Journalism today – the best of times, the worst of times

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You might say, paraphrasing Dickens, it is the best of times and it is the worst of times.

Freedom of expression, the freedom to speak your mind and let your voice be heard is one of the great goods in the firmament of good things available to the human race. We have never had greater potential to enjoy this freedom – airwaves open, the facility which social media platforms gives us. There is nothing stopping anyone who wants to put his or her thoughts out there for public consumption if they have the flare and inclination to do so. Well, almost nothing.

And yet, something terrible has gone wrong. Abuse of that most precious of treasures given to mankind, truth itself, is one thing. But the abuse of each other through that freedom is even worse. We are doing untold damage to the very fabric of culture and our civilization. Citizen journalism liberates us. It also can and does enslave us to our own viciousness.

Journalism is a rather inexact term. Looked at in its simplest historical manifestation, it is a service to society, a very necessary one. Try this definition: it is a service providing a daily report to a population on events of interest, and/or consequence, going on around them, but about which, without that reporting, they would know little or nothing.

Under that umbrella a huge variety of activity goes on. Controversy or some other elemental thing – humour, love, anger – has to be in the daily mix which draws us to read, listen to or watch news and commentary on news. There is nothing wrong with that. Probably the first news story ever printed was objected to by someone somewhere. Isn’t one of the definitions of news “that which somebody, somewhere, wants to suppress”? These elemental things are part of the life-blood of journalism.

Broadly there are two divisions. There is straight news reporting of the facts and there is commentary on those facts and their supposed implications.

All of this activity, until recently, was subject to what we knew as editorial scrutiny. Such scrutiny followed principles and there were standards which justice demanded and charity suggested, and which society generally expected.

From the very start, the provision of this service, like many others offered to society, operated in a marketplace and market forces influenced the form and content in response to the cultural character and interests of targeted readerships. That’s how we got the broadsheets, the tabloids, or as some would say, the “quality” press and the “gutter” press. For the most part, the partnership worked well.

But that model now looks shattered. It is almost as though the French Revolution has eventually upturned the fourth estate as it had done to the first, second and third estates in 1789. The hegemony of what we call “legacy” media is now a diminished thing. The media marketplace is in turmoil and a kind of anarchy is now let loose upon the world in the shape of the internet and the wild untamed flood of information, misinformation, and unrestrained personal abuse it has unleashed. The instruments for communication now at our disposal are fast becoming weapons of destruction. Watch a few episodes of Charlie Brooker’s  Black Mirror and you will at the very least feel a little uneasy.

But that is not our only problem. Even if we managed to use well the freedom which our advanced technology gives us, we still have another issue to face. What else has happened that is threatening our well-being? It is that the service journalism should be offering us has collapsed into partisan politics. How and why did this happen?

American commentator and academic, Victor Davis Hanson, in an American context, says:

There still exists a physical media in the sense of airing current events. But it is not journalism as we once understood the disinterested reporting of the news. Journalism is now dead. The media lives on.

Reporters today believe that their coverage serves higher agendas of social justice, identity politics, “equality” and diversity. To the degree a news account is expanded or ignored, praised or blasted, depends on its supposed utility to the effort to fundamentally transform the country into something unlike its founding.

To some degree what has happened, and what is corrosive, is that the polarisation which is making our political life so worrying, is also doing the same for our journalism. In a Marxist sense everything has now become political. Everything is filtered through a political spectrum and must be seen to be correct by the only measure for correctness which is acceptable, political correctness. It is a new totalitarianism.

Actors are no longer artists, they are politicians. Celebrities are no longer happy to be celebrated for what they do. They are campaigners in some political cause. Business corporations don’t just do business anymore. They legitimately make their voices heard in economic matters but that is not enough, they insist on exercising real power in determining social policies. Academia is now, for the most part, irredeemably Marxist in its thinking. Journalism is mired in the same ideology. All this is a gross abuse of power and influence. There is no important issue in the politics of our time about which big money and big egos will not now weigh in with their considerable power to have their say – and in many cases subvert the democratically expressed will of the people. They do this openly and shamelessly as though it were their right. Who knows what they do behind closed doors? Journalists, equally shamelessly, collude with all this.

