Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
By John Kaufman
In his “Editor’s Note” of May 10, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Editor George Stanley discusses the role of “independent reporting” in today’s political spectrum and media techno-scape. After noting the rise of specialized conservative and liberal media outlets on television and across the Internet, Stanley asks, “So are we headed back to 19th century journalism, when most sources of information were partisan?”
Stanley makes clear that he does not favor such blatantly partisan reporting and most will agree with him. But can we make a distinction between partisanship (blind loyalty to one political party) and journalism that is grounded in social justice, humane values and democratic defense? To independently report events, one has to first intellectually settle on what the larger truth is and conscientiously and accurately, as far as humanly possible, confirm and relate the facts. If you, as a journalist, do not accept the validity of peer-reviewed scientific research, for example, you will have a hard time telling readers the whole and inconvenient truth.
Stanley cites a Princeton professor, Markus Prior, who has studied Americans’ attitude toward political truth and found that, lo and behold, the truth today is “centrism.” Prior says, according to Stanley,
“Most voters are centrist. Most voters avoid partisan media altogether or mix and match across ideological lines. And those who follow partisan media closely and select mostly one side are already partisan.”
Here we come up against some confusion, for there is not, strictly speaking, a declared “partisan media.” There is no Democratic News Network, no Republican Review. There are, of course, what we could call ideologically-driven media, but all journalism has an ideological foundation. “Centrist” is as much an ideology as “conservative” or “progressive.” And such labels are not absolutely fixed.
The problem with our left-right political spectrum is that it creates a conceptual illusion and a false equivalency, a “polarized” politics in which both poles have equal weight and the “center” is made the voice of moderation and reason, the mean between the two “extremes.” In theory, the center is the place to be– a fair and balanced position. But in practice, the center shifts with the prevailing winds; these days it has moved to the “right” as the nation has become, since the rise of Reagan, a generally “conservative” place, and the mainstream media has, generally, followed the audience. We haven’t had a largely “liberal media” here in a long time, but that hasn’t stopped the ultra-conservatives from forming their own media universe (Fox News, AM radio, a million websites, etc.) to cater to the unfortunately sizable market for what can only be described as, from my perspective, dumb and heartless stuff. Sadly, nearly everything that is now generated by the Republican Party and its supporters ought to be viewed by responsible journalists as intellectually or factually suspect.
Journalism cannot be divided from ideology, for journalism cannot be separated from morality and democracy. Journalism certainly shouldn’t be beholden to any political party or philosophy, but it should be striving, like the muckraking of old, to uphold human rights, civil rights, intellectual rigor, the evidence of science and the democratic rights of the majority. To be a journalist is, essentially, to be a teacher, not a panderer. Playing to one’s general audience (often for economic reasons), aiming for some amiable “center” in terms of editorializing or reporting (now an apparently popular journalistic position, according to the University of Chicago) is not proof of being “independent” and unbiased.
Editors all must decide what to cover, what to exclude, and what, and how, to finally print it. No editor or reporter is without bias, so let’s not celebrate the “center” as some sort of noble journalistic ideal. Journalism is truly and usefully independent when it holds to moral and intellectual truth, and when it does not refrain from taking unpopular positions and responsibly reporting the facts. When things are falling apart, when half the political realm refuses to face facts and spouts nonsense on a daily basis, what Americans need is not some imaginary “center” between two supposedly equal positions. What we need, as always, is to be educated out of the nonsense and brought to our senses.
P.S.— See Journal Sentinel Editor George Stanley’s response below.
PP.S.— And Bruce Murphy touches on Stanley’s “Note” also as he (Murphy) goes looking for the missing columnist Dan Bice, who was not banished, Bice reports in the comments section, after all.