What is Journalism?

October 27th, 2006

Fast-forwarding to the end of the conference, when something like a consensus view emerged, most of colloquium participants had either embraced, or appeared to be drifting, towards the conclusion that ”Who is a Journalist?” is really not the most useful or relevant question. The more useful question nearly always, we seemed to agree, is ”What is journalism?”

The latter question keeps attention focused on the usefulness of a text, as opposed to the credibility of a person. And that focus in itself seems a paragon of usefulness because, as we all know, people are famously fickle and ever-changing in their views.

More to the point, whether they are presidents or parents or friends, sometimes people are credible and sometimes they are not. Even Moms tell stretchers from time to time, though they’ll never tell you when they do.

Then again, people are basically unknowable — especially ones you haven’t met before, who make up 99.9% of the people who write for the world’s newest and already most popular publishing format for news, the Internet. So whom can you trust? Especially in a world where, thanks to the Internet, nearly anybody can be a journalist at any time, asking ”who is a journalist” sets the bar far too high above the limit of possible, practical knowing.

Whereas a simple journalistic text, for all its problems as a container of possibly social useful meaning, is much easier to assess. The facts are all there, the quotations are all there, the assertions are all there. Each of these can be placed under a microscope of close and sustained attention, plumbed for shades of meanings and associations,  compared to other texts, and above all tested by the reader against reality.

Seen in this way, from the standpoint of the possible social utility of a journalistic story, asking ”what is journalism” instead of ”who is a journalist” emerged as much the superior question to ask.

The colloquium participants offered many definitions of journalism over our three days together, but nearly all of them touched on the notion of writing for public distribution about public issues, with the intention to help or heal. Working from such a definition, determining whether a given text is journalism or not is quite straightforward: Is it about a public issue? Is it written for public distribution? Is the writer’s intention to help or heal?

Getting an answer to these questions, moreover, is no mere matter of purely philosophical or abstract import, because an answer in the affirmative means that a reader is holding a piece of writing that contains some possibly useful information or ideas for society which is, furthermore, worthy of some level of trust.

Exactly how much trust to accord to a given text is a second-level question, drawing in other considerations, that lead to a second-level answer: is a given text good journalism, or mediocre journalism, or bad?

Indeed it became clear to many of us, only a day or so into the three-day colloquium, that the question ”Who is a journalist?” was a question of  the highest abstract order, unlikely ever to yield much practical result. Because it is like asking, as some philosophers do, ”What is a coffee cup?” or ”What is an automobile?”

Well, who the heck knows? If you take the engine out of a car, is it still a car? Now take away the doors. Still a car? Now the windshield, bumpers, dashboard, seats, chassis and wheels. Have we still got a car here?

But at this point of course the absurdity of continuing such a line of questioning, at least from a practical standpoint, becomes clear. We could have spent three days peering around every corner in some Platonic heaven, looking for a ”pure” journalist in a trench coat and fedora.

But where would that get us, back here on earth?

Instead, we quickly saw the advantages of surfing to a web site, choosing an article, and asking: i’s this journalism?”

Why Do Journalists Sometimes Strut Like Experts?

October 27th, 2006

Has journalism come to the point that the equal rights of citizens are sometimes in conflict with the special privileges legally accorded to journalists?

The excellent presentation given by Erik Ugland and Jennifer Henderson made me consider the question. They made the point that the law addresses the question from at least three different standpoints — constitutional law, statutory law, and the quasi-legal realm of rules established to regulate access by journalists to people in power.

Many arguments over who is a journalist result from people arguing from different of these standpoints, without being clear or even conscious they are doing so.

The constitutional and statutory traditions are the essential ones from a long-term societal perspective and break down roughly as follows:

The constitutional perspective, embodied in practice by the U.S. Supreme Court, proceeds from basic ethical principles towards the establishment of certain guaranteed rights for all citizens.

The statutory perspective, carried out mainly by appellate and state courts, applies established laws as a basis for creating policies that confer special privileges on different groups or occupations (e.g., journalists).

A critical difference between the two perspectives is that the constitutional outlook is egalitarian, aimed at safeguarding the rights of all citizens, whereas the statutory perspective is aimed at safeguarding the privileges of certain groups based on their demonstrated degree of expertise.

Journalists are not licensed but statutory laws, varying by jurisdiction, often make a case for privileging journalists based on their demonstrated level of expertise.

What interests me is that last word, expertise.

A strong tradition in journalism scholarship identifies the exalted role of the expert in ”objective” journalism as a source of many modern journalistic ills. Especially, the estrangement of the reader from a journalism that appears to be interested only in the views of doctors, lawyers, high government officials, any ”expert,” or the author of a recently published book.

Usually, discussion of journalism’s ”expert” problem is limited to asking why journalists favor experts so heavily as sources for information, and how skewed and unequal a picture of society results.

But what interests me, after listening to Ugland and Henderson, is how the law labels journalists themselves as experts in a practice called journalism.

This suggests a kind of unresolved paradox at work. Journalism’s highest ideals are egalitarian, but somehow its practitioners are specially privileged. A journalist should show the world as it is, but the law tells him that he has an elevated position and view. He stands above the world in a special way.

Doctors face a similar paradox. They’ve got to understand their own ordinary physical selves well, in order to understand their patients well. A good journalist, like a good doctor, should compensate for his legally elevated social status by understanding his role as an ordinary citizen well. It’s really the only option he has, to stay rooted in the street-level citizen’s view. One might expand on this just a bit to say that a good journalist, like a good doctor, needs to keep in view his essential humanity, his complete vulnerability and ordinary nature as an individual human being.

