For those who believe that a robust public-affairs journalism is essential for a society striving to be democratic, the 21st century has been characterized by bad news that keeps getting worse.
Whatever one’s evaluation of traditional advertising-supported news media (and I have been among its critics; more on that later), the unraveling of that business model has left us with fewer professional journalists who are being paid a living wage to do original reporting. It’s unrealistic to imagine that journalism can flourish without journalists who have the time and resources to do journalism.
For those who care about a robust human presence on the planet, the 21st century has been characterized by really bad news that keeps getting really, really worse.
Whatever one’s evaluation of high-energy/high-technology civilization (and I have been among its critics; more on that later), it’s now clear that we are hitting physical limits; we cannot expect to maintain contemporary levels of consumption that draw down the ecological capital of the planet at rates dramatically beyond replacement levels. It unrealistic to imagine that we can go on treating the planet as nothing more than a mine from which we extract and a landfill into which we dump.
We have no choice but to deal with the collapse of journalism, but we also should recognize the need for a journalism of collapse. Everyone understands that economic changes are forcing a refashioning of the journalism profession. It’s long past time for everyone to pay attention to how multiple, cascading ecological crises should be changing professional journalism’s mission in even more dramatic fashion.
It’s time for an apocalyptic journalism (that takes some explaining; a lot more on that later).
The Basics of Journalism: Ideals and Limitations
With the rapid expansion of journalistic-like material on the internet, it’s especially crucial to define “real” journalism. In a democratic system, ideally journalism is a critical, independent source of information, analysis, and the varied opinions needed by citizens who want to play a meaningful role in the formation of public policy. The key terms are “critical” and “independent”—to fulfill the promise of a free press, journalists must be willing to critique not only specific people and policies, but the systems out of which they emerge, and they must be as free as possible from constraining influences, both overt and subtle. Also included in that definition of journalism is an understanding of democracy—“a meaningful role in the formation of public policy”—as more than just lining up to vote in elections that offer competing sets of elites who represent roughly similar programs. Meaningful democracy involves meaningful participation.
This discussion will focus on what is typically called mainstream journalism, the corporate-commercial news media. These are the journalists who work for daily newspapers, broadcast and cable television, and the corporately owned platforms on the internet and other digital devices. Although there are many types of independent and alternative journalism of varying quality, the vast majority of Americans continue to receive the vast majority of their news from these mainstream sources, which are almost always organized as large corporations and funded primarily by advertising.
Right-wing politicians and commentators sometimes refer to the mainstream media as the “lamestream,” implying that journalists are comically incompetent and incapable of providing an accurate account of the world, likely due to a lack of understanding of conservative people and their ideas. While many elite journalists may be dismissive of the cultural values of conservatives, this critique ignores the key questions about journalism’s relationship to power. Focusing on the cultural politics of individual reporters and editors—pointing out that they tend to be less religious and more supportive of gay and women’s rights than the general public, for example—diverts attention from more crucial questions about how the institutional politics of corporate owners and managers shapes the news and keeps mainstream journalism within a centrist/right conventional wisdom.
The managers of commercial news organizations in the United States typically reject that claim by citing the unbreachable “firewall” between the journalistic and the business sides of the operation, which is supposed to allow journalists to pursue any story without interference from the corporate front office. This exchange I had with a newspaper editor captures the ideology: After listening to my summary of this critique of the U.S. commercial news media system, this editor (let’s call him Joe) told me proudly: “No one from corporate headquarters has ever called me to tell me what to run in my paper.” I asked Joe if it were possible that he simply had internalized the value system of the folks who run the corporation (and, by extension, the folks who run most of the world), and therefore they never needed to give him direct instructions. He rejected that, reasserting his independence from any force outside his newsroom.
I countered: “Let’s say, for the purposes of discussion, that you and I were equally capable journalists in terms of professional skills, that we were both reasonable candidates for the job of editor-in-chief that you hold. If we had both applied for the job, do you think your corporate bosses would have ever considered me for the position, given my politics? Would I, for even a second, have been seen by them to be a viable candidate for the job?”
Joe’s politics are pretty conventional, well within the range of mainstream Republicans and Democrats—he supports big business and U.S. supremacy in global politics and economics. I’m a critic of capitalism and U.S. foreign policy. On some political issues, Joe and I would agree, but we diverge sharply on these core questions of the nature of the economy and the state.
Joe pondered my question and conceded that I was right, that his bosses would never hire someone with my politics, no matter how qualified, to run one of their newspapers. The conversation trailed off, and we parted without resolving our differences. I would like to think my critique at least got Joe to question his platitudes, but I never saw any evidence of that. In his subsequent writing and public comments that I read and heard, Joe continued to assert that a news media system dominated by for-profit corporations was the best way to produce the critical, independent journalism that citizens in a democracy needed. Because he was in a position of some privilege and status, nothing compelled Joe to respond to my challenge.
Partly as a result of many such unproductive conversations, I continue to search for new ways to present a critique of mainstream journalism that might break through that ideological wall. In addition to thinking about alternatives to this traditional business model, we should confront the limitations of the corresponding professional model, with its status-quo-supportive ideology of neutrality, balance, and objectivity. Can we create conditions under which journalism—deeply critical and truly independent—can flourish in these trying times?
In this essay I want to try out theological concepts of the royal, prophetic, and apocalyptic traditions. Though journalism is a secular institution, religion can provide a helpful vocabulary. The use of these terms is not meant to imply support for any particular religious tradition, or for religion more generally, but only recognizes that the fundamental struggles of human history play out in religious and secular settings, and we can learn from all of that history. With a focus on the United States, I’ll drawn on the concepts as they understood in the dominant U.S. tradition of Judaism and Christianity.
