China and its Discontents

Public Journalism vs. Ideologically-Committed Journalism

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Installment #2 of the journalism class blog posts.

You could not have a more bigger shift in tone between “The Idea of Public Journalism” and “The Death and Life of American Journalism.” I guess that’s what happened in the intervening ten years between the two books’ publication dates. Compared to the more optimistic takes on journalism’s future in “Public Journalism,” McChesney and Nichols paint a dire situation. Not only are the newspapers failing, but nothing will ever replace it absent state intervention (we’ll address that next week). The alternative is bleak, where PR firms dictate the content of every media outlet (one almost senses they would go even further to say PR firms will start dictating what we think, too). The corporations, the rich, and the status quo win.

Here’s the problem I have this argument: the authors blatantly argue for a press that supports their political preferences, without stopping to think of alternative rhetoric they could use. Wanting more partisan coverage is not necessarily bad. I, as a Democrat, would certainly like journalists to more positively cover Democrats and their policy preferences. But I know that that is an unrealistic expectation and probably not in the best interests of the country as a whole. Even if I think those policy preferences would be in the common good, I do not think we should design a press establishment that is biased in that way.

McChesney and Nichols, despite their protestations to the contrary, romanticize some standard of journalism that never actually existed. They hark back to the Framers of the Constitution to justify a “take-no-prisoners, speak-truth-to-power journalism that has as its end not a recreation of the old order of empowered elites and cowering masses but a new order in which the will of an informed and emboldened people shall be the law of the land.” (XXViii) Further, they want a press “that regard[s] the state secret as an assault to popular governance…” (2) Finally, they claim, “The business of a newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” (8)

This is all a bunch of hogwash. This type of journalism, despite their claims to the contrary, has never existed, nor can it ever exist. Journalism has always been status quo, and nominally pro-government. I also don’t see how the United States could function without a commitment to political and religious pluralism. The truth is, the kinds of changes the authors want to see in American journalism are highly partisan. A large portion of the electorate does not have the same social justice sensibilities as the authors.

Any time anyone has attempted to create this sort of ideologically-committed journalism, it has descended into something that is not journalism: Fox News, most cable opinion shows, Media Matters, etc. These outlets may be socially useful–but they are definitely not journalistic outlets.

What kind of rhetoric could they use instead? I was a big fan of many of the articles from “Public Journalism.” In many of those articles, the authors referred to “convening communities” and “problem-solving.” This is the right way forward. It avoids the partisanship of “The Death and Life of American Journalism,” while still acknowledging failures in and proposing solutions to currently-practiced journalism.

Written by Will

April 1st, 2012 at 6:11 pm