Is journalism even a vocation anymore?
Mark Hemingway | Bored reporters covering the White House are more concerned with public image than public interest
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Facing the worst inflation in 40 years, Americans struggle to make ends meet, Russia wages war in Europe, and federal government officials vehemently deny that a Disinformation Governance Board (announced and then mysteriously “paused”) bears any similarity to George Orwell’s 1984.
And somehow, journalists in Washington, D.C., complain that their job is uneventful. A Politico article from a couple of months ago boldly announced, “During the age of Biden, a perch inside the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room has become something altogether different. It’s become a bore.”
As incredible as that statement is, the article gets worse. One anonymous veteran reporter told Politico that the White House press secretary at the time, Jen Psaki, “is very good at her job, which is unfortunate. And the work is a lot less rewarding, because you’re no longer saving democracy from Sean Spicer and his Men’s Warehouse suit. Jawing with Jen just makes you look like an [alas, a word unfit for WORLD Opinions].”
This quote is a near-perfect distillation of everything wrong with modern journalism. The reporter in question is intimidated by a not especially talented mouthpiece for a president with an abysmal approval rating. The journalist is more concerned about public image than the public interest. And for good measure, Politico misspelled Men’s Wearhouse.
It’s not as if there isn’t a public need to hold President Joe Biden accountable for his myriad failures and fumbles. If you’re keeping score, Biden has a lower approval rating than Donald Trump did at this point in his presidency, and the press absolutely hounded Trump. They hounded him because they hated him.
What explains the disparate treatment is perhaps the most damning critique of all: Journalists are simultaneously bored and afraid to question the current president because they see their real job as not informing the public but as enforcers and promulgators of a particular political worldview.
To understand this problem in Christian terms, journalists are failing to understand the importance of vocation. In response to Roman Catholic claims that only those in the priesthood or religious orders had a special claim to holy work, Martin Luther and other Reformers argued that all Christians served God when completing necessary tasks through their work.
The concept of vocation is linguistically rooted in the reality of a specific calling to work. Christians are called to live faithfully in all the different spheres of life, be they familial, religious, economic, or political. (Today, even Opus Dei Catholics subscribe to a belief known as “the work,” which has striking similarities to the doctrine of vocation.) As it says in 1 Corinthians, “Let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.”
Even if you’re not a Christian, the doctrine of vocation provides helpful clarity about how to order your life. At its most basic level, an understanding of vocation requires you to ask in any given job or task, “What purpose am I supposed to be serving?” Most of us have different obligations in different vocational contexts, and when we confuse those obligations, we often fail to do our jobs in ways that serve others fairly or honestly.
If journalism is a calling and its purpose is to serve the people, then journalists should get busy doing their jobs. Ordinary Americans depend on the media to inform them, and the White House press corps (and the larger world of “mainstream journalism”) is not doing its job.
Perhaps this seems a bit like restating the obvious, but in our present culture, which is very good at building noise machines and justifying narcissism, being told to do their jobs seems to shock many journalists. Exhibit A is that an influential publication such as Politico is writing articles about journalistic boredom at a time when Americans are facing the worst economy since the 1970s and the world is on the brink of war.
Of course, all of us have probably at some point or another been guilty of confusing our own selfish desires with our vocational responsibilities. How many of us have failed at important jobs and duties because we didn’t clarify our purpose or weren’t mindful of the people we’re serving?
But it’s one thing when we make personal mistakes—it’s much more worrisome when an entire profession, let alone one as important as journalism, seems increasingly tone-deaf and confused about who it is supposed to be helping.
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