The New Republic: Have we confused viral with consequence?

March 25, 2015
leon wieseltier

I got schooled last night. Bloomberg’s Charlie Rose was interviewing Leon Wieseltier, the former literary editor of The New Republic, the liberal journal of arts and culture. I had only followed TNR’s implosion from a distance, intrigued by its owner, Chris Hughes, whose net worth hangs at about $1 billion thanks to having been a Harvard roommate of Mark Zuckerberg and helping him to co-found Facebook.

This winter, Hughes faced a newsroom mutiny when most of his staff writers, including Wieseltier, resigned in protest rather than accept Hughes’ plan to transform the 100-year old journal into something more akin to an online technology publication with more audio, video, graphics, and revenue generated by snappier, shorter articles attended by clickable headlines.

Just another victim of the sea change in journalism, I had thought, until Wieseltier forced me to reassess my opinion of media, an opinion that seems to have been shaped recently more by the vernacular of startups than the role and purpose of journalism. In a remarkably personal and emotional interview, Wieseltier reminded me that:

  • Journalism is not commerce. Clicks and reach do not define the import and weight of an idea, opinion, or thought. In fact, he suggests that those ideas of greatest value to a society are specifically those that do not radiate the furthest, at least initially.
  • There are no metrics for influence. A single noble idea adopted by the right individual can have more impact and result than ignorance spread to the masses. We have confused viral with consequence.
  • Citizen journalism is not journalism. In fact, it’s all too often simply documentation. Journalism’s ultimate role is to serve as gatekeepers, a right earned by making hard decisions of which ideas, currents, and concepts merit coverage. That is where journalism’s reputation resides, not on simply reporting that which satisfies the masses.
  • We don’t need to be a nation of intellectuals. But we don’t need to be a nation of morons, either. We need journalists who uncover ideas that challenge our culture if we are to have any hope of evolving beyond our current state of affairs.
  • The Smithsonian Institution could make lots of money. If Disney ran the place, that is. But not all that can be monetized should be monetized, if it does not serve to extend ourselves as a people.

Wieseltier’s truths consumed me for the evening. Thank you Leon, for reminding me of the true role of journalism in our society.

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