Newspaper clipping

What It’s Not

(A seven-minute read)

What is journalism? Like so many things in 2022, it’s not what we thought it was. But then, the world isn’t the same either. The classical, stable Christian underpinnings of Western society are being knocked about and we live in a world where the mob rules the roost. The loudest groups of fanatics drive the conversation, not rational, solid, considered thinkers, Christian or no.

Mainstream journalism has been ruined by these phenomena and also now encourages them. It’s no longer an echo chamber; it’s a copy machine. The craft itself hasn’t died. Rather, it’s only being practiced in a few select corners and must be sought out (more about this in an upcoming essay).

What’s being called ‘journalism’ today actually isn’t journalism at all. It’s myth-weaving for a post-Christian generation.

In 2020 I offered a sad timeline entitled ‘An Obituary’, bemoaning the fact that journalism was dead at last. The obituary nature of this is because the West now lives in a Narrative Culture, not a journalistic one. We still tell one another stories. But these now are only to reinforce our prejudices, rather than to learn what our beliefs might best be.

We are copying the East in this, most notably Communist China, where the official narrative is all. The official narrative is a god. The official narrative is the only acceptable truth. Truth itself has been slain there in the public square; it is dying by degrees here. But it’s not dead yet.

Here’s the distinction between narrative and journalism. In Narrative Culture, facts are chosen to fit a conclusion. In a journalistic culture, facts are gathered to develop a conclusion, independent of anyone’s motive.

A narrative is an ideological construct telling a story. It makes actual journalism impossible, because facts in a narrative are always subordinate to opinion. Hence, ‘myth-weaving.’ Elite thinkers, trapped in their own copy machines, now create an idealized version of real-time events as they wish them to be and they repeat.

Slap the story on the glass and press ‘copy.’ Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat.

Another major change is the media-maker’s love of money, whether news anchor, blogger, YouTube Influencer or TikTok star.

If you were born since 1980 this seems normal; you know nothing different.

In 1976, when I got my first gig in journalism, it was considered a ‘craft’ rather than a profession. Many of us were union members. I never expected to see more than a solid middle-class life, but that was okay. I was working for other purposes – not working to get rich.

In those days, the highest paid person at a national level was making well less than a million dollars a year. Cable TV stars today routinely command eight figure contracts, even those (perhaps especially those) who can’t write their way out of a simple declarative sentence.

My lifetime earnings in 35 years in and around broadcasting and journalism total less than $1.5 million. And I was one of the fortunate ones, one who was usually employed. No sour grapes here.

The Joy Reids and the Tucker Carlsons are not paid for being journalists, although they like to arrogate the title to themselves. They aren’t worthy of it. They are little more than water-carriers for the rich and the socially elite of their respective tribes. They carry no moral authority, only a narrative.

The main requirements for their success don’t lie in non-partisan fact collection and conclusion-making, that is, journalism. Rather, they are wildly successful because they can set inconvenient facts aside and view everything through an ideological lens. Having an ability to forget what one claimed the previous week also helps.

It’s critical for today’s self-proclaimed journalists to know what to think, never how to think critically, as a true journalist would.

In October 1928 my grandfather, William A Searle, became President and General Manager of the Camden Publishing Company. Radio was rare and television a generation in the future. Newspapers were the public conversation.

Granddad was like many publishers of the day, engaging in his craft with a view of public service. He believed that providing information was a sacred trust. He knew that honesty and integrity were his only products, and must be protected at all costs. He lived out his Christian faith in the workplace. He lived by the same values I was taught to respect in university seminars fifty years later. Those values have since fled university campuses, replaced by the pliable truths of moral relativism.

Today’s media, with very few exceptions, fail to adhere to a standard of moral integrity. The idea of public trust is mostly gone. The dollar is king – personal values have fallen into serfdom. Today’s media mavens don’t respect the public, revealing they don’t trust it. Their audience returns the favor, perhaps recognizing that media narratives are built on sand. Trust in the media is at an all-time low and sinking.

Media ownership itself is a small group and has been getting smaller. That concentrates the power of this Narrative Culture. This is not unique to the United States.

In the first edition under his leadership, Granddad told his readers he believed that publishing the Camden Post-Telegram meant ‘assuming a great public trust’.

What does that mean? It means that the only thing of value in the marketplace was his integrity and trustworthiness. That doesn’t mean integrity is for sale, rather that it is a commodity that people will pay to engage with.

In other words, if the public doesn’t trust you, you are out of business – but only in a business model that values fact-finding and conclusion-making.

The Narrative Culture business model values myth-making and selling ideology. It succeeds because people are starving for the truth and want something even if it’s not good for them. After all, the starving impoverished will even eat from a garbage can if they are hungry enough.

In 1928 (just as today) there were many publications that chose not to trade on their integrity. The practice was called ‘yellow journalism’, where sensationalism ruled over fact. The more lurid these tabloids the better. Selling copies was the only aim. Today these lurid stories are still around. You know them as ‘clickbait,’ designed to ‘deliver eyeballs.’

Some of the promises Granddad made to Post-Telegram readers stand in stark contrast:

  • Print the news promptly, completely and impartially;
  • Confine expressions of our opinions to the editorial columns;
  • Hold the Post-Telegram to such a standard of cleanliness that it will not offend nor embarrass to have the youngest child read it aloud to the family;
  • Follow our convictions in what we believe to be right rather than let this newspaper’s attitude be dictated by whim, or prejudice, by expediency or popularity, or influenced by any outside power or force;
  • Keep faith with our readers;
  • Be sincere and truthful, yet fair.

Am I naive to think that these values can still drive our public conversations, and reporting of same? Perhaps. But these values will always remain worth fighting for. I get to live them out in my own small corner of the world as best I can. And I have to let it be enough, at least for now.

However, as we look to (and hope for) a more honest future, let’s remember there are good lessons to be found peering back through time. The main one is the importance of questioning my own assumptions. Another is to remember there are bedrock values that bring hope and change. Yet another is to let the truth be the truth.

The truth is not what we may think it is, according to our narrative. No, that’s an opinion, and it’s a relative, subjective thing. Truth is unchanging. Truth is eternal. Truth will out. Truth provides those immutable values Granddad put in print. Truth is a Person.

Image by Skitterphoto via Pexels

1 thought on “What It’s Not

  1. Pingback: Presenting views from different sources – Some View on the World

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