Before there were “journalists”—even before there was writing—the world’s means of sharing “the news” was an oral and aural experience: stories by the fire intended to describe and explain the human condition; a voice shouting in a crowded marketplace, the agora, what’s come to pass—or what will—if the world continues down the path it’s on; a prophet, a seer, a visionary speaking to anyone who would listen from the top of a large hill.
While a different genre of sharing the day’s news than you’d expect from the front page, let alone the Global Opinions page, people of faith are likely to recognize in the stories they hold dear that very same desire common to all journalistic integrity, to speak plainly to a community whatever is believed true so everyone in the community can live informed and interconnected lives.
Religious prophets in the first century and before it very much fulfilled this role. Rather than serving as “fortune-tellers,” as you might expect, prophets were engaged in the act of “telling the present,” that is, offering a warning about the consequences for human action or inaction in the face of some injustice. Often, when prophets “told the present” and brought with them the bad news that surrounded their community, they did something that risked censure, imprisonment, violence, or even death—and yet that didn’t necessarily stop them. In some cases, it may have even driven them forward to martyrdom.
Their act was one of demanding tireless transparency and accountability. They named what they saw with tough questions, people listened, and because their amplified message risked questioning the status quo—one that’s largely been established by the ruler of the day—their act was often one of both courageous defiance and of undermining the powers that be. That made prophets dangerous if you were a ruler who wanted to consolidate and maintain his grip on power.
There’s a reason Biblical characters like Jonah fear for their lives when they have bad news to share. Think of the prophet Samuel, who is certain the king of the Israelites, Saul, will murder him if he delivers the news that Saul’s reign is coming to an end (1 Sam 16:1-3). Or Jezebel’s determination to murder Elijah (1 Kings 19:1-2). Or, of course, the story of Jesus, whose demands for a just kingdom ultimately ends in his execution at the hands of the corrupt Roman state. Telling those in power you think they’re wrong doesn’t often end well–today or a few thousand years ago.
That said, while I’m hesitant to suggest that the so-called “prophets of old” were ancient journalists in a time when journalism as a discipline didn’t really exist, perhaps we can say that many of today’s journalists act as our very own modern prophets. Or at least that today’s journalists carry forth in a tradition that certainly predates the first newspaper. And they can face the very same threats for speaking truth to power that prophets did a few thousand years ago.
My seminary professor, Amy-Jill Levine, a New Testament scholar, liked to sometimes say that the role of religion is “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” The cynic in me wants to initially say that may indeed apply to religion but it doesn’t quite fit journalism. After all, since when did a news story in a day and age when the news always seems negative ever comfort anyone? But maybe that’s not fair. Those of us waiting in worry over the conditions of our society often turn precisely to the Fourth Estate, and when that big exposé hits The Washington Post or The New York Times, who among us can honestly say we don’t celebrate when the powerful are, indeed, held to account?
When four hundred words can shake up entire institutions, there’s comfort in that. When the justice system repeatedly fails us because authority figures seem above the law, journalism–and nearly only journalism–can still turn the tide. It can be our last source of hope, and also our greatest source of frustration and disappointment, but there’s something special about the institution that can–perhaps whose sole responsibility is–to openly criticize all the other institutions and even itself in a way that keeps everyone on their toes.
It should be said: I learned recently that quote–”to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” originally comes from a Chicago Evening Post journalist whose fictional character, “Mr. Dooley,” makes a statement that’s often remembered as, “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Fittingly, the original quote is as critical of the press as it is in praise of it.
Maybe religion and journalism at their best really are two peas in a pod, then. They fancy themselves chasing after different definitions of “truth,” perhaps, but their shared purpose shouldn’t go unnoticed. Nor should their shared failures.
Journalists, like the prophets, aren’t exactly always saints, and journalism, like prophecy before it, can be just as messy today as it was back then. The world of “fake news” is at least as complicated as its predecessor, “false prophets,” especially when some who are called “false prophets” are telling the truth or when “truth” is merely in the eye of the beholder. Or when some false prophets may rightly be called as much. I’m not entirely sure what the ancient equivalent of Breitbart or Facebook might be, but one need look no further than the Council of Nicea defining which books of the Bible were canonical–or more importantly, which were heresy–to see that controlling the narrative wasn’t invented by Rupert Murdoch, Mark Zuckerberg, or Kim Jong Un.
