It’s not the media. It’s our society (column)


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Blanchard’s May 28 Viewpoints Column (“York Daily Record critics: Are we Enemies or Neighbors”) offered an introspective view of the struggle faced by journalists across the country. Caught in the crossfire between a deeply divided public, he revealed his own soul searching and YDR’s attempts to meet their critics. He offered a well-meaning attempt to accept responsibility and to find a way forward.

Unfortunately, Scott, your concern has no cure. It is not possible to be politically relevant to a readership that can never tolerate anything they disagree with – no matter what their political affiliation.

More: Inside YDR, true stories about real news (column)

More: Is YDR fair and balanced?

To Scott Blanchard, to YDR, to mainstream or alternate media, I say simply: It’s not about you. The problem is bigger than the media.

The very notion of politically functional journalism assumes a public of a type that no longer exists. The ability to sort conflicting information; to entertain ideas that counter our own; to converse with those we disagree with without sidling off in disgust, is a quality that must be supported and maintained by society – not by the individual. This quality, the idea of a common basis for truth, has been subordinated to individual ideas of truth.

 

Today, truth is private property. Truth is taste – just like that applied to any consumer choice, and a choice of news sources is just one more consumer choice. Many media outlets have adapted by accepting market segmentation and pitching to their audience. Kudos to YDR for ostensibly wanting to do better.

The basis for shared truth eroded gradually with the greatest expansion of individual rights in human history. The origin of this change arises in something called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The most oft repeated elements of UDHR are expressed in Article One of the 1948 United Nations Rule 127A: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” (Hereafter, I refer to UDHR as “free and equal”.)

“Free and equal” is so broadly shared that it underwrites all the main ideologies of our political system and those around the developed world.

a country divided by walls of ideology, it is remarkable that conservatives, liberals (progressives) and libertarians all embrace “free and equal” even as they embrace it to different effect. Republicans use it to justify economic liberalism and Democrats, social liberalism. Libertarians use it to justify both. It can be used to justify “right to life” and “right to choose” and a host of other polarizing hot button issues of our day.

“Free and equal” was a valuable moral aspiration for a world just coming out of WWII, and it remains valuable today, but it is not, in fact, a complete and indubitable truth. Have you ever met a 2-year-old who is in possession of either reason or conscience? Really? The limitation of “free and equal,” however, is not so much in its error, as in its omissions.

What isolates political positions, one from the other; what threatens the mediation of contrasting ideas, is something missing that was present in the political tableau of all previous eras. That ‘something’ is character, or to use an out of date word, virtue. Before “free and equal,” the development of character, like the development of “reason” and “conscience,” was a public, not a private, good. It was a quality that society worked to perpetuate as the essential foundation for individual liberty. It was a quality bound in social institutions.

Terms like “propriety,” used by Adam Smith in “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” give witness to the public nature of right and wrong that existed in the 18th century. To Smith, right and wrong was governed by something he called the “impartial spectator” – the mind’s ability to imagine the reaction of an independent and disinterested public upon our own actions. For Smith, the “independent spectator” and “general rules” that governed human behavior were common property accessible to all. They provided the medium in which individual freedom was exercised. This medium provided a shared moral substrate for individual life.

very idea of an “independent spectator” today is a nonstarter. Everyone views his own value premise as sacrosanct.

This transition from social mores to individual mores all took place during the life of we baby boomers.

1950, I was born into the fading but still existent mores bound up by family, church, community and a collection of other institutional and social forces. These forces exercised real authority over individual life. Smith’s “impartial spectator” was alive and well. Life was witnessed and critiqued.

Today, many individuals function in a cloak of moral invisibility.

noted by Alan Bloom in the “The Closing of the American Mind,” this transition was well underway by the 1980s. Bloom reported that incoming freshmen to Cornell upheld only one value: the equality of all values. Students of that era were already reluctant to disapprove of value choices made by their peers. Human values had already been subordinated to equality.

The consequence of this from a political perspective is not too hard to understand. If individual value choices are entirely personal, character is reduced to nothing but feeling. What I feel is right. What I feel is true. These self-determinations of character do not have to answer and they become enraged when they are challenged. The result of this development is that value choices became unmoored from society – thus the rise of political correctness and the need to protect all value choices.

There is, however, no return to yesterday. The expansion of individual rights challenged many wrong ideas that were imbedded in the public concepts of morality. The expansion of civil rights, women’s rights, rights for the disabled, gay rights and on and on, approached problems which impeded society.

what the modern reader is apt to forget is something that 19th century liberty advocate John Stuart Mill thoroughly understood. The struggle between individual liberty and authority is ongoing. The pendulum swings to and fro.

Today, a global sense of chaos and disorder has helped create a rising preference for the certainty of authority. As a result, political bodies are increasingly seeking authoritarian rulers like Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey or Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, and “might is right” is making its own comeback here at home. Truth of force is displacing truth of reason. These developments are a warning.

What is to be done? How do media outlets like YDR address the need for commercial viability in a world of cafeteria choices while maintaining a commitment to journalistic ethics?

As the media plays a key role in the maintenance of democracy, it has no choice. Time-honored tests of truth must be followed without regard for critics and naysayers. Time-honored tests of character must be upheld. Words like honesty, courage, generosity, prudence, self-control are real markers of human development, and the free press must uphold the moral substrate that allowed democracy to form in the first place. There is no alternative.

Chris Burns lives in Hanover.

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