"Apocalyptic Journalism" and Why We Need Reporters to Face the Reality of Our Crumbling Society
For those who care about a robust human presence on the planet, the 21st century has been characterized by really bad news that keeps getting really, really worse.
Whatever one’s evaluation of high-energy/high-technology civilization (and I have been among its critics; more on that later), it’s now clear that we are hitting physical limits; we cannot expect to maintain contemporary levels of consumption that draw down the ecological capital of the planet at rates dramatically beyond replacement levels. It unrealistic to imagine that we can go on treating the planet as nothing more than a mine from which we extract and a landfill into which we dump.
We have no choice but to deal with the collapse of journalism, but we also should recognize the need for a journalism of collapse. Everyone understands that economic changes are forcing a refashioning of the journalism profession. It’s long past time for everyone to pay attention to how multiple, cascading ecological crises should be changing professional journalism’s mission in even more dramatic fashion.
It’s time for an apocalyptic journalism (that takes some explaining; a lot more on that later).
The Basics of Journalism: Ideals and Limitations
With the rapid expansion of journalistic-like material on the Internet, it’s especially crucial to define “real” journalism. In a democratic system, ideally journalism is a critical, independent source of information, analysis, and the varied opinions needed by citizens who want to play a meaningful role in the formation of public policy. The key terms are “critical” and “independent”—to fulfill the promise of a free press, journalists must be willing to critique not only specific people and policies, but the systems out of which they emerge, and they must be as free as possible from constraining influences, both overt and subtle. Also included in that definition of journalism is an understanding of democracy—“a meaningful role in the formation of public policy”—as more than just lining up to vote in elections that offer competing sets of elites who represent roughly similar programs. Meaningful democracy involves meaningful participation.
This discussion will focus on what is typically called mainstream journalism, the corporate-commercial news media. These are the journalists who work for daily newspapers, broadcast and cable television, and the corporately owned platforms on the Internet and other digital devices. Although there are many types of independent and alternative journalism of varying quality, the vast majority of Americans continue to receive the vast majority of their news from these mainstream sources, which are almost always organized as large corporations and funded primarily by advertising.
Right-wing politicians and commentators sometimes refer to the mainstream media as the “lamestream,” implying that journalists are comically incompetent and incapable of providing an accurate account of the world, likely due to a lack of understanding of conservative people and their ideas. While many elite journalists may be dismissive of the cultural values of conservatives, this critique ignores the key questions about journalism’s relationship to power. Focusing on the cultural politics of individual reporters and editors—pointing out that they tend to be less religious and more supportive of gay and women’s rights than the general public, for example—diverts attention from more crucial questions about how the institutional politics of corporate owners and managers shapes the news and keeps mainstream journalism within a centrist/right conventional wisdom.
The managers of commercial news organizations in the United States typically reject that claim by citing the unbreachable “firewall” between the journalistic and the business sides of the operation, which is supposed to allow journalists to pursue any story without interference from the corporate front office. This exchange I had with a newspaper editor captures the ideology: After listening to my summary of this critique of the U.S. commercial news media system, this editor (let’s call him Joe) told me proudly: “No one from corporate headquarters has ever called me to tell me what to run in my paper.” I asked Joe if it were possible that he simply had internalized the value system of the folks who run the corporation (and by extension, the folks who run most of the world), and therefore they never needed to give him direct instructions. He rejected that, reasserting his independence from any force outside his newsroom.
I countered: “Let’s say, for the purposes of discussion, that you and I were equally capable journalists in terms of professional skills, that we were both reasonable candidates for the job of editor-in-chief that you hold. If we had both applied for the job, do you think your corporate bosses would have ever considered me for the position, given my politics? Would I, for even a second, have been seen by them to be a viable candidate for the job?”
Joe’s politics are pretty conventional, well within the range of mainstream Republicans and Democrats—he supports big business and U.S. supremacy in global politics and economics. I’m a critic of capitalism and U.S. foreign policy. On some political issues, Joe and I would agree, but we diverge sharply on these core questions of the nature of the economy and the state.
