Does journalism matter?

Does journalism matter? Not as much as it once did – if audience numbers or circulation rates are any guide.

The influence and authority of the nightly network news and the morning metropolitan daily is on the ebb. They like the sea of faith were once, too, at the full, round earth’s shore and lay like the folds of the bright girdle furled. But now I only hear its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, retreating, to the breath of the night wind, down the vast edges drear and naked shingles of the world — sorry, can’t help myself when I get that Arnoldian urge.

Perhaps journalism is going the way of poetry?  In 1992, Dana Gioia, (who would later become the chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts), wrote an essay entitled “Can Poetry Matter?”.   Unlike fiction­, poetry no longer mattered, and had become the specialized calling of a small and isolated group, he argued. Five years later, the novelist Jonathan Franzen made the same complaint about fiction, deploring the neglect of novels in favor of movies and the web. Journalism — as practiced by the New York Times, Guardian, Washington Post, the BBC and the American networks — suffers from the ills of poetry and fiction — domination by a priestly caste whose views are formed by a closed world shaped by secularist materialist political-left pieties and an increasingly outmoded publishing platform.

Host Todd Wilkin of the Issues, Etc. show of Lutheran Public Radio and I discussed these questions on 25 April 2013 in the context of my GetReligion articles “Gosnell fog blankets Britain” and “Master of my domain”. We began the show with an overview of the British press coverage (none to speak of save in the op-ed columns of the Telegraph and the Daily Mail, which has written more about this story than any non-Philadelphia paper.) I did give Todd an update on the Guardian, noting that on 19 April one of its loonier left Comment is Free contributors explained to the comrades of Islington:

Now the [Gosnell] trial is underway, and anti-abortion activists are insisting there’s been a cover-up by ideologues intent on averting honest discussion about the case in order to suit a cynical political agenda.

They’re right. But the ideologues doing the cover-up are on the “pro-life” side.

Yes, its those nasty pro-lifers who are responsible for the news blackout. Go figure.

Todd then moved to a discussion of Diane Winston’s Religion Dispatches article “The Myth of News Media as Secularist Conspiracy”. I observed her arguments were rather thin — blaming the reader for being stupid is never a convincing argument before we turned to the assertion that this was not a religion story.

The Gosnell story is not a religion story, it’s a crime story. People with religious convictions may read their passions into it, but Gosnell did not seem to be motivated one way or the other by a faith commitment. Yet cultural religionists imply that the absence of religious commitment in the nation’s newsrooms—and consequent acceptance of baby-killing, oops abortion, is among the reasons that the Gosnell story was overlooked.

The notion that the news media is a secularist cabal ignoring stories that challenge its shibboleths is wrongheaded.

No, there has not been some grand conspiracy to spike news stories about Kermit Gosnell. There’s been no need to issue instructions to the troops to toe the line and support abortion no matter the cost to the media’s credibility. But there is quite clearly a secularist cabal that ignores stories or issues that challenge its core beliefs.

Newsrooms are the most intellectually monochrome places in the United States — and I speak as one who studied at Duke and Yale, experiencing first hand the group think of the modern University. There was no need to form a conspiracy as just about all of the alleged conspirators were of one mind about this issue before the trial began.

While there are some ideologues and hacks amongst the press these days, many seek to be faithful to the truth as they see it and to do their job, to do the good. But what we see time and again in the mainstream media is the press’s failure to understand that it’s pursuit of what it thinks is the good can lead to bad through unintended consequences and unacknowledged motives.  The loss of a moral center, of a moral imagination has led the liberal press to become illiberal: single-minded, self-censoring and angry.

The avoidance of coverage of the infanticide, murder and depravity chronicled by testimony presented to the court in the Gosnell case is self-evidently a case of moral and intellectual failure. The press’s avoidance of this major story leads to the question of whether it matters any more. And it is hard to say that it does.

In the closing stanza of Dover Beach, Matthew Arnold wrote:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

I cannot help but think that if Arnold were writing today, it would be the new church — the media elites — who would man his ignorant armies. Listen to the broadcast and tell me what you think.

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  • Jerry

    suffers from the ills of poetry and fiction — domination by a priestly caste whose views are formed by a closed world shaped by secularist materialist political-left pieties and an increasingly outmoded publishing platform.

    Funny, from my seat in front of my computer poetry is hardly a slough of despond. We’re almost done with National Poetry Month where I’ve been following people trying to write 30 poems in 30 days or honoring poetry in other ways. I have a cousin and a friend who are published poets with audiences that are outside that narrow box. The first teen poetry slam was conducted in 1997, 5 years after that piece. There are major mailing lists of Rumi and other spiritual poetry. Rap poetry is the poetry of the streets. There’s visual and multimedia poetry. Vocal music is built on poetry.

    Since I find poetry alive and well, vibrant and in many forms, what of journalism? It’s obviously true that traditional media is shrinking and along with it coverage of religion. And it’s true that there are many examples of bad coverage. But I’ve read what appear to me to be valid arguments that the coverage of religion was not that wonderful in the “good olde days” either. And just as the world of religion is in ferment such as old denominational barriers becoming irrelevant, the journalism world is changing with, for example groups like Pro Publica doing the investigative journalism no longer done by the traditional media. Maybe those who care about religious journalism need to start thinking about how to build up new institutions that work in today’s world.

    • geoconger

      The question was not whether poetry was “alive and well” but whether it mattered. This same question I asked about journalism as it is practiced now, and I conclude it does not. The change taking place in the structures and mechanisms of the media are discussed in the podcast.

      • sari

        Of course poetry matters, George. It’s just formatted differently than it was. My kid is crazy about a new rapper, Kendrick Lamar, in addition to Keats, Thom Gunn, James Fenton -and- Shakespeare. The family just finished Christian Wiman’s *The Long Home* (excellent, btw). Each of these reflects a time, a place, and an intended audience. That Lamar’s poetry is put to music does not negate its relevance; Paul Simon and Lennon/McCartney did the same in the sixties.

        I think it’s incorrect to assume that the public has ever been overwhelmingly literate or that there’s been a cultural consensus for any but the lowest common denominator. That’s simply not true. Poetry as poetry was relevant to the educated. My parents, both college grads at a time when few people attended college, made us memorize poems like Kipling’s Gunga Din. Then, as now, poetry was confined to the educated, not to the masses.

        • Jerry

          Part of my feedback on what you wrote is the poetic equivalent of the question about religion: define poetry, give three examples. When I got started writing poetry, I was surprised when a friend told me I had written a good poem. I had not considered what I had written to be real poetry.

          That is my point also about journalism. If you consider it to be practiced in a traditional media outlet with certain characteristics, it matters less and less. Sometimes I find the best stories as twitter posts linked to a blog entry. It’s not officially old school journalism, but it can be a well-written news story. And more seriously, “yellow” journalism is nothing new. The pendulum swung from sanctioned bias to an attempt at objectivity and has now swung back with media outlets such as Fox and others on the left being openly biased.

  • michael reidy

    Excellent. I listened to your podcast and I agree, it’s not a conspiracy more a convergence of opinion and a realisation that Gosnell’s practices are similar to what happens in many a hospital with infinitely more hygiene. This is the ‘after-birth abortion’ that some bio-ethicists promulgated recently. Singer and Tooley have not been hounded from their chairs either.

    As for newspapers, I’ve stopped reading them and if someone were to ask me if I’d read the Irish Times (local paper of record) I would reply ‘no but I read yesterday’s Guardian’.

  • Julia

    Looks like Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia reads this blog.

    “The Atlantic story by Conor Friedersdorf is worth reading. But don’t stop there. Read this by Kirsten Powers, columnist for The Daily Beast, in USA Today. And these excellent analyses by journalists Terry Mattingly, Mollie Hemingway and George Conger.” [links were provided to relevant GR posts]

  • sari

    I agree with Jerry. Institutions are changing in response to the havoc wreaked by all-encompassing technological change, particularly the Internet. Why should journalism be exempt, when literature, entertainment and business have been so profoundly affected?

    Many here allege that readership has dropped substantially because of poor religion coverage or media’s purported liberal slant. Do data support these often cited facts? Other factors may be at play. Today’s online news are tomorrow’s headlines, which makes print news redundant. Digital media consume no trees, require no recycling, and fill no landfills. The Internet also allows the consumer a wide range of news options, news that is presented from every possible perspective. And, let’s be honest– journalists were never entirely unbiased, though most were, perhaps, better schooled in certain aspects of culture, including Christianity. Religion and Christianity are not synonymous.

  • Does Journalism Matter ??

    I was watching the Presidential ‘news’ conference today, and was surprised at the lack of follow up questions, the acceptance of what the President said, and the basic lack of what I would call aggressiveness that you used to see in press conferences in most previous administrations.

    For instance, when the President talked about health care, and he stated that 85% of people are now getting the ‘benefits’ of the health care bill, there was no clamor to followup with a question about what about those who are experiencing increased health insurance costs?

  • Actually I agree with Diane Winston, but the argument takes me to a different conclusion. The Gosnell trial is a crime story, and a public health story, not a religion story. But I think a reason it’s not being covered is that the evidence challenges the widespread belief that abortion is a matter of religion, a theological argument over ensoulment. I still see ensoulment cited in stories on abortion even though the last two popes were very clear that that their concern isn’t based on medieval theology but on scientific evidence of the humanity of a fetus. Coverage of the Gosnell trial doesn’t require anyone to read Pope John Paul’s “The Gospel of Life,” only to look at the evidence and listen to the testimony. I suspect that there’s a deep-seated fear on the part of some reporters and editors that they will discover that abortion really isn’t a religion story after all.

  • helen

    sari April 30 @ 10.59
    My parents, both college grads at a time when few people attended college, made us memorize poems like Kipling’s Gunga Din. Then, as now, poetry was confined to the educated, not to the masses.

    I was a “first in my family” to attend college… not because my parents weren’t interested in education, but because they went to work at 14 to help support siblings after them. School ended; education didn’t.
    I memorized Kipling, which I found in the public school library, from third grade, without coercion and I read everything else I could get my hands on. In rural southern Minnesota, my Dad bought a New York Sunday paper when I was 8 years old until I was 13, when he died and that small luxury was abandoned.
    I am only telling you these things to explain why your comment about “the masses” comes across as snobbery.
    Someone must have encouraged your “rare” college graduate parents, as someone encouraged me.
    That someone may have valued education, even if s/he didn’t have it. (Before poetry was put into books, it was oral tradition, available to “the masses”.) And, before Kipling, I was memorizing hymns, the poetry of the religious, available to anyone.