Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Journalistic Privilege and Bias

Writing toward the end of the 1980s, the late Zygmunt Bauman tried to capture the essence of the economic, social and cultural changes grouped under the heading 'postmodernism'. For Bauman, part of the growing concern with these issues was thanks to a shift in the role of intellectuals. In the post war interregnum between the dog-eat-dog of the 1930s and its comeback at the heels of Thatcher and Reagan, their role had shifted from legislators who captained industry and steered society through the input of expertise to interpreters, a stratum who use their knowledge and skills to offer analyses and advice but whose leadership function was variously displaced by dogmatic governments, the authoritarianism of markets, and irreverence (and incredulity) on the part of the many.

Fast forward to our post-postmodern times with its rude return of class and the polarisation of politics, part of the story is a repositioning of the interpreter role. Or, to be more accurate, its erosion. The populist attack on elites coupled with the stress on the individual as the ultimate arbiter of authority has dragged the expert down further. Never mind the knowledge and experience they might possess, they're running dogs of elite interests that work against the people and can be dismissed and traduced with impunity.

We should bear this context in mind as we discuss the recent round of panicked debate about journalism and the legitimacy thereof. For example, Roy Greenslade - former number two at The Sun - lays fake news and the wide distrust of the media partially at the media's own door. He argues the press's habit of mixing comment with reportage became the model for journalism in the age of the internet and the gradual crowding out of fact by opinion. In the pages of the same paper, John Harris attacks this tendency by demarcating a line between reporter and activist. Blurring the two is dangerous for the same reasons outlined by Greenslade. Advocacy and ideology trump reporting, comment and polemic neglects holding the powerful to account. The ethic of impartiality, balance, and journalism-from-a-distance is something well worth holding on to, which cannot be managed if partisanship is explicit from the outset. And our friends Breitbart and The Canary are singled out as villains of the piece.

It's very easy to take apart these positions, particularly those offered by John, and betrays an unreflective appreciation of the exalted role occupied by journalism. Yes, really. While academics, particularly social science academics, retreated from the public sphere the journalist by and large became the de facto public intellectual. Leading politicians lived in terror of the unfavourable editorial and hacks of various stripes were promoted on political programming as favoured interpreters of current affairs. Despite the coming of fake news and the associated panics, this remains the case. Journalists by far are the most commonly featured occupational category on Question Time after politicians, they are the go to for complex issues on Newsnight, and it's books by journalists that get the heaviest promotion when it comes to state-of-the-nation diagnoses. As privileged interpreters of the scene, their slot is threatened foremost by the decoupling of political commentary from dedicated political commentators and the consequent rise of new challengers from outside. Particularly, the rise of hyper partisan sites condense their anxieties. Poorly written and semi-conspiranoid they may occasionally be, The Canary and friends nevertheless have an intuitive understanding of events and movements which, time after time, established journalists do not, cannot, and prove uninterested in understanding. They haunt many a commentator with the spectre of their future irrelevance, particularly those whose politics cluster around the dead centre while the cutting edge of social thought lies elsewhere.

None of this invalidates the points our venerable journos make in and of themselves, though the separation between analysis and partisanship is ridiculous and unsustainable. Especially when plenty of writerly outlets manage to combine both - just like this place, for example. Yet it does behoove our leading commentators to spend some time reflecting on their position, the interests they have in the preservation of a particular kind of journalism, and how this gives them a privileged and partial view of the world.


qwertboi said...

Great exposition. At last an analysis that recognises the role of postmodernism in fake news (and meaning and epistemology) generally. Thank you Phil.

“postmodernism’s superficial textures: the erosion of the distinction between high and pop culture; the reign of stylistic pastiche and miscellany; the dominance of the visual image and corresponding eclipse of the written word; a new depthlessness—“surrealism without the unconscious”—in the dream-like jumble of images; and the strange alliance of a pervasive cultural nostalgia (as in the costume drama or historical novel) with a cultural amnesia serving to fragment “time into a series of perpetual presents.” If all that now sounds familiar, this owes something to the durability of Jameson’s account of postmodernism, first delivered as a lecture in 1982 and expanded two years later into an essay for New Left Review: a forty-page sketch that caught the features of the fidgety sitter more accurately than many longer studies before and since.”

Excerpt From: Benjamin Kunkel. “Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis.”

How can any news be 'real' in this superficial commodified dustopia that gives advantage and meaning only to the 'free-market' and its beneficiaries and controllers, the 0.0001%?

Mathias Alexander said...

Is this some sort of "mea culpa" from Ron and John whatstheirnames?

Dialectician1 said...

"While academics, particularly social science academics, retreated from the public sphere......"

Is Postmodernism to Blame for Our Post-truth World? Public lecture L.S.E. 17th October 6.30 http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/theforum/is-post-modernism-to-blame-for-our-post-truth-world/?utm_content=buffer6716e&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer

I'm not sure Po-mo is to blame for fake news but it is part of the problem. Academics (mainly on the left) lurched towards Nietzschean post-structuralism after 'the turn' in 1968. Repelled by Stalinism and disappointed by the failures of the working class to take on their predicted revolutionary mantle, instead they turned their guns onto rationalism and the enlightenment thinkers in general. Everything was now just a 'language game'. Instead of having to take part in protest or strikes, the 'multitude' could instead 'reframe' the problem into how the powerful have used language to create a dominant discourse. So, if you could control the 'narrative' you could control the politics? The end result of all this theorising was a fragmented working class, keen only to tell their own 'identity specific' story. Meanwhile, turbo-capitalism (neoliberalism) was in the ascendency with the compelling narrative of its 10-0 win over communism: the so called 'end of history' story. The financial crash of 2008 brought all that daft bollox to an end.

Worth reading David Harvey, Alex Callinicos, Terry Eagleton. In their different ways they warn us of the problems of the postmodernist's desire to throw the baby (the truth) out with the bathwater (determinist metanarrative & crude positivism)