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.
Take the rather Bealeian intimations Associated Press CEO Dean Singleton expressed last week (we’re mad as hell, we’re not going to take this anymore, et cetera)—in a speech (and, later, an interview) whose discussion of paid content pulsed with moralistic undertones. Take, also, Vanity Fair’s recent profile of Arthur Sulzberger Jr., in which the tension between mythology and reality formed a running conceit through Mark Bowden’s narrative—one manifested most obviously in the person of Sulzberger himself:
Arthur is motivated, as he himself says, not by wealth but by value. He believes, to be sure, that wealth follows from value, but you can see, even as he says it, that the wealth part is not what drives him. Journalism drives him. The Times’s reputation and influence drive him. He is not just a newspaper publisher and a chairman of the board. He is Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., and the pride he feels in that name doesn’t have anything to do with how much is in his bank account.
Sulzberger—whose person and pedigree represent, with an almost Dickensian clarity, journalism’s past, present, and future—is in many ways an appropriate ambassador for the clash between the sacred and the secular in our thinking about journalism’s future. Indeed, one reason, Clay Shirky argues, that the Times, and newspapers in general, reacted slowly to the financial plight befalling them—besides the most obvious: that they are large institutions, and tend as such to be hindered by the weight of their own lumbering bureaucracy—was that the plight in question was, quite literally, unimaginable to them. Unimaginable in the same fuzzy-vague way that, regardless of your personal beliefs, a world without religion is unimaginable. (Living for today…ooh, ooh…) Conceiving of a world without newspapers—a world whose creative evolution would involve, essentially, the sky falling down from beneath one’s feet—would require, as Shirky had it, “thinking the unthinkable.”