The abolition of journalism
Media | Why disruption is an opportunity to create new and better news
by Les Sillars
Posted 11/10/18, 10:58 am
C.S. Lewis famously dismissed the journalism of his day. “I never read the papers. Why does anyone?” he wrote. “They’re nearly all lies, and one has to wade thru’ such reams of verbiage and ‘write up’ to find out even what they’re saying.” The notion, he quipped elsewhere, that journalists “can be saved is a doctrine, if not contrary to, yet certainly above, reason!”
Many people would still agree. Readers can find brilliant work and even some good publications, but the industry as a whole is a hot mess. As we’ll see below, its credibility is sinking like a cast-iron swimming pool noodle, the internet (and other factors) blew up its ad-focused business model, and mainstream coverage of important issues, from abortion to gender identity to religious freedom, seems more deranged each day.
In the endless scramble to produce news that floats even briefly atop the soul-sucking dreck that dominates social media and TV, journalists too often cut corners and push agendas while pretending to be above the fray. Nobody can say with authority anymore what is or is not journalism because the paradigm that defined it for the last century—the professional standards and practices of “objectivity” applied in the name of public service—has burned to the ground.
This is a perfect time for Christians to embrace journalism.
Disruption offers an opportunity to build and support excellent news organizations that offer true stories, but to do that believers will need to rethink their approach to news. For more than a generation, many have taught their young people that journalism is a job fit only for hacks and propagandists, and now we complain that so much news is hackery and propaganda. Lewis confronted a similar irony: “In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function,” Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man. “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
Christians should not cheer for the abolition of journalism—good journalism helps defend against the abolition of man. Yet we have undervalued news in part because it comes wrapped in conventions and styles that, while useful, can obscure the reporter’s core task: to see the world clearly and help others see it clearly too. Journalism is a profoundly noble and deeply Biblical calling that combines the gifts of a storyteller, a historian, a philosopher, and a theologian. To live rightly, we must understand the times in which we live, the culture that shapes our imaginations, and the people God calls us to serve.
The theological implications of journalism never crossed my mind when I became a reporter in 1993. I just needed a job. My wife, young son, and I had returned to my western Canadian hometown after I graduated from seminary. I had seldom read or watched news, let alone written any, but providentially I landed in the Calgary bureau of The Alberta Report.
The first months involved a steep learning curve, but I was soon covering “the news”: the trial of a society matron who peppered her husband’s back with .22-calibre slugs, the doctor who saved hundreds of lives because he refused to bow to political correctness during the AIDS-tainted blood scandal, the funeral of a famous politician, transhumanism, and a logger who fought off a hungry bear with a running chainsaw.
I was a so-so headline writer, but my best one was for a story about a price-fixing scheme by ambulance companies: “Conspiracy of sirens.” I also turned in a story about a UFO seen descending beside a small northern town with the headline, “Aliens invade Cold Lake!”
“No, no,” tut-tutted my editor. “Headlines must always be absolutely accurate.” He sat down and typed on one of our monochrome monitors, “Aliens land on Cold Lake!”
I produced 2,500 words per week, usually three stories, for five years. Slowly I discovered how much I didn’t know about a reporter’s responsibilities, and that every reporter eventually does something shameful or stupid. My own low point involved a world champion kickboxer and an injudicious use of the phrase “chicken out.” Another time we were sued because I neglected to fact-check a quote.
In 1996, a book about organized crime changed my life. For background research on a story about biker gangs, I picked up Hell’s Angels by “gonzo journalist” Hunter Thompson. It held me spellbound. It had (unlike his later work) insightful observation of fascinating characters combined with crisp prose, social significance, and a compelling narrative. Suddenly, for me, journalism seemed much bigger.
A colleague introduced me to WORLD Magazine in 1997. I sent the editors a story about how activists were trying to turn Canada into “the world’s largest no-spanking zone.” That line was probably responsible for the invitation to try out for the publication. On Jan. 1, 1999, my wife and I took our two kids and headed to the University of Texas to study under editor Marvin Olasky, then a professor there, and work for the magazine.
A few years earlier, Olasky had written Telling the Truth, in which he explained WORLD’s philosophy of journalism: “Biblical objectivity.” If the point of journalism is to help people see and understand the world, and the Bible is the only authoritative source of key truths about God, humanity, and reality, then a reporter can hope to tell the complete truth only insofar as Scripture informs his or her reporting and writing.
