“When you are in the last ditch, there is nothing left but to sing.” Thus Samuel Beckett, after a U.S. reporter asked why his small country had produced so many great writers. Beckett then developed the point by means of triangulation: “It's the English Government and the Catholic Church – they have buggered us into existence.”
These days, with corporate consolidation and new media innovation on one side, and right-wing punditry on the other, reporters had best learn to sing for themselves.
In the MR Casualty issue, we’ve brought you the words of five prize-winning journalists: Chris Gunness, Mary Kay Magistad, David Rohde, Charlie Sennott, and Tracy Wilkinson, not to mention photography from a sixth, Richard Sennott. Something of a dream team there, and yet it’s actually the work of another MR Casualty contributor, the graphic artist Josh Neufeld, that I’ve been mulling over most recently, while trying to refine some of my own opinions about the changing role of journalism today.
The Influencing Machine is a sequential art manifesto on the history, present, and future of the fourth estate by WNYC’s Brooke Gladstone, with art by Josh Neufeld. This book-length essay uses Scott McCloud’s marvelous Understanding Comics as its model, and a cartoony version of Brooke herself appears in myriad guises from panel to panel – becoming illustration, emblem, and hero of the journalistic vision she advocates. One of McCloud’s key theses is, of course, that cartoony icons serve the reader as masks, and foster Purple Rose of Cairo-like projections into the protagonist’s world. The choice of medium, in short, is motivated – and no one better than Neufeld to help us stride through the centuries in a media critic’s shoes. Revolutions due to technological innovation are a theme throughout, as is the repetitive history of diatribes against – and contrasting celebrations of – the press, not to mention its frequent outright suppression. From Caesar’s Acta Diurna to The Matrix, Gladstone faces down the theorists of conspiracy, noting the force behind their critiques as well as episodes of counternarrative.
At more than one juncture, The Influencing Machine reminded me of another powerful portrait of the modern media, though more by contrast than by continuation. Chomsky and Herman’s Manufacturing Consent is a far more focused work, and their five filters of editorial bias were probably somewhere in the back of Gladstone’s mind as she compiled her own list of media distortions. Unsurprisingly, though, The Influencing Machine offers more of an insider’s perspective, noting how, for example, the need to offer a well-told tale warps any depiction of science, where everything is middle, and there are neither beginnings or ends. Gladstone also describes journalistic predilections for things that we see, for things that will sell, for things that can shock, as well things that support the status quo.
This discussion of bias, and an historical argument against “objectivity,” is both the book’s center and the true measure of its worth. (The cheapskates out there can read an excerpt from this section for free in Slate.com, and will note Gladstone characterizing her own argument as a challenge to “two common assumptions about objectivity: that it is essential to good journalism and that it is real.”) The Influencing Machine is eloquent in its demonstration of the strictures of the so-called “Golden Age of Objectivity,” which it unmasks as a product of white, commercial, and Cold War consensus, rather than anything enduring or empirical.
Here, however, I feel I have to take my already contrarian blogpost (after all, who today dares speak in favor of the media?) up a notch, by taking a swipe at the media critic herself. In this era of “fair and balanced” Newspeak, diatribes against the very possibility of objectivity increasingly seem to me the easy way out, and more themselves a product of consensus that any courageous challenge to the status quo. And there are risks. After all, remember that when Nietzsche announced the death of God, he was really taking aim at a secondary target, call it Jesus Christ, Judeo-Christian values, the Golden Rule, asceticism, whatever. Attacks on objectivity may well have a similar sort of collateral damage. No doubt objectivity has never truly, or certainly exclusively, guided journalistic practice, in Cold War America or elsewhere. Nonetheless, if you throw out all hope of objectivity, you’ve just lost science too, and that baby I’m not yet ready to burn. A historical, genealogical critique can be right in each particular instance, and still not prove its general case. The truth, as someone somewhere said, is out there.
So where does that leave us? Darned close to where Gladstone herself ends up, actually. Her final recommendation is, in part, to trust “reporters who demonstrate fairness and reliability over time,” a combination that seems to steer us somewhere suspiciously near the Never Never Land of objectivity. We should also note that, as a history of the media, The Influencing Machine is chock-full of examples of just such journalists, and that their ranks include Ernest Hemingway, Michael Herr, Walter Lippman, and Mark Twain. In the Slate piece, Gladstone notes that “The world is full of media books with competing predictions of cyber-utopia or annihilating chaos”; hers, she tells us, is a middle-course argument: “don’t rejoice, don’t panic.”
Perhaps here she was thinking of Samuel Beckett’s favorite line from Augustine: “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.” In any case, the intimate, inventive, and at times simply stunning art of The Influencing Machine is evidence enough that Gladstone agrees with my opening point: In today’s world, a reporter damn well better learn to sing.