Delusions of Rapture
In all the hullaballoo of the debates, and the election, and post-election analysis, a parting speech by soon-to-be-retired Bill Moyers, titled Journalism Under Fire, may have been overloooked. It was delivered on September 17, 2004, to the Society of Professional Journalists.
After detailing, with many dramatic examples, how political scandal, corporate power, excessive government secrecy, and media concentration have thoroughly corrupted Washington, he goes on to give several engrossing examples of how the rare act of good journalism is, in his view, critical to a healthy democracy:
[T]he quality of journalism and the quality of democracy are inextricably joined. The late Martha Gellhorn, who spent half a century reporting on war and politicians -- and observing journalists, too -- eventually lost her faith that journalism could, by itself, change the world. But the act of keeping the record straight is valuable in itself, she said. “Serious, careful, honest journalism is essential, not because it is a guiding light but because it is a form of honorable behavior, involving the reporter and the reader.” I second that. I believe democracy requires “a sacred contract” between journalists and those who put their trust in us to tell them what we can about how the world really works."
The speech is noteworthy for its broad sweep, erudition, and candor. A few excerpts would not do it justice. It should be read in its entirety.
That said, Left Coasters may find especially timely Moyers' insights into the revivalist movement as he saw it six weeks before Election Day:
One of the biggest changes in my lifetime is that the delusional is no longer marginal. How do we fathom and explain the mindset of violent exhibitionists and extremists who blow to smithereens hundreds of children and teachers of Middle School Number One in Beslan, Russia? Or the radical utopianism of martyrs who crash hijacked planes into the World Trade Center? How do we explain the possibility that a close election in November could turn on several million good and decent citizens who believe in the Rapture Index? That’s what I said -- the Rapture Index; Google it and you will understand why the best-selling books in America today are the 12 volumes of the "Left Behind" series that have earned multi-millions of dollars for their co-authors . . . .
These true believers subscribe to a fantastical theology concocted in the l9th century by a couple of immigrant preachers who took disparate passages from the Bible and wove them into a narrative millions of people believe to be literally true. According to this narrative, Jesus will return to earth only when certain conditions are met: when Israel has been established as a state; when Israel then occupies the rest of its “biblical lands;” when the third temple has been rebuilt on the site now occupied by the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosques; and, then, when legions of the Antichrist attack Israel. This will trigger a final showdown in the valley of Armageddon during which all the Jews who have not converted will be burned. Then the Messiah returns to earth. The Rapture occurs once the big battle begins. True believers ”will be lifted out of their clothes and transported to heaven where, seated next to the right hand of God, they will watch their political and religious opponents suffer plagues of boils, sores, locusts and frogs during the several years of tribulation which follow."
I’m not making this up. * * * As the British writer George Monbiot has pointed out, for these people, the Middle East is not a foreign policy issue, it’s a biblical scenario, a matter of personal belief. A war with Islam in the Middle East is not something to be feared but welcomed; if there’s a conflagration there, they come out winners on the far side of tribulation, inside the pearly gates, in celestial splendor, supping on ambrosia to the accompaniment of harps plucked by angels.
One estimate puts these people at about 15 percent of the electorate. Most are likely to vote Republican; they are part of the core of George W. Bush’s base support. He knows who they are and what they want. * * * But this is just the point: Journalists who try to tell these stories, connect these dots, and examine these links are demeaned, disparaged and dismissed. This is the very kind of story that illustrates the challenge journalists face in a world driven by ideologies that are stoutly maintained despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality. Ideologues -- religious, political, or editorial ideologues -- embrace a world view that cannot be changed because they admit no evidence to the contrary. And Don Quixote on Rocinante tilting at windmills had an easier time of it than a journalist on a laptop tilting with facts at the world’s fundamentalist belief systems.
There's more to be learned from Moyer's speech. How too many journalists are now among the super-wealthy, "living like Jack Welch." How he would like to take issue with David Simon's cynical observation -- "one of the sad things about contemporary journalism is that it actually matters very little" -- but he has to admit that "perhaps" Simon is right when it comes to today's mostly commercial-driven journalism. How "tabloid journalism" and "the nattering know-nothings of talk radio" run a "ceaseless conveyor belt" of propaganda that misinforms and distorts public discourse.
And, he discusses how bloggers yet may be saviors by using the Internet to "engage us in a new conversation of democracy." It is a tradition, he points out, that reaches all the way back to Thomas Paine.
But is blogging journmalism? Moyers thinks so.
I believe Tom Rosenthiel got it right in that Boston Globe article when he said that the proper question is not whether you call yourself a journalist but whether your own work constitutes journalism. And what is that? I like his answer: “A journalist tries to get the facts right,” tries to get “as close as possible to the verifiable truth”-not to help one side win or lose but “to inspire public discussion.” Neutrality, he concludes, is not a core principle of journalism, “but the commitment to facts, to public consideration, and to independence from faction... .
Well before the election, Moyers was challenging 'journalism' to report truthfully and accurately on the delusions of the mad crowd. Will journalism respond? Or is truth now in the sole custody of bloggers like us?