June 13, 2011
The State of American Journalism: A Point of View
by Chris Hedges*
My good friend, the author and journalist Stephen Kinzer, once said to me, half in jest: “You’re not a journalist. You’re a minister pretending to be a journalist”. He was not far off the mark. I have always been concerned with truth and justice than with news. News and truth are not the same things. News, at least as it is configured in the faux objectivity of American journalism, can be used quite effectively to mask and obscure the truth.
“Balance”, in which you give as much space, for example, to the victimiser as to the victim, may be objective and impartial, but it is usually not honest. And when you are “objective”, it means that, in your reasonableness, you ultimately embrace and defend the status quo.
There is a deep current of cynicism that runs through much of American journalism, especially on commercial electronic media. It is safe and painless to produce “balanced” news. It is very unsafe, as the best journalists will tell you, to produce the truth. The great journalists, like great preachers, care deeply about truth, which they seek to impart to their reader, listener or viewer, often at the cost of their careers.
“When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art, George Orwell wrote. “I write because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.” (1).
My former employer, the New York Times, with some of the most able and talented journalists and editors in the country, not only propagated the lies used to justify the war in Iraq, but also never saw the financial meltdown (of 2008-2009) coming. These journalists and editors are besotted with their access to the powerful. They look at themselves as players, part of the inside elite. They went to the same elite colleges. They eat at the same restaurants. They go to the same parties and dinners. They live in the same exclusive neighbourhoods. Their children go to the same schools. They are, if one concedes that propaganda is a vital took for the power elite, important to the system.
Journalists who should have been exposing the lies to justify the Iraq war or reporting from low-income neighbourhoods–where mortgage brokers and banks were filing fraudulent loan applications to hand money to people they knew could never pay it back–were instead “doing” lunch with the power brokers in the White House or on Wall Street. All that talent, all that money, all that expertise, all those resources proved useless when it came time ti examine the two major cataclysmic events of our age. And all that news, however objective and balanced, turned out to be a lie.
I have never sought to be objective. How can you be objective about death squads in El Salvador, massacres in Iraq, or Serbian sniper fire that gunned down unarmed civilians, including children, in Sarajevo? How can you be neutral about the masters and profiteers of war who lie and dissemble to hide the crimes they commit and the profits they make? How can you be objective about human pain? And, finally, how can you be objective about those responsible for this suffering? I am not neutral about rape, torture or murder. I am not neutral about rapists, torturers, or murderers. I am not neutral about George W. Bush or Barack Obama, who under international law are war criminals. And if you had to see the butchery of war close,as I did for nearly two decades, you would not be neutral either.
But in the game of American journalism it is forbidden to feel. Journalists are told they must be clinical observers who interpret human reality through their eyes, not their hearts–and certainly not through their consciences. This is the deadly disease of American journalism. And it is the reason journalism in the United States has lost its moral core and its influence. It is the reason that in a time of crisis the traditional media have so little to say. It is why the traditional media are distrusted. The gross moral and professional failings of the traditional media opened the door for hate-mongers on Fox News and the news celebrities on commercial networks who fill our heads with trivia and celebrity gossip.
As the centers of American power were seized and hijacked by corporations, the media continued to pay deference to systems of power that could no longer be considered honest or democratic. The media treat criminals on Wall Street as responsible members of the ruling class. They treat the criminals in the White House and the Pentagon as statesmen. The media never responded to the radical reconfiguration of American politics, the slow motion coup d’etat that has turned phrases like the consent of the governed into a cruel joke. And because the media are not concerned with distinguishing truth from news, because they lack a moral compass, they have become nothing more than courtiers to the elite, shameless hedonists of power, and absurd court propagandists.
At the moment when the country desperately needs vigorous media, it gets celebrities such as Katie Couric (right) masquerading as journalists, who night after night “feel your pain”. The few journalists who do not, as Couric does, function as entertainers and celebrities are so timid and removed from the suffering our dispossessed working classes that they are rightly despised. The media are hated for a reason, They deserve to be hated. They sided with the corporate forces, like most liberal institutions, as these corporate forces decimated the working class, bankrupted the economy, corrupted the legislative, executive and judicial systems of government, and unleashed endless war and the destruction of the ecosystem in which human life depend.
