Interview with Zygmunt Bauman (Part III)

This is the third and final part of my (MD) interview with Zygmunt Bauman (ZB) on 29 May 2006 in Leeds, UK. Parts I and II of the interview were posted earlier on this blog.

MD: Focusing on journalists, journalism studies and media education, I would like to talk about the roles and responsibilities of journalism in this context. Journalists tend to think of themselves as successful particularly if their peers recognize the uniqueness of their contribution, their point, or ‘big bang’ if you will. On the other hand, discourse and content analyses suggest that journalistic narratives and the kind of stories reporters tell are always the same, reducing complexity by focusing on good versus evil, conflicts among political and economic leaders of men. So one of the criticisms leveled against journalism today is that they are stuck inside their own myths that they keep repeating over and over while the rest of society has moved on and is engaged in a different type of conversation altogether.

ZB: "What you said applies to the structure of one single journalist piece, one of the myriads of journalist pieces. Even if your postulates were met by all authors of all pieces, the most harrowing snags - how to absorb, retain and use the thereby ‘available’ information? – won’t be affected… One Sunday issue of the New York Times today contains the same amount of bits of information that the highly educated individual of the eighteenth century took in all his lifetime. In last thirty years or so more new information was produced than in the last five thousand years of human history. The amount of information on offer is growing exponentially while the retentive and processing capacity of human brains doesn’t grow…

Transfer of a message is complete only when the message is received, or retained, or memorized. But journalists today are confronted by a readership of ‘zappers’, picking a sentence apart in bits and pieces, consuming not so much ideas, interpretations, arguments and analyses, as (in the currently fashionable terms) ‘sound bites’. Journalists can’t but be affected. They wouldn’t get through to their readers. They will be in fact eliminated at he earliest stage of their message’s travel if what they produce were not a ‘headline-worthy’ stuff. Better still to produce stuff worthy of front-page headline. Front pages though tend to be for that reason overcrowded and the life expectation of a first page headline is a day or two… No time to ‘get to the roots’ before the page needs to be vacated by the next headlines in line.”

MD: Journalism, in its dominant professional self-perception, legitimizes its existence by arguing that it provides the social cement of society, that is a necessary cornerstone of democracy. Considering liquid life and the contemporary post-national constellation, to what extent can we still derive that social cohesive function from journalism? I mean how can we define a journalism that would fit a liquid society? Would this be a very different journalism?

ZB: “Well it would differ really […] But since there are journalists who are writing for The Guardian or the New York Times, and there are those who work at the regional, little newspapers who have two hundred constant readers, all of them friends and neighbors - I would find it extremely difficult to make generalizations that cover them all.

To take the second of the named categories: I wrote recently of what I called the ‘cloakroom communities’. In a ‘cloakroom community’, people gather before a two hours-long performance to hang their anoraks or cloaks; then they all enjoy the same performance, watching the same actors in the same plot. When it’s finished, they jointly applaud the actors and the director, return to the cloakroom, take their jackets off the pegs; then each one goes in their own direction. This allegory grasps well the predicament of most communities of today. They are put together, temporarily, around a shared focus. There are little lateral bonds between the gathered, either extant or emergent apart of that focus of fleeting interest.

Another feature is the diminished ambition and power of ‘cloakroom communities’ in comparison with the real ones. They don’t intend to be exclusive – one may, and one does belong to many such communities at the same time with no conflict – but also without much commitments and obligation of lasting loyalty to either.

Journalism fits that scheme very well indeed. When ‘hitting a gold mine’, by getting ‘an exclusive’, by getting through to sensationalist news that others neglected or failed to reach, a journalist provides as well a peg for another ‘cloakroom community’ as well. Though because in a liquid-modern world each of us is only as good as their last hit, in two weeks time no one will remember where the peg was and there will be need for another. Very few people keep or even record the pegs of yore – unless it is an event of the 11th of September 2001 magnitude, deserving to be shown and re-shown endlessly on millions of screens in slow motion. In case of lesser events - if you went to the kitchen to make a cup of tea, you might miss with no second chance.

Communities built by journalists are frail and have no more than a butterfly’s life span. For that reason, they fit very well with the pace of contemporary life. Besides, every day many communities are created that way in New York or elsewhere depending on who reads what kind of magazine or paper... Very seldom, there is the same headline on the first page of every newspaper. Such consensus only happens during the World Cup, a tsunami or September 11th. One may say that we witness an overproduction of communities (in the ‘cloakroom’ form, of course), but very little, and very seldom, it is done and can be done in the way of reproduction and long-term survival.”

MD: For me there’s something contradictory here. On the one hand it would almost seem that the way journalism is structured would make it a perfect partner to a liquid modern life. It is a profession running after itself, it is never as good as its last moment. It constantly reinvents and reproduces, as always exclusively focused on the new. On the other hand, it doesn’t fit with the contemporary lifestyle at all anymore. Audiences for news are graying, young people don’t follow the news, at least not in the way that journalism is used to: by subscribing to a newspaper, by deliberately going to a news agent, and turning on the evening news at eight o’clock. So there is this strange disconnect. I’m tempted to think that journalism was an unwitting partner in establishing liquid modernity, and now that this is achieved it finds itself unable to let go of its solid modern roots.

ZB: What is in the mind of the actors when they are acting? Has been the effect the conscious motive of action, or did it emerge as what the sociologists call its ‘unanticipated consequence’? Are the journalists (which ones? How many?) Motivated by the wish to ‘reproduce community’ and supply it with ‘cement’? Or are they really interested (which ones? How many?) in being first to bring the news whatever the news might be, providing it is likely to sell the papers? Neither you nor me know for sure.

I’m sure you are right when suspecting that they provide ‘social cement’. But what you cement doesn’t depend on the quality of the cement itself. It may be a tower block. It could be a mud hut. It could be a new shopping mall. A prison. A madhouse. A discotheque. But only when the building is finished you can really say what has been cemented using the cement of your making. We can give the benefit of the doubt to some orthodox, traditional journalist’s intentions; and his loyalty to the traditional vocation, his determination to fulfill the mission. But look – even the old masters’ paintings, Vermeer, Picasso… even they would be admitted to liquid-modern public intention as an event - a hyped exposition, from January to February - rather than on the ground of their own, age-old, indestructible merits.

I don’t think media can be the sole defendant for the charges often made against them and against them alone - for instance, the depraving nature of their messages - but I do believe that willy-nilly, by design or by default, media importantly participate in producing as well as reproducing reality.

McLuhan memorably said: the medium is the message. The message of the media, the impact of the media, is not so much the letter of the messages but the form and way in which they are supplied. The way in which they emerge from nowhere and immediately disappear, the lightning speed in which they are fed into public consciousness and evicted from it, the impossibility to digest any news in any depth […] Just try to convince those young people to give you a hierarchy of what’s important and what’s less important, instead of just knowing about events. Liquid life - of which no one is exempt! - prompts journalists to behave in the way they do; but by doing what they do they heavily contribute to life’s liquidity."

(End of Interview; for full paper, see Journalism Studies).