Throughout its months of coverage for the 2016 election, the press made an awful wreck of itself. Not only did it and the polls it relied upon grossly overlook the groundswell of support in the Midwest swing states that propelled Donald Trump to presidential victory, the Fourth Estate appeared to openly shill for Hillary Clinton. Of course, conservatives have maintained such partisan hackery for leftist candidates and causes for years. After Wikileaks’ revelations, this bias can no longer be denied as rightwing conspiracy theory mongering or the conflation of objectivity as false balance/neutrality. With Golden Shower-gate, Vladimir Putin “hacking” the election and other recent debacles, the professional malfeasance, if anything, seems to be increasing both in outrageousness and hostility.
Some on the right will pin the failures of the press on an echo chamber derived from the overrepresentation of left-leaning people populating from top to bottom the conglomerates that control mainstream media — journalistic media being a subset thereof. Others will cite the creation of the Internet and the rise of new media. During this digital revolution, as a business model, traditional news organizations became more sensational and partial with their coverage in order to court certain ideological bubbles. In the era of the 24-hour news cycle, where anyone can publish and be read or watched for free, people choose the news that confirms their preconceived political views. Whether social, entertainment, news – media of all sorts – content producers are happy to oblige. In regard to news, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel call this “the Journalism of Affirmation” as opposed to “the Discipline of Verification” a process to ensure journalists and their work strive transparently, humbly and originally toward the truth.
Undoubtedly, these sociological, ecological and economic aspects of the current journalism landscape contribute to the degradation of the profession, but they’re not the most important factor. Rather, the principle reason for journalism’s degenerate state is more philosophical in nature.
To understand the depth of the depravity, this fall from grace, it’s worth quoting Alasdair MacIntyre (2007) in After Virtue at some length:
Imagine that the natural sciences were to suffer the effects of a catastrophe….Later… enlightened people seek to revive science, although they have largely forgotten what it was. But all that they possess are fragments: a knowledge of experiments detached from any knowledge of the theoretical context which gave them significance; parts of theories unrelated either to the other bits and pieces of theory which they possess or to experiment; instruments whose use has been forgotten; half-chapters from books, single pages from articles, not always fully legible because torn and charred. Nonetheless all these fragments are reembodied in a set of practices which go under the revived names of physics, chemistry and biology. Adults argue with each other about the respective merits of relativity theory, evolutionary theory and phlogiston theory, although they possess only a very partial knowledge of each. Children learn by learn the surviving portions the of the periodic table and recite as incantations some of the theorems of Euclid. Nobody, or almost nobody, realizes that what they are doing is not natural science in any proper sense at all. For everything that they do and say conforms to certain canons of consistency and coherence and those contexts which would be needed to make sense of what they are doing have been lost, perhaps irretrievably.
In such a culture men would use expressions such as ‘neutrino’, ‘mass’, ‘specific gravity’, ‘atomic weight’ in systematic and often interrelated ways which would resemble in lesser or greater degrees the ways in which such expressions had been used in earlier times before scientific knowledge had been so largely lost. But many of the beliefs presupposed by the use of these expressions would have been lost and there would appear to be an element of arbitrariness and even of choice in their application which would appear very surprising to us. What would appear to be rival and competing premises for which no further argument could be given would abound. Subjectivist theories of science would appear and would be criticized by those who held that the notion of truth embodied in what they took to be science was incompatible with subjectivism.
…We may describe… a world in which the language of natural science, or parts of it at least, continues to be used but is in a grave state of disorder (p. 1-2).
Substitute “journalism” for “science,” mutatis mutandis, and MacIntyre’s “Disquieting Suggestion” is not only analogous to moral disagreement, as explored in After Virtue, but also to the low place the Fourth Estate finds itself.
For the remainder of the post, further details will be given to provide a general sketch of this explanation of journalism’s regressed state. This will be accomplished with an introduction of some basic commonly accepted philosophical assumptions about journalism followed by a contrasting summary of current professional praxis. The proposed discrepancy then will be then characterized and related to MacIntyre’s analysis of contemporary moral disagreement.
