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.
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?