But, then, clarity of vision, as we’ve seen, tends itself to be more easily achievable in theory than in practice. It is no little irony that our thinking about journalism and its future is often compromised by our own esteem for it—by transcendental thinking about journalism itself. By the general presumption that journalistic organizations are endowed, as it were, with certain inalienable rights—enshrined socially, politically, legally—and that Journalism in the Service of a Free Society is not merely a commodity, but rather, in fact, Something More. By the kind of thinking that led Henry Luce to declare, romantically, “I became a journalist to come as close as possible to the heart of the world”; and that led the Baltimore Sun to select as its motto “Light For All”; and that led the Indian journalist Rupashree Nanda to declare, in a speech last year, that “journalism is the most significant human achievement…not man’s landing on the moon, or the splitting of the atom, or the Vietnam War, or communism…, it is the very simple idea of news.”
To an extent, of course, such thinking is entirely valid: journalism—in this context, the kind of civic-minded reporting we’re generally referring to when we talk about the necessity of journalism’s preservation—is both noble and necessary. It does have an aura of More-ness to it. As Tom Rosenstiel rightly pointed out to Paul Starr in the latter’s TNR treatise on watchdog journalism, if we lose our current incarnation of civic-minded journalism, “More of American life will occur in shadows. We won’t know what we won’t know.”
Put another way: we don’t know what might arise to replace what we’re losing. But we do know what we’re losing.
Magical thinking when it comes to journalism’s identity can be, to be sure, at once palliative and inspirational, attracting new and, one hopes, talented members to a profession with notoriously low pay and, increasingly, low public esteem. It can give those members—and this can hardly be underestimated—a sense of purpose. In terms of the day-to-day practice of journalism, a sacred stance is unifying and humbling and compelling. It propels journalists to strive toward a vision of their profession, and themselves within it, that is defined by ideals as much as reality. From an editorial perspective, that is to the good.
But it’s worth remembering that even transcendental thinking has roots in journalism’s terra firma—the professional culturation of the Progressive era, the pop-cultural mythologies of the post-Watergate era, the newspaper monopolization of the ’70s and ’80s, etc.—and thus is itself secular as much as sacred. And in a larger sense—in, specifically, the Venn merger of journalism’s editorial and business identities—an ethics-driven mindset enables as it ennobles. It enforces the chasm between what we rationally know about The Role of News Organizations in a Democratic Society (that they are fallible human institutions) and what we often culturally, and therefore instinctually, understand about them (that they are, somehow, more than the sum of their secular parts). Such thinking discourages us from applying scientific principles to journalism, under the assumption that journalism is not, in the end, a thing of science. It seduces us into applying moral assessments to problems that are, in the end, amoral.