Note: The memo below is my response to an editor at a U.S. news organization who was soliciting feedback for a review of the organization’s coverage of environmental news. From a conservative point of view, this newsroom is part of the “liberal media.” My goal in the memo was to step back from that superficial, diversionary label and evaluate the deeper ideological commitments that shape mainstream news.
Evaluation of a news media outlet’s coverage of a subject often focuses on a critique of how stories are covered, suggestions for how stories can be improved, and ideas for stories that currently aren’t being covered. Such an evaluation of XYZ’s environmental coverage would be useful, but it also is crucial to consider more basic questions about the ideological framework in which the coverage goes forward.
Talk of journalism’s ideology typically meets resistance, given that journalists routinely assert that they are non-ideological. If “ideology” is defined as a rigid, even fanatical, devotion to a set of ideas no matter what the evidence, then it is a good thing for journalists (and everyone else) to avoid ideology. But if ideology is understood as the set of social attitudes, political beliefs, and moral values that shape one’s interpretation of the world, then everyone works within an ideological framework, including journalists. Then the task is to understand competing ideologies, including one’s own, and not to imagine that anyone, or any institution, transcends ideology.
There are three key elements to the dominant ideology of the contemporary United States—involving world affairs, economics, and ecology—which can be best understood as forms of fundamentalism. Moving beyond the religious roots of the term, we can understand fundamentalism as any intellectual, political, or moral position that asserts a certainty in the truth and/or righteousness of a belief system. In that sense, the United States is an especially fundamentalist country.
First is national fundamentalism, a faith in the benevolence of the United States’ projection of power around the world. From this fundamentalist position, the United States acts in its own interests but always to advance the greater goal of creating a just and peaceful world. Even when there is a consensus that U.S. policy has failed, such as in Vietnam or Iraq, the unquestioned assumption is that the United States’ intentions were noble and actions were morally justified. When journalists cannot step back to evaluate these claims, their accounts of the world inevitably reinforce the fundamentalism, even when those reports are critical of some of the specific ways that U.S. policy is executed.