Worthless? Part Two

Earlier today, I mentioned that E.J. Dionne had delivered a thoughtful (and I would add excellent) lecture on the relationship between traditional media and blogs, along with other openly opinionated new media forms. The occasion was the Theodore White Lecture at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. The first part of the lecture focuses on White and will be of interest to folks like me who read “The Making of the President” books during our formative years. Dionne turns to blogging and the MSM in the second part.
Dionne’s argument plays off of a debate during the 1920s about democracy and journalism between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey. Lippmann argued for a new journalism based on objectivity — a “scientific” journalism spearheaded by “men who have labored to see the world as it is.” (In Lippmann’s over-hyped formulation, this strikes me as a Wilsonian-Hegelian vision in which journalists play the role Wilson assigned to bureaucrats). Dewey argued that the search for reliable information is best advanced during argument, not through the efforts of journalistic super-scientists.
This debate cries out for a “synthesis,” namely that in the best of all democracies we would rely on argument but also on an effort to establish a common set of facts from which to start the debate. This, as I understand it, is Dionne’s view. And he sees the potential for achieving this happy synthesis through a blend of traditional and new media. As Dionne puts it:

What we need. . .is to welcome the newly partisan and participatory outlets while finding ways to nurture and improve independent journalism. The two are very different forms. They need not be enemies, even though they should and will correct and criticize each other. If we see one as an alternative to the other, we will be wrong analytically, and we will miss a great oportunity. . . .
[W]e need both reason and passion. Reason without passion is lifeless. Passion without reason is dangerous. I think that if we are lucky, we will see in the media world a balance between the two: the old media standing for fact, independent inquiry, courageous and expensive news coverage in war zones. . . .The new media will encourage a passion for engagement and a commitment to the continuing work of democracy.

I agree with Dionne’s vision of how a blend of new and old media could promote the best of all democracies. In fact, I have argued along similar lines, albeit in a less elegant and scholarly fashion, in speeches to journalism classes and on various panels. However, I’m skeptical (more so than Dionne, I suspect, though he is careful not to sound sanguine) about the prospect that traditional media will, in Dionne’s words, “resurrect a concern for what’s true” and “strengthen[] the older professional ethic involving accuracy and balance.” Such a strengthening would, I think, be good not only for democracy but also for the long-term financial viability of traditional media. But the genie is out of the bottle and, for reasons that I hope to present in the near future, I wouldn’t bet on his return.


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