Joe pondered my question and conceded that I was right, that his bosses would never hire someone with my politics, no matter how qualified, to run one of their newspapers. The conversation trailed off, and we parted without resolving our differences. I would like to think my critique at least got Joe to question his platitudes, but I never saw any evidence of that. In his subsequent writing and public comments that I read and heard, Joe continued to assert that a news media system dominated by for-profit corporations was the best way to produce the critical, independent journalism that citizens in a democracy needed. Because he was in a position of some privilege and status, nothing compelled Joe to respond to my challenge.
Partly as a result of many such unproductive conversations, I continue to search for new ways to present a critique of mainstream journalism that might break through that ideological wall. In addition to thinking about alternatives to this traditional business model, we should confront the limitations of the corresponding professional model, with its status-quo-supportive ideology of neutrality, balance, and objectivity. Can we create conditions under which journalism—deeply critical and truly independent—can flourish in these trying times?
In this essay I want to try out theological concepts of the royal, prophetic, and apocalyptic traditions. Though journalism is a secular institution, religion can provide a helpful vocabulary. The use of these terms is not meant to imply support for any particular religious tradition, or for religion more generally, but only recognizes that the fundamental struggles of human history play out in religious and secular settings, and we can learn from all of that history. With a focus on the United States, I’ll drawn on the concepts as they understood in the dominant U.S. tradition of Judaism and Christianity.
Most of today’s mainstream corporate-commercial journalism—the work done by people such as Joe—is royal journalism, using the term “royal” not to describe a specific form of executive power but as a description of a system that centralizes authority and marginalizes the needs of ordinary people. The royal tradition describes ancient Israel, the Roman empire, European monarchs, or contemporary America—societies in which those with concentrated wealth and power can ignore the needs of the bulk of the population, societies where the wealthy and powerful offer platitudes about their beneficence as they pursue policies to enrich themselves.
In his books The Prophetic Imagination and The Practice of Prophetic Imagination, theologian Walter Brueggemann points out that this royal consciousness took hold after ancient Israel sank into disarray, when Solomon overturned Moses—affluence, oppressive social policy, and static religion replaced a God of liberation with one used to serve an empire. This consciousness develops not only in top leaders but throughout the privileged sectors, often filtering down to a wider public that accepts royal power. Brueggemann labels this a false consciousness: “The royal consciousness leads people to numbness, especially to numbness about death.”
The inclusion of the United States in a list of royalist societies may seem odd, given the democratic traditions of the country, but consider a nation that has been at war for more than a decade, in which economic inequality and the resulting suffering has dramatically deepened for the past four decades, in which climate change denial has increased as the evidence of the threat becomes undeniable. Brueggemann describes such a culture as one that is “competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing.”
Almost all mainstream corporate-commercial journalism is, in this sense, royal journalism. It is journalism without the imagination needed to move outside the framework created by the dominant systems of power. CNN, MSNBC and FOX News all practice royal journalism. The New York Times is ground-zero for royal journalism. Marking these institutions as royalist doesn’t mean that no good journalism ever emerges from them, or that they employ no journalists who are capable of challenging royal arrangements. Instead, the term recognizes that these institutions lack the imagination necessary to step outside of the royal consciousness on a regular basis. Over time, they add to the numbness rather than jolt people out of it.
The royal consciousness of our day is defined by unchallengeable commitments to a high-energy/high-technology worldview, within a hierarchical economy, run by an imperial nation-state. These technological, economic, and national fundamentalisms produce a certain kind of story about ourselves, which encourages the belief that we can have anything we want without obligations to other peoples or other living things, and that we deserve this. Brueggemann argues that this bolsters notions of “US exceptionalism that gives warrant to the usurpatious pursuit of commodities in the name of freedom, at the expense of the neighbor.”
If one believes royal arrangements are just and sustainable, then royal journalism could be defended. If the royal tradition is illegitimate, than a different journalism is necessary.
Given the multiple crises that existing political, economic, and social systems have generated, the ideals of journalism call for a prophetic journalism. The first step in defending that claim is to remember what real prophets are not: They are not people who predict the future or demand that others follow them in lockstep. In the Hebrew Bible and Christian New Testament, prophets are the figures who remind the people of the best of the tradition and point out how the people have strayed. In those traditions, using our prophetic imagination and speaking in a prophetic voice requires no special status in society, and no sense of being special. Claiming the prophetic tradition requires only honesty and courage.
When we strip away supernatural claims and delusions of grandeur, we can understand the prophetic as the calling out of injustice, the willingness not only to confront the abuses of the powerful but to acknowledge our own complicity. To speak prophetically requires us first to see honestly—both how our world is structured by systems that create unjust and unsustainable conditions, and how we who live in the privileged parts of the world are implicated in those systems. To speak prophetically is to refuse to shrink from what we discover or from our own place in these systems. We must confront the powers that be, and ourselves.
The Hebrew Bible offers us many models. Amos and Hosea, Jeremiah and Isaiah—all rejected the pursuit of wealth or power and argued for the centrality of kindness and justice. The prophets condemned corrupt leaders but also called out all those privileged people in society who had turned from the demands of justice, which the faith makes central to human life. In his analysis of these prophets, the scholar and activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel concluded:
Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible. If we admit that the individual is in some measure conditioned or affected by the spirit of society, an individual’s crime discloses society’s corruption.
Critical of royal consciousness, Brueggemann argues that the task of those speaking prophetically is to “penetrate the numbness in order to face the body of death in which we are caught” and “penetrate despair so that new futures can be believed in and embraced by us.” He encourages preachers to think of themselves as “handler[s] of the prophetic tradition,” a job description that also applies to other intellectual professions, including journalism.
Brueggemann argues that this isn’t about intellectuals imposing their views and values on others, but about being willing to “connect the dots”:
Prophetic preaching does not put people in crisis. Rather it names and makes palpable the crisis already pulsing among us. When the dots are connected, it will require naming the defining sins among us of environmental abuse, neighborly disregard, long-term racism, self-indulgent consumerism, all the staples from those ancient truthtellers translated into our time and place.
None of this requires journalists to advocate for specific politicians, parties, or political programs; we don’t need journalists to become propagandists. Journalists should strive for real independence but not confuse that with an illusory neutrality that traps mainstream journalists within ideological boundaries defined by the powerful. Again, real independence means the ability to critique not just the worst abuses by the powerful within the systems, but to critique the systems themselves.
This prophetic calling is consistent with the aphorism many journalists claim as a shorthand mission statement: The purpose of journalism is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. That phrase focuses on injustice within human societies, but what of the relationship of human beings to the larger living world? How should journalists understand their mission in that arena?
Let’s put analysis of journalism on hold and think about the larger world in which journalism operates. Journalistic ideals and norms should change as historical conditions change, and today that means facing tough questions about ecological sustainability.
There is considerable evidence to help us evaluate the health of the ecosphere on which our own lives depend, and an honest evaluation of that evidence leads to a disturbing conclusion: Life as we know it is almost over. That is, the high-energy/high-technology life that we in the affluent societies live is a dead-end. There is a growing realization that we have disrupted planetary forces in ways we cannot control and do not fully understand. We cannot predict the specific times and places where dramatic breakdowns will occur, but we can know that the living system on which we depend is breaking down.
Does that seem histrionic? Excessively alarmist? Look at any crucial measure of the health of the ecosphere in which we live—groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size of “dead zones” in the oceans, accelerating extinction of species and reduction of bio-diversity—and the news is bad. Add to that the mother of all ecological crises—global warming, climate change, climate disruption—and it’s clear that we are creating a planet that cannot indefinitely support a large-scale human presence living this culture’s idea of the good life.
We also live in an oil-based world that is rapidly depleting the cheap and easily accessible oil, which means we face a huge reconfiguration of the infrastructure that undergirds our lives. Meanwhile, the desperation to avoid that reconfiguration has brought us to the era of “extreme energy” using even more dangerous and destructive technologies (hydrofracturing, deep-water drilling, mountain-top removal, tar sands extraction) to get at the remaining hydrocarbons.
Where we are heading? Off the rails? Into the wall? Over the cliff? Pick your favorite metaphor. Scientists these days are talking about tipping points and planetary boundaries, about how human activity is pushing the planet beyond its limits. Recently 22 top scientists in the prestigious journal Nature warned that humans likely are forcing a planetary-scale critical transition “with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience.” That means that “the biological resources we take for granted at present may be subject to rapid and unpredictable transformations within a few human generations.”
That means that we’re in trouble, not in some imaginary science-fiction future, but in our present reality. We can’t pretend all that’s needed is tinkering with existing systems to fix a few environmental problems; significant changes in how we live are required. No matter where any one of us sits in the social and economic hierarchies, there is no escape from the dislocations that will come with such changes. Money and power might insulate some from the most wrenching consequences of these shifts, but there is no permanent escape. We do not live in stable societies and no longer live on a stable planet. We may feel safe and secure in specific places at specific times, but it’s hard to believe in any safety and security in a collective sense.
In short, we live in apocalyptic times.
To be clear: Speaking apocalyptically need not be limited to claims that the world will end on a guru’s timetable or according to some allegedly divine plan. Lots of apocalyptic visions—religious and secular—offer such certainty, imaging the replacement of a corrupt society by one structured on principles that will redeem humanity (or at least redeem those who sign onto the principles). But this need not be our only understanding of the term.
Most discussions of revelation and apocalypse in contemporary America focus on the Book of Revelation, also known as The Apocalypse of John, the final book of the Christian New Testament. The two terms are synonymous in their original meaning; “revelation” from Latin and “apocalypse” from Greek both mean a lifting of the veil, a disclosure of something hidden from most people, a coming to clarity. Many scholars interpret the Book of Revelation not as a set of predictions about the future but as a critique of the oppression of the empire of that day, Rome.
To speak apocalyptically, in this tradition, is first and foremost about deepening our understanding of the world, seeing through the obfuscations of people in power. In our propaganda-saturated world (think about the amount of advertising, public relations, and marketing that we are bombarded with daily), coming to that kind of clarity about the nature of the empires of our day is always a struggle, and that notion of revelation is more crucial than ever.
Thinking apocalyptically, coming to this clarity, will force us to confront crises that concentrated wealth and power create, and reflect on our role in these systems. Given the severity of the human assault on the ecosphere, compounded by the suffering and strife within the human family, honest apocalyptic thinking that is firmly grounded in a systematic evaluation of the state of the world is not only sensible but a moral obligation. Rather than thinking of revelation as divine delivery of a clear message about some fantastic future above, we can engage in an ongoing process of revelation that results from an honest struggle to understand, a process that requires a lot of effort.
Things are bad, systems are failing, and the status quo won’t last forever. Thinking apocalyptically in this fashion demands of us considerable courage and commitment. This process will not produce definitive answers but rather help us identify new directions.
Again, to be very clear: “Apocalypse” in this context does not mean lakes of fire, rivers of blood, or bodies lifted up to heaven. The shift from the prophetic to the apocalyptic can instead mark the point when hope in the viability of existing systems is no longer possible and we must think in dramatically new ways. Invoking the apocalyptic recognizes the end of something. It’s not about rapture but a rupture severe enough to change the nature of the whole game.
The prophetic imagination helps us analyze the historical moment we’re in, but it’s based on an implicit faith that the systems in which we live can be reshaped to stop the worst consequences of the royal consciousness, to shake off that numbness of death in time. What if that is no longer possible? Then it is time to think about what’s on the other side. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” said Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the more well-known voices in the prophetic tradition. But if the arc is now bending toward a quite different future, a different approach is needed.
Because no one can predict the future, these two approaches are not mutually exclusive; people should not be afraid to think prophetically and apocalyptically at the same time. We can simultaneously explore immediate changes in the existing systems and think about new systems.
Invoking the prophetic in the face of royal consciousness does not promise quick change and a carefree future, but it implies that a disastrous course can be corrected. But what if the justification for such hope evaporates? When prophetic warnings have not been heeded, what comes next? This is the time when an apocalyptic sensibility is needed.
