This is an archive, please visit for current posts.
PressThink: Ghost of Democracy in the Media Machine
Recent Entries
Like PressThink? More from the same pen:

Read about Jay Rosen's book, What Are Journalists For?

Excerpt from Chapter One of What Are Journalists For? "As Democracy Goes, So Goes the Press."

Essay in Columbia Journalism Review on the changing terms of authority in the press, brought on in part by the blog's individual--and interactive--style of journalism. It argues that, after Jayson Blair, authority is not the same at the New York Times, either.

"Web Users Open the Gates." My take on ten years of Internet journalism, at

Read: Q & As

Jay Rosen, interviewed about his work and ideas by journalist Richard Poynder

Achtung! Interview in German with a leading German newspaper about the future of newspapers and the Net.

Audio: Have a Listen

Listen to an audio interview with Jay Rosen conducted by journalist Christopher Lydon, October 2003. It's about the transformation of the journalism world by the Web.

Five years later, Chris Lydon interviews Jay Rosen again on "the transformation." (March 2008, 71 minutes.)

Interview with host Brooke Gladstone on NPR's "On the Media." (Dec. 2003) Listen here.

Presentation to the Berkman Center at Harvard University on open source journalism and NewAssignment.Net. Downloadable mp3, 70 minutes, with Q and A. Nov. 2006.

Video: Have A Look

Half hour video interview with Robert Mills of the American Microphone series. On blogging, journalism, NewAssignment.Net and distributed reporting.

Jay Rosen explains the Web's "ethic of the link" in this four-minute YouTube clip.

"The Web is people." Jay Rosen speaking on the origins of the World Wide Web. (2:38)

One hour video Q & A on why the press is "between business models" (June 2008)

Recommended by PressThink:

Town square for press critics, industry observers, and participants in the news machine: Romenesko, published by the Poynter Institute.

Town square for weblogs: InstaPundit from Glenn Reynolds, who is an original. Very busy. Very good. To the Right, but not in all things. A good place to find voices in diaolgue with each other and the news.

Town square for the online Left. The Daily Kos. Huge traffic. The comments section can be highly informative. One of the most successful communities on the Net.

Rants, links, blog news, and breaking wisdom from Jeff Jarvis, former editor, magazine launcher, TV critic, now a J-professor at CUNY. Always on top of new media things. Prolific, fast, frequently dead on, and a pal of mine.

Eschaton by Atrios (pen name of Duncan B;ack) is one of the most well established political weblogs, with big traffic and very active comment threads. Left-liberal.

Terry Teachout is a cultural critic coming from the Right at his weblog, About Last Night. Elegantly written and designed. Plus he has lots to say about art and culture today.

Dave Winer is the software wiz who wrote the program that created the modern weblog. He's also one of the best practicioners of the form. Scripting News is said to be the oldest living weblog. Read it over time and find out why it's one of the best.

If someone were to ask me, "what's the right way to do a weblog?" I would point them to Doc Searls, a tech writer and sage who has been doing it right for a long time.

Ed Cone writes one of the most useful weblogs by a journalist. He keeps track of the Internet's influence on politics, as well developments in his native North Carolina. Always on top of things.

Rebecca's Pocket by Rebecca Blood is a weblog by an exemplary practitioner of the form, who has also written some critically important essays on its history and development, and a handbook on how to blog.

Dan Gillmor used to be the tech columnist and blogger for the San Jose Mercury News. He now heads a center for citizen media. This is his blog about it.

A former senior editor at Pantheon, Tom Englehardt solicits and edits commentary pieces that he publishes in blog form at TomDispatches. High-quality political writing and cultural analysis.

Chris Nolan's Spot On is political writing at a high level from Nolan and her band of left-to-right contributors. Her notion of blogger as a "stand alone journalist" is a key concept; and Nolan is an exemplar of it.

Barista of Bloomfield Avenue is journalist Debbie Galant's nifty experiment in hyper-local blogging in several New Jersey towns. Hers is one to watch if there's to be a future for the weblog as news medium.

The Editor's Log, by John Robinson, is the only real life honest-to-goodness weblog by a newspaper's top editor. Robinson is the blogging boss of the Greensboro News-Record and he knows what he's doing.

Fishbowl DC is about the world of Washington journalism. Gossip, controversies, rituals, personalities-- and criticism. Good way to keep track of the press tribe in DC

PJ Net Today is written by Leonard Witt and colleagues. It's the weblog of the Public Journalisn Network (I am a founding member of that group) and it follows developments in citizen-centered journalism.

Here's Simon Waldman's blog. He's the Director of Digital Publishing for The Guardian in the UK, the world's most Web-savvy newspaper. What he says counts.

Novelist, columnist, NPR commentator, Iraq War vet, Colonel in the Army Reserve, with a PhD in literature. How many bloggers are there like that? One: Austin Bay.

Betsy Newmark's weblog she describes as "comments and Links from a history and civics teacher in Raleigh, NC." An intelligent and newsy guide to blogs on the Right side of the sphere. I go there to get links and comment, like the teacher said.

Rhetoric is language working to persuade. Professor Andrew Cline's Rhetorica shows what a good lens this is on politics and the press.

Davos Newbies is a "year-round Davos of the mind," written from London by Lance Knobel. He has a cosmopolitan sensibility and a sharp eye for things on the Web that are just... interesting. This is the hardest kind of weblog to do well. Knobel does it well.

Susan Crawford, a law professor, writes about democracy, technology, intellectual property and the law. She has an elegant weblog about those themes.

Kevin Roderick's LA Observed is everything a weblog about the local scene should be. And there's a lot to observe in Los Angeles.

