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.

 

Things might be better than we think they are

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The culture war is getting more intense not less so. Both sides are indulging in an orgy of recrimination, each telling the other what a mess they have made of our world. And yet, in many respects, as Harold Macmillan, the British Prime Minister of the day, reminded the British people back in 1957, “most of our people have never had it so good”. Mind you, while some chuckled at that, others were outraged.

In our time President Trump is expanding the culture wars, pouring more fuel on the fire every day. It’s like a boxing match without a referee as he lands punch after punch on the institutions that he views as liberal, elitist or both. It is so relentless that we are left wondering will it ever stop and whether he is doing it out of conviction or just to keep himself amused and keep his base alive.

In The Hill, Jonathan Easley observes that “With his agenda stalled in Congress and his poll numbers sagging, Trump has kept his base engaged and the left inflamed by escalating feuds with key figures in sports, entertainment, tech and media, effectively dragging politics into every corner of public life.

Easterly says “Trump’s aim is straightforward: To convince voters that there is a privileged class that scoffs at their patriotism and cares more about political correctness and diversity than ordinary Americans, their traditions and their economic plight.”

But is all this about the real world? Is there not something suspiciously unreal about everyone getting worked up about footballers gesturing on a pitch. Why are we paying such attention to entertainers using their narcissistic photo opportunities to spout their ad hominem invective at us. Not to mention the new phenomenom of celebrity colonialism.

On one level, Victor Davis Hanson, writing in the National Review, sees all this as a recycling of the crisis of the 60s and 70s which broke out across the globe in 1968. In that iconic year, the United States seemed to be falling apart, he says.

“The Vietnam War, a bitter and close presidential election, antiwar protests, racial riots, political assassinations, terrorism and a recession looming on the horizon left the country divided between a loud radical minority and a silent conservative majority.”

The concerns of that time seem a good deal more real than much of what is preoccupying most of these celebrities we have to listen to now.

“The United States avoided a civil war. But America suffered a collective psychological depression, civil unrest, defeat in Vietnam and assorted disasters for the next decade — until the election of a once-polarizing Ronald Reagan ushered in five consecutive presidential terms of relative bipartisan calm and prosperity from 1981 to 2001.”

In Europe the students set out to upset every apple cart in sight and already in China the mayhem of the Cultural Revolution had been set in motion by Mao in 1966 and continued for ten brutal years up to his death.

So is it a case of what goes around comes around? In America, after the stability of those conservative and semi-conservative years came the Presidency of Barack Obama, the would-be apostle of peace and unity who split America in two. The East and West coasts were at daggers drawn with Middle America by the end of his two terms. All this was documented by Michael Kirk (without and “e”) in his superb two part PBS documentary, The Divided States of America.

Britain had a relatively peaceful 1968. The London Times did not have much time for students who thought they were more important than they were. It ran an editorial under a heading reminding us that “A student is a student is a student.” But it is not a little ironic that her troubled exit from Europe is to a large extent being made more troublesome by the generation of Marxist revolutionary street-rioters of ’68. They eventually calmed down and then proceeded to nurture and indoctrinate those running the European bureaucracy today.

But Hanson fears that in America this time the divide is far deeper, both ideologically and geographically. It is also more 50/50, with the two liberal coasts pitted against red-state America in between. The same percentages seem to be prevailing in Europe. In Britain the more radical pro-Europe young are at loggerheads with their elders, so much so that with Brexit negotiations staggering along some feel the whole process might be reversed. If that happened who knows what the unintended consequences might be?

As Hanson sees it in America, politics – or rather, a progressive hatred of the provocative Donald Trump – permeates almost every nook and cranny of popular culture.

“The new allegiance of the media, late-night television, stand-up comedy, Hollywood, professional sports and universities is committed to liberal sermonizing. Politically correct obscenity and vulgarity among celebrities and entertainers is a substitute for talent, even as Hollywood is wracked by sexual harassment scandals and other perversities.

“The smears ‘racist,’ ‘fascist,’ ‘white privilege’ and ‘Nazi’ — like ‘commie’ of the 1950s — are so overused as to become meaningless. There is now less free speech on campus than during the McCarthy era of the early 1950s”

Yet for all the social instability and media hysteria, life in the United States quietly seems to be getting better. The same is true in most parts of Europe.

The fact is that across the West – and in the East as well – economies are growing. The lessons of the last recession may or may not have been learned. There is no doubt but that a good deal of the public distaste for the warring political class stems from a public memory of how they fell asleep and allowed it to happen.

Hanson wonders if “the instability is less a symptom that America is falling apart and more a sign that the loud conventional wisdom of the past — about the benefits of a globalized economy, the insignificance of national borders and the importance of identity politics — is drawing to a close, along with the careers of those who profited from it?”

As we watch the spectacle of identity politics unfold and the political elites consume their energies on their palpable hatred of one another – while the media cheers on one side at the expense of the other – we wonder whether the real world is just getting on with the job of living while they squabble like adolescents suffering from arrested development.