A Theological Investigation

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.)

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 aftersuspending 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 nationalstory 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 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. 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 and 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 theTimes, 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 decline 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 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 — of which he had not been aware 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. 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.

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 religiousdispute 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 apatriot 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 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 Rather’s exclusive interview 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.

Jay Rosen is the publisher of The Revealer. He also chairs New York University’s Journalism Department and is the brains behind PressThink.