The late media theorist James W. Carey has been an enormous influence on my thinking. His insight that news is as much a ritual aimed at reinforcing tribal loyalties as it is a communications medium helps explain why Donald Trump’s supporters are impervious to factual information about their hero. As Carey wrote:
If the archetypal case of communication under a transmission view is the extension of messages across geography for the purpose of control, the archetypal case under a ritual view is the sacred ceremony that draws persons together in fellowship and commonality…. We recognize, as with religious rituals, that news changes little and yet is intrinsically satisfying; it performs few functions yet is habitually consumed. Newspapers do not operate as a source of effects or functions but as dramatically satisfying, which is not to say pleasing, presentations of what the world at root is.
Recently I read an essay of Carey’s that I wasn’t familiar with. Titled “A Short History of Journalism for Journalists: A Proposal and Essay,” it is a paper he wrote in 2003 while he was a fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, part of the Harvard Kennedy School. These days, papers written by Shorenstein fellows are freely available online. Sadly, Carey’s is not, though I was able to download it with my academic credentials; it was published in 2007 by the Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics.
Much of Carey’s paper traces the symbiotic relationship between the rise of journalism and the emergence of urban life and a public sphere. Toward the end, though, this call to action emerges:
The origins of journalism are the same as the origins of republican or democratic forms of governance — no journalism, no democracy. But it is equally true that without democracy, there can be no journalism. When democracy falters, journalism falters, and when journalism goes awry, democracy goes awry. The fate of journalism, the nation-state, and the public sphere are intimately intertwined and cannot be easily separated. In the modern world, in an age of independent journalism, this is a controversial assumption, for it seems to commit journalists to the defense of something, to compromise their valued nonpartisanship. It claims that journalists can be independent or objective about everything but democracy, for to do so is to abandon the craft. About democratic institutions, about the way of life of democracy, journalists are not permitted to be indifferent, nonpartisan, or objective. It is their one compulsory passion, for it forms the ground condition of their practice. Without the institutions or spirit of democracy, journalists are reduced to propagandists or entertainers.
This calls to mind the work of New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen (himself a Carey devotee) and journalist Margaret Sullivan, both of whom have called repeatedly for the press to take on a pro-democratic, truth-telling role in the face of Trumpism’s open embrace of authoritarianism. It also shows why we need a recommitment to the original idea of objectivity — that is, a fair-minded pursuit of the truth, not the mindless both-sides-ism that has become its caricature.
We are at a critical moment. There is, of course, no shortage of truthful reporting about Trump’s many transgressions. But that reporting needs to be front and center, and not balanced with ridiculous stories about the House Republicans’ plans to impeach President Biden (without making any mention of the reality that there is no reason to do such a thing) or polls showing that the economy is doing far worse than it really is without any mention of the media’s role in shaping that perception.
Carey was right, and he was well ahead of his time. Journalists need to fight for democracy, because it is the one fundamental precondition on which journalism depends.
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