Debate within the box is not debate

Tim McGuire wants media criticism to be a bit more civil. “If media criticism is going to be taken seriously,” he writes in his Cronkite School of Journalism (Arizona State) blog, “I think the vitriol needs to be toned down and humility introduced.”

I have found it mighty maddening lately that everybody who talks about newspapers, media and the future of said media is so damned certain about just about everything. I have certainly made as many flat‐out declarations as the next guy in my life, but it strikes me that in this intriguing liminal moment we live in there is a demand for more humility, more sense of journey and more open inquiry.

This is all well and good, but one of McGuire’s five rules for media criticism (academics love rules) strikes me as bringing the debate within a traditional box. Rule #3:

There needs to be common starting point. A good one for journalism is the four pillars of truth‐telling, minimizing harm, independence and accountability. Those four elements are essential for discourse to be considered journalism. Good criticism should challenge journalists on the exercise of one or more of those elements. (Emphasis mine)

We’ll never find a common starting point for media criticism by forcing the debate into the very box that’s being criticized. It may introduce civility, because everybody in there believes the same thing, but journalism isn’t a practice codified by the traditions of a press more interested in creating a sterile environment for advertising than arguing the issues of the day. Imagine, if you will, the 18th Century pamphleteers working within the constraints imposed by the King’s “real” journalists.

There is no more colonialist institution in the world than the American press. Its need to be separate from (and above) the ignorant and uninformed citizenry it claims to represent is laughable in a culture where those same citizens are now able to publish for themselves. I agree with Professor McGuire that nobody knows the future on all this, but I think the right starting point is the people formerly known as the audience. They have run from the box, and we need to honestly and fearlessly ask ourselves why.


  1. http://Tim%20McGuire says

    There were a lot of tiresome comments to my blog entry. This is not one of them. I respect the argument a lot. It is very smart. I don’t agree that starting with truth‐telling, minimizing harm, independence and accountability put us in a constraining box, but I respect wise, civil argument a lot. Terry Heaton has done that. –Tim McGuire

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