Joe Gandelman's The Moderate Voice is by a political independent with an irrevant style and great journalistic instincts. A link-filled and consistently interesting group blog.

Ryan Sholin's Invisible Inkling is about the future of newspapers, online news and journalism education. He's the founder of and a self-taught Web developer and designer.

H20town by Lisa Williams is about the life and times of Watertown, Massachusetts, and it covers that town better than any local newspaper. Williams is funny, she has style, and she loves her town.

Dan Froomkin's White House Briefing at is a daily review of the best reporting and commentary on the presidency. Read it daily and you'll be extremely well informed.

Rebecca MacKinnon, former correspondent for CNN, has immersed herself in the world of new media and she's seen the light (great linker too.)

Micro Persuasion is Steve Rubel's weblog. It's about how blogs and participatory journalism are changing the business of persuasion. Rubel always has the latest study or article.

Susan Mernit's blog is "writing and news about digital media, ecommerce, social networks, blogs, search, online classifieds, publishing and pop culture from a consultant, writer, and sometime entrepeneur." Connected.

Group Blogs

CJR Daily is Columbia Journalism Review's weblog about the press and its problems, edited by Steve Lovelady, formerly of the Philadelpia Inquirer.

Lost Remote is a very newsy weblog about television and its future, founded by Cory Bergman, executive producer at KING-TV in Seattle. Truly on top of things, with many short posts a day that take an inside look at the industry.

Editors Weblog is from the World Editors Fourm, an international group of newspaper editors. It's about trends and challenges facing editors worldwide. keeps track of developments from the British side of the Atlantic. Very strong on online journalism.

Digests & Round-ups:

Memeorandum: Single best way I know of to keep track of both the news and the political blogosphere. Top news stories and posts that people are blogging about, automatically updated.

Daily Briefing: A categorized digest of press news from the Project on Excellence in Journalism.

Press Notes is a round-up of today's top press stories from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Richard Prince does a link-rich thrice-weekly digest called "Journalisms" (plural), sponsored by the Maynard Institute, which believes in pluralism in the press.

Newsblog is a daily digest from Online Journalism Review.

E-Media Tidbits from the Poynter Institute is group blog by some of the sharper writers about online journalism and publishing. A good way to keep up

Syndicate this site:

XML Summaries

XML Full Posts

January 7, 2004

Journalism Is Itself a Religion: Special Essay on Launch of The Revealer

The newsroom is a nest of believers if we include believers in journalism itself. There is a religion of the press. There is also a priesthood. And there can be a crisis of faith. Plus, a new web journal debuts today. The Revealer, edited by Jeff Sharlet, is about religion and the press in a tumultuous world.

Today is a birthday. A new journal has its official launch on the World Wide Web. It is called The Revealer, a daily review of religion and the press. I am the publisher and founder, with Jeff Sharlet, the editor. Sharlet, a journalist, is the co-creator of Killing the Buddha, a much talked-about site for “people both hostile and drawn to talk of God.” Now he works for the Center for Religion and the Media at NYU, where the journal will be based, thanks to a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts and its religion and public life program.

The Revealer is a weblog with certain features of a magazine, including original content by professional writers. Currently, Chris Lehmann, an editor at the Washington Post book section, examines the rise of the “media church,” new houses of worship where faith is suffused—and sometimes confused—with the culture of marketing and entertainment.

The Revealer will point to significant work in journalism about matters of faith. It will tackle controversies in the coverage of religion. It will impart ideas. Jeff himself will comment on what he finds. And we plan to offer resources for reporters and writers on what is sometimes called the “God beat,” a title we considered before settling on The Revealer. I hope readers of PressThink will check out the new journal and pass along to us their reactions.

Fair warning, friends: The piece that follows is some 5,000 words.

Special Essay on Launch of The Revealer

by Jay Rosen

“In my view, journalism is a secular enterprise, and there is no specifically Catholic way to do it,” writes John L. Allen Jr, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. “You try to tell the story as best you can, covering the church the way you would City Hall or the White House.”

Terry Anderson, formerly of the Associated Press and a hostage in Lebanon for seven years, has a slightly different view: “You can be a Christian and a journalist. But you know, you cannot be a Christian and be a bad journalist,” Anderson says. “That doesn’t work at all. You cannot practice Christianity and a journalism that takes away dignity, that has no compassion, that exploits pain and misery. That’s not good journalism, and it’s certainly not anything that Christ taught.”

But isn’t journalism, that secular enterprise, itself a kind of religion? In what follows, I come at the question eight ways, so as to open room for comment by others who know more than I do. (And click the comment button if you are one.)

1.) J-School as School of Theology
2.) The Journalist’s Creed
3.) The Orthodoxy of No Orthodoxy
4.) Practicing Journalism But Not Understanding It
5.) The First Amendment as Press Religion
6.) The God Term of Journalism is the Public
7.) A Breakaway Church in the Press
8.) Interview at the Axis of Evil

One: J-School as School of Theology

At Columbia University you can study for a degree in religion and journalism. But they are two separate programs, joined by some fine courses in how to report on religion. Nowhere can you study for a degree in the religion of journalism— that is, the belief system shared across editorial cultures in the American press. It would make a great course at Columbia, or NYU: “The Religion of the Press.” Or even better: its priesthood:

Understanding the Priesthood of the Press. This course will examine the priesthood of the journalism profession in the United States, especially those at top news organizations in New York and Washington. Among the questions we’ll be asking this term: How does this elite group create and maintain its authority over what counts as serious journalism? What sense of duty goes along with being one of the high priests? What are the god terms and faith objects in journalism, and how are they derived?