But the evidence shows that journalists often lose this view. They posture on television, they pose in magazines like celebrities, they elbow for the best seats at press conferences, and they write puff pieces about powerful people in order to maintain access to them. The editor of the Washington Post brags that he does not vote, in order to maintain his special, neutral, privileged ”journalist” status.

The point is that journalists appear to confuse their constitutional and statutory roles, and especially to identify themselves personally with the high status that the latter confers on them as journalists, instead of the rights and obligations implied by the former.

The journalism profession is based on principles and rights, but journalistic practice reeks of infatuation with privilege. Journalists humbly talk equality, but arrogantly strut like experts.

Is Jon Stewart a Journalist?

October 27th, 2006

When Jon Stewart, the host of the comedy TV news program The Daily Show, calls the scary-looking newspaper columnist and TV pundit Robert Novak a "douche bag for liberty,” is Jon Stewart being a journalist?

It certainly doesn’t sound like he’s being objective, of course. But then again, doesn’t Stewart’s phrase also sound like it contains a grain of truth? More truth, even, than you might expect to encounter in an average mainstream TV news program on network or cable channels? What’s up with that?

Exactly when did sarcasm become the new sincerity?

Kris Bunton, a professor of journalism at the University of St. Thomas, told the colloquium that more than half the students in one of her recent undergraduate class raised their hands when she asked them ”How many of you think that Jon Stewart is a journalist?” That was her wake-up call to the true depth of a sea change in journalism, and public attitudes about journalism, that many of us have experienced recently.

Several of the colloquium participants reported that their ”aha moment” came via an academic research study conducted last summer by the University of Indiana, which compared the news content of The Daily Show to mainstream network and cable TV newscasts. The result: the Daily Show reported as much or more actual news as its journalistic counterparts.

The Daily Show is a great example of the usefulness of the ”what is journalism?” approach, as compared to asking ”who is a journalist?” Because asking whether Jon Stewart is a journalist is an invitation to engage in endless on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand answers that amount to measuring the distance between the guy we see on TV, and the pure journalist guy in Plato’s heaven.

In some ways Jon Stewart is like the journalist in Plato’s heaven, and in some he’s ways not.

In either case, though, who cares? Just as who cares what a car is, as long as it gets us to work in the morning? By contrast, as soon as you shift the question to asking "is this journalism?”, useful answers begin to appear.

The Daily Show a couple of months ago spent a solid seven minutes reporting on a speech delivered by Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, who chairs a Senate a committee with influential oversight over Internet matters. The speech went virtually unnoticed by network and cable TV news channels.

Yet the Daily Show highlighted the speech because it transpired, upon listening to the Senator, that he hadn’t a clue what the Internet is, or how it works. He used absurd metaphors, including ”the Internet is a series of tubes,” to blunder his way through a speech that amounted to posturing on behalf of special media business lobbyists who had obviously plied him recently.

The glaring gap between the Senator’s legislative power on Internet issues, and his actual knowledge of the Internet, seemed newsworthy to The Daily Show. Indeed, in any journalism newsroom, such a judgment, if the newsroom truly operated under the principle of serving public interests, would be entirely correct and uncontroversially so. It would be entirely in keeping with a definition of journalism as an activity that brings matters of important public interest to everyone in society.

Therefore, that The Daily Show highlighted the speech and the mainstream news did not, means that in this case (as in many others), The Daily Show was producing journalism and that mainstream news organizations were not.

From such a view, the fact that the truth of the matter was offered to the public in the form of parody, as opposed to the form of ”objective” journalism, matters not a whit. Obviously in this case a comedian delivered the truth, and the Platonic man-in-a-trenchcoat did not.

That many young people say Jon Stewart is a journalist is therefore deeply encouraging. That’s because those students obviously care more deeply about the truth than do about the form in which it’s delivered. They obviously know the truth when they see it. They’ve got eagle eyes for bullshit served on a silver platter, and also for truth that’s buried in the muck.

That they are scavenging the muck in droves is a bright omen. That the truth is so rare a commodity today that its appearance on a comedy show amounts to breaking news — a dog bites man oddity — is a dark one.

A Journalist Chats With a Professor

October 27th, 2006

John Pauly, dean of the Diederich College of Communications at Marquette Colleges, and I walked from our hotel to lunch one day down Nicollet Mall, straight past the bronze statue of Mary Tyler Moore.

But it wasn’t 70’s television we were remembering. Rather, we were bemoaning journalism’s almost childlike refusal, or maybe it’s more akin to an allergy, to theory and everything about theory.

Working journalists routinely denigrate two classes of people above all — public relations people and academics. The first group are ”flacks,” hired guns, propagandists, craven salary-workers who’ve sold their creative souls to the devil. That working journalists spend huge chunks of their working days reading press releases and pitch memos, attending press conferences and PR events, and working their public relations sources for  contacts and information — all of this decreases not a whit their condescending attitude toward denizens of the public relations world. Indeed it probably increases their disdain, as most journalists secretly feel guilty about relying so heavily on PR specialists for guidance and information. But here is the really interesting bit: PR in a general sense controls the media because PR operates using a conscious, sophisticated, and road-tested theory of the media and society, while journalism as a profession doesn’t, and individual journalists don’t.

This is where journalists’ knee-jerk disparagement of PR people, essentially an expression of their disdain for thinking theoretically, overlaps with academe. That journalists should disparage academics is at first blush surpassing odd, because they do such similar work, towards such a similar aim. Both journalists and academics to do research into the world in order to understand it. Both are motivated in essence by a burning curiosity about the world and its workings. Both want to objectively understand their object of study, which is the world.

