Journalism: A faith in decline?

p mh 4Here are two items that I have wanted to share for some time and I keep forgetting to put them online as a pair. Of course, some would question whether they mesh, which is kind of the point.

OK, if you have never read Jay Rosen’s “Journalism Is Itself a Religion” essay, this would be a good time to do so. Click here and then get yourself something to drink and sit a spell. When you are done, you can move on to this Weekly Standard essay entitled “The Media’s Ancien Regime: Columbia Journalism School tries to save the old order” by new-media evangelist Hugh Hewitt.

Now, there are journalism insiders out there who believe the Hewitt article is a bit on the snarky side. I thought it went out of its way to show respect to the principalities and powers in the world of journalism education, while still making it clear that the author thought they were tilting at some very old windmills.

The theme in this essay that most interests me, and links it to Rosen’s text, is the claim that journalism is, for many people, a kind of substitute faith with its own rites, creeds, sins, scribes, icons, altars and holy priesthood. This image begins with the first words and continues throughout. I am stunned that Hewitt did not quote Rosen at some point.

To enter Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism is to enter the highest temple of a religion in decline. A statue of Thomas Jefferson guards the plaza outside the doors, and the entry room is suitably grand. Two raised platforms proclaim the missions in bold gold letters: “To Uphold Standards of Excellence in Journalism” and “To Educate the Next Generation of Journalists.” The marble floor tells you that the school was endowed by Joseph Pulitzer and erected in 1912 in memory of his daughter Lucille. A bronze quotation from Pulitzer’s 1904 cri de coeur in the North American Review is on the wall:

Our republic and its press will rise or fall together. An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve the public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery. A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself. …

There is a new high priest in the dean’s office on the seventh floor. …

Pop open a second bottle of something and enjoy this essay, too.

So here is my question. Which journalistic religion is in decline? Is it the old faith of the American model of the press, with its creed of accuracy and balance, or the idealistic, advocacy faith of the “new journalism” that burst from the head of Woodstein during the holy days of the Watergate era? Have people lost faith in the new faith that said the old faith is out of date? Precisely who is in decline? Both? Neither?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • dk

    I don’t know how you’d measure the decline, because I think the main tale of decline in journalism has to do with changing media; declining standards of quality and merit throughout the culture; the triumph of “communications” and “public relations” over “journalism” (a BS major akin to “education”); rampant miseducation systems from kindergartedns to graduate schools; and the increasing ignorance and bubble-living of the populace. Journalism is in decline because it is an institution of western modernity, and that particular civilization is passing away. Both journalistic religions are in decline because they do not command or create the master-narratives of “the public” or even a majority part of it. They cannot pretend to be engines of fundamental cultural unity and strength.

    New Journalism is a “postmoderny” kind of thing with contemporaneous analogs in “post-modern,” post-structuralist ways of thinking and writing about history, culture, literature, etc. in the humanities and social sciences. While these movements did a lot to destroy the older modernist and positivist ideas behind the press and academe, they never succeeded in really establishing themselves.

    How could they? The “local narrative” approach as a reaction to the voice of “objective-neutral” description and analysis succeeds by cutting out the ground under its feet. It begins by rejecting the possibility and desirability of a single or dominant way of thinking and articulating things. So you can try to do more description than analysis, but you know description contains implied judgments–and how far does description take you anyway? You can make whatever you write all about personality–chiefly yours. This can be good, if you have a certain genius. Few writers do. You can be openly partisan or merely confess your biases or relevant biographical data. Then you will lose most people who see you as an alien from Mars or who don’t already see things your way, no matter how fair, accurate and balanced you are in your analyses.

    This impasse among people who think, teach, speak and write about their culture is an indication of how divided and confused their culture is. When you’re a symptom of division and confusion, and your colleagues point fingers at each other for perceived business and ideological failures, you’re not going to trusted by anyone else either.

    In this a bad thing? Keep in mind that the press has never been a force for unity except when it has supported and has been supported by people with religious-sectarian and/or nationalist goals. In those cases the press successfully extirpated or relegated dissenting voices to the margins of the public sphere.

  • David Adrian

    Some 30 years ago, when I was a newspaperman (I’m now a public relations counselor, having stepped through the media looking glass about 20 years ago), I did indeed describe journalism as akin to religion in a job interview at the Boston Herald, so I naturally concur with Mr. Rosen.

    I also recall from those days a wonderful essay, or series of essays, on newspapers and newspapering in The New Republic by the late Henry Fairlie, in which he said the job of the editor was, if I’m quoting him correctly, “to see life steady and to see it whole”. Today, certainly, there’s no editor of any major American newspaper so capable. Perhaps the last was Abe Rosenthal of the no-longer-great New York Times.

    Today’s Times, alas, exemplifies today’s MSM in general: unbalanced, unfair, inaccurate, ignorant, and utterly tone deaf to the voices outside of the blue precincts of the East and West coasts and the university towns in between.

