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Diversity and the incoherence of journalism’s ideology
Sunday, 15 June 2008 00:52
by Robert Jensen

The ideology of contemporary corporate commercial journalism is incoherent, and one place to see clearly this confusion is the news media industry’s approach to “diversity.”

Journalists, of course, commonly assert that they are non-ideological, that they approach their jobs as neutral professionals rather than as actors on the political stage. But mainstream news media, like all institutions, operate from a set of assumptions about how the world works and how it should work — in short, an ideology. There is no neutral ground on which to stand, no special journalistic existence outside ideology.

At the core of journalism’s rather peculiar ideology is the assertion of this illusory political neutrality, which serves mainly to paper over journalism’s commitment to, and support for, existing systems and structures of power. Journalists typically do remain neutral while covering contests between Republicans and Democrats or the struggles of one group of capitalists against another. But through their definitions of what is newsworthy and who is a reputable source — which are rooted in reflexive acceptance of the existing political and economic systems — journalists routinely give aid and comfort to the powerful by helping to validate the hierarchy inherent in those systems.

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When it comes to racial/ethnic, gender and sexual diversity, the ideological nature of journalism — and the inadequacy of the analysis underlying the conventional point of view on these matters — is clear. When a group such as the American Society of Newspaper Editors makes a “commitment to racial parity in newsrooms,” it is asserting a political position that implicitly acknowledges the racial inequality in U.S. society. There would be no need to achieve parity if not for racism and its consequences; in a non-racist world, the color of individual journalists would be irrelevant. ASNE’s linking of that hiring goal to the journalistic goal of “full and accurate news coverage of our nation’s diverse communities” shows that news managers see staffing as having an effect on news coverage. It’s not simply an issue of the politics of internal employment practices but the political agenda of news coverage.

To be clear: I’m glad ASNE, other journalism associations, and individual media companies have made such acknowledgements and commitments, even if they consistently promise more than they deliver. But whatever one’s opinion about the question, any position taken is clearly political. For journalism to claim political neutrality is, frankly, a little silly.

In defense, journalists might argue that the recognition of inequality and a commitment to coverage that celebrates the humanity of all people is no longer a contentious political issue but a widely accepted goal of the overwhelming majority in society. From this point of view, diversity could be seen as no more political than the common commitment to promoting the welfare of children, for example. But even if we accept that (which is highly contentious given how many white people believe we have achieved a “level playing field”), the way in which any person, organization or profession tries to address such issues will be inescapably political.

Far from being radical, mainstream journalism’s approach to diversity is centrist, rooted in the politics of a dominant culture that tends to focus on individual effort rather than structural change. Are the managers of news media companies interested in hiring more non-white people to work within the existing system or in challenging the white-supremacist system? If the latter, it’s obvious that the problem is not just too few non-white people in the newsroom, but too many white people who are invested in maintaining that existing system premised on white supremacy. Are the predominantly male managers interested in programs to promote more women or in undermining the destructive hierarchy central to patriarchy? Are the top decision-makers in journalism interested in hiring more out lesbians and gay men or in a direct challenge to the paranoid heterosexism woven into the fabric of the culture? In my experience as both a working journalist and a journalism professor, the managers running the corporate commercial news media are committed to maintaining those systems — not challenging them — and pretending that this isn’t a political project.

I described the politics of contemporary corporate commercial journalism as centrist, but it may be more accurate to label mainstream journalism as conservative. If the core pathologies are white supremacy, patriarchy and heterosexism in a corporate capitalist system that valorizes the hierarchy that produces inequality, then any status quo/centrist politics are in reality conservative; they have the effect of helping to conserve the existing system, even when advocating minor modifications to make it appear more liberal and tolerant.

This analysis should raise critical questions about an organization such as NLGJA, which describes its mission as working “within the news industry to foster fair and accurate coverage of LGBT issues,” language that is in sync with the illusory claims of neutrality of the industry. The questions include:

* Does NLGJA believe that hiring more LGBT people who will work within the heterosexist system is adequate to the task of LGBT liberation?
* Is NLGJA committed to ending the heterosexism that is an integral part of a patriarchal system based on hierarchy and men's oppression of women?
* Do the gay men in NLGJA share a commitment to such feminist politics? What conception of feminism do NLGJA members, male and female, endorse?
* Do all the white members of NLGJA share a commitment to ending the racial hierarchies in a white-supremacist system?
* If the group shares such commitments, why are they not articulated as part of the group's mission?