And yet — is it genetic? learned? caused by sunspots? — a difference in their essential existential posture appears to ineluctably divide journalists from academics. And this difference has to do with the ultimate value that one camp gives to facts and physical things, and the ultimate value that the other accords to ideas and theories of explanation. One could state the difference this way: for a journalist, facts in themselves possess an inherent, transcendent worth. The one thing that is most desperately needed by all people, a journalist believes, are the simple facts. The damn difficulty of discovering those facts, to a journalist, is in itself a kind of proof of their ultimate worth, and a justification that all procedures and methods of research should serve the discovery and illumination of fact. A journalist sees himself as a heroic figure bringing streams of fresh, clean, purifying facts to the masses of people nearly parched to death by political and corporate propaganda and corruption.

To an academic, this all looks bass-ackwards. The explanation of a fact, and not the fact in itself, to an academic appears self-evidently to be the superior goal. Facts are important, the academic says, but what good are facts without explanations for why those facts have arisen, for how they are patterned, and for what pattern they might take next? A tiny percentage of working journalists, and a tiny percentage of academics to whom journalists have grudgingly accorded respect, have taken the point. The most prominent of the latter group is the late journalism professor, James Carey, who explored journalism’s antipathy to theory and explanation in his famous essay, ”The Dark Continent of American Journalism.” If journalism’s goal is to find out ”who, what, when, where, and how,” Carey said, the dark continent of the profession is the oft-ignored stepchild on the list, the one most times tentatively formulated as ”and, sometimes, ‘why.”’

This is far too limited a format to accommodate a thorough — dare I say rigorously objective? — consideration of the ”why” of the journalism-academe gap. But as a journalist for most of my adult life, I am perhaps qualified to offer a personal theory as to why journalists, almost genetically it seems, are inclined to value facts so highly. It is because at some time in their childhood they came to believe that the facts about life were being withheld from them, as candy or toys or parental affection might be withheld. And this withholding of fact, at this stage of life, instilled within them a burning desire, even a rage, to have those facts they desired. The essential immaturity, even delusion, that is part and parcel of this burning desire, in no way diminishes its power as a motivating force. For such a journalist, then, every act of journalism, in which previously-hidden facts are brought to light, is both a greedy personal devouring of a sweetness that’s been desired from a primordial time, and simultaneously an act of revenge against those who originally withheld that sweetness from a child.

So there is my theory covering the journalistic side. I couldn’t speak for academics. But I have a hunch that in some way, academics in their maturity are searching not for the sweetness itself that originally was withheld, but instead for an explanation as to the why it was withheld. Ideas, anyone?

ADD & Aspergers

October 27th, 2006

Maybe John had inadvertently given me an answer when, as we walked down Nicollet Mall, he offered his theory that every profession is in some way a mirror image of a physical or mental disease.

I had mentioned to him a remark once made by Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, that he saw himself presiding over a news staff of some 350 reporters who all suffered from advanced Attention Deficit Disorder.

Oddly, he said this in a confident and even proud tone, one that anticipated he would receive not the slightest disapprobation, but instead the good-natured agreement, of every colleague whom he had just labeled as mentally ill.

John’s response to this anecdote was that he’d long believed that academics often conducted themselves like high-functioning sufferers of Asperger’s Syndrome. That is, he said, they have a freakish talent for conducting prolonged, abstract discussions within themselves. They gravitated to professorships because the academy values the literary renderings of such inner conversations, if conducted at a high enough level.

As we walked down Nicollet Mall that misty, drizzly Minneapolis Monday morning, I suddenly saw in my mind’s eye that what was happening that very moment was that an ADD victim was having a jolly good time in conversation with an Asperger’s sufferer. And that in addition to having fun, we seemed to be learning from each other.

Hope for the world, I thought!

Healing Love

October 27th, 2006

If the profession-as-disease theory that John and I had developed is correct, both journalists and academics would appear to have ingeniously turned lemons into lemonade for themselves personally, by transforming personal failings into professional strengths. Each found for themselves a profession that rewards personal traits that in other realms of life would be handicaps.

The parallel goes even deeper. Probably both the lifelong search for redeeming facts about society by journalists, and the search for redeeming theories of society by those of an academic bent, arose to compensate for an original loss, and a painful feeling therefore of lack or rupture or rift, caused by a sweetness originally withheld. To heal that rift the journalist went outward into the world in search of facts, while academics went inward towards theories.

Possibly each of these searches is but a version of the same essential search, which is to finally replace the sweetness originally withheld. And, quite possibly, each version of the search is based on a similar misunderstanding, one might even say a delusion which is that both might believe his search is ultimate and superior to the other.

It may well be that if both the journalist and the academic were truly rigorous in their observations of themselves and the world, they would find that neither facts nor theories in any way resemble that original sweetness that they miss, and therefore can never heal the gap. Facts in themselves, after all, are nothing but dots on a graph, data points of a chaos. And theories are nothing but lascivious modes of distraction, a dawdling in Plato’s heaven while the specific, heavy, dreadful work of the world awaits below.

What is my guess as to the true nature of the original sweetness withheld?

Love, is my guess. I’d further suggest that journalism — to speak from my corner of the discussion — would get a lot better if journalists paused for a moment to consider love as an elixir of social healing, and its rightful place inside their narratives, as an ingredient mixed perhaps right into scene and character and plot and voice, as catalytic chemical primer that would bind all the elements of story into tales of news and drama that were at all at once compelling, trustworthy, and socially of use.

I do not refer to love in the gushy ”in love” Hollywood sense, but rather to love as a muscled, active principle, an intelligent coursing force that we all very naturally know. It is a love whose action upon life works like blood, or intention, or prayer, or the void of space, or the oxygen-bearing layer of atmosphere that thinly surrounds our earth.