These are all elites with power, unelected, but using that power to effect social change regardless of the will of the people. This is profoundly and worryingly undemocratic. Those outside these Gnostic elites are the new plebs, now being denigrated as populists, the enemies of progress. Elitists view the “ordinary” people as, well, Hilary Clinton said it all, “deplorables”. Ordinary people do not know, cannot know of themselves, what is good for them, what is right or what is wrong. They need to be looked after by those who really know what true progress is.

The fears of these elites are like the fears of the patricians of ancient Rome in the face of the demands of the plebeians, or the Gnostics of the early Christian era for whom simple faith was not sufficient; their special exclusive knowledge was necessary for salvation. The fears of these elites are like the fears of those who opposed universal male franchise in the 19th century, or those who opposed the vote for women in the early twentieth. Now we have them again. Each age seems to have to deal with this virus.

Journalists and journalism should stand apart from these elites, critiquing their rationale – or lack of rationale, for that lack is at the heart of the problem. Roland Barthes, in a different context, wrote of the dangers of received wisdom being accepted uncritically and being built into the foundations of our culture and our civilization: “If we collect all such knowledge, all such vulgarisms, we create a monster, and this monster is ideology.”

Series three of Stranger Things premiers this month. It is a fable which may have more to say about this monster than we think. The purity and innocence of the young heroines and heroes of this fable confront the monstrosity threatening Hawkins, Indiana. When journalism as a profession restores its integrity and its commitment to its historic mission, it may do the same.

 

Is Machiavelli alive and well in Silicon Valley?

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Floundering might be the word which springs to mind as we look at the spectacle of poor Mark Zuckerberg trying to cope with – or, depending on your point of view, making excuses for – the failure of Facebook to protect us from predators of one kind or another.

For Mr. Zuckerberg the search for a solution seemed to be in the same territory from which the creature which has made him one of the wealthiest men in the world has come – technology. Totally absent from his horizon was the one feature in the landscape where the solution ultimately must lie. We suspect that it may be AWOL for the same reason that it was also absent from all the imagination and energy which went into Dr. Frankenstein’s creation more than two centuries ago. There are indeed those who see Dr. Zuckerberg’s – I’m hazarding a guess that at this stage he has picked up a few honorary doctorates along the way – creation as something of a mirror image of Mary Shelly’s.

Sadly, unlike Mary Shelly’s monster, which was embodied only in fiction, a wise and salutary tale about the folly of a man who gave life to a powerful man-like instrument he could not control, Mark Zuckerberg’s creation is a real nuts and bolts, now apparently out-of-control, creation.

There seems to exist a multiplicity of black holes in the universe of modern technology. As the Netflix series, Black Mirror, worryingly illustrates for us, our lives can be sucked into these in any number of ways with the most dire personal and social consequences imaginable.

The unifying element which should offer us protection from most of these black holes is embodied in the single phrase, moral sense. The absence of this sense in the integral structure of all the myriad of pursuits of modern man is the source of many of the woes which accompany them in the form of unintended consequences. “Unintended” may modify culpability for those consequences but if our poverty of intention stems for our neglect of serious and responsible reflection, then culpability is present as darkness is present with night.

But let us not be personal about this. Mark Zuckerberg is a child of his time and if we can learn anything from his predicament it will be by looking beyond his and his company’s problem to the bigger picture.

Zuckerberg has now apologised to Facebook’s users for the “breach of trust”. What “trust” really means in the world of big tech is anyone’s guess. This breach allowed University of Cambridge researcher, Aleksandr Kogan, to harvest the details of about 270,000 people who took part in something as seemingly innocuous as an online quiz. A former Facebook manager has warned now that hundreds of millions of users are likely to have had their private information used by firms in ways that they know nothing about.

But all the talk about this is now about control, technical control, regulation and more regulation. Does anyone really understand any more why we regulate? If the moral sense which the modern world  now lacks were a real force in our society our need for regulation, controls and all the rest would be much less. If all we have are external regulations and controls we are lost souls.

A “reckoning is coming” for Facebook and its fellow tech giants, said The Sunday Times – and “not before time”. The issue in this scandal is not whether harvested Facebook data enabled Trump to steal the US election. “It did not – however much liberals would love to overturn the result.” Rather, it’s that Facebook has failed to protect the personal data of its users. The company has been “unforgivably lax” about third-party use of this information, agreed  The Times. It has arrogantly shirked “the responsibilities that come with power”, and been wilfully blind to the consequences of its inaction until problems have reached the headlines.

