The utter anguish of it, staring at the screen thinking how and why did that happen. A new president whose credentials don’t bode well, but he’s there through the complicity of the media.
This was me leaning into my screen four years ago, when I said there were failures in journalism. These included:
“Treating Trump as entertainment. Journalists being misdirected and as such concentrating on values that were about character, rather than issues relating to jobs and the economy. And that Data analyst and pollsters got it wrong”.
Today the world has loosened its belt. Aliens outside the solar system might just have registered voice tremors from the singing and dancing. The President who discarded critical issues e.g. Covid-19, whose bombast style rubbed against cooperating is on his way out.
He’s to be replaced by President Biden and Vice President Harris calling for unity. Warm words you might say, but they are words to which the new arrival wishes to be judged. Van Jones’ tearful commentary on CNN before Biden’s speech is symbolic of the moment.
Celebrate indeed, and then on Monday there is work to be done President-elect Joe Biden says putting together a task force consisting of scientists who’ll address the scourge blighting humanity and many many Americans — the Covid virus.
Yet, as the corks fly and the banners sail across the streets, there lies a big elephant of a problem ahead. No it’s not 45. It’s the media. It’s journalism.
Where does the media and journalism go from here with a new administration re-looking to return to “normal service”. Yet that service in itself isn’t going to be so normal.
A pandemic rages, a Black Lives Matter movement seeks redress, urban vs rural issues require greater empathy. Some issues e.g. jobs are perennial concerns, heightened by the pandemic.
But amongst the President’s list of traditional concerns of old are new philosophies engendered by its constituents, society and community groups’ demands. Do the media and journalism get that? And I’m not referring to exclusively to the left of centre.
Take this as an internal review of journalism. During the BLM protests, a report found 90% were peaceful, yet media’s general portrayal centred almost entirely on where there was violence. Defund the police was not about discarding law and enforcement but accountability, and more funds into community programmes.
If Biden is looking for change and inclusion, whilst not seeking PR from the media, what sort of audience will the media give him? What philosophical platform might they use to understand his motives?
In my post from 2016 which stands as one of the most accessed, I said:
The lesson for journalism is to move out of a developing recycled era of air-conditioned journalism where copy has never tasted the dry speckled air and where ethnographic writers are met by the forcefulness of raw dialect and ideas. Hint: if you’re in J-school and you haven’t spent an evening in a village talking to strangers demand you do.
“We must seek to eliminate parachute journalism”, I said in 2016, “where scribes busk out on local knowledge and fail to understand the very people, from different walks of life, they’re reporting on”.
“If anything”, I went on to say “journalism could learn a thing or two from critical methodologies deployed in PhD practises in which ethnographer’s mine qualitative data and unveil patterns of rich, meaningful, nuanced contextual text”.
In the US, media forms of reportage remain tied to conventions of how things are done. That approach is problematic, because it invalidates the idea that as societies and cultures change so must there be an attempt for journalism to adapt. In his book The Power of News, Professor Schudson states:
There are serious defects in American Journalism and many of them can be traced to the profit motive.
Those “dry speckled reports” from villages and rural towns I mentioned in 2016 still evade the viewer. And when they do appear they do so as neatly packaged parachute journalism beautified and resolved via TV’s sheen. Meanwhile the reporter is furnished by a sense of knowingness of an issue when their own sensibilities are so wide of it.
Will we find out from the rustic belts about their own beliefs that goes beyond sound bites and journalists lacking the empathy to engage? Will there be deeper reports into Latino-American citizen’s fear of socialism equated with president-elect Biden? Will there be less show business and more show and reveal?
From the UK, an example of how to offer a different nuanced style of textual and visual interpretation comes from one of the BBC’s best, Clive Myrie.
Imagine a reporter/camera team of Steven Soderbergh with Mike Leigh going into the trademark heartland of the human soul, and stories that exist in plain site but remain untold. Myrie’s reports crafted alongside Sam Piranty and David McIlveen do that. I still think these credits should appear as the news presenter cues in the piece.
From various studies, including post PhD doc, I’ve sought to frame this approach as cinema journalism. Not cinematic per se, but a cognition which encapsulates more profoundly the framing by Professor Schudson.
Schudson meant this for Journalism. That it is a cultural construct informed by literary conventions and social practices over time. Yet journalism rarely lives up to comprehending culture. Cinema does, where every frame has meaning and matters. Where sequences are replete with drama which is not necessarily conflict and that every tool available that a Soderbergh or Leigh would employ is explored factually and left on the screen for viewers to judge.
Let us recap though how 45 took hold of the media and journalism in ways they could not fathom. 45 dominated the media with bombast creating enough news and dead cats that diminished critical and nuanced thinking.
Sometimes, many times, they were simply aghast. The bandwidth for dialectical journalism became Trumpian bits and zeros. Journalism found its feet as suited executives against the suits of 45's administration, yet most times it was reactionary to the admin’s agenda.
45’s “Edward Bernaysiam” approach was there’s no such thing as negative attention once you’re on television. His base would check in each morning via TV or tweeter to say hello to their commander-in-chief. The media, a business, ran with it. Remember CNN exec Tony Maddox’s, “He  is good for business. What does the media and journalism do now?
The new US era being ushered in may not comparatively be good for media business. Undoing Trumpism may likely yield interest, yet other Democrat policies won’t come with the sort of health warning that had the populace reaching for the remote control for TV News or Facebook. ‘Steady and slow” in politics is good for most administrations, not for the media profits.
Hence, what new journalism philosophy will prevail? You might cite the “sturdy”, “objective” journalism it’s always practised. Yet that means forgetting that journalism was creaking before 45. And that even now, they are issues within journalism. In his book The Power of News, Professor Schudson states: “There are serious defects in American Journalism and many of them can be traced to the profit motive”.
The need to turn a profit and maintain credibility, yet focus away from commentary and stories beyond Washington remains a challenge. Similarly journalism’s lack of diversity and people of colour has created blind spots and impairs considered storytelling.
The prism through which different journalists see the world (nature+nurture) enriches viewers. A couple of months ago I spoke to Clive Myrie who reflected on this.
There’s a scene in Interstellar when the school’s principal tells Cooper telling
“Okay. Well, right now the world doesn’t need more engineers. We didn’t run out of planes, or television sets. We ran out of food. The world needs farmers. Good farmers, like you.”
In many ways the world doesn’t need more punditry, but a brand of journalists. Good journalists like you. One’s that can capture the context of our time and inform rather than produce pugilistic narratives. One that reflects a dawn arising over its citizens.