Home Sunday Commentary Postmodern Sublime: What can journalism’s past teach its future?

Postmodern Sublime: What can journalism’s past teach its future?


[Originally published on HowardWeaver.com. Republished with permission.]

Journalism in the Postmodern Sublime

More and more often nowadays I find that what I have to offer the discussion about the future of news is a contribution to the foundation documents—the “before” photo in the before-and-after comparison, perhaps. I lived more of the era than many and, probably for that reason, have likewise thought about it more than most.

I now realize I spent most of my professional life searching for something that can never be found: the truth.

For the true acolytes, everything we did in the news business was animated by belief that somewhere, somehow, Truth was out there waiting to be revealed. With the right documents or sources, with compelling language or vivid photos—maybe even infographics—we could settle any argument by establishing “the facts.”

We learned our newsroom catechism and believed with the intensity of martyrs that “nothing is lost, nothing is ever lost. There is always the clue, the canceled check, the smear of lipstick, the footprint in the canna bed, the condom on the park path, the twitch in the old wound, the baby shoes dipped in bronze, the taint in the blood stream.” (Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men, 1946)

Far closer to reality, I realize now, was another great writer’s observation. Bernard Malamud said, “Human beings can’t see everything. We don’t know everything. We explain many things wrong. There is much that eludes us, much that is mysterious about this life and this universe. And therefore, what we are often doing when we are living is guessing what reality is. The more I experience life, the more I become aware of illusion as primary experience.” (USNWR interview, 1976)

It has eventually become apparent to every thinker at least since Plato that “truth” is far too slippery a concept to trifle with. As a result, most of us in newsrooms fixed on the notion of “facts” instead—something we thought we could prove, that could be sorted out empirically, that authorities could agree on. (As an institution, the press often described this as objectivity, though many of us never found that convincing.)

We practiced something I never heard named until I read Jack Fuller’s News Values in 1996: “the truth discipline.” Though it was never talked about by name in any newsroom where I worked, the Truth Discipline did prescribe a general pattern followed by good journalists everywhere. It sought to ensure not that something was “the truth” in any absolute sense, but that it was true enough to print.

If you were writing about an issue in contention, had you talked to everybody involved, and fairly represented their positions? If there were documents, had you read them? What did knowledgeable people in the field (engineers, doctors, historians) think generally? What had the people involved said and done earlier, and how did that comport with what they said now? Were they usually reliable? And so on.

These were things we could fasten on to and apply, with more or less efficacy, on deadline. Editors could test stories by asking about them, reporters could establish credibility by pointing to notebooks and highlighted documents.

It worked after its fashion and good newspapers came out day after day filled with useful journalism that people used to make political decisions, buy houses, invest money and make sports bets.

Circumstances combined to make newspapers the dominant news operation around the world, and the economics of scarcity made them rich. When you are rich and successful and people pay attention to what you say, you naturally enough want to maintain your position forever.

This was the basis of the hubris that long undermined efforts to reform the news business in light of new realities and that still fuels too many pockets of denial and resentment. Facts are facts, goddammit, and Matt Drudge and Markos Moulitsas are partisans and amateurs worth little attention and certainly no worry.

But as we indict the industry for such avoidable failures, do remember this: we were basically right about audience. People continue to want what traditional journalists produce—reliable information that is sorted, vetted, vouched for. Thanks to new platforms, traditional titles (like the Anchorage Daily News, which I long edited) now reach more people than ever before, despite deeply eroded resources.

The internet’s most grievous wound came from decoupling the effort needed to produce that content from the revenue it had traditionally commanded. Poverty can take the wind out of hubris right quick.

As I now see it, the situation is roughly this: verified, high quality information remains valuable and people want it, but the expensive traditional newsrooms that (amongst others) produced it aren’t affordable.

What now?

Well, who knows? But a few key observations have emerged and should be considered by those looking at news and media futures. I’ll repeat a few quickly for ready reference:

* As in science, facts in the public sphere have become provisional; they change as new information arises or errors get rooted out. Like entries in Wikipedia, public facts are always subject to change. Believing now requires faith and patience, the belief that over time the truest version is likely to emerge.

* Facts also are increasingly algorithmic, generated by ever-more sophisticated searches that sort, classify and grade all manner of information. In its best sense this is the application of journalism’s crude Truth Discipline at billions of cycles per second.

