- 10 Nov - 16 Nov, 2018
JOURNALISM AND ITS PURPOSE
- 15 Sep - 21 Sep, 2018
- A Letter From America
I’ve been a practicing journalist for more than a quarter-century, and throughout that period I and many others have fussed and feuded perpetually about what exactly journalism is and what purposes it should serve. There is a tiresome navel-gazing quality to this debate, but it also is a sign of the times we all live in and an acknowledgment of the importance we all – as “media consumers” – rightly attach to the need to stay informed about events going on in the world around us.
A couple decades ago I was influenced by two American gurus of journalistic theory and purpose. One was the estimable James Fallows, a very senior and distinguished Washington, DC-based writer long associated with the magazine The Atlantic Monthly, whose 1996 book Breaking the News was influential, as well as admirably controversial, for its author’s willingness to name names of specifically corrupt and compromised colleagues in the American national journalistic establishment (memorably including the columnist George Will and the National Public Radio stalwart Cokie Roberts).
Fallows also made the bracing point that journalism is “not a profession,” meaning that it doesn’t – and shouldn’t – require a graduate degree or other special credentials, like medicine or the law. Journalism, Fallows pointed out, is not something that should require lots of theory or philosophy but rather something that you do, which makes it a craft like (say) carpentry or auto mechanics. That notion has always felt very congenial to me, because how I became a journalist, after going through the motions of four years as an undergraduate with a major in history, was that I simply showed up (in Detroit in 1991, then in Bangkok in 1993, later in Pakistan and many other places around Asia and worldwide) and told people that I was a journalist.
My other guru was Jay Rosen, who – despite being a professor of journalism at New York University – has an admirably iconoclastic attitude toward journalism and the purposes it serves in society. Rosen says that the essence of journalism is one person saying to another, “I was there, you weren’t, let me tell you about it.” In practice it’s more complicated than that, but there’s something refreshing, as well as helpfully unpretentious, about such a straightforward formulation.
I offer these ruminations because being in South Africa now reminds me that, fundamentally, journalism is about what we choose to pay attention to, why, and how. I’m currently six to nine time zones, and thousands of miles, away from my own country’s media hothouse, and I went to the effort and expense of getting here because there are things happening here, and people here with stories to tell, that I find compellingly interesting. And those events and stories have little, if anything, to do with the crisis in the American republic – and that in itself is instructive. So, frankly, I have limited attention to spare for all the nonsense going on in America. It all feels, refreshingly, very remote.
It’s not that it’s all nonsense – much of it is portentous and even historically important – or that all the American froth and churn is not consequential. It’s all too consequential, unfortunately. But sometimes we can’t properly appreciate what’s going on and why it matters in the larger scheme of things, unless we distance ourselves from the daily and weekly maelstrom. I’ve been able to achieve such distance, temporarily, by physically traveling away; to a country that has its own context and set of concerns, as well as its own claim on my attention. (For those who can’t or won’t travel, the alternative is simply to turn it off – literally, to unplug or even throw away the television or the laptop computer – though I acknowledge that that is much easier said than done.) I don’t have to check Twitter or The Guardian every day, I don’t have to know the latest American news, comment, and speculation, and I can live comfortably with knowing that whether I know any of
it or not will make no difference whatsoever in how it all turns out.
The current example, as I write this, is the extraordinary op-ed by an anonymous “high administration official” published in the New York Times that might well, somehow, help bring to a head the crisis within the Trump regime, possibly even to the extent of bringing it down. By the time you read this you will surely have read plenty about it, or at least its ramifications will have begun reaching you even as far away as Pakistan. It would be pointless to speculate on just what those ramifications will be, but our starting point to begin understanding must be that the United States of America – and its worldwide imperial interests – are not actually being governed in any proper sense of the word, but rather being buffeted by the headwinds from a long-looming and self-inflicted existential political crisis.
We shall see what state of affairs comes out the other side of this crisis, once the dust has settled – if the dust settles. Constitutionally, if Trump were to be removed from office or forced to resign (and neither of those outcomes is out of the question), he would be replaced by Vice President Mike Pence, which would hardly be an improvement. Meantime, the Republican-led Senate is doing its level best to force a radical right-wing new Supreme Court justice on us. But the midterm elections to be held in mid-November portend a possible thumping rejection of both the Trump regime and the congressional Republicans. That would be a good thing, but it also would be further destabilizing and might force an aggressive, even violent, response from Trump’s lumpen supporters around the country.
And there’s nothing that you in Pakistan, or I in South Africa – or even I, were I in America now – can do about any of it. Which is why I’m glad I’m here, writing about interesting people and their important conservation work, rather than at home obsessively consuming American media on the American crisis. •
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