Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Dear journos, Christopher Lasch said debate should be at the center of what we do. Please respond.

In 1996 Christopher Lasch wrote "The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy," which described the 20th century as one long insult to the idea of government by the people, for the people and of the people.  The driver of this de-democratization? The growing professional/technocratic/scientific class that had begun to dominate American life, from business to government, a class that believed that in a complex world only the well-educated few (themselves, of course) had the solutions to the problems that beset us. And frankly, the few didn't have time to explain themselves to the many.

The professionalism of journalism during that time, directed by Walter Lippmann, supported this position by taking as its task the translation to the many of the judgments of the few, according to Lasch. Professional journalists really didn't have time for the many, either. Power was concentrated in the few, and that's where journalists gravitated.

The pertinent chapter for today's practicing journalist is Chapter Nine, "The Lost Art of Argument." In some ways, it's obvious -- the comparison, say, of the Lincoln-Douglas debates to our contemporary practice of televised "debate." Of course Lincoln wins. But by locating debate or argument at the center of the practice of democracy, citing John Dewey and William James, Lasch opens up modern journalism to a withering critique, because the press exists mostly to report the positions of the elites, not to engage in a messy, open-minded full-throated inquiry into what our real problems are and what their solutions might be. 

For our purposes today, as the profession of journalism wobbles under economic, technological and philosophical stresses, Lasch's critique is still pertinent enough to require a response. The journalism establishment (the editors and owners of major newspaper chains, deans of journalism schools, etc.) is arguing that the preservation of democracy depends on the preservation of journalism as it's practiced today.  Lasch argues that our journalism has injured democracy, nearly fatally, not preserved or extended it. As journalists, we need to respond to Lasch's description (a key word for Dewey).  Either we have a good argument against his position or we have to adjust our own.

I've already started to adjust mine. I agree with Lasch that journalism needs to evolve into something more useful, another Dewey word, and Lasch's idea -- that it needs to be an invitation to debate, a supplement to debate -- is the right goal. Debate among the elites? No, something broader, more important and more likely to get at real resolutions to our social conflicts. That kind of journalism really would deserve our support and our respect.


Tim said...

Like Mary Parker Follett (another wonderful footnote in Lasch's book) "community is a process". . .we are not above or beyond it, we are in it, hence reaching for so-called objectivity may not be the most "useful" goal. I like James Carey's idea that we set ourselves the task of uncoupling "journalism" from "media," while recoupling "journalism" to the keyword "democracy."

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