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Be Wary of ‘Progressive’ Journalism

Activist, ideologically driven reporting isn’t what we need to fight back against the endemic media capture across the region. 

by Peter Gross 24 August 2017

The Marxist-Leninist seizure of the media in Eastern Europe following World War II was reversed for the blink of an eye in 1989-1990, only to have the vast majority of outlets “captured” by governments, political parties, businesses, politicians, and various biases. This almost 28-year-old illiberal and anti-democratic trend, and the even longer worldwide tendency to which it belongs, was the topic of the U.S.-based Center for International Media Assistance’s (CIMA) 2017 summer program for journalists, media workers, and researchers at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. 


To say that addressing the “large and growing challenge” of media capture – within and outside Eastern Europe – and examining possible solutions to combat the trend is worthwhile is as much of an understatement as saying communism was evil. As Eastern Europeans have learned, the great varieties of media capture diminish the freedom, independence, and effectiveness of the media. As such, this threatens democracy. Equally so, it menaces liberalism, that most non-ideological of ideologies, the non-Messianic guarantor of individual, societal, speech, press, religious, and market freedoms – and not to forget, the champion of civil rights, tolerance, and inclusiveness. A piece in the Washington Post reminded its readers this summer “that as [columnist Fareed] Zakaria put it, ‘democracy without … liberalism is not simply inadequate, but dangerous,’ it is also true that liberalism without democracy is inadequate and dangerous.” 


Media capture “breeds bad governance and corruption,” one CIMA participant was quoted as saying and justifiably so. What needs clarifying here is the last part of his statement, that it “simultaneously undermines progressive journalism.” We must ask which “progressive” journalism was he referring to; after all, “words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality," as Edgar Allan Poe wrote in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.


The Real Progressive Versus the Other “Progressive” 


If “progressive” means non-partisan journalism that supports rational progressivism, centered on the push for social reform, we should encourage it. We should, in fact, demand reformist journalism that, as prominent 19th century publisher Joseph Pulitzer defined it, fights “for progress and reform” and against “demagogues of all parties,” never tolerates “injustice or corruption,” never belongs “to any party,” and always opposes “privileged classes and public plunderers.” Pulitzer also described a journalism that remains “devoted to the public welfare,” and is constantly, “drastically independent” – at no time “afraid to attack wrong.” Eastern Europe is begging for this kind of journalism, as is the rest of the world.


However, we don’t need the kind of journalism that has its roots in Marxist-socialist ideology or one of its derivatives. Unfortunately, that brand is practiced by too many of the West’s “activist journalists” who eagerly embrace Lenin’s distortive, censorial, propaganda model, together with a dose of Maksim Gorky’s notion that “class hatred should be cultivated by an organic revulsion as far as the enemy is concerned.”


Leftist progressivism fixedly proves it can accurately identify varied symptoms of an ailing society, but is, in most instances, predictably wrong diagnosing their root causes, reciting the old shibboleth that utopia would be possible were it not for capitalism and the current class structure. Worse yet, this type of progressivism offers only illiberal, collectivist, authoritarian, and even totalitarian “solutions.” Like its rightist twin, “progressive” ideology is not fully engaged with reality; instead it is consumed with creating a new one exclusively in its own image, including through the use of “progressive” journalism.


Consequently, we need to be highly attentive to the dual meaning of the word “progressive,” one that is true to its connotative and denotative meaning, and the other a specifically Marxist or leftist one. Controlling language is important to manipulating outcomes, in gaining and maintaining ideological control, as Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz and Czech playwright Vaclav Havel so definitively and stylishly reminded us in the 1980s. It is a truism that every generation needs to be reminded of.  


The symbiotic relationship between language and ideologies – which in most instances are removed from real life – leads to language becoming