It’s love as love has been defined by the greatest hearts of humanity in their wrestling with life — love as Plato’s ”eros” or Christ’s ”agape” or Buddha’s ‘’sympathetic joy.” It’s a love that’s both a fact and a theory and beyond both, the love that every one of us, no matter how mighty or privileged or blessed we are, or how occupied by pressing practical duties, must humbly acknowledge is the very root of existence and therefore is the deepest cause of those specific expressions we come to know as ”me,” and ”my accomplishments,” and ”my daily life.”

No matter the distance between such personal minutiae and the greatness (or perhaps it is the humility or even the voidness) of this love, we all know this is our job. We need to connect the dots between our smallness and this greatness from time to time, or else we become untethered, meaningless, anxiety-ridden, absurd. And at the local level, lacking love or meaning, we will also naturally become cruel, and our lives will be a suffering hell. Our academic papers will be nonsense and our journalism, crap.

So in this way we circle back to the practical need to understand the muscled, coursing, embracing, actual force of love for the sake of own lives and professions — in this case as academics in search of perfect theories, or journalists seeking perfect facts.

Thinking About Journalists as Teachers

October 27th, 2006

On the last day of the colloquium, I realized that I liked comparing the question ”Who is a journalist?” to ”Who is a teacher?”

Because what’s happening now in society is that technology is allowing the role of journalist to become more like that of a teacher, in the sense of anyone being able to do it.

Any mother or father can always be a teacher to their child, and don’t need a certificate from a teacher’s college to do so. Just so, a computer with an Internet connection means that virtually anyone can see something in the world, write it up, and within seconds report their findings to the whole world via the World Wide Web, email distribution lists, and other communication technologies.

We all know that the essence of teaching is not the accreditation but the activity itself, a process by which something known by one being is shared with another. I think that applies to the essence of journalism, too. Especially from the viewpoint of the citizen, the question ultimately is about the integrity of the process and the utility of the result.These can not essentially be measured by diplomas or degrees, but only by applying what is taught to the test of reality.

I heard someone say once that learning happens when a door is opened from the inside. If that is so, then teaching is some kind of a miraculous act in which a kind of whispering or telepathic conveyance through a closed door to the person within, causes that person to open an inner door. It is not just one door but many that open from the inside, and what they open to can amount to the whole world.

This is not so different a process from journalism. Teaching is a matter of one-one-one; and journalism of one-to-many. But teaching is the deeper, because the one-to-many model of journalistic teaching builds on the model of teaching from one-to-one. One could say perhaps journalism is a subset of larger activity of teaching, i.e., that all journalism is teaching, but not all teaching is journalism.

Journalism is a form of teaching in which someone, anyone, learns facts about the nature of present public life, which facts he or she then shares equally, by some means of mass distribution, amongst everyone in that public.

I like to think about journalism and teaching in this way, because I think journalism’s positive role in society could be strengthened if its self-image, and thereby its daily practice, was more explicitly and consciously tied to an understanding of its teaching role.

For example, just as one-on-one teaching is one of the most powerful forms of positive communication between human beings, so journalism could play such a role within all society. One-on-one teaching leads to increasing the potential for the fulfillment of personal potentials; so too could journalism exert a similar force within society. One-on-one teaching too can perform a kind of healing function, bringing previously disparate and even antagonistic parties into accord by allowing them to imaginatively expand the world of the other. Why not a similar role for journalism within society?

Along these lines, a great deal can be gained by reflecting that all true teaching is an experience not of a one-way flow of information from, say, the filled pitcher of the teacher’s mind into the empty mug of the student’s. Rather, to truly experience teaching is to dive into a kind of rushing flow in which all manner of content — not just raw data but impressions, sensations, sudden insights, feelings of blockage or ignorance and much else — is at all times coursing between the parties concerned.

From such a perspective, it is ridiculous even to denote one of the parties as "student" and the other as "teacher." Truer to the reality would be to say that something like a succession of moments were occurring that looked something like "teacher-student"–"student-teacher"–"teacher-student", and so on continuously, almost like alternative current running through electrical wire.

At this basic metaphysical level, teaching creates a whole and completed circuit of energy and life. It’s a profoundly wholesome and positive thing. To feel and flow with the energy of this circuit is allow one’s being, or perhaps one might say the partnership of teacher-student, or whoever is in the circuit, to express or carry the essential life force that constantly circles through every part of creation.

Insofar as this process enables a smooth, continuous, and enriched relationship between selves that previously were distant from each other and therefore possibly clashing, the process of teaching is a process of healing.

In a similar way, if journalism saw itself as a form of teaching that healed an otherwise dangerous gap between groups and individuals, to this degree it could support wide-scale social healing.

Thinking About Language as Spiritual Food

October 27th, 2006

I have often encouraged journalists to think more directly, deeply, systematically, and from various angles about the many modes of action and effects of their chosen medium of expression — language.

Journalists use many of these modes, but very often without a conscious understanding that they are doing so. As a result, they often aren’t aware of the full range of impact their language is actually having on the people who read, watch, and listen to their stories.

Every piece of journalism, for example, attempts to persuade readers of beliefs and premises at deeper level than the explicit content of the article. Even writers who take pains to keep personal opinions and bias out of their articles still must persuade readers of the accuracy, authenticity, and authority of their reporting. And, they have to persuade readers that their writing springs from a moral standpoint and a world view that is basically compatible with theirs.

This invites a study of reportorial journalism, not only opinion journalism, as rhetoric. The use of poetic techniques and tropes in journalistic writing, even sometimes in straight news reporting, similarly invites a deeper study of journalism as poetry; and journalistic narrative techniques invites a study of journalism as non-fiction literature; and so on.

My brief here is to suggest that journalists and scholars of journalism urgently need to open themselves to a branch of language ethics that to the best of my knowledge remains virgin territory as regards its application to journalism and the media.

