Week 15 — Anchored in the past; alive to the future

Early in the course, we read Jerry Mitchell’s “A Call for Conscience Journalism.” Mitchell starts by calling these dark days for the Fourth Estate. He does not dwell too long before looking to the past for signs of how to deal with those dark times.

He invokes John Peter Zender for not waiting for libel laws to change before “printing the truth,” Ida Tarbell for not waiting for monopolies to cave before “exposing fraud” and Edward R. Murrow not waiting for the U.S. Senate to confront Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Mitchell concludes with the following:

It is time for a journalism that perseveres in spite of hostile forces.

It is time for a journalism that believes in doing the right thing.
It is time for a journalism that desires to help the undesirable.

It is time for a journalism that never forgets the forgotten.

It is time for a journalism that cares.
Call it conscience journalism, if you like …

… Conscience journalism willing to expose the truth.

Conscience journalism willing to seek justice for those who’ve suffered injustices.
Conscience journalism willing to seek to correct the sins of our present as well as our past.
Conscience journalism willing to stand up for the very people we have so long beckoned — the wretched refuse of our teeming shore. 

Here in Week 15, we read Douglas McGill’s “A Syllabus for a Moral Journalism.” McGill begins in a similar vein as Mitchell. For McGill, the mighty press has become “a meek appendage of the ‘mass media’.” He says the press has become a cheerleader for consumerism and a pawn of government and corporate power, so much so that citizens are rising up and taking “the matter into their own hands.”

Unlike Mitchell, however, McGill casts a warning shot: he says, “unless some corrections are made early, journalism’s new edifice will soon crack along familiar stress lines.” The crux of the matter for McGill is language, using it well and using it appropriately, so that the language of journalism does not continue to promote a thoughtless consumerism and propagate governmental and corporate interests.

It is an issue of Orwellian proportions. McGill, however, gives the issue an educational spin and proposes the following: Coming to terms with the current misfunction (my word) of journalism means journalism must approach the issue from a moral angle with an educational component.

He offers this:

The syllabus for a new journalism can be summarized in four statements.

First, the study of journalism as rhetoric awakens journalists’ consciousness to the wider historical, linguistic, and social depths of their daily practice;

Second, weighing free speech against right speech reveals the continuum — the unitary and undivided nature — of the personal and the political, of the self and society;

Third, local-global thinking reveals the unbroken continuum of “here” and “there” in a similar manner;

Fourth, keeping human suffering foremost unites the heart and the mind and clarifies the need to form an explicit and positive moral intention behind every communicative act.

I like that he has a proposal. I like his concentration on language and the moral aspect of journalism. I might even be moved to follow through in my classes with his proposal, or part of it, or turn it around in my head for a while and give it my own spin.

At the same time, I like what Mitchell proposes, too. I can see myself doing the same thing that I propose to do with McGill’s suggestions–work them into my classes. Both commentators on the press make their point–something is wrong and it must be addressed. The right people for the job are journalists themselves.

But a key thought that came to me early in the class and is still here with me after all these weeks is that journalism is a living breathing acting entity. It needs constant vigilance, built-in self-scrutiny, a methodology of self-examination, a way of constantly checking in.

Technology has spurred journalists to invoke some of this self-scrutiny, but technology is only a symptom.

What is new for me, I suppose, though, in considering the social role of mass media is that there has been a shift from journalism being a check and balance on society, in more than one way, to citizens becoming a check and balance on journalism. With that in mind, developing a new language for the relationship is critical.

Mitchell and McGill, it seems to me, are coming from the perspective of journalists. Maybe what journalism needs are voices coming from the perspective of citizens — as equal members, in a qualified way, of the press and what it needs to accomplish to maintain its role in a democracy?

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