Other questions: Through what means can a “priesthood” operate in the skeptical environment of the American newsroom? What are the major challenges to its authority, and where do they come from? What lessons do journalists at the top of the pyramid preach to others in the news tribe, and how good is the example set among the priests themselves, all of whom are active in editing, shaping, and reporting the news?

You get the idea. There is a high church in journalism, with high ceremonies, like the awarding of a Pulitzer Prize, joining the panel on “Meet the Press,” having a dart thrown at you by the Columbia Journalism Review. One could teach a course about it. Bill Moyers once said this while moderating an event at Columbia: “I think of CJR and the J-School as sort of the ‘high church’ of our craft, reminding us of the better angels of our nature and the demons, powers and principalities of power against which journalism is always wrestling.”

The better angels. Journalism needs those. In this sense, it might be said to need a religion. For how else are angels called?

In January, 2003, I spoke on a panel at Columbia. This was a time when the place was in tumult over President Lee C. Bollinger’s sequence of dramatic (and highly unusual) moves after suspending the search for a new Journalism Dean. Then, in one of his first public battles as president, Bollinger engaged in written argument with the School and its faculty over what an education in journalism should be today. That was big gossipy news in the City, and a national story as well.

He then called together an All-Star advisory team, (largely the Northeastern elite of the profession) to meet with him at the Century Club in Manhattan, where they discussed what a journalism education should be today. Finally he named New Yorker writer Nick Lemann as Dean, which was one of the smartest things any president could have done. (I wrote about Bollinger’s moves here, and edited a special website about the issue here.)

At a mid-point in these events, the alumni group at Columbia sponsored a public forum on journalism schooling and its future. The real topic was Bollinger’s actions and what it all meant. A good crowd came that evening because the alumni were concerned. Almost everyone had something to say on whether Bollinger was asking the right questions, or meddling with a great program, or worse.

I had taken a public position on these events in the Chronicle of Higher Education—pro-Bollinger, but also read Bollinger, please—so I was asked to join the panel that night; and I learned something there. People know it’s a religious institution. They know that high church journalism is taught there.

I admire the Columbia J-School, the history of which I have studied. And I told the graduates they had passed through not only a great professional training ground in journalism, but a “great school of theology.” It’s like a divinity degree, I said. Smart people entering the profession learn the religion of journalism. Amid their practical lessons they acquire their faith in a free press.

Only rarely does a public speaker know that the audience as a whole “got” something. This was one of those times. At the words “school of theology,” I saw a very large number of alumni smile or nod. They could recall it in their experience. In J-school, they learned what it means to be virtuous, even righteous, although their education no doubt stopped short of recommending any “crusade” in journalism. (Crusades are against the religion, you see.)

They also absorbed a sense of what’s sacred, what’s profane in journalism, as with the wall between the news and business sides of the operation. The wall is commonly called the “separation of church and state” by newsroom pros, who speak metaphorically yet with great passion and precision about this sacred divide. And who is the church in that comparison? It isn’t the counting room, it’s the newsroom. The church is supposed to be journalism. The money side is of course profane.

Two: The Journalist’s Creed

Listen to this language, from an ancient oath called The Journalist’s Creed, written by Walter Williams, Dean of the University of Missouri’s Journalism School, 1908-1935. It is the statement of a secular faith: “I believe in the profession of journalism. I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public; that acceptance of a lesser service than public service is a betrayal of that trust.”

So far pretty tame— civil religion predominates. But here is some of the rest, about the sense of calling in the believer’s journalism:

I believe that the journalism which succeeds the best—and best deserves success—fears God and honors man; is stoutly independent; unmoved by pride of opinion or greed of power; constructive, tolerant but never careless, self-controlled, patient, always respectful of its readers but always unafraid, is quickly indignant at injustice; is unswayed by the appeal of the privilege or the clamor of the mob; seeks to give every man a chance, and as far as law, an honest wage and recognition of human brotherhood can make it so, an equal chance; is profoundly patriotic while sincerely promoting international good will and cementing world-comradeship, is a journalism of humanity, of and for today’s world.

A journalism of humanity, of and for today’s world. Fears God and honors man. That is spiritual counsel to the secular press. Updated to the present, it might sound like the Sarajevo Commitment, a resolution adopted Sep. 30, 2000 by the World Media Assembly, an international group of media professionals. It included journalists who had been journalists during Soviet domination in Eastern Europe, and during the rise of Balkan nationalism. But also others from the United States, Britain and continental Europe.

“We shall be working to raise up and not to drag down,” the statement said. “We shall challenge our politicians to work for the next generation and not the next election, encourage our governments to make agreements which are effective in people’s hearts as well as on paper; and stimulate our business, industrial and labor leaders to meet the material needs of humankind with fairness and equity.”

Delegates to the Assembly met in the city of Sarajevo, still recovering from its siege during the Balkan wars. The commitment they voted into being is not a code that would govern an institution. The text is addressed only to individual conscience, and only media people—producers of culture and journalism—are asked to sign. In one portion of the document, the signers speak of their failure to prevent evil. And they attempt to reconcile themselves to that failure:

We look back on a century of brilliance and bloodshed, of amazing technological advance and distressing human misery, of mobility and isolation and of healing and hatred. A century in which two world wars emanated from the so-called advanced and civilized continent of Europe. A century in which we split the atom, but left families, communities and nations divided. A century which ended with some 30 unresolved major conflict situations.

We accept that we in the media, whilst talent and technology enabled us to reach the lives of almost every last person in the world, were not able to create the climate in which problems were solved, conflicting groups and interests reconciled, and peace and justice established.

