The morning curiosity that awakens us

NEW JERSEY - Of all the isms that have appeared and flourished over the past 100 years-communism, fascism, socialism, capitalism, etc.-and granted the profound differences between them, there is still only one that, to me, truly dignifies human existence when it occurs in its best form. I call it newspaperism. Its practitioners might not know it, but newspaperism is as clear an ideology, and as coherent a way of life, as any of those others.

Lee Siegel,

30 de setembro de 2012 | 01h00

Let's start with the essential, fundamental component of newspaperism: Homo newspaperiens. Though caricatured in early movies about the newspaper business like "Nothing Sacred," "The Front Page" and "Citizen Kane," the caricature contains large grains of truth. Homo newspaperiens is gruff, skeptical, monomaniacal, able to withstand any amount of humiliation in search of a story, wholly amoral in pursuit of a "scoop," a feat of exposure that at its best rips the façade off abusive power or reveals the obscure operations of malevolent powerlessness. As in every walk of life, the newspaper business can surrender to commercialism, hubris, power-hunger. But in its finest form, the newspaperman-or newspaperwoman; that should be understood-is a being who moves along axial lines of decency, rationality and common sense.

Baudelaire once wrote that genius is the fusion of childlike innocence with the rational will of an adult. In that sense, the newspaperman is one of the few, and maybe the only, instances of non-artistic genius. He approaches life not exactly as a blank slate, but as a gray slate-his innocence consists of the fact that he has been too disillusioned ever to be disappointed. Thus, like a child, he accepts reality for what it is.

Just as a person, as he or she grows older, will long for the paradise of childhood, so the newspaperman wishes to find, in every situation, a moral equilibrium. He has an instinctive mistrust of people with too much influence, of organizations that have become too large, of situations that seem too tidy and harmonious. In one of Luis Bunuel's great Mexican films, "El", you are shown an architect's perfectly appointed home, only to discover, when a servant goes looking for something, utter chaos hidden in a closet. The architect turns out to be a jealous monster who nearly kills his wife. The newspaperman goes looking for the messy closet in the perfect house, hoping to expose a pathological imbalance of power before it becomes murderous.

As much as any Buddhist, the newspaperman mistrusts the human ego. He sees how egotistical assertion disrupts the balance of human relations. He has no parti pris. He is not a communist or a fascist or a socialist or a capitalist. He may be religious or not, liberal or conservative. He starts with the premise that something is wrong, and that something needs to be set right. Beginning with a perspective of common sense and decency, he arrives through a trail of facts, and after a journey through the evidence, at a position of common sense of decency. It may be that the powerful individiual has wronged the powerless individual. Or it could be that one dark night, the powerless individual, made grimly certain by his plight, took the life of the powerful one, who was merely walking home to his family. The constant in the newspaperman's outlook is a hatred of bullies.

Hegel once said that reading the newspaper was modern man's daily prayer, by which he meant that the morning exercise of reading the newspaper has something spiritual about it. If the news is well done, it gives you vivid pictures of how other people live. If you read it like a spiritual exercise, then you try to imagine yourself in the life of each person you read about. You are the killer and the victim, the doctor and the patient, the Nobel Prize winner, the newlyweds-bride and groom-and the homeless person struck down by a bus-driver distracted by his sick wife. If democracy depends upon fluidity, upon the possiblity of radical change, upon a universal sympathy unobstructed by institutional prejudice, then the newspaper's vicarious window into other people's lives is the essential instrument of democracy. The newspaperman is to modern democracy what the sculptor and the painter were to the Florentine republic.

You read a lot now about the threat posed to newspapers by the digital age. The threat is real, but mostly it's people under 30 who prefer to get their news from internet sources, and not from newspapers, and the truth is that-at least in this country-people under 30 have never read much of anything. The habit of reading a newspaper comes with age, stability, and routine. Yet the most hopeful argument for the preservation of newspapers comes from the mundane dignity of newspaperism itself. Other isms want you, ultimately, to give your life to them. All newspapers ask is that you wake up every morning curious to know what happened. Only truth is substantial enough, and entertaining enough, to satisfy such curiosity. And only a newspaper, at its best, can give you a vivid picture of the truth.

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Lee Siegel

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