Whatever one’s views, they are fundamentally political questions. Ignoring them doesn’t remove one from politics, but rather puts one on the political side of the status quo, of the existing distribution of power and resources. If journalism is to be a positive force in helping U.S. citizens come to terms with the unjust and unsustainable nature of these hierarchical systems, working journalists are going to have to reject the industry’s naïve claims of neutrality and work to help push the profession to more actively resist the powerful regressive forces that dominate society.

The journalists organizations that, along with NLGJA, are rooted in a recognition of the pathology and cruelty of those hierarchies — the National Association of Black Journalists, National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Asian American Journalists Association, and Native American Journalists Association — offer some hope, but only if they can give voice to a different vision not only of journalism but of the world. Journalists from the dominant groups — heterosexuals, white people, men — should add their voices to this struggle as well.

The goal should be not diversity within unjust and unsustainable hierarchies, but liberation. That term may seem awkward today, but we should remember that the movements in which these organizations are rooted spoke not of acceptance of the domination inherent in hierarchy but of real freedom and real justice. That, not diversity, is the dream of liberation.

Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book is Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007). Jensen is also the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (both from City Lights Books); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang). He can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.eduhttp://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/index.html.
and his articles can be found online at
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Comments (2)add comment

Project Humanbeingsfirst.org said:

Incoherence of journalism’s ideology extends to its misunderstood axoims!

'The ideology of contemporary corporate commercial journalism is incoherent, and one place to see clearly this confusion is the news media industry’s approach to “diversity.”'

This is an interesting perspective - but it also has some unexamined and unstated axioms. Please permit me to unravel down to its core - and please feel free to disagree, or to extend the analysis further.

The following is excerpted from Chapter-7 of the book "Prisoners of the Cave"


Begin Excerpt

Longer term Challenges

If this immediate battle is ever won, the protagonists in the future have to begin thinking like the deep Neocon strategic thinkers in Washington, with 5, 10, 20, 50 year domestic and global strategic horizons. They have to attack the source of the disease, not just its symptoms. The main ideas developed in this essay revolve around control of mass media and the influence of corporations on US foreign and domestic policy. I believe these are the twain root godheads of all subsequent tyranny at the hands of the United States, both domestic and international. The protagonists need to focus their energies on these two genetic roots instead of wasting their time and resources on all the leaves and branches:

I.1: Wrestle control of mass media public airwaves away from the for-profit corporations;

I.2: News Media as an independent public service serving only the interests of the peoples of the Republic is as important as the independent judiciary serving only their own judicial charter and remaining apolitical

Many evils are simultaneously mitigated by focussing on the airwaves and the rights to populate it with any content along with the concomitant social responsibilities that must accompany it. A legislative focus on amending the FCC licensing requirements for broadcasting on all frequency bands in America if made pre-conditioned upon x-hours/week of gratis community service, of which an equal amount is apportioned to all campaigning for office – from local to presidential candidates – easily solves the boondoggle of campaign financing, equitably reaching the “populist democracy” constituency by all candidates, and perhaps even efficaciously seeing a third party in the White House because of it without needing deep pockets and co-optation to the king-makers with their 'suitcase full of cash'!

Thus either work on new laws to prevent ownership of the media by the military-industrial complex that ends up co-opting the watchdog function when the 'dog' has to watch its own owners to prevent a crime, or make judicious and strategically well thought out amendments to existing laws that can potentially have non-linear paybacks. This has to be fought in the courts, in the legislature, and along multiple simultaneous imaginative fronts, from suing the individual journalist for treason against the state, to their parent corporations on provocative grounds, to populating the election campaigns and offices of Congressional leaders with justice minded staffers and student interns who can seed such thoughts and advocacy in the election campaigns and endeavor to make it part of the political platforms.

This battle cannot be fought in the legislature alone exclusively, as the legislature is complicit with the corporations and special interests, and entirely co-opted by the hands that put them there thus posing a general bootstrapping problem. Well, as a society that is relatively advanced in the high-tech principles of engineering and technology, bootstrapping problems are usually solved going 'out-of-band' and thinking creatively 'out-of-the-box'. Thus noting that while there is an 'incestuously self-reinforcing' system at play in the legislature, the judiciary is relatively immune, except perhaps through common ideological alignment of having been appointed by Republican or Democrat Presidents. But I dare think that this argument of ideological sympathy is a red herring and entirely specious (see below). This battle can be seeded in the courts for the most efficacious approach to genuine and peaceable transformation in the laws of the land! It does however require strategic thinking and a penetrating focus in the babysteps needed to get there. Big staid money can only be co-opted through big thinking and egregious surprises.