I keep my distance from the powerful. I distrust all sources of power regardless of their ideological orientation. I do not want to be their friend. I do not want to advise them or be part of their inner circle. The only benefit one gets from being a White House correspondent, as far as I can tell, is that the president knows your name. I made a conscious choice to report from the developing world and war zones during most of my career. What I witnessed rarely matched the version of events spun out for the media courtiers in Washington by the power elite.
As a foreign correspondent I often fought my own Washington bureau, where reporters in suits were being fed a partial version of reality and had a vested interest in reporting it as fact. The longer reporters spent in Washington, the more they looked, sounded and acted like the power brokers they covered. At a certain point, as any Sunday morning television talk show illustrates, these courtiers in the media became indistinguishable from the power elite.
Kinzer was right. Once unleashed from the restrictions and confines of American journalism, I began to write what are, in essence, sermons. Sermon, when they are good, do not please a congregation. They do not make people happy. They are not a form of entertainment. They disturb many, if not most, of the listener. They resonate with only a minority.
Truth, at least as far as it can be discerned, is not comfortable or enjoyable to listen to, nor is the emotion and anger that accompanies all passionate assaults on lies and injustice. Sermons force those who hear them to be self-critical. They expose our inadequacies and failures. They demand that we become emotionally engaged. These are speakers and writers on he left and the right, including many preachers in pulpits, whose goal is to be admired and applauded. This is not my aim.
It is not pleasant to be disliked– and I have faced crowds that deeply dislike me and my message–but it is necessary if your commitment is to truth and the harnessing of emotional energy and passion against those who carry out injustice. I write not with anticipation of approval but often of hostility. And I write finally from the gut, not the head.
“The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions–racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war–which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action,” Orwell noted. (2)
The role of the preacher is not to provide self-help manuals for the future. It is to elucidate reality and get people to act on this reality.It is impossible to speak about hope if we substitute illusion for reality. If we believe that reality is not an impediment to our desires, that we can have everything we want by tapping into our inner strength or if we believe that the fate of the human species is never-ending advancement and progress, then we are crippled as agents for change. We are left responding to illusion. This makes everything we do or believe, futile and useless. The bleakness of what we face, economically and environmentally, is not a call to despair but a call to new forms of resistance and civil disobedience.
I am not religious in a traditional sense. There is no Christian denomination that would consider me a believer. I am as alienated from religious institutions as I am from secular institutions. But I was raised in the church, graduated from seminary at Harvard Divinity School, and cannot escape my intellectual and moral formation. I remain a preacher, although an unorthodox one.
I believe that the truth is the only force that will set us free. I have hope, not in the tangible or in what I can personally accomplish, but in the fate that battling evil, cruelty, and injustice allows us to retain our identity, a sense of meaning and ultimately our freedom. Perhaps in our lifetimes we will not succeed. Perhaps things will get worse. But this does invalidate our efforts.
Rebellion–which is different from revolution because it is perpetual alienation from power rather than the replacement of one power system with another–should be our natural state. And faith, for me, is a belief that rebellion is always worth it, even if all outward signs point to our lives and struggles as penultimate failures. We are saved not by what we can do or accomplish but by our fealty to revolt, our steadfastness to the weak, the poor, the marginalised, and those who endure oppression. We must stand with them against the powerful. If we remain true to these moral imperatives, we win. And I am enough of an idealist to believe that the struggle to live the moral life is worth it.
During the first Persian Gulf War, when I defied the media restrictions and was in the Saudi and later Kuwait desert to cover the fighting, I was accosted one afternoon by R.W.Apple who was overseeing the coverage for the New York Times.
“What is it about you and authority?”, he asked.
“I have no problem with authority, Johnny, as long as long as authority doesn’t try and tell me what to do,” I answered.
“You dumb fcuk”, he said. “That is what authority does”.
* Chris Hedges is a Fellow at The Nation Institute and columnist for Truthdig. He spent nearly 2 decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America,the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans, with fifteen years at the New York Times. This appears as Introduction in his book, The World as It is.(New York: Nation Books, 2009)
1) George Orwell, “Why I write” in George Orwell: An Age Like This, 1920-1940, ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus(Boston: David R.Godine, 2006), p 6
2) George Orwell, “Wells, Hitler and the World State” in All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays (New York: Mariner Books, 2009) p.150