The black hole into which the private information of “hundreds of millions of users” has plummeted may be the least of the threats to the common good emanating from Facebook’s army of busy bees. Joseph Ratzinger, one of the greatest moral voices of our time, back in 2005, just a year after Facebook moved from being a glint in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye to its launch in 2004, gave a prescient address at Subiaco in Italy.

In that address Ratzinger – who would become Pope Benedict XVI a few weeks alter – spoke of  the  “disquieting… possibilities of self-manipulation that man has acquired. He has plumbed the depths of being, has deciphered the components of the human being, and is now capable, so to speak, of constructing man himself, who thus no longer comes into the world as a gift of the Creator, but as a product of our action, a product that, therefore, can also be selected according to the exigencies established by ourselves.”

As we know, there are plenty of people who are concerned about the manipulative characteristics deliberately built in to modern technology – from the colour coding of iPhone screens to the subtle designs of homepages across the internet. Others are concerned about the contribution which Facebook, for example, contributes to the cancer of gender confusion sweeping across our culture with its amoral subscribing to a bewildering plethora of genders.

If our world, our cultures and our civilization suffers from a moral malaise it did not begin – nor will it end –  with technology and the power it places in the hands of men. In one understanding its roots are of course immemorial and the struggle it demands of us is endemic in our nature. But in recorded history we can also see a turning point at which western civilization fell deeper into the mire of confusion of which Facebook’s amorality is just another modern manifestation.

The turning point which occurred at the dawn of the modern age – and the falsehood at its heart – led Machiavelli to offer his advice to those who exercise power in this world. The spirit of this advice is also responsible for the destructive elements at work in forces of modern technology. This is not to deny any of the good elements. I use Facebook and will continue to do so.

Dr. Brad Gregory in The Unintended Reformation, his masterful study of how our civilization has reached the point at which it now stands, explains that Machiavelli’s ideas about human nature influenced the rejections of the Christian (and Aristotelian, and Platonic) claim about the inseparability of morality and politics. In the Florentine’s view, efforts expended in trying to live virtuously could only seem quixotically futile, aspirations to create a correlative moral community unrealistic. In his views about human nature, Machiavelli would find successors in Hobbes, Hume, and many other thinkers.

If in the following quote from Gregory’s book, we substitute in our mind the wielders of technological power for the wielders of political power we will see how Machiavelli is alive and well in Silicon Valley.

In theory, at least, Machiavelli’s practical distinction between the demands of political life and moral norms severed the exercise of power from teleological virtue ethics in public affairs, the “realism” of the former contrasted with the “idealism” of the latter. Successful and therefore good politics was unavoidably immoral, and immoral politics was the norm.“ No longer aspiring to encompass traditional morality, politics becomes instead “the art of the possible”—and as people grow accustomed to new human realities, their views change concerning what is and is not possible. What his contemporaries and Reformation-era successors who offered advice to princes continued to regard as the telos of human nature within an inherited Christian worldview, Machiavelli consequentially disdained as the “imaginary world.” Human beings are what they are; the world is as it is; the effective exercise of power requires the abrogation of morality; successful rulers override the virtues with virtu. One could exercise power or be moral, but not both.

But while “successful rulers override the virtues with virtu“, Silicone Valley overrides all morality with science and technology.

Ratzinger, who like Tiresias, perceived the scene, and foretold the rest—explained in his Subiaco address, how in the modern world the principle is now valid, according to which, man’s capacity is measured by his action. What one knows how to do, may also be done. There no longer exists a knowing how to do separated from a being able to do, because it would be against freedom, which is the absolute supreme value. But man knows how to do many things, and knows increasingly how to do more things; and if this knowing how to do does not find its measure in a moral norm, it becomes, as we can already see, a power of destruction.

Man knows how to clone men, and so he does it. Man knows how to use men as a store of organs for other men, and so he does it; he does it because this seems to be an exigency of his freedom. Man knows how to construct atomic bombs and so he makes them, being, in line of principle, also disposed to use them. In the end, terrorism is also based on this modality of man’s self-authorization, and not on the teachings of the Koran.

Until we escape from the delusion that we are masters of this universe, that we are orphans in this world and that we are answerable to no one but ourselves, then our fate will be to succumb to our inept regulations and continue to weave our way around them and wriggle our way out of them. This is the miserable human condition to which we condemn ourselves to by our arrogance.