Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press

A revised model of journalism's place in the internet age gets a vote of confidence from Tim Luckhurst

January 22, 2009

American scholars rarely construct arguments about journalism and democracy that feel relevant on this side of the pond. American journalism is rules based. Here, in the UK, the profession prefers principles. It all started with the First Amendment, stupid, as Bill Clinton might have put it.

In this sharp and engaging little book, Michael Schudson makes the national differences feel small. By locating journalism in territory it must occupy if it is to serve a civic purpose, he points academic study of the profession towards a noble objective.

Good journalism is more than a sellable commodity. As the economics of the online era threaten expensive newsgathering, the case for journalism as the grit in the oyster of civil society must be made with intelligence and passion. Here, Schudson performs a glorious slam-dunk on behalf of good reporting.

He is too gentlemanly to ridicule directly the forlorn abstractions that a few in British academia choose to dignify with the title "media discourse", but his argument does not miss and hit the wall. In precise, economic prose, Schudson takes Hannah Arendt's defence of facts and advances it into the era of the internet.

Journalism is not an unblemished purveyor of truth and the relationship between reporting and power is complex. Yet Schudson believes facts possess the power to humble abstract theoretical frameworks and he asserts what thoughtful journalists already know: "A lot of familiar talk of what the media are and how they operate, and how they serve or fail to serve democracy, is tendentious, simple-minded or just mistaken."

Spot on, Schudson. Some of it does not even reach that standard. But lambasting academics who write about journalism in the manner of a witch doctor scrutinising laser surgery is too easy. This is a target-rich environment and Schudson does not set out to enjoy a turkey shoot. Instead he sets himself the challenge of identifying what journalists might achieve if they "began to take representative democracy seriously and recognise in it the grounds for a revised model of journalism's place in democracy". It is a mammoth task.

Schudson has never been a reporter or an editor. He has not experienced total immersion in the ethical and ideological debate that rages in successful newsrooms and renders curious the delusion that journalists resist reflection. Yet he grasps the essential role journalists play in societies organised according to the principles of self-government by free citizens.

Schudson avoids fellow American academic James Carey's old and eulogistic view that journalism and democracy are synonymous. It is as inapplicable to the National Enquirer as it is to the Daily Star. But he fully appreciates the intensely symbiotic nature of the relationship that exists between principled reporting and representative democracy.

His six primary functions for journalism in a democracy - information, investigation, analysis, social empathy, provision of a public forum and service as an advocate for political programmes - should be taught and debated by all ambitious students and teachers of journalism. His seventh, the duty to publicise and promote representative democracy, is an important step forward from the foundation-level ideal that reporting should simply facilitate the free exchange of ideas.

News is something journalists make, but Schudson emphasises a perspective familiar to journalists and conducive to the health of democracy. Scholars too often concentrate on the manufacturing process: reporters privilege the facts with which they work.

This collection is eloquent and wise. I will recommend it to my colleagues and to my students. Michael Schudson has launched a debate that can lead to a normative theory of journalism's purpose in the era of the internet.

Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press

By Michael Schudson


184pp, £55.00 and £16.99

ISBN 9780745644523 and 4530

Published 26 September 2008

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