Some theoretical context
Consider that journalism, traditionally understood, is a classically liberal institution that presupposes objective truth – propositions are either true or false irrespective of subjective belief. There are truthmakers in the world that verify their truthbearers, no matter how mutable, fleeting and or derived from changing social convention and construction the latter are. In other words, this view of journalism assumes a correspondence theory of truth; that, the claim “the cat is on the mat” is true in virtue of a particular cat actually being on a particular mat as so described in the claim. So, accordingly and colloquially, the truth is indeed out there for the journalist to relay to the public.
Beyond this, objective truth is also knowable. Traditionally, journalism is informed by John Milton’s notion of a “marketplace of ideas,” a dialectic crucible in which the free exchange of arguments and discourse are supposed to leave the best ideas, worldviews and propositions – objective truth itself – as what’s left upon for a discerning, inherently rational electorate to act. Hence, this is why we have a negative freedom of the press, and more generally, a negative freedom of expression enshrined in and protected by the First Amendment. We idealize being free from external coercion from the state or other heteronomous sources in matters of speech and thought.
Moreover, significant accounts of journalism seemingly agree with or at least echo these classical liberal presuppositions. Kovach and Rosenstiel (2007), in the Elements of Journalism, posit objective truth as “journalists’ first obligation,” “a forum for public criticism and compromise” to find it and the “discipline of verification” to safeguard the integrity of its pursuit (p. 5-6) Even the Hutchins Commission’s report (1947), which inspired the social responsibility theory of the press, an opposing position to the above classically liberal libertarian account, lists providing “a truthful (emphasis mine), comprehensive account of the day’s events in a context which given them meaning” (p. 21) and the maintenance of “a forum for the exchange of comment and criticism” (p. 23) among the responsibilities of a free press.
Emotivist instead of classically liberal
What is professed as sacrosanct in theory, objective truth and its pursuit, is increasingly subordinate in practice within the newsroom. The examples are legion, but here are some general trends:
- Breaking stories for the sake of certain narratives before facts can confirm those stories, e.g., Michael Brown’s death via police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson epitomized systemic racism; the fabricated Rolling Stone rape story captured the horror of campus “rape culture.”
- Overseeing the corruption of the public forum for civil discourse from a “marketplace of ideas” into a calumnious pit ruled by a will to power rather than a respect for reason, e.g., reflexively portraying social conflicts only as analogous to 1960s civil rights era turmoil between the virtuous oppressed and the prejudiced oppressor, thereby encouraging sophistry in the abuse of epithets like “racist,” “sexist,” “homophobe,” “Islamophobe,” “transphobe,” “bigot” to demonize the identified proponents of the status quo and or conservative policies; failure to show appropriate levels of professional skepticism toward ideologues like Black Lives Matter or the LGBT lobby and their narratives that purposely rely on slander and libel rather than argumentation.
- Institutionalizing politically correct fads in jargon and thinking over accurate reporting in an effort to prevent wrong-think-inspired actions foreseen as detrimental to minorities, e.g., “ridding the (Associated Press) Stylebook of labels” such as “‘illegal immigrant” and “Islamists”; moreover, not only a refusal to link Islam to terrorism as a cause but a thorough strategy for producing and framing content to debunk the notion.
- Perpetuating double standards and moral obtuseness in coverage for seemingly ideological and partisan reasons, e.g., vastly more primetime coverage and outrage for the death of Cecil the Lion than Project Veritas’ videos alleging Planned Parenthood’s illegal peddling of fetal body parts; vastly more coverage and outrage for Trump’s crass lothario bravado in a dated hot mic video than investigation into Hillary’s Clinton’s likely corruption and cronyism as evidenced in Wikileaks’ Podesta emails and or those recovered from her private server.
It’s clear. For today’s mainstream establishment journalists, crusading against perceived hegemony, either cultural or material, trumps the accuracy and objective truth extolled in halls of journalism schools. As newspeople are more interested in social engineering than reporting the way the world is, they seemingly have contempt for the public and don’t trust its ability to self-govern. Likewise, whether journalists realize it, they’re more committed to the Marxist notion of “changing the world” as opposed to understanding it. Thus specializing in social justice innuendo rather than facts, as an institution, journalism has more in common with postmodernism or cultural Marxism to the point the Fourth Estate effectively caters to them instead of the classical liberalism that birthed it.
