Several years ago, at a national convention of college newspaper editors and advisers in Las Vegas, former left-wing New York Times and Nation journalist and currently working for something called “Truthdig,” Chris Hedges (American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, 2006) spoke on war and the journalist. The point of his speech was to argue, to a largely receptive audience of some 700, that the role of the American journalist was to combat and challenge the politically powerful in society, then the Bush Administration. I sat in the audience thinking that there was a need to articulate a distinctly Christian (that is to say, biblical) perspective which would encompass a more responsible role for the thoughtful mainstream journalist, than just being the combative contrarian.
Since that convention, survey after survey (Pew, Gallup, etc.) have evidenced the observable political and religious bias in the metropolitan and national mainstream press. These surveys show that in the American politicized newsroom, Hedges is mainstream and I am on the fringe. I feel like an Indian among the Swedes in Peter Berger’s well-known description of America. Berger, the Boston University sociologist, wrote in an article some time ago that if Sweden is the most secular culture in the world and India is the most religious, then America is best described as a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes. The Berger insight applies to the American newsroom where the Swedes edit and report the news consumed by us Indians.
Let me briefly touch on what I see as the prevailing self-justifying role of current American journalism (excluding blogs which are even more indulgent and self-absorbed) which I call “The Equalizer.” (I loved that old TV show starring the wonderful British actor Edward Woodward.) In this role, the journalist is to be a cynic. Not just skeptical, but selectively cynical. The journalist is not to believe anything the powerful and privileged say if they don’t share the same worldview. The modern journalist is to selectively attempt to bring down the high (and raise the low). But it is more fun to bring down the high, particularly if you find the views of the high repugnant.
Those that hold this view are engaged in enormous hand-wringing and navel-gazing at the moment as they believe democracy is in peril with the decline of the newspaper. As Mark Bowden has so understatedly written in an article on Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., “American Journalism is in a period of terror” (May, 2009 Vanity Fair).
Now the problem with this journalistic orthodoxy is that it is disingenuous. Each journalist (or editor) decides who the powerful are and whether or not the powerful are using their power for the public good, as defined by the journalist. The post-modern journalist subscribes to no external standard for her judgments. If power is held by someone with the same worldview, the “Equalizer” journalists keep their mouth shut and their pen shuttered. With the post-modern loss of the quest for objective truth, journalistic judgment is subject to personal whim and manipulation by the secular media elite who have a subjective perspective on truth, verifiable or not.
The Christian journalist has a different take on her role. I will look at this in the future.