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Wednesday, November 01, 2017

"Breaking the News": A Review of Franklin Foer's "World Without Mind"

Howard does most of the writing First Amendment writing around here. But I certainly have an interest in the subject, including speech and press issues, quite apart from my interest in law and religion. Some of that has to do with my very brief time in the trenches as a reporter and my time as a student at Columbia's journalism school, which at least back then was a very practically oriented program. Although I think I have been more or less assimilated into the academy, and certainly take seriously (possibly self-seriously) the importance of "academicizing" one's discussion of issues within one's field (to borrow a term from Stanley Fish) when writing as an academic or taking advantage of one's academic title in other forums, a small part of my brain remains that of a journalist, inculcated with its norms and worldview and concerned with the well-being and integrity of that institution. My views on the state of the modern news media and contemporary journalism are not at all positive. On the other hand, journalists operate in a very different and difficult environment today; I'm glad I had my own brief time as a reporter just before the profession was irreparably altered by the Internet.

That is a long way of prefacing a link to this review of Franklin Foer's new book, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech. Foer's primary subject is the harmful effect of the "Big Tech" companies, and their effect on the profession of journalism in particular. Thus, my review provides an occasion to offer some of my own views on what I think is wrong with much of modern journalism, including some major institutions such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, not to mention Foer's old stomping ground, The New Republic. And it's about something more than that: it's about how to interact with a culture that is obsessed with the ephemeral and to, as Foer puts it, "take back the mind."

I argue that "Taking back journalism—rescuing it from algorithms, consultants, opinionated Twitter feeds by reporters, and the obsession with page hits, and returning it to a state of serious, aggressive but disinterested professionalism—is a good in itself, a good for democracy, and a necessary start." But--and I acknowledge the tension here, which is one I experience personally--even that were to happen, I'm not at all sure it's a good thing to obsess with and attempt to keep up with the 24-hour news cycle, or even with, say, a 6- or 12-hour news cycle. That's true, I think even if one mostly avoids the trash and sticks to good writers or publications. There are excellent and even urgent reasons to make journalism better. But there are also very good reasons for cultivating one's own mind away from the noise, and focusing on more lasting and meaningful reading and thinking altogether. That doesn't necessarily mean disengaging from current events. But it might mean that wise and meaningful engagement with current events requires something other than a relentless urge to know and comment on the most up-to-the-minute developments.

A postscript: Coincidentally, Eric Segall today has a post about writing about law in an age in which there is a vast amount of both scholarship and "news" coming at an ever-increasing pace. On the former point, one could do worse than to read the first page of this paper by Mark Tushnet, and to be reminded that much of what purports to be new and improved, or just "novel," in our field is neither. On the latter, he writes:

The other major change for legal scholars is the all-too-real news cycle problem, which is a consideration that barely existed twenty years ago. To be heard over the din today, not only does one need to be smart at both substance and marketing, but one needs to be fast, very very fast. That skill is quite different than being comprehensive, careful, and thoughtful. It used to be that one had at least a year from a the date of a major Supreme Court case to contribute to the scholarly discussion of that case. The only real place to put the case in perspective was the law reviews. Very few professors wrote op-eds or magazine pieces. Today, a week is probably too long.

I have no particular objection from an inside perspective to any of what Segall writes here. It makes a lot of descriptive and practical sense. From a more detached or outside perspective, however, I think there is a lot for thoughtful people to question about these statements. Should the news cycle be a "consideration" for scholars? Should one desire particularly to be "heard over the din?" Why, exactly? What effect on scholars' work, and on their deeper sensibilities and integrity as scholars, might there be in getting "smart at . . . marketing" or "very, very fast?" (Academics these days argue routinely and mechanically that the "corporatization of the university" has had a deleterious effect on the academy and academic work. They like such sweeping arguments but are decidedly less keen on focusing on themselves. If they think that's true at a wholesale level, why wouldn't they be moved to reflect on the individual effects of a marketing-driven approach on their own work?)  If a week is "probably too long" to "contribute to the scholarly discussion" of a case, what does that suggest about the nature or quality of the "scholarly" discussion that takes place within that seven-day period? What's especially scholarly, or even useful, about a "hot take?" Academics often argue in response to such concerns in one of two ways. They offer a dose of realism about "the way things are," which doesn't really answer any of those normative questions. Or they argue that what they do as marketers, entrepreneurs, public commentators, and chasers of latest developments is essentially separate from their longer and larger academic work and has no effect on it, or only a positive one. I'm not at all convinced that's true.    

Again, here's the link to my review. There is surely much to disagree with in it, but I hope you enjoy reading it. I certainly enjoyed writing it.   


Posted by Paul Horwitz on November 1, 2017 at 12:11 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink