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Why Can't Journalism Talk About Its Own Morals?
by Doug McGill
2008-01-25 09:32:24
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As the New Year rolls in like an inexorable tide, I have watched the elections, done some reading and made a resolution as a journalist, as a citizen, and as a guy.

It's a resolution about, um, morality.

It's about how to determine what's right from what's wrong, wholesome from unwholesome, especially in the making and consuming of the media. My resolution is about how to notice, nurture, and then to use inherent human capacities to tell the difference between good and evil in the media. In some ways, that's even more difficult than telling good from bad in real life, because the media flattens all the bumpy richness of life into a single, thin, fluorescent or inky dimension.

I'm excited but nervous to be writing this.

Because on the one hand, I'm energized to be talking about morality in journalism, or the lack of it. That breaks an old taboo within my profession, which is always a fun day's work.

On the other hand, there are dangers in asking whether there really are any morals in journalism, the high-walled and sometimes vengeful kingdom of neutral "objectivity."

Robertson or Chopra?

It's easy for people to spot that single word "morality," and immediately decide one has intellectually succumbed to rightwing scolds like Pat Robertson, or to New Age fuzzyheads like Deepak Chopra. (The latter being much the greater likelihood for me.)

But this kneejerk pigeonholing fuels my drive to find the roots of the problem.

If we don't have a language to talk with each other about what's right and wrong in the mass media, about what's healthy and what's unhealthy media to consume, what kind of a media and journalism are we going to have?

At the very least, by simple logic, we will have a confused mass media and journalism. And at worst we'll have a wicked one, since chaos always is exploited by the intelligent but depraved.

Simple Question

At the library I found three trusted guides through these tricky waters -- two communitarian philosophers and one mass media historian who explains why open discussion about morals, character and virtue is disesteemed in modern society. Not just in journalism and the media, but everywhere.

My guides are Michael Sandel, a Harvard professor who wrote “Democracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy;” Jonathan Durham Peters, a professor of media history at the University of Iowa and the author of “Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition;” and the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, who wrote a brief but inspiring essay called “Spiritual Thinking.”

All three of these writers ask simple questions to kick-start moral thinking. One question they all ask in one form or another is:

How come Lady Justice wears a blindfold?

And hey, is that really such a good idea?

The Blindfold Theory

Is it smart to block from our consciousness all those telling little winks and tics that we constantly receive from life around us and by which, in reality, we navigate our daily rounds?

Hillary Clinton won the New Hampshire primary based on a microsecond of tearing up, plus a tiny subtle hitch in her voice that apparently persuaded a few thousand women to switch their votes to her at the last minute.

Lady Justice would have missed it all.

The blindfold theory holds that on the societal scale, the rational process of balancing costs and benefits works better than seeking wisdom from within one’s supposedly subjective conscience and soul.

Does that reasoning pass the common sense test?

I’ve got a big pile of poker chips placed on this question, because as a journalist I’ve worn a mighty moral blindfold for 30 years. It goes by the name of “objectivity,” the idea that journalists serve the public best by writing about issues as neutral bystanders, rigorously detached from what they observe.

Selfish Liberalism

Without taking sides, we journalists are supposed to gather facts and deliver them to the public to “let the readers decide.”

I’ve wrestled with journalism’s objectivity problem before. After a fair amount of soul-searching, a few years ago I finally was able to describe (as many others have before me) the ethical shortcuts and rationalizations that journalists make in objectivity’s name.

But until I read my three philosopher-guides, I’d never before seen the roots of the problem.

For all three writers, the name of the blindfold is liberal political theory, which is not just a theory but the bedrock faith of modern western society. These authors especially deplore the strain of liberalism that has dominated in the past half-century, and which they say has removed individuals as moral decision-makers from public affairs.

Depressed Newsrooms

“According to this liberalism,” Sandel writes, “government should be neutral as to conceptions of the good life. Government should not affirm, through its policies or laws, any particular conception of the good life; instead it should provide a neutral framework of rights within which people can choose their own values and ends.”

By defining individual moral action in society as a choice between ready-made options, which Sandel calls the “procedural republic,” instead of developing the character of individuals to make subtle, case-by-case decisions, Sandel says society loses in the end.

"A political agenda lacking substantive moral discourse is one symptom of the public philosophy of the procedural republic,” he writes. It has also “coincided with a growing sense of disempowerment. Despite the expansion of rights in recent decades, Americans find to their frustration that they are losing control of the forces that govern their lives.”

That sounds like the depressed atmosphere of mainstream newsrooms today. Disempowerment in newsrooms today takes many forms, all the way from mass layoffs at newspapers that are downsizing, to the frustration of reporters who are assigned to cover celebrity scandals while skipping important civic issues.

Meanwhile, there is neither any substantive moral discourse in newsrooms about these trends, nor any suitable framework to have one. (Only fired and refugee mainstream journalists on the Internet can try that!)

