CSC: Journalism, Culture, and Politics: An Interview with Barbie Zelizer

Cultural Studies PhD student, Caroline Guthrie, recently interviewed Barbie Zelizer, Raymond Williams Professor of Communication, and Director of the new Center for Media at Risk at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania on the role and practice of journalism at the current conjuncture. Zelizer is the author of What Journalism Could Be (Polity Press, 2016), About to Die: How News Images Move the Public (Oxford University Press, 2010), Keywords in News and Journalism Studies (with Stuart Allan) (Open University Press, in 2010), Taking Journalism Seriously: News and the Academy (Sage, 2004), Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory Through the Camera's Eye (University of Chicago Press,1998), and Covering the Body: The Kennedy Assassination, the Media, and the Shaping of Collective Memory (University of Chicago Press, 1992); she has also edited seven volumes, and written more than 50 articles and book chapters.

It seems like journalism is publishing more articles than ever before about itself. There are a lot of opinion pieces and editorials about what journalism does, what journalism is good for, and what the purpose of journalism is. Do you see that as potentially creating changes in journalism, or is that a retrenchment of the status quo for journalism?

I don’t know that I would agree that it’s now more than ever. There has always been a tendency among journalists to think about themselves, talk about themselves, and navel gaze. But what we do have now is more outlets producing and distributing these self-oriented pieces than ever before, so maybe it seems like it’s more. I actually think this is a really good development, because I look at journalists as an interpretive community. I look at them as folks who migrate together because they share collective interpretations of what the world looks like and what their role should be in it. And so when we see surges in journalistic discourse about journalism and journalists, that we’re approaching critical points that require conversation. They require debate. They require pushback. And hopefully they lead to some kind of rethinking of what journalists might be doing differently.

Do you see a parallel in this current moment and discussions around journalism and a past moment? I’m not a historian of journalism, but in some ways there seems to be resonance with Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency; he had a sometimes strained and critical relationship with the press, and that era was also the beginning of a lot of styles of journalism that are still in play today. Is that too far of a stretch?

It’s not a stretch at all. I think this question is spot on, because it’s really important to think about what journalists do as happening in tandem with other institutional environments. That’s some of what I hope to speak about today: the idea that there is an institutional culture out there, with all kinds of different actors, all kinds of different objectives, all kinds of different norms and beliefs about what’s appropriate to do and what’s inappropriate to do. Of course there are periods of pushback between, in this case, presidential administrations and journalists. What sets this particular moment off is that this is happening – perhaps because of, or perhaps in tandem with – a persistent distrust of the media. The causality of that relationship is hard to discern. But there’s no question that when you’ve got a basically distrustful, skeptical public that doesn’t really want to participate in the act of faith that is always involved in attending to what a journalist or journalistic outlet actually produces, and then you’ve got a fractious relationship with the administration, that makes it worse. But those fractious relationships have always been the case. What sets this moment aside is not only the fact that there’s a really widespread skepticism about the media, but that Donald Trump just really goes overboard, in ways that are far more intense than Richard Nixon, or Lyndon Baines Johnson, or Teddy Roosevelt, or even John F. Kennedy. Let’s face it; every president has pushed back in some way. The question of how the press actually involves itself and maintains a sense of its own authority differs according to the intricacies of that relationship.

Could we connect the idea of public distrust at this moment to the idea of the subjunctive that you talked about in About to Die – the spaces of imagination and possibility in journalism? Is it possible that space has grown too wide? Is the idea that you can buy into whatever you choose to dominant in journalism now, and how can we try to rein that in?

Bingo. That’s exactly what’s happened. We can move the relation between the indicative and the subjunctive beyond what happens in pictures, because I’ve argued that it happens normatively; it happens in notions of practice writ large within journalism; it happens within the kinds of relationships that journalists have to build with sources, or bystanders, or officials; the subjunctive has taken over the indicative. It is fair to say that when the indicative gets really bad the subjunctive just steps in, and we repair ever more ferociously to the normative ideals of what should be, rather than looking at what’s happening on the ground. We are in such a moment right now. This is what I’m going to talk about tonight; I believe quite, quite stridently that journalists, as with most institutional environments, are totally missing the mark because they’re so blinded by this normative/subjunctive pristine notion of what things ought to be that they can’t figure out how to get their feet out of the mud. They’re missing opportunities repeatedly. The relationship between the subjunctive and the indicative is exactly where things are muddled.

