The Dramaturgy of Politics and Journalism: What is Journalism?

nyc subway
'Subway Noir' (Richard Sandler, 1980s).

January 24, 2022

The minutiae of everyday life includes the daily dramaturgy of politics: following the countless instances of Loudoun County schools in Virginia going woke to the point of distributing sexual reading materials and covering up a rape scandal; to tennis player Novak Djokovic and his battles in Australia and France over vaccination. Of these two alone, many more countless articles may be written, pouncing on the details as though the world must be updated at every moment, like swiping down to refresh your feed. 

Though it is important for anyone with an interest in the politics of daily life to stay informed, we have become so inundated with minute by minute information that we do not become any more intelligent. We become only informed. It’s possible for one to be informed about the movements of cockroaches crawling through his walls, but his knowledge of where they feed and fester do not require intelligence; arguably, it might suggest an unhealthy consequence of some loneliness in order to take time in understanding what is very objectively a problem, rather than doing with that information what it will take to solve it, namely, getting the cockroaches out of his home. 

We have drowned in a sea of the daily political life of cockroaches, without the intelligence—and with it, the foresight—to correct course through action. Politics is both action and rhetoric, one more so than the other. It doesn’t need intelligence to speak its mind, attract the masses, and make them passionate advocates. 

Journalism, by contrast, keeps politics alive by documenting its movements. Journalism is the process of keeping tabs on the cockroaches, without the motive to solve their nuisances. Activist journalists disagree with this idea, clearly, as our news sources today rush from the podium with a megapeaker in their hands to preach, rather than inform—a distinction no longer distinct as the cesspool of the profession itself has become inundated with couriers. 

(Related: Moral Imbalances between Left and Conservatism: Thoughts on Populism & Ideology)

The idea of strict documentation is called journalistic neutrality, a term largely put to rest by the mainstream outlets as they reject the ideal for the convenience of bias. Nevertheless, it is authentic to admit that inconvenient fact: that true objectivity is just that, an ideal. But this issue isn’t easily resolved by dismissing it as acceptable, if only because it is impossible to rid it of the sin of ulterior motives. Journalism is a cruel profession, with passion and ethical duty in constant tension, but here we resolve it as best as we can with a reminder from Clifford Geertz: 

“I have never been impressed by the argument that as complete objectivity is impossible (as of course it is)… one might as well let one’s sentiments run loose…That is like saying that, as a perfectly aseptic environment is impossible, one might as well conduct surgery in a sewer.”

Even with the acknowledgement of bias, ideological musing is never warranted. It is one thing to have a conservative, liberal, or leftist bent—the first two sometimes working in tandem—but it is discrediting to tailor one’s work to the politics of an audience. If your audience expects you to confirm what they already think, truth was left at the doorstep for ammunition: more rhetoric to justify what they want to be true contrary to what might actually be true. 

The minutiae of everyday life are offered homage in political outlets that specialize in breaking news and other dramaturgical unfoldings, save the few that exist that are able to extract larger ideas by using these minute details, blips in an historical narrative, to tell a story of the world as we know it and an implicit world that is no longer (see National Review and Imaginative Conservative, who accomplish this symbiosis in their respective rights). 

Journalism is a ‘political’ field only insofar as politics refers to the affairs of the everyday man; but politics refers to the affairs of man and governance. I would instead call journalism an ethnographic field: the process of documenting, as news, a people and the culture possessed by them and composing their society. To uncover a story about a rockstar or a movie star is as much journalism as it would be ethnographic to write a book on shoe-making—each a documentation of individuals, what they do, and their history.

The relationship between politics and journalism is not that they are exclusively mutual, only compatible or workable when together, but that they bear in common a dramaturgical essence. Journalism denotes ‘daily.’ A journal is properly understood as a diary, a recollection of minute thoughts and details. Likewise, politics denotes daily affairs, a business without fixed principles so that one can swindle his way out of the ever-shifting vicissitudes of public opinion.  

Today, we’re suspiciously witnessing a phenomenon where the theater of politics is hosted by the journalistic outlets as Hamilton is hosted by Broadway or Don’t Look Up by Netflix. Outlets are not only hosts, but sometimes the producers, but always the distributors, of political theater—CNN is the Paramount Pictures to the leftist machine, and deeper still lie the actors upon whose investments determine their content. In this feature-length film everyone is an actor, including the producers themselves—a style that would be Kaufmanesque if it possessed a tenth of the literary intellect and wasn’t so insidiously Orwellian. 

The reality of journalism today disallows us to talk of it as one might find in textbook definitions. Journalism is an accomplice to the political institution, which subsumes any industry influential to, or with a vested interest in, the public sphere, such as the financial, pharmaceutical, and technological. It’s this role determined by external forces that journalism has taken upon itself to fulfill, duties that need not be their own, with ulterior interests one may only speculate on, which has delegitimized it. Journalism has castrated itself of its dignity for secretive gain and mindless applause from their audience. It has lost any sense of being its own. 

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