Robert Jensen on the art of journalism
By Robert Jensen
Published in The Hand On Heart Review/South Africa; reposted on Resilience.org · June, 2015
It could be said that journalism, the world over, is in a bad place these days. Yes, the particulars may vary depending on where you look, but the story of the fourth estate over the last decade or so is inescapably a tough one. Outlets in most old money nations face a punch combo from hell of falling print circulations, declining ad revenue, brutal cost cutting and a desperate scramble for alternate income streams.
Zoom out to issues that affect the entire globe, and you can add to the list a sharp decline in press freedom, shrinking ownership diversity, high numbers of journalists being murdered for their choice of profession, plus the mushrooming of veritable journalistic no go zones.
Again, it’s bad.
So, it’s against this backdrop, and hoping to get some insight in the future, that Hand On Heart decided to canvas the views of Robert Jensen, a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas, Austin. Aside from his teaching work, Jensen is also the author of numerous books, an activist and something of an accomplished public intellectual on topics as wide ranging as race, feminism and, of course, journalism. His latest book,Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully, is due out later this year on Counterpoint Press’ Soft Skull imprint.
What attracted you to a career in journalism, and what then led to your move out of the newsroom and into the academy?
I landed in journalism at age 15, in high school, for a common reason: The newspaper office is one of the places where misfits can fit in, which helped me survive my last two years of high school. Journalism forces a person into many public places, but many journalists were shy when they started out. Reporting gave me a way to go out into the world with a clear role, observing more than acting and asking questions more than conversing. After those first experiences, I stayed in journalism because I didn’t have any other identifiable skills. When I moved from mainstream newspaper journalism to academic life, at the age of 30, I was looking for a new challenge. By that time, I realized I was never going to work at the top of the industry—I wasn’t going to make it to the New York Times—and so I decided to try something new. Later, while in graduate school, I developed a critique of mainstream journalism and began to see the ideological constraints that papers such as the New York Times impose on journalists, and realized that I could pursue that critique as a professor with more freedom of inquiry than I could have had in journalism. So, in an odd way, the fact that I wasn’t the best reporter in the newsroom bumped me onto a new path that has been more intellectually and politically rewarding.
How would you describe the current state of journalism?
There are two main crises in journalism in the United States, one relatively new and one more enduring. The new crisis is financial—the longstanding business model of advertiser-supported journalism can no longer adequately bankroll the newsrooms that were common in the 20th century. So, we need to find innovative ways to finance journalists, and experiments are going forward.
The older crisis is with the professional model—the longstanding claim of journalists to be neutral and objective has never served the public well. Neutrality ends up putting journalism on the side of the status quo, and journalistic definitions of objectivity have meant that news is typically framed by people with political and economic power.
There’s a lot of excitement about digital communication, and some of those developments have been good for democracy. But those two crises have to be transcended if professional journalism is to continue to exist and contribute to a democratic culture.
You mentioned that there are a number of innovative models being explored with regards to financing quality journalism. With that in mind, are there any approaches that you see as particularly promising?
First, no matter what kind of economic system one lives in, there is bound to be tension between the people who pay the bills and the people employed to inquire and critique. That means any system for funding journalism in a complex society should be diversified. In the capitalist world in which we live, that likely means come combination of traditional advertising-supported commercial journalism, such as a daily newspaper; traditional reader/viewer/listener-supported non-profit journalism, such as public and community radio; crowd-funded journalism start-ups; and expanded government support. The latter is tricky, of course, given politicians’ tendency to want to tie funding to political obedience, but there are ways to create relatively non-partisan systems to subsidize journalism. Robert McChesney has done the best work sketching the importance of that option, pointing out how important government subsidies were to the development of a free press in U.S. history.
Don’t most of these approaches hold considerable dangers? For example: if the reader funded model is followed, couldn’t the required emphasis on self-marketing potentially have a negative effect on quality? Also, is crowd funding the best means to decide which stories get pursued and which don’t?
Yes, there are limitations and concerns. No one approach to funding journalism is trouble-free, which is why a diversified news media system is so crucial. Governments can distort the news, as can pressures—overt and subtle—from advertisers, as can the demands of readers for either ideological conformity or infotainment.
Your thoughts on the billionaire–philanthropist model of independent journalism?
In general, I don’t trust rich people, mostly because rich people don’t share my values when it comes to politics and economics but also because being rich tends to lead people to overestimate their own intelligence and underestimate the value of others’ contributions. Letting rich people decide where resources should go is inherently anti-democratic, whether in business, government, or journalism. For now, philanthropy seems to be a necessary evil in keeping journalism alive, but it’s not a solution.
What kind of response do you think the world in 2015 demands from journalism professionals?
That depends on what part of the world is doing the demanding. Much of the so-called developing world wants a journalism that doesn’t frame news from the view of wealthy nations. Critics of the concentration of wealth and power want a journalism that can raise fundamental questions of fairness and equity. But the wealthy and powerful, whether in the developing or developed world, want a subservient journalism that serves their interests. In that sense, not much has changed recently.
Meanwhile, the world itself—meaning the ecosphere, the larger living world beyond humans—demands a journalism that tells the truth about the multiple, cascading ecological crises that humans have created. To date, journalism—of any kind, mainstream or alternative—has failed to come to terms with that reality.
What do you say to those who see citizen journalism as a replacement to the status quo?
New ways for ordinary people to contribute to journalism are always welcome, but we shouldn’t overestimate the potential. First, much of what the commercial news media call “citizen journalism” is focused on fairly routine aspects of everyday community life, which is important but not the foundational contribution of journalism to democracy. Second, the most important journalism—reporting about, and critique of, public affairs, government and economics—requires training and resources, and is not easily done in people’s spare time. There are lots of ways to channel resources to people who aren’t professional journalists but who are active in public life and can contribute to public dialogue. But funding such projects requires a more sophisticated structure than commercial journalism offers today
Have you noticed a change in your student’s attitudes over the years and what, technical craft aside, would you say is the primary role of an education in journalism?
The longer I teach, the more I see my job as modeling a style of critical thinking that focuses on systems and structure of power—what we might call “the big picture”—and is willing to challenge the conventional wisdom about how power operates. We live in a highly propagandized society, flooded with intellectually corrosive marketing, advertising, and public relations. The more that the public education system, and the culture at large, fails to do that, the more important it becomes in our classrooms.
I don’t see fundamental changes in students in my quarter-century of teaching. I estimate that about a third of the students come to the university eager for critical thinking; about a third are firmly committed to the status quo; and a third are floating without much grounding of any kind. That’s been consistent throughout my career.
Some say that working from within an outlet owned by (or reliant on revenue from) a large corporation makes it impossible to work for radical change, perhaps even normalizing cooperation and complicity. Your thoughts?
There is some truth in that critique, but it is too simplistic. Working within any institution that tends to support the existing distribution of wealth and power—which includes corporations, government agencies, the military, schools, and my university—comes with challenges and opportunities. These institutions are designed to serve power, but they have varying levels of openness that make it possible to challenge power, to bite the hand that feeds you, to varying degrees. That depends on time and place; such opportunities can expand and contract over time, depending on how dissident the general population is, and can be different in different parts of the country.
So, some very good work gets done in these institutions, but it’s also true that radical change won’t be initiated within those institutions. The question for all of us is, where are we most likely to be effective, given our individual talents and temperaments? For some, it makes sense to work in mainstream institutions and use their resources for liberatory goals (that’s what I tell myself I’m doing at the University of Texas, though I should be careful not to overestimate how much I accomplish). Others are more suited to find a place outside the institutions, where alternative systems can be explored. I don’t think anyone knows enough about a complex world to say for certain which choice is best for any specific person.
You see issues of race and gender as central to understanding the world’s problems …. could you expand on this? Is greater equality in representation a solution?
Representation of marginalized groups, such as non-white people or women, should be a basic goal of any decent system. But more important than “diversity,” as it is typically understood, is a critique of the systems of power that give rise to the disparities. That means a feminist challenge to patriarchy, not just placing more women in positions of power in institutions based on patriarchal values; and a radical critique of white supremacy in all its forms, covert and overt, not just placing more non-white people in the hierarchy. And it’s important to always emphasize that dismantling each of these systems of domination and subordination is part of the larger struggle for social justice and ecological sustainability. If we are to live in a decent world with a future, it has to be based not on the quest for control and conquest (which is, admittedly, a part of human nature) but on cooperation focused on our place in a collective enterprise (which is also part of human nature).