Eventually, he said, he accepted the inevitable, rearranging his mental map to include the region from which that first, disruptive photograph had arrived. He began his adult life, which he described as a “search for the present.” What he meant by this is that he sought some way to live as a man of his time, to belong to the 20th century. He found it in literature and poetry—he became a writer—but his “search for the present” began because of an early encounter with the news.
What this story illustrates, I think, is the special power that journalism has to enlarge our sense of the present so that it includes the public world. Journalism becomes a powerful force in the culture when it gains a kind of authority over the present, persuading us that what is happening “out there,” over the horizon of our personal experience, is happening to us and must be followed. When it works, journalism refutes an existence that has grown too private.
But for it to have this effect we must do as Paz did—place ourselves in a wider universe and become creatures of our time. Often we feel more like spectators, horrified or fascinated at a distance, absorbed in the moment, but not necessarily engaged in the present. Perhaps that is when “the media” triumphs over journalism.
‘I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it’
So what is journalism, really? My answer: a report on what’s happening over the horizon of our personal experience. Journalism permits us to live as creatures of our time and make peace with the awayness of things within some community we identify with. There are intimate connections between it and diary writing, as well as bookkeeping (the day book of accounts). But journalism would never have become an essential practice in modern societies without the enlargement of scale and the fixing of modern identity within that bigger frame.
In this sense, the American republic incorporated journalism from the beginning because it assumed a common identity over the 13 original states. There had never been a republic attempted over such an “extent of territory” (that was the phrase then). One of the answers the founders gave to doubters was that the press would freely circulate across the new nation, from center to margin and back, and thereby solve an unprecedented problem in awayness.
The authority of the journalist originates in this kind of claim: “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.” Or: “I reviewed those documents, you couldn’t—you were too busy trying to pay the mortgage—so let me tell you what they show.” Or: “We interviewed the workers who were on that drilling platform when it exploded, you didn’t, let us tell you their story.” Or: “I have this source in the national security establishment, you don’t, let me tell you what he says is being done in your name.”
Obviously, then, the part-time blogger who goes to the school-board meeting and writes about it for those who couldn’t be there is doing journalism because journalism is also an extended reflection on the word meanwhile. You were getting your kids to bed. Meanwhile, there was a school board meeting. You’re trading bonds. Meanwhile, new unemployment figures were released. This is just another way of describing the problem of scale and the condition I have called awayness. A lot happens while we’re doing other things. Some of it matters to who we are. When we elect to become men and women of our time, we need journalism to make good on that choice. Whether enough of us will continue to choose that option is perhaps the field’s greatest unknown. But journalists are not powerless over that decision. The better they are at what they do, the more likely we are to live in search of the present.