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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

behind the headlines « Previous | |Next »
September 21, 2009

Mark Bowden in The Story behind the News in The Atlantic argues that one of the consequences of the collapse of professional journalism is that:

Work formerly done by reporters and producers is now routinely performed by political operatives and amateur ideologues of one stripe or another, whose goal is not to educate the public but to win. This is a trend not likely to change.

True, Bowden is nostalgic for the good old days of journalism. He says that what gave newspapers their value was the mission and promise of journalism—the hope that someone was getting paid to wade into the daily tide of manure, sort through its deliberate lies and cunning half-truths, and tell a story straight. That is one reason why newspaper reporters, despite polls that show consistently low public regard for journalists, are the heroes of so many films.

Bowden's article gives two examples of the conservative political operatives and amateur ideologues in the US who used snippets from U.S. Circuit Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor early talks to portray her as a racist and liberal activist during the first few weeks following President Obama nominating Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. He makes his case.

This kind of political partisan work, which can be usefully described as post-journalistic, is one that we informed citizens are already familar with. It is quite extensive in the media landscape of the 24 hours news cycle and this normality operates at different levels.

Bowden goes onto say that the consequences are harmful, as the partisan practitioners see:

...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. would describe their approach as post-journalistic. .....
...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.

Well, this the classic understanding of politics--what Carl Schmitt called an existential conflict between friend and enemy (any person or entity that represents a serious threat or conflict to one's own interests).

Bowden then argues that journalism prevents this destruction of democracy in that, without journalism, the public good is viewed only through a partisan lens, and politics becomes blood sport. I find this playing off the honest, disinterested reporting versus partisan advocacy by bloggers close to mythmaking. Most practising journalists in the media establishment are already partisan, in that they spinners for political parties, rewrite political and corporate media releases, and are complicit in management of the publicity machine. They are, to put it bluntly, engaged in mass deception not enlightenment.

Secondly, Bowden is pointing the finger at amateur bloggers when the main media institutions simply recycled the material from the Republican noise machine. Journalism these days is not seeking truth to enlighten, far from it. Journalists are a part of the relations of knowledge/power and integrated into our what works politics Thirdly, the sordid reality of actually existing journalism is covered over by Bowden's appeal to an ideal of journalism, and the ideal is then equated with what journalism actually is.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 2:12 PM | | Comments (13)


But is the problem the internet or Murdock

His key phrase is 'educate the public'. It's redolent with the elitism that is embedded in the modern politician and journalist.

Educating people is an inherently unequal function, with a privileged class deciding what others need to learn and how it should be done (and by inference what the masses don't need to know, and by extension what it would be inconvenient or dangerous for them to learn).

If Bowden and his colleagues held true to the ideal of 'informing' the public - which involves a responsibility to uncover and publish all material facts without adding spin - I'd be more likely to feel sympathy for him. If he really wants to see true journalists kept in jobs, he should start advocating increased public funding for independent news agencies.

It is the way that Murdoch's newspapers and television stations use the technology for partisan political purposes. Bowden does identify the Republican noise machine but his conception of the professional journalist blinds him to the current practices of journalism--eg., a Glenn Milne in the Australian content

For the past 20 years, news compilers have filtered propaganda provided by PR personnel, advertisers and fringe nut groups to select the news to feed to the masses that supports their owners world view.
I find SBS and ABC less biased than the Murdoch press and Fairfax just prints to frighten the populace, having no journaists in Melbourne they are unable to cover Victorian news

Bowden's view of the professional journalist is 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.

Few of those who call themselves professional journalists in Australia would approach that ideal, even if it is their ideal in terms of educating the public. Given this failure, the public are educating themselves, thanks to the online resources made available by the internet.

Yes Gary, his deeply confused thinking is evident in his argument that someone can simultaneously persuade others while being disinterested. If you are disinterested, why TF would you care about persuading them in the first place? Again the word which he should use (instead of persuade) is 'inform' but most journos now seem to consider themselves prime actors in the political process, not reporters.

agreed. William Powers in The Massless Media also in The Atlantic says:

It's instructive to remember, however, that the centralized, homogeneous mass-media environment of Cronkite's day was really an anomaly, an exception to the historical rule. For two centuries before the arrival of television America had a wild, cacophonous, emphatically decentralized media culture that mirrored society itself. And something like that media culture seems to be returning right now.

We are saying farewell to the historical era the mass market and audience. after WW2 with its "trust us, we know better" ethos that undergirded the broadcast era.

This seems increasingly antique and shop worn today. Hence the continued appeal to a noble ideal?

But is the problem the internet or Murdock

Depends what you consider the problem to be. From Murdoch's point of view, the internet is the problem.

The days of centralised content provision are over. If you're genuinely concerned about educating the public, this has to be a good thing. If you're concerned about losing your privilege and monopoly, it's a bad thing.

Journalism itself isn't the problem. The redistribution of power and privilege is. At least, it's a problem for those who are losing it.

News media isn't the only content provider dealing with it. They're just in the best position to complain about it.

In the US President Obama is sympathetic to a bill that would award a variety of tax breaks to newspaper companies that restructure as nonprofits. Obama says that he understands the problems newspapers are facing and worries about a future without them.

I am concerned that if the direction of the news is all blogosphere, all opinions, with no serious fact-checking, no serious attempts to put stories in context, that what you will end up getting is people shouting at each other across the void but not a lot of mutual understanding.

Obama noted that it:
is really a challenge for news organizations to find a way to pay for fact-based reporting, serious investigative reporting but it's something that I think is absolutely critical to the health of our democracy."

So newspapers become nonprofit organizations for the sake of the public good. I guess Fox News is excluded from this.

excellent article-- Common Knowledge by Megan Garber in the Columbia Journalism Review---on news as common knowledge.

The structure of news is shifting, its bonds loosening, its elements slouching towards entropy...That singular trajectory is caused, actually, by two distinct phenomena: on the one hand, proliferation; on the other, fragmentation. Not only has the Web engendered an explosion of niche news outlets (proliferation); it has also encouraged existing outlets to narrow their scope (fragmentation). ... In some ways, we are returning to the freewheeling days before radio and television launched the very idea of mass media—the era of partisan newspapers and pamphleteers. But our niches, now, are more niche than ever before.

n that disruptive sense alone, the Web—the protean force of the digital age, the platform that has introduced the tumult and turbulence of media proliferation—has been revolutionary. There has always been more information in the world than there have been news outlets to convey it; but the explosion of outlets, in particular, means that no longer is slant the key self-definitional distinction in news

Surely the right wing American press would object to socialist Muslim dictator Obama meddling with news media.

you may find what you are looking for in this media/journalism forum on Slow TV. The blurb says:

In response to John Howard's recent lecture about the media and politics, some of Australia's leading political journalists and commentators come together to give their perspective on this relationship. Hosted by Michael Gawenda at the Centre for Advanced Journalism, the speakers (Alan Kohler, Leigh Sales, George Megalogenis and Paul Kelly) recap Howard's main comments and criticisms then respond in turn, turning the tables back on politicians and the way they use the media.

The remarks closest to your concerns are those of Paul Kelly, who speaks last.