Some time ago, the media system had closed circle on the earth. It could finally “reach the lives of almost every last person in the world.” Lee Bollinger made the same point in 2002. He spoke of “the growing reach of media into every city, hamlet, and home on the face of the earth.” This not just an earthly power. It is greater, more mystical than that, said the signers of the Sarajevo document (which is still obscure, as universal declarations go.) The public climate is partly our creation, they said. If it turns murderous, we need to admit our part in that. And find some way to redemption:

Now that we confront a new century, many of us, hoping that we interpret the views and feelings of the vast majority of our colleagues, would like to establish a commitment, an undertaking, a pledge, to all those who will live and love and work in these coming hundred years.

The Journalist’s Creed from long ago. The Sarajevo Commitment from today. Others may dispute it, but they seem to me spiritual documents.

Three: The Orthodoxy of No Orthodoxy

Ninety percent of the commentary on this subject takes in another kind of question entirely: What results from the “relative godlessness of mainstream journalists?” Or, in a more practical vein: How are editors and reporters striving to improve or beef up their religion coverage?

Here and there in the discussion of religion “in” the news, there arises a trickier matter, which is the religion of the newsroom, and of the priesthood in the press. A particularly telling example began with this passage from a 1999 New York Times Magazine article about anti-abortion extremism: “It is a shared if unspoken premise of the world that most of us inhabit that absolutes do not exist and that people who claim to have found them are crazy,” wrote David Samuels.

This struck some people as dogma very close to religious dogma, and they spoke up about it. One was Terry Mattingly, a syndicated columnist of religion:

This remarkable credo was more than a statement of one journalist’s convictions, said William Proctor, a Harvard Law School graduate and former legal affairs reporter for the New York Daily News. Surely, the “world that most of us inhabit” cited by Samuels is, in fact, the culture of the New York Times and the faithful who draw inspiration from its sacred pages.

Yet here is the part that intrigued me:

But critics are wrong if they claim that the New York Times is a bastion of secularism, he stressed. In its own way, the newspaper is crusading to reform society and even to convert wayward “fundamentalists.” Thus, when listing the “deadly sins” that are opposed by the Times, he deliberately did not claim that it rejects religious faith. Instead, he said the world’s most influential newspaper condemns “the sin of religious certainty.”

In other words, it’s against newsroom religion to be an absolutist and in this sense, the Isaiah Berlin sense, the press is a liberal institution put in the uncomfortable position of being “closed” to other traditions and their truth claims— specifically, the orthodox faiths. At least according to Mattingly and his source:

“Yet here’s the irony of it all. The agenda the Times advocates is based on a set of absolute truths,” said Proctor. Its leaders are “absolutely sure that the religious groups they consider intolerant and judgmental are absolutely wrong, especially traditional Roman Catholics, evangelicals and most Orthodox Jews. And they are just as convinced that the religious groups that they consider tolerant and progressive are absolutely right.”

The apparent orthodoxy of forbidding all orthodoxies is a philosophical puzzle in liberalism since John Locke. Journalists cannot be expected to solve it. However, they might in some future professional climate (which may be around the corner) come to examine the prevailing orthodoxy about journalism—how to do it, name it, explain it, uphold it, and protect it—for that orthodoxy does exist. And it does not always have adequate answers.

Four: Practicing Journalism But Not Understanding It.

Tim Porter writes First Draft, one of my favorite weblogs. It’s about quality journalism and what gets in the way. In Porter’s archives is one of my all-time favorite posts. He says that in nine months of doing the weblog, “I have read more studies about the nature of journalism and the habits of readership, more debate about what should be done to arrest the continued declined of newspapers as a mass medium, more criticism about the obdurate refusal of the industry to act on matters it knows must be addressed… than I ever did in the 24 years I worked for newspapers.”

Which led to Tim’s mini-epiphany. I see it as the statement of a journalist disappointed in what newsroom religion taught him about larger matters:

I practiced journalism, but I knew almost nothing about it - although I thought I did. Hindsight, of course, clarifies and age, if we allow it, deepens perspective. Still, while working in a role dedicated to informing the public, I had precious little information about my own profession, about its best practitioners (or greatest charlatans), about its history and role in the development and preservation of democracy, about its standards or even about the people I intended to inform— the community around me.

I practiced journalism, but I knew almost nothing about it. What do these words mean? Certainly Porter knew enough to do the job, and get promoted to newsroom management at the San Francisco Examiner. The nothing he knew means nothing deeper than news, nothing to connect the “job” to larger things, which in turn shine a bigger light on journalism. The “preservation of democracy” is one example, a larger thing. But are belief and practice in daily journalism constantly wrestling with democracy’s preservation? Porter searched his experience. He did not find much of that.

He took time off. Started a weblog. Began to read and reflect on journalism, and on a certain professional emptiness—a missing knowledge, a missing purpose—he had not known was there before. If you read First Draft, and I recommend it, you may see how Tim Porter got religion again about journalism. In my reading of his story, this came only after a loss of faith.

Five: First Amendment as Press Religion

There is one matter on which is it permitted, I think, to be an absolutist in the newsroom. You can even be admired for it. And that is First Amendment absolutism, with its obvious appeal to journalists. The events at Columbia’s J-school were about this part of the religion, which has an epic legal narrative attached to it, a story about freedom of the press shared across the press establishment and taught to thousands of students every year as gospel, more or less.

Lee Bollinger knew that story because in his other life—legal scholar, specializing in the First Amendment—he had written a book about it, Images of a Free Press (1991). The point of the book is that journalists have one “central image” of the press, standing guard against an atavistic state and serving as the eyes and ears of the public. Hands off the media in the name of the public’s right to know … is the biblical lesson most journalism students absorb. It isn’t wrong, Bollinger argued. It is totally right in its sphere. But it is only one kind of wisdom. Only part of the sphere of civil liberty.