It was easy to apply this in my stories for WORLD. I wrote about youth suicide in Phoenix, low-cost funeral alternatives, the Human Genome Project, and attempts to censor Johnny Hart, a Christian and at the time the most widely read cartoonist on the planet.
In 2002, I arrived at Patrick Henry College to teach journalism to Christian students. Not all of my graduates could work for WORLD, and PHC had (and has) a grand vision for its alumni of serving Christ in law, politics, culture, and the media. Over the next decade, I taught students that Biblical objectivity was great at a Christian publication, but in a mainstream newsroom they needed to embrace the positive elements of “objective” journalism; mainly accuracy, balance, fairness, non-partisanship, detachment, and impartiality. They should maintain a Biblical worldview for themselves while understanding that audiences and colleagues likely will not share their faith. Be professional and treat other people’s worldviews with respect, I said, and you’ll earn respect and the opportunity to tell worthwhile stories.
That approach helped many students succeed in secular newsrooms, but about five years ago I began to wonder if I was preparing students for a media environment that was rapidly disappearing.
In my graduate studies at UT, I had learned that journalism’s modern business model appeared in the 1830s when the proprietors of New York’s “penny papers” began selling copies cheaply on the street instead of by annual subscription. Their “bright” stories of crime and society and politics attracted large audiences that advertisers wanted to reach, and the “pennies” were hugely successful. Since then, journalists have made most of their money not by selling content to subscribers but by renting audience attention to advertisers.
The notion of an “objective” reporter fit well with this strategy. Beginning in about the 1920s, newspaper publishers wanted to present themselves as impartial and honest brokers of news to appeal to the widest possible audience.
About then, radical skepticism was gaining ground and journalists wanted “scientific” methods of reporting to convince audiences to trust the news, so they accepted an ideal of knowledge without bias, facts undiluted by opinion, and reality untainted by tradition or history or personal belief. Journalists adopted a neutral tone, impartiality, detachment, and balance as rhetorical devices to show their commitment to the ideal, and so provide the news society needs to be free and self-governing.
This, then, had defined American journalism for a century: objectivity in the service of the public good, supported primarily by advertising. From the outside, objectivity had seemed to work well. It positioned journalism as an essential part of a liberal democracy while producing huge profits.
But this paradigm had skeptics and critics from the beginning. Hunter Thompson called it a “pompous contradiction in terms,” and most journalists acknowledge that converting information, people, and events into news requires at least some interpretation. But as long as society shared a general consensus about key worldview concepts, objectivity seemed like a worthy ideal. When most people agreed upon what the facts meant, the appearance of bias was muted and the profit margins were wide.
But between the 1960s and the 1980s, American culture began to lose its broad consensus on many things, from Vietnam to God to sex. As the cultural divides grew wider and political conflicts increasingly sharp and ideological, the major news media’s progressive biases slowly became obvious. But they could not abandon their claims to objectivity—that seemed like a surrender to subjectivity. And so, unable or unwilling to restrain their liberal leanings, they alienated ever-larger chunks of their audiences.
That is in part why the news industry was already showing signs of financial stress in the 1990s, and then Craigslist, Autotrader, and others hijacked classified ads from newspapers in the early 2000s. Today, Google and Facebook alone suck up tens of billions of dollars annually in ad revenue that formerly went to journalism companies. Some media are doing better than others: Broadcast and cable news is still profitable, for the most part. But in general, news companies struggle to make money competing for attention in our entertainment-saturated culture.
This financial pressure has produced a relentless drive for attention that serves audiences poorly. It forces many publications—scraping for online traffic leftover from social media—to adopt the values and techniques of technology companies, from writing clickbait headlines to gaming search algorithms. It requires Washington reporters desperate for scoops to engage in “transactional journalism,” which is trading access to high-profile sources for favorable coverage. It tempts journalism companies to produce “branded content” in which reporter-like employers try to fool audiences into spending more time with ads that look like news.
All this makes plain what has been generally true since the mid-1800s: Most journalists are in the ad business, not the news business. Journalists insist that their first loyalty is the public, and many are sincere, but under economic pressure the paradigm collapses. They cannot serve two masters.
The mainstream media’s commitment to objectivity has been crumbling even faster in the Trump era. In 2016, a New York Times writer conceded that many reporters, believing Donald Trump to be a “dangerous” demagogue, have decided to “throw out the textbook American journalism has been using” for decades. This makes reporters uncomfortable, Jim Rutenburg conceded, but they’re all asking, “Do normal standards apply?”