"Satanic" Arguments

John Durham Peters’ critique of liberalism is more radical than Sandel’s, especially on the right to free speech and the lengths to which he believes the media exploit it.

“There is something satanic about many liberal arguments in favor of free expression,” Peters writes. “Defenders of free speech often like to plumb the depths of the underworld. They tread where angels do not dare and reemerge escorting scruffy, marginal, or outlaw figures, many of whom spend their time planting slaps in the face of the public.”

In a talk at McGill University last year, Peters placed a red laser dot on liberalism in plainer English: “Liberalism undermines itself by pretending to be above the battle, by pretending to be neutral. Lots of liberals say it’s only a set of procedures and rules. But I would suggest that liberalism is one of the players. It’s not a referee. And that liberalism needs to recognize that it too has a vision. And that even in claiming neutrality it thereby forfeits a kind of neutrality, because by always trying to seek the higher ground it ends up pushing people out of an ethical position.”

Looking back, I have rarely seen more moral hypocrisy than in mainstream newsrooms, such as at The New York Times where I worked as a reporter from 1979 to 1989, and as a bureau chief for Bloomberg News in its Tokyo, London and Hong Kong newsrooms in the 1990s. Of course, I count myself as one of the hypocrites.

Absolutism Corrupts Absolutely?

On the one hand, reporters and editors in all these newsrooms were deeply committed to ferreting out the truth, and sometimes showed great courage in doing so. This behavior alone demonstrates journalists' deeply personal and moral involvement in society.

Yet at the same time, whenever moral questions arose upon the publication of our hard-won factual narratives, our first impulse was always to exempt ourselves from any further dialog by citing “objectivity.”

Our job was simply to gather and put out the information we dug up, we told our miffed complainants, and refused all further involvement.

The accuracy of the facts that we published, and not any discussion about the moral shadings raised by the timing or manner of their publication, was the highest moral principle we felt beholden too. “If you have a problem with what we published, talk to our lawyers,” we’d say to anyone who raised questions.

Free speech absolutism was the alpha and the omega of our moral thinking.

That was expedient, but was it right?

Reflecting on my newsroom experience in the light of Sandel and Peters, I think that by insisting on such moral disengagement, we journalists hurt society in several ways.

Three Problems

First, we abdicate our leadership role in society as clear, honest, reliable communicators. We limit the valuable contributions that we could make to society as exemplary communicators, by clinging to a hypocrisy that is visible for all to see.

Second, we contribute to journalism’s decline by degrading the public trust that is journalism’s principal foundation.

Third, and worst of all, by our moral obtuseness we fail to facilitate a robust and open discussion about what constitutes the good life – the best forms of government, the best values and models of human behavior.

A multicultural and global society especially needs such a free and open forum to progress peacefully. If journalism doesn’t create one, what social institution will?

These questions apply to citizen journalists -- the millions of bloggers, podcasters, YouTubers and other ordinary folks who are reporting the world around them on the Internet -- as much and even more so than to trained journalists.

Because like it or not the institutions of journalism, and with them the traditional journalistic values they once protected, are crumbling. That turns the ethical imperative for creating useful journalism over to the people who account for the vast majority of hours that actually are spent today in society looking around, and then recording and commenting on what’s seen, which is the essential journalistic enterprise.

So what’s the answer?

Neighbors and Strangers

My philosopher-guides guides offer three variations on a civic-minded theme.

Michael Sandel counsels a revival of republican public philosophy that stresses the formation of individual moral character, much along the lines that Thomas Jefferson endorsed in his agrarian vision of democracy.

John Durham Peters advocates drawing on religious traditions that are in sync with each other and with secular solidarity. “One of the central principles of the law in Judaism is kindness to the stranger, and one of the central principles of Christianity is love of the neighbor,” he says. “In some way, [those] are more powerful foundations for thinking about society than liberalism if you want a society with both solidarity and freedom in it.”

Charles Taylor, in his brief but enlightening essay , advocates a communitarian project similar to Sandel’s and Peters’. Yet he cautions that any future peaceful world will require a burdensome body of laws and rules to maintain order.

“We will in many ways be living lives under even greater discipline than today,” Taylor says. “More than ever we are going to need trail-blazers who will open or retrieve forgotten modes of prayer, meditation, friendship, solidarity and compassionate action.”

My Resolution

Personally, I doubt that any such trail-blazers will be wearing blindfolds.

My New Year’s resolution is to work as a journalist, to act as a citizen, and to live as a human being without a blindfold.
Instead, I'll try to simply use my God-given head and heart and eyes.

Copyright @ 2008 The McGill Report

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Emanuel Paparella2008-01-25 11:41:57
Refreshing and honest introspection not usually engaged in by journalists.

To attempt an answer to the title's query: to expect journalists to talk about their own morals is like expecting rationalists to doubt their own "enlightenment." They will doubt everything but that.

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