September 3, 2008

Liberalism, Journalism and Love

By Douglas McGill
The McGill Report

ROCHESTER, MN -- Neutrality is a fixed part of the American popular notion of ethical decision-making. Impartiality, as symbolized by Lady Justice wearing a blindfold, is held to be paramount as we make decisions in courts of law.

The ideal of liberal society holds that government should be neutral on the question of what constitutes a good life, allowing each person to pursue his or her own vision of that end.

But is this form of willful blindness really the best way to navigate the many steps needed to make ethical decisions either individually or collectively -- from gathering facts, to weighing them, to making final choices and living with them?

Journalists -- and in this day of citizen journalism that potentially means everyone -- have a big stake in this question. Because the reigning ethic of journalism for the past century, which citizen journalists are now free to accept or modify or drop as they please, has been a mighty moral blindfold called “objectivity.” "Objectivity" is the idea that journalists serve the public best by writing about issues as neutral bystanders, rigorously detached from what they observe. Without taking sides, journalists are supposed to gather facts and deliver them to the public to “let the readers decide.”

The Roots
I’ve wrestled with journalism’s objectivity problem before. After a fair amount of soul-searching, a few years ago I finally was able to describe (as many others have before me) the ethical shortcuts and rationalizations that journalists make in objectivity’s name.

But until I read three communitarian critics of liberalism recently, I’d never before felt that I was anywhere near the root of the problem. The three critics are Michael Sandel, a Harvard professor of government who wrote “Democracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy;” John Durham Peters, a professor of media history at the University of Iowa and the author of “Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition;” and the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor.

For all three writers, the blindfold worn by many people and institutions in society today is simply (or not so simply) liberal political theory, the idea that the individual is sovereign and the government's primary role is to safeguard individual freedoms and rights. Under this theory, individuals should be free to pursue their own vision of the good life and be subject to government rebuke only when their actions infringe on others. This theory of course is the bedrock faith of modern western society -- including, we may assume, journalism, as a major modern institution.

Sandel, Peters and Taylor each have their problems with liberalism. Sandel's main concern is that by defining individuals as sovereign, liberalism effectively removes them as moral decision-makers from public affairs.

Amoral Circus

“According to this liberalism,” Sandel writes, “government should be neutral as to conceptions of the good life. Government should not affirm, through its policies or laws, any particular conception of the good life; instead it should provide a neutral framework of rights within which people can choose their own values and ends.” 

By defining individual moral action in society as a choice between ready-made options, which Sandel calls the “procedural republic,” and developing the character of individuals to make subtle, case-by-case decisions, Sandel says society loses in the end.  

In journalism, it seems to me, the "procedures" of objectivity have likewise effectively come to substitute for morally engaged individuals working their way through the moral complexities of every story, story after story, day after day. If that sounds like an impractical work routine in an industry geared to mass production, hypercompetition and sensationalism, I can only agree with you. But the alternative -- the amoral circus that is our mass media today -- is so obviously messed up I'm forced to consider it. Sandel continues: "A political agenda lacking substantive moral discourse is one symptom of the public philosophy of the procedural republic. [This has] coincided with a growing sense of disempowerment. Despite the expansion of rights in recent decades, Americans find to their frustration that they are losing control of the forces that govern their lives.” 

Something Satanic

This sounds too much like the American public's frustration with the press -- once a liberal institution that commanded respect across society -- to be a mere coincidence. And speaking of disempowerment and frustration, thousands of newspaper journalists have been laid off in recent years -- and still are succumbing to pink slips every day. This may in part be Sandel's dispiriting, fragmenting "neutrality" come home to roost.

John Durham Peters’ critique of liberalism is more radical than Sandel's -- and more explicitly tinged by religion -- especially on the issue of free speech, and the lengths to which he believes the mainstream press self-servingly exploits the First Amendment.

“There is something satanic about many liberal arguments in favor of free expression,” Peters writes. “Defenders of free speech often like to plumb the depths of the underworld. They tread where angels do not dare and reemerge escorting scruffy, marginal, or outlaw figures, many of whom spend their time planting slaps in the face of the public.” 

In a talk at McGill University last year, Peters placed a red laser dot on liberal public philosophy: "Liberalism undermines itself by pretending to be above the battle, by pretending to be neutral. Lots of liberals say it’s only a set of procedures and rules. But I would suggest that liberalism is one of the players. It’s not a referee. And that liberalism needs to recognize that it too has a vision. And that even in claiming neutrality it thereby forfeits a kind of neutrality, because by always trying to seek the higher ground it ends up pushing people out of an ethical position.” 

Solidarity and FreedomThe prescriptions suggested by Sandel, Peters and Taylor for society at large, I think, trigger potent suggestions for a more civic-centered journalism, one that fully reflects upon its impact on the public health in the widest sense, and that incorporates into its daily practices the insights produced by that reflection. The philosophers offer three suggestions on a theme: Michael Sandel counsels a revival of republican public philosophy that stresses the formation of individual moral character, much along the lines that Thomas Jefferson endorsed in his agrarian vision of democracy.  

John Durham Peters advocates drawing on religious traditions that are in sync with each other and with secular solidarity. “One of the central principles of the law in Judaism is kindness to the stranger, and one of the central principles of Christianity is love of the neighbor,” he says. “In some way, [those] are more powerful foundations for thinking about society than liberalism if you want a society with both solidarity and freedom in it.”  

Charles Taylor, in a brief but enlightening essay called "Spiritual Thinking," advocates a communitarian project similar to Sandel’s and Peters’. Yet he cautions that any future peaceful world will also require a burdensome body of laws and rules to maintain order.

“We will in many ways be living lives under even greater discipline than today,” Taylor says. “More than ever we are going to need trail-blazers who will open or retrieve forgotten modes of prayer, meditation, friendship, solidarity and compassionate action.” 

In journalistic terms, the trailblazers will be those who show that facts and morals, discipline and creativity, civic-mindedness and individual character, objectivity and compassionate action aren't mutually exclusive categories.

Rather all of these serve both individual and community needs and are continuously and mutually supportive, as the mystic once said about wisdom and love.

Copyright @ 2008 The McGill Report