants to serve the public good.
Moral clarity and commitment, that’s what De Vries offered – with the hard facts first.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 17 July 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of July 17, 2021