The ‘awayness’ problem

I was there, you weren't; let me tell you about it

The elemental question that CJR has asked me to address, “What is journalism for?” is 100 times better than the more commonly seen, “Who’s a journalist?” which is nothing but an invitation to class war. So let us dig in.

The ‘awayness’ of things

Try to imagine a world where journalism as an activity, and journalists as an occupational group, do not exist, but news does. For news is older and more basic to civilization than journalism. People have always exchanged news (“What news on the Rialto?” says Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice), but they have not always needed specialists in gathering and telling the news—journalists—to help them do it. Once we identify the conditions that make the work necessary, we can begin to answer the question of what journalism “is.”

The key to it is the problem of scale. I’ve had to invent a word to better describe this problem: “awayness.” Not the most elegant term, but it will do. Picture a small New England fishing village with 200 inhabitants. There is news in that village: births, deaths, marriages, feuds, a new church, a ship recently arrived from Europe. But the scale on which people move about is tiny enough that such news can circulate on its own. Eyes and ears, word of mouth, and the town gossip: these are sufficient to inform the inhabitants of what’s going on. People learn the news by walking around.

Enlarge the scale to 10,000 and that system no longer works. Things happening in one section of town are invisible to people living and working in another. There is a good chance they won’t hear of them just by walking around. But still, this is their town. To the degree that they identify with it, they will want to know “what’s going on.” The only way they can know is if someone makes it his or her business to find out and tell them. We think of journalism as responding to a public need to know, but to understand this need we have to start further back in the process: What causes a knowledge of the present to go missing in the first place?

My answer: the rising “awayness” of things. Journalism enters the picture when human settlement, daily economy, and political organization grow beyond the scale of the self-informing populace.

Search for the present

In 1990, the great Mexican poet Octavio Paz delivered a lecture upon winning the Nobel Prize for literature. In it, he recalled the shattering effect that a single photograph had upon him as a child growing up in the 1920s. Paz lived in a house in Mixcoac, on the outskirts of Mexico City, with a library full of picture books and a big garden planted with fig, pine, ash, and pomegranate trees. Together, the library and garden created a happy universe, where faraway lands and heroic battles could be conjured at will. The branches of a fig tree swayed like a pirate’s ship, the patio of a neighbor’s house became the ridge of a distant mountain range. The child had a vivid sense of near and far. But his grasp of these notions was still connected to a world he could see and touch. As Paz put it, “The beyond was here.”

One day, he was shown a photograph of some soldiers returning from World War I that disturbed him greatly. He now knew that somewhere far away, a war had ended. From his picture books he knew something of wars. But he had not known about this war, which was undeniably real, and yet strangely unavailable to him.

The photograph, says Paz, refuted the reality of his childhood world. He felt dislodged from the present, expelled from his garden. The awayness of things had been made real to him, attacking his naïve existence. The experience was repeated again and again, as some item of news demonstrated the reality of this other, more public world. In his daily life there was now a horizon that was beyond his garden, which forced upon him the uncomfortable feeling that he did not inhabit the real present, that he did not live in the real world.

Eventually, he said, he accepted the inevitable, rearranging his mental map to include the region from which that first, disruptive photograph had arrived. He began his adult life, which he described as a “search for the present.” What he meant by this is that he sought some way to live as a man of his time, to belong to the 20th century. He found it in literature and poetry—he became a writer—but his “search for the present” began because of an early encounter with the news.

What this story illustrates, I think, is the special power that journalism has to enlarge our sense of the present so that it includes the public world. Journalism becomes a powerful force in the culture when it gains a kind of authority over the present, persuading us that what is happening “out there,” over the horizon of our personal experience, is happening to us and must be followed. When it works, journalism refutes an existence that has grown too private.

But for it to have this effect we must do as Paz did—place ourselves in a wider universe and become creatures of our time. Often we feel more like spectators, horrified or fascinated at a distance, absorbed in the moment, but not necessarily engaged in the present. Perhaps that is when “the media” triumphs over journalism.

‘I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it’

So what is journalism, really? My answer: a report on what’s happening over the horizon of our personal experience. Journalism permits us to live as creatures of our time and make peace with the awayness of things within some community we identify with. There are intimate connections between it and diary writing, as well as bookkeeping (the day book of accounts). But journalism would never have become an essential practice in modern societies without the enlargement of scale and the fixing of modern identity within that bigger frame.

In this sense, the American republic incorporated journalism from the beginning because it assumed a common identity over the 13 original states. There had never been a republic attempted over such an “extent of territory” (that was the phrase then). One of the answers the founders gave to doubters was that the press would freely circulate across the new nation, from center to margin and back, and thereby solve an unprecedented problem in awayness.

The authority of the journalist originates in this kind of claim: “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.” Or: “I reviewed those documents, you couldn’t—you were too busy trying to pay the mortgage—so let me tell you what they show.” Or: “We interviewed the workers who were on that drilling platform when it exploded, you didn’t, let us tell you their story.” Or: “I have this source in the national security establishment, you don’t, let me tell you what he says is being done in your name.”

Obviously, then, the part-time blogger who goes to the school-board meeting and writes about it for those who couldn’t be there is doing journalism because journalism is also an extended reflection on the word meanwhile. You were getting your kids to bed. Meanwhile, there was a school board meeting. You’re trading bonds. Meanwhile, new unemployment figures were released. This is just another way of describing the problem of scale and the condition I have called awayness. A lot happens while we’re doing other things. Some of it matters to who we are. When we elect to become men and women of our time, we need journalism to make good on that choice. Whether enough of us will continue to choose that option is perhaps the field’s greatest unknown. But journalists are not powerless over that decision. The better they are at what they do, the more likely we are to live in search of the present.

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Jay Rosen is a journalism professor at New York University. He writes PressThink, a blog about journalism and its ordeals, and is the author of What Are Journalists For?, about the rise of the civic-journalism movement.