He wants these questions answered: "Who are they? Where did they grow up? What did they study in school? Why did they become journalists? Did they ever work in politics or volunteer for a cause? If so, when and where?"
To which I ask: Why stop there?
What about these: What is their pin number? Who did they last sleep with? Do they have any embarrassing rashes? I demand that all journalists post at least one shirtless camera-phone pic of themselves on MySpace. The people have a right to know!
All sarcasm aside, there is some value in what Powers is calling for here – transparency is, after all, our bread and butter. I'm just troubled by the notion that journalists should be forced to reveal information like this about themselves.
For one, you have to wonder where it stops: Should someone writing on pork production have to disclose if they were ever a vegetarian? Should someone writing about gay marriage have to reveal their sexuality to all interested parties? One could argue that those issues are more relevant, when it comes to these stories, than where someone grew up, after all. But are we really sure that we want to endorse the idea that choosing a career in journalism means forfeiting privacy rights? And do we really care if the beat writer for the local ballclub ran for the school board?
And then there's the fact that the information revealed will inevitably be used unfairly. Let's say, when a reporter was in college, he joined the Young Republicans. Or, in his 20s, gave money to the Sierra Club. Does that really mean that ten years later he can't cover politics or the environment fairly? Yet you can bet that the screamers on different sides of the aisle will cite these supposed biases to challenge every word the reporter types or utters. I don't think reporters should be contributing to political causes related to the issues they cover. But there is something McCarthyesque about the idea that everything a reporter has done over the course of his life should be fodder for discrediting his work.
After all, shouldn't we really be judging the final product? There is no way to account for all the personal baggage anyone – whether they are a journalist, a doctor, or anything else – brings to his job. "What did you major in" just isn't going to cut it. It makes much more sense to try to see how well the story holds up than to try to interpret the messy life story of the person behind it. Besides, if someone has the time and acumen to go to a Web page to investigate a journalist's personal history, he could use that time more wisely by checking out a variety of sources and drawing his own conclusions about whether or not any particular story is fair.
While I understand the arguments for Powers' disclosure standard, then, I simply don't see how it could ever work effectively in practice. But don't trust me: I grew up in California.