A couple of nights ago in the immediate aftermath of the Christie bridge scandal breaking wide open, Rachel Maddow did a really good interview with Shawn Boburg. If you don’t know Boburg’s name off the top of your head, that’s okay; I doubt he’d fret about it. But you should be at least a little familiar with him because it was his work that brought the entire story of the Christie administration’s role in closing part of the George Washington Bridge to a head. Boburg is the reporter for the outstanding North Jersey newspaper the Bergen Record who’s been covering the Port Authority beat without much fanfare for the past two-and-a-half years. It was his colleagues at the Record who first got a tip something wasn’t quite right with the normally nerve-shattering commute over the GWB in early September of last year, and it was he who followed it up and tracked down the real, politically motivated reason for the week-long parking lot in Fort Lee and along the Jersey Turnpike.
While pursuing the story, Boburg so irritated David Wildstein — the now infamous Port Authority figure appointed by Christie who officially ordered the “traffic problems in Fort Lee” — that Wildstein actually retaliated against him by buying his name online and creating “shawnboburg.com,” which automatically directed readers to the Record‘s competition. That should give you a good idea how petty and juvenile Wildstein is. But Boburg quietly persevered and eventually became far more than a mere thorn in Wildstein’s side — he and the Record brought his entire political career crashing to the ground, and may eventually wind up doing the same for his boss.
I bring this up because if you watch Maddow’s interview with Shawn Boburg, the very first thing you notice is that he isn’t excessively proud of himself. At least insofar as the public persona he presents, he isn’t a loudmouth; he isn’t arrogant and combative; he doesn’t boast about how he’s just changed the face of politics or made the world a better place; he isn’t turning his professional triumph into an opportunity to publicly soapbox on the ways in which the story he broke highlights the corrosive and corrupt politics of the state he calls home. Put simply, he isn’t making it about him. There’s little doubt that behind the scenes, Boburg is a fierce and tenacious reporter, someone who smells bullshit and follows it to its source and who won’t rest until that source is outed. But he’s still humble, even taciturn in his presentation, because he knows that it’s important that people see him as at least fair, otherwise why should they trust him? And the important work he does? It’s his job. Simple as that.
Over the past several months, there’s been a big debate nationally over what makes a good journalist, whether “advocacy journalism” is as potent as — or is even more potent than — traditional objective journalism. To be honest, there’s room for both. But regardless of which side you’re on in this discussion, there are a few things that good journalists don’t do. They don’t piously strut; they don’t publicly engaged in the very pettiness they seek to expose institutionally; they don’t allow their opinions to overwhelm their better judgment; they go where the story takes them, not where their personal biases do; they graciously accept when they’re wrong, when they face setbacks getting where they thought they might be headed, and when constructive criticism is offered; and more than anything else, they seal up stories airtight before going public with them or making claims they assert to be the truth. That’s what a good journalist does. And that’s exactly what Shawn Boburg did in this case, which is why the impact of his story is undeniable and unquestionable.
Just by doing his job the way it’s supposed to be done, without any pomp or pretension, he reminded us what real journalism is.
Good. We need that right now.