"Post-Journalistic" — Spin, Distortion, Cant. Sound Good?

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I don’t care if you take notes on a cocktail napkin or in a fancy-schmancy Moleskine, but I do care deeply about the basics of classic, old-school, shoe-leather journalism. Call it hand-wringing or navel-gazing. Whatever. As someone who’s devoted her life to these values, I care a lot about this issue — why we do what we do and why that still matters, the specific medium in which you find it and read or listen to it be damned. Anyone who wants to know what’s really going in their world needs to care as well.

Read Mark Bowden on this issue, how “post-journalism” is shaping how we think in the October issue of The Atlantic.

He profiles two conservative bloggers and how they so effectively spun the “debate” about Sonia Sotomayor.

Writes Bowden:

For his part, Sexton says: “It is a beautiful thing to live in this country. It’s overwhelming and fantastic, really, that an ordinary citizen, with just a little bit of work, can help shape the national debate. Once you get a taste of it, it’s hard to resist.”

Of the two bloggers, Bowden writes:

I would describe their approach as post-journalistic. It sees democracy, by definition, as perpetual political battle. The blogger’s role is to help his side. Distortions and inaccuracies, lapses of judgment, the absence of context, all of these things matter only a little, because they are committed by both sides, and tend to come out a wash. Nobody is actually right about anything, no matter how certain they pretend to be. The truth is something that emerges from the cauldron of debate. No, not the truth: victory, because winning is way more important than being right. Power is the highest achievement. There is nothing new about this. But we never used to mistake it for journalism. Today it is rapidly replacing journalism, leading us toward a world where all information is spun, and where all “news” is unapologetically propaganda.

In this post-journalistic world, the model for all national debate becomes the trial, where adversaries face off, representing opposing points of view. We accept the harshness of this process because the consequences in a courtroom are so stark; trials are about assigning guilt or responsibility for harm. There is very little wiggle room in such a confrontation, very little room for compromise—only innocence or degrees of guilt or responsibility. But isn’t this model unduly harsh for political debate? Isn’t there, in fact, middle ground in most public disputes? Isn’t the art of politics finding that middle ground, weighing the public good against factional priorities? Without journalism, the public good is viewed only through a partisan lens, and politics becomes blood sport.

Television loves this, because it is dramatic. Confrontation is all. And given the fragmentation of news on the Internet and on cable television, Americans increasingly choose to listen only to their own side of the argument, to bloggers and commentators who reinforce their convictions and paint the world only in acceptable, comfortable colors. Bloggers like Richmond and Sexton, and TV hosts like Hannity, preach only to the choir. Consumers of such “news” become all the more entrenched in their prejudices, and ever more hostile to those who disagree. The other side is no longer the honorable opposition, maybe partly right; but rather always wrong, stupid, criminal, even downright evil. Yet even in criminal courts, before assigning punishment, judges routinely order pre­sentencing reports, which attempt to go beyond the clash of extremes in the courtroom to a more nuanced, disinterested assessment of a case. Usually someone who is neither prosecution nor defense is assigned to investigate. In a post-journalistic society, there is no disinterested voice. There are only the winning side and the losing side.

There’s more here than just an old journalist’s lament over his dying profession, or over the social cost of losing great newspapers and great TV-news operations. And there’s more than an argument for the ethical superiority of honest, disinterested reporting over advocacy. Even an eager and ambitious political blogger like Richmond, because he is drawn to the work primarily out of political conviction, not curiosity, is less likely to experience the pleasure of finding something new, or of arriving at a completely original, unexpected insight, one that surprises even himself. He is missing out on the great fun of speaking wholly for himself, without fear or favor. This is what gives reporters the power to stir up trouble wherever they go. They can shake preconceptions and poke holes in presumption. They can celebrate the unnoticed and puncture the hyped. They can, as the old saying goes, afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. A reporter who thinks and speaks for himself, whose preeminent goal is providing deeper understanding, aspires even in political argument to persuade, which requires at the very least being seen as fair-minded and trustworthy by those—and this is the key—who are inclined to disagree with him. The honest, disinterested voice of a true journalist carries an authority that no self-branded liberal or conservative can have. “For a country to have a great writer is like having another government,” Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote. Journalism, done right, is enormously powerful precisely because it does not seek power. It seeks truth. Those who forsake it to shill for a product or a candidate or a party or an ideology diminish their own power. They are missing the most joyful part of the job.

What do you think?

Do you care whether the stuff you read is reported from a position of putative objectivity or fairness? Do reporters’ or writers’ motives (or who’s signing their checks) matter to you?


6 thoughts on “"Post-Journalistic" — Spin, Distortion, Cant. Sound Good?

