Challenging journalism in a Postmodern World

This piece began with me just reposting something I saw on another blogspot recently. But it’s developed into something of a manifesto – a call to arms, if you like – for journalists who, in John Pilger’s words, “Give a damn”.

TV News in a Postmodern World, Part LXVIII:

“To lead with Paris or not, that is the question.

I’m not what you’d call a Paris Hilton ‘fan,’ but I have been deeply intrigued by her life in the month of June 2007. My interest is in her as a person, not a celebrity, for I’m a student of human nature, and here was a fascinating human nature story: someone from the other side of the tracks having everything taken away, albeit for a short season, and I was most curious about how it impacted her, all judgments about her behavior aside.

It’s not every day that a person of such ‘position’ is stripped of that position and placed in a situation of extreme conflict. I found the whole mess to be a great study in class bias from every conceivable angle, but most of my curiosity was directed at Paris, the woman herself. All that I knew of her was a media creation, but that boyhood curiosity was still there, so I followed the story.”

Terry Heaton, the author of the quote above runs a blog called “the pomoblog” and he’s fascinated by Paris Hilton ‘the person’. Unfortunately, Terry, there are many people every day who are placed in situations of extreme conflict. At the last count I checked, more than 70,000 dead in Iraq since March 2003 and the body count is rising every day. Save your curiosity for them, Paris can look after herself; at least she might, with the help of maids, drivers, stylists, managers, publicists, a rich family, a cellphone, a cock’r’two, Larry King, a good tote bag, a pooch, a gold Amex card, cocaine, marijuana, cigarettes, Percodan and plenty of pricey booze.

I’ve always had my doubts about postmodernism and postmodernists. I’ve long considered most of them a bunch of eclectic pseudo-intellectuals who don’t know their ar*ehole from a dishwasher. But you know, there’s a grain of truth in Heaton’s piece. The world of journalism is changing.

Celebrity is now a news value in its own right and many millions of people, most in less fortunate circumstances than the object of their curiosity, take news about Paris Hilton seriously. Here’s another take from Heaton that I actually think is worth discussing:

A whole new world of media is springing up around us, people informing themselves and their tribes as a part of the personal media revolution. Traditional professional journalism is really at odds with this, because the ability of groups to do it increasingly shines a light on the shallowness of the all-things-to-all-people paradigm. If I’m interested in the iPhone, I will trust the group that’s covering it for themselves. If I’m interested in Paris Hilton, I will trust the group that’s covering entertainment in the same way.

The morning news may be able to send a crew to cover the line outside the Apple store, and show producers can stack Paris Hilton “coverage” where they think it ought to be in their shows. But in both cases, the surface is all that can be scratched, and people intuitively know there is so much more. Consider similar treatments for just about everything “in the news,” and you begin to understand the source power of the personal media revolution. It isn’t at all about amateurs stealing thunder (or jobs) from professionals; it’s about the soul of journalism itself — the story.

I disagree slightly. In my eyes the “soul” of journalism has to be about “truth”, not just about the story. There’s an intellectual core to journalism that is more than just recounting a tale. It is all about selection, priorities and points of view. One of the areas of news that this is most important is in the coverage of “business” and “economics” stories. It is in this area that the unchallenged and mostly unconscious assumptions made by journalists are most in need of exposure, discussion, challenge and change.

To some degree the Hilton story, and all the pages it has consumed, is symptomatic. It’s the coverage of a lifestyle steeped in ostentatious wealth and gross displays of conspicuous consumption. It’s what my old friend Karl Marx calls “commodity fetishism”.

A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a value in use, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it is capable of satisfying human wants, or from the point that those properties are the product of human labour. It is as clear as noon-day, that man, by his industry, changes the forms of the materials furnished by Nature, in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered, by making a table out of it. Yet, for all that, the table continues to be that common, every-day thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than “table-turning” ever was….
There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

Not only do we fetishise news as a commodity — we fail to see the inherent contradiction between the service of profits and serving the public interest — we also fetishise symbolic fairytale heroines such as Ms Hilton. She embodies the life that most of us mere wage slaves have no chance of reaching. But capitalism teaches us to be “aspirational”. Why not, therefore, aspire to imitate the spiritually empty, but commmodity-filled life of Paris and her drug-addled friends who inhabit the wonderland of the US west coast and all points asunder.

What a wonderful piece of bourgeois ideology the phrase “aspirational” is. A respected Australian political scientist, Hayden Manning, has this to say about it:

‘Aspirational voter’ is another way of saying ‘middle class voter’ with one important difference: many voters’ current middle class status rests on the fragile foundation of high levels of personal and household debt. Economic recessions in the mid-1970s, the early 1980s and early 1990s caused widespread employment insecurity and periods of declining real wages. By the late 1990s the mood shifted markedly as many voters experienced steady improvements in their disposable incomes, home values appreciated and, importantly, banks invited their customers to borrow heavily at a time when interest rates reached a 30 year low (Harding 2005). In this environment Australian middle class affluence was, in a fashion, reborn after being shaken during periodic recessions…
A host of demographic, social and economic factors are bandied around to define the ‘aspirational voter’. Objectively, they are middle income earners, upwardly mobile, and may be employed in either blue or white collar occupations. More speculative is the view that they are vulnerable to interest rate rises due to high levels of personal debt (Hewitt 2004). Pundits describe the aspirational outlook as entrepreneurial and individualistic. Aspirationals have been variously described as the new ‘conservative right’—anti-egalitarian and anti-union, favouring tax cuts, driving new cars, and sending their kids to private schools (Carney 2001; Green 2001; Stephens 2001; Henderson 2001; MacKay 2001; Davidson 2001; Hamilton 2003; Burchell 2003; Glover 2004; Manne 2004).

You can see clearly from this how the term has taken on a whole load of baggage. It is used to describe workers who have been sucked in by the churning propaganda and bad journalism that allows such terms to be abused without question. This is MoR and mainstream political science and it’s the fodder of balanced journalism.

Journalists should wake up from their bad dreams, stop worrying about that Hilton girl and start to question some of their own “aspirational” values. If you’re a journalist and you’re reading this, you could do a lot worse than spend the next 45 minutes here with John Pilger. This is “inspirational” and that’s what should be driving journalism today.

If you haven’t got 45 minutes to watch this video, perhaps you’ve got 10 to read Pilger’s speech at Columbia University on 14 April 2006.

That’s too much for your busy life to take? Then cop this; the short, sharp and sweet conclusion to that speech:

What should journalists do? I mean, journalists who give a damn? They need to act now. Governments fear good journalists. The reason the Pentagon spends millions of dollars on PR, or “perception management” companies that try to bend the news is because it fears truth tellers, just as Stalinist governments feared them. There is no difference. Look back at the great American journalists: Upton Sinclair, Edward R Murrow, Martha Gellhorn, I. F.Stone, Seymour Hersh. All were mavericks. None embraced the corporate world of journalism and its modern supplier: the media college.

It is said the internet is an alternative; and what is wonderful about the rebellious spirits on the World Wide Web is that they often report as journalists should. They are mavericks in the tradition of the great muckrakers: those like the Irish journalist Claud Cockburn, who said: “Never believe anything until it is officially denied.” But the internet is still a kind of samidzat, an underground, and most of humanity does not log on; just as most of humanity does not own a cell phone. And the right to know ought to be universal. That other great muckraker, Tom Paine, warned that if the majority of the people were denied the truth and ideas of truth, it was time to storm what he called the “Bastille of words”. That time is now.”

Leave a reply and try to be polite

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: