Treat your journalists right


Illustration by Meg Cuca

Andrew Schwartz

Two headlines off the impetuous digital press dateline September 8, 2016: “The Entire Seattle Seahawks Team Will Protest the National Anthem at Opening Game” and “Entire Seahawks Team Planning to Honor Flag During National Anthem on 9/11?”

The mutual and only source for these widely shared articles, from US Uncut and Redstate respectively, was a Seattle Times non-story giving the local spin on the Colin Kaepernick national anthem kneeling brouhaha. Doug Baldwin thought kneeling was a good idea. Bobby Wagner said he wouldn’t do it personally, but mad respect to Kap all the same. Boom: the people get what they want, the reporting was probably accurate–reasonably nuanced and certainly inexpensive–and the Times goes back to reporting on homelessness and education with maximal resources and everyone is happy.

The Seattle Times did the actual reporting, but if my anecdotal Facebook experience on that day was any indication (“So proud of my team,” editorialized the people), the misleading cherry picked (and perhaps mutually exclusive) bullshit peddled by US Uncut and Redstate took the lion’s share of the web traffic.

Journalism is largely premised on the idea that we can share a common perception, that some foundational truths, metaphysical truths, can be mutually understood and agreed upon. The semantically vacant campaign of Donald Trump has undermined this notion; fixed and shared meaning eschewed for empty vessels. The listener may project their own meaning; validate their own value system; choose their own adventure.

But as Nathan Heller’s excellent New Yorker essay, “Trump, the University of Chicago, and the Collapse of Public Language” illustrates, Donald Trump’s linguistic perversions reflect a much broader and much more alarming trend in our national culture, a trend that transcends (or underlies) any other national cultural or ideological divide we perceive: in a jarringly Orwellian sense, the very substance of our public language is being hollowed out.

Yet Heller also hopes and believes this is a trend with which we may do battle. “As long as we share words,” he writes, “we share a vigilance for making sure that they are backed by gold, that they can convey thought—any precise thought—all the way across a population, and thus carry argument and change.” And who will lead this vigilance we must all maintain? As a common faith in so many of our institutions erodes, the institution of professional journalism itself, being an essential steward of our public language, becomes evermore important.

If you read the recently published NY Times magazine piece entitled “Inside Facebook’s (Totally Insane, Unintentionally Gigantic, Hyper Partisan) Political-Media Machine,” you will learn what you already probably know from personal experience: social media warps the truth. Our algorithmically defined digital experiences (check out ProPublica’s recent work on this) profoundly inform our sense of what the world is like. This is just one of the many clear ways that the digital era has fomented the culture wars we are currently experiencing. These are deep forces at work–inexorable even, some might wrongly say–but we, you, are not powerless. David Simon, of the Baltimore Sun, of “The Wire,” producer of insights consistently original and thought-provoking, wrote this in a recent Reddit AMA:

“I want and we need to see an online revenue stream for journalism established that ensures that professional reporters can earn a living covering the quotidian beats of institutionalized America. When stuff is funded, it’s good and fixed and every day. Citizen journalist is not a phrase I take seriously in any sense…People need to pay and copyright has to matter again, or it can’t grow as it needs.”

You can be nihilistically cynical or you can be constructively skeptical. The second path is better, and good real journalism will take you there. I think we should all think long and hard as individuals about the sorts of journalism that we think make us a better society, that possess the credibility to foster a robust public language in which words have real meaning, and upon all of us individually identifying those institutions which consistently stand out in their commitment to real, no bullshit journalism for the public good (and they are numerous), make a personal point to pay them with real money for the good work they do. In the age of the internet, you don’t have to do this to get the news. But you still should.