Famed Psychic's Head Explodes:
James Carey on the Technology of Journalism
by Carolyn Marvin
What communities are maintained by the rituals of respectable
journalism? Not communities of ordinary citizens, Carey says. High-
profile journalism organizes a conversation carried on more or less
exclusively between elite journalists and opinion leaders. Its insider
codes are well understood by these participants, but alienating to
observers outside this elite circle. Carey believes contemporary
journalism not only fails to help most citizens understand the world
they live in, but keeps them confused about it. He does not claim that
journalism ever informs us or enriches our understanding of the world.
But he proposes that nuanced explanations of how and why are not honored
in the culture of journalism. Journalistic technique responds more to
immediacy and power than to patient reflection or subtle shades of
understanding. Technique has transformed the journalist's historical
mission. Instead of serving up a frankly partisan, unashamedly moral
point of view growing out of a life fully lived in common with other
community members, the journalist must be the professional servant of
facticity and objectivity. This vision fails to ground explanation in a
system of propositions about what the world is and should be like. A
world without an "ought," says Carey, is a world that cannot be
explained. Instead, it must be ritualized.
Ritualized, how? Carey offers an Aristotelian catalog of types of
journalistic explanations that supply motive, cause, consequence, and
significance. The average journalistic portion has too much motive and
too little history to provide the symbolic environment in which
communities can constitute themselves deliberately and self-consciously.
Take the ritual practice of yielding interpretive authority to experts.
This technique visibly distances the journalist from any responsibility
for explaining the world, since she must not claim a particular world-
view on her own authority. Such strategies for dividing journalists and
readers create contempt by the journalist for the reader, Carey argues.
The process works both ways, since public contempt for the press is all
too familiar. Distrust now governs the political process as well, so
that citizens believe their leaders act exclusively for self-aggrandizing
motives. At least, this is the account offered by the
respectable press. Carey charges that where media ought to provide
multi-faceted connections across lives in a democratic society, they
have bifurcated the body politic into the used and the using. From this
follows the reduction of all social complexity to black and white, right
and wrong. Delicacies of nuance and complication are lost. Only crude
polarities remain. These are less likely to produce reasons to
understand than sides to take.