we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass
~ from Adrienne Rich, Diving into the Wreck
Ok, I pick on The Guardian. It feels both futile and illuminating so to do, the illumination having come to me only recently. It is the place I keep returning to to observe the wreckage, to participate with the coming-apart. The Guardian is the only mainstream media outlet that I visit on a regular basis, and it informs, infuriates, bores, overloads, befuddles me. Skimming through it is like being handed a loud, colourful jigsaw puzzle – or several of them, jumbled together – with too many pieces missing and no guide picture, other than a misty illusion of informed global citizenship.
Yes, The Guardian does publish good articles: thorough, insightful and original, but they are no excuse. Excusing and defending The Guardian as ‘the best we’ve got’ (we of leftish liberal persuasion) is a hasty move to cement over the cracks, to avoid facing, and the fact that we’re abiding in, what is breaking.
The breaking runs deeper than the steady Internet-driven decline of print newspapers as a profitable business model for journalism. The breaking is also in the fact and illusion of continuity, that The Guardian carries on, projecting vitality and viability, even as it falls further out of step with emergent realities, and what those realities might eventually turn round and ask of its projections.
“The paper’s role, like that of its rightwing cousins, is to limit the imaginative horizons of readers. While there is just enough leftwing debate to make readers believe their paper is pluralistic, the kind of radical perspectives needed to question the very foundations on which the system of Western dominance rests is either unavailable or is ridiculed.”
The article from which that quote is taken is nearly five years old now. I could have done more research and doubtless found similar criticisms repeated countless times. The Guardian is exposed, and it remains functionally veiled. It stoutly upholds the role of cultural and political gatekeeper, when the gateposts have moved or rotted away. A significant section of the readership – those who would, on the evidence of their comments, probably punch anyone who dared to refer to them as Guardian readers – are routinely (and seem genuinely) outraged by stereotypical Guardian-isms (elitism, privilege, idealistic and cossetted middle-classness). Cynicism swallows and chokes on its own tale.
I’ve never been that media-savvy, despite pretending to myself that I am, in order to dodge the embarrassment. So it was a huge relief to read in (naturally) The Guardian, novelist Jesse Armstrong’s confession of the incoherence and fond delusions of his own news consumption habits: “like a lot of people’s … on the whole a mess.” He blows open that well-informed ‘good global citizen’ ideal, and exposes his own heady mishmashing of latest opinions and contrasting views, which rarely leads to anything beyond the iteration of itself, and almost never to changing the confirmation biases he already holds, let alone the world.
You can kick the submerging hull, cling to the pieces of the wreck that still float, jab querulously at the other writers and readers with broken spars of fact, opinion and assertion. A collective exercise in treading water – for we are only half-destroyed, remember. For myself, I neither support The Guardian nor rise beyond it. You can give me every good reason why I should, and still my heart reliably sinks at the proposition that I ought to subscribe, so I don’t. You can give me every good reason why I should, and still I can’t quite stop my skimming and reading, and sometimes playing at what it was like when The Guardian seemed to matter, seemed to make sense, seemed to carry pieces that fit together.
The city of great journalism that was built in the 20th century is like many of the cities that define civilisation: a place of vast beauty, culture, intricacy and felt necessity, that in the end has not been able one whit to prevent the disintegration of the worlds that support it, even if its worth is still measurable by how much worse things might have been without it.