Journalism And Democracy In A Dead Culture: An interview with Robert Jensen

By Robert Jensen

Published in Countercurrents · March, 2011

Greek journalist CJ Polychroniou interviewed Robert Jensen about recent trends in media and politics. The interview appeared in Epsilon, the Sunday magazine of Eleftherotypia, Greece’s premier progressive newspaper.

CJ Polychroniou: Print media is on decline throughout the Western world and many people are already mourning its death and engaging in hyperbolic statements about the link between media and democracy. For example, a fairly recent Columbia Journalism School panel on the future of the newspaper industry ended with a solemn and bold pronouncement: “If print newspapers disappear, it will be a fundamental threat to our democracy.” I confess that, personally, I had no idea that the mainstream media were of such vital importance in the modern era to the nourishment of democracy (having in mind such examples as the handling of the Iraq war by the New York Times or the virtual absence of labor issues coverage in most of the major newspapers around the world) and find it hard to conceive of traditional media as a pre-condition for democracy. What’s your own view about that?

Robert Jensen: Both things are true. The corporate/commercial news media in the United States tend to fail when we need them most, such as in the run-up to wars (when journalists tend to “follow the flag,” as a famous TV journalist once grudgingly admitted) and economic crises (when they rally around the corporate-capitalist elite and implicitly endorse the odd idea that those elite will rescue us from the disasters they create). But it’s difficult to imagine a functioning democracy without an independent news media that can hold the powerful accountable and critique the system within which the powerful operate. The best of U.S. mainstream newspaper and long-form electronic journalism provides that sometimes, but not nearly often enough. So, newspapers as we know them aren’t doing an adequate job, for ideological and structural reasons, but the potential disappearance of these journalistic organizations is not something to take lightly. There’s no guarantee that if the corporate/commercial news organizations go away that what fills the void will serve us any better. We need to think about what a truly democratic media system looks like and how to create those institutions.

CJP: Please allow me to force this argument a bit further. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, you wrote that those attacks are “no more despicable than the massive acts of terrorism — the deliberate killing of civilians for political purposes — that the U.S. government has committed during my lifetime.” What was the media’s reaction to that statement of yours?

RJ: The news media didn’t react much at all, except for the overtly right-wing commentators, who called on the university to fire me. Mainstream journalists reported on the controversy, some hostilely and some sympathetically. More important than their reaction to my writing was their failure to pursue the facts underneath the claims that people like me were making. A truly independent media that wanted to deepen democracy after 9/11 would have been writing about the way U.S. policy in the Middle East (and the Third World more generally) creates anger and resistance, both to U.S. direct intervention and U.S. support for repressive client regimes in those regions. The answer to the often-asked question in the media after 9/11 — “Why do they hate us?” — has some answers, many of them related to the longstanding American use of violence and coercion in its attempts to impose its dominance on the rest of the world.

CJP: Many are citing declining circulation figures, plummeting advertising sales, and new technology as the main troubles in the print industry. Could it be that there is another explanation involved, namely the spread of “democratic ignorance and individual apathy?” Aren’t perhaps the new generations less interested than the previous ones in what’s happening around the world and relying on the new technologies far more for personal entertainment purposes rather than for pursuing what we may broadly call knowledge?

RJ: The newspaper industry does have some specific problems, which are partly the result of competition from digital media. Those problems also stem from years of laziness, when media corporations made exorbitant profits and rarely looked beyond the next quarter’s return. It’s also true that the problems, and failures, of news media are part of a larger political crisis that has deep roots. The United States is now the wealthiest country in the history of the world, and the rise of consumer culture has shifted values and eroded a sense of democracy-as-participation. At the same time, elites have skillfully used propaganda in the post-WWII era to demonize challenges to hierarchy and concentrations of wealth, and to induce apathy. My students, most of who were born in the early 1990s, have little experience with, or models for, meaningful participation in politics. They routinely report that they see no point in politics because they believe that nothing will change. If they want to do something constructive, beyond pursuing personal interests, they tend to do volunteer/charity work rather than political organizing. Volunteer work is admirable, but it’s not a substitute for politics.

CJP: The book publishers seem to be giving up on the idea that books will soon become completely converted into electronic format as initially suggested. People continue to buy hard copies of books. Why couldn’t the same thing happen with newspapers?

RJ: Perhaps the transition to ebooks will take longer than expected, and perhaps printed books will never disappear completely. But book publishers have developed a system to sell books electronically along with sales of printed books. News, on the other hand, is widely available for free in digital form. I’m not an expert in the business of publishing, and I can’t predict the future. But I can say that these kinds of problems will always exist in a media system that is overwhelmingly corporate and commercial — for-profit endeavors in large, hierarchical institutions. Such a system doesn’t serve art or democracy very well.

CJP: It seems to me that mainstream media operate at times on the assumption that the right of free press and the public’s right to be informed are not absolute rights. Would you say then that the examples provided so far attest to the truth of this?

RJ: No right of any kind is absolute, including the rights to speak or publish without any restrictions. If that were the case, someone could publish a false and defamatory statement about you — an assertion that is not true and injures your reputation in the community, possibly leading to damage to your place in a community — and you would have no way to seek justice. So, we allow people to pursue libel claims, which are a form of limiting the right to publish whatever one wants.