That is the study of language as an ethical force in itself, as a bearer of a positive or negative moral charge that transcends any specific language message, and which plays a key role in the development of individual human personality, character, destiny, or even, one might say, of soul.

Plato essentially began this line of inquiry in the Western tradition, and many religious, spiritual and moral figures ranging from Jesus, Buddha, Lao-Tse, Confucius, St. Augustine, Kabir, Hafiz, Kant, Kierkegaard, and Jaspers have carried it through to the present day.

What is odd is that over the past 200 years the mass media has exploded, vastly deepening the amount and types of impact that it has on individuals and societies. As almost never before in history, a thorough accounting of languages as a means of moral action is needed. Who is doing it?

No longer does language approach us primarily through the spoken language of those people we directly know, plus books and newspapers and television and radio. Now language comes at us in a raging cataract through the Internet, emails, advertising, podcasts, PDAs, wide TV screens hanging in elevators and waiting rooms and restaurants, and seemingly infinite other ways. Increasingly — because it could be no other way — the thoughts and ideas and feelings conveyed through all these omnipresent electronic means become our own personal thoughts and ideas and feelings.

But what is the overall effect of this upon our selves? Our communities? This is very much an extension of the original Socratic, Christian, and Buddhist questions about the moral impact of spoken and written language upon the individual soul and upon society. Again, where is the debate?

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates questions the widespread development of writing, because writing, he argued, would surely weaken the human faculty of memory and therefore harm individual moral character and weaken social bonds. Buddha’s doctrine of Right Speech posits that using language in a moral manner is the first and most important link between the wholesome moral intentions that arise in spiritual meditation, and the positive actions that can lessen suffering in the world.

Conditions in the early 21st century cry out for the application and updating of these moral theories to mass communication practices, chief among them journalism, the one branch of the mass media dedicated to civic aims.

A journalist might object that journalism after all is only a slice, and a tiny slice at that, of the overall mass media that is generating such torrents of language upon individuals and the public, to such as-yet-unknown effects. That is certainly true. Newspapers, radio and television news programs, and news magazines today are increasingly mere dits and dots in the organization charts of giant multinational conglomerates that generate profits mainly from movies, pop music, advertising, merchandising, and the cross-marketing of their entertainment and communication services. 

And yet the small size of journalistic organizations within these behemoths is itself an argument for its moral and symbolic importance, as a civic practice serving, at least theoretically, public as opposed to private commercial aims. This charter should theoretically allow journalists, above all workers in today’s media communication fields, to do the deep kind of thinking about language that I am here proposing. And then, experimentally at first perhaps, to begin to apply the conclusions reached from such considerations, to the actual practice of gathering, writing, and publishing the news.

From at least one other angle, besides the unquestioned impact of mass communication on government and civic society and individuals today, it’s truly a mystery why language’s moral essence has never been systematically studied in application to journalism. Because there is such abundant evidence in our daily individual lives of a yawning gap between what we claim we believe are the importance and effects of language upon us, versus the objectively observable effects.

Possibly because language is an ephemeral medium as compared with, say, a hunk of metal or a clump of clay, we tend to discount the impact of language on self and community. ”Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” we intone as we launch into yet another vicious public debate that leaves all parties more hurt and angry than ever before. We say that such an outcome, and the acute discomfort of such exchanges, is the price we pay for democracy.

It is high time to make a clear-eyed accounting of what exactly we are accepting as the price of our democracy, when we make such a claim. And we need to examine the logic of our defense of free speech of this type, too. Can we really achieve a more perfect union, through the use of language that bitterly and permanently divides? Where does our journalism and our mass media, in terms of tone as well as message, fit into this calculation? Are our means and ends well in accord here?

The daily language that we commonly use to describe the mass media and our use of it, shows that at some level we understand the basic moral relationship of self and society to language, and the very high stakes involved. Generally this language revolves around the metaphor of food.

We speak about ourselves as media ”consumers” who ”ingest” a ”daily diet” of news and entertainment. We face a ”menu” of media choices, ranging perhaps from ”dry” or ”lean” or ”unpalatable” programs at one end, to ”meaty” or ”yummy” or ”rich” programs at the other. Reading gossip magazines is a ”guilty pleasure” like eating ice cream, while watching public affairs programs like The Lehrer News Hour or the BBC news is a matter of civic duty, like ”eating one’s spinach.”

A small amount of reflection on the media-as-food metaphor leads to a terrifically deep mystery, one that is really central to this issue yet one that humanity’s greatest thinkers have yet to plumb.

One could pose the question his way: If a steak and potatoes dinner nourishes the physical body, what kind of ”body invisible” does language feed and enrich, or poison and deplete?

The number of human beings who have ever lived who could credibly claim to answer this question probably is in the few dozens, or even less. One can, of course, look to the explanations of these few, such as the recorded words of Jesus or Buddha. But the problem arises that such explanations of the body invisible always include the caveat that describing the body invisible transcends language itself.

The body invisible, say the great sages, can be known only through direct and personal experience.

”Lift a rock and I am there, split a piece of wood and I am there,” says Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas. This is one way that he describes not only his, but the common human body invisible. This is our inner body that for all its complexity is proportioned roughly the same for us all, just as each of us as individuals has a head, a torso, four limbs and interior organs that we call our  ”physical” selves.

But we can never map the body invisible with the same amount of detail as we can the human physical body. Because the body invisible, by definition, cannot be seen. Not only when we look outside at the world do we see as through a glass darkly, but even more so, when we look within.

Charts showing ”chakras” and ”meridians” and ”auras,” the best ones anyway, are perhaps are not as bogus as their detractors say. But even these maps of the body invisible, according to the sages, don’t divulge the deepest understanding. Because the body invisible is essentially one of infinite change, like a confluence of rivers of feeling, thinking, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching that are endlessly surging and mixing and then emptying finally into a infinite ocean.

