A responsible press criticism

“I know there is a difference between, let’s say, sound political economy scholarship that describes the structure of ownership of commercial mainstream media outlets and angry tweetstorms that denounce the corrupt MSM.”

For all the anxiety it brought, 2017 was a productive year for media and journalism scholars, journalism reviews, “future-of-the-news” experts, and everyone that is, in one way or another, taking part in media criticism writ large. The whole “fake news,” “post-truth” debacle has had at least one merit: bringing media criticism to the forefront, reinvigorating debates about the role of journalism in public life, galvanizing discussions about the failures, errors, glitches, and malfunctions — let’s be honest here, it’s rarely about the triumphs — of media in our democratic life.

As a media scholar, writing on a website that believes it needs to help journalism to figure it all out, I can only rejoice in the fact that our most important conversations are not (only) about the latest technological fads anymore, but about core issues such as media effects, democracy, power, or propaganda. Those questions matter; it’s nice to see them in the spotlight.

There is something unsettling, though, in this sudden renewed popularity of press criticism, as it reshuffles the cards in a weird way. With Donald Trump being one of the loudest megaphones of a certain press criticism — one that relentlessly attacks mainstream media as being corrupt, manipulated and manipulative — we find ourselves in a strange position when it comes to doing what we do, that is, dissecting how the news media works. There’s a fine line between efforts to describe, in realist terms, how the news industry operates (with its ideals never fully satisfied, its shortcomings and shortcuts, its influences and limitations, its ideological underpinnings and its power dynamics) and downright conspiracy theories fueled by populism and anger at the so-called media elites. I know there is a difference between, let’s say, sound political economy scholarship that describes the structure of ownership of commercial mainstream media outlets and angry tweetstorms that denounce the corrupt MSM. But that line is sometimes blurred, in the cacophony of outrage, moral panics and genuine concern that characterizes today’s press criticism.

So 2018 may be the time to figure out how to perform responsible press criticism. Press criticism that can speak to concerns about the role of media in public life, misinformation, and the interplay between media, politics, and business — but also understands that recrimination and denunciation are not enough. Press criticism that does not, however, respond to vicious attacks on press freedom by listening to the siren call of professional protectionism and self-righteousness. In other words, responsible press criticism that would try to hold the press accountable — just like any form of power — while being more than merely adversarial, vitriolic, or admonitory.

How can we achieve that? As it is often the case, we’re not starting with a blank slate. There’s more than a century of press criticism that we could draw inspiration from. One example among others is George Seldes (1890-1995), the famous American investigative journalist, press critic and editor of the weekly newsletter In Fact: An Antidote to Falsehoods in the Daily Press from 1940 to 1950. Seldes, a self-proclaimed liberal, lived and worked through troubled times — two world wars, the rise of fascism and Nazism, the Cold War, and McCarthyism. His exposés spared no one: media advertisers and press tycoons, censorship, distortion, and all kinds of attempts to mislead the public, but also Soviet communists, big tobacco companies, the whole American industrial system, and, of course, Nazis and fascists.

It’s not that his outrage was indiscriminate and all-encompassing, but the press criticism that was at the core of In Fact was part of a wider indignation that cannot be separated from issues that run deep into society: politics, social justice, or capitalism. Seldes was not ranting in the comfortable environment of a specialized conversation between media pundits and future-of-the-news experts; he wanted to pick up a fight with everything at the same time, in front of the public.

But the most impressive feat of Seldes’ career and long life is that he never turned into a cynic. He wasn’t criticizing the press out of sterile anger, populism, or the hope of commercial or political gain. He did so out of genuine belief that there’s something to be done about it, and with the old-fashioned certitude that a newspaper can move the world. His hopes about the role of journalism in society were modest, but firm: “to get the facts, and present them as truthfully as human frailty permits.”

Juliette De Maeyer is an assistant professor at Université de Montréal.

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