For years now, I have been pointing GetReligion readers toward a classic 2004 PressThink essay entitled "Journalism Is Itself a Religion," by Prof. Jay Rosen of New York University.
This is not an essay about the state of religion-news coverage, at least that is not the primary topic that Rosen takes on. He is talking about the ways that journalism wrestles with concepts of truth, which often results in journalists assuming an authoritative role in public discourse that can evolve into a semi-religious state of mind.
You can, of course, hear echoes of this in our current discussions of politics in a "post-truth" age (in which the old standards of journalism have been splintered by the Internet, among other things). Who is supposed to be in charge of determining what is "true" news and what is, well, "fake news?"
That would be the journalistic establishment, of course.
So, more than a decade ago, Rosen tossed around some ideas for a proposed course at NYU or Columbia University. The title would be "The Religion of the Press.” A key issue would be the nature of the "priesthood" in modern news. Something like this:
Understanding the Priesthood of the Press. This course will examine the priesthood of the journalism profession in the United States, especially those at top news organizations in New York and Washington. Among the questions we’ll be asking this term: How does this elite group create and maintain its authority over what counts as serious journalism? What sense of duty goes along with being one of the high priests? What are the god terms and faith objects in journalism, and how are they derived? ...
You get the idea. There is a high church in journalism, with high ceremonies, like the awarding of a Pulitzer Prize, joining the panel on “Meet the Press,” having a dart thrown at you by the Columbia Journalism Review. One could teach a course about it. Bill Moyers once said this while moderating an event at Columbia: “I think of CJR and the J-School as sort of the ‘high church’ of our craft, reminding us of the better angels of our nature and the demons, powers and principalities of power against which journalism is always wrestling.”
The better angels. Journalism needs those. In this sense, it might be said to need a religion. For how else are angels called?
Then again, there are people who are convinced that religion and journalism are subjects that cannot be mixed, creating a kind of oil and water paradox. Why? BECAUSE they are making clashing claims about truth. Long, long ago in my University of Illinois graduate project I noted this take from Jim Stentzel, writing in the progressive journal Sojourners:
"Myth says that journalism is 'objective,' religion 'subjective.' Journalism is the public's business, religion supposedly a 'private affair.' In the press one turns over a rock to expose the dirt, in the pulpit one turns over the dirt to expose the Rock. In this corner we have the bad news bearers; in the other, the preachers of the Good News."
However, Stentzel notes, journalism and religion often attract idealists. Both the pulpit and the press attract individuals who still believe in social change. In most religious traditions, prophets have often resembled newsprint muckrakers exposing corruption in high places and dark corners of society. Both ministers and journalists hope to find and describe "the truth." Both are attempting to communicate vividly.
To be honest, I am not sure what I think of this.
Still I would love to hear some comments from GetReligion readers. Here is the overture. And let me start with this question: Who is this "we" in the lede?
We’re obsessed with the news. Most of us check the headlines on our mobile devices up to eight times a day. But at a Zócalo/Getty Center event, philosopher Alain de Botton, author of The News: A User’s Manual, asked us to consider why: “What on earth are we looking for?”
De Botton, who was speaking to a full house at the Getty, with additional people watching a simulcast in an overflow room, thinks news has replaced religion as our authority on social and political reality. It’s the place we go to search for meaning. And so people get depressed when they see the public ignoring headlines about global warming in favor of the love life of Taylor Swift. “The important is no longer the popular, and the popular is no longer the important,” said de Botton.
While most of us still cling to an 18th-century ideal, which holds that the availability of news is necessary for democracy to function, de Botton pointed out that an unrestricted flow of news can keep a population supine. If people are flooded with news, it all becomes meaningless, which is what we experience in the U.S. today. “The dream of news has run into the sands of distraction,” de Botton said.
Yes, this does sound a bit like C. John Sommerville and "How the News Makes Us Dumb."
That's especially true when you read a statement such as this:
... Last week, 200 people died fighting in the Republic of Congo, and none of us noticed. It’s not that we’re stupid or racist. It’s that the way the news from abroad is presented to us makes it difficult to care about it.
We can see a performance of King Lear and stay up all night thinking about the death of a man who never lived. But if we hear on the nightly news that 200 people died last week, we’ll fall asleep 10 minutes later.
So what do you think? And are you willing to listen to such commentary from someone who -- later in the same article -- can write:
The headquarters of The New York Times is located just blocks away from Wall Street, said de Botton, but the newspaper with the motto “All The News That’s Fit to Print” didn’t see the collapse of J.P. Morgan until it happened.
Uh. "Just blocks?"
I am new to New York City, myself, but I already know that the Times is in midtown and Wall Street is in extreme lower Manhattan. Which means there are several cultural worlds and intellectual states of mind in between those two alternative universes in American life.
So, what think ye? Is the news too shallow or too complicated for most Americans? Are Americans worshiping the authority of the news or have they cast the priests of journalism into the outer darkness, in this age of Twitter and Facebook?
Be nice, folks. But click "comment" and fire away.