At the most ultimate level, the sages say, beyond even these rivers of thought and feeling and perception and sensation that we mistakenly take to be ”us,” lies a formless unconditioned void that contains all energy and all forms. Any chart or map is a mere cartoon compared to this.

”Within the fathom-long body, the entire universe may be known,” the Buddha said. We need to begin to understand this statement, and similar ones made by the sages of other traditions, before we can begin to understand the the practical and moral impacts of language on the human soul.

We live usually in a practical, not metaphysical, realm. How does one create a social program that offers guidelines for using language in the media in a way that enriches the body invisible?

To do so successfully is probably not as impossible as it sounds. After all, humanity has advanced a lot in understanding how the physical human body is either nourished or poisoned, and by what types of foods or toxins, and how those foods or toxins pass through various physical and energy states inside the physical human body. All of these are all quite precisely known and even visualized.

We need to begin to understand the body invisible, as much as we have the physical body.

Practical aid can be devised and implemented, even as the ultimate realities remain well beyond our grasp (for most of us, anyway). Understanding the role of language, especially the use and broadcasting of language to masses of people — thereby either nourishing or poisoning the body invisible of those individuals and their masses as may be — is an especially urgent task.

We need to get started.

A Plea to the White House Press Corps

October 27th, 2006

All of you journalists who are reading me for the first time and feeling the sap of anger rise (I know from emails that some of you feel that way), please hold your fire. At least for a little bit. Hear me out.

I sound to some of you, I know, like a sanctimonious jerk who’s ignoring all the great journalism that’s being done today, and the courageous journalists who are doing this work day after day, including at places like The New York Times (my alma mater) and other mainstream news citadels.

I acknowledge all of this great journalism. I deeply bow to it and I try to follow it — and the courageous journalists who make it — as personal and professional models. Here’s all I am saying: the overall system of journalism today, including not only (or primarily) newspapers but all mainstream TV and radio and print news media, is basically busted and, in a critical way, corrupt.

So much of our journalism is corrupt because it’s forgotten its essential social purpose and mission, and now usually serves primarily commercial instead of civic aims. And this corrupted journalism, which is most deeply rotten perhaps in television but is by no means limited to that medium, is itself making our country toxic and is leading our country to unimaginable disaster.

If you disagree with this diagnosis, I sincerely ask you to explain to me why almost all the hallowed and supposedly autonomous institutions of journalism — especially our best newspapers where many distinguished journalists ply their tough and honorable trade — cheered and basically held the petticoats of our mendacious leaders as they marched us into the new Vietnam that is Iraq?

And how does it happen that in recent weeks  — during which time it has become abundantly clear that Iraq is engulfed in a bloody civil war and that the U.S. government leaders who are prosecuting this war are reckless and petty and incompetent — how does it happen that the new press spokesman for this same government is having one after another fawning feature profile published about him by the White House correspondents of our nation’s great newspapers?

Are you, my friends in the White House press corps, really going to argue that these weightless, starstruck, fawning profiles of Tony Snow are not essentially early bids by White House correspondents to gain favor and access with him, and through him to his boss? Are you really going to maintain that these pieces were written to expose the honest truth as their writers knew the truth, and not primarily to advance the personal careers of those writers by keeping themselves and their employers close to power?

Isn’t the time to end these games? Come on, my friends, I’m all for using BS when we absolutely need to. But please let’s not BS ourselves and each other. Let’s just not do that.

If our president and his henchmen aren’t going to be grownups who face their own selves honestly and act for the public good at whatever the personal cost, let’s at least do so ourselves. Let’s at least try. Let’s try for the sake of our profession, our country, our souls, and for the lives of those we love.

What do we have to lose?

If we win at our personal career and competitive games but we lose the overall war — which is not to gain "victory in Iraq" but to win back our lost friends in the world and to make some headway against a range of economic, environmental, health, and global terrorist threats — what have we won?

If we think about it for a minute, we might ask what it really means that we base the stories we write, and how we write them, on personal career calculations when we write about government power.

When we do that aren’t we selling out our country, which needs us tell the truth?

If we delay telling the truth now in exchange for access which, we might rationalize, will give us the chance to tell even greater truths tomorrow, aren’t we basically selling out our country that desperately needs us to tell the truth right now? Our country needs the truth right now, because we are at war.

We can tell ourselves that the closer we are to the President of the United States, the better we’ll be able to tell the truth of what happens inside his charmed, or damned, oval. But that’s a mug’s game and we know it. And the President knows it and uses it, and so do any number of powerful figures who use access like the stuffed rabbit at the dog races. We all know the dog never catches the rabbit.

So why should we chase it?

Or, we might simply consider the means-and-ends ethics involved in game. The idea that might tempt us is that by retailing untruths and deceptions, such as in puff piece that will gain us access to power, that in this way we’ll ultimately reach the truth. But what makes us think this strategy would really work? When was the last time that being obsequious and disingenuous and fawning won us any respect, or anything of lasting worth?

Or, we could just do some math. Let’s say that on some magic day, say in six months or a year, that the magic day comes and we get our absolute access to power’s inner sanctum, and we score a great professional coup. By that time, the way things are going in Iraq, there could be another few tens of thousands of deaths of Iraqis and Americans, and countless more maimings.

On what grounds can we morally wait before publishing the full truth? 

Let’s imagine that one day we decided just to tell the truth, and we got kicked out of the White House press corps (or name your inner sanctum of power). Tony Snow wouldn’t be our best friend any more. We might even get busted back to the metro desk or the obit desk on our own paper.