Also important in the longer term, and perhaps more importantly, the ability to efficaciously monitor the watchdogs themselves, that they are honoring their Charter awarded them by the Constitution as the fourth pillar of Democracy, is required. And beyond just monitoring, to also hold them publicly accountable via some tangible 'detriments', or 'punishments' if you will, that is commensurate with the grave national responsibility and charter that the watchdogs hold. Grass-roots Organizations like “If Americans Knew” are already monitoring the biased coverage of various local and national newspapers on the subject of Palestine-Israel with compiled statistics and data up the wazoo, and yet so what? It has had zero efficacy in its impact in making any change in the coverage. All efforts that lead to zero measurable and impacting change in the behavior of those being monitored is a waste of time. I am sorry for being less than impressed by all the gut-feel induced 'good efforts' that actually end up leading nowhere! Monitoring without teeth is as useless as a whittle-less tooth brush!

Sooner one recognizes the importance of the hard-core engineering principle of 'efficacy of effort' to produce real working and useful systems with measurable utility and not just merely 'laudable good effort' that produce absolutely nothing except perhaps the 'stroking of the ego', and sooner it is employed as a principle for social reconstruction and for inducing measurable change, sooner will we begin to see genuine transformation occurring.

Thus in the final analysis, in the absence of such monitoring efficacy, it makes no difference to the news organizations because ultimately, they are not accountable to the American public. There seems to be no current mechanism available to make them accountable, for they can eventually always hide under the umbrella of “freedom of the press” as they conceive it, and when even their antagonists attempting to hold them to account haven’t quite understood what that means, such monitoring becomes a moot point.

The first phase in this long term agenda of responsibly reclaiming the airwaves as a public commons and as an efficacious watchdogs on the corridors of power in order to make a “populist democracy” work, is to initially focus on mechanisms like the aforementioned strategic battle fronts before the judiciary to get the communication and broadcasting laws re-crafted.

The 'accountability of the watchdog' aspect however is a much more theoretical debate that will necessitate amendments to the Constitutional framework itself, much like the system of checks and balances that supposedly exists for the other three pillars of Democracy. Without such a system, just relying on the voluntary good judgment of the media to execute their charter is as meaningless as expecting the President of the United States to make fair decisions without any checks and balances imposed upon the office. And this is even required after the President is actually publicly sworn in, for executing the Constitutional Charter faithfully. Whereas there is no such swearing in before the public for the newsmen for faithfully executing their own Constitutional Charter. And we can see how efficacious such 'swearing in' is for keeping the President reined!

Thus note that not having for-profit corporate ownership, or having the right set of laws and formalisms on the books to permit open airwaves, by themselves do not solve the problems of accountability. Accountability requires a 'closed system' of checks-and-balances, not an 'open-loop system' that has no 'modulating feedback control' (borrowing geek speak from principles of engineering). This aspect is something that the Constitutional scholars are more competent to get their teeth into than the ordinary activist given to street demonstrations. However, without these courageous activists leading the public demand for such Constitutional accountability to be created, even in the streets if necessary, nothing will transpire.

Note that there is a fundamental difference between the independence of the judiciary, and independence of the journalist. Anyone can be a journalist. Even I claim to be one (amateurish, investigative, not affiliated with anyone - i.e. independent). If I ever choose to get formally employed in the news media and get an official business card, I become a bona fide “professional journalist” overnight as far as the world is concerned. Whereas a judge obviously is under much more scrutiny, has many more legal and academic requirements even to become a judge, and when he or she comes up for confirmation to higher benches, there is even Congressional scrutiny and affirmation or denial of recommendations for appointments by the legislative body (that is itself presumably elected by much scrutiny by the polity). Thus at least in theory, the governing structure that selects judges enables much pruning along the way – which is both good and bad of course. But just as being a qualified and certified doctor in the medical profession is mandatory over the theoretical abstraction of allowing any quack to practice medicine on unsuspecting patients, the judge’s profession has that structure that lends them much credibility for both competence in their profession, as well as independence from external pressures and manipulations. The structure enables them to solely adjudicate based on their conscience by virtue of guaranteed appointments where they don’t have to worry about where the next meal is going to come from if they go against the grain. In America, it is non-trivial to co-opt a judge, or the judiciary in general.