* Authority, once a solid basis for belief, increasingly demands transparency. We want to know what point of view the source espouses, and we’d like her to “show her work” to convince us she’s done it right.

* Another avenue to authority may be further emergence of reputation marketplaces, where consumers of information rate it according to trustworthiness proved by time and experience. Lawyers send their mistakes to jail, doctors bury theirs and architects plant ivy. Journalism and commentary should be accountable or ignored.


I have also come to understand that every generation must create the journalism for its own time. In my youth the revolution wasn’t about delivery systems or revenue models but willingness to speak plainly about institutional lying: Vietnam and Watergate were signal events, and learning the truth about them changed us. The journalism of the 1950s could not serve us adequately in the 1970s. Some of us worked hard to pivot around that.

Journalism futurists now must consider a vastly different landscape. Of course many old lessons remain durable, but conditions are radically different. Journalism is challenged by realities like audience fragmentation so fundamental that a significant percentage of news consumers believe outright idiocies. (A telling recent case: Michele Bachmann—who says worries about Syria can be dismissed because Jesus is soon returning—serves on the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, overseeing the CIA).

The nature of information has also been irreversibly altered by the growing capacity to keep and manage Big Data. Private companies like Google know what kind of underwear I order (the ubiquitously advertised Mark Weldon stuff is pretty good) while governments, apparently, have the capacity to read whatever I email or hear whatever I say on the phone.

Thus, while I have argued that transparency and reputation will be essential qualities in grading information, anonymity, secrecy and whistle-blowing have emerged as key guardians. Today’s journalists must wrestle with this unavoidable contradiction; tomorrow’s must have solved it.

And though it may seem off-topic to bring up climate change (except perhaps to ridicule any journalism that lets deniers get reelected to positions of key responsibility despite demonstrated lunacy) I nonetheless raise it here as a challenge to be faced by tomorrow’s journalists because they, like everybody else on earth, will be living through an unprecedented crisis of change that will put new strains on everything.

Today we all exist, like it or not, in what literary critic Fredric Jameson has called “the postmodern sublime”—the simultaneous expectation of dread and ecstasy. An example: in the next ten years it is altogether possible that medical science will find ways to extend the average human life by 10 or even 20 years. It is also realistically possible that an accident or a terrorist attack will loose a deadly super-virus that kills half the people on earth.

Either is possible, and as individuals we can’t do a damned thing to change that.

Applying the principle of the postmodern sublime to our discussion about the future of news likewise forces us to acknowledge that things could get much better or they could get horribly worse.

It’s not hard to imagine a scenario of decline. The world of cable television shouting matches, one-sided radio talk shows and special interest web sites could come to dominate what passes for news. People would quickly learn how to tune in to hear or read only what they already believed. You and your neighbor could each spend two hours a day keeping up on “the news” but end up with diametrically opposite views of the world.

It’s hard to imagine a successful democratic society making communitarian, pluralistic decisions based on that information diet.

But it is also possible that the egalitarian opportunities enabled by universal online access could blossom into a media ecosystem far richer than we’ve imagined. Properly constructed, crowd-sourcing truly can tap into wisdom none of us individually possesses. Access to online publication that makes every reader a potential writer, editor and critic could result in increased transparency, accountability and credibility. A.J. Liebling’s worry that “freedom of the press belongs to the guy who owns one” could be eliminated forever.

I am by nature an optimist in such matters, and remain convinced that somehow high quality, reliable and independent news will emerge once again as the gold standard. I believe this will happen not because it is the right thing, but because that kind of information is the most useful and the most valuable.

Across a long and deeply satisfying career, I’ve been able to help nudge these ideals of journalism and democracy forward, to refine and improve upon what my generation was handed before stepping aside to pass that responsibility along.

And pass it along we must. I am not yet quite ready to leave the field of battle, but I know full well that the crucial decisions and decisive actions shaping the future of news will henceforth be made by other, younger journalists who shape their storytelling and truth seeking to meet the different demands of this age.

More and more often I am reminded these days of the fundamental wisdom of Søren Kirkkegard’s observation that “Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward.”

And so: Forward.

I leave the journalists of this age to their own quests, with parting advice adapted from the words of the French revolutionary George Danton:

“Il nous faut de l’audace, et encore de l’audace, et toujours de l’audace”— boldness, and again boldness, and boldness forever.