Audiences believe that reporters long ago ditched “normal standards.” More than four-fifths of Americans believe the news media are “critical” or “very important” for providing “objective” news reports, according to a Knight Foundation/Gallup poll from 2017 on media, trust, and democracy. But only 28 percent agree that the media do these tasks well, and 43 percent say they do them poorly. More than half of respondents could not identify even one “objective” news source.
It gets worse.
A 2016 Gallup report said, “Americans’ trust and confidence in the mass media ‘to report the news fully, accurately and fairly’ has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history, with 32 percent saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media.” The high point was 72 percent in 1976—in other words, media credibility plunged 40 points in 40 years.
The collapse of public trust was probably inevitable. Journalistic objectivity was incoherent from the beginning. Reality exists and much truth (including metaphysical truth) can be known, as 2,000 years of orthodox Christian doctrine and philosophy make clear, but in a fallen world the process of converting “facts” into “news” requires a fallen interpreter. Everybody has a worldview, even journalists, so the question is, which worldview does a journalist bring to her task? Audiences could sense the worldview effects on news and rightly resented the pretense that reporters were giving them “just the facts.”
The effects of the pretense were almost worse on the culture of journalism itself. Objectivity dismissed the doctrine of objective value, the idea that things and people and events have inherent meaning that reporters should attempt to discern and describe. The ideal of relating facts untainted by value judgments turns journalists into one of Lewis’ “men without chests.”
Lewis wrote, following Plato, that humans should use reason to control their appetites by means of their properly trained emotions: “The head rules the belly through the chest.” That is, people must be taught to feel rightly, in accordance with reality, that something is virtuous or wicked, beautiful or ugly, in order to relate properly to it. No one who believes that nothing is truly, inherently immoral, Lewis argued, can offer more than token resistance to immorality. Objectivity does not free people from their prejudices. Unless they submit to objective moral truth, it sets them on the path to nihilism and despair.
In surveys, vast majorities of journalists deny or doubt that transcendent truth exists or can be known. Unsurprisingly, reporters often turn cynical. But many are “better than their principles,” as Lewis put it, and believe and write as if some things are actually evil (racism and inequality, for example) or virtuous (inclusion and autonomy). And sometimes journalists, by common grace, see things rightly despite themselves.
In addition, journalism’s traditional standards have real value. Accuracy and impartiality are essential, for example, while balance and fairness help reporters speak across political and cultural divides. Had mainstream journalists done a better job living up to those standards (especially on hotly contested social issues such as abortion and marriage) while recognizing the role of worldviews and the need for humility, they might have saved themselves much grief.
But most didn’t.
Now financial pressure and a polarized political culture have revealed, not created, the internal contradictions upon which the industry was built. These contradictions have frustrated audiences and corroded the newsroom culture. Once reporters lose their commitment to traditional standards of objectivity and the idea of objective truth, journalism is reduced to the application of power in the service of today’s fashionable cause, from transgenderism to #MeToo. It’s the only journalism left after the abolition of man.
These changes in journalism had for me a dismal immediacy as I watched them from a campus near Washington, D.C., one reinforced by conversations with my interns and alumni who worked in the nation’s capital and by my occasional forays to report inside the Beltway.
But as my disquiet grew, my historical studies showed me a story of journalism through the centuries that was not just hopeful but inspiring. I realized, largely through Olasky’s Central Ideas in the Development of American Journalism, that modern journalism has its origins in the Reformation era in the 1500s Europe. The demand for free speech was motivated initially by a desire for theological freedom as much as for political freedom.
The first real newspapers appeared in the 1600s, often founded by Christians who understood that even royal authority was accountable to God’s standards of justice. Chroniclers of the 1700s like Daniel Defoe and William Hazlitt were deeply grounded in the liberal arts. These early British correspondents saw themselves not as passive conduits for information but as observers and interpreters of the times.
I was also encountering the great writers and reporters who told the stories that shaped American society. Journalism history is filled with a mixture of tyrants, knaves, self-promoters, and liars along with brilliant writers, dogged reporters, courageous entrepreneurs, and devoted servants of the public good. I met Puritan Cotton Mather, some of whose sermons prefigured the Sunday morning news shows, and Henry J. Raymond, a Bible-believing Presbyterian who founded The New York Times in 1851. I heard Edward R. Murrow’s dramatic live accounts of Nazi bombing on CBS Radio (“This … is London”) and watched Walter Cronkite tear up announcing the death of President John F. Kennedy.
