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Pistols for Two: Jay Rosen vs Thomas Frank

Jay Rosen Writes:

“At a time when the normal condition of the citizen is a state of anxiety, euphoria spreads over the culture like the broad smile of an idiot.” The critic Robert Warshow wrote that in 1948. Fifty years later, something similar appears to be on Thomas Frank’s mind. Not euphoria, exactly, but a milder mania for “civil society” is leaving its dumb grin on the American scene. I took as much from “Triangulation Nation” (Baffler #11), his sharp tale of a fraud case, in which I play some part.

Should you find yourself named in one, an indictment from Frank’s pen will have immediate effect, turning your head in its socket a few times before letting go. He is that good a writer. Now he’s written against public journalism, which he calls a dim-witted response to escalating troubles in the press. Though the verdict in the end is severe, his essay does a service to public journalism, setting it amid events and eruptions that reach well beyond the news trade. That is where the action is, so here is my reply.

If democracy is a scam, politics a joke, culture a commodity, public discourse a disease, then recent attempts to bring a more “civic” ethic to mainstream journalism must quack like a duck. Quite a sham to start talking about “the American experiment” again, or urge journalists to rejoin it, when the heads of the laboratory are bankrolled to the skies but bankrupt to the core. Here, the remaining task is to connect one odious thing with another, and satirize what passes for seriousness in a jaded age. Frank is good at that.

Nike may show towering gall, but piecemeal reform is more galling in its refusal to disable everyone.

I wonder, though, what good comes of it, or whether the question even matters to him. (Does it?) In assuming the stance of an “alienated outsider,” he seems to reject reform work as either impossible, because conditions are so corrupt, or “infantile,” as he calls some of my own phrasings. I was intrigued by that word, since it motions toward what it means to be a grownup these days. In Frank’s view, there is no point in positing a realm between state and market—a civil society—unless you intend to sugarcoat everything and soothe bad conscience all around. What peddlers of middlebrow earnestness mean by “civil this, civil that” is: Don’t get too upset, children, especially over the ravages of capitalism. Civil society, a “middle-class utopia of order and quiet respectfulness,” is a foundation-funded retreat from the real world of markets and money, politics, and power.

Aren’t we presented here with the old but not quite exhausted question of working within existing arrangements, so as to get something done vs. standing outside them, so as to offer a more thoroughgoing dissent? And is it true that the only mature choice is the outsider’s position? Holden Caulfield thought so, but then he was an adolescent. Frank appears to believe that sophistication in social thought (and journalism) follows from outsiderness. But it doesn’t, just as no attempt to work from within is necessarily wise, simply because someone calls it “practical.”

Public journalism is a working-within-the-system move. To me, that’s no cause to credit or reject it; it’s just a description of what the thing is. The relevant comparison is to other workable reform schemes, not to a totalizing critique that treats the press as one more feature of the corporate order. For Frank, however, the urgent task is to disable reform: now. For nothing will change until we stop talking about changes and see how corrupting and insidious the system is. Worse than those who uphold the status quo are people taking steps toward marginal improvement, because their deceptions are harder to detect than assorted “just do it” campaigns. Co-opting dissent (Frank’s Conquest of Cool) is the media ironizing itself in order to immunize itself. Since nothing really changes except the ads, the illusion of empowerment is there to be read. A reform effort that aims for modest change is the greater sin, because it says we don’t have to wait for critique to take hold before moving forward on some things, in some places. Nike may show towering gall, but piecemeal reform is more galling in its refusal to disable everyone, first.

This isn’t to say that no revolutions are needed in the news and information industries. Some are. But it isn’t clear how to proceed when the media are in private hands, state funding is out of the question, technology is changing rapidly, and the audience is fragmenting—or being fragged—into lifestyle enclaves. Amid these conditions (revolutionary in their way), journalists find further trouble: Commercial pressures are growing, public trust is evaporating. There’s a connection there, but once you’ve said that, the trick is to find what else to say. I found a single sentence in Frank’s essay where he offers journalists a way forward: “Promote local ownership of newspapers somehow, or reduce the power of advertisers, or break up the culture trust, or, at the very least, secure decent wages and working conditions for journalists and pressmen.” Fair enough. Shall I expect a future issue of The Baffler on these themes, showing us where and how to begin, or pointing to places where reforms are underway?

