Is Ideology in Modern Journalism a Substitute for Religion?

D
espite the bridge that Aquinas built between reason and faith, modern journalists who believe that religion is a non-rational retrograde activity to be avoided at any cost, are legions.

The usual rationale adduced for giving up God-oriented religion is that there is not sufficient empirical evidence for God’s existence. God is a chimera, an illusion of the human mind wrapped in a delusion. It is in short a sign of retrogression. But then the question surfaces: why do the same people not give up ideologies as well when they find out that they too may not be empirically or scientifically proven? Many ideologies have been scientifically discredited but people continue to hold on to them as a life-boat of some kind.

Could it be that ideology constitutes a substitution or sorts? Could it be that ideology functions as a value system, a substitution of sort for those who repudiate a religious belief system? Could it be that ideologies provide people with a community of like-minded people? We may look different, but the ideology unites us: we are all good Republicans, we are all good Communists, we are all good Fascists.

But the question persists: why, as a rule, do ideologies see religion as an enemy and a competitor? One thinks of Marx famous quip “religion is the opium of the people” proffered while substituting Marxism as a competing ideology. One thinks of Mao’s “religion is poison” proffered while substituting Mao’s little red book as a Bible of sorts for the adoring masses. One thinks of the positivist approach to reality declaring the scientific approach as the only enlightened modern approach and religion mere ignorance and a superseded superstition.

Emile Durkheim in his Elemental Forms of Religious Life called religion and ideology “moral communities.” Why did Durkheim make such a comparison and what, if any, is the nexus between the two? Let’s see. What has happened all too often since the Enlightenment is that religion has been all but subsumed under ideology. This is most apparent not only within modern ideological movements which present themselves as universal movements applicable anywhere at any time, but also in modern journalism.

This rather bold statement about journalism may surprise the journalists among us, but I dare say that it is not very difficult in modern journalism to detect socially constructed notions of the sacred reduced to a mere economic belief system. Marx’s ideology jumps to mind here. It works this way: the question is turned up-side-down so that rather than ask how can religion be a cultural need for a community or an entire polity and what are the benefits, the centripetal force that accrue to that need, one ends up asking: how can religious beliefs help the economy? More crassly put: how can religion help bankers and CEOs increase their profits? And of course, if it doesn’t do that it is pretty much useless.

For example, nationalism can be construed as an ideology. It has the overwhelming power to motivate men to die for one’s country via the nobility of patriotism. Nationalism seems to share with religion the same power of motivating humans to lay down their lives for what they believe. It is a socio-culturally produced power that some call the sacred which more often than not deals with sacrifice and redemption. Here the question arises: how is the sacred produced in cultures and societies constituting a nation or a confederation of nations, the EU for example? How does it function? Do human beings move between religious and secular sacralities such as nationalism or communism or fascism or progressivism?

Nowadays we see a media landscape littered with opinionated talk and ideology-driven websites galore. But of course in the world of journalism it is considered the kiss of death to reveal openly what one really believes. To do that is to be perceived as subjective, opinionated, biased, rather than rigorously objective in one’s reporting. So naturally journalists tend to hide what they really believe. Very few journalists have the courage to reveal who their heroes and villains are, never mind their core convictions.

But the stratagem fools few people; they sense the liberal or conservative bias of the journalist. As Socrates put it: “speak that I may know you.” Most intelligent people can intuit the position of a journalist on the political spectrum from the very moment he opens his mouth and asks his questions. At times the questions are not very astute or intelligent and in themselves reveal the shallowness of the journalist’s belief system. One wonders if it would not be more honest by far to admit to certain ingrained biases and then examine them carefully to determine if they are reasonable and tenable.

But one may further ask: how is one to know where a journalist is coming from? How is one to rate his/her trust-worthiness when one is confronted not with “where one is coming from” but “the view from nowhere” which seems to have become the media’s true ideology? The media wants to give the impression that it is neither on the right nor on the left since generations of mainstream journalists have come to believe that they can be trusted only if they remain or give the appearance of being neutral, having no dog in the fight, so to speak. To disclose one’s beliefs simply goes against the grain. Most journalists when confronted with this conundrum will reply that they did not get into the business to parade their opinions but to uncover the facts. Just the facts, madam!

“Where I’m coming from in news reporting is no partnership or ideology” most newspapers editors would proudly proclaim to their readers. They would also add that the reporting speaks for itself and is not coming from any point of view. They are just being impartial or to use a slogan utilized by a very partial news media, Fox news, we are being fair and balanced. That slogan in itself makes people even more suspicious.

Then there is the editor who claims that “we present all opinions with no bias.” This is to admit that any opinion is as good as another. The opinion of an ignoramus, especially he has managed to be elected president of a country, is as valid as that of a professor of political science at a prestigious university. Truth is also an opinion, and that too is an opinion.

Were one to insist on a sincere answer to this typically modern conundrum any journalist worth his/her salt will tell us that he/she is in the business of uncovering truths that are not easy to uncover, in following leads no matter where they lead. Put that way, it sounds like an admirable heroic enterprise, almost Socratic. Here the question arises. Can a journalist interpret and analyze the news for the benefit of his/her readers rather than having readers figure it out for themselves and perhaps arriving at the wrong conclusions? Is that being too condescending with readers?

And so the debate goes on. Conservatives complain about the liberal sensibility of the media in general. Liberals complain about the veiled ideology apparent in conservative media circles such as Fox News. The result seems to be that they both wish to claim “objectivity” with the view from nowhere allegedly removing all biases.

They are two sides of the same coin. All too often this ploy will lead political observers to obsessing about winners and losers rather than the harder work of finding out who is telling the truth and what are the effects of policies adopted by politicians. Enter the reality show politician. Winner takes all. That’s where we seem to be presently.

In conclusion, it would appear that “the view from nowhere” or the attempt by many journalists to substitute religion or a belief system with an ideology, kept well-hidden of course, in order to be perceived as objective and unbiased, far from removing biases and prejudices from their narratives leads directly to them. Ruminations, whatever their worth.

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Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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