The end of journalism?
History ended in 1992. Is journalism next?
THE END OF HISTORY…
Political scientist Francis Fukuyama declared in 1992 that we were witnessing “the end of history.” It seemed such an esoteric statement at the time that I paid little attention. But in retirement now and living through what seems to be “the end times,” I’ve had time to discover that Fukuyama was totally wrong. Yet as celebrated as he was in Western media at the time, none seem ready to re-examine his conclusion for fear it contradicts the very narrative he set in motion.
Fukuyama was referring to the Cold War in which two monopolar hegemons faced off seeking world dominance — capitalism (United States) vs communism (Soviet Union). The capitalist system represented individual freedom while communism meant social cohesion. Communism failed because in controlling all economic activity for the welfare of the people, it only allowed creative technology when it benefitted the state (i.e., military development). Whereas, capitalism harnessed creativity to benefit all levels of economic activity.
Fukuyama posited that with the end of communism, one system had prevailed, and all future outcomes were now totally predictable.For the rest of the world this meant that the rapacious policies of the imperialists (U.S., Great Britain and Europeans) would continue to enrich themselves off the resources of their dependents. Or so it would seem until the rising of China.
Fukuyama had not anticipated a new economic system, one that harnessed capitalist methods in a way that benefitted all people, not just the financial class. The old socialism died with communism, but a new socialism was emerging in which the state managed economic relationships among independent entities to ensure that the public welfare was as equally important as the bottom line. The result in China was the largest migration of people out of poverty ever seen. The GDP rate was so attractive that international capitalists began transferring wealth to China to get in on the action.
Fukuyama was right in saying that human history was a linear progression from one socio-ecomic epoch to another. He was wrong in assuming that Captalism was the end of the line. Clearly a new multi-polar system is rising in the East (BRICs nations) and that a new epoch is about to begin. The war in Ukraine is just a symptom of a larger shift away from Western hegemony and the dollar as a reserve currency.
Competing systems mean competing narratives. From my new perch in Moscow I am seeing both narratives at work for the first time. In the case of Ukraine, I am seeing a different war than the average American. It also means that my information spectrum is much wider and I have more data upon which to base conclusions.
…AND THE END OF JOURNALISM
The advent of “narrative journalism” coincided with the glorification of individualism under vulture capitalism. The “objective journalist” was facing imminent rhetorical death.
The word “narrative” seems to have pushed “objectivity” aside as a defining characteristic of journalism. We may never see a return to objective standards, but need we be shackled by the narrative.
Objectivity was not always a hallmark journalism. All American newspapers from colonial times through the “penny press” of the the early 1900s were decidedly partisan. Democrats were always raked in Republican newspapers, and vice versa.
Objectivity was the product of a new technology. The invention of the telegraph meant instantaneous transmission over wires. Reporters now could move more info speedily — to reduce costs and to use efficiently the line-time available to them. More importantly, the news services, like AP, UP and INS, had to limit themselves to just the facts in order to serve politically diverse clients equally.
So objectivity began in reference to story content and form. Then it migrated to the character of the reporter. A journalist had to be objective … and by implication soulless. But once again technology would intervene.
First of all, TV discovered that the “News Division” was a cash cow and, applying entertainment values to the process, created star anchors, reporters and commentators — totally personality driven. Later cable would inject even more emotion with “arguing heads.” Soon we were back to the days of partisan news outlets.
Where the tone of TV news could mimic objectivity, that too gave way to a third wave of media technology — the internet. Now anyone with a web site or blog could target specific audiences with the news and opinion they liked to hear, confirming their already limited world view.
Faced with a reality that catered to an audience rather than professional standards, newspapers no longer needed objective journalists. They needed individuals attuned to the pulse of the public. Facts became less important than how you selected and arranged them.
Prof. Gina Baleria (Sonoma State) writing on the Poynter web site shows how the approach to news has totally changed:
“As educators, it is our role and responsibility to teach a journalistic approach based not on objectivity, but on seeking truth, providing context, and including voices and perspectives left behind by the adherence to objectivity.”
The journalist was no longer obliged to present opposing points of view. They now operated in a values-driven moral environment. They were valued for individuality and not as interchangeable cogs in the news machine. Fairness and justice replaced general skepticism as the overriding paradigm of news reporting and opinion writing.
The individualism of the new journalists was taking them where only fiction writers had gone before — into the world of narrative. The first manifestation was called “literary journalism.” Journalists doing long-form reporting and magazine freelances applied the techniques and elements of creative writing and fiction to the “news story.” It used to be you could get the gist of the story in the first paragraph (lede); now it might take until the third or fourth paragraph. Feature writers who dealt with less urgent material had already been doing that, dating back to Walt Whitman’s days on the Brooklyn Eagle.
Narrative can be a positive force in journalism when it is just a device to make news more readable and understandable. But in the modern context, it is the bane of news delivery. Narrative is no longer an organic rhetorical process through which the news is presented. It has become a third-party script to which the news must conform.
So now we live in a world of dueling narratives, both national and various -isms. Journalists cannot safely emerge from under the umbrella of their particular narratives. For instance, regarding Ukraine, it makes a difference if the narrative dictates that the war started in 2022 or actually 8 years earlier in the Donbass. Narrative also leads to personal demonization : Trump, Putin, Hunter Biden, Xi, Ocasio-Cortez, DeSantis, or any opponent. One cannot avoid making the Hitler mistake again without knowing the forces that drove him, the personal events that shaped him, and his deceptive strategies.
The professional journalist, a skeptic to the core, follows the road less travelled. He rejects the script in order to start at ground zero in the search for truth and fairness. He has to penetrate his readers’ uninformed, often patriotic, pre-conceived notions. Professor, teacher, historian, essayist, journalist — they all share the same didactic space.
Living in Moscow the past two years, has been a lesson in watching narratives at work. Separately, each makes a lot of sense. But comparing them in order to tell the true story or render a dispassionate opinion is a liberating experience. Contrary to my American expectations, Russian contributions had more veracity in creating an independent picture. I was totally surprised by the “objective tone” of Russian news reports and documentaries, yet fully aware of omissions, similar to MSNBC and FOX.
If a journalist is not skeptical of handouts, press releases, and leaks, he is a mere stenographer for the powers that be. If he moderates his own opinions out of fear, then he is a shill for those same powers. But if she fleshes out her skepticism with unrelenting inquisitiveness, then she is doing her job at the highest professional level. Objectivity can still exist in the spaces between the narratives.
Newspapers are economically teetering and no longer independent. Do they have the wherewithal to reshape journalism and perhaps save themselves. If so, what will the post-narrative journalism look like.
Bret Stephen’s, a conservative NY Times columnist, delivered the best example how the same set of facts can accommodate two opposing narratives: