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J310 Critical Issues in Journalism. Professor Robert Jensen University of Texas at Austin Summer 2011. Approaches to teaching. Illusory neutrality Aggressive advocacy Open and honest engagement. Modes of address. presenting relatively uncontroversial information

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j310 critical issues in journalism

J310Critical Issues in Journalism

Professor Robert Jensen

University of Texas at Austin

Summer 2011

approaches to teaching
Approaches to teaching
  • Illusory neutrality
  • Aggressive advocacy
  • Open and honest engagement
modes of address
Modes of address
  • presenting relatively uncontroversial information
  • surveying different interpretations
  • making an argument
  • More than elections
  • The nature and distribution of power
  • More than just mores
  • What it means to live in right relation to self, others, and the living world.
what is my relationship to
What is my relationship to:
  • my self?
  • others?
  • the non-human world?
dropping keys
Dropping Keys

Hafiz, c. 1320-1389, Sufi poet from Persia

The small person

Builds cages for everyone



dropping keys1
Dropping Keys

Instead, the sage,

Who needs to duck her head,

When the moon is low,

Can be found dropping keys, all night long

For the beautiful,



how to be a poet
“How to Be a Poet”

Wendell Berry, 1934-, U.S. writer


Make a place to sit down.

Sit down. Be quiet.

You must depend upon

affection, reading, knowledge,

skill—more of each

than you have—inspiration,

work, growing older, patience,

for patience joins time

to eternity. Any readers

who like your poems,

doubt their judgment.

how to be a poet1
“How to Be a Poet”


Breathe with unconditional breath

the unconditioned air.

Shun electric wire.

Communicate slowly. Live

a three-dimensioned life;

stay away from screens.

Stay away from anything

that obscures the place it is in.

There are no unsacred places;

there are only sacred places

and desecrated places.

how to be a poet2
“How to Be a Poet”


Accept what comes from silence.

Make the best you can of it.

Of the little words that come

out of the silence, like prayers

prayed back to the one who prays,

make a poem that does not disturb

the silence from which it came.


“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

william sloane coffin jr
William Sloane Coffin, Jr.

“Socrates had it wrong; it is not the unexamined but finally the uncommitted life that is not worth living.”

two questions
Two questions
  • What is your connection to the pain of the world?
  • What is your relationship to power?
three modes of inquiry
Three modes of inquiry
  • Philosophical
  • Historical
  • Sociological
three levels of inquiry
Three levels of inquiry
  • Empirical
  • Analytical
  • Normative

No knowledge is


normative claim
Normative claim

Democracy requires:

  • Free, fair, open, contested elections
  • Freedom of association
  • Freedom of expression
normative claim1
Normative claim

Democracy requires meaningful guarantees of freedom of expression (speech and press).

normative claim2
Normative claim

An independent journalism is crucial to check the abuse of power in institutions and among leaders.

what is democracy
What is democracy?


demos (people)


kratos (rule)

competing visions
Competing visions
  • Popular democracy: Maximizing participation of ordinary people
  • Managerial democracy: Institutionalizing elite control

“[D]emocracy is not the name of any particular arrangement of political or economic institutions. Rather, it is a situation that political or economic institutions may or may not help to bring about. It describes an ideal, not a method for achieving it. It is not a kind of government, but an end of government; not a historically existing institution, but a historical project.”

C. Douglas Lummis, Radical Democracy


“[T]he effective operation of a democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and noninvolvement on the part of some individuals and groups. In the past, every democratic society has had a marginal population, of greater or lesser size, which has not actively participated in politics. In itself, this marginality on the part of some groups is inherently undemocratic, but it has also been one of the factors which has enabled democracy to function effectively.”

Samuel P. Huntington, The Crisis of Democracy


“Every person sharing in the creative process is democracy; this is our politics and our religion. People are always inquiring into their relation to God. God is the moving force of the world, the ever-continuing creating where humans are the co-creators. ‘Each human makes God, a little, with his life,’ as one of the most illumined of the younger French poets [Arcos] says. Man and God are correlates of that mighty movement which is humanity self-creating. God is the perpetual call to our self-fulfilling. We, by sharing in the life-process which binds all together in an active, working unity are all the time sharing in the making of the world.


“This thought calls forth everything heroic that is in us; every power of which we are capable must be gathered to this glorious destiny. This is the True Democracy.

“Our rate of progress, then, and the degree in which we actualize the perfect democracy, depend upon our understanding that people have the power of creating, and that they get this power through their capacity to join with others to form a real whole, a living group.”

Mary Parker Follett, TheNew State (1918)


“The individual man does not have opinions on all public affairs. He does not know how to direct public affairs. He does not know what is happening, why it is happening, what ought to happen. I cannot imagine how he could know, and there is not the least reason for thinking, as mystical democrats have thought, that the compounding of individual ignorances in masses of people can produce a continuous directing force in public affairs.”

Walter Lippmann, The Phantom Public (1927)



Teach contentment.

Those for whom the contribution is destined

Demand sacrifice.

Those who eat their fill speak to the hungry

Of wonderful times to come.

Those who lead the country into the abyss

Call ruling too difficult

For ordinary men.

Bertolt Brecht, from “A German War Primer” (1937)

political assertions
Political assertions
  • “The greatest nation on earth.”
  • The national interest
  • Anti-American

“Democracy is based upon the conviction that there are extraordinary possibilities in ordinary people.”

Harry Emerson Fosdick

American theologian (1878-1969)


“We customarily use ‘democracy’ as a noun, the name of a thing, in particular the name of a form of government. But like Life, in essence democracy is a verb. It is a process. It is a ceaselessly dynamic, scrappy, creative, adaptive and ever-evolving process which, like any exercise repeated faithfully, makes its practitioners better at it.”

Ellen LaConte, Life Rules


Democracy depends on capitalism.


Capitalism undermines democracy.

capitalism defined
Capitalism defined
  • property, including capital assets, is owned and controlled by private persons;
  • most people must rent their labor power for money wages to survive; and
  • most exchanges of goods and services occur through markets.
3 critical identity questions
3 critical identity questions

Personal: Who am I?

Societal: What is my relationship to others?

Ecological: What is my relationship to the non-human world?

3 critical questions about capitalism
3 critical questions about capitalism
  • What is a person under capitalism?
  • Can we create real democracy under capitalism?
  • Is sustainability possible under capitalism?

Gap between

the rhetoric of the powerful


the reality of the world

democracy as
Democracy as
  • Participation
  • Ratification
  • Consumption
citizens as
Citizens as
  • Participants
  • Spectators
  • Consumers
jensen defines democracy
Jensen defines democracy

A system is democratic to the degree that ordinary people have a meaningful role in the formation of public policy.

american exceptionalism1
American exceptionalism

“the United States alone has the right, whether by divine sanction or moral obligation, to bring civilization, or democracy, or liberty to the rest of the world…”

american exceptionalism2
American exceptionalism

“the United States alone has the right, whether by divine sanction or moral obligation, to bring civilization, or democracy, or liberty to the rest of the world, by violence if necessary.”

Howard Zinn, historian


“Free and fair elections and civil liberties are necessary conditions for democracy, but they are unlikely to be sufficient for a full and consolidated democracy if unaccompanied by transparent and at least minimally efficient government, sufficient political participation and a supportive democratic political culture. It is not easy to build a sturdy democracy. Even in long-established ones, if not nurtured and protected, democracy can corrode.”

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s

Index of Democracy

false alternative 1
False alternative #1

Support the national interest;


Be selfish and act only out of self interest.

false alternative 2
False alternative #2

Be political and participate in electoral politics;


Be apolitical and apathetic.


What are

journalists for?

what are journalists for
What are journalists for?

“The journalist’s role is to inform the public about the issues so people can make the right decisions for their lives.”

Bill Kovach

The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect

what are journalists for1
What are journalists for?

“The purpose of journalism is to monitor the centers of power.”

Amira Haas, Ha’aretz

what are journalists for2
What are journalists for?

“The social mission of journalism is intensely practical: to educate people about matters that are important to the community’s well-being. … But if journalism is to fulfill its social mission, it must reach beyond the small, highly educated, usually well-to-do audience of political and social elites. It must engage large numbers of people. Today that means winning a battle for attention more fiercely competitive than any that our species has ever known.”

Jack Fuller, former publisher, Chicago Tribune

what are journalists for3
What are journalists for?

“The responsibility of the writer as a moral agent is to try to bring the truth about matters of human significance to an audience that can do something about them.”

Noam Chomsky, Powers and Prospects

what are journalists for4
What are journalists for?

“One of the objects of a newspaper is to understand the popular feeling and to give expression to it; another is to arouse among the people certain desirable sentiments; and the third is fearlessly to expose popular defects.”

M.K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj

what are journalists for5
What are journalists for?

“If we have no business with the construction of the future or with organizing it for all time, there can still be no doubt about the task confronting us at present: the ruthless criticism of the existing order, ruthless in that it will shrink neither from its own discoveries, nor from conflict with the powers that be.”

Karl Marx, September 1843


How can we create a just distribution of wealth and power that recognizes the inherent dignity of all people?


How can we create a sustainable system to meet human needs without undermining the ecosystem’s capacity to support life?

what does the public need from journalists
What does the public need from journalists?
  • An independent source of factual information;
  • The historical, political, and social context necessary to make sense of that information; and
  • Exposure to the widest possible range of relevant opinion circulating in the culture.
key factors shaping news content
Key factors shaping news content
  • Institutional structure
  • Ideological framework
  • Professional practices

bank bailout


rescue package?




enhanced interrogation?


Iraq War


U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq?


“If you are in a situation where an elephant is sitting on the tail of a mouse and you say, ‘oh no, no, no, I am neutral,’ the mouse is not going to appreciate your neutrality.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu


“To do nothing about conflict between the powerful and the powerless is not to remain neutral, it is to side with the powerful.”

Paulo Freire, educator


“As soon as I started looking at that word neutral and what it meant, it became obvious to me there can be no such thing as neutrality. It’s a code word for the existing system. It has nothing to do with anything but agreeing to what is and will always be – that’s what neutrality is. Neutrality is just following the crowd. Neutrality is just being what the system asks us to be. Neutrality, in other words, was an immoral act.”

Myles Horton, educator


“In our news gathering, we seek to be strictly nonpartisan and nonideological.”

Len Downie, former Washington Post executive editor


“I hear from both the left and the right, and the tone of the criticism is quite similar – and not substantial. I get the same sort of questions from extremists on both sides, and I can’t get engaged in that conversation. I’m not here to please the fringes.”

Jonathan Klein, former president of CNN/U.S.

ideology in everyday language
Ideology: in everyday language
  • A belief system that is abstract, rigid, impractical or fanatical.
  • Ideology is what the other folks have, which keeps them from seeing things clearly.
  • Assumption: There is a common-sense way of interpreting the world without resorting to ideology, which distorts reality.
ideology sociological view
Ideology: sociological view
  • The set of social, political, and moral values, attitudes, outlooks, and beliefs that shape a social group's interpretation of the world.
  • Ideology is the framework within which we make sense of the world; everyone has an ideology or ideologies.
  • Assumption: There is no neutral inquiry into the social world.
ideology critical view
Ideology: critical view
  • The beliefs of a ruling group, which are imposed on the subordinate group so as to make the ruling ideas appear to be common sense.
  • Ideology is a tool of the powerful that obscures the truth of social relations.
  • Assumption: Ideology can be critiqued to help people better understand their real place in society and resist injustice.
  • An intellectual, political, or theological position that asserts an absolute certainty in the truth and/or righteousness of a belief system.
  • Fundamentalism leads people to want to marginalize, or in some cases eliminate, alternative ways of understanding and organizing the world.
  • Fundamentalism is an extreme form of hubris, an overconfidence not only in one’s beliefs but in the ability of humans to answer definitively complex questions.
ideology in the u s
Ideology in the U.S.
  • National fundamentalism: American exceptionalism
  • Economic fundamentalism: Naturalizing capitalism and markets
  • Technological fundamentalism: High-energy/high-tech solutions

“Never be deceived that the rich will allow you to vote away their wealth.”