You might say the difference today is that information moves so much faster, can be preserved longer, and often, the truth can’t catch up to the lie in time before real damage is done. Just last year alone, misinformation that spread across WhatsApp in India lead to mob violence and murder. And the Capitol insurrection couldn’t have happened without the literal false “prophecies” of the so-called QAnon cult. That said, I think we sometimes kid ourselves into thinking that journalism before social media was able to gatekeep the truth better because major media outlets and major media figures were more respected or because Joe-Schmoe with his Twitter page and millions of fake followers didn’t exist to rival them. On some level, sure, I’ll bite, but lies spreading faster than the truth isn’t a new phenomenon when it’s apparently human nature to chase the salacious and ignore the boring.
And we’re snobbish enough to think religion or the past can’t teach us anything we don’t already know. Hell, the Apostle Paul could’ve written the story of the Capitol insurrection himself when it was just one more story of what happens when “false prophets” push deceitful narratives over and over. How are we, then, to deal with the same, tired issue in the role the truth and the lie have come to play–their interwoven struggle to command and control us by gaining the upper hand?
There are those who would say the solution to the world of fake news, propaganda, and disinformation is, quite simply, more speech. You don’t fight it by silencing or regulating it; you fight it by countering the argument at hand with a better one. In that purview, part of safeguarding evidentiary truth means that the public square must protect the voices we disagree with as fiercely as the ones we hold dear–not because a lie is as sacred as or equal to the truth but because those who speak them are, and the slippery slope from name-calling to imprisonment to violence is one we have an obligation to take note of as we teeter closer to the edge of allowing our disagreements with our modern prophets and fellow human beings to become uncivil, if not itself dehumanizing. In a sense, we defend them all, the liars too, because we believe the truth will overcome them without our needing to meddle, harass, silence, or become like those we detest. If we truly believe we have the winning argument and the truth, by nature of it being the better argument and the truth, it will win out.
By the way, that’s the argument shared by the far-right social media site, Parler. From its own values page, they write that “content curation exacerbates hate,” adding, “Biased content curation policies enable rage mobs and bullies to influence Community Guidelines. Parler’s viewpoint-neutral policies foster a community of individuals who tolerate the expression of all non-violent ideas.” Right, so the argument from the the website that helped foster the Capitol insurrection is that its “viewpoint-neutral policies” ensure the growth of non-violence. Gosh, what a wonderful utopia Parler must be. Can we talk about how the phrasing, “individuals who tolerate… non-violent ideas” sounds like they’re actually saying, “Well, I guess we’ll put up with people who are in favor of non-violence if we have to”?
Okay, so, I’m admittedly skeptical of that take. We can safeguard human rights without safeguarding the lie. The whole idea that you fight bad speech very simply with more speech seems to put forth a very cheery and optimistic view of the human condition and of the power structures at work in the world–that they’ll assuredly play nice. Maybe I’m too thoroughly Augustinian in my take of the human condition, but I just don’t buy such a rosy take in a world where there are coordinated, paid-for campaigns online to harass targeted individuals who chose to speak truth to power.
I keep thinking of the age-old decorum found in the quote mistakenly attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” That might make sense over a hundred years ago but much less so today. I very much believe, instead, there’s a time and place for being intolerant of intolerance. I’m not looking to put my life on the line so you can put the kind of hate speech out there that literally gets people killed, all while the legal definitions of “hate speech” or “incitement to violence” in the United States, at least, are so muddled and difficult to prosecute that, in fact, all of us–in schools or at concerts, political rallies or at houses of worship–have indeed had to put our lives on the line all because our society failed to carefully police dangerous, brainwashing rhetoric.
There is no speech that is not, by nature, political. That is to say, there is no speech without agenda, no speech where the winners and losers aren’t constantly in flux with the “winners” determining for everyone else what the overall message will be, and if all speech is influenced by this meddling, there’s really no such thing as “free” speech at all. It’s as if it’s been predetermined. We’re entirely at the mercy of the winners, largely in the forms of our corporate overlords. The “truths” we inherit (and more importantly the way the world is structured around them) are not based on the best argument, or the facts of the day, but on who holds the keys to the public sphere in every cultural moment. And when truth can be that fickle, it may not be enough to scream our despairs into the void, to add our counterargument(s) or even the truth to the pile those in power can swiftly sweep away.
