The social function of the news


In his brilliant little book, Human as Media, Andrey Miroshnichenko provides the following explanation of the news business:

The journalist’s profession is about picking up on the social demand for consolidated pictures of the world, clipping off the variety of superfluous opinion and turning a few select topics into something readable. […]

In this sense, journalists are not only authors, but also mediators between the social demand for order and the personal demand for suitable reference points.  This is what society pays journalists for, not with money alone, but also with status recognition:  the status of priests.  The journalist is the priest of social navigation and readability.

Personal reference points become necessary initially at the level of life and love, where they can multiply virtually to infinity.  But we are also desperate for guideposts to cosmic aspirations – meaning, morality, status – that must be validated by some group.  Journalists, in their priestly capacity, utilize the power of recognition and affirmation to reduce the dangerous torrent of subjective private fixations down to a shallow trickle of stories of interest to the elites.

They achieve this by means of extreme and arbitrary foreshortening.  A very few topics and events are shoved before the public’s eyes, and so appear gigantically important, while most are ignored or swept into the shadows.

For example:  politics always matters greatly, religion not so much.  So we will be bombarded with news about the most trivial incident in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but hear not a word about the Christianization of China.  Or:  ours always matters greatly, theirs not so much.  So a single death in Ferguson, Missouri, will receive obsessive news coverage, while the slaughter of thousands in faraway Congo received almost none.

Historically, it is unclear how neatly the news ever synchronized the public’s obsessions with those of the elites.  Success probably depended on the country and the topic at hand.  A suggestive fact:  when increased literacy opened the possibility of selling news to the masses, newspapers bundled a lot of lowbrow content (sports, horoscopes, advice to the lovelorn, comics) along with political and economic reports.  Those who worshipped at the altar of the news may always have been a small, elite-oriented minority.

Not that it mattered.  For 150 years, the news was the only national conversation around.  If other voices or interests existed, they were inaudible.  Confident that they possessed a monopoly over open information, journalists became persuaded that they were in the business of manufacturing correct opinion:  that is, the opinion held by certain political and intellectual elites.

It isn’t remotely true that Pulitzer newspapers stampeded the country into war with Spain, or that Woodward and Bernstein of the Washington Post hurled Richard Nixon out of the White House.  Other, more powerful forces were at work.  But many people believed that newsmongers were indeed responsible for both events:  and, without question, they contributed to a climate of opinion in which the desired action came to be seen as possible and reasonable, if not inevitable.

If journalists were priests of a false god, the lack of an alternate faith gave them the semblance of influence and power.

Because the news claimed top-down authority, its content became closely aligned with what I would call the framework of nations.  By this I mean the ruling assumptions and modes of perceiving the world that the lessons (and quirks) of history have instilled in the educated elites of each nation.  In France, for example, these are largely ideological.  In Russia, they center on the vigor of the state.  In China, events appear refracted through the prism of social harmony, while Britain’s all about the acts and words of its upper crust.

Everywhere, the framework became the grand organizing principle for journalists in search of the news.  Or to flip this around:  the news articulated the framework, made assumptions explicit, and thus revealed, to anyone with eyes to see, the intellectual and psychological baggage of the elites.

Today, the news is about less and less – and this signifies something more fundamental than disarray among news providers.  Journalists have lost connection to any coherent framework, and are unable to serve the masses as navigators in the sea of complexity.  They still write stories but have been shorn of their power, their social function.  They can no longer affirm.  They can no longer admire.

The reaction has been violent but predictable.  The priest who has fallen from grace can still condemn, can still repudiate, can still curse an established order of which he himself is a shameful part.  Journalists, who get press passes to the White House and the Super Bowl, have fallen in love with the pose of alienation.  They want to smash the system that invented them.

The disintegration of the news reflects a catastrophic confusion and loss of confidence among national elites.  The high modernist ambition of achieving social perfection by way of politics was abandoned as a utopian fantasy.  Nothing has filled the void.  The great conflict of systems of the Cold War was won, and its little brother, the War on Terror, has been forsaken as impracticable.  Nothing filled the void.  The moment is full of nothing – of gloom and doubt.  The framework that once sheltered the political class lies broken beyond repair.  Presidents and premiers, congressmen and ministers, are like blind men suddenly removed to Mount Everest:  the first step forward, they know, may send them whirling into the chasm.

News about nothing is the necessary consequence of a politics of vertigo and panic. The evasions and impostures of journalists are symptoms of a systemic breakdown transpiring far above their heads.  Mock journalists for being empty vessels:  do not confuse them with the cause of anything.  The same can be said about the web and its lynch mobs, the coarsening of culture, the supposed polarization of the public.  They are visible manifestations of a collapsing framework:  of a center that cannot hold.

In my book, I have examined in detail the reasons for this condition.  We are dealing with a massive failure of the institutions, taking place in plain view, before the astonished eyes of the public.  Government has failed, and has been seen to fail, repeatedly, in bipartisan fashion, until it has staggered into a zombie-like state of living death.  Financial houses have failed, and been seen to fail.  Automakers and universities have failed.  In this context, the failure of the news media appears as a minor plot twist in a vast institutional horror show.

For politicians as for journalists, the temptation to condemn and accuse has been almost irresistible.  Rulers can be found repudiating the political systems over which they preside:  this is a reflexive move for Barack Obama.  The president’s world is dominated by shadowy conspiratorial forces – but so, with different villains, is that of Vladimir Putin.  Political vandalism has taken the place of reform and revolution.  It feels liberating, even if it leads to nothing.

Given time, the cumulative erosion of trust, the poison in the air, must damage the legitimacy of the democratic process:  but the leading persons of our moment, teetering blind above the chasm, can take little notice of such long-term effects.

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