Journalism: Power without Responsibility

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

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. …

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