We are going to need to take more aggressive measures to counter hate. Not all forms of regulating speech are anti-free. Canada and the United Kingdom are examples of societies where regulated speech did not suddenly destroy their social fabric. It can be done.
Sometimes, weirdly enough, setting boundaries is exactly what makes the world more independent, or at least more diverse (and are those not one in the same). Boundary setting or gatekeeping may sound illiberal, or at least oxymoronic, in some sense. The very idea that you achieve openness by closing things off admittedly seems absurd. But while equality, in everything–but particularly in speech–may already exist, on some level, equity can’t come to fruition until the playing ground is leveled. That is, we can’t have equity in speech until the loudest, most dominating voices are taught or made to make room for everyone else. That also means voices that threaten the existence of other voices need regulation, as well. Widening a circle to include all voices still defines what a circle is and isn’t.
If a bully controls a conversation, the only way to restore normality is to silence the bully, or at least demand he follow the same rule(s) as everyone else. There’s a natural fear, of course (seen in the claim Parler makes when it speaks about bullies influencing Community Guidelines), that the bully can use those very rules intended for good to silence his critics and maintain control, but a bully is going to be a bully unless he’s forced not to be. It’s not about the rules: it’s about the people. A world without consequences or checks-and-balances on those in power belongs to such bullies. The idea we can talk the bully down with a reasonable argument completely misunderstands that bullies aren’t playing by the rules of reason in the first place. The moment we stop ourselves in fear of what they might be able to do with the powers we try to use to stop them is the moment they’ve already won.
That’s not to say providing a reasoned, counterargument to the public sphere isn’t important, or that the truth doesn’t eventually win out: it’s that the power dynamics at play have to be sorted out and measured as part of every conversation. The closest we can come to “free” speech is speech with transparency and accountability. I think often of Martin Luther King’s line that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That arc doesn’t bend, though, magically on its own. It bends because it was made to bend. It bends because the powerful are reminded generation after generation, largely by the prophets, that we give them their power, and we can just as easily take it away if they won’t play by the rules.
All of that is to say, on the question of the free flow of information, I think we get caught up too much on what that flow of information, or even the content, looks like when or whether it’s “free” or restrained, when maybe our focus needs to be more on who is pulling the strings that tighten, loosen, or control the flow and whether their intentions are pure. In the case of the Parler approach, those who say there should be no strings at all are missing the point that there are going to be strings no matter what we do. You either provide and enforce the standards to ensure what comes through isn’t wildly misleading and deceitful, hateful or propagandistic, or someone else takes the reigns and decides for you. That’s why this is ultimately a conversation about the power structures at hand.
Put another way, when regulation is endorsed by the people at large and when it upholds human rights standards, it can be said to benefit speech, but if regulation has been misused and abused to silence critics, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist–or someone with a Ph.D. studying free speech–to know the difference between good faith and bad faith regulations, or enforcers of them. That’s why I don’t worry about a free society, like the United States, being overregulated or a dangerous autocrat using speech laws in the U.S. to maintain control: hate speech isn’t that hard to identify or shut down. And we can do so without infringing on opinions we dislike.
To that point, there’s a big difference between expecting private companies regulate speech versus, say, allowing Neo-Nazis to march on the street or speak at a local campus at the invitation of the school’s conservative group. The latter examples are localized to smaller spaces, and counter protests and counterarguments usually far outweigh them in size and scope. The internet, on the other hand, elevates and escalates hateful minority viewpoints from a fringe portion of society and quickly takes them mainstream. We can regulate the internet in a way that holds organizations like Facebook and Twitter accountable to adhering to human rights standards without curtailing speech too harshly, and there’s brilliant arguments already afoot for how to do so.