About to Die is about images, and we’ve had one big social discourse that seemed to be largely driven by images with the Black Lives Matter movement. The idea was that the images of police violence would speak for themselves, and of course they didn’t. People who were not inclined to read them in the way that was anticipated found ways to read any number of alternate narratives into them. Now with Me Too we have another discourse, but one where images are absent. Do you see the absence of images as actually helpful to this movement?

I’m currently examining the question of whether or not invisibility could be recognized as a force to be reckoned with, rather than always seen as a kind of depletion of the act of visualization. I’m doing a book about the Cold War, and looking at the ways in which the Cold War drives the news. The mindset that was put in place post-World War II in all the institutions in the United States but also journalism, which I’m focusing on, created a set of truisms about how the world needs to be interpreted that rests at the core of what we know about the news. It rears its head whenever we have conflicts like globalization, like the refugee crisis, like Trump, like Islamic State, that we don’t know how to deal with, the news hinges or rests back on this sensibility. That argument began because I was trying to see what it’s like to visualize a war that can’t be visualized? If we take the Cold War in its most limited stance, but its most rhetorically central stance, it is a war that did not have battles, did not have wounded, did not have dead, did not have structural damage; we know there were all kinds of proxy wars where that did happen, but with the Cold War itself that did not. What I was wondering was how did U.S. journalism signify the United States being at war when it didn’t have visuals to do so? So that whole argument began from a kind of investigation of invisibility in pictures in the news, and then became a stand-in for thinking of how we engage more broadly with things we’re called upon to make sense of.

In About to Die you talk about whose near-death or recent death is acceptable to show in journalism, and for what reasons. After the recent tragedy of the Parkland shooting, I was reading an article whose author posited that the cell phone footage from within the shooting had the potential to create a different kind of discourse, because now images of a shooting would be available for the first time. They argued, and quoted Eric Holder and Kamala Harris arguing, that if you saw what guns had done to children’s bodies after Sandy Hook and again after Parkland that the gun law would become different. But those cell phone images didn’t seem to get the kind of major play that people thought that they would. Do you think that’s just the typical standards of appropriateness, or that the student activists made a more compelling image somehow? There was a choice made of what to show and not to show, and I wonder how you read that choice.

What I argue in About to Die is the decision of whether to show or not to show always depends on drivers that are outside of the news. There has to be a moral sense that it is necessary to show, there has to be a political mandate that it is okay to show, and there has to be a technological capacity to show. There’s no question that the moral and the political became a little bit convoluted in this case. It won’t surprise you to hear me say that absolutely we should have been seeing those cell phone videos, and they should have been on the front pages of every newspaper and every news outlet, rather than these photo ops and these meetings with the president on the part of Parkland students in D.C. That to me is an extraordinary slippage, that those moments became the story as it moved onward.

To me it’s not just about decency and appropriateness, it’s about a political regime that doesn’t want us to show this. It’s about a commercial regime that is afraid that if these graphic images are shown they’re going to lose eyeballs. It’s about moral sensibilities that infantilize the American public and make it clear that they know better who can be shown, what can be shown, in which way they can be shown, than we do. All of those impulses need to come together in a perfect storm in order for us to see what I call the right, more fully documentable, images. The fact that we don’t see those, not after Parkland, not after Sandy Hook, not after Las Vegas, not after multiple events, that is what should be forcing people to say, “What is going on here?” And we haven’t seen for a long time. We have more technical capacity to see the really gruesome, more close-up, more proximate version of what goes down in not just these kinds of events, but of all violence, all terror, all war, than we’ve ever had before, and yet we see less. Why is that not a headline on the news? Why is it we can see more in the dramatized versions of what will come on Scandal, C.S.I., or Grey’s Anatomy? Those versions, which we know to be representative of what’s actually happening now, those are where we’ll see the more gruesome images.

