Suspended in Mid-Air
By Hagar Lahav | 26/11/2009
Postmodern thought borrowed the central principle around which it has coalesced over the past 150 years from journalism – the principal of an objective, monolithic "truth," that is exposed or discovered by many, but is created and exists beyond mankind. At present, with the rug pulled out from under us, journalism must reinvent itself in order to ensure its right to exist
"The art of the reporter," said Fergal Keene, a leading correspondent for the BBC "should more than anything else be a celebration of the truth...the reason millions of people watch and listen is because we place the interests of truth above everything else. Trust is our byword. That is the unalterable principle. It is our heritage and our mission, and I would rather sweep the streets of London than compromise on that."
So does Keane formulate the principle that guided (and in the view of many, still guides) global English-language journalism, in whose image Israeli journalism was fashioned. This principle is predicated on the existence of an unadulterated "truth": the sole "truth," the unified "truth," which distinguished between itself and every multiplicity that is in its essence human and flexible such as opinions, positions, conjectures, thoughts, estimations and ideas. The "truth" that is eternally absolute, and is located "out there," truth illuminated by the light of absolute knowledge, and that must be sought after, discovered and exposed. This truth is not manmade nor does it exist only among men, but it also has an independent existence.
And journalism? Journalism is meant to investigate this truth and report it – all of it, in its entirety, fastidiously. It must therefore be objective and non-tendentious. It must be a kind of passive mirror that does not distort the truth while representing it. It must be neutral, lacking a position or interest, or at least, be able to ignore them while reporting the truth. Therefore, good journalism must provide us with an answer to five questions: What happened? Who did it? Where did the event take place? What are the details? And why? It must report to us about the deeds of the prime minister regardless of the reporter's political views; it must survey economic events no matter the business interests of the owners; it must present the quality of military activity no matter what kind of relationship the reporter has with the battalion commander.
This is the perspective that journalism brings in order to differentiate between the "news" and "editorial" sections, "facts" and "opinions," "science" and "speculation." This is the perspective that faithfully brought journalism to its purpose of always presenting "both sides," as if every event has only two sides and not more, to balance between "right" and "left," "for" and "against." It therefore must prefer citing sources accurately, and presenting itself as not speaking, but rather quoting. Notable journalist and the investigative reporter Yitzhak Roeh terms this perspective: "the rhetoric of factual objectivity" whose secret is "to obscure and conceal the figure speaking until the impression is given that the facts speak for themselves, and there is no "Voice of Israel" mediating between the world and the listener and presenting "the world according to the Voice of Israel." Even biblical exegesis attacked journalism for not meeting the standards of objectivity, accusing it of whitewashing, taking a side, being too left-wing or too right-wing and being deceitful rather than informational.
The Ethos of Objectivity
Studies in the history of journalism tend to place the beginning of the ethos of objectivity in the English-language press in the mid-19th century, while in Israel the 1950s were the critical years for the adoption of this ethos. Until that point, the newspaper was an active political force – the mouthpiece of a party, stream, or perspective. This was the role played by "Davar," "Al Ha-mishmar," "Ha-yarden," and "Ha-tsofeh." However, since the 1950s, there has been an ascendancy of the newspapers declaring to be devoid of a political stance – at least on their news pages – and these were joined by the news and current events radio and television programming. The view that the main role of the media is neutral, objective, almost passive documentation of the present, became an organizing principle around which the Israeli press built its identity and professional self-definition for dozens of years. However, postmodern thought and the postmodern state-of-affairs arrived on the scene, and pulled the rug out from under it.
It should be stated immediately: postmodern thought is far from being a unified, coherent and organizing entity. To the contrary: the umbrella of postmodernism covers a range of thinkers with differing perspectives – sometimes very differing perspectives. Moreover, the concept of postmodernism often refers not only to a philosophy, but also expresses a state of affairs in society with its concomitant technological, economic and social changes. Compounding this, some of the ideas and critique that appear in postmodern thought also appeared in earlier philosophical traditions. Therefore, a discussion of Israeli journalism in the postmodern age requires a simplified rendering of the philosophy but also a treatment of expressly non-philosophical characteristics. Despite all this, there are a number of characteristics of postmodernism that undermine the deepest basis of the journalistic identity.
First of all, postmodern thought takes its strongest shots at the concept of truth. It absolutely undermines the ability of human awareness to recognize any reality located beyond human language and culture; some of the thinkers object to the very existence of any "existence" located "out there." There is nothing beyond the matrix; and if there is, we cannot reach it, nor will we ever be able to. What does exist? As far as postmodernist thought is concerned, what exists is language, or in its broad sense – "the discourse." We live within our language, which is forever a product of a given place and time. It is not eternal and not universal; it is an almost chance product of specific circumstances. And it is our reality: within it, and within its particular characteristics and limitations, we live, absorb, think, and understand.