Well, who knows, in some way that move in itself could actually make our careers. I’ll bet it’s what we’d want carved on our tombstones, when all is said and done. And from that day onwards, we could base our journalism on reporting and writing the truth, and let the cards fall where they may.

Stephen Crane once upon a time did that. So did Ida Wells, Hutchins Hapgood, Jacob Riis, Nellie Bly, and Lincoln Steffens; and Robert Capa and W. Eugene Smith and James Nachtwey; and David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan and Jessica Mitford and Rachel Carson; and Gao Yu and Christine Anyanwu and Anna Politkovsakaya; and so many others.

Right in our White House press room seats, or wherever we happen to sit as journalists, why don’t we muster the guts of an Anna Politkovsakaya? Write the truth and let the chips fall where they may.

What have we got to lose?

Journalism, the Individual Conscience, and Social Aims

October 5th, 2006

Everybody knows something is broken with the news media today, but few can pinpoint the essential flaw. To remark in virtually any social setting about infotainment, information overload, or the failure of even first-rate journalism to engage our civic or political life, is inevitably to induce a round of hearty affirmations, followed by one or two conjectures meekly offered as to the reasons why. Within a short time, an awkward silence falls and baffled shrugs and head shakes end the talk.

Along these lines, a little while ago I taught a graduate-level class called ”The Role of the Media in Public Affairs,” at a prominent Minnesota university. On a couple of occasions, after giving lectures from a journalist’s point of view on the challenges of public affairs reporting, many adult students took my remarks as a cue to vent their longstanding gripes not only against the media but against everything they saw as wrong in today’s politico-media system, including presidential mendacity, the lazy electorate, liberal media bias, conservative media bias, rigged electoral systems, how special interests have  hijacked government, and plenty else. In other words, the news media is now regarded and actively used as an all-purpose whipping boy for every manner of civic complaint. But why? Granted, journalism has messed up a lot in recent years. But one could easily argue that a great many other public institutions — e.g., our education system, the civil service, or any of the three branches of the federal government — have failed equally badly.

An unusually deep and poignant sense of betrayal, I think, is why the news media comes under such bitter attack. There is something singularly honorable, necessary, and even, many societies historically have proclaimed, sacred inherent in the role of messenger, the ”in-between” role of the person who promises to faithfully render in words and images exactly what he has experienced and seen. The role of the messenger is simply not to be trifled with as, for at least that brief period when the messenger alone bears the message, he carries with him the full weight and grandeur and responsibility of the sovereign. For this brief period of time, the journalist indeed is the sovereign incarnate, a symbol for all of society, carrying its deepest secrets, its most vital memories and plans.

For a journalist to inject into that precious message any kind of bias — taint of personal ambition, grudge, ideology or special interest — is thus to thoroughly betray not just himself or his institution but the sovereign, the entire state and every person within it. ”Don’t kill the messenger,” goes the journalist’s eternal plaint. But it is entirely understandable why a citizen would want to kill a journalist reckless enough to pollute, even unintentionally through lack of skill not evil purpose, the chalice carrying the clear water of truth that a public needs in constant replenishment.

We are now well entered into the realm of ethics, and the conjecture that comes closest to explaining the news media’s failure to fruitfully engage society is an ethical one. Reporters, editors, and publishers, this theory goes, have failed to honor journalism’s ethical responsibility to serve the public, as opposed to special interests, including its own. In the newsroom, reporters and editors are said to have failed to meet the rigorous requirements of ”objectivity,” the reigning journalistic ethical code of the past century. Publishers of news media, likewise, are said to have abandoned their old commitment to offering news as a public service, increasingly choosing instead to transform their news networks into global digital aqueducts delivering lucrative celebrity interviews, trend mongering, divisive punditry, and lust-gland stimulating ”lifestyle” features and consumer guides. 

It would be hard to disagree with this analysis, as far as it goes. No doubt, reporters frequently use the objective ”he said, she said” template to concoct narratives of conflict that grossly distort the truth of complex issues. No doubt, the objective ”actuality” of articles is often used as a shield against just and rightful claims of the unbalance, bias, and outright malice of certain journalists and their publishers. And the list could go on. No one disputes at this point how egregiously misused and abused the ideal of ”objectivity” is.

And yet to stay fixated on the contradictions and faults of journalism’s objective code, is to avoid taking a crucial step beyond, which is to note how the entirety of that code, both in its general approach and its particulars, fails to address society’s long-term and universal, as opposed to short-term and local, needs from journalism. Journalism’s ethical code as it’s developed over the past century is a pragmatic system oriented towards preventing and resolving local and short-term disputes between the press and the public over such matters as personal and professional reputation, privacy issues, and the legal rights of sources versus those of reporters and their employers.

Despite the many problems with objectivity that have arisen in recent years, it is relatively rarely noted that on the whole, it has proved a very durable and practicable system for solving disputes between the media and the public in local and short-term settings. In the past hundred years, only a tiny handful of court cases have been successfully prosecuted against newspapers on freedom of speech, privacy, and other rights issues pitting citizen against journalist. And on the whole, citizen complaints against the media have not centered around public displeasure with the outcome of this handful of cases. To the contrary, the public has been accepting or strongly approving of outcomes that have affirmed the rights of the press in such landmark press cases as Near vs. Minnesota, the New York Times vs. Sullivan, and New York Times vs. The United States.

