Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

Media critique in a very online world

The place of journalism in an online world where criticism of news media is now ubiquitous.

Sean Phelan
3 February 2021, 1.44pm
Jacobin Biden cover by Masha Krasnova-Shabaeva, January 2020.

When I first started teaching university classes in media and journalism studies in the early 2000s, I tended to make certain assumptions about the beliefs students would bring to the topic.

These assumptions were reductive. Framed in a clueless way, they could be very condescending. Yet they nonetheless seemed like a plausible way of anticipating the perspective of many in the classroom.

I saw my task as one of encouraging students to critique common sense assumptions they may have already internalized about media and journalism.

My classes were built around an explicit commitment to giving students a “critical perspective” on media, informed by different strands of critical theory. Students were promised that exposure to the theories of media, culture and society at the heart of the course would give them the intellectual resources to critique practices and assumptions that are often taken for granted within the media itself.

For example, let’s consider an illustration that will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken a media studies course.

Students were encouraged to question the cultural authority of an official journalistic discourse that frames media representations as simply offering objective and impartial representations of social life that are unmarked by ideological commitments or assumptions.

The heroic image of a journalistic fourth estate speaking “truth to power” on behalf of the public was called into doubt. Instead of seeing power as simply something held by those who journalists report on, media and journalistic institutions were themselves reframed as sites and instruments of power that were entangled in the general workings of politics and ideology.

Media and journalistic institutions were themselves reframed as sites and instruments of power that were entangled in the general workings of politics and ideology.

These ideas still animate the work I do as a teacher and scholar of media and journalism. Yet, like others in my field, I now grapple with an ideological and cultural atmosphere that poses challenges to the kind of assumptions I brought to the classroom in the past.

I talk in part of phenomena that are captured in discussions of “fake news” and “post-truth” culture.

These are not terms I like to use myself. Too often they seem to presuppose some past mythical universe where journalistic determinations of what was true, real and factually relevant were somehow entirely straightforward and uncontested. Yet they nonetheless capture some of the anxiety I now feel when I encourage students to critique media and journalism.

Let me dramatize the point by imagining how a contemporary student cohort might hear my appeal to critique. And let’s imagine a very online group of students, whose worldview has already been shaped by the informal forms of pedagogy circulating in today’s fragmented media ecology, and an ideological landscape where far right discourses have been “mainstreamed”.

Critique and its limits

It seems probable that, no matter what their political inclinations, many will hear their teacher’s affirmation of critique as rather prosaic, and perhaps unsurprisingly so, since they live in a media culture where people seem to criticize media and journalism all the time. The opportunities enabled by online platforms like Twitter and Facebook (and the abundance of media outlets they intersect with) have rendered media criticism an everyday practice – and recontextualized it as something produced by a variety of social actors, not just academics presenting themselves as the licensed dispensers of the tools of critique.

It might also be anticipated that the scepticism would take a more sardonic form in those students (most likely young men) who have immersed themselves in the world of the so-called “intellectual dark web”, and other milieux that blur divisions between the online far right and the general field of popular culture.

They may conceivably see little more than a real-life, walking caricature at the top of the classroom – the very embodiment of one of those “Cultural Marxist” types they have heard being lampooned on YouTube.

I am embellishing how these dynamics might play out in practice. And I would hardly want to suggest that today’s students are all enamored with the far right: on the contrary, evidence from the US and elsewhere suggests a revived interest in radical left politics among younger generations.

Rather, the point is to highlight a tentativeness about the language of critique that I have experienced in the classroom, and which Rita Felski captures in her 2015 book The Limits of Critique.

The topic of critique (including its definitional relationship with what some see as the more humdrum practice of mere criticism) has been the subject of a vast literature across the social sciences and humanities. It comes in different forms and vocabularies: “ideology critique”, “Foucauldian critique”, “feminist critique” (the list could be a long one).

Drawing on a concept developed by the late French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, Felski distills the basic impulse of critique as one that cultivates a “hermeneutics of suspicion” towards whatever object or phenomenon we are analyzing. In a media studies context, this means interpreting media and journalism practices in a sceptical way that does not just blindly accept the account offered by a media outlet. One strives to construct a deeper structural explanation for why an event or topic has been represented in a particular manner. Attention is drawn to factors and motivations (political, economic, cultural) that may go unmentioned in the official media narrative.

This approach has some obvious merits. Being suspicious of media and journalistic representations is often entirely justified. The basic theoretical assumption of media critique is a sound one: the event or topic could always have been represented differently. There is never a single way to represent something.

There is never a single way to represent something.

The problem – in the context of the politics of the present – is reconciling the imperative to be critical with the regimes of media suspicion that circulate in today’s digital culture, and which take a very demagogic form in the attacks on media and journalism perpetrated by far right politicians like Trump, Orbán, Bolsanaro and their supporters. We could cite examples of how media suspicion can take unthinking forms on the political left. But it is in the ascent of the far right that we now see a deeply reactionary hermeneutics of suspicion towards media and journalism.

To move from discussing the intellectually consecrated discourse of critical theory to Donald Trump is admittedly quite a leap. It might seem like I am conflating a bundle of entirely different things under the heading of critique, and collapsing the distinction between thoughtful media criticism and violent abuse of journalists.

I try to affirm an emancipatory notion of critique in my research and teaching, which takes on a particular urgency in a political moment where fields like “critical race theory” and “gender theory” have become targets of far right antagonism. However, I also recognize that I work in a social and political context where the “weapons of social critique” have been appropriated by various authoritarian and anti-democratic forces.

Far right appropriation of critique

Bruno Latour grasped this much in a well-known 2004 essay, wondering if the conspiracy theory account of what “really” happened on 9/11 was enabled by an “absurd deformation” of the “trademark: Made in Criticalland”. Latour’s argument has sometimes been construed (wrongfully, I think) as voicing a blanket rejection of critique, but its resonances with our contemporary condition are hard to dispute. Think about the veneer of enlightened truth and clarity that can infuse the rhetoric of taking the “red pill”, or the therapeutic sense of intellectual autonomy and self-discovery that potentially comes from feeling that one “is no longer one of those sheep who believes everything they hear in the media”. If ours is an age of “alternative facts”, we might also suggest that it is a time of alternative media literacies. It can be hard not to sometimes hear a perverse mimicry of a Chomskyian critique of corporate media in the far right refrain that “you need to do your own research” if you want to really know what’s going on in the world.

Critiquing the complex entity called “the media” has never been as straightforward as it might seem, but the ideological and political underpinnings of media and journalistic criticism are now wildly heterogeneous. Renouncing media critique would be neither tenable or desirable. The way our online lives are organized today by our Silicon Valley overlords may be beset by structural problems. But we should not forget the profound democratic limitations of an earlier media age where a relatively small number of media professionals and journalists monopolized the public sphere and tended to see all media criticism as the work of cranks. Just because mainstream media or so-called “MSM” has become an object of enmity for the far right does not mean that traditional critiques of media and journalism are suddenly all wrong.

The point takes on a fresh importance in a context where – as the satirical cover image of the latest issue of Jacobin suggests – some of the media coverage of the new Biden administration has communicated the impression of a new Messiah. The current political moment demands that we better differentiate between democratic and anti-democratic forms of media critique, not censure the affirmative political and civic impulses that come from people questioning how the world is described and presupposed in different media spaces.

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