One of the most pernicious ideas governing our politics right now is that everything fits into neat binaries. You’re either for Trump or you’re against him. If you have issues with Democratic strategy, you must be secretly rooting for the Republicans. The idea of the press as a “Fourth Estate” didn’t emerge from an attempt to situate journalism within a bipartisan political system, though, but rather from Edmund Burke’s efforts to describe the civic roles played by institutions such as the clergy, the nobility and the citizenry.
One outcome of the evil genius of insisting that the proper role of media is merely to produce limp stenography is bad journalism that provides no context or clarity about, say, the established facts on an issue or whether a politician is lying or merely ignorant and indifferent enough not to care about getting the facts right.
It would be bad enough if we allowed slick sloganeers such as Bannon to strip us of our ability to do the parts of our job that have the greatest, most enduring impact.
That’s not all that’s going on here, though. This a way of thinking about journalism that dissuades journalists from thinking of ourselves as a class, with distinct values and priorities we need to defend. If we allow ourselves to be forced into a position where the choice is to be partisan or to be mindless, then it’s easy to be pushed into mindlessness.
But these aren’t our only choices. And the vibrance of civic institutions comes from the fact that they represent values, not teams.
The idea that it’s valuable to thoroughly expose incompetence and malfeasance isn’t partisan unless you believe one party is so incapable and corrupt that it can’t survive public scrutiny. The idea of objective methods of determining the truth isn’t threatening unless you don’t think the ideas that are most convenient to you can stand up to rigorous testing. And context and analyses are only your enemy if you depend on an ignorant audience for your assertions.
Standing up for these values isn’t effortless. It requires us to correct our errors of fact and be capable of recognizing when we’ve made errors in judgment. Those of us who work in the media won’t always agree: An “Estate” is a big, fractious, lively thing even in an age of shrinking budgets and declining staffs. But if we let Stephen Bannon, or anyone else, use a degraded vision of public life to persuade us that the principled thing to do is allow ourselves to be bullied out of existence and out of our values, then we don’t deserve to pretend that we represented anything meaningful in the first place.