Journalists must enlighten, not just inform, in a world darkened by Trump

Phil Roeder, via Flickr

In his Warsaw speech earlier this month, kicking off a European tour, the American president went darkly negative from the start, invoking ISIS and terrorism, Syria and Iran. “The fundamental question of our time,” Donald Trump said, “is whether the West has the will to survive.”

And good morning to you, too, Mr. President.

The Trump presidency, dominated by images of decline and threat, “American carnage” and bad, bad people, has presented any number of challenges to the US press, whose instinct, after all, is to go dark itself. But Trump has taken that impulse and supercharged it, creating yet another conundrum for reporters tasked with making sense of where we are: Is it possible, in this age, to be too bleak? Is the unremitting negativity of the news itself part of Trump’s approach to destabilizing the news business? Has this negativity in fact helped to facilitate Trump’s rise to power? Is it possible, or even plausible, to modulate the negativity in some way?

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NEWSPAPERS HAVE THEIR ORIGIN in the Enlightenment, one of whose central tenets was a belief in the perfectibility of humankind. History, Enlightenment thinkers believed, had a progressive motion. The purpose of the modern newspaper was to help ordinary people rationalize, improve and correct how they lived, how they judged, how they grasped the present and the future. In this sense, true news, or at least news in the historical sense, is closer to knowledge than to information. Information allows us to know about a subject; knowledge allows us to understand it. News, at its best, is information tending toward knowledge.

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The press has always liked to lead with what bleeds; that’s not new. But the convergence of virulently polarized politics, isolated news silos, deepening class division and a general weakening of civic bonds have given the media’s habitual negativity unprecedented political consequences. When you open the paper or your browser or turn on the TV or radio, the preponderance of dark stories becomes a critical mass. Spend a beautiful summer day without reading or listening to the news and you go to bed at night feeling that the world is a decent place, confident of your present and your future. Consume the news even intermittently throughout the day–or even once in the morning and once in the evening–and you go to bed convinced that the world is about to erupt into war, or be soon driven to extinction by natural disaster, or that your own personal safety and that of your loved ones is in imminent danger. This conviction of impending disaster and all-encompassing danger is not based on your own experience. It derives solely from what you read, watch, and listen to.

This menacing atmosphere has, without doubt, become worse in the Trump era, in which there is a growing sense that we are being led, if not over the cliff, then at least into a very dark and uncertain future.

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EVEN IN OUR ULTRA-KNOWING
 and super-sophisticated
digital age, the local evening news still quaintly ends with some uplifting tale about a rescued penguin that had been wandering around downtown Seattle, or something of that sort. But this is at the end of 30 minutes of murder and mayhem–30 minutes of, you should pardon the expression, American carnage, a phrase coined by a man who knows, at least, the world of the media that created him.

Of course, raising the question of whether the news is too negative is on some level absurd. “News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising,” famously said Lord Northcliffe, one of the founders of modern mass journalism. Any news that someone wants suppressed is, by definition, disturbing in one degree or another. There hardly seems any point to reporting at length on politicians who are honest, countries that get along, governments that empower their citizens, or police officers who do not violate the norms of legality or decency.

Consume the news even intermittently throughout the day–or even once in the morning and once in the evening–and you go to bed convinced that the world is about to erupt into war, or be soon driven to extinction by natural disaster, or that your own personal safety and that of your loved ones is in imminent danger

But in our current situation paradoxes ensue when the media goes negative. Only by exposing the peril Trump has put the country in–only by being negative–can the media perform its function of improving and correcting public life. And yet stressing the negative aspects of Trump’s reign will, along with stiffening the spines of his supporters, simply perpetuate the atmosphere of negativity that got him elected in the first place. Is it possible to strike a balance between exposing democracy’s threats and flaws on the one hand, and on the other, plunging so far into negativity that the news further alienates viewers and readers? Excess negativity could both prompt those viewers and readers to tune out the news, and accelerate their turn toward the loudest political voice promising safety and security.

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ESPECIALLY AT THIS MOMENT,
 talk about American democracy being an imperfect work in progress sounds like sentimental cant. The imperfections seem to far outweigh the progress. But the hallmark of American democracy is that it wears its imperfections on its sleeves. Without awareness of its flaws, democracy could not have the capacity to mend them.

Contrast the negativity of American media with the enforced sunniness of totalitarian regimes. It wasn’t too long ago when Pravda, the state-sponsored media of the Soviet regime, didn’t just offer endless paeans to whoever the Soviet leader at the time happened to be, but also endless reports on the workers’ paradise that the country had–in the perspective of the regime–become under communism. The same enforced sunniness prevails in the Chinese media and in North Korea. Even in Putin’s sham democracy, the emphasis in the Kremlin-controlled mainstream media is on stories that portray Russia as an ideal society. Demagogues might use negativity in the media to gain power, but once they control the media, they project a seamless stream of positive images to maintain power. If negativity distorts perspective, an enforced or deliberate positivity disables clear vision altogether.

News has to be information tending toward knowledge. No matter how negative it might be, it should, at its best, reflect its origins in the philosophical belief that what constitutes the news seeks to correct a flaw, right a wrong, lead humanity along a path toward better individual and collective life. “To enlighten” is not a bad imperative to keep in mind when reporting the news, along with “to inform.”

The Scylla and Charybdis of the contemporary media landscape are a negativity that leads to dark politics on the one hand, and a sunniness that blinds people to dark politics on the other. But perhaps there is a navigational instrument to use in determining whether media negativity is for the public good.

“All the News That’s Fit to Print.” The phrase seems so quaint. But what the motto means is that publishing a story simply because it happened, or because it has commercial value and appeal, is not worth the paper it used to exclusively appear on. News has to be information tending toward knowledge. No matter how negative it might be, it should, at its best, reflect its origins in the philosophical belief that what constitutes the news seeks to correct a flaw, right a wrong, lead humanity along a path toward better individual and collective life. “To enlighten” is not a bad imperative to keep in mind when reporting the news, along with “to inform.”

There is a reason that, in that triumph of popular culture that sprang from deep inside the American psyche, Clark Kent worked at a newspaper, not at an investment bank or a real-estate development company. Superman is a fantasy of the perfectibility of humankind. New outlets should be the breeding ground, not of the type of alarming stories that create a yearning for a strong political hand, but of the knowledge of human imperfection and a way through or around it that puts a modest heroism within reach of the everyday reader.

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Lee Siegel is the author of five books and the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Reviews and Criticism. His forthcoming book, The Draw: A Memoir, will be published in April.