I’ve been working on a research paper about representation and the use of non-elite sourcing in community newspapers and I keep running into the same issue of how we, as journalists, deal with a lack of interest that many readers seem to have for stories about the lives of other people, particularly the more vulnerable populations in our own cities.
It’s common in journalism school to hear that either people are too busy to read about things that don’t directly affect them, or that stories about vulnerable populations are competing with fun buzzfeed style content in the information age.
But I had a thought yesterday that perhaps the lack of interest, and consequent spoon-feeding approach to giving the public information about their own communities, has a lot more to do with the way our society is structured. A lack of interest in one’s own community could very well be the result of being socialized into a society in which we are taught to be motivated by material rewards; a way of life that isolates people from their communities and neighbors, who we are led to see as competition.
In his famous post-Cold War essay The End of History, Francis Fukayama claimed humanity had reached the climax of its sociocultural evolution, marked by the conquest of Western liberal capitalism over Marxist-Leninist communism. “And the death of this ideology means,” Fukayama claimed, “the growing ‘Common Marketization’ of international relations, and the diminution of the likelihood of large-scale conflict between states.”
The era of neoliberal economic restructuring that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union has meant not just the common marketization of international relations (although the continued instance of wars contradicts Fukayama’s claim that this would all be peaceful), but also the marketization of social relations between people, a quest to privatize all space and commodify all natural resources. The dismantling of the welfare state throughout the 80s and 90s was a product of this ideology. Evolutionarily and traditionally social creatures, human beings were atomized to compete as allegedly free acting individuals in accordance to market laws.
In the introduction to the booklet “Trashing the Neoliberal City: Autonomous Cultural Practices in Chicago 2000-2005,” the editors describe life in Fukuyama’s post-historical era:
“Neoliberalism refers to the historical transformation and recent extension of capitalist market domination into every corner of the globe and into every moment of our waking lives. Its dominant logic of free-market fundamentalism corrodes social solidarity as it rejects social justice in favor of individual ‘freedom’ to compete and consume.”
Community-minded and civic-minded journalism is antithetical to this ideology, and thus we as journalists are up against far more powerful forces than the distraction offered by buzzfeed quizes and cat youtube videos. It sounds romantic and idealistic, but affective and powerful journalism has the potential to reweave the social fabric that has come undone in the neoliberal era. Newspapers and media have an emancipatory potential in their ability to get people interested in their neighbor’s or fellow citizen’s lives. Community journalism can show people not just how public issues hurt or benefit the readers themselves, but also the affects they have on people living on the other side of town.
Fukayama wasn’t entirely deterministic about the hegemony of the neoliberal social order. He ends his famous essay with a lament for the creativity, intellectualism and cooperation that marked the ‘historical era.”
“The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.”
In the early part of this century, when everyone was pronouncing it dead in the wake of the Internet’s rise, journalism could have easily been thrown in there with art and philosophy. But of course, just as history didn’t really end, neither did the desire of more than a handful of people around the world to produce quality and powerful journalism. Just as moments like ousting of fascist dictators in Chile, Argentina and Brazil, the rapid spread of the occupy wall street and the Arab spring show that resistance to the dominant “post-historical” order is not dead, so too does the enduring existence of journalists who want to inspire interest in their local communities (as evidenced in my research and interviews with editors).
As Fukayama said at the end of his essay: “Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.”