Against journalism: summary and conclusions

To summarize, journalism presents a dangerously distorted view of the world, because

  1. It reports only violations of social roles (e.g. bad fathers, bad priests, bad soldiers), rather than their essential nature (e.g. what it means to be a father, what is perfection and what is perversion) or their typical fulfillment.
  2. By emphasizing violations in social roles, it undermines the expectations attached to these roles, which impedes their ability to function.
  3. It discredits in the eyes of the public laws and customs that directly bring inconveniences while indirectly bringing vast benefits.
  4. It ignores the disciplines that provide true understanding of the world–statistics, history, sociology, etc–but rather forms general impressions of the world by extrapolating from sensational and often unrepresentative single events.
  5. It undermines all authority figures and all defenders of public morality by emphasizing their failings as “hypocrisy”.
  6. It discriminates in favor of revolutionaries and libertines by failing to draw attention to their evils.

Some say that journalism is a necessary evil, because it holds authority figures accountable and keeps them from preying on their subjects.  This claim is false because

  1. A hostile press forces authority figures to cover up misdeeds in their organizations in order to avoid devestating bad publicity.  This prevents them from being able to suppress corruption as straightforwardly as would otherwise be possible.
  2. A hostile press destroys the morale of an institution’s leadership class.  Without high expectations and positive role models, leaders lose much internal motivation.  Also, it becomes much more difficult to attract talended, energetic, and idealistic recruits into the leadership class, thus further eroding the institution’s quality of leadership.

Others admit the malignity of journalism’s influence, but think this to be contingent on its current practitioners:  if only journalists weren’t so liberal, or socialist, or anti-Catholic, or whatever, these negative effects of journalism would allegedly cease to exist.  This also is false.  The effects described above proceed from the very nature of journalism.  It would not help to have more scientists, philosophers, conservatives, or Christians in the newsroom.  The things these groups care about–statistical correlations, essential natures, the global function and context of a custom for a society, the manifestations of God in the world–are by construction not what newspapers report.  What newspapers report, what counts as news, are violations of social expectations, a thing that always erodes these expectations and thus serves anti-traditional ends.  Journalism is not a neutral force, a weapon that can be wielded equally well by conservatives or liberals.  It is inherently liberal.  We should thus not be surprised that more liberals are, and always will be, attracted to this unfortunate trade.  Conservatives see much less value in what newspapers report; to them it seems a very partial and superficial view of society.

So, the goal should not be to take over the newspapers; the goal should be to get people to stop reading them.  We need to make it socially costly to admit to reading a newspaper.  When a fellow at a party brings up an editorial he read in the New York Times, we should treat him as if he just said that he read something in a children’s comic book, a celebrity gossip magazine, or a pornographic magazine.  Referencing newspapers must come to be seen as a thing stupid people do.  We should reply to the newspaper reader, “Well, of course, I don’t keep track of that trash.  When I wanted to understand this issue, I read this new history of Afghanistan/read this article in the Journal of Social Psychology/looked at the primary sources/did an order of magnitude estimate based on…/etc.”  We have to get the word out that journalism doesn’t give you “the Truth”, and we should look on anyone who thinks otherwise with the same disdaining pity liberal academics have for people who think Fox News gives them “the Truth”.

I would be as horrified to find that a child of mine had taken to reading newspapers as I would be to find that he’d taken to reading pornography.  I suspect the former is the more deeply corrupting.

12 Responses

  1. I have a question for you: Is journalism just gossip?

    In many ways, newspapers are simply “high-class” gossip. But, gossip–though a sin–in some ways seems to reinforce social roles, in contrast to journalism, which undermines social roles. The classic example of gossip reinforcing social roles is when old ladies talk about some sin committed by some person in the village, leading the sinner (hopefully, at least) to be ashamed of his sin and to repent. Journalism, on the other hand, leads to fear of widespread exposure on the part of the sinner and perhaps a hardening of heart.

    So, what’s the essential difference between journalism and gossip that makes one reinforce and the other undermine social roles?

  2. Wow, that’s a really good question. I think you are right that gossip often tends to reinforce social roles. It is the classic instance of what Radcliffe-Brown called a “diffuse sanction”. So why does exposing violations boost conformity in this case but not in the case of journalism? That’s something I’ll want to think more about, but here are some first thoughts:
    1) Gossip doesn’t disproportionately target authority figures. For example, “Tiger Woods commits adultery” is gossip, but “Bill Clinton commits adultery” is news.
    2) Gossip usually operates on a local scale–often the subjects are common aquaintences. This makes it less tempting to overgeneralize. For example, you and I might gossip about the parish priest’s drinking habits. A journalist would search the globe for examples of alchohol abuse by priests and then present them as part of a worldwide epidemic of clerical alchoholism.
    3) Diffuse sactions are very decentralized, so its hard to enlist them in some kind of organized campaign.

  3. […] In my ideal arrangement, priests who are accused of pederasty would be turned in to the police right away, and the Church would not suffer for this because no one would read newspapers.  Down with journalism! […]

  4. Here’s an aphorism for you to consider:

    “The unrestricted publication of news, as demanded by the mass media, has forced the public lie to assume, in the state, the traditional function of the secret.”
    –Nicolás Gómez Dávila

  5. Hello Stephen,

    Thank you for introducing me to Nicolas Gomez Davila. I’ve just spent some time browsing through your web pages on him.

  6. You’re welcome. I thought you would like him, especially his few comments on journalism.

  7. Jeffrey Polet at Front Porch Republic has an excellent piece “in praise of gossip

  8. Thanks.

  9. […] maintain its virtue for long in a land where journalists and their product are plentiful.  I have elsewhere presented reasons to doubt it, and the history of Western nations gives us no reason for […]

  10. […] Here’s a summary of my case against journalism.  Newspapers are inherently hostile to morality, authority, and social order.  They should be banned. […]

  11. […] protesters (the radicals of the sixties, the gay-rights activists, etc.) or other establishments like the media who always expose society when the imperfections of its (inherent) structure are imposed. Thus when […]

  12. […] Heretofore, my criticisms of journalism have concerned its global effects. To summarize (see, e.g. here and here) […]

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