If there is no external reality, or at least no way of approximating it, and if life takes place entirely within a human discourse, every idea of a reflection of reality, of an impartial description of it, is null and void. If human life all takes place within the discourse, then every utterance, every text influences and alters the discourse. Not only are we unable to reflect reality, but in our very attempt to do so, we initiate and manufacture it.
We would like to think of reality, says media scholar James Carey, as a tree, and the media as its shadow, a shadow that etches out a more or less precise picture of the tree. However, in the postmodern view, journalism is not the shadow of the societal "tree" – it is one of its branches, and every one of its activities changes the image of the tree itself. If everything takes place within the discourse, within a specific reign of knowledge, it will again be impossible to distinguish between the known and the knower. Knowledge no longer has an independent existence, but rather it is specifically tied to its possessor. Journalism is no longer the passive realm where the game takes place; it is not the broadcasted report, or even the commentator or the judge. It is an actor.
The Underlying Realm
Critiques of this ilk started coming together, from conflicting genres and various disciplines, coalescing, and accumulating with increasing force in the corridors of the academy, beginning in the 1970s. But journalism itself succeeded for a long time in barring to a great extent the percolation of these insights into the daily field of journalistic activity. Here and there, one sees reactions to these ideas, such as the development of neo-journalism, a journalistic genre that views social change as a declared and central part of journalistic activity, as in the work of journalists such as Orly Federbush, Guy Meroz, and Mickey Rosenthal, who were greatly influenced by Michael Moore. But these genres remained to a great extent secondary, and did not penetrate the central news media or the front pages of the newspapers. There, the ethos of objectivity was preserved in full force.
And like those animated film characters who continue running even after the ground beneath their feet has disappeared, spared from the fall only by their lack of awareness, Israeli journalism continued to hold fast to the balloon of objectivity whose air was gradually emptying out. And just like those cartoon characters, it seems that it, too, has recently reached the moment where the abyss below is appearing in all its realness.
This moment arrived not because journalism adopted the philosophical critiques of its work, but also (and perhaps mainly) because postmodern ideas percolated to media creators and consumers, a growing cultural "postmodern consciousness" was created, and technology has changed. Among other things, postmodern thought affect pluralism as a value. The pluralistic view denies that any position has a monopoly on the truth, and staunchly opposes a hierarchical arrangement based on value and quality that expresses the superiority of one approach over another. In its extreme form, this pluralism is translated into absolute relativism, in the context of which "anything goes." There is no good and evil, high quality and poor quality, deep and shallow, high and low. Instead, we have "what happens," "what one feels like," "what flows," and "what feels good." This approach granted increasingly legitimacy to the demand for gratification, entertainment, for arousing the interest and excitement of media consumers rather than trying to enlighten or inform them. The response of the media, overall, has been twofold: to wage a losing battle against the unbearable lightness of postmodern existence, while attempting to defend to the extent possible modern values such as seriousness, importance and rationality; and to foster an increasing awareness of this claim, among other things through a "softening" of the news, the proliferation of "color" in the news, etc.
But the truth must be stated: even in its most "yellow" form, it is difficult for journalism to keep up with the level of excitement generated by other types of media. The prime minister's heart attack is no doubt an excellent drama, but how can infinite photographs of the entrance door to the hospital compete with the theatrical passion of the telenovella? And how will a report of struggles and intrigues in the Knesset vie against the live broadcasts of life-or-death pacts and betrayals? Making it to the next stage? Or evaporation to the island of the dead? And how will the inaugural ceremony of a new government compete with the highly impressive event in which the newborn star in the popular television program, "A Star is Born" is anointed with the magic mantra, "Good evening Nitzanim Beach." If it's more interesting, more exciting, and no less worthy, since after all, there is no hierarchy and there is no valuable and worthless, why shouldn't we consume it? And we are, indeed, consumers. Therefore, it is no wonder that recent surveys taken in the US discovered that only 16% of viewers under 30 "consume" media every day, in contrast to 35% aged 30 and over. In other words, news consumers are growing steadily older. In Israel although the numbers are higher, due to the special circumstances, the consumption of news through the mainstream channels, and first and foremost in the consumption of newspapers, is also in a downward trend.
And another statistic: an examination of the stocks traded in the United States reveals that it is not only the journalistic organizations that are in crisis. In effect, the great majority of stocks in companies specializing in media content, including television channels and even Internet content, are in a freeze or decline. Who's ascending? Companies that do not generate content, but rather supply some kind of platform for content generated by others, mainly by the consumers themselves – Youtube, Wikipedia, Facebook, and of course, Google. In other words, in a word that suffers from a glut of information, information as such is no longer a valuable product. In fact, its value is declining to the extent that we are increasingly disinclined to pay for it. And so, there is no chance that we will agree to shell out the price a newspaper while we would gladly pay the same for a cup of coffee to drink while we read it.
