Where have all the journalists gone?

On the collapse of the hegemonic narrative, the mainstream media, and where do we go from here...

“This species has amused itself to death”

—Roger Waters

I don’t know about you but I don’t watch the big news networks anymore—not CNN, not FOX, not MSNBC.  I don’t see much difference between a Tucker Carlson and a Rachel Maddow, other than they both prompt me to want to spray my screen with glass cleaner to get rid of the smarm.  Apparently I’m in the majority—an overwhelming percentage of Americans do not trust mainstream media.  A study this year from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that only 29% of Americans trust the news ‘most of the time’.  And out of a list of 46 countries ranked by the proportion of people who trust the news in general, the U.S. ranked—to borrow slang from the Brits—bloody last.

Are there any real journalists anymore?  Let’s take a classic news icon like Dan Rather.  He was the epitome of news.  Staid, direct, unprepossessing, he was there but not there in the way that news presenters are today.  News—I hesitate to call the contemporary version we have now “anchors,”—hosts now give the aura of those industry musical stars that seem so manufactured: here’s the market we want to target, let’s find the vehicle and make it happen.  I held on to Brian Williams for a while for that comforting old school demeanor but mostly for his barbs about backgrounds, and in admiration of his transitions and intros—less so for the news itself but more so for his gentlemanly skills as a host.  He always finds a way to connect with his guests through a personal story, or keen observation that for me is a lost form of conversational artistry.

Today, Dan Rather is a bit of a Twitter troll; his witty cut-downs are linguistically clever, but serve to show that he’s gleefully abandoned objectivity: been there done that, he’s outside of a network now and earned his right to pontificate.  Must not be what people want, or is the world changing so much it’s become necessary to stake a position, to sort of hold back the erosion of whatever societal movement is most feared?  What we did have before was a ‘grand’ narrative: it was one narrative and we could all operate within it at whatever status our social or economic group was granted permission.  The anxiety of social media is that it represents both a lack of control over that hegemonic narrative and the opportunity to centralize it through subterfuge and subconscious triggers rather than a direct in your face presentation.

One could say this fragmentation of narrative represents a step forward because the ‘grand’ narrative is broken—post-modernism wins.  But the lack of a centralizing narrative doesn’t seem to be a comfort as we actually live through it.  We want to believe one story but we don’t know which one to believe.  So, we are looking here, and there for the truth, and the truth evades us.  We all feel there is a problem, but we’re not sure how to solve it.  We are not giving up the internet.  We can outsource our consciousness to the ‘metaverse’ if some choose to do that, or we can glide around hither, thither, dipping into this site or that blog, following this person for a while, then another, and sort of skid our way through the chaos.  On some level, the online of us are all doing this now.  Skaters on the digital rink of information.  

I still feel like we need journalists.  Real ones.  Not just comedic ones.  It seems like on some level we’ve abandoned the idea of journalists altogether and just follow comedians making fun of the news.  Naturally liberals come off as a bit more funny than conservatives because anyone who takes themselves too seriously in a controlling manner is just not funny—humor is loose, and pokes fun not just at others but at oneself.  Totalitarian regimes and Communist regimes just don’t give off that funny vibe, now do they?  They don’t often produce great art either, although there are exceptions to every rule, generally dictatorships and innovation just don’t go hand in hand.  Being subject to an outside controlling force suppresses the human impulse toward creativity. Those of us living in the so-called free world take refuge in the wings of journalistic humor because we’re just not sure what to believe, so we’d rather just laugh about it all.  We don’t even believe that a whistleblower is actually a whistleblower.  We think it’s a PR scam or a career pivot.  We know that in politics leaks are strategic.  So, why not for companies? 

I think this skepticism is healthy on some level.  It means the majority of people, in the U.S. at least, are just not buying it.  We’re just not going to be led like Texan cattle.  Last year it almost looked as if our nation may have tipped over into being ungovernable—the divisions seemed too entrenched.  But, this year looks different, to me at least.  As infuriating as this is for some, as much as it seems like a destruction of the social fabric, it might be that the fabric that was holding us together was not only not sustainable—it was cheaply constructed.  We have to weave a new, stronger, more durable one of quality material.  And that might mean pockets here and pockets there—not one overarching factory made sheet but more of a hand stitched patchwork.  It might mean that just like the multinational company platforms that we communicate on, the new fabrics we sew are going to be global but unlike them, grounded in a more intimate real life community realm.  People still overwhelming trust the local news, after all—in the aforementioned study it comes out as 58% of Americans.  People should trust their neighbors more than the leading mainstream media news anchor/host, don’t you think?  That’s probably a sign of health.  

As we go more digital, there will naturally be more skepticism because EVERY digital image, video, and audio file can be manipulated.  Every last bit.  The technology to do so is widely accessible and developing rapidly to mirror reality.  So, at some point, we’re going to enter our digital lives as a game or alternate reality and not much care about the truth—it’s going to be a choose your own adventure sort of thing.  Which is why we will need journalists more than ever.  Not just funny commentators who don’t create the news but present it, certainly not hired mouthpieces for the political narrative in power, but independent minded people who can dissect narratives and blend in facts and research to comment on how these ‘stories’ are being utilized in publicly presented narratives to further agendas, like from governmental organizations or other structures of authority.  

My personal fav of the moment is Kim Iverson.  She’s clear, straightforward, she presents research to support her challenges—if she’s clear about where she stands, it’s in an open, direct way, not an underhanded, manipulative way.  She’s sharing her thoughts and you can decide how you will interpret it for yourself.  I don’t feel I am being goaded watching her the same way I do the big network presenters.  How many journalists do we have like that nowadays?  At the moment she outshines her co-hosts to such a degree it seems like a mismatch.  But, her work is valued judging by the comments section, and I think it shows that we actually do want journalists calling out mainstream narratives—it’s refreshing.  Russell Brand is fun to watch, but is he what we’d call a journalist?  He’s busting through narratives, too, often times with brilliant jokes, but if we’re going to start calling his work journalism, instead of news commentary or some other thing, then we’re discouraging actual journalists who don’t just read out articles but do the research to get the facts about the story. Just like Joe Rogan showed that hey, guess what, people actually don’t have short attention spans, they want to hash out things through a long conversation, I think that we as Americans actually do like the news and journalists, we’re just not buying what’s on offer.