Saturday, August 14, 2004

Journalism, Patriotism, Containers

Jay Rosen over at PressThink has a very probing and open-ended question he's seeking answers to. He wonders why 9/11 hasn't been the worldview-altering event to journalism that it has been on the personal level to so many Americans. He notes that pre- and post-9/11 journalism are the same. He has examples to suggest that the sameness is willful even. It worries him and he's seeking understanding:
When you actually make the effort, and start the story over, you never end up in exactly the same place. Everyone knows we're in a new situation as a nation, and in some ways radically new across the world. Though everyone knows, we can't forget it, which is another way of saying we have to try daily to imagine it, though normal life resumes, and practices its newsy deceptions.

What do you recall? I recall how much that was adequate in my own understanding on September 10th, I found useless by the morning of the 12th; and people who say things like, "everything changed on nine eleven" are not so much September 11th people as they are struck by a strangeness recalled from the morning of the 12th. I am one of them. We think there was a rupture.

Like the larger claim from which it derives,
everything changed for American journalists on September 11th is not really open to proof or refutation. I believe it's true, and I think the failure to reckon with it is preventing what might be historic progress in professional self-definition for the people who bring Americans their news, and who try to capture in their accounts our life and times.
It's a deceptively open-ended question and I look forward to the discussion.

Already there is a comment posted by Tim that expansively relates the famous round-table discussion from the Eighties where Mike Wallace said he would let American soldiers die because his duty as a journalist required him to remain objective. The furiously acidic response from an American colonel isn't usually told with Wallace's comment, but it's a must read.

Jay's elaboration of his question helped to shake loose and concretise some nebulosities that have been floating around in my head for quite a while. I don't claim to originality or profundity, nor is the analogy perfect. That's the point of analogy. It's not a point-for-point correlation but a way of conceptualising relationships. I knocked this out in about half an hour: write quickly, edit lightly, post. I'm posting it here (slightly edited and expanded) as well so it doesn't get lost in the sea of comments over at PressThink.

Thanks Jay.

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I'm not sure this is an answer to your question, Jay, but when you speak of journalists' view of America and how they view their connection to America, the thing that popped into my mind was containers.

I suspect "America" for many journalists is a giant container with a lot of smaller, sometimes overlapping, occasionally quarelling, containers inside. In order to cover events and discussions, they must place themselves outside that "America" container, in order to view things impartially and dispassionately. Being inside the container limits the distance needed. Being outside the container allows freedom of distance and view.

Most folks assumed that 9/11 dissolved (obliterated?) the many small containers into fewer, larger ones. Or that many formerly unaligned or opposed containers would find a contiguous surface in a response to the attacks and their perpetrators. Most Americans assumed that smaller differences would be subordinated to the larger interest of defending America and punishing its enemies.

But the press would have to resist that, in order to maintain their freedom of distance and movement and point of view. To move inside the container would be to constrain themselves in their duty. That duty isn't connected to the "America" container but to their freedom of distance and point of view. The pressure to unite had the equal and opposite reaction in journalists of resistance and separation.

Then there is the parallel matter of Election 2000, which created an enormous rift in American society. A new, large and very distinct container came into being thanks to the Florida recount and the Florida and U.S. Supreme Court decisions. In a manner of speaking, two parallel Americas came into being -- one where Bush won and one where Bush stole Gore's victory. One America views Bush as the rightful President and another views Bush as illegitimate.

In the second America, the illegitimate President dishonestly brought America into an illegal war for immoral purposes. All actions flowing from the initial wrong are themselves tainted and wrong. For this group, the election this year is an effort to bring these two Americas back together at the point of rupture and erase the events of the past four years.

Reporters, meanwhile, remain outside these containers, but still report on the whole as though there is no rupture. As though the two are one.

This model would explain to some degree the way journalism presents foreign news and stories. Since journalists are outside the "America" container, outside all containers save their own, they do not view these events with the view of Americans. Instead, they see things as a comparison of containers. Therefore, America is co-equal, equivalent, to anything it is compared to. Or in another sense, since America is part of the world and journalists are outside of the "world" container, it may also explain to some degree the way they view the "America" container, in addition to the internationalist politics of modern Democratic liberalism.

I guess this is where my model breaks down, as you can legitimately say that journalists likely view themselves as another container. The unanimity of politics and point of view among the national, and much of the local, press is a direct refutation of the "outside the container" model, since it would imply a lot of diversity in every sense.

I could argue that a container inside the "America" container -- the liberalised educational system, journalism schools, and media watchdogs -- somehow gained a monopoly on control of access to "outsider" status. They were a container working inside "America" with the intent of radically redefining it. One would expect a free and open press to be a diverse, contradictory and vigorous universe of reporting.

Of course, this is an ideal. Reporters are human and even the best training and discipline will slip over time. Especially when the trainers and monitors alone can police themselves, resistant to outside intervention. Solipsism and self-referentiality set in; ossification, too.

Somewhere between the Forties and the Seventies, a conservative press sympathetic to those in power and willing to accept censorship for the sake of the national good (inside the "America" container) became an oppositional, liberal press divorced from an "America" container that many viewed with disdain. That arm's-length distance, that freedom of movement and distance, worked because the wars and enemies were "out there" somewhere.

Even as modern terrorism moved closer and closer, the distance remained. I think many to most Americans expected that the press might collapse back to a Forties-style, pro-America, compliant model. It hasn't and the problems with that outsider viewpoint are becoming clearer every day. It's a component of the success of Fox News, in my opinion. I also think it's part of what drove the earlier success of talk radio -- a desire to hear from a press that considers itself American.

The blogosphere managed to break the control of the j-schools and media monitors, opening the flow of information. We are beginning to see that diverse, contradictory and vigorous universe of reporting thanks to it. Truly, America's new newsroom (the blogosphere) is displaying the diversity we've been promised. We are also seeing a lot more reporting from inside the "America" container. Many bloggers reject the tenet of modern journalism that reporting must be "objective and neutral," ie. outside the "America" container. Many are more than happy to place their identification with America above their identification with modern journalism and its tenets. The change is, I think, what you are looking for, yes? I suspect the remaking of American journalism in the post-9/11, Internet age won't be a process of assimilation and adaptation -- at least not for a while -- but rather a process of replacement.

Thanks, Jay. I've had this formless idea in my head for a while and the discussion helped to precipitate and crystallise it. Sorry for the length of the post.

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I am not a journalist, just a voracious reader, an omnivorous consumer of modern media, an observer and a middle-weight thinker. (I've often joked that where most people go to big sporting events to watch the game, I go to watch the spectators.) I think I've hit on one way of looking at Jay's question, though likely not a revelatory one. Posting this essay to Jay's blog is exposing it to some very smart, informed and incisive people. I fully expect to be critiqued, savaged and derided. We'll see how well my analogy survives.

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