  • David Adrian

    PS, see “Bad News Bearers: The media won’t defeat America by fighting the last war,” by James Taranto, in the online Wall Street Journal’s Opinion Journal at

  • Scott Allen

    I agree with many of DK’s points, although I question the notion of a “decline.” We have to take it on faith that the media had a golden era between turn of the (19th/20th) century “yellow” journalism and Watergate. After all, who tells us about this golden era? Well, the media itself (how’s THAT for a liberal, “social construction” viewpoint?). And that era is over because the media has been exposed including lies dating back to Cronkite. Moreover, their profits are disappearing as consumers now rule the marketplace through available choices on cable, radio, and the internet. The danger in the future is “egocasting” — that is, only referencing news providers that agree with our own outlook. Many people will be susceptible to this. Nonetheless, the checks and balances provided by increased competition should provide us all with a more interesting and honest society. The next group to get knocked off by this trend will be the charlatans in academia. They are no longer the gatekeepers of knowledge, and the physical plant of universities is no longer necessary for teaching (though some distributed office space will be needed for testing). It’s a new millenium, baby!

  • Molly

    “And that era is over because the media has been exposed including lies dating back to Cronkite.”

    CRONKITE lied? Where? When?

  • dk

    I was suggesting in my last paragraph that from one perspective, decline could be improvement. These things are always both/and, and depending on one’s perception of being the hammer or the nail at present, history is interpreted accordingly.

    That said, I do think it would be hard to come up with criteria that show fundamental improvements or gains across the board in the media and public life over the past 1-2 centuries. At the same time, I don’t think this implies an earlier “golden age” in the sense that it would be a better time to live in, or that it should be a complete model for us now.

    It’s definitely a negative decline for the press according to certain and probably dominant conceptions of it and “the public sphere.” Neil Postman, Jurgen Habermas, etc. The 18thC is the heyday: you get diversity, partisanship, but substantial unity and consensus about articulate reasoning and civic argument as a means to solve all problems and overcome all conflicts. Educational systems, science, print, the press–all mainstream literacy-related instituions are tied into this collective faith. But it’s the tenuous faith of white male dominated western nation-states engaged in slavery and colonial projects while also dealing with revolutionary movements–the English Civil War, French and American Revolutions. Intra-European religious and class conflicts are strong below the surface at the same time the press is part of the new enlightenment church and faith.

    The decline of this order has brought a lot of disorder–often due to different quests for a better, more just social order that is also cohesive on the basis of a rough consensus on truth, value, meaning. You can pick out certain exemplary successes among these quests, but there are also losses, and as yet there are no dominant conceptions of history and identity among western nations to rival the kind they formerly had. So you get internal division, withdrawal, apathy and the weird situation of the recent presidential pep rally that rightly suggests there more momentum and in some sense, power, among radical Islamicists than in the US.

    We have more formerly mareginalized voices making it into the public now, greater public access to education, greater public access to information and relatively unfiltered data, a less hegemonic or perhaps merely less WASP male-dominated public sphere–and none of these things are pure goods. They are just the classic benefits and drawbacks of democracy: some people use the freedom well, and for others it is negatively anarchic or disorienting, or else it leads some to opt for others to do too much intellectual labor for them. Too much is thrown into doubt, and you lose enough common consensus on standards of truth and merit for people to resolve critical issues or even believe meaningful resolution is possible.

  • Molly

    “Too much is thrown into doubt, and you lose enough common consensus on standards of truth and merit for people to resolve critical issues or even believe meaningful resolution is possible. ”

    Hmmmmm. Or maybe the common consensus was group think and now some people who would rather meld into a society without fuss are anxious about having too much autonomy for decision making for themselves?

  • Nancy Reyes

    Christienne Amanpour has a preachy commercial on CNNInternational where she says about reporters getting the heart of the story and they can therefore change the world…my cynical point is that EDITORIALISTS change the world…good reporters examine and try to tell what they find objectively…

  • dk

    Nancy–Objective reporting or reporting with an effort being conscious of and minimizing viewpoint and assumption bias? Objectivity is impossible if it is defined as a pure absence of bias. You have to have some kind of viewpoint founded on ideas that necessarily exclude others.

    Molly–common consensus can always be called “groupthink.” Who are you referring to when you say “maybe … now some people who would rather meld into a society without fuss are anxious about having too much autonomy for decision making for themselves?” “Melding” into a society entails “fuss” whether people want it or not. The “melding” or “melting” metaphor itself may be unhelpful for understanding this sort of thing. That notion of America died in the late 60s as well.

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  • Japan pathak

    Journalism is in decline ? Why only jounrnalism, in every aspect of life you can see declining values and devotion.. This is the era in which there are more hospitals but less health, more colleges but less education, more offices bus less jobs so as more journalists but less journalism, paradox paradox, same paradox in every avenue, why only journalism ?

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