The capstone project of all politics majors at Pomona College is creating a book list of 12 works. The collection is supposed to encapsulate one’s understanding about a topic in politics. I chose to explore journalism, and more specifically, modern journalism’s collision course with the digitally-networked reality of the current era.

Having selected the works, written the essays (some of which have been altered for publication in previous posts), and presented to a general audience, the only unfinished aspect is defending my arguments against a panel of Pomona professors this coming Thursday. In preparation, I’ll rehash my original twelve works and discuss developing thoughts over the past two months.

Original List

Attempts at Journalistic Theory

  • Public Opinion by Walter Lippmann (1922)
  • Four Theories of The Press by Fred Siebert et al. (1956)
  • Manufacturing Consent by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky (1988)
  • Blog Theory by Jodi Dean (2011)

The American Problem

  • Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville (1835–1840)
  • Pieces of A Man by Gil Scott-Heron (1971)
  • Political Fictions by Joan Didion(2002)
  • These Truths by Jill Lepore (2018)

The Uneasy Marriage of Technology and Politics

  • The 480 by Eugene Burdick (1964)
  • Understanding Media by Marshal McLuhan (1964)
  • Kill All Normies by Angela Nagle (2017)
  • Twitter and Tear Gas by Zeynep Tufekci (2018)

The very idea of a “theory of journalism” is an unwieldy one. There is a trove of literature on journalistic ethics, but that is only a small sub-category of what I would want to explore. Looked at historically, journalistic ethics is a mere blip in millennia long history of political writing, a feeble attempt at professionalization in the 1880’s when the modern scientific university was beginning to take hold. Attempting a real theory begets questions far more ambiguous, those relating to words, ideas, and most vexingly, truth. These epistemological questions far outpaced my ability to glean answers. That being said, based on these twelve works, I can provide different ideas of how truth is defined and what role, if any, journalists can involve themselves in the process of constructing it.

Public Opinion is concerned with a beautifully philosophical concern in the constitutive ideas of “fiction.” By fiction, Lippmann does not mean lies but representations of environment, the “portraiture which arises spontaneously in people’s minds.” Lippmann goes to great length to discuss the quantity and variety of impediments that exist between an individual and an occurrence that happen outside their immediate experience. He talks about the imprecision of encoding the telegraph, the meager time available in an average person’s day, the limited vocabulary which we must use to describe our impossibly complex world. He also discusses stereotypes, a concept this books is largely credited with formalizing and popularizing. His acknowledgement of the interplay between interpretation and experience feels relevant even today, when so much of our communication is in symbols, images, and references. Most cogently, Lippmann’s stereotype can be defined: “we do not see then define, we define and then see.”

The political implications he draws from this are many. In a self-contained community, like that envisaged by James Madison in his 1791 work also titled Public Opinion, the only real disagreement would be in judgements about the same set of facts. Neither source of information nor source of morals would have to be independently verified because it would already be assumed to be the same. The chief end of intellectual training would be “the power to draw deductions from a premise, rather than the ability to find the premise” and “truth could be obtained by liberty within these limits.”

Lippmann unequivocally believed such a bucolic world did not exist in America in 1922, if it ever had. Without a so-called self-contained community, he was nervous that truth would never simply emerge. There would be no way to rectify all various accounts, opinions, and stereotypes of both those who make the news and those who read it.

“News and truth are not the same thing, and must be clearly distinguished.”

— Walter Lippmann

For Lippmann, the function of news was to bring the public’s attention to a particular topic or occurrence. It simply was not capable of making sense of it. On the other hand, the function of truth was to discover facts, put them into conversation with one another, and make a workable narrative from them. Lippmann did not think newspapers had the capacity to work with this kind of truth.

It’s a dispiriting and humbling diagnosis for journalism, one that called for its minimized importance in political systems. “At it’s best the press is a servant and guardian of institutions; at its worst it is a means by which a few exploit social disorganization to their own ends… It is no substitute for institutions,” Lippmann wrote.

Ironically, however, his solutions—given 100 years of scrutiny—have proven even more disheartening. While many of Lippmann’s diagnoses were spot on, he had less success in prescribing treatment. He was, like many political scholars at the time, enamored by the new quantitative abilities of the time, the professionalization of politics into a “social science.” In his book’s final section, “Organized Intelligence,” Lippmann posits some remedies — and they are dull: government research, industrial auditing, budgeting. They must be dull. Dullness is what breaks through the distracting melodrama of our personal stereotypes, which perennially distract and mislead us.

Lippmann was writing at the advent of the radio. Further technological developments, including movies, television, computers, and the internet would continue to augment the power of mass media. Advertisers would increase their influence over the media’s business model. With increased ability to quantify and understand what readers enjoyed and which stories sold, the “Miltonian” notion of truth emerging from a web of opinions by its own virtue was starting to seem permanently debunked. It would have to be expedient, entertaining, and profitable. The deck was being stacked too heavily against truth’s favor. The idea of “emergent truth” is what Four Theories of the Press called the Libertarian Model, and it predominated in the West since the Enlightenment. Lippmann’s critiques were, in small part, the final nail in the coffin.

The response was the Social Responsibility model. If Newton’s laws of physics were the scientific antecedent to the libertarian ideas, then Darwin and Einstein precipitated the social responsibility paradigm. The American Constitution was a Newtonian machine; it would perfectly balance human forces against one another and harness the resulting kinetic energy to power itself.

Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was far less universal; everything could change depending on one’s vantage point. Politically, your abilities and perceptions were dependent on what you could see and what you already knew to look for. This was Lippmann’s stereotype. Darwin’s theories stripped bare the myth of each individual’s limitless capacity for self-determination. In the Theory of Evolution, the individual was trivially unimportant, no more than a data point, subject to the uncontrollable force of natural selection. These theories were products of their time. Two World Wars had sewn immense doubt that we could find our way when left to our own devices.

A sense of public accountability emerged, (supposedly) separate from advertising revenue or political axe-grinding. Given all of the uncertainty, valiant journalists would establish truth for the masses in a self-less act of public service. By the mid 20th century, Siebert wrote that objectivity had gone from an ambitious goal to a “fetish,” but the model was not accepted blindly either. Elmer Davis, a radio commentator at the time, discussed the extreme difficulty—and power—this would put back into the hands of those whose job it was to make the news.

“The good news broadcaster, must walk a tightrope between great gulfs — on one side the false objectivity that takes everything at face value and lets the public be imposed upon like a charlatan with the most brazen front; on the other, the “interpretive” reporting which fails to draw the line between objective and subjective, between a reasonably well-established fact and what the reporter or editor wishes were fact. To say that is easy; to do that is hard.”

Perhaps best shown in Four Theories, how one decides to theorize the news, and especially how one thinks about truth, is symptomatic of numerous other calculations: political systems, economic flows, and material comforts, just to name a few. The most consistent factor perhaps is ourselves, and the self-referential paradox we mold from the world around us.