Public journalism has come that far, at least. It’s not just a series of high-minded phrases without illustration. The illustrations are given, as in my account of the “People Project” in Wichita, which Frank mentions only to make fun of the name. Still, I plead guilty to a certain vagueness in my rhetoric about public journalism. Maddeningly so, in Frank’s judgment, necessarily so in mine. “Break up the culture trust” is vague too, but I wouldn’t count that against the idea. It’s just an idea, until you make common cause with people who can push the notion along. Some may be inside the culture industries, especially if they joined up in hope of doing quality work. Rescuing a culture we can trust from the claws of The Trust can proceed without these people (if you want to risk it), or it can try to move with them. Public journalism has taken the second course, moving with some journalists as they try to puzzle through a loss of authority and the dwindling demand for serious news.

What if democracy is not just a scam, politics not always a joke, culture not only a commodity, public discourse not simply a disease?

That does not require what Frank condemns: an abandonment of critical judgment to polls and focus groups and marketing gimmicks. But it does mean that judgment in daily journalism (and its power to unsettle things) can be improved if there is sympathy for people’s struggle to live public, as well as private lives; a concern for the strength and vitality of civic associations; and a belief that democracy can still work, despite everything arrayed against the prospect. Why all this talk about “listening” to citizens before starting the engines of journalism? Because that’s the best way to know where they’re coming from, which, clichéd as it sounds, can be helpful if you want a broad public for your best work, and want to address that public on a common plane of understanding—you know, inform people. It is true, as Frank says, that the corporations owning the major news media are unlikely candidates to lead a democratic revival. Equally unlikely, in my view, is the survival of a free and public-spirited press if civil society gets weaker and journalists can do nothing about it.

So what are reporters and editors—not the Gannett Company—supposed to do when a broad public begins to slip from their grasp, when taking the time to read, learn, speak, listen, and get involved appeals to fewer and fewer on the receiving end? We can welcome the delegitimating effects. But as Frank correctly notes, “a nasty legitimacy crisis, a sense of lost authority” has overtaken journalism itself. Is that a good or bad development? I cannot tell from his essay. Nor can I tell if Frank accepts or rejects one premise of public journalism: that there is something worth saving in the American press. A commitment to public service, a native interest in politics and public affairs, a truth-telling spirit among journalists, a quest to enlighten and inform: Are these things real, or just industry pap? Cutting closer to home, are people like Chris Lehmann (a contributing writer for The Baffler, an employee of the publicly traded Times Mirror Company, and a viewpoints editor at Newsday) capitalist tools, or can we engage with him and his colleagues on questions of public purpose?

Journalists operate under a host of constraints, including market constraints. They are anxious about public mistrust, worried about the marketeers, and divided about where to go from here. Indeed, they’re divided—often bitterly so—about public journalism, which has been condemned from on high as “advocacy” journalism, an abandonment of “objectivity,” and a dangerous intrusion of politics into the value-free space of the news. Why? Because it has the gall to treat the press as a political actor, rather than a sideline observer or factory for facts. More room for “civil society” is one thing the actor can act for: now. Not an ideal solution, (or a stop-the-presses critique) but better than “we bring you the world.”

Public journalism has also been called what Frank calls it: a sell-out to the Gannetts of our time. Its many doubters doubt it for different reasons. Supporters believe there’s a point to be made about the survival of serious journalism and the strengthening of everyday democracy. If that’s too vague or too childish for The Baffler and its crowd, then paint an idiot’s smile on the thing and you’re done. But you may want to consider something before you go: What if democracy is not just a scam, politics not always a joke, culture not only a commodity, public discourse not simply a disease? Under these assumptions (threatening in their way), bitter satire, stylized grievance, and slackjawed disbelief can still be fun. Just not as baffling.

Thomas Frank replies:

Jay Rosen calls on me to clarify my own critical vision if I’m going to dump on his. So let me start with a simple, practical point: The minimal standard of good criticism, journalism, or history is getting it right, reporting in good faith and producing interpretations that correspond in some recognizable way to the known facts. As Rosen knows, we at The Baffler have never been interested in “objectivity.” We form our own opinions, we indulge our antipathies, and we aim to pique as well as to entertain. But we try in all circumstances to meet that minimal standard, to get it right. To that end we’re less interested in inventing new strategies for market research than we are in describing the world in a manner that is persuasive and that makes sense. We have never been very circumspect about any of these ideas. On the contrary, over the years we have made a number of fairly literal suggestions to journalists on how they might do their jobs better. (See in particular the essays about labor in Baffler #9, about the city in Baffler #7, and about generational myths in Baffler #4.)