Lucy Parsons, labor organizer (1853 -1942)


the search for a theory of knowledge










approaches to truth
Approaches to truth
  • Correspondence
  • Coherence
  • Consensus
levels of inquiry
Levels of inquiry
  • Empirical
  • Analytical
  • Normative
public s beliefs about obama
Public’s Beliefs about Obama
  • Obama was not born in the United States.
  • Obama is a Muslim.
  • Obama is a socialist.
  • Obama wants to turn over the sovereignty of the United States to a one world government.
  • Obama may be the Anti-Christ.
  • Obama does what Wall Street and the bankers tell him to do.

“Those who use the world assuming

their knowledge is sufficient

destroy the world.”

Wendell Berry


"Ignorance is the kind of not-knowing that comes from insight and leads to insight. … Ignorance is the not-knowing that opens us up to philosophical wonder, to scientific discovery, to human wisdom.“

Gerald Nosich, philosopher

ignorance map
Ignorance Map
  • Known Unknowns: All the things you know you don’t know.
  • Unknown Unknowns: All the things you don’t know you don’t know.
  • Errors: All the things you think you know but don’t.
  • Unknown Knowns: All the things you don’t know you know.
  • Taboos: Dangerous, polluting or forbidden knowledge.
  • Denials: All the things too painful to know, so you don’t.
crosseyed and painless
“Crosseyed and Painless”

Facts are simple and facts are straight.

Facts are lazy and facts are late.

Facts all come with points of view.

Facts don’t do what I want them to.

Facts just twist the truth around.

Facts are living turned inside out.

Facts are getting the best of them.

David Bryne

  • in everyday conversation
  • in the laboratory
  • in the newsroom

“So, I remember going off. I had all the briefings. I went over, got the briefings from the CIA, the Pentagon, spoke to all the members of Congress, the intelligence committees, the House side, the Senate side. Everybody said the same thing: There is no doubt there are stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, and it’s only a matter of time before he has a nuclear bomb.”

Wolf Blitzer, CNN

effects of journalistic objectivity
Effects of journalistic objectivity
  • skews news toward the conventional wisdom
  • marginalizes dissident voices
  • reinforces the ideology of the powerful
why rely on official sources
Why rely on “official sources”?
  • easy
  • cheap
  • protection from libel
  • class allegiances

“We also strive to be impartial. We are agnostic as to where a story may lead; we do not go into a story with a preconceived notion. We do not manipulate or hide facts to advance an agenda. We strive to preserve our independence from political and economic interests, including our own advertisers and including our own government.”

Bill Keller, executive editor, New York Times


“We will engage in critique, which is not a solely negative enterprise and is not synonymous with complaining, whining, or mean-spiritedness. To critique an idea, a practice, or an institution is to examine it to determine its nature so that we can understand its possibilities and limitations. Critique can result in criticism, which sometimes justifiably can be harsh. But critique also can reveal the strength of an argument. Critique is a thoughtful enterprise, the goal of which is to deepen our understanding of an issue or problem.”


What is

a journalist?


What is

an intellectual?


Intellectual work involves a systematic effort to (1) collect relevant information and (2) analyze that information to discern patterns that help us understand how the world works, (3) to help us make judgments about how we want to shape the world.


What is

a critical



A journalist is

a critical


john pilger
John Pilger

“I am a reporter

who values

bearing witness.”

love from a short distance
Love from a short distance

There is no silence deep enough

no corruption thick enough

no black-out dark enough

no business deal big enough

no politician bent enough

no heart hollow enough

no grave wide enough

to bury your story

to keep it from us.

Bono, Soma, Senator David Norris, and Fernando Pires

from the CD “Love from a Short Distance: Compilation CD for the Children of East Timor”

can journalists
Can journalists:
  • pursue subjects of importance?
  • get access to the information necessary to learn the truth?
  • confront powerful people?
  • confront powerful institutions?
  • critique the system that distributes wealth and power?
  • communicate all this to the widest possible public?
  • wealth
  • power
  • status
  • ideological fanaticism





in the prophetic voice


“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.”

Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets

prophetic journalism
Prophetic journalism
  • Based in reporting facts,

with a focus on the gap between the rhetoric of the powerful and the reality of people’s lives.

  • Goal of telling the truth,

with a focus on the state of a culture in collapse.

adopting a prophetic stance puts journalists
Adopting a “prophetic” stance puts journalists:
  • in conflict with the elites in society.
  • in conflict with most people who live comfortably in society.
  • on the side of the powerless.