Yesterday started out nicely enough. On deck yesterday in my course on Christianity and Media: Plato’s discussions of the arts in The Republic (books 2, 3 and 10) and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The grandfather of criticism and the great articulation of freedom of expression. The goal of the class was to start exploring different approaches to interpretation of art and media. What does media do and how do we know that it has succeeded? Does good art portray reality accurately, express the emotions of the artist, or teach lessons? Is the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech and press an unlimited right, or are there times when the right may be legitimately curtailed? My students were great, offering some profound insights and unpacking the complexity of the question.
Steve Jobs and the News
All of that was floating around in my mind as I returned to my office to read the tech news. Of note was a Reuters report about the “civil lawsuit brought by five tech workers against Apple Inc, Google Inc, Intel Corp and others, alleging an illegal conspiracy to eliminate competition for each other’s employees and drive down wages.” The companies seem to have agreed not to poach each other’s employees, which seems to be a common practice, but also seems to be illegal. I say “seems” because I’m not a lawyer and am not really able to say for sure. Morally questionable, in any case. But that’s just context, not the point.
As per usual, I read several different stories about the case. This time around, the coverage varied widely. As part of the discovery process, the lawyers made public a bunch of emails, including some brutal memos from Steve Jobs where he bullies and threatens his business rivals. Nothing I would encourage in my ethics classes, and not exactly uplifting stuff, but nothing new here if you have read anything about Steve Jobs.
But the more I read, the more discouraged I became. What bummed me out was the way in which some
news outlets clearly relished the opportunity to lambast Jobs for his behavior and temperament. For example, Dan Lyons—a veteran tech journalist and current ReadWrite editor-in-chief who is probably best known for writing the “The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs“—wrote a snarky and very critical piece whose tone is summed up perfectly in the sarcastic title: News Flash: Steve Jobs Bullied Rivals And Was Kind Of A Dick. Rather than help me understand the facts of the case better, the piece seemed designed to make sure that I knew how much of a jerk the guy was. Similar tone to his satiric writing in the SDSJ, but at a news site, it wasn’t quite as entertaining.
Plato and Writing
What does it mean to be a writer, especially one who does journalism? In part, it has to be about truth telling. The American commitment to freedom of the press is grounded in this idea. Citizens need to know the truth in order to contribute well to the governance of the republic. We can’t vote well or participate in building the common good if we don’t know the facts. For his part, Plato doubted that many content creators tell the truth. And while he was ok with doctors and leaders lying for the good of the city at times, not so with content creators.
But facts of the world aren’t the only important truths. Plato also believed that creators should also speak the truth of human life so that we can become our fullest selves. Poets run into problems when they portray people doing unseemly things, as when Homer portrays heroes crying in The Illiad. Likewise musicians who sing songs that encourage vice, either through lyrics or through the style of the song. Art is a potent force, so we need to be careful what we do with it. For Plato, that meant showing some poets and musicians the door.
At their best, writers help us understand both the world and what it means to be a person. Not just through what they say, but also how they say it.
Which is why today’s news pieces saddened me. Is it really necessary to relate facts in a way that degrades people? Sometimes facts are ugly. By all means, we need to tell the stories of bad behavior. Bad behavior needs light shown upon us so that we can expose and correct it. That’s not what I mean.
What I mean is that it seems to me that mockery does not advance truth. Satire, yes, mockery, no. I certainly didn’t come to any better understanding of the lawsuit or Jobs through the insults and name calling. I just felt dirty.
Our New/s Equation
About a year ago, right when the stories about Foxconn and Apple (and pretty much every other electronics company) broke, Dan wrote a thoughtful piece about the contradictions we deal with in knowing the tragic working conditions of those who make our gadgets. In it, he remarked:
So maybe this two-faced culture makes sense from a business perspective: Treat customers like royalty + treat suppliers like slaves = profit.
My guess is that our penchant for hyperbolic headlines and bombastic writing these days—what some refer to as link-bait and churnalism—follows a similar equation:
Treat readers like royalty + treat companies and public figures as targets for scorn and ridicule = profits.
We’ve built ourselves a news system that focuses on capturing viewers, listeners, and clicks, sometimes to the detriment of actual news. It’s more fun to wade in the churn of analysis than the stillness of pure information. Doesn’t necessarily make us better people.
And, for the record, I did read the entire Jobs story, comments and all. And yes, I am disappointed in myself.
Maybe Plato is not all that wrong when he said that the problem with poetry that portrays bad action is that the audience members become bad actors. We’ve become a people for whom scorn and ridicule are primary modes of public discourse. (You’ve read online comments, and you did just go through the same election cycle I did, right?) Whole websites—whole businesses—thrive on our desire for the degrading. And we do seem to desire it. Otherwise, such sites wouldn’t succeed.
That’s our legal right, of course. But I guess it’s just not something I celebrate.
What to Celebrate?
What I celebrate, and I hope that my students celebrate, is the way that communicating—be it in writing, poetry, music, film, dance, etc.—can be a way to help each other become the best that we can be. Dan’s old website welcomed people with the word “namasté”. I think that is a great way to phrase it. Namasté is a Hindi term of greeting derived from Sanskrit. The term is accompanied by a gesture, hands placed together palm to palm in front of the heart, with a slight bow of the head. (He’s doing it in his icon on RW.)
It is a gesture and word that expresses respect for the dignity of the other, through which people greet the spark of the divine in each other.
Now that’s a good model for how we should do the news. Thanks, Dan.