Chris Hedges on Alex S. Jones’ ‘Losing the News’
Posted on Aug 14, 2009
By Chris Hedges
I have spent most of my life locked in the embrace of two of the most sanctimonious institutions in America—the church and the press. They each bow down before their self-created holy creeds, never tire of trumpeting their supposed virtues, which they hold up as the highest good, and are blind to their glaring inadequacies and mounting irrelevance. They are also, in a time of seismic cultural change, dying.
Alex S. Jones, in his new book “Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy,” is a believer. Jones, a former reporter for The New York Times and the author, along with Susan E. Tifft, of “The Trust: The Powerful and Private Family Behind The New York Times,” defends the traditional press and castigates those who fail to acknowledge its contribution to our open society, its high ethical standards and the work and skill that go into producing the news. Jones believes that newspapers are the best guardians of what he calls the “news of verification” as opposed to what he calls the “news of assertion.” The “news of assertion,” he writes, “is mostly on display these days in prime time on cable news channels and in blogs.”
Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy
By Alex Jones
Oxford University Press, 256 pages
The technology of the Internet, like the earlier technologies of radio and television, is a phantom. It is a convenient and simplistic way to explain a cultural shift. To limit a discussion of news to technology, as Jones often does, means we simply have to find a way to plug the old bolt of newsprint and traditional reporting into the new machine of the Internet. But what is happening is far more revolutionary. We are entering an age in which the electronic image, endowed with the ability to manufacture its own reality, has thrust us into a state of collective self-delusion. We are embarking on a frightening, post-literate world where we confuse how we are made to feel with knowledge. The death of newsprint is intimately tied to this shifting landscape, including the parallel decline of the publishing industry. And the solution is not to cling to the outdated ethic of newspaper reporting but to adjust this ethic to confront a new cultural landscape.
“Traditional journalists have long believed that this form of fact-based accountability news is the essential food supply of democracy and that without enough of the healthy nourishment, democracy will weaken, sicken, or even fail,” he writes. Jones concedes that “newspapers that sought to retain readers by investing in their newsrooms have not been able to show that this strategy pays off with a surge in circulation. The argument that quality will keep readers is not one that can easily be demonstrated.” He excoriates the corporate overlords of most newspaper chains for placing profit over content and pleads for a return to the ethic of news as a public trust.
The newspaper elites, like all dying elites, have built ideological and physical monuments to themselves—look at the new $600 million New York Times headquarters—in the same way the pharaohs decided to construct massive pyramids to their own immortality at the very moment Egyptian civilization fell into irrevocable decline. These elites celebrate a past greatness and era of moral probity that never really existed. Those running newspapers remain blind to their own systemic flaws, which saw them serve as propagandists for the invasion of Iraq and consistent apologists for the criminal class on Wall Street. They have proved unable to adjust to a changing landscape and have become objects of ridicule, as “The Daily Show” illustrated when it visited the offices of The New York Times.
Objectivity, the sacred creed that Jones and the old elite hold up as the highest good, has as often been used to blunt truth as disseminate it. The creed of objectivity, as Jones points out, “sprang mostly from the commercial interests of newspaper moguls in the 19th century, who wanted to sell papers to as many people as possible.” Objectivity worked as long as there were two clear, discernible sides, but this bifurcation of reality is in fact quite rare. Reality never quite lends itself to this simplicity. The creed of objectivity, which treats human reality the way the scales of justice treat a court case, has often stymied reporting, especially about the oppressed. It elevates the oppressors and the oppressed to the same moral level and obscures the truth. This pleases the power elite and mollifies the corporate advertisers but frequently does little for journalism.
The New York Times’ commitment to “objective” journalism, for example, clouded the reality of the lynching of blacks in the South. Read these stories now and you shudder at their mendacity and heartlessness. More than 4,000 African-American men and women were hanged, shot, mutilated, burned alive or killed in other horrible ways by white mobs between 1880 and 1947. And the articles, while they report the lynching, also report what historians have now found to be lies: that these black men raped white women. The Times in an editorial in 1894 decried those who take the law into their own hands. However, the paper wrote, “the crime for which Negroes have frequently been lynched [rape], and occasionally been put to death with frightful tortures, is a crime to which Negroes are particularly prone.” The paper proposed that the states do the hanging legally. Balance becomes, in moments like these, repugnant.
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