My favorite writers became Tom Wolfe (The Right Stuff), Michael Lewis (Moneyball), and Laura Hillenbrand, whose huge bestseller, Unbroken, is about Louis Zamperini, a World War II airman who survived weeks on the open ocean and then years in Japanese prison camps. He became a Christian after the war. “If I ever write anything half that good,” I thought as I closed the book, “I’ll call myself a journalist and retire.”
These writers showed me what it means to be a great journalist and a great storyteller. I don’t know if Wolfe (who died last May), Lewis, or Hillenbrand are believers, but their best stories—true stories that start to apply what philosopher Edmund Burke called the moral imagination—helped me to see and contemplate the world.
Christian literary theorists have long argued that the storytelling instinct is a reflection of the image of God in man, even part of the “creation mandate” to fill the earth and subdue it. “We demand windows,” Lewis famously declared, and seek out stories because “we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. … We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as our own.”
That task is beyond journalism, some say, because literature tells us “what happens” whereas news merely tells us “what happened.” But this a false distinction. Journalism’s account of “what happened” is precisely what gives it the potential to explain and universalize human experience in powerful ways. Before the Teacher could wisely conclude that the end of the matter is to fear God, who will judge every deed, the Teacher sought to know what goes on “under the sun.” And historicity matters. Luke promised Theophilus an “orderly account” of actual events so “that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”
Even the most basic news stories offer the information people use to build the narratives of their own lives, their communities, their societies, and even humanity itself. A public policy debate, a plane crash, an election, a new technology, a homelessness crisis, or the rise of a biker gang—these specifics of human experience help us orient ourselves rightly to the narrative we all share: creation, fall, redemption, restoration. And to paraphrase philosopher Alisdair McIntyre, the practice of virtue requires a context. You can’t know what you’re supposed to do until you know what stories you’re a part of.
There is no golden age of journalism for which believers should pine, but there are many models of great journalism to which we might aspire. The collapse of the objectivity paradigm and the ad-supported business model means that the field is wide open for innovative ways both to do journalism and to finance it.
For example, the internet makes possible a pay-for-content approach that restores direct accountability between reporter and reader. News organizations’ experiments with paywalls in the 2000s usually ended badly, but public attitudes are shifting, perhaps as a result of services like Netflix and Spotify. The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal all began charging for content or tightened their paywalls in the last few years. If it works for them, many others will follow.
Start-ups, such as The Athletic for sports coverage, The Information for tech reporting, and The Daily Wire for conservative politics are proving paid content can work on a small scale without advertising, suggesting large opportunities for journalists able to produce distinctive and high-quality specialized or local news. General news organizations that rely heavily on donations, from WORLD to NPR, have found success and stability.
This is going to sound really self-serving, but someone has to say it: First, Christians can and should support news organizations that tell true stories. Audiences willing to pay nothing for news will soon find themselves with news worth nothing. Widespread dissatisfaction with mainstream news offers an opportunity to build large and influential Christian media companies.
Don’t support a news outlet just because it claims to be Christian—support those that help you see the world more clearly. Also, look for publications that provide original reporting with their commentary. Talk is cheap, and it’s not enough merely to reframe the stories mainstream news outlets dig up.
Believers should also recognize the value of non-Christian publications that do good work. Some organizations are probably beyond hope, but others tell great stories and have the broad credibility to inform, build community, hold the powerful accountable, and foster discussion across cultural and political divides. These are crucial functions in a democratic society, and believers should find ways to look outward, to participate in the broader culture, while also strengthening Christian publications.
Second, believers should encourage young people with an interest in writing, in storytelling, in media, or in culture to consider journalism as a vocation—or at least not discourage it. Whether writing for Christian or secular publications, legacy media or start-up websites, news or commentary or books, they will find opportunities to help their neighbors see the world clearly.
The breakdown of the journalistic paradigm does not mean the abolition of stories or of news. The fact that people consume so much bad journalism speaks to the God-given need humans have for information and stories about the world around us. The abolition of man has never seemed so near, and retreat is neither a viable nor a Biblical option. Now is exactly the time to tell true stories of a fallen world infused with grace.