Newspapers as the Media
Now in the postmodern age, journalism stands with its wares, whose value has been eroded, whose demand has declined, and whose basic existential logic is in real danger. Has its end come? With all due reservation regarding prophecy, I would like to suggest that the answer is an emphatic "no." Journalism will not disappear – but it will change. What will fade out, in my estimation, will be journalism that aims to target a broad, general audience, journalism that emphasizes the transmission of ostensibly objective information to a declared and defined position and identity. We are drowning in this type of information; what we lack, in contrast, is a sense of belonging, of community, of identity – subjectivity in the place of feigned objectivity, particularism rather than universalism, involvement rather than neutrality. I dare prophesy, then, that this will be the next role of journalism – not to report to us, but to focus us: a journalism that will wisely become the center of a particular community's coalescing, however that community may define itself; a journalism that succeeds in humanizing the community, granting it a "look," a face, an identity. It will not be a journalism for all, but a journalism that peers in from the outside. It will be a journalism that enables self-identity, one that makes it possible to say "that's me"; a journalism that works from the inside.
From a historical perspective, it may be possible to suggest the following insight: the original view of journalism, which began in the 15th century, mainly in European port cities where the first journalists appeared, was journalism as dissemination. The guiding principle was to disseminate – whether information, ship departure times, or stories, "true" and "fictional" both, about distant lands and exotic peoples. The content was wonderfully eclectic, since it was less important than the prospect of disseminating it to increasing distances, to a growing audience, and at greater speeds. Then, in its second stage, a new perspective began to develop: journalism as an opinion. This was when partisan journalism emerged, as did national journalism, which fought for national liberation. One prominent example is the importance of journalism in the American War of Independence, and no less, the role of Hebrew journalism prior to 1948. The third stage, whose end is marked by the postmodern situation, is the stage of journalism as information. From here arose the principles of objectivity, documentation, and neutral coverage. It appears that today, a new period is taking shape, one that might be called "journalism as community" or "journalism as connecting." This stage, it seems, will be characterized by the increasing fragmentation of journalism – no more media empires that create content for all, but rather an abundance of Internet communities, blogs, and specialty magazines, around each of which a community forms whose members not only consume its journalism, but are also partners in its creation and design.
I'll go out on a limb to suggest that if this estimation is correct, the theoretical situation of "Haaretz" today is better than that of other journalistic organizations in Israel. To a large extent, "Haaretz" today is a community, one that comprises itself as "thinking people," but it clearly has other distinct identities – affiliation with the upper-middle class, residency in central Israel, urban, secular, Ashkenazi to a large extent, and predominantly male – and of course Jewish. Two sub-groups – one that characterizes itself in terms of its occupation with and interest in economics and business, and the other that is characterized by general consumerism and cultural consumption – are emphasized in the context of "The Marker" and "Gallery." It is no surprise, from this point-of-view, that the proportion of the news pages and the news content in "Haaretz" is declining relative to these parts.
The construction of identity is not limited only to "Haaretz." "Israel Today" declares its Israeliness as one of the five principles guiding its activity (in other words: we are not universalist and not objective – we are proud Israelis); "Makor Rishon," which professes to be a right-wing newspaper, is enjoying relative success; the large Internet sites offer us increasing numbers of communities; "civilian journalism," in which the consumers also generate the content is also beginning to slowly find a place in Israel.
The challenge that lies before the popular media channels – "Yediot Aharonot," "Maariv," and the television news on the national channels – seems particularly complex. What will be their fate if they are no longer able to belong to e-v-e-r-y-o-n-e? What will they offer now, when they can't present the "objective truth" as sufficient goods? How will they manage to replace "reliability" with "faithfulness," and "faithfulness" with "belonging" and "identity"? At the end of the process, will they just turn into a "front page" that we pass through on our way to communities and posts? Will they split up into different target communities – and if so, is the publication of the economics magazine "Kalkalist" and the free paper "24 Minutes," published by "Yediot" a first sign? Will they increasingly forgo news reporting for the sake of service content ("what vacation should we take this week?"), public relations content and advertisements ("special interview with the actress whose new series will be aired immediately following this news broadcast"), and entertainment (oh, Sudoko) – and if so, will it still be journalism? Will they try to become more narrative, to take over the place of drama programs and novels, and bring us interesting books "from life" even if they have no immediate news value – and if so, is the flowering of documentary film a first sign of this direction?
Scholars of journalism today have no answers to these questions, and it is highly doubtful if journalists do either. The processes depend, among other things, on technological developments in the area of computing and broadcast, on the extent to which consumption of newspapers will continue to fade, on economic factors, and also on the personalities of those at the forefront of Israeli journalism in the coming years. As for myself – I won't place any bets, but I intend to reserve a good place in the balcony, from which I will enjoy the unfolding spectacle of one of the most fascinating processes in the eyes of our postmodern world.
Dr. Hagar Lahav is the Head of the Journalism Program at Sapir College