The Reasoned Review

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Does Journalism Matter?

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“I don’t really think we can change anything,” a young journalist once told me of her profession, “All we can do is try to get the truth down as best we can, so at least it’s there. Those who make decisions listen to us even less than they do the public. But I still think our role is important.”

So cynical, for only 25! But she saw with ease what every journalist comes to know, what Paul Krugman expressed when he wrote:

“When I first began writing for The Times, I was naive about many things, but my biggest misconception was this: I actually believed that influential people could be moved by evidence, that they would change their views if events completely refuted their beliefs.”

They won’t, however; and no principled arguement can make them. Our news media is a blizzard of propaganda, a miasma of half-lies and outright falsehoods, where party prestige and ideology trump any attempt at sober, objective inquiry. Nearly every outlet is heavily (though voluntarily) censored, and it is no coincidence that our leading newspaper enthusiastically supports our savage foreign policy and severely unequal wealth distribution. What can one say of a country where the likes of Glenn Beck can mobilize thousands of citizens to march on Washington against “spending”, but for our military adventures; where even our “liberals” (such as Times columnist Thomas Friedman) exhort the impoverished Iraqi citizens to “Suck on This” (i.e. our laser-guided missiles)? How many financial journalists not only failed to predict the economic meltdown, but cheered when the Dow hit 14,000?

“It’s a Pukka¹ business,” an Indian bookseller once said of my ambitions to journalism. By this he meant: “You will always be writing for the rich. You will report only what they want to know and remain silent on all else. They own the papers, and you are their employee.” He was harsh, like a parent warning his child against making a terrible mistake. I could imagine him a vigorous supporter of rural rights in India, appalled by the lack of journalistic interest in their dreadful situation. “Investigative journalism is dead,” that one sentence told me, “Most journalists only care about the ruling class, and nobody listens to the others.”

But through it all, one cannot deny that real journalism, committed at least to an approximation of the truth, rather than content to taking stenographic notes at “press conferences”, still exists. It is slim, marginalized, but there nonetheless. The Nation, to take just one example, has consistently delivered rigorous, independent reporting on the the inhuman dictators the US installs and the criminal exploits of its financial industry. Such news even occasionally finds its way into the mainstream, hidden between immense layers of padding. But how many people read The Nation and how many The New York Times? More importantly, do any of the decision-makers read The Nation? To what extent are they even interested in matters beyond re-election?

To no extent, unfortunately. No matter how in-depth the coverage on our government’s crimes, recidivism will always prevail. For every article on the lawless brigands we hire to patrol Baghdad, 50,000 more will be published on Tiger Woods’ latest dalliance. For every exposé put out on the disappearing line between government and industry, whole publications will be devoted to the lives of the celebrated — or worse: sports journalism. Armies of propagandists shall flow forth to justify every bombing, every plunder.  It hardly matters that five or even fifteen percent of journalists are interested in exposing the crimes of their government. They won’t be heard amid the raucous din, and if they are, who will listen?

One of the most evocative sentences in 1984 comes when Winston first describes his long-suffering mother. He says, “It would not have occurred to her that an action which is ineffectual thereby becomes meaningless.” And yet it is in this tradition that our modern society molds itself. Only effective actions are attached any importance, and indeed, we hold the dogged pursuers of “lost causes” in much contempt. One must strive to “make a difference in the world”, to “be somebody” – somebody influential, that is. Our societal nightmare is The Myth of Sisyphus – we regard with horror the futility of his struggle and make all manner of private vows that with us it will be different, that our actions will produce change.

But I think that one must live their lives believing that even if their actions have no effect, there is still meaning in having performed them. Appalled observers of our imperial policy must have few hopes of any alternative; and no well-meaning journalist can have any illusions that his leaders – or indeed, even his peers – will listen. And yet protest – devotion to the idea that things can be different, that even if our struggle produces no effect, its mere existence means something – must still go on. It is a microcosm, after all, of our own lives, which, for the vast majority of us, will produce no appreciable difference in anything. Our daily affairs shall continue until one day they stop, and that will be the end of that. How many are remembered 100 years after their death? Yet to prevent being overcome with despair, we must believe that the candle in the darkness produces light, even if no one is there to see it. The tree that falls in a forest does make a sound.

It will be stifling, horrible, to live in a world where that is not the case!

¹ Pukka is a piece of slang dating from the British Empire. Loosely translated it means “wealthy”, “distinguished”, or in modern phrasing, “The Establishment”.

Written by pavanvan

December 21, 2009 at 8:44 am

One Response

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  1. george carlin stopped doing establishment comedy in the mid sixties and started working in underground coffeehouses, uncensored, on his own terms. years later, he said on tv that even though his first ~10 years in non-establishment comedy were not very glamourous or well-publicized, he decided that he would be contented if his comedy had an effect on one person.

    principled journalism, unconstrained by the demands of the bottom line, is not going to have an effect on power, since principled journalism attempts to undermine power. the point of non-establishment, principled journalism should not be seen as influencing ‘leaders,’ it should rather be seen as helping inform the population at large.

    in this sense, every non-establishment journalist who has had one person read his/her stuff, and allowed that person to become more informed about the world, has succeeded to some extent. it follows that you and every other writer writing about these issues are helping strengthen democracy in the world, because only a properly informed population will be able to take matters into its own hands.

    bottom line: your tree that is falling in the forest is doing so in the presence of a few laymen here and there, who are learning from the sound. don’t underestimate the importance of this (your work). =)


    December 21, 2009 at 6:07 pm

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