The crisis we are living through is, among other things, a crisis of journalism. Never before have we had such ready access to high-quality sources of news and information (at least at the national level; local journalism, sadly, is in freefall). At the same time, those sources have been under constant attack since Spiro Agnew’s “nattering nabobs of negativism” speech of 1969, culminating in President Trump’s denigration of journalists as “Enemies of the People” and their work product as “fake news.”
The purpose of mainstream newspapers, if there still is a purpose, is that they provide a shared social reference point. Readers of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or, for that matter, The Boston Globe and other regional papers are looking not just for accurate news. They also seek the considered judgment of experienced journalists as to what matters and what doesn’t, what’s important and what can safely be ignored.
“A newspaper is a theory of what constitutes an informed person,” the late media observer Neil Postman said in 1995. “A newspaper can make an essential contribution to the polity by functioning as a filter.” Postman was pessimistic, though, saying the driving thrust of technology, even in those early days of the internet, was to isolate people from each other, allowing us to indulge our personal interests and thus undermining any notion of a common culture. “Everything is moving us away from a sense of co-present community life,” he said.
What Postman lamented is now celebrated. Who needs filters when we can decide for ourselves? And so the authority of mainstream newspapers and analogous mass media such as network television newscasts has given way to a multitude of niches, from narrowcast cable channels such as MSNBC and Fox News to even narrower digital outlets of the left and right, including conspiracy-minded operations such as Alex Jones’ Infowars.
The latest celebrant at the altar of DIY media consumption is the writer Antonio García Martínez. In a piece for Wired.com headlined “Journalism Isn’t Dying. It’s Returning to Its Roots,” Martínez observes that the current economic travails of journalism and the accompanying decline of objectivity are simply a reversion to the norm — that partisan, financially perilous propagandizing would be far more recognizable to founders such as Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Adams than the establishment press that dominated American society during the second half of the 20th century.
“Journalists pining for a return to their golden age of advertising-supported journalism are disturbingly similar to aged Midwestern factory workers seeking a return to the time when high-school-educated labor could afford middle-class lives with total job security,” Martínez writes. “Both golden ages resulted from a unique set of economic and political circumstances that are now gone and impossible to reproduce. Those who claim democracy requires the precise flavor of journalism we’ve known for a century or so will have to explain how our republic survived the century preceding.”
This is all true, but it is also beside the point. We’ve lost a lot. At its best, the mainstream press held (and still holds) government and other large institutions to account in a fair and unbiased manner. If we lose that entirely, then we’ll lose one of our most fundamental tools for governing ourselves.
Martínez offers us a history lesson, but there’s much that he leaves out. Yes, the nonpartisan model did indeed grow out a desire to cash in on the rise of department stores and other new forms of capitalism that could transform once-struggling newspapers into money machines full of advertising.
But at the same time that newspapers were becoming wealthy, they were also embracing the idea of public service. I’m not the first to make the observation that, starting in the early 20th century, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a series of landmark rulings that helped transform the press into a powerful institution in its own right — power that served as a crucial counterweight to enormous influence wielded by modern government and industry.
The protections of the First Amendment, once guaranteed only in federal matters, were extended to the states. Prior restraint was forbidden in nearly all circumstances. Government records were made public. Public officials and public figures were constrained from using the libel laws to silence their critics. These were all essential developments in guaranteeing democratic self-government. The scandal sheets that Samuel Adams printed to spread falsehoods about the Boston Massacre would hardly be a match for the gigantic forces that rule our lives in a modern industrial (or post-industrial) society.
Martínez also lampoons “fact-checked both-sides-ism and claims to ‘objectivity.’” Well, I hope we can all agree that fact-checking is a good thing. But his equating both-sides-ism with objectivity ignores what the term really means. As conceived by the journalist-philosopher Walter Lippmann nearly 100 years ago, objectivity was intended as a fair-minded, rigorous pursuit of the truth, not as a mindless recitation of what “both sides” say. We need more Lippmann-style objectivity, not less. (Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel explain this well in their book, “The Elements of Journalism,” but you can get an overview of how they describe objectivity by clicking here.)