Journalists also need to grasp how the press does—or does not—foster the kind of quality debate required if people are to make democracy work. They should see how it’s possible for the press, when a concentrated industry overtakes it, to be a barrier to entry, even as it overflows with good information. Free and unfettered, the press can shut people out, ignore their views, or unfairly constrict debate. It can decide that two candidates matter tonight, not five. It can refuse free air time to a leader with a message.

These, said Bollinger, are serious First Amendment issues, but they make a weak impression in the grand story of press freedom drawn from the landmark Times vs. Sullivan ruling (1964, making libel less of a threat when a public figure is involved); and from the Pentagon Papers case, (1971, where the Supreme Court sided with the publishers); and from the Watergate saga, (1973-74, where Nixon proposed using the powers of the state to punish the Washington Post Company for its trouble-making journalism.)

As interpreted by journalists, these are epic events in a redemptive narrative about liberty of the press, with heroic victories won at moments of national crisis. By winning key cases, the press has been expanding its power to stand up to government. And that is where the central image directs our attention: to struggles with the state. These, according to the faith, are really victories for the public and its right to know.

But Bollinger’s book is about images, in the plural. He says there are two views of the press supported by different Supreme Court decisions, but the images diverge. One pictures the modern state, aggressive and powerful, with a free press trying to shine the light, pry open the records, ask the tough questions. Here the journalist represents an absent public.

In a second, and more fugitive image, the action opens with modern citizens struggling to be heard in the public arena. They need help, if they are going to participate and gain active voice in their own affairs. Here the press often decides who gets heard, and when. In debates, it asks the questions that get asked of the candidates. What restrictions does it enforce? How difficult is it for minority views to be heard? If the press in some ways “runs” public discussion, what’s to prevent a free press from running it into the ground? Those are First Amendment problems, said Bollinger. They just don’t fit the religion.

Six: The God Term of Journalism is the Public

James W. Carey is in my view the finest press thinker we Americans have. He teaches at Columbia J-School; and he joined the panel that night before the alumni group. Like Bollinger, Carey holds to a different belief about the meaning of the sacred text: the free press clause in the Constitution. The United States, he tells us, was founded on a certain image of what public life could be under conditions of freedom and openness. This was codified in the words of the First Amendment. Carey interprets them in a strange way. Not “hands off the press,” but this:

The amendment says that people are free to gather together without the intrusion of the state or its representatives. Once gathered, they are free to speak to one another openly and freely. They are further free to write down what they have to say and to share it beyond the immediate place of utterance.

For the people to write down what they say and share it. From this right that belongs to all citizens, Carey derives both the original meaning of press freedom, and the most urgent purpose of journalism— to amplify, clarify and extend what the rest of us produce as a “society of conversationalists.” Public conversation is not the pundits or professionals we see on talk shows. It is “ours to conduct,” as Carey puts it. The press should help us out. Here emerges his different faith. For when “the press sees its role as limited to informing whomever happens to turn up at the end of the communication channel, it explicitly abandons its role as an agency for carrying on the conversation of the culture.”

How many journalists would say that their most basic task is to “inform” the public? Most, I think. Carey denies it: people inform themselves, he says. Yes, they need reliable news. But news should keep the conversation going among them. How many journalists believe that their profession, journalism, is the “only one mentioned in the Constitution?” Carey denies it. What is mentioned, he says, is the people’s right to publish what they discover and think. Press freedom the way the press promotes it derives from that larger right. “The ultimate justification for journalism and the First Amendment is that together they constitute us as a civil society and set us in conversation with one another,” he says.

In Carey’s world the religion of the press is properly rooted in the public: “The god term of journalism—the be-all and end-all, the term without which the enterprise fails to make sense, is the public. Insofar as journalism is grounded, it is grounded in the public.” If they, the journalists, are supposed to believe in “us,” the public, then do we, the public, have to believe in the press? That seems to me a puzzle involving in the last analysis faith.

Seven: A Breakaway Church in the Press

I named my first book after a question, What Are Journalists For? because I wanted to draw attention to that question— which held these: What are we doing all this for? For whom do we do journalism? And what do we affirm by doing it faithfully and well? What are we, the press tribe, willing to be for?

The story in the book is about the fortunes of an idea that I joined in developing for roughly ten years: 1989-99. That was public journalism, also called civic journalism. Because my role was to speak, write and agitate for it—but also to think it through—many times I tried to complete to satisfaction the same sentence: “public journalism is…” Don’t all writers keep restating things in the righteous belief that one day the thing will be rightly stated?

Well, it took ten years for me to realize this: you can call it a reform movement (and it was that) but public journalism was equally a breakaway church. It parted company with mainline religion on what to believe, and what is permitted. But a breakaway church is still a church, and those who break faith do not abandon their faith.

The people I called public journalists, and wrote about, formed their own company, in a sense. They still believed in journalism as a public trust, but not in all their profession professed. They had some counter principles, which tried to improve on a newsroom faith that had begun to fail them. Some examples in this revision of creed were:

  • Journalists don’t get involved. (Well, they are involved, so what now?)
  • We have to remain detached. (But how do you detach yourself from a public culture that responds to your every move?)
  • Whether people join in democracy or do not is their business, not ours. (Do you really believe that an inert and atomized audience, a demoralized and disaffected citizenry, can provide “your business” with any meaningful future? Can that ever be a matter of indifference?)
  • Our job is to tell the truth, not report things the way we would like them to be. (Journalism itself stands for the way things should be. Its implicit belief—call it faith—is that people can make a difference when they know what is happening in their world.)

