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|Prudishness and journalism were never a good mix.|
Today I started pulling together a bunch of stray threads that have been nagging at me for some time. Anyone who reads my work knows that I have longstanding admiration for quality journalism — and growing frustration with the culture and attitudes of professional journalism.
It occurred to me that a lot of the things that frustrate me about journalistic cynicism, idolatry, and sanctimony are remarkably similar to what frustrates me about sex negativity in American culture.
So I’m writing an essay to connect the dots. There are a lot of dots to connect, it’s going to take me a while. And I’m still thinking it all through.
One think I’ve learned is that my readers can always help me think tough things through. So in that spirit, here are some excerpts from what I’ve drafted so far. Bear in mind that this is JUST a draft, I WILL be refining it. I know it sounds more preachy and strident than I’d like. Also, I need to make it more fun and flow more. All that will be worked on
With that said, here’s the draft…
When people want something badly — in fact, when they need it for their own well-being and the survival of society — and when they perceive it as scarce, they often fear its power. And they often try to manage that fear by shifting the perceived balance of power through regulation, denigration, and taboo.
That’s why so many societies are so uptight and paranoid about sex. It also may be why the culture of professional journalism is so rigid and cynical. Both of these circumstances trouble me, because today they seem to be causing more problems than they solve.
Human beings need sex… We also need to figure out what’s happening around us, and which information and interpretations we can really trust in order to make decisions in our best interests.
…Trouble is, no one is omniscient. Even if we were, our brains could never process all that stuff. We’re constantly trying to strike a balance between gathering and filtering information, so that we can figure out what’s relevant and what (or who) we can trust. …Journalism is about trust, expressed in the language of accuracy, objectivity, and credibility.
…Journalists generally take their obligation to the public trust very personally and seriously. That’s not pure altruism. To be perceived as trustworthy is to be powerful. Journalists know this and like it — a lot. In fact, gaining that power is a key attraction of this profession. (God knows journalists don’t do it for the money or the schedule.)
Where there’s a need, there’s a business. That’s as true of the trust and awareness business (news and journalism) as it is for porn and prostitution.
To help the news business grow, journalism became professionalized — thus positioning itself as even more trustworthy, valuable, and (especially) scarce. There were many benefits of the professionalism of journalism, but there was a dark side, too: Journalists and news organizations started seeing themselves (and acting like) an anointed priesthood, with special authority to declare what was important, relevant, and true.
Meanwhile, mass-media technology provided almost universal access to people’s attention. “News” as we came to know it in the 20th century became ubiquitous and popular.
It turned into a perfect storm of human nature. Humans are social creatures, so we often conflate what’s popular with what’s correct or best. Society played along with the growing visibility of news organizations. We evolved new social norms which equated paying attention to mainstream professional news outlets with intelligence and prosperity. Meanwhile we started belittling other sources of news and interpretation (from conversations to blogs). And we grew a new taboo — making it shameful to admit you don’t care about, don’t trust, or don’t defer to mainstream professional journalism.
When news organizations employing professional journalists are considered the best and only proper source of “real,” trustworthy news, despite the obvious existence and value of many other approaches to sharing information and interpretations — how different is that from declaring the only acceptable form of sex to be heterosexual, monogamous, based on traditional gender roles, and ideally within a legally sanctioned marriage geared toward procreation?
Mom + Dad = baby is neither the pinnacle nor the totality of human sexuality. Likewise, professional journalism from established news “brands” is not necessarily the best or most reliable path to “the truth.” People in communities marginalized by mainstream news have always known this. Now, it’s becoming more evident to the rest of us — especially since we have more ways than ever to check up on mainstream news, and see how that particular type of sausage really gets made
This should be a relief to news organizations and communities. It should free us up to be more creative and collaborative, to abandon outmoded assumptions and practices, to find new and more robust business opportunities, and to represent real life even better through “the news.” But so far, it’s mostly led to a backlash of fearmongering, retrenchment, and cynicism from news pros.
Well, no one cedes power gladly.
Fortunately this time of change doesn’t have to be about “killing journalism,” “destroying trust” or even “ceding power.” Instead, it can be about collaboratively building a fairer and more realistic basis of public trust, focused on managing an information economy of abundance.
The jealous, hierarchical, competitive mentality of scarcity that so far has shaped so much of the culture of professional journalism has outlived its limited usefulness. It’s now making journalists bitter, shrinking the bottom line of the news business, and generally alienating people (especially young people). Throwing off that yoke will not only keep journalism relevant and compelling, but make it FUN.
Yeah, remember fun? Don’t underestimate fun, it’s a whole other kind of power. It comes when you blend passion, connection, and freedom. It makes sex a lot better — and journalism could use a big dose of it too. Once you let go of the need to be perfect, proper, and in control, you can start having real fun. And surprisingly good stuff can result.
OK…. that’s where I’m at with this conceptual wrestling match so far. What do you think? Please comment below.