There is nothing like that for the media. Just about anyone can own and operate a news organization given sufficient funds – that is more a criteria than any academic or intellectual prowess, or self-asserted claims to integrity, morality, or competence. The morality for the news organization is entirely defined by the morality and world views of the owners of the news organization. If a journalist or reporter does not fall within the broad purview of the imperatives that fall out from such morality, they cannot survive very long in that news organization, or make a great deal of impact even when they do limp along. The freedom of the press is defined by those who own it – only the New York Times is honest enough to openly proclaim it in every edition of their newspaper in the upper left hand corner of the front page: “All the News That's fit to Print”. Its editorial staff, itself carefully chosen by the Corporation, entirely determines what’s fit to print. But in reality, this is true the world over, whether it be for Al-Jazeera Television, corporate funded Public Television like the PBS, Government funded public news organization like the BBC, or the grass-roots publicly managed non-corporate network of Pacifica and its affiliates throughout the United States of America. Indeed, there is even less scrutiny in the grass-roots organizations – for it is by definition funded and managed by ordinary peoples from the public, whereby its 'plebeian democracy' defines their morality. One ought not to forget that it was indeed just such a public morality that also killed Socrates. These observations are not a critique, only statements of truisms that are open for all to see.

The word “independence” also bears more specific definition. In this context, as we compare it to the judiciary to claim the independence of the press to be the fourth pillar of Democracy, the independence of the judiciary being the third, the word “independence” must be defined to mean whatever it means in the judicial context. Thus for instance, my describing myself as “independent” as in “I am a part-time independent investigative journalist”, is not within that purview of independence, for I only mean by it that I am not affiliated with any formal news organization. Although I am not an expert, but I believe that in the judicial context it generally means (at least to lay peoples):

'to be free from external pressures of all kinds spanning the gamut of earning a livelihood to political arm twisting, in order to competently be able to analyze and adjudicate solely on facts and conscience.'

Additionally, all may claim a conscience, such as the Jury of Twelve in the American judicial system, but can all claim competence? Indeed it is not even part of the job description of a jury to be competent in anything specific, only in being free from bias. However in the press profession, as in the judicial and medical professions, demonstrated competence must be made the first standard for the journalist. And just as standards for measurable competence have been defined in all professions, so it must be too for the journalism profession which at present really has none, except perhaps a general college degree and the ability to write. There is certainly a lot more to it than that, the most important in my view being the ability to think and reason through obfuscation and mendacity of all the incantations of power in society – for that is the turf of the journalist if they are to be anything more than just glorified stenographers and actors on television.

Thus it is one thing to raise the slogan of “independence” of the media as analogous to independence of the judiciary, but quite another to implement such “reliable”, “accountable”, “competent”, and “free from the pressures of earning a livelihood” independence for the former. I do not have solutions for this. Only that such solutions must be devised somehow through a gestalt shift in our thinking and our assumptions about a) what is the meaning of the Constitutional protection for the “freedom of the press”, b) how to hold the press legally and judicially accountable for this legally granted Constitutional charter, and c) how to constitute the press profession so that it reliably and competently serves the needs of not just the immediate local society, but the greater global society as well.

End Excerpt

I would add to the above, that Benjamen Franklin, who likely understood the role of the press better than any of the other founding fathers of this nation, had in mind the small mom and pop type printing presses to be the watchdog of the corridors of power, like the one he owned. It is my belief that the idea was that it is difficult to buy out the conscience of all the peoples all the time, and if there were enough small privately owned presses, some of them will get it right. This is why, in my view, he did not anchor the fourth pillar of the constitution to the other other three. So while the Judiciary, legislative, and Executive are interlinked, like three legs of a table, its fourth leg, the watchdog press was left free-standing. One can debate the merit of the premise that conscience is a worthy guidance in running the machinary of a democracy, but it's irrelevant - no differently than conscience being the qualification to be a doctor, or the President.

Thank you.

Zahir Ebrahim
Project Humanbeingsfirst.org
June 15, 2008
Votes: +0

Mark Rosenkranz said:

White Male Privilege
http://www.amazon.com/White-Ma...566&sr=8-1 I just wanted to get the word out to you about my book.
June 15, 2008
Votes: +0

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