The News Media’s Challenge in Our Constant State of Emergency

For journalists, failure to disturb is failure at your job, which is to present facts in such as way as to help citizens restore the health of the republic.

The News Media's Challenge in Our Constant State of Emergency

Media. (Photo by russell davies/ flickr CC 2.0)

It’s old news that Donald Trump abuses reason, knowledge, decency and dark-skinned people. You can’t tear your eyes away. You can already write tomorrow’s story: Today the vicious, deranged freak-show star trashed Enemy A, picked a fight with Failed Insider B, invited unconstitutional action C, insulted population D, declared his intent to abrogate Agreement E or make war on Country F, and denied facts G through Z. Fill in the blanks.

If you are paying attention, each one of his assaults on decency, intelligence and knowledge will feel urgent, ridiculous or both. Each day he threatens grave damage to actual human beings and the rest of Planet Earth, and each day he demonstrates his incapacity to do anything but inflict more damage. But some readers and viewers have erected walls to protect themselves from appreciating the damage, while many others think that what he just said is just the sort of thing you’d expect him to say; or isn’t as bad as expected; or sounds like what he said last week, and so is, like it or not, normal.

Even some of our best journalists continue to scavenge the rubble of everyday politics looking for signs of normalcy and “presidentialness.”

You want to jack up your eyebrows permanently. You will feel tempted to offer, as a prologue or a follow-up to each item of news, You won’t believe this. And your task as a journalist is to convey what he just said so that the reader or viewer will believe that he did say what he just said, and will be able to take the measure of it, to know how it was wrong, or incoherent, and why; to know that it was founded on ignorance and falsehood, and in what ways. Making intelligible the everyday nonsense without losing the sense of the ways in which it is nonsense is the tallest of journalistic orders. And to reveal not only what he just said but what he just did, or just let happen, is a task for more journalists than can be found in the entire United States of America.

Whether you are a journalist or a citizen of some other kind, if you lose your capacity to be shocked, you have come untethered from the real shocking world in which meaning is steadily mangled. If you lose your ability to feel disgusted, you have lost your moral purchase. So in order to remain alive to the world, you must hold on to your vulnerability. You must, every day, pause the thought that you’ve heard this story before. You must feel, every day, the pain and contempt that is the gross domestic and international product of this travesty of government — let alone democratic government.

How can you tear your eyes away without renouncing every value you hold dear? But if you don’t tear your eyes away, how do you convey the true magnitude of the menaces unfolding 24 hours a day?

How can you tear your eyes away without renouncing every value you hold dear? But if you don’t tear your eyes away, how do you convey the true magnitude of the menaces unfolding 24 hours a day?

If you are a journalist, it is your duty to disturb — not by exaggerating, not by refusing “balance,” but by refusing to cut corners. You must consider a maniac a maniac. You must agree to be unnerved. Failure to be unnerved is a sign of impairment. Failure to disturb is a failure at your job, which is to excavate and sort through the facts in such a way as to help citizens act as they are bound to act — to restore, as best we can, the health of the republic.

Part of journalism’s challenge at this insane moment is to overcome one of its cardinal principles. It abhors “old news.” So it must struggle to get a grip on the most important news, which surely includes the ugliest, and is always, in a way, “old.” This is because the ugliest news is news that continues, that goes on happening, that fans out into more than one trajectory at a time — news that rolls on in cascading sequences that, by prevailing standards, decline in news value. It’s the initial event that seizes the headlines — the rest is aftermath, mop-up, “old news.” Next will come “breaking news.” This just in… The assumption, possibly accurate, is that once the event has been catalogued in collective memory, it loses its tensile strength, and we stop paying attention.

This distortion of our collective experience is so ordinary as to escape much notice. But the consequences of the original news, the “story,” go on shaping life regardless of who pays attention.

The killer opened fire for a few minutes but the wounded, if they survive, remain wounded, their families and friends suffer their injuries, the trauma goes on. The factories shut down, people take to drugs and drink, and the recently unemployed get worse — less secure, less meaningful — jobs. The poor lose health insurance and then get sick and cannot afford treatment. Homes get seized for nonpayment of impossible loans, neighborhoods crumble, community networks break down. Wildfires burn, and ruins smolder, and the lost are found — or not — but a community expires. The hurricane moves on and the rubble remains, the power is off at the hospital, the medicines run out. The bombs fall, the wedding party was blown up, and the survivors tell stories about what happened and talk about what to do next.