“The path to the next golden age in American journalism,” Martínez concludes, “isn’t nostalgia for a vanishing past but the same way that led to the previous golden age, namely, that of profit. More than likely, given the new business models, this will mean some partiality from journalism as well. That’s just fine too. It’s what Ben Franklin would have done.”
Now, some partiality is fine. Opinion journalism — truthful, fact-based opinion journalism — can be as valuable as that based on the neutrality model. But that doesn’t mean we should cheer the demise of mass media aimed at informing the public rather than indulging their pre-existing views. We need it all — a mainstream press and opinionated niches.
The scattered, nichified media of the past several decades are partly responsible for the rise of Trumpism. There is no truth — or, rather, we all have our own truth, mediated and reinforced by social media algorithms that we don’t understand.
What we need is not a return to the past, but progress toward something better. A mainstream press that is truly digital, that listens to its audience, that is less arrogant and more willing to embrace change than the print giants of the past century, isn’t just something to be desired — it’s essential.
Jay Rosen announced last week that he would be taking a role with The Correspondent, the American version of a Dutch news project that its founders hope to launch next year. Rosen, a New York University journalism professor and one of our most perceptive media observers, explained in an essay for the Nieman Journalism Lab that he was intrigued because The Correspondent has been “optimized for trust.” Among other things, the site will be free of advertising, and reporters will be required to engage in an ongoing conversation with their readers.
I’ve asked my students to come up with examples of news stories that reflect the View from Nowhere — an idea advanced by New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen that, to oversimplify, amounts to “he said/she said” objectivity in its most mindless form — and to balance that with a second story demonstrating the View from Somewhere.
Since some of my students seemed a bit bewildered by the assignment, I thought I’d give it a try. My example is an announcement made on Wednesday by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The two agencies have issued a new set of rules aimed at protecting small streams under the federal Clean Water Act. The rules are a reaction to a 2006 Supreme Court ruling that cast the government’s regulatory authority into doubt.
My leading contender for the View from Nowhere is an article by The Associated Press whose very headline announces the story’s flaws: “New Federal Rules on Stream Protection Hailed, Criticized.” The reporter, Mary Clare Jalonick, focuses almost entirely on the political debate sparked by the new rules. The lede is serviceable enough. But watch what happens in the second paragraph:
WASHINGTON (AP) — New federal rules designed to better protect small streams, tributaries and wetlands — and the drinking water of 117 million Americans — are being criticized by Republicans and farm groups as going too far.
The White House says the rules, issued Wednesday, will provide much-needed clarity for landowners about which waterways must be protected against pollution and development. But House Speaker John Boehner declared they will send “landowners, small businesses, farmers, and manufacturers on the road to a regulatory and economic hell.”
And so it continues, with Democrats defending the new rules, Republicans criticizing them and advocacy groups on either side of the issue weighing in. Yes, there’s some explanation along the way, but you never get an entirely clear sense of what the rules would actually do. Rather, it’s a political story, played out against the backdrop of partisan Washington. The informational needs of an ordinary member of the public are scarcely addressed.
I’ll get to my example of the View from Somewhere in a moment. But first, I want to flag this Washington Post story, which is largely grounded in the View from Nowhere but does a better job than the AP of telling us what we need to know — starting with the headline, “EPA Strengthens Federal Protections for Small Streams.” The emphasis is on what the EPA actually did and what effect it might have rather than on partisan politics. The first two paragraphs are full of useful information. Reporter Darryl Fears writes:
Nearly a decade after the Supreme Court pointed out the confusion over exactly which waters fall under the Clean Water Act, the Obama administration responded Wednesday with a new rule that states what is protected and what is not.
Navigable tributaries, as well as the rivers they feed into, are protected because the flow of streams and creeks, if polluted by farming and development, could affect the health of rivers and lakes, the rule states.