Unsurprisingly, regulating speech has a history of being done right, and a history of being done wrong. Why else would there be so much caution around the conversation? To look back to the example of religion, the prophets in the ancient world weren’t successful in getting their way because they had a reasonable argument. When they were successful, they were successful because they had access to the powerful, knew who they were, and were able to move seamlessly between the people and the powerful, the commoner and the elite, to represent them both. They were also the arbiters of something between a democratic and theocratic expectation being fulfilled. That is, they gave the powerful their power–and could just as easily take it away. They held the role of being the original regulators of speech in the ancient world. I’m thinking here specifically of Samuel anointing David to replace Saul but there’s countless examples of religious figures who either propped up or cut down the leaders of their day.
I would argue journalism, and the media generally, still play this role, for better or for worse, and admittedly more indirectly than in the past. Donald Trump’s greatest endorsement came in the form of the hours on hours of free media he received by those who saw a chance to make money off his outlandish statements which ironically propelled him to the White House. He was arguably “anointed” by CNN, by Fox, by MSNBC, whether they intended to create that monster or not.
But it can get so much more complicated than that one example. The death of local media, as large corporations bought up local newsrooms and gutted them for profit, coupled with the rise of the “paywall” in which legitimate news organizations made access to information available only to those who could afford it while less-credible, often far-right news organizations remain freely accessible, coupled with the rise of social media in replacing how we access “news,” coupled with dark money from domestic and foreign actors astroturfing false information online using wedge politics to divide our society, all make for the perfect recipe to ensure that the structures of power belonged to the few instead of the many. If the media once held the role of “regulating” itself, and therefore speech generally, that power has been slowly eroded over time to belong to fewer people, particularly the wrong people, in that the goal wasn’t to the benefit of the public good or social welfare but, very simply, to profit.
In this sense, American business practices lay ruin to nearly every institution they touch when the mission should be the public good. Once again, we can look through the lens of religion to see how true this has been, as I’ve written elsewhere: “When a religious institution is fully voluntary, its successes or failures hinge on how it can compete with other religious experiences in the same marketplace. As a result, so long as religion in America is a fully capitalistic venture, the experience of religion here will always have more to do with its relevancy and popularity, ultimately its ability to drive capital, and not with what might be in the best interest of the social good,” let alone whatever mission it claims to have to serve some sacred purpose.
Similarly, we might hope that healthy competition would open the doors for more media organizations, for local news, for more speech, to thrive, or for journalism to be a career people could aspire to instead of a career not only with low pay but also with the near-guarantee of being harassed for doing your job. Instead, like religious institutions in a capitalistic society, as long as the goal is to profit, it’s impossible for the institution to thrive, at least in the way it was intended to when journalism was conceived as a social good. Keeping a society informed and interconnected shouldn’t depend on relevancy or popularity. People should need the news, not want it, but the moment we decided to make the news a luxury or privilege, the content of it was driven not by what we needed to know but by what the elite wanted us to know, what they wanted us to buy or buy into, and what collectively fulfilled our base instincts toward feel-goodery, as consumers, instead of that which made us informed, responsible citizens.
None of which could have happened had the world of the public good not gotten into bed with the world of the powerful.
There’s privilege and prestige in demanding the powerful are held to account. By nature of getting into the same room and having that conversation and access, the so-called prophets of old, and by extension journalists today, are in some respects part of the so-called elite. I’m thinking here of the Babylonian exile that guides so much of the Hebrew Bible. When Babylon “exiles” “the people Israel,” the “people” aren’t really exiled at all. The vast majority remain in the Kingdom of Judah, in fact, their lives relatively unchanged. Only those in a few positions of power were sent packing. Among them–the scribes. The Babylonians knew you couldn’t have the people who write the story free to say whatever they wanted, after all. Those in power often know that their critics are the biggest threat to their power–but more importantly that their critics can become their biggest supporters.
In that vein, it makes sense in some ways why one of the immediate criticisms of the far-right is that the media is part of some “liberal elite.” Many of them are: there’s a certain degree of influence when you can get in room with the higher-ups and, very simply, ask tough questions. And it’s a difficult thing to balance: being the prophet but also being a public figure while not getting corrupted by newfound perks and privileges.