Either you believe that—people can make a difference if they know what’s going on—or you do not. If the claim turns out to be false, then journalism is false to its history and founding premise. So people in the press ought to do everything they can to support certain causes, even if they join no crusades: an informed, engaged, and active public, a society in open conversation with itself, a high quality debate, a media system with low barriers to entry, a democracy that is actively preserved, a connected politics that welcomes participation by citizens, and finally what James W. Carey called “a genuine public life and a genuine public opinion.”

That was the “new” religion, among those who campaigned for public journalism, or just started doing it. They were a breakaway church in the American press, and for that they sometimes got called a cult.

Eight: Interview at the Axis of Evil

The whole public journalism episode, which is not by any stretch over, was like a religious dispute within the professional church of journalism. But it almost seems mild, compared to problems of belief that confront journalists at this time in world history. Dan Rather on being a patriot and journalist after September 11th:

What I want to do, I want to fulfill my role as a decent human member of the community and a decent and patriotic American. And therefore, I am willing to give the government, the President and the military the benefit of any doubt here in the beginning. I’m going to fulfill my role as a journalist, and that is ask the questions, when necessary ask the tough questions.

Here is a journalist, prominent in the priesthood, a visible figure in the extreme; here is Dan Rather trying to explain what attaches Dan Rather to the fate of the American people, nation and government. But his religion doesn’t really go there. It has tough stuff in it about detachment, but about attachment to the republic little is said. Rather, the journalist, is also attempting to explain what he is for, in the end. But the language is too thin, the politics timid and confused, the belief system sounds exhausted.

This was confirmed for me when I watched his exclusive interview (Feb. 24, 2003) with Saddam before the war in Iraq began. It was the work of a man who did not know what he was ultimately for, or why he was taken in blindfold to the Palace that day. He did know, however, that no one else in the press had succeeded in landing an interview with Saddam since his inclusion in the American President’s “axis of evil.” No one had done it, so Rather did.

And in the room where his encounter with evil (so declared) took place, Dan Rather, it seemed to me, had come armed with nothing stronger than “ask the questions, when necessary ask the tough questions” of Saddam Hussein— the mass murderer and tyrant who ruled in terror over a closed society, a republic of dense fear, where question-asking got you killed. “I’m here for my interview.”

That was a situation where journalism, the religion, failed the believer. It was the wisdom of the news tribe, and the moral sense it had developed about its methods, but also the questions it never asked itself and had no answers for… all that sent Rather to Baghdad and gave him no better—alas, no deeper—instruction than, “Bring ‘Face the Nation’ to Saddam Hussein.” The anchor man looked lost. Saddam looked happy. I still don’t know what Rather thought he was going to accomplish.

Jeff Sharlet, the new editor of The Revealer, read a draft of this essay. He had this to say about a belief in journalism, the profession:

I think I speak for a few in saying I don’t believe in the profession. And neither can true reformers. By the time he was ready to get out, Luther did not belief in the Church. Spinoza did not believe in the old god of the Jews. Jeremiah did not believe in the compact.

Religious reformers may use the political language of “reform” rather than “revolution,” but they have an advantage unavailable to, say, a Republican or Democratic Party reformer — the absolute freedom to do as one pleases, since God does not depend on their belief. Likewise, a reform priest of journalism might believe in communication, but he or she has the absolute freedom to tear everything else up, including the profession, and even the idea of a profession.

I don’t think we know how deeply doubt can be driven into journalism— by people who are yet journalists. But I have listened to American correspondents who reported on the siege of Sarajevo, and the failures of the West in those years, which included the failures of their own press. Whatever they believe in now, it isn’t what they began in journalism with. That story died for them. And what kind of crisis is that called? Spiritual may be the most accurate term.

We’re headed, I think, for schism, tumult and divide as the religion of the American press meets the upheavals in global politics and public media that are well underway. (Not to mention the roaring force of the market.) Changing around us are the terms on which authority can be established by journalists. And I have argued so here and here. The Net is opening things up, shifting the power to publish around. Consumers are becoming producers, readers can be writers. Consensus is breaking apart on definitions of The Good in journalism. And that may be a healthy turn for citizens and for our future experiments with a free press.

Meanwhile, faith in the press we have is not at all a sure thing.

And what do you think? Is journalism itself a religion? And what’s happening to it? Or is the metaphor misplaced? Hit the comment button and speak.

Rosemary Armao, then (1995) executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, a major professional group: “”Public journalism is a cult-like movement, you’re either a believer or a heretic. It even has its own jargon like a cult.”

Reese Cleghorn, former Dean of the J-School at the University of Maryland: “Since we are all journalists, I get to preach the gospel, go to the freshmen and tell them we are the only profession mentioned in the Constitution, that we have a unique responsibility and our democratic government depends on it.”

Jacques Steinberg of the New York Times: “Created by Mr. Neuharth as a forum for just-the-facts-journalism that would be conveyed through short articles and colorful graphics, USA Today eventually began seeking the recognition of the journalistic establishment.” (Jan. 19, 2004)

A theologian comments on this essay.

Posted by Jay Rosen at January 7, 2004 5:19 PM   Print


This is more than just a metaphor. Journalism's roots include religious preaching, which was itself a form of proto-journalism. Read, for example, Laura Henigman's 1999 book, "Coming Into Communion: Pastoral Dialogues in Colonial New England." She examines the role that preachers played in not just sermonizing but engaging in what today would be called "crime reporting" -- investigations into the causes and consequences of infanticides. As she demonstrates, often the ministers produced biased and tendentious reports overdetermined by their ideological blinders (so what else is new?), but they meet most of the criteria we would use to describe journalism today. They investigated the causes of the crime. They interviewed the accused criminals, about the crime itself, the motivations behind it, and the emotional and spiritual journey of the accused women. They published these accounts for the reading and edification of society, and they editorialized about the significance of these stories for the community at large.

