Perhaps it’s because I’ve got a Ph.D. in English and a background in print journalism, but when I consider the state of the press today, it brings to mind the poet John Keats’ idea of negative capability. In a letter he wrote to his brother in December 1817, Keats described the concept as “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”
Comfort when faced with conflicting ideas, or ambiguity, is required today of any thoughtful consumer of journalism. How can I get the news the way I want it while also doing right by the struggling industry which produces and delivers it? My hard-copy newspaper on the stoop downstairs waiting for me in the morning? Paid apps and podcasts? Browsing the mobile web?
These are questions I weigh when immersing myself in media. As a reader, I love 5,000-word-plus narrative pieces. But I also love Chrome with multiple newspaper tabs open, and Facebook and an aggregator in the background. As a professor, I fear that I’m a member of the last generation who has the luxury of switching between mediums and genres this easily. And as a citizen of a partially functional democracy, I’m concerned that something’s been lost in the 24-hour news/spin cycle, in the excessive meta-analysis-as-news, and in our push toward brevity.
When I set about designing the syllabus for “Journalism in the 21st Century,” a course that I’m teaching for the first time this semester at City University of New York, I measured these concerns against the obvious possibilities of new media. As the introductory course in our new journalism minor, it prepares students who don’t necessarily consume media critically for further courses in writing, editing, and digital media production.
As I rode the subway into Manhattan one morning in January with a still-damp copy of the New York Times in one hand, and the Guardian offline reader running on my iPhone in the other, I thought about the course. Then I pondered the death of print and how I’d treat it in the curriculum and embraced “negative capability.” This is the bifurcating world that our students are reading and writing in, and it presents new challenges and new rewards that are practical as well as theoretical.
Originally, I wanted to strike a balance between craft-based, nuts-and-bolts writing, and media studies or mass communication and culture-style analysis. However, as the spring semester approached, the media ecosystem and the global political order were changing rapidly and were, seemingly, intrinsically linked, and I began to refine my focus, or tried to.
An Evolving Curriculum
In light of this connection, how do you teach a subject evolving as rapidly as journalism? Particularly when assumptions that we’ve made for generations about the relationship between the press, democracy and capitalism are being challenged domestically and on the global stage? I planned to begin the class by assigning as a textbook The Death and Life of American Journalism by Nation contributors Robert McChesney and John Nichols. But, given recent events, it felt counterintuitive to teach a new media course out of a book. So I pushed the text back to after Spring Break, and decided to teach “Journalism in the 21st Century” as the 21st century happened in real time.
By the second week of class, the protests in Tunisia and Egypt were deemed the Facebook Revolutions, and WikiLeaks was revealing the unsavory opinions diplomats had of dictators in the Arab world, whose people were now rising up against them.
As Mubarak’s regime tottered, we read an academic article recommended by a colleague called Communication, Power and Counter-power in the Networked Society by Manuel Castells. He charted the rise of two-way “mass self-communication,” and suggested that new media’s subversive potential lies in its ability to work horizontally rather than vertically as the legacy media does.
The Role of Social Media
In Egypt, social media mobilized millions — outside the hierarchy of the state-run media — and Mubarak fell. Or did it? We read an article about the revolution’s careful planning and execution. Then we learned how Mubarak turned off the Internet#. This raised questions not only about the role of social media in the so-called Facebook Revolutions but also, closer to home, about the implications of Sen. Joe Lieberman’s bill to give the President similar power over America’s vast web network.
The Internet “kill switch” lesson digressed into pre-Internet online history. I recounted the bulletin board systems of my youth, in which a guy had a bunch of modems in his basement, and you’d dial in and hear the handshake, and be treated to ANSI art, grainy monochrome pornography and Anarchist’s Cookbook-style bomb-building instructions. This was the pre-Internet/pre-Sept. 11 world, and it felt naively dangerous.
I referred to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s previous incarnation as a hacker, and suggested he should find a way to make a news delivery system that was dictator-proof.
A week or so later, I talked to an electrical engineer friend and pushed this admittedly polemical idea to the point of absurdity. I envisioned torrent-style news packets running over Bluetooth or Internet-less LAN in urban areas. Or small capacity disposable flash drives or old-school CD magazines sent by snail mail. Or low wattage pirate digital television stations sending Flash videos over the airwaves to be reassembled covertly by Xbox or PlayStation.
Yes, paranoid, but in the face of grasping totalitarian states, perhaps we need a way to future-proof the news that is modeled on pre-Internet social networking and magazine publishing circa-1989. Particularly in soon-to-be-emerging democracies where the Open Society Institute is investing heavily in journalism education.
What does it all mean?
While watching the revolutions unfold in the Middle East, and teaching a course parsing the media’s relationship to those revolutions, I’ve been reminded that our primary modes of getting the news aren’t necessarily fail-safe. The 161-year-old magazine Harper’s is slowly folding, a content conglomerate Demand Media is now worth more than the New York Times, and the nation’s foremost media critic is Jon Stewart, a comedian on basic cable.
At the same time, though, recent events — from the coverage of the Arab uprisings to the AOL buyout of the Huffington Post — have revealed the paradoxical robustness and frailty of new media. I can’t help but think that given this fickleness, for news that’s not breaking, and that requires detail, subtlety, or a capacity for ambiguity, then there might still be a place for print, or at least for some sort of hybridity.
Or it could just be that I’ve read too much Keats.
Devin Harner is an assistant professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice/City University of New York where he teaches journalism, film, and contemporary literature. His recent scholarly work has included essays on Chuck Palahniuk’s non-fiction; on the film Adaptation’s relationship to Susan Orlean’s, “The Orchid Thief;” and on virtual time travel through YouTube. He is currently at work on a piece that treats Buddhist philosophy in Richard Kelly’s film, “Donnie Darko.”