But let’s hold Rosen’s letter up to the same standard. How reasonable is it to describe me as an enemy of democracy generally because I challenged certain very specific reform proposals championed by Jay Rosen? Or to argue that the choice before the nation is either public journalism or revolution? I think most readers are going to spot these fairly quickly as glaring examples of false opposition. Likewise, did my story in Baffler #11 really argue that public journalism is somehow “worse” than Gannett? Did it really shout, “disable reform: now”? Did it really imply that newspaper writers and editors, even ones who contribute to The Baffler, are clueless dupes of their bosses? I think that sensible readers, remembering that in my essay I actually singled out some public journalism projects for praise, that I have gone on the record many times in favor of all sorts of “reforms,” and that my writing, too, has appeared in the tainted pages of Times Mirror publications, will dismiss these characterizations of my thinking as hallucinatory.

Focus-grouping the news is not a triumph of committed reformers; it’s something that even the most bottom-line companies are finding it profitable to do all on their own.

Maybe what Rosen really needs me to do is clarify my argument. I don’t object to public journalism because it attempts to “work with in the system,” but because it fundamentally fails to understand what is wrong with contemporary newspaper writing. Public journalism looks out at the crisis facing newspapers—the public mistrust, the repeated errors, the epidemic failure even to live up to that minimum standard I outlined above—and concludes that the thing to do is to encourage journalists to get in touch with their readers, to discover “where they’re coming from.” As a reform proposal (or as a rock lyric) this verges on the banal. As a diagnosis of what ails journalism, however, “know your audience” misses the target spectacularly. Editors and publishers still suppress stories for patently ideological reasons, as the Chicago Sun-Times demonstrated last year when it killed a profile of Angela Davis. Journalists who venture beyond the pale of “within the system” opinion are still subject to unrelenting condemnation—witness the fates of Gary Webb, who reported on the CIA’s connections to drug traffickers, and Robert Parry, who reported on the Iran-Contra affair. And as labor reporting slogs down into the uncomprehending consensus mode (at those papers where it hasn’t disappeared altogether), the working conditions for the rest of newspaperdom’s inhabitants deteriorate—witness Gannett’s recent refusal to take back its locked-out union workers at the Detroit News despite a series of court orders commanding them to do so. None of these can really be explained as a failure to understand where readers are coming from, but all make perfect sense when viewed from the perspective I suggest: a critique that takes into account the power of ideology, of moneyed interests, and of social class.

More crucial for our present purposes, though, is the eerie similarity that I pointed out between the standard tools of public journalism—polls, focus groups, town-hall meetings—and the standard tools of marketing. Although Rosen doesn’t dispute my argument here, I think it gives context to his comparison of responsible engagement (his strategy) and alienated sniping (mine, apparently). In many cases public journalism doesn’t just “work within the system,” I pointed out; it actively encourages operations that look and function exactly like traditional audience research. Focus-grouping the news is not a triumph of committed reformers; it’s something that even the most bottom-line companies are finding it profitable to do all on their own. To understand such projects as victories of foundation efforts to engage the public strikes me as a rather astonishing reversal of traditional philanthropic priorities. No longer do foundations exist to support worthwhile things that the market has left behind; now they are to be understood as gratis think tanks for corporate America.

Rosen’s most serious accusation is that I spend comparatively little time proposing real-world solutions to the problems I describe. He implies that criticism is idle unless “you make common cause with people who can push the notion along.” Consider, though, that the industry under discussion—the industry to whose salvation I am expected to contribute—is one whose product is criticism, opinion, and expository prose. Newspapers work by informing and persuading; they are, among other things, standing evidence of the materiality of words, the efficacy of written English. It seems odd, to put the kindest spin on it, for a super-journalist like Rosen to assert that shaping opinions through well-reasoned argument, as I attempt to do, is somehow a less legitimate pursuit than shaping opinion through foundation-backed blueprints for the production of feel-good anti-argument. I can’t help but wonder what I. F. Stone would think of that.