But it’s worse than that. Journalists don’t see their institution as acting in perversion of its original theoretical context. They believe themselves to be beholden to the chase for reason and objective truth, not hostile toward the whole enterprise. In their minds, they’re watchdogs of democracy and Enlightenment-inspired rational skeptics, not advocates for de-privileging dominant and oppressive narratives. For the political reporter, reality is not composed of structural texts upon which there are interpretations but full of cold hard facts that correctly represent the world for what it is. After all, journalists speak of “fact checks” and “objectivity.” They maintain that their reporting, interviewing and editing is “liberal,” and the devotion to the “discipline of verification” is what separates them from the likes of Breitbart News, the Drudge Report or even Fox News.
— Vladimir Duthiers (@vladduthiersCBS) March 26, 2017
Turning to MacIntyre again, however, all this is symptomatic of the disease. These claims are just the aforementioned “fragments.” They are the “’neutrino’, ‘mass’, ‘specific gravity’, ‘atomic weight’” of an ersatz journalism unhinged from its fundamental philosophical assumptions like MacIntyre’s (2007) proposed ersatz science. They make sense and are functional in light of classical liberalism from which modern journalism, as a matter of praxis is way askew. Their employ, then, is a form of what he identifies as emotivism as “a theory of use”: “the apparent assertion of principles [that] functions as a mask for expressions of personal preference” (p. 19). The popular wailing about “fake news” and living in a “post-truth” society generated and perpetuated by political media pundits after the election are further examples. So is the “fact check” (here), which has just become a barely veiled means to conduct ideological warfare under the false aegis of disinterested “objectivity.”
In actuality, like everybody else, journalists have fallen prey to our “emotivist culture” in which “moral argument appears to be necessarily interminable. From our rival conclusions we can argue back to our rival premises; but when we do arrive at our premises argument ceases and the invocation of one premise against another becomes a matter of pure assertion and counter-assertion” (MacIntyre, 2007, p. 8). No wonder for “the slightly shrill tone of so much moral debate,” given that the supposed “forum for the exchange of comment and criticism,” a nexus for moral debate, is curated by people who are shriller than the rest of us.
For on top of their individual ideological shrillness, there is also an institutional shrillness among purveyors of news, compounding the acrimony. Remember the established standard bearers of journalism face an existential threat in the upstart bloggers, YouTube personalities and citizen-journalist commentators and news aggregators. Their industry is in tumult, and they don’t like it or the uncertainty that comes with it. The charges of “fake news” and calls for a crackdown on it via social media, “matter[s] of pure assertion and counter-assertion,” are as much about quelling the spread of right-wing views as the reclamation of legitimacy and financial vitality for the “old media,” i.e. “emotivism” as a “theory of use.”
Then how did journalism get here — from classical liberalism to the social justice-spewing, self-interested emotivism of MacIntyre while retaining the pretension to the former? MacIntyre speaks of a “catastrophe” in his thought experiment in After Virtue. He later identifies it as the abandonment of Aristotelian teleology in Western thought and the Enlightenment’s subsequent failure to find a suitable replacement for the sake of moral discourse. While the content of morality remained largely unchanged during those years, the basis for it was gone.
Something similar occurred in journalism with its classically liberal presuppositions. The professed quest for democratic self-determination remained; the underlying epistemology and metaphysical view of man enabling it disappeared. Its catastrophe came in the shape of Walter Lippmann, the forefather of contemporary American journalism.
In part 2, I will explore Lippmann’s views, contributions to the profession and how they paved the way for the defunct journalism we unfortunately know today.
MacIntyre, A. C. (2007). After Virtue: A study in Moral Theory (3rd ed.). Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
A Free and Responsible Press [Scholarly project]. (2005, June 10). In Archive.org. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/freeandresponsib029216mbp
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