Fred Guterl, the executive editor of Scientific American, models that spirit in his book The Fate of the Species. Though he describes himself on the “techno-optimistic side of the spectrum,” he does not shy away from a blunt discussion of the challenges humans face:
There’s no going back on our reliance on computers and high-tech medicine, agriculture, power generation, and so forth without causing vast human suffering—unless you want to contemplate reducing the world population by many billions of people. We have climbed out on a technological limb, and turning back is a disturbing option. We are dependent on our technology, yet our technology now presents the seeds of our own destruction. It’s a dilemma. I don’t pretend to have a way out. We should start by being aware of the problem.
I don’t share Guterl’s techno-optimism, but it strikes me as different from a technological fundamentalism (the quasi-religious belief that the use of advanced technology is always a good thing and that any problems caused by the unintended consequences of such technology can be remedied by more technology) that assumes that humans can invent themselves out of any problem. Guterl doesn’t deny the magnitude of the problems and recognizes the real possibility, perhaps even the inevitability, of massive social dislocation:
[W]e’re going to need the spirit with which these ideas were hatched to solve the problems we have created. Tossing aside technological optimism is not a realistic option. This doesn’t mean technology is going to save us. We may still be doomed. But without it, we are surely doomed.
Closer to my own assessment is James Lovelock, a Fellow of the Royal Society, whose work led to the detection of the widespread presence CFCs in the atmosphere. Most famous for his “Gaia hypothesis” that understands both the living and non-living parts of the earth as a complex system that can be thought of as a single organism, he suggests that we face these stark realities immediately:
The great party of the twentieth century is coming to an end, and unless we now start preparing our survival kit we will soon be just another species eking out an existence in the few remaining habitable regions. … We should be the heart and mind of the Earth, not its malady. So let us be brave and cease thinking of human needs and rights alone and see that we have harmed the living Earth and need to make our peace with Gaia.
Anything that blocks us from looking honestly at reality, no matter how harsh the reality, must be rejected. It’s a lot to ask, of people and of journalists, to not only think about this, but put it at the center of our lives. What choice do we have? To borrow from one of 20th-century America’s most honest writers, James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
That line is from an essay titled “As Much Truth as One Can Bear,” about the struggles of artists to help a society, such as the white-supremacist America, face the depth of its pathology. Baldwin suggested that a great writer attempts “to tell as much of the truth as one can bear, and then a little more.” If we think of Baldwin as sounding a prophetic call, an apocalyptic invocation would be “to tell as much of the truth as one can bear, and then all the rest of the truth, whether we can bear it or not.”
That task is difficult enough when people are relatively free to pursue inquiry without external constraints. Are the dominant corporate-commercial/advertising-supported media outlets likely to encourage journalists to pursue the projects that might lead to such questions? If not, the apocalyptic journalism we need is more likely to emerge from the margins, where people are not trapped by illusions of neutrality or concerned about professional status.
[INSERT HOPEFUL ENDING HERE]
That subhead is not an editing oversight. I wish there were an easy solution, an upbeat conclusion. I don’t have one. I’ve never heard anyone else articulate one. To face the world honestly at this moment in human history likely means giving up on easy and upbeat.
The apocalyptic tradition reminds us that the absence of hope does not have to leave us completely hopeless, that life is always at the same time about death, and then rejuvenation. If we don’t have easy, upbeat solutions and conclusions, we have the ability to keep telling stories of struggle. Our stories do not change the physical world, but they have the potential to change us. In that sense, the poet Muriel Rukeyser was right when she said, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”
To think apocalyptically is not to give up on ourselves, but only to give up on the arrogant stories that we modern humans have been telling about ourselves. The royal must give way to the prophetic and the apocalyptic. The central story that power likes to tell—that the domination/subordination dynamic that structures so much of modern life is natural and inevitable—must give way to stories of dignity, solidarity, equality. We must resist not only the cruelty of repression but the seduction of comfort.
The best journalists in our tradition have seen themselves as responsible for telling stories about the struggle for social justice. Today, we can add stories about the struggle for ecological sustainability to that mission. Our hope for a decent future—indeed, any hope for even the idea of a future—depends on our ability to tell stories not of how humans have ruled the world but how we can live in the world.
Whether or not we like it, we are all apocalyptic now.