Journalism Loathes Its Audience

Journalism and academia make two enormous mistakes when trying to analyze the current state of political affairs in the U.S. Unless we correct these errors, we’re always going to come to the wrong conclusions.

Error #1: Dissing Religion:

“Why We’re Polarized” is a new book by the brilliant journalism analyst Ezra Klein, and based on an excerpt published this week in Vox, Klein — like all other such analysts — tries to figure out why we’ve arrived at such a polarized place in the U.S. today. He does so, however, without considering human nature whatsoever, and that will always be a problem in such efforts. This is typical of those academics who believe and are taught that reality is determined by what can be measured, because measuring is the preferred path to truth.

This bias is best reflected in Daniel C. Hallin’s Spheres of Influence, a theory of media objectivity revealed in his 1986 Vietnam war book The Uncensored War. The press determines their coverage decisions based on concentric circles or “spheres,” The Sphere of Consensus, The Sphere of Legitimate Controversy, and on the outer most circle, The Sphere of Deviance.

The Sphere of Deviance is reserved for topics that journalists are “expected to either disregard or denounce,” according to Hallin. This is where discussions of things such as human nature exist, and this is a major stumbling block for journalists and journalism. So, permit me to talk about why this is so vitally important in our work to understand what’s going on with the press in the era of postmodernism.

The major religion in the U.S. is Christianity, which has been divided into two camps since Martin Luther first exclaimed his justification by faith 500 years ago. This argument is that the sacrifice of Jesus paid the price for any personal attempt at righteousness or righteous behavior. The argument is that mankind cannot possibly live up to the expectations that God demands in order to be considered for the promises of God to a righteous people. This is why redemption for sin can only be achieved by means other than one’s own behavior. This view elevates God’s justice to the topmost position in the faith. God, the argument goes, is 100% just, and there are plenty of Bible verses to examine. Here are three:

  • Colossians 3:25 For he who does wrong will receive the consequences of the wrong which he has done, and that without partiality.
  • Jeremiah 32:19 great in counsel and mighty in deed, whose eyes are open to all the ways of the sons of men, giving to everyone according to his ways and according to the fruit of his deeds;
  • Deuteronomy 32:4 “The Rock! His work is perfect, For all His ways are just; A God of faithfulness and without injustice, Righteous and upright is He.”

It’s this belief that opened the doors for colonialism and a host of other evils in the name of God. After all, if behavior doesn’t (really) matter — and God’s forgiveness is always there anyway — then pursuing the great commission (Go into all the world and make disciples) is paramount.

The problem, of course, is that God may indeed be 100% just, but the Bible also says he is also 100% merciful, something that’s viewed as impossible to those of us trapped in the measurable worlds of time and space. We’re only capable of seeing such as a zero-sum equation through the anthropomorphization of God, declaring that the best God can be is 50–50. the Bible says otherwise:

  • Psalm 89:14 “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne; mercy and truth go before Your face.”
  • Psalm 145:8–9 “The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and great in mercy. The Lord is good to all, and His tender mercies are over all His works.”
  • John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

Let’s go back to Martin Luther on this one, for his primary objection with the Roman Catholic Church was their selling of indulgences for sin, which Luther rightly reasoned was a bastardization of God’s mercy. But in rejecting Catholicism, he rejected a good portion of the mercy argument, but I think I can safely say that God had nothing to do with that.

So, why is this Bible study so important to today’s journalists? Because it forms the foundation for the matter of Ezra Klein’s “Why We’re Polarized”. Those who come down predominately on the side justice are the Republicans. Those who come down predominately on the side of mercy are the Democrats. It really is as simple as that, and it’s why Western culture wars are essentially based in the faith and behavior of these two groups, who couldn’t be more polarized than the uprights in the end zones of a football field. To even begin a discussion of political polarization without this is chasing the wind.

This fundamental split also shows up in the study of brain dominance in humans. We’re all a combination of right brain (the arts & leaders) and left brain (math & managers), but each of us tends to be dominant in either right or left brain capabilities. For this discussion, left-brainers would fall on the justice side and right-brainers on the mercy side. Again, brain dominance determines fundamental stuff and includes the polarization of which journalists of today are discovering.

The point is that journalists need to move religion from its Sphere of Deviance and into the Sphere of Legitimate Controversy, so that its influence can be included in what we call “news.”

Error #2: Dissing the Audience

The second major error that analysts make is the gross underestimation of journalism’s audience. In the Vox excerpt, Klein writes:

“The news media isn’t just an actor,” he notes. “It’s arguably the most powerful actor in politics.” He concludes, “It’s the primary intermediary between what politicians do and what the public knows.”

This remarkable and self-serving declaration states something that has been completely disrupted by postmodern era technology. It was this, more than anything else, that allowed a man like Donald Trump to rise to the office of President of the United States.

14East’s Jack Ladd wrote in a commentary called “The Sphere of Deviance”:

The way that the public may view journalism is not how journalism operates. Media portrayals of journalists often romanticize journalism as a career for underdog superheroes because we want to believe that journalists are a crucial force for good. They can be. But, the vision of journalism so neatly constructed for us in movies and television shatters if it is used to keep the marginalized on the margins. I would argue it frequently is.

In this sense, journalism loathes its audience and talks down to it regularly. It’s why I believe my 2010 essay “The Evolving User Paradigm” is one of my most important writings. The longer everyday people use the internet, the more disruptive they become. The web itself, with its relentless links, is a tool for deconstruction, which has long-term political ramifications for all of us. The postmodern disruption creates what Jay Rosen has called “The Great Horizontal,” because we are now — everyone of us — our own media companies with our own ways to gather information, run that information through our own filters, and share our conclusions with others. To suggest that our need for journalism is the same as it was 50 years ago is absurd, and yet, this is the paradigm within which journalism functions. There’s no such thing as a “mass” to influence anymore, and this begs the question of why journalists and analysts think we need them to function as “the most powerful actor in politics.”

As I’ve long tracked for everyone, mistrust of the press began with Watergate. Gallup’s annual measurement of media trust has been on a downward slide since 1973, and the blogging disruption was in very large part a response to this. We don’t want our journalists to be celebrities, and yet that’s exactly what we have taking place now. It is in no way a reach to suggest that journalists’ quest for popularity is off-putting to the audience they are trying to serve.

The American public has been ignored and disrespected for way too long, and this, too, influences analysts ability to rightly perceive what’s taking place politically. People are fed up with both being considered sheep and with behavior that treats them thusly. “Mad” doesn’t even begin to describe it. It’s a resentment that won’t be overcome by those who think of themselves as “the most powerful” anything.

The press must learn to function with its audience, and that will take a level of humility that I’m not sure the institution is capable of producing. The press artificially separates itself from the public while chasing old world influence. Before the press can function as truth-tellers, it must first embrace the totality of those it serves and drop the quest for celebrity status through spotlights on its individual actors.

Because, in this way, journalists are bigger pawns than the audience they claim needs its protection. The institution has lost its influence, and it will never get it back absent a deep soul-searching of its self-image.

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