The same is true for public access to information. In complex modern societies, governments hold in their files lots of private information about citizens, such as data about one’s finances for the purpose of calculating taxes. Should anyone in public have a right to access my tax file? It’s a document in the possession of the government, but most people believe it should not be open to everyone.

So, we are constantly balancing the value of the speech in question with the harm or potential harm it could cause. Every society does that. In a truly democratic society, we should seek the freest flow of information consistent with that concern for the real harms. In an authoritarian society, those harms typically are exaggerated to justify impeding that flow. We should always be trying to keep that flow as free as possible, but we can’t do it by pretending rights are absolute, that harm to others is irrelevant.

But, again, the problems with news coverage in the United States are not primarily problems of government control, but rather are the result of the nature of the corporate/commercial media system, the illusory claims to neutrality by professional journalists, and the ideological narrowness of U.S. society. All of those work to limit the democratic potential of news media that are mostly free of government control.

CJP: In your view, how can the quality of news under the current business culture be improved?

RJ: As long as a country’s news media system is overwhelming corporate and commercial — structured hierarchically and for-profit — there are limits to what journalists can accomplish within conventional notions of objectivity. All of this is compounded in the United States by the ideological conformity that narrows political debate. That narrowness is the product of many complex historical factors, including lots of state and private violence in the past, and the incredible amounts of money poured into a business-dominated, conservative propaganda system (advertising, public relations, and marketing) in the present.

Earlier you mentioned coverage of the Iraq War, which is a good example. I know of no mainstream journalism outlet that dared report on what was obvious during the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War — the U.S. invasion was unlawful, a violation of international law to which the United States was bound by our own Constitution. That observation, which was commonplace around the world, was never addressed in the mainstream channels of a free press in the United States. That means we have a news system that cannot tell the truth when the public most needs to hear it. If another such war were on the horizon, it’s unlikely the mainstream news media would be any more willing to do its job, because the system in which journalists work hasn’t changed.

CJP: Citizen journalism during crisis reporting is growing, thanks to the new technology tools that people have. What’s your assessment of the value and the importance of citizen journalism?

RJ: Journalism generated by ordinary people and independent reporters is a valuable supplement to the work of trained journalists. Those folks did, in fact, raise the question of the Iraq War’s illegality. But citizen journalism and an inadequately funded independent journalism can’t replace professional journalism. The work of journalism can be difficult, requiring reporters and editors to sort through complex and often confusing information, drawing on the background knowledge needed to make sense of it all. That takes time, which requires the financial means to devote the time needed. It’s true that journalism is not like brain surgery — it doesn’t require such specialized knowledge and training that only a few people are likely to be able to do it. But when done properly, journalism is a rigorous craft that requires support and deserves respect. So citizen journalism should be encouraged as an adjunct to professional journalism, and independent journalism should be better funded to expand its reach.

CJP: You have written that America lives in a dead culture. What do you mean by that?

RJ: The United States remains the wealthiest nation in the history of the world with the most destructive military capacity in history. While it is the dominant imperial power in the world today, that dominance is evaporating. Unfortunately, mainstream U.S. political leaders and most of the public are not willing to come to terms with this. The arrogance and sense of entitlement that come with a prolonged period of dominance have encouraged delusional thinking in the United States, while at the same time undermining the humanity of Americans. That’s why I believe that I live in a dead culture — one that is not alive to the complexity of the world, not aware of its own failures, and not willing to be critically self-reflective. We celebrate the American Dream but can’t come to terms with how that dream is predicated on domination over others in the world and over nature. Rather than describe this as a dying culture, I call it a dead culture that has yet to recognize its own death. That’s important to recognize as we think about the future; the United States is not likely to help lead the world into a new era based on real justice and sustainability, but rather is an impediment to that change.

CJP: You also feel that capitalism and democracy are at odds with each other, and I couldn’t agree more with you, but aside from a very brief period some 2500 years ago, and in a very small contained political entity known as the polis, democracy has not flourished under any other system in the modern world. Could true democracy be yet another utopia?

RJ: Democracy in large organizations and institutions such as the modern nation state, with millions of citizens, may well be a pipe dream. That suggests that as we try to make these existing systems as democratic as possible, we also recognize the limits and begin experimenting with smaller-scale organizations in which more meaningful democracy is possible. The quickening collapse of ecosystems because of human arrogance will make such devolution to more local organization inevitable, and we should be thinking about it sooner rather than later.

It’s also possible that because we have lived in deeply hierarchal systems for so long, meaningful democracy on any scale is difficult to imagine given the worsening ecological realities and short time frame for change. That said, I don’t see any alternative to the patient, difficult work of creating more democratic spaces wherever we can. We evolved as a species in small, band-level societies that were fairly egalitarian, and we clearly have the capacity to live that way. There is no guarantee that such experiments in democracy can save us, but life rarely offers guarantees.

CJP: You mentioned at the start of the interview the need to think about a “truly democratic media system.” Any ideas or suggestions how those institutions may be created and what they would look like?

RJ: I think a healthy media system is likely to look like a healthy ecosystem — diverse. That means some combination of private, for-profit journalism (as long as we live in capitalism), publicly supported professional journalism (such as public broadcasting), and publicly supported journalism by ordinary people and political activists. I think our best hope for the flow of information, analysis, and opinion that is needed in democracy is that kind of diversity.