Farther down, Fears veers into the partisan battle, quoting an opponent, U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, chairman of the Environmental and Public Works Committee, as well as the White House response. The story is also interspersed with tweets from elected officials. But partisan politics are not entirely unimportant, as congressional Republicans could overturn the new rules. Overall, Fears shows how to write a story that embraces the View from Nowhere while still managing to provide a coherent explanation of what happened and why.
My morning search for a story exemplifying the View from Somewhere failed to turn up exactly what I was looking for. But I did find an excellent article on the clean-waters issue from last September in Slate, which has always been a good source of explanatory journalism. With minor updating, the article, by Boer Deng, could have run today — and cast a lot more light on the EPA’s announcement than the AP or even the Post managed to provide. Look how she begins:
Everyone wants clean water, but not everyone agrees on how to make sure it stays pollution-free. The Clean Water Act is one of the most successful pieces of environmental legislation in American history: Forty years ago, only a third of the country’s lakes and rivers could support fishing or swimming. Now two-thirds do. But when a bill for the CWA was offered up in 1972, Richard Nixon vetoed it, complaining that it would cost too much. It took a bipartisan congressional override to enact the law.
Controversy over the CWA continues, and a particularly ambiguous phrase in the law has been a perennial source of legal trouble. The CWA compels the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to protect the integrity of the “waters of the United States.” Industrial interests argue that a reference in the text of the law to “navigable waters” limits federal jurisdiction to waters you can boat on. This has let them get away with discharging pollution into smaller waterways. Regulators disagree, since pollutants in these waterways drain into and threaten larger navigable waters, too.
OK, I’ll concede that Deng is leading with background information, which is generally thought of as not the best way to structure a story. But this is a really complicated issue. Thanks to Deng’s explanation, you now know exactly what it’s about before she asks you to jump into the deep end.
One characteristic about the View from Somewhere that can be difficult to get across is that though journalism with a point of view is sometimes opinionated, it doesn’t have to be. Deng takes a first-person stance and expresses the point of view that clean water is, in fact, a good thing. But she does not state an opinion as to whether the regulations that were then being considered were the best way to accomplish that goal. This isn’t opinion journalism. Her point of view is her expertise, which she earned by going out and doing the reporting.
As a result, opponents become human beings rather than caricatures. Instead of House Speaker John Boehner or Sen. Inhofe saying predictable things, she gives us Bob Stallman, head of the Farm Bureau, who asks a very reasonable question: “A good portion of the water on my rice farm would count as wetland ‘water of the U.S.’ Will I now need a permit every time I want to water my rice?” And Deng attempts to provide an answer: “The EPA says this is nonsense — and some of its administrators have expressed exasperation with what they see as willful misinterpretation that has undermined efforts to craft sound policy.”
Jay Rosen’s idea of what journalism can be is animated by the debate between two great philosophers — Walter Lippmann, whose book “Public Opinion” (1922) argued that ordinary people lacked the information, time and interest to be full participants in democracy, and John Dewey, whose retort to Lippmann, “The Public and Its Problems” (1927), took a more optimistic view. Rosen, in his 1999 book “What Are Journalists For?”, describes Dewey’s beliefs:
Democracy for Dewey meant not a system of government but a society organized around certain principles: that every individual has something to contribute, that people are capable of making their own decisions, that given the chance they can understand their predicament well enough to puzzle through it, that the world is knowable if we teach ourselves how to study and discuss it. Time and again Dewey argued that to be a democrat meant to have faith in people’s capacities, whatever their recent performance.
(I put together a slideshow for my students on Rosen’s description of the Lippmann-Dewey debate, which you can see by clicking here.)
For Rosen, and for all of us, the question is how to encourage the journalism we need for John Dewey’s vision of a democratic society to work. It is also at the root of my 2013 book on new forms of online local journalism, “The Wired City.”
Stories such as Deng’s Slate article may not conform to the old rules of objective journalism. They may not embrace the View from Nowhere. But they tell us a lot more about what we need to understand public policy — about what our government is doing for and to us — and, thus, it provides us with information we need to govern ourselves.
Photo by Sergei Rubliov is in the public domain.