Those who wish to control the narrative must answer, eventually, to those who wish to write it. Coincidentally, that’s also why it’s so important that the prophets and the powerful don’t become the same people. Otherwise, critical writing can easily become ghost writing. Investigative journalism can quickly become apologetics. Something as simple as burying the lede can be all that was needed to kill a story’s power and protect the elite.
On the other hand, we probably see the opposite of this happening in far-right spaces. There are no real prophets left in those arenas: the powerful have already succeeded in propagandizing, having already “possessed” their cult-like following with their hate-filled rhetoric and ideology. Apologists work, instead, to maintain the veneer of journalism. That their audience craves anti-establishment is part of why far-right groups always play the role of the victim when they are often the abuser. And if they can paint the establishment media in those terms successfully, it gets dragged through the mud and the far-right media consolidates its power, as well. That’s maybe the most bizarre thing about the hatred they project onto the “liberal elite,” is that they are very much cultivating their own establishment elite: it just doesn’t serve the people the way they think it does.
It doesn’t help either that newsrooms in free societies appear to go out of their way, much of the time, to ensure that the owners don’t have editorial control only to have some explosive story, by another media outlet, that they were protecting their owner or some other figure connected to him all the while. Then, too, there’s the incredible damage these days when a major media outlet is forced to retract a story, even though ironically, retracting a story or correcting a minor detail should be the thing that builds trust, not destroys it. In reality, that’s always a complicated process. The natural tension between journalist and editor is as much about power dynamics as it is about just good storytelling. The arc of the moral universe, though, starts to look more like a roller coaster than an arc when we find ourselves fighting the good fight but repeatedly hitting road blocks we have caused ourselves, or have been exacerbated by our opposition.
Truthfully, this could go on. You could fill a whole book about these tensions between the good faith, yet broken media elite and the bad faith, anti-establishment powermongers who would prefer concentrating wealth and strength into the hands of a few people rather than across institutions. Even if and when some form of regulation of speech takes hold to return us to a time of civility, these power brokers aren’t soon going away. We’re too deep in, too sorely divided already; the damage is done.
I worked for years in religious nonprofits and grew disillusioned over time (although you could probably say I was always pretty realistic) with it. Religious institutions in America are decidedly broken, maybe beyond repair, and all the grace they like to claim as some solution to the brokenness hasn’t done much over the years beyond display just how cheap it is. I think when I jumped into the field of journalism, I had hope that the work of good religion was still, weirdly enough, alive in the field’s shared effort to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” and like the religious sphere, there’s good days for the institution and bad days for it too.
But, for as much as the journalists I know might love to point to the church as a corrupt, depraved institution, I don’t really see the difference between them the more time I’ve spent with both. Behind both is that same clamor for power–above all else–a power if even unintentionally, corrupting absolutely.
It’s not foreign to me. I’m not some freedom fighter and human rights defender whose never misused his own power and privileges. Hell, it’s the fact I’ve misused them that I have some sense of how easily that can happen, or why it does.
And yet, as broken as it all is, as broken as I am in being a part of it, it’s what we have to work with. In both institutions, we take the good we can find, cultivate it as long as we can, and fight the good fight until the burnout sets in or we find ourselves corrupted by it. And every once in a blue moon, some one or some moment or some thing comes along and absolutely shifts the institution, or the structures that hold it up. Sometimes that happens for the better in the case of what MLK or Ghandi or others did for the world. Sometimes that happens for the worst in the case of social media or a pandemic that has been used to stamp out free speech globally.
I’m holding on to the belief that we’re ripe for a new such moment. We saw it in the Parkland kids. We’ve seen it in the wake of George Floyd. We’ve gotten glimpses of it in the women’s march or in the immigration rallies. We see it in Greta Thunberg’s urgent call for change. And yet, whose moment this will really be remains to be seen. No, whose moment this will really be will depend on what we, what all of us do, to bring our collective voices to the floors and halls and doors and feeds of the powerful. Whose moment this will be will depend on whether we step into the shoes of the prophets, the ones who came before us regardless of what institutions they hailed from, and demand the powerful step off the scales they weighed heavy with their injustices and make room for a new time.
I don’t know if that’s the job of religion, the job of journalism, or the job of somebody else. I just know it’s sorely needed now. Our ability to be informed, and in as much, to be interconnected, depends on it.