  1. libtree09

    I agree whole heartily with Bowden and fear not the loss of newspapers but the loss of journalism itself. High School taught me to understand the frame of reference, so I tend to look for the author’s point of view or prejudice or whatever think tank of the moment they might be working for before I evaluate their work. This seems more important these days. The front page was reserved for truth based on facts, verified facts. This doesn’t always seem to be the rule today. The editorial page and business page seem to be bleeding onto the front page stories. It ain’t right.

    The fourth estate used to be feared by lying politicians and the corrupt in our society. Now it has all turned into some strange public relations circus where anyone can set up a blog site and call themselves journalists but they are not…even the most basic of rules are cast aside. Now we get writers quoting writers without sourcing material, hell the rule used to be three sources and comment from whoever or whatever the article addressed. A true journalist follows the story wherever it leads and lets the chips fall where they may.

    It seems to me that today’s “new journalism” gets all its cues from sports writing. Lots of hot air from the various couches and fans and as much dirt one could dig up on the players. Lots of overblown rhetoric and opinion and forecasting.

    Shoe leather is completely missing in an internet world…just look up what someone else wrote and dress it up. How many scandals in politics and business has the press slept through in just the last eight years? There are still great journalists out there, experienced reporters with great sources and a nose for the big story. But who is going to pay for their investigations? Who is going to give them months to develop a story?

    To quote a tired TV show, the truth is out there and let us hope that true journalists will survive to reveal it to us because we are in dire need today.

    1. libtree09

      Well I hope your Journalism instructor friends keep chasing students out the door. Some fifteen years ago I decided to take a Journalism class as a lark, in high school I wrote for the paper and loved it, I was assigned to cover a teach in and tried to interview one of the organizers who was rushing to her class. She told me that she was rushed and would talk to me later. When I relayed this to my instructor he gave me a hard stare of someone pitying a damn fool. I got the message in embarrassment camped out by a classroom and got the interview on the run. I learned first hand why reporters need to be persistent to the point of annoyance and also learned that it is hard for a person to hand you a line face to face. You all have my respect and support. Maybe it is time for a newspaper version of npr.

  2. charlottep

    Caitly: Glad I found you – a Canadian journalist in New York. I’m a journalist too – though currently laid off from my daily newspaper job. I’m missing the joyous part of my work, and also the fact that the vending machine in the newsroom had BIG TURKS in it, for that 3 p.m. fix.

  3. Caitlin Kelly

    libtree, thanks for your thoughts. It’s hard to overstate the frustration I feel, as do so many of my experienced colleagues chivvied out of newsrooms — 12,00 of us in the past two years — now reading (not producing) what passes for “news” or “insight” or “analysis.” Of course, there are still smart reporters in all media, but very few pay anything near what we need to do it right.

    My gun book began with two newspaper assignments then a $5,000 assignment — and this is more than 10 years ago — for Penthouse. Yup. That was enough money for me to spend an entire month working hard on one story, hard enough to persuade an editor to make it a book. Thank God for all those dirty photos (says the feminist, noting the irony) that funded this work. Someone has to! I’m applying this month for a fellowship and a grant to do some investigative work, but the odds of winning (so much great competition) are slim, as always. Other than that, not sure who else has enough money for it these days.

    Many of my friends teach journalism and report (!) they have to actually chase their students out the door of the classroom and away from the computer to — gasp — go talk to someone face to face! Conduct interviews with people whose reaction is not wholly predictable to you. I went into this field, as did so many of us, because of my insatiable curiosity about the world and why things are they way they are. I really miss being the pain in the ass who is the last person to leave the press conference still asking rude and annoying questions. I once had a lady admiral try to grab my notebook. That’s my kind of reporting.

    If no one ever challenges our point of view, as writers/thinkers, and this niche aspect of the net (aka The Big Sort, a new book) disturbs me greatly, how can we see how others think?

    charlottep, so great you found T/S. A newsroom with Big Turks is my kind of place! At the Daily News, we even had an ice-cream vending machine. I hope you find another newspaper job. Like me, I bet you miss the hell out of it…?

    1. charlottep

      I do miss the hell out of it. I’ve got lots of freelance work, but working in my basement is not the same as being part of a newsroom team.
      And yes, like you, I enjoyed asking the annoying questions – and also QUESTIONING THE ANSWERS that were given to me – instead of just jotting them down and regurgitating them in the newspaper like so many seem to do.

  4. iskid2astop

    Caitlin,
    I see this change reflected in my peers. I’m part of a younger generation, where the focus is less on the facts, and more on the fervor. If a story is boring, or doesn’t have any scandal in it, shoot, just move on. There are so many sources out there, why read something boring, or something that challenges one’s thinking. When I get in arguments, I see this change in the culture reflected. The ability to see, understand, and empathize with both sides of a idea or situation is slowly being lost.
    Thanks for the article.

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