soul danger

Roger Cohen in the New York Times today:

The journalist is a stranger who moves in the opposite direction from the crowd, toward danger, leaving the settled majority perplexed. Why, they ask, are you going over the lines? Why do you choose such a lonely existence? In search of a fair understanding, you say, and they shake their heads. There is nothing to understand, they insist, just write the truth!

I especially like this because it gets at something I have trouble putting into words, which is why so much of today’s journalism strikes me as a failure. It’s easiest to see if you take the Cohen quote and apply it to an overtly, crudely ideological operation like Fox News; to people who defend Fox, the network is one big challenge to the conventional wisdom, the entrenched interests of America’s presumed liberal elite. The idea is that the pushback – Fox coming at the news from a conservative point of view – serves as some sort of antidote for unchecked liberal assumptions, that somehow you get a better picture of the world if you have the contending voices of a Fox on the right and an MSNBC on the left.

At one time I kinda, sorta believed that too, and someone I admire very much points out that the press used to be a lot more partisan, and that the cool, technocratic journalism that rose up in the 1960s and continued for a few decades is the aberration.

But here’s what I think is missing: the point of journalism isn’t to have an argument with the other fella. It’s to have an argument with yourself. As I’ve noted here before, too much of what passes for hard nosed digging in journalism these days looks an awful lot like dressed up confirmation bias – or to put it another way, when was the last time you were surprised by a story you read or saw or heard?

So to get back to the quote from Cohen, while you can say it’s melodramatic, and it is, it also catches the underlying sense of the best journalism. One thing he notes is that a journalist moves “toward danger,” a point that may not be obvious if you’re covering city council meetings. Where’s the danger? I think the danger is always in finding out that the world is put together a lot differently than you think it is, that it is indifferent to you and the things you value, and sometimes it’s downright malevolent. It’s the old line about staring into the abyss and having it stare back at you. Call it “soul danger,” which is nothing a self-respecting newspaperman from the 50s, or a market-oriented “content manager” from the ’00s, could say with a straight face but is exactly where the real stakes of journalism lie.

If you are a real journalist, you don’t believe in The Truth. You believe in a lot of little, gapped truths, and you believe equally in the big patches of darkness between them. You’re at constant risk of looking away, of convincing yourself that a person or party or the world is really this way or that, of growing too tired to listen to the doubt in your head, of simply being human and needing more emotional and spiritual security than the job can give you, of settling.

Mind you, you can still be Powered By Journalism even if you’re not quite the journalist I describe; I suspect the clannish reporters of Washington DC don’t struggle so much with these issues – they are part of a caste which specializes in the study and exercise of power, and what I suggest is a kind of intentional powerlessness, a radical doubt. Also, my guess is the bright young bloggers of the online world are getting their juice from the same kind of batteries, ones that don’t allow for a lot of movement against the grain.


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