I believe that there is no reason to insist on the crucial importance of journalism for politics. We can hardly expect a miracle of sound and reasonable politics to happen where the decline of analytic and investigative journalism takes place. The political class has ceased being the outcome of education and upbringing nowadays; instead, the logic of mass democracy and mass education imposes on us the unquestionable primacy of the swiftly shaped public opinion which no public figure can escape.
The lower is the level of journalism, the worse sort of politics we have. It is too obvious to need emphasis that a higher level of social and political critique can only be generated by critical and analytical journalism. The same applies to transparency and accountability, which is unthinkable without investigative journalism. Once journalism has been reduced to a mere flattery or mockery of politicians (pending who hires and fires), we cannot view politics otherwise than as production of media constructs and images that we tend to describe as politicians and public figures.
Nowadays quite a few writers and academics in Lithuania would shun the term “journalism” if applied to them, and would try to shy away from being described as journalists – a surprising and odd stance on one’s public persona, as there was a time when it took much vigor and talent to merit this description. An unpleasant association would come offering a hardly desirable affinity between a knowledgeable and creative person, and someone whose only merit would lie in his or her ability to lie, scorn, insinuate, and slander. However, this reflects a fairly recent tendency which cannot cast a shadow on the old and honorable profession.
Daniel Defoe seems to have been the founding father of the holy alliance of literature and journalism. His example was followed by a myriad of classics of modern literature – Mark Twain, Anatole France, Jack London, George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, and Ernest Hemingway were all journalists. Georges Clemenceau stands as nearly a perfect example of how a journalist can pave his way to president of his nation. Karl Marx can best appear as a prototype of philosopher-journalist (or the other way around if you will).
For now, we can hardly be surprised by the fact that North American and Western European celebrity academics and scholars gladly act as columnists and journalists – suffice it to mention, among others, such thinkers as Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, Michael Ignatieff, Simon Schama, and John Gray. Bernard-Henri Levy does not seem to show any resentment to being described as a journalist and philosopher. However, all these examples come from the West, and the tendency itself is shared by very few Eastern and Central European scholars and intellectuals who still resent to being put into the category of journalism.
The reason for that is evident. The level of journalism has dramatically decreased in Eastern Europe over the past two decades, and investigative journalism is dead there. Instead of searching elsewhere, I would localize my view on my native Lithuania, an EU country with more than one political affinity with Eastern European countries despite all its integration in the security and trade system of the West.
Back in the early 1990s, when Lithuania, along with the two other Baltic States, was a new entity on the political map of the world, writers and essayists celebrated their status as journalists. In those days, journalism was a brother to liberty. Lithuanian writers were still eager to act as journalists and columnists. Things started changing dramatically later when papers gradually started dying out, giving way to online publications. In the beginning, this change opened up new ways for public intellectuals and social activists, but that was not to become a genuine breakthrough.
The logic of junk food came to journalism and academia almost at that same time assuming sonorous names, such as “reform,” “efficiency,” “service,” etc. Acceleration of life and the resulting speed of social change fostered by IT inventions led to the decrease of quality and professionalism among young journalists. Social and political analysis began disappearing from the media – slowly but surely. Politicians have become part of the entertainment industry; they needed TV shows and new social networks much more than any serious professional coverage of their activities.
Facebook and Twitter have made politicians and public figures into self-fulfilling prophecies and media constructions. In our age of compulsive attention seeking and self-exposure, every active blogger and FB user could be described as a self-made-journalist. This is no longer the public domain we knew for decades, no matter how hard the FB folks try to make us believe that every self-obsessed FB user must be seen as a public figure. We see how privacy has irreversibly conquered and colonized public space. Private persons who have success in getting attention to their controversies or follies claim the status of public commentators and opinion makers.
Needless to say, many things are unintentionally comical here. Angry and bitter polemicists or attention-at-any-cost-seekers will never be able to shape the full-fledged political debate because spontaneity, no matter how valuable and precious for individual freedom, cannot replace a balanced and professionally organized representation of citizens’ views and opinions all over the spectrum.
Last but not least, amateurish journalism and poor representations of our internal differences and political sensibilities have much to do with the triumph of populism in politics, which is nothing other than a masterful exploitation of private fears, and the resulting translation of private fears into public opinion. This is what has already happened right before our eyes.
Leonidas Donskis, Ph.D., is a Lithuanian Member of the European Parliament.
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