In a capitalist society the news is a commodity.
This is a simple concept to grasp – reporters write the news which is then published by news organizations who sell it to consumers and a portion of the income from the sale is used to pay reporters and produce more news while the rest is collected as profit. Written out that way the news business seems hardly different from the oil industry; replace “reporters” with oil-rig workers and “news organizations” with ExxonMobil and the literal meaning of the sentence barely changes.
The recent layoffs at news organizations nationwide illustrate the parallels between news and any other product, but on a philosophical level many might argue that news as the fourth estate is of a greater importance to a society than any manufactured good. It is the conflict between the philosophical importance of news and the pragmatic commodification of news that is behind the long death of traditional news media going forward.
In his works Karl Marx established four forms of alienation caused by capitalism. Alienation of the worker from their product, alienation of the worker from the act of production, alienation of the worker from their species-essence (human nature) and – most relevant to the demise of news – alienation of the worker from other workers. In short, Marx proposed that because capitalism means an unequal distribution of resources while also relying on competition to allocate said resources, workers in and of themselves become a commodity. As a commodity, competition will drive workers to resent other workers (due to unequal rewards for labor) while ignoring the system that led to such inequality in the first place.
There’s a whole bunch more to Marx than just that (and I find myself disagreeing with him more often than not) but the discussions surrounding the layoffs of late have shown the truth behind his conceptions of alienation. Since news is a commodity, reporters like any laborer are commodities as well and have become alienated from their fellow laborer in the process.
To understand this sentiment, imagine the following: You’re a coal miner in West Virginia, or rather you used to be. You just lost your job. You go home and you see a Vice or Washington Post op-ed about how coal miners should learn to do IT work. Then, a year or so later, you see thousands of reporters losing their jobs. You were never taught news literacy in high school – you never knew the Post article telling you to just “pick up programming” was written by a Silicon Valley start-up founder turned blogger – all you know is that the news told you to just casually pick up a new career and now those same people are in the same boat as you. Do you feel resentment?
This sentiment and variations on it is repeated throughout online discussions on the layoffs. Despite the fact that salaries for reporters average around $40,000 using the most generous measures, some rural and blue-collar Americans see journalists as a part of the oppressing class as opposed seeing them as yet another group of oppressed workers. Reasons for considering journalists oppressors and not as fellow oppressed were primarily related to culture and education. Journalists typically have at least a bachelor's degree, are more likely to live on one of the coasts and are more likely to travel in “elite social circles” and participate in “high culture” (at least according to those on Reddit an Twitter arguing that journalists are enemies of the common man).
All of the above reasons trace back to an ideology of oppression that classifies people not by capital but rather by social standing.As one redditor wrote:“The most obvious reason to exclusively classify the capitalist class as the “Elite” and not include people of high social status, social influence and education is to blunt the edge of criticism towards that group of people, and since those people don’t lack for platforms that is what they do, constantly.” This reasoning is frightening to me – like any populist argument I worry that it can lead to anti-intellectual thinking (making philosophical enemies of education and the arts) – and it is this aversion to populism that makes me hesitant to embrace Marx. However, in this instance Marx is correct. It is the alienation of workers that has brought about the popular distaste for journalism.
Consider the argument that journalists are in fact oppressors and not oppressed themselves. This argument, as illustrated above, is preceded by the assumption that journalists get access to education, “elite social circles” and “high culture.” In essence what this is saying is that journalists get access to things that a roofer in Mancelona Michigan simply doesn’t. However, instead of questioning why a roofer from Mancelona doesn’t have access to those things, the argument instead focuses on justifying resentment of those workers (journalists) who are granted that access. This is alienation between workers as Marx saw it. The workers resent each other for their inequalities rather than the system responsible for those inequalities. Coupled with decades of populist propaganda labeling the media as “coastal elites” it’s no wonder why blue-collar Midwesterners are engaging with traditional news outlets less and less (thereby harming those outlets bottom-line and potentially necessitating layoffs).
What then is the solution? Despite Marx being right in his analysis of the problem I don’t think his solution – the abolition of capitalism – is very practical or even desirable. The alienation between rural America and journalists seems to stem in cultural differences. As such the only I see going forward is the establishment of cultural education in K-12 programs. Not cultural education in a dystopian “only pre-approved thoughts” sense, but merely including cursory education on philosophy, political science and sociology to the K-12 experience. While not a quick or easy fix, this should erase any complaints about journalists having exclusive access to “high culture” (which, incidentally, I believe is a dangerous and elitist phrase that can cause some to double down on anti-intellectualism masked as anti-elitism). This along with policy measures to ensure that a college education is financially accessible to all will go a long way to create a more unified cultural experience for all workers.
As a final note I understand that it’s hard to write a thousand words about how the solution to our problems is to teach rural kids some philosophy without coming across as elitist. My only rebuttal is that in high school I would go mudding in my truck just to come home and read J.S. Mills – why shouldn’t every kid have that option?