By Mark Jamison, Guest Columnist
I recently had an exchange with a local official that explains a fundamental misconception about journalists and journalism and in doing so gets at the heart of a creeping cynicism that threatens the very fabric of our society. The official (I’m being nonspecific because I’m not interested in embarrassing or singling out an individual) referred to the Sylva Herald, my local paper in Jackson County, as a “media partner”.
The political philosopher Michael Sandel has written about our shift from a market economy to a market society. One of his books, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, explores this shift. Sandel discusses the moral and philosophical problems that arise when every aspect of our lives becomes little more than a marketing opportunity.
It has become increasingly apparent that social media outlets like Facebook are less about connecting people than about acquiring data that can be collected, collated, and subjected to algorithmic massage in a way that allows companies to target their marketing pitches in ways that make them seem less like advertising and more like everyday parts of our lives.
Entertainment has become less about amusement or diversion than it has become an opportunity for product placement. We no longer name stadiums or public buildings after admired figures; instead they become sponsorship venues. Musicians and sports teams no longer play for their supper; the big money is in commercial tie-ins, sponsorships, and cross promotions. Even some churches use marketing techniques to fill the pews while preaching a prosperity gospel.
Life is no longer for living; it is no longer a journey, an exercise in self-discovery. Life has become a never-ending series of deals and acquisitions.
So I suppose I shouldn’t be put off when a local official sees the local newspaper as a “media partner.” After all, our culture has stopped making the distinction between journalism and public relations. Everything has become media. And when we’ve lost those distinctions, then it makes it easy for politicians and demagogues of all flavors to dismiss the views they don’t like as “mainstream media.” It becomes easier for marketers to slice and dice, separate and segregate in ways that allow us to hear only what we want to hear.
If you didn’t read it, go back and reflect on Vicki Hyatt’s piece in the May 3, 2017, Sylva Herald (“Meadows Says He Wants to ‘Get Health Care Right‘”). She hits the nail squarely on the head. Mark Meadows doesn’t like being called out for his machinations so he casts aspersions on those who report on him. Mr. Trump blusters and blathers but mostly blames everyone else for his vacuousness. He sees journalists and those who would report the news as enemies. Some see these as signs of creeping totalitarianism, 1984 and Orwellian Newspeak come to fruition.
Maybe, but it seems to me that what Mr. Trump and most other politicians seem to want are media partners, folks who will aid and abet their marketing efforts. When you’re selling image — not substance — the sound of questioning, let alone dissenting voices, can be more than a little disconcerting.
Look, journalism has never been pure as the driven snow in this country or anywhere else. Newspapers during our founding period, like Benjamin Franklin Bache’s Philadelphia Aurora, were as partisan as it gets. And sometimes the words “journalistic ethics” were something of an oxymoron; William Randolph Hearst was famously quoted during the run-up to the Spanish American War as saying, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” His contemporary, Joseph Pulitzer — the one the prize is named after — was a purveyor of yellow journalism of the worst kind.
Guess what? Journalists are humans too. But for all the Hearsts and Breitbarts of the world, for all the folks who are selling fear and distortion, there are an awful lot of decent, ethical people practicing journalism and trying to get the story right whether it fits someone’s preferred narrative or not.
In his book, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, Bill Bishop writes about the phenomenon I mentioned earlier — how marketers and advertisers divide us into smaller and smaller groups. It’s a story of how we become separated into cultural enclaves that can very easily become a means of creating “us” versus “them.”
Are there things money can’t buy? Are there ethical boundaries that markets shouldn’t cross? I think there are.
The Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit asks: What is a decent society? His answer, “A decent society is one whose institutions do not humiliate people. I distinguish between a decent society and a civilized one. A civilized society is one whose members do not humiliate one another, while a decent society is one in which institutions do not humiliate people.”
A marketing society and all it implies may be neither civilized nor decent.
Guest columnist Mark Jamison is a Jackson County resident and former postmaster whose opinion columns appear frequently in the Sylva Herald.