I remember a minor debate I had a few years ago with a print journalist on a listserv I frequent. The debate centered around a case in Baltimore where a murderer had taken hostages and was negotiating with the police. One of the things that came up during the negotiation was that the killer didn't like one of the photographs of him that was being broadcast by a local TV station during its live coverage of the hostage crisis. The police were trying to placate the guy so he wouldn't start killing hostages, and they asked the TV station to run a different photo, which the station did. The journalist with whom I debated thought that this was a violation of journalistic ethics, because reporters should never let the police tell them what to report. In the course of our discussion, he talked about a "canon" of "sacred" journalist principles and criticized TV news in general as being so bad that it was beyond "redemption." He also described journalists who have been killed for practicing their craft in places like Colombia as "martyrs."

Of course, similar language gets used to other professions to show how THEY are special and elevated in some "sacred" way. "Police and soldiers put their lives on the line every day to protect society." (They, too, have martyrs.) "Doctors save lives." "Scientists seek eternal truths."

(Of course, none of these professions is as pure as its holy rhetoric. In New York, the police seemed to feel awhile back that they should put their own lives on the line only AFTER they had fired 41 shots at an innnocent man with a wallet in his hand. Sometimes doctors merely drain the assets of the dying. Scientists are less objective than they imagine. But then, actual religion priests can do some profane things too.)

Another parallel between journalism and religion is that they are both professions without real standards of competence. Unlike medicine or law, you don't need any particular formal training or official certification to practice either. You don't have to pass a bar exam or perform an internship before you can be accredited. Anyone can hang out their shingle and declare themselves a minister or a reporter. Paradoxically, this absence of measurable, testable standards of competence probably makes both professions more extreme in their professed belief in high standards.

I think the comparison between journalism and religion can be overstated. Some journalists are fairly candid about regarding themselves as mere hacks, entertainers or clock-punchers. I have a friend who is an entertainment reporter in Las Vegas, and I don't think he ever goes to work thinking, "this is my sacred calling." There are significant differences between a secular "church of journalism" and a real "church of God." At least in theory, for example, journalists are supposed to allow for the possibility that they might be wrong, and they make a fetish of open-mindedness (again, in theory at least). By contrast, some practitioners of God-based religion sometimes make a fetish of absolutism and regard open-mindedness as a symptom of heresy or weak faith.

Posted by: Sheldon Rampton at January 8, 2004 2:31 AM | Permalink

Religion is based on a certainty in the unknowable, which its believers are pleased to call faith. Journalism is based on a search for facts, which its believers are pleased to call truth. Certainly there are parallels. In fact, not only is there no inherent conflict between religion per se and journalism, attempting the latter without the former strikes me as potentially dangerous.

Posted by: Lex at January 8, 2004 9:24 AM | Permalink

That said, I would take issue with one part:

"Only in a different religion than the mainstream press as a whole shares are journalists bound to keep faith with citizens, the people who are struggling to be heard in the public square, who are willing to participate when necessary, who are in need of quality debate, as well as accurate information. These are not the priorities in forms like horse race journalism. Or investigative journalism. Or what Leonard Downie, editor of the Washinton Post, recently called accountability journalism."

Investigative journalism need not shut out people who wish to be heard in the public square; in fact, some of the best investigative journalism has given voice to people who previously were voiceless, tells the stories that haven't been told.

Posted by: Lex at January 8, 2004 9:36 AM | Permalink

Interesting categorization of what I think many of us feel implicitly or explitictly: Journalism is a calling. It is a job that has a sense of mission as part of the payoff. That was as true for Mencken in Newspaper Days as it is today.

Posted by: Jeffrey Weiss at January 8, 2004 12:05 PM | Permalink

This analogy is little more than a propaganda tool to promote religion. It falls apart right out of the gate in claiming that "The God Term of Journalism is the Public." The public is a proven reality. There is no proof of God -- only "faith" that "he" supposedly exists in some fashion or other.

There is no God.

When you die, they toss your corpse ino the ground and the worms eat you.

The end.

Posted by: David Ehrenstein at January 8, 2004 3:51 PM | Permalink

Would that the God term of journalism were still the public. It is now government, or the state. Most reporters I deal with (I'm an editor) respect the governments they cover and disdain the public that those governments are supposed to serve. They scorn the elderly couple fighting eminent domain, the businessman who complains that local government shouldn't compete with private enterprise, or the family fighting an easement for a "greenway" on their property. Civic journalism is this notion embodied, only it's not the state that knows best, it's the editor and the reporter. I've sat on many a panel as the lone voice against civic journalism and its advocacy, saying it's just another name for agenda pushing. Your chapter 7 above just reinforces my view.

Posted by: rivlax at January 8, 2004 5:36 PM | Permalink

I would agree that *some* in the press practice journalism as though it was a religion. Others are in the press just to make a buck, or promote a political viewpoint.

However, the same can be said of the conventional churches. Not all preachers, priests, nuns, etc. truly *believe* in their chosen religion. Some view it as their vocation, as their job. Others take on the religious mantle to promote a social or political goal (I've seen many "reverends" on the campaign trail who never give sermons, only political speeches).

I think you need to take these "non-believers" into account when discussing the "religon of journalism" so that you can "separate the wheat from the chaff".