In other words, the important news is not a rivulet flowing through a bounded channel from Point A to Point B. It is more like the sea, endlessly in motion in every direction. The most serious news continues to play out, if less dramatically, less shockingly, than at the desperate moments when the shots first rang out, the fire raged, the factory gate slammed shut, the hurricane first made landfall, the would-be president first opened his mouth about Mexicans. In the nearly 12 months through which we have staggered, day by horrific day, journalists have done well to catch the man making no sense. Yet the challenge remains. How do you tell a story you may think you’ve already told even as the story continues to unfold in its unruly way?

So as not to let this piece lapse into a chronicle of failure, here are some excerpts from a fine example of journalism that rises to the occasion: Ed Morales’ report on Puerto Rico in The Nation:

As Donald Trump’s rule-by-disinformation strategy intensifies, three weeks after Hurricane Maria, a reeling Puerto Rico is becoming more of a sideshow for his callous stereotyping and ruthlessness. He is subjecting the island’s citizens to layers of anguish, at once revealing the resourcefulness of a sturdy rural culture and the banality of government by public relations. Puerto Ricans, meanwhile, are suffering that all-too-human affliction: the desperate need to connect.

One of the enduring images from Puerto Rico in the wake of Maria is people crowded together near outposts of cable or wireless companies, trying to get a signal so they can communicate. By now most people know that their friends and loved ones have survived; that they may in some cases have water but almost never electricity; that they may need precious medications, or may have stood on line at their local pharmacy for hours to get them; that they may have lost all or part of the roof to their home. Survivors have seen their neighborhoods strewn with the carcasses of dead trees, discarded mattresses and refrigerators; have spent hours trying to get cash out of the few working ATMs in their area or — now a less common complaint — waiting in a gas line.

Sustaining contact on an island littered with fallen power lines and cell-phone towers is difficult, and it contributes to a pervasive feeling of disconnection and chaos. This island is full of people suffering from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Imagine finally reaching the remote mountaintop home of a close friend or relative, who sits there with a municipal government–issued packet of crackers, applesauce and bottled water, looking up at you watery-eyed and saying, “I was wondering whether you even wanted to talk to me anymore.”…

And meanwhile, lest the story of Puerto Rico appear too abstract:

Pence’s visit had the unpleasant effect of throwing metro-area traffic into complete chaos, prompting the closure of the Baldorioty Expressway, which is something like Manhattan’s FDR Drive. With all surrounding avenues closed, I was forced to drive back toward Old San Juan, which is still without electricity (as opposed to Condado, where billionaire hedge-funder John Paulson has bought the area’s most luxurious hotel). Driving south toward Rio Piedras in the hopes of avoiding traffic, I encountered flash floods that made Avenida Muñoz Rivera a one-lane lake. Pushing on to the old Route 3 on the way back east to the rain forest, a feeling of dread overtook me as I realized that night had fallen and thousands of cars were surging along highways with stoplights that didn’t work.

Amazingly, the anxious civility that has permeated the island kept us all safe, and I maneuvered the painstaking miles through a torrent of headlights, fading cell signals, flooded roadways and yawning potholes. The landscape had become an unrecognizable blur of fallen trees, twisted highway signs and mangled electrical wires. Landmarks had become distorted and useless, while entire communities that had been previously invisible now emerged, ghostlike. There was no light anywhere, just a full moon that seemed to swallow all of Route 66….

In his sociological classic, Deciding What’s News, published in 1979, Herbert J. Gans itemized what he called “enduring news values” — the unwritten, often unthought elements of a story that elevate it to prominence. Disasters loomed large in his accounting. Some disasters are social, some are natural, but all represent violent breaks from what came before. The rupture is, by definition, a sign of the extraordinary. Something has been torn asunder. The event can be pinpointed, assigned a who, a what, a where and a when, if not a why. So later we can speak of “after Vietnam” and “after Charlottesville,” with the place-name doubling as the time when a specific, bounded experience “took place.”

Gans noted, too, that after a time — usually no more than a few days — the emphasis in the reporting of a disaster shifts from the damage caused to the restoration of order. The restoration of order is not necessarily a happy ending but it’s a happier one, an exercise in not only social but mental management. It affords a sense of what we have come to call closure. The streets are drained, the rubble cleaned up, the National Guard withdrawn, the patients moved from the dysfunctional hospital, the surviving victims outfitted with their prostheses. We can move on.

But there are millions who can’t move on. Thus Ed Morales’ sum-up of the financial situation after Hurricane Maria: “…the relief designated for Puerto Rico comes in the form of roughly $5 billion in loans…a cruel joke for a territory already drowning in debt.”

One rupture of order follows another. Don’t expect order to be restored. All systems failed. That is the story. It must be told, and refreshed, and followed, and followed anew.

Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia University. He is the author of 16 books, including several on journalism and politics. His next book is a novel, The Opposition. Follow him on Twitter: @toddgitlin.