Do you think there’s an increased pressure for clear narrative, a pressure for story legibility, that contributes to this kind of thing? Is it that we know more how to tell the story of a press conference or event in a way that is quickly digested and reader-friendly?

Yes, but we’ve always known in different ways. We used to know how to tell the story of war in a way that was much more fully documentable than it is today. Why has that changed? There’s no question that it’s easier to gravitate toward what’s already been proven, and what’s already appeared, and what’s already known to be reliable as a format, or a narrative trope, or a set of images, that we know works in a way that is deemed relevant. But the point is recognizing that just as we experience life in all of its colors and all of its tropes, we should be able to experience the news in all of its colors and all of its tropes, and be able make that decisions for ourselves as to what actually is happening in a particular event. I don’t need a news editor to cut down and pull out some condensed version, either verbal or visual, for me to get the best sense of the news. Until we get back to understanding where this has gone terribly south, we don’t have much chance of beginning to set things right.

Do you see the proliferation of non-traditional news sources as a potential help, or is it just further space for the subjunctive to inflate?

It can be further space for the subjunctive to inflate. It can also offer further engagement with the indicative. I am always of the opinion that the more the merrier. What I am less celebratory of is the rhetoric that says because we have all these different sources of information now, we’re getting more information, we’re getting better information. Not necessarily. What we get today shows we have more, we have more diverse, we don’t necessarily have fuller or better. It’s important to recognize the variation that’s out there, to celebrate the variation, but also to figure out what this is all supposed to be about. What are we expecting? This kind of gets to a soft normative place, but what are we expecting the news to do for us? Why do we need all of these news outlets, whether they’re alternative or not, whether they’re run by bystanders and citizen journalists or bona fide, longstanding news organizations?

It’s important to note that there have been real gems in the news environment as we experience it today. I, for one, am a great admirer of Buzzfeed. I think Buzzfeed has guts. They’ve broken some really big stories. They’ve made some mistakes too, but they are not afraid to tread where other folks are saying they won’t go. Teen Vogue, what was Teen Vogue at the beginning of the Trump administration? Not to malign Teen Vogue –

No, I don’t think there was much to differentiate it from Seventeen or Marie Claire –

Exactly. But now it’s got a political edge that is absolutely spot-on. Long form journalism: I can’t get enough of The Atlantic, Politico, and Slate. So there are spots on the horizon where news platforms are doing better. The Washington Post has overtaken The New York Times. I look at The Washington Post before I look at The New York Times in the morning; that was never the case. So there are shifts that are worth thinking about. But I also think that the kind of all-democratizing potential that we want to attribute to “the more the merrier” has to be handled with kid gloves.

I know in your talk you’ll be addressing what should be done at the institutional level. What do you recommend for individual consumers of news to do? Subscribe to be premium members when we think an outlet is doing good work?

Absolutely subscribe to be premium members. If people don’t support the media, they’re not going to be there. If you’re looking for charities to support, the news media are absolutely my top contender.

There are two things that need to be said. First, this is an opportunity to think about media literacy anew. The fact that Americans by and large do not know how to engage with the news is a negative byproduct of our educational system. Were we to have media literacy programs in grade schools and high schools, a kind of nourishment of media literacy and all of its effects as integral and instrumental to the educational platform, that would change things in ways we can’t even imagine. That’s not only in terms of verbal, but visual. I’ve long argued that the visual gets really sidelined in this. Learning how to understand images is a key part of this.

What the individual can do is recognize that he or she has to always been engaging with multiple sources. It’s easy for me as a news junkie. I can’t go to sleep at night without making sure I’ve gotten through my two or three daily newspapers, and I’m online all day, I’m on Twitter all the time, so I always have my finger on the pulse of current events. What you need to do is to be actively seeking out information from different sources and news outlets. No one news outlet is ever going to give you the whole story, and the sooner than you can recognize that your task as a news consumer is to put together a story that makes sense to you from various news sources, the better off we’ll be.