"If someone says that he cares for some individual, community or cause, but is unwilling to risk harm or danger on his, her or its behalf, he puts in question the genuineness of his care and concern. Courage, the capacity to risk harm or danger to oneself, has its role in human life because of this connection with care and concern. That is not to say that a man cannot genuinely care and also be a coward. It is in part to say that a man who genuinely cares and has not the capacity for risking harm or danger has to define himself, both to himself and to others, as a coward." — From "After Virtue," by Alasdair MacIntyre
The great challenge of our time is this: The institutions that form the foundation and superstructure of America’s political and social life are being distorted and disrupted by powerful, impersonal, corrosive forces. Among the most consequential of these are technology, individualism, commercialism and American capitalism.
These same forces threaten American journalism. Resisting the damage being done to journalism by these forces requires courage — courage in the form of a willing assumption of personal risk in defense of a strong, vital and public-spirited free press as a necessary institution of American democracy.
The challenges facing news professionals — and threatening journalism in the public interest — are significant and cannot be avoided. The facts of the situation are these: The past cannot be recaptured. News organizations supported by businesses caught between the realities of the marketplace and the demands of American capitalism will continue to erode journalism’s service to the public.
But the forces challenging journalists and threatening the best journalism are not irresistible. Journalists who face these challenges can help shape a new and more hopeful future for their profession and for America.
What does courage in journalism look like? Where is it to be found?
The battle to preserve the best and most important journalism — journalism in the public interest — is being fought on many fronts. In the day-to-day practice of journalism examples come easily to mind. They include the defense by individual reporters and editors of the profession’s highest standards and purposes. The standards of responsible journalism in the public interest are the foundation of the public’s trust and help define journalism as a public trust. Journalism’s highest purpose is the undaunted pursuit of stories and truths citizens need to know in our self-governing republic in order to fulfill their civic responsibility.
Frequently the battle is fought in organizations or in defense of the broader institution of journalism. The battles are not witnessed by many. Few are directly involved in the contest but, if the contest at these levels is lost, the tradition of journalism as a public trust — with its paramount obligation to the public weal, an obligation that developed and evolved over the life of the republic — may be lost.
Perhaps the best example of courage in a news organization in the recent history of American journalism was the decision by then-Washington Post Publisher Katharine Graham to publish the Vietnam War-era Pentagon Papers in the face of threats from the Nixon White House. She weighed the risk of losing her company against the responsibility of her newspaper to the public and chose the latter.
Few are the publishers of newspapers who would — or even could — make such a decision today. The same is true for the general managers of broadcast stations. But, in fairness, it should be noted that on many days each year in news organizations large and small, similar, if less dramatic, acts of courage do occur.
Courage and Capitalism
What constitutes the courageous act at the level of the institution of journalism as an instrument of self-government in the American republic?
Of the four forces — technology, individualism, commercialism and American capitalism — challenging our nation and threatening its free and responsible press, the most powerful and pernicious is American capitalism, which is eating away at businesses that have supported journalism for decades.
The news business (or "the industry" as some call it) is the source of the essential financial support for the institution of journalism — but the business and the institution are not the same. The imperatives of the marketplace for capital and customers have replaced the ethic of stewardship for journalism as a public trust and the highest priority for most of today’s news executives and owners. The priorities and direction of the news business have, primarily as a result of so-called "public"ownership (or, more accurately, ownership by institutional investors), been taken over by the powerful imperatives of American capitalism.
In his book "The Soul of Capitalism," journalist William Greider writes that American capitalism has many strengths, but "one large incapacity" in the "logic" of the system. "As a matter of principle," he says, capitalism "cannot take society’s interests into account. The company’s balance sheet has no way to recognize costs that are not its own, no reason or method to calculate the future liabilities it causes but that someone else will have to pay. The incentives, in fact, run hard in the opposite direction."
As the contemporary mainstream news business is slowly but systematically stripped bare by the demands of capitalism, the cost to society that is not recognized on its balance sheet is the degradation of the press as an institution of democracy and an instrument of self-government.
So again we might ask, what constitutes the courageous act at the level of the institution of journalism? Would it matter if we asked? Wouldn’t any act of courage be a bit late now? Haven’t the self-interested values of business effectively triumphed already over the values of news coverage in the public interest? Aren’t the majority of businesses that support and manage journalism controlled by institutional investors who sap it for profit at their whim or demand? Haven’t the corporate barbarians already crashed through the gates to the city and through the doors of the temple — sacking the former and defiling the latter?
The roll call of vandals includes familiar names: General Electric, Disney, Clear Channel, Sinclair Broadcast Group, MediaNews, Gannett, Knight Ridder, and Tribune. Notwithstanding responsible, courageous deeds each can legitimately point to, each has acted in ways that have weakened journalism as an institution of our democracy and as an instrument of self-government.
So what can a journalist do?
The distinguished 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous Serenity Prayer asks that each person who recites it be granted "the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference."
This is particularly wise advice for those with the courage to face the threat to journalism that serves the needs of the republic, its citizens, and their democracy. Change will happen — but change need not be bad altogether.
Most acts of courage are not big; most are not noticed. Most will not bring acclaim and, in fact, will not be recognized as courageous acts. Most are everyday acts of principle that build character and reflect it.
Courage will lie in refusing to take a path that is inconsistent with one’s values and commitments, regardless of the cost. But courage is not reckless. Wisdom requires understanding the difference between the inconsequential and the inviolable.
Courage will lie in accepting the inevitability of change and working to ensure change yields good outcomes.
Courage will lie in working to preserve the essential in what is and in taking the risk of creating alternatives to support
it — in determining how enduring values can be preserved and practiced in the future.
Jay Harris holds the Wallis Annenberg Chair in Journalism and Democracy at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication. He is a senior fellow at USC’s Annenberg Center for Communication, an interdisciplinary research center.