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Robert Manoff, page 2
And what of the good citizen of the future, her informational requirements, and the service the news media could perform for her? Bollinger et al could help us all by seriously grappling with this question. To do so, however, they will have to transcend the generalities of the presidential letter that pulled the plug on Columbia's search ("We live in an age in which the system of communications is widely understood to be undergoing revolutionary changes and, at the same time, is the critical element in forging democracies, markets, culture, and the phenomenon of globalization"). We journalists already know that we live in a globalized, internetted era. What we don't know, none of us, is how truly to inhabit it, how to be citizens of such a world, or even what citizenship may some day come to mean as sovereignty of all kinds is transformed by the EU, the human rights revolution, international capital flows, and the Happy Meal.
Meanwhile, I know that our press does not satisfy my own needs as I dream the Real American Dream of republican personhood and imagine myself a potent political subject exercising the rights and responsibilities of my citizenship. I have to admit, moreover, that as I cast my gaze around the far corners of the public sphere, I'm not much impressed by the quality of the citizens I find around me, or of the officials they have selected to discharge the public trust. It is undoubtedly in some measure the doing of journalists that our political commons is in a state of disrepair. (The stillborn Iraq debate is partly their handiwork, for example.) It is in some measure journalists' responsibility and that of those who aspire to educate them to get the work of renovation under way.
This, of course, is a tall order, and it will be necessary to begin with modest expectations of how quickly we'll be able to fill it. As we await the fruits of the Task Force's labors, I would suggest that we might begin, as I will here, by thinking about the relationship of politics, journalism, and truth for much of the mischief done in the public sphere occurs at the junction where the three might be expected to have come together.
At its best, journalism has always claimed to be about truth-telling. This is what imparts a certain nobility to the profession. However, many recent discourses modern philosophies of science and, yes, postmodernism among them have discovered the contingency of narratives about the world, and have cast such claims into doubt. Neither "the truth" nor "the news" that Walter Lippmann so neatly counterposed to each other in simpler times can any longer be spoken of in singular terms; both, we now understand, are in some measure artifacts bearing the traces of their creation by processes that are always, at least potentially, plural. In this light, journalism as truth-telling plain and simple has come to seem in certain measure a "vital illusion" necessary, unachievable, and on occasion even tragic.
Tony Lukas, the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist
who took his life as he was finishing many years of work on Big Trouble,
once told me that when doing journalism, "It's always the last phone
call that matters." In saying this decades ago he was identifying
the trap in which he was snared even then. For if the journalistic truth
is revealed only through the "last" phone call, it is also true
that is impossible to know when the "last" call has been made
since it is always possible to make one more. Seeking after the
journalistic truth thus becomes an attempt to reach an ever-receding horizon.
The doomed journey to that horizon fixed the course of Tony's life.
Tony's remark hauntingly echoed the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, who in pondering the nature of Being was led to the paradoxical conclusion that "You cannot step into the same river twice" because in the interim both you and the river will have changed. But while Heraclitus embraced the conclusion that life is an unstoppable flow whose transient truth cannot be grasped except at a moment, Tony continued to pursue his stories in the hope that he could stop the flow and fix the truth with a final, journalistic, telephonic, act.
If the attempt to stop the flow of life in order to grasp its singular truth is therefore something of an illusion, the pursuit of another kind of truth may not be nearly as chimerical. Journalists may not be as able as they wish precisely to fix the truth of events amidst the swirl of life, but journalism is capable of an achievement that is simultaneously both more modest and more grand: Journalists can reveal the multiple meanings of what takes place in the world. By doing so they can help constitute republican subjecthood.
Journalism's canonical "five Ws and an H" embody the profession's traditional ambition to explain the truth of specific, particular events. Such journalism is materialistic (favoring physical evidence, or the evidence provided by the senses) and positivistic (favoring the observation and collection of discrete facts). With this model in mind, journalists go places to see things, or speak to witnesses who have (the last phone call), and then report back with the facts of the matter. Classically, what they seek to discover is the truth of individual events in the here and now. We might say that classic journalism aspires to report the situational truth.
But the truth of things frequently is not to be found in particular situations. We know that it is often not the individual event that matters so much as the connection between events, or the links among things: The truth may best be found in the relationships in which events and things are embedded. Because relationships don't actually exist as something fixed, material, and graspable, materialism and positivism will fail us here. We journalists must discover such relationships by arranging individual facts and events in the patterns that make it possible for us to make sense of the world.
When we do this as journalists we go beyond trying to report the situational truth. Instead, we work to uncover the meanings that emerge from relationships. In doing so, we pass from the task of merely investigating the facts of the case at hand to an effort to understand what the case at hand means in relationship with the rest of the world. These meanings we might call the existential truth, and this, it seems to me, is the realm where journalists can do their most valuable work on behalf of citizens.
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