Chris Hedges on ‘The Death and Life of American Journalism’
Posted on Feb 26, 2010
By Chris Hedges
Certainly, as the authors point out, the faux objectivity and neutrality of the traditional news industry hastened the cultural irrelevance of traditional news gathering. The narrowing of debates within the press to the minor differences among the power elite had a debilitating effect on news. The structure of “objectivity” works far better when there are powerful social movements, such as the civil rights movement, that provide an actual alternative and demand a voice. But without these movements the press functions as courtiers in the corridors of power. It dutifully reports the Democratic and Republic positions, a condition that imposes a bland uniformity of opinion. The two parties are in fundamental agreement about the underlying economic, political and military structures which are largely responsible for our decline. The power elites do not question the permanent war economy, unfettered capitalism and the rise of the security state, and voices that do are, in effect, censored out of the commercial press because they have no power base. This has left most traditional reporters without a moral core and trapped in a ridiculous court pantomime that has damaged their content as much as the loss of advertising and the rise of the Internet. The lie told by newspapers and traditional news is the lie of omission, which is not as bad as the outright lies told on Fox News, but in the end it is still a lie. Our power elite are bankrupt, and the press, tethered to the elite, is as bankrupt as those it covers.
“The real problem with professional journalism becomes evident when political elites do not debate an issue and march in virtual lockstep,” the authors write. “In such a case professional journalism is, at best, ineffectual, and, at worst, propagandistic. This has often been the case in U.S. foreign policy, where both parties are beholden to an enormous global military complex, and accept the right of the United States, and the United States alone, to invade countries when it suits U.S. interests. In matters of war and foreign policy, journalists who question the basic assumptions and policy objectives and who attempt to raise issues no one in either party wishes to debate are considered ‘ideological’ and ‘unprofessional.’ This has a powerful disciplinary effect upon journalists.”
The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again
By Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols
Nation Books, 352 pages
American society, once we lose a system of information based on verifiable fact, will become disconnected from reality. All totalitarian societies impart their propaganda through manipulated images and spectacles. And the death of traditional news is one more stage in the terminal illness that is ravaging American democracy. The rise of a totalitarian capitalism will follow, and we already have many of the new system’s information networks in place. Corporations, as the authors point out, “will be better positioned than ever to produce self-promotional ‘information’—better described as ‘propaganda’—that can masquerade as ‘news.’ The technology actually makes it easier. A major development in the past decade has been video news releases, PR-produced news stories that are often run as if they were legitimate journalism on local TV news broadcasts. The stories invariably promote the products of the corporation which funds the work surreptitiously.”
Journalism will again become what it was more than a century ago—a form of art. It will be as concerned with truth and beauty as it is with justice. It will no longer speak in the deformed language of balance and objectivity but instead be a conduit for unvarnished moral outrage and passion. It will, like classical theater, be relegated to the margins of society but will endure for the literate and the moral. It will sustain all who seek to live with a conscience in an unconscious age. Journalism will survive, but it will reach a limited audience, as the sparsely attended productions of Aristophanes or Racine in small New York theaters are all that is left of great classical theater. The larger society will be deluged with propaganda, spectacle and entertainment as news. Those who carry the flame of journalism forward will live lives as difficult, financially precarious and outside the mainstream as most classical actors and musicians.
The solutions proposed by McChesney and Nichols to save journalism would work if we lived in a culture that placed primacy on truth and beauty. The failure to recognize America’s profound cultural shift into collective self-delusion makes the book stillborn. The authors, who know and understand journalism and the news industry, have a lot to say about the history of journalism and its decline that is worth reading, but their fatal flaw is to propose solutions that are no longer culturally relevant. They grasp the terrible consequences of a culture disconnected from a world of verifiable fact. They admirably look for solutions to save us from a world where opinions and facts are interchangeable, where lies become true. I applaud their effort, but I fear it is too late.
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