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Given the multiple crises that existing political, economic, and social systems have generated, the ideals of journalism call for a prophetic journalism. The first step in defending that claim is to remember what real prophets are not: They are not people who predict the future or demand that others follow them in lockstep. In the Hebrew Bible and Christian New Testament, prophets are the figures who remind the people of the best of the tradition and point out how the people have strayed. In those traditions, using our prophetic imagination and speaking in a prophetic voice requires no special status in society, and no sense of being special. Claiming the prophetic tradition requires only honesty and courage.
When we strip away supernatural claims and delusions of grandeur, we can understand the prophetic as the calling out of injustice, the willingness not only to confront the abuses of the powerful but to acknowledge our own complicity. To speak prophetically requires us first to see honestly—both how our world is structured by systems that create unjust and unsustainable conditions, and how we who live in the privileged parts of the world are implicated in those systems. To speak prophetically is to refuse to shrink from what we discover or from our own place in these systems. We must confront the powers that be, and ourselves.
The Hebrew Bible offers us many models. Amos and Hosea, Jeremiah and Isaiah—all rejected the pursuit of wealth or power and argued for the centrality of kindness and justice. The prophets condemned corrupt leaders but also called out all those privileged people in society who had turned from the demands of justice, which the faith makes central to human life. In his analysis of these prophets, the scholar and activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel concluded:line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
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Let’s put analysis of journalism on hold and think about the larger world in which journalism operates. Journalistic ideals and norms should change as historical conditions change, and today that means facing tough questions about ecological sustainability.
There is considerable evidence to help us evaluate the health of the ecosphere on which our own lives depend, and an honest evaluation of that evidence leads to a disturbing conclusion: Life as we know it is almost over. That is, the high-energy/high-technology life that we in the affluent societies live is a dead-end. There is a growing realization that we have disrupted planetary forces in ways we cannot control and do not fully understand. We cannot predict the specific times and places where dramatic breakdowns will occur, but we can know that the living system on which we depend is breaking down.
Does that seem histrionic? Excessively alarmist? Look at any crucial measure of the health of the ecosphere in which we live—groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size of “dead zones” in the oceans, accelerating extinction of species and reduction of bio-diversity—and the news is bad. Add to that the mother of all ecological crises—global warming, climate change, climate disruption—and it’s clear that we are creating a planet that cannot indefinitely support a large-scale human presence living this culture’s idea of the good life.
We also live in an oil-based world that is rapidly depleting the cheap and easily accessible oil, which means we face a huge reconfiguration of the infrastructure that undergirds our lives. Meanwhile, the desperation to avoid that reconfiguration has brought us to the era of “extreme energy” using even more dangerous and destructive technologies (hydrofracturing, deep-water drilling, mountain-top removal, tar sands extraction) to get at the remaining hydrocarbons.
Where we are heading? Off the rails? Into the wall? Over the cliff? Pick your favorite metaphor. Scientists these days are talking about tipping points and planetary boundaries, about how human activity is pushing the planet beyond its limits. Recently 22 top scientists in the prestigious journal Nature warned that humans likely are forcing a planetary-scale critical transition “with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience.” That means that “the biological resources we take for granted at present may be subject to rapid and unpredictable transformations within a few human generations.”
That means that we’re in trouble, not in some imaginary science-fiction future, but in our present reality. We can’t pretend all that’s needed is tinkering with existing systems to fix a few environmental problems; significant changes in how we live are required. No matter where any one of us sits in the social and economic hierarchies, there is no escape from the dislocations that will come with such changes. Money and power might insulate some from the most wrenching consequences of these shifts, but there is no permanent escape. We do not live in stable societies and no longer live on a stable planet. We may feel safe and secure in specific places at specific times, but it’s hard to believe in any safety and security in a collective sense.
In short, we live in apocalyptic times.
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The prophetic imagination helps us analyze the historical moment we’re in, but it’s based on an implicit faith that the systems in which we live can be reshaped to stop the worst consequences of the royal consciousness, to shake off that numbness of death in time. What if that is no longer possible? Then it is time to think about what’s on the other side. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” said Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the more well-known voices in the prophetic tradition. But if the arc is now bending toward a quite different future, a different approach is needed.
Because no one can predict the future, these two approaches are not mutually exclusive; people should not be afraid to think prophetically and apocalyptically at the same time. We can simultaneously explore immediate changes in the existing systems and think about new systems.
Invoking the prophetic in the face of royal consciousness does not promise quick change and a carefree future, but it implies that a disastrous course can be corrected. But what if the justification for such hope evaporates? When prophetic warnings have not been heeded, what comes next? This is the time when an apocalyptic sensibility is needed.
Fred Guterl, the executive editor of Scientific American, models that spirit in his book The Fate of the Species. Though he describes himself on the “techno-optimistic side of the spectrum,” he does not shy away from a blunt discussion of the challenges humans face:
http://www.amazon.com/Arguing-Our-Lives-Constructive-Dialog/dp/0872865738/ref=sr_1_10?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1361912779&sr=1-10, and We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out, in print at http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/148195847X/ref=ox_sc_act_title_1?ie=UTF8&psc=1&smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER and on Kindle at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BAWQO84.
Jensen is also the author of All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (Soft Skull Press, 2009); Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights, 2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2002). Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film “Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing” (Media Education Foundation, 2009), which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist. An extended interview Jensen conducted with Osheroff is online at http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/freelance/abeosheroffinterview.htm.
Jensen can be reached at [email protected] and his articles can be found online at http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/index.html. To join an email list to receive articles by Jensen, go to http://www.thirdcoastactivist.org/jensenupdates-info.html. Twitter: @jensenrobertw.