What is happening today is a chorus of complaints not about how well or poorly journalism is addressing local and short-term matters between itself and its public, but its universal and long-term responsibilities to society as a whole. It is not that the ”objective” ethical code is not being adequately followed that explains why the news media today shifts so confusingly from blatant conservative punditry to pointed liberal counter-attacks, to brief items about bombings in Iraq, to long tabloid exposes on celebrity pedophiles or husbands mysteriously gone missing. It is, rather, that there is nothing in the objective ethical code that really addresses how journalism should even approach such issues. Because the larger, universal and moral questions of what to report — as opposed to the local, procedural, and short-term questions of how to report — are just not addressed in journalism’s present ethical code. Objectivity, as such authors as Robert Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel have pointed out, is a matter of method and not of aim.  It tells a reporter how to go about his business in order to be fair, yes, but also, not coincidentally, in such a way as to avoid complaints and lawsuits.

Journalism’s ethical code is silent on the question of ultimate aim. On journalism’s role and purpose in society, it is silent. But what journalism’s ultimate role in society should be, is precisely what citizens today are crying out for journalists to forthrightly and explicitly state. Why don’t we?

In one critical sense, journalism ”ethics” has been a misnomer as it has been discussed and practiced over the past century. Because ethics is about finding ways to act morally among one’s fellow humans, i.e., to do good or at least to avoid doing harm. But journalism’s ethical code is addressed not towards shaping individual moral behaviors, but rather practical professional ones. If it is really an ethics it is a truly strange and anomalous one among all human ethical systems. Because nowhere in journalism’s ethical tenets does one find language devoted to exploring or instructing on such matters as ”What is good?”, ”What is moral?”, ”What defines positive moral action?”, and ”How are individual and collective good to be reconciled?”

That today’s global news media system is entirely absent such a foundational and grounding moral framework, has got to be counted among the greatest gaps in human development and the most urgent needs of mankind. One could put it this way, that the news media today has an ethics (of a kind) to follow, but no true morals informing that ethical guide to behavior. There is no direction or tradition of right action versus wrong action, in which journalism’s ethics are planted, and from which individual actions organically grow. True, reporters and editors do their work believing in various theoretical axioms that connect their daily work to the larger public good. They believe, for example, that an informed public is necessary in a democracy. They believe that their job is to inform the public, and that once a public is informed they will automatically use that information to pressure politics and governments in order to produce the best possible public policy.

But these assumptions are faulty on two grounds. First, it’s easy to prove that although these axioms may ardently be believed by working journalists, they are utterly unverified in reality. There is no evidence, for example, that a majority of the public is well-informed on even the most rudimentary of vital public issues of this day or any other day, whether these issues be economic, social, cultural, military, educational, or any other. To the contrary, most of the public is ignorant on the key points of all these major issues, all the time. Even when a portion of the public becomes well-informed on a specific public issue it is equally easy to prove that taking the next step — that is engaging well-informed positions meaningfully so as to influence policy-making — is by no means automatic, straightforward, or easy. To the contrary, many citizens deeply inform themselves fully on matters such as the war in Iraq, yet have no idea how to take the next step towards influencing policy on the war. Even once they are so motivated, the path to true engagement is littered with obstacles ranging from the lack of civic groups providing a practical route for engagement, to the presence of well-funded lobby groups dedicated to fighting citizen action.

There is a second, even more serious fault in journalism’s working theory about how individual journalist’s work connects to the wider public good. Namely, it does not instruct or advise journalists at the level of individual conscience, i.e. the individual’s inherent or learned sense of right and wrong. In this sense, it can be said that journalistic ethics do not even assume that individual journalists have a conscience. Groundbreaking research and philosophical work by the journalism scholars James Glaser and Theodore Ettema has laid this out in clear terms, based on extensive interviews with prizewinning investigative journalists at newspapers. What they found was that time after time, whether exposing scandals in prison systems or public schools, in city halls or state legislatures, journalists felt deeply constrained at the amount of leeway they had to exercise their individual moral conscience at virtually any stage in the journalistic process, from choosing what story to write, to reporting the story, to the form in which they wrote it. At each of these stages they felt they had to subordinate the use of individual conscience to such forces as newsroom traditions, “objective” ethics, the whims of editors, and, above all, the law. No matter what they discovered was happening out there in the world, these top investigative reporters said, they were hamstrung from reporting it and getting it published unless they could prove to their editors that there somewhere there was a law or written regulation that prohibited or censured such activity. One reporter, writing about prison rape, had an especially hard time not only getting her story into print but getting the time she needed to research the story. That was because her editors thought that the poor track record at prosecuting this crime proved society’s basic disinterest in the problem, and thus laid a weak foundation for investigative journalism. Therefore they were reluctant to spend any reporting time, much less printed space, on the topic.

How many of the horrible, evil, destructive things that are happening in the world today are, strictly speaking, not illegal? What good is a journalism that cannot step up to expose such evils fearlessly and utterly, with the full force behind them not only of an individual courageous journalist, but also of a journalistic tradition that grounds, supports and guides the use of the individual human conscience? Think of all the courageous citizens in this world who put their lives on the line every day on the basis of their individual conscience because the law — such an ass — has not yet caught up to such urgent matters as banning land mines, genocide, polluting rivers, honor killings, genital mutilation, female infanticide, or racist policies. Is journalism forever going to be as limited as the law in fighting these evils?

What good can journalism really do in the world, if journalists feel constrained by the very ethics of their craft, to restrain the use of their individual conscience? How can we reasonably expect journalists to act and to write their stories using their strong, positive, active conscience to distinguish right from wrong, when there is nothing in journalism’s tradition of practice or system of ethics that remotely addresses the human conscience and its positive moral use? Under the circumstances, isn’t it reasonable to speculate that in the absence of such guidelines to the use of conscience in journalism, that the news media is inevitably doomed to do harm in the world? If not through actual evil intent (although there would fully be room for that), then simply by unskilled action, a kind of reckless use of words in printed and verbal form that would harm, say as a person untrained in maintaining a proper diet could die from eating only ice cream?