Journalism: Power without Responsibility

By Minogue, Kenneth | New Criterion, February 2005 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Journalism: Power without Responsibility


Minogue, Kenneth, New Criterion


Stanley Baldwin's bitter jibe that journalists enjoy "the privilege of the harlot down the ages--power without responsibility"--still resonates. One reason is certainly because we recognize that--alas!--we cannot live without journalism. We might sometimes imagine that it is merely the stuff we read in the newspapers every day, but actually journalism is a mode in which we think. It indelibly marks our first response to everything. It dominates television and surrounds us in the vast publishing industry of popularization. The scholar and the professional may escape it as they specialize, but the moment they step outside what they really know about, they enter the flow of popularized understanding like the rest of us.

This means that journalism is a problem at two levels. Baldwin's jibe points to the profound idea that there is something essentially pathological about the whole activity that daily satisfies our often pointless curiosity about what is going on in the world. But there is a less extreme position that accords more with common sense: namely, that in our educated and democratic world, a great deal of information is indispensable, and journalism is the only way we can have it. Even here, however, large events such as the Iraq war of 2004 have caused many critics to judge that journalism has lost such integrity as it ever had and is being used to nudge us towards some version of right thinking. Journalism had slid, it has been suggested, into propaganda.

We thus have two theses to consider. The first is that journalism in itself is a pathological distortion of our civilization, and the second is that the perfectly respectable and certainly necessary trade of informing us about the world has lost its integrity and become, in some degree, a parody of truth--in a word, pathological. It is not entirely possible to separate these ideas, but let us take each in turn.

Journalism responds to the old Roman question: Quid novi?--What's new? The question only makes sense against a background of: What's old? The answer must be composed of things called "events" and, as the etymology of eventus suggests, an event is something understood as the outcome of some earlier situation. Event-making is an art that turns familiar routines and facts into patterns having a certain uniqueness. Some people are better at it than others, but once the art has been learned, most people can do it to some extent. It is all a matter of scale: the Bible tells some stories in a few sentences, while writers of fiction can spin someone's day into a long novel. Responding to stories is one way of conducting life, distinguishable from the times when we are responding to routines, sensations, classifications, or reflections. No life can avoid gossip, ritual, and response to overriding events such as war or famine, but most people, especially if they are illiterate, have hitherto been interested in little beyond what affects them directly. Journalism is the cultivation of concern for things that are for the most part remote from us.

The basic contrast is with religion, which is concerned with rituals and sermons revolving around beliefs about our eternal situation. Kierkegaard mistrusted journalism because he thought it would feed our love of the ephemeral, and he was no doubt right about dais. Hegel remarked that in his time, newspapers were replacing morning prayer. Perhaps the earliest writer to regard our involvement with daily events as a pathology distracting us from the realities of the human condition was Pascal. As journalism in the contemporary world has extended its range, it has certainly taken in churchly events and concerned itself with the beliefs of different religions, but the very context of such news robs it of the superior status it has for believers, and diminishes religion to the same level as the vast miscellany of other human activities that are also being reported. Religions are composed of archetypes that have a status above the constant flow of ideas and news stories.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Journalism: Power without Responsibility
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?