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A public policy blog from AEI
Is American journalism collapsing before our eyes, as one recent, widely-discussed article argues? If so, it’s alarming proposition, not only for journalism of course but also the American public which traditionally has depended on journalists to provide the news, facts, and analysis that allows citizens to make reasonably-informed judgments about the state of their country’s affairs.
With this as background, veteran journalist Christopher Caldwell examines the critical role journalism plays in our democracy in greater depth, in a specially designated chapter in AEI’s new volume, “The Professions and Civic Life.”
Journalism naturally has an intimate relationship to citizenship: It exists to help citizens understand the society around them well enough to act responsibly in it, Caldwell argues. Journalism is thus about more than politics, just as politics is only a limited part of life. “But the virtues and purposes of journalism are indeed most visible when the subject is politics. The more imperiled ordinary politics is, the more important the role of the journalist become.” When well practiced, Caldwell demonstrates, even in free countries and in prosperous times, journalism requires the two great virtues of the citizen: honesty and courage.
“The basic problem that brings mass journalism into being is that political democracy and technological complexity mix poorly.”
But, there are threats to understanding and practicing journalism in this way, which are further complicated by the fact that, although our world grows more networked and complicated, we claim to want our political life to be more democratic and answerable to the public.
“The basic problem that brings mass journalism into being is that political democracy and technological complexity mix poorly.” The rise of mass journalism especially in the wake of the internet has sped up the transition from journalism being thought of as instruction by its practitioners as instruction rather than reporting; edification of the masses rather than veracity. Instead of making the news more democratic, this tendency plays into the hands of organized money and organized politics:
It sounds romantic to describe journalists as critics of entrenched power. But if the power has been entrenched legitimately and democratically, then destabilizing it may be a danger to freedom. The alternative to legitimate power may not be “transparency,” as journalists are fond of claiming, but illegitimate power. This argument has been made implicitly by the Obama administration’s Department of Justice. Since praise for the press’s “watch dog” role has been seen as a progressive disposition, the Obama administration’s draconian reaction to it has been surprising. Obama officials have shown zero tolerance for leaks, and have dismissed the idea that a journalist has a special duty to his readership—the citizenry—that would release him from the duty of obedience to authority. They have done so with less equivocation than any administration since the 1950s. These days, a good journalist is a patriotic journalist, narrowly understood as a journalist who supports the current government.
But maybe this is a natural evolution. The close association of journalists with political power, even for the purpose of keeping politicians “honest,” gives politicians and the press certain interests in common. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has been sharpeyed in noting this overlap of interests. “Objectivity and the adversarial style,” Rosen writes, “are really features of the same environment, a selfaggrandizing professional culture that attaches the journalist to politics in order to make possible the peculiar act of detachment that identifies the press to itself.”
Caldwell rounds out his assessment of journalism’s relationship with citizenship by commenting that what remains of the relationship after the information revolution will give us some idea of what American politics is going to look like in the future — how democratic and cultured it will be, and how likely to enhance (or demean) our public life.
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