Posted by: Siergen at January 8, 2004 8:40 PM | Permalink

Oh God! You journalists are so full of yourselves. It is sickening. Once upon a time you all were called "reporters" which implies that your job (yes, your job, not your "calling") was to report a faithful account of what is going on to the public. Just because something is a "secular" religion, does not excuse it from the mistakes of organized religion. With this notion of religion, people distinguish themselves from others. That happens in most areas of life as when Red Sox fans distinguish themselves from Yankees fans.

But religious distinctions are different because the subject of religion is purported to be nothing less than the fate of mankind and the universe; for journalists "society" and "the public". For a group to aggregate themselves into some kind of priesthood that "knows" more about this very important subject than the rest of humanity, is the ultimate in elitism. From there it is but a short journey to the notion that some unbelievers are just going to have to die because they are interfering with God's plan. Once this church gets the ear of government we get a world not unlike that of the 16th and 17th centuries and governments like that of the Taliban.

Thankfully, the First Amendment means, or should mean, that there can be no monopoly of the press. That said, however, the high church of journalism, through its unstinting advocacy of McCann-Feingold, has succeeded in persuading Congress and the Supreme Court that no one but the organized media (the one true church) can tell the voters in a democracy about the candidates and the issues. That is a troubling development. If you continue on this path you will, like the old Pravda or the Iraqi media in Saddam's day, lose the respect of "the public."

Posted by: Jim Linnane at January 9, 2004 6:39 AM | Permalink

Before I go on, check out this link.
Tell me it's not true.
I'd like to know it ain't so.
Why isn't anybody challenging this on a large constitutional scale?

Some comments floating around live journal discussed this story, which is describing how protesters are being held by the Secret Service long distances far from the President's location, while friendly mobs are allowed close, which makes nonsense of the excuse that it's for national security. The press isn't even allowed past the cordon to talk to the protesters.
So they don't go talk to the protesters.
When thousands of people gather to make themselves heard and the press decides it will cost them too much politically to pay attention, then the press has decided those are not "people."
Those folks won't regard you as a free press. They will create their own, they will go elsewhere for their information, their connection, their dialogue with fellow citizens.
I daresay the people in the President's plane are probably well aware that they are being molded in pr hacks instead of reporters. It's unfair to ask them to fight back to "objective reporting" on pure mental guts alone, and then to blame them for it as failed priests.

Now, if you want to hear one set of outside views of the press from the bleachers, you may be interested in an extended exchange held among perfectly ordinary citizens who don't consider themselves activists:
In a live journal comment, I asked how this could be tolerated by reporters after a juicy story.
One reply commented:
The press don't like being held back, but they are prisoners (so to speak) of the system that allows or denies them press passes to the President's events. If they want to be there when he's stumbling over his speech, they can't also be at the protest -- and if they go to the protest they're denied access to any later Presidential events.
I commented:
So then the media have to assign two reporting squads, one for the protests and one for the Pres's speeches. Of course papers don't want to spend double the money on travel, do they?
The reply:
Squads? That's optimism. These days, it's more like one or two people at best. If that. Newspapers have cut way back on out-of-town coverage -- any town, pretty much. And since the White House gets to approve who shows up and who doesn't (can deny press credentials to whoever it doesn't like) and the reporters get the perk of flying with the President, the only ones who will cover the protests as they should be covered are the small papers and independents -- who can be easily discredited. It's a handy little political setup he's got, isn't it?
I commented:
Dangling press passes or witholding them strikes me as one of the traps in attempting to be an insider. Did you see Jay's PressThink entry about insider vs. outsider analysis of politics, as inherited from baseball analysis? The conventional wisdom was that you had to be buddies and "inside the locker room" to get decent stories. More recent argument is that the "outsider view", looking at games more carefully from far outside, where the fans sit, yields important insights that can't be obtained up in the middle of the hurlyburly. As one view has translated to politics, they expect so will the new. Well, one can hope, especially since I don't see insiders generating very effective critique or analysis or much of anything that might offend one of the shrubbies.
They commented:
Insiders generally don't analyze what they're given that much. Problem is, the best of the outsiders -- like Woodward and Bernstein -- have left the business or have been promoted out of it. In the past 20 years it's been lean times for news coverage overall; when the corporations won't support the kind of detailed steady longterm work that gets at the fact but chases the daily headline instead, we are all the poorer.
I commented:
Yeah, I trace it that way since the Reagan years, where they never met an antitrust action they didn't kill in favor of letting conglomerates glomerate even more. The big problem there was letting them do monopolies that combined tv and print. A big deathblow was when the big 3 news networks started paying anchors such outrageous rates, and in recession, they finally started cutting back costs by closing all their foreign offices. It seemed like right after that, news orgs booted out reporters who asked too many nosy questions about Grenada and also about Nicarauga, but not under Reagan--under Bush SR, come to think??! Seems to be I recall about 3 more occasions after that when major print reporters in the field have got fired when the most minorly critical stories offended the Administration.
Their comment:
I think you're right and it was under Bush Sr. Reagan wasn't alert enough to notice, or care.

Just thought you'd like to hear from the peanut gallery...

Posted by: Heather Gladney at January 11, 2004 1:38 AM | Permalink

Where are these Journalist for George W. Bush? Why is this government allowed to operate in secret if we are a democracy? Are most journalist in bed with this Administration so they can be imbedded? I am concerned about what is not being reported? Have they bought into His Religious Doctrine that God/ Jesus chose Him at this time to be the Leader of Empire Americaa.
All Hail Augustus Bush. MK

Posted by: Dr. Marge Kleiner at January 18, 2004 9:39 PM | Permalink

From the Intro