Beyond advocacy to “holistic” journalism
The image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false. . . . We hear every damn day about how fragile our country is—on the brink of catastrophe, torn by polarizing hate—and how it’s a shame that we can’t work together to get things done, but the truth is we do.
We work together to get things done every damn day. . . . We know instinctively as a people that if we are to get through the darkness and back into the light we have to work together. And the truth is, there will always be darkness. And sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the Promised Land. Sometimes it’s just New Jersey. But we do it anyway, together.
—The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, October 30, 2010
When I started Utne Reader in 1984, I trumpeted the alternative press as a hotbed of “passionate, quirky, and opinionated” journalism. The magazines and newsletters we covered and excerpted were produced by writers and editors who didn’t pretend to be objective, but were instead willing to honestly voice their biases up front and out loud.
The best of America’s independent media during that era resembled the day’s British newspapers, which were notoriously subjective not just on the opinion pages but also on the front page, where news broke and developed. Readers of the London Times or the Guardian or the Evening Standard knew which of their papers was liberal and which was conservative, which favored the Labour Party or the Tories. Those interested in all sides of the story (or a more objective take) developed strategies to mix, match, and filter the papers’ prejudices.
I loved this approach, and, as an editor and publisher, I championed a brand of advocacy journalism that encourages people to think for themselves. I also hoped the mainstream media would eventually emulate the model.
Be careful what you wish for.
Today, passionate, quirky, and opinionated are staples in our daily news diet: the “fair and balanced” reporting of Fox News, the morning news anchors on CNN, the nighttime crusaders of MSNBC, the blogs, and the original instigators up and down our radio dials. It’s everywhere. And I’m guessing that even the boldest of my peers in the alternative media would never have imagined that the primary source for news for most educated 18- to 34-year-old Americans would be a late-night, sit-down cable comedian. And that he would also be as wise as his more “serious” peers were misguided.
So how do we go forward—as Jon Stewart hopes we will—together? And what role can the press play in that effort? Surveying the landscape, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s time for the press to move beyond advocacy to what we might call “holistic” journalism.
A central tenet of this new philosophy is rising above the political fray to survey the totality of the situation—to see the big picture. We don’t need anchors, editors, and reporters to filter the facts and deliver what they deem the right point of view, because there is no right point of view. Instead, we need exposure to the facts and how they’re being interpreted by everyone who’s affected—liberal, conservative, libertarian, and all points in between.
One of my favorite editorial devices at Utne Reader is the theme-driven feature section that includes articles and sidebars from various angles. When we’re covering immigration, for instance, we might run articles from the left-leaning Mother Jones and The Nation, as well as from the more centrist New Republic and the far-right National Review. But we also might present arguments by the French conservative Jean Marie Le Pen and the Louisiana right-wing populist David Duke, so readers can see for themselves how compelling and seductive, or ridiculous and xenophobic, their positions may be. We might also look for views from a resettled Somali living in Minneapolis, or a deported Guatemalan migrant farmworker, or a traveling Buddhist pilgrim. The idea is to give readers as complete a picture as possible, and let them make up their own minds.
The danger, of course, is that there will be so many points of view that none can rise above the general cacophony and get heard. But what we have now is too many outlets offering just one interpretation of events and pandering to audiences who are prone to agree (or abhor) that interpretation. The result is a false choice: Tweedledum vs. Tweedledee.
A more holistic brand of journalism would help citizens avoid black-and-white thinking by showing a broader spectrum of viewpoints. This sort of reporting doesn’t take special skills or an esoteric sensibility. It simply requires an open mind and a thirst for the truth. It could also go a long way to heal our divided society.
Eric Utne, founder of Utne Reader, is working on a memoir.
This article first appeared in the March-April 2011 issue of Utne Reader.