Our obsession with authorship ultimately enables one of the most troubling aspects of contemporary intellectual life: the fluidity of facts. “Political scientists have characterized our epoch as one of heightened polarization; now…the creeping partisanship has begun to distort of very perceptions about what is ‘real’ and what isn’t,” Farhad Manjoo writes. “Indeed, you can go as far as to say we’re now fighting over competing versions of reality. And it is more convenient than ever before for some of us to live in a world built out of our own facts.” As I noted in a previous essay, what we stand to lose in a fragmented media landscape is the notion of common knowledge itself. And an approach to news reporting that includes authorial motivation as a criterion in criticism allows for a kind of epistemological relativism—my authors, my facts; your authors, your facts. We see the reminders of that again and again: in our politics coverage (see: McCaugheyGate, versions 1994 and 2009), in our environmental news, and in pretty much every other facet of journalism. It is facts themselves—and, by extension, a core assumption of shared reality—that are ultimately at stake here.
Author awareness, at its most pernicious, creates a particularly cruel irony: The more trustworthy a report tries to be—systematically, mechanically—the more, in general, it is mistrusted. But an approach to journalism that insists upon knowingness of the author—that insists that knowingness is possible in the first place—is flawed at its foundations. It’s an approach that has no point precisely because it has no end point.
And journalism, fundamentally, needs an end point. It needs takeaways and conclusions and here-you-gos. What works in literature (endless context, and therefore endless interpretation and inference) simply does not work in journalism—which, as pragmatic narrative, must come to some resolution in order to achieve its ends. Our obsession, in other words, with authors—with writers’ personal identities, with outlets’ institutional biases, with brands’ political proclivities—has compromised the ability of journalism to be an actor in the world, to be a provider for democracy. It has made news reporting—which, at its best, holds a mirror to society so that we might act upon the image it reflects—into, instead, a hall of mirrors. Infinitely reflective. Infinitely refractive. And infinitely reductive.
So what’s to be done? As the problem is cultural as much as it is journalistic, there’s certainly no easy solution. But here’s one thing that journalism, as a profession and, barring that, a culture, can do: recognize—and advertise—the fact that institutionalism itself is nothing to be ashamed of. And certainly nothing to be hidden from public view. Institutionalism—which is, at its core, infrastructuralized conversation, the Habermasian ideal of discourse ethics brought to life—is, instead, to be embraced. Sure, we Americans may harbor a kind of knee-jerk resentment of large institutions and bureaucracies—and, sure, that resentment, in journalism as in most other aspects of public life, is often eminently justified. But we’ve come to a point—in journalism, at any rate—in which the resentment has blinded us to the myriad benefits of institutionalism. Consider how many of the great achievements of journalism in the past century have been possible not only because of the tenacious work of committed individuals, but also because of the committed support of those individuals by their respective news organizations.
But as newsrooms disintegrate, and as technology enables increasingly individualistic content-distribution strategies, institutional journalism is becoming increasingly rare. Which means, I’d argue, that it’s also becoming increasingly valuable. And that is a point that news organizations need to embrace—and, significantly, publicize.
Instead, though, we’re seeing many news organizations taking the opposite tack: essentially, branding individual journalists by way of humanizing their facelessness. That approach may work on occasion—Nick Kristof at The New York Times, Roger Ebert at the Chicago Sun-Times, etc.—but by and large that individualized branding serves only to legitimize author fixations among audiences. It may help the bottom line in the short term; it may not serve journalism, however, in the long. It may serve, finally, only to further legitimize the cult of the author.
Better, I think, for news organizations to win (and deserve) trust by embracing the collective voice. That doesn’t mean the voiceless voice—objectivity’s “view from nowhere,” in Jay Rosen’s borrowed phrase—but rather the voice of many voices. The institutional voice. The discursive voice. Take Wikipedia, for example, which is authoritative particularly because it is authorless—or because, more precisely, its author function is so intersubjective, as Habermas might say, as to be effectively neutralized in its subjectivity. Indeed, “to understand something like a Wikipedia article,” Clay Shirky writes, “you can’t look for a representative contributor, because none exists. Instead, you have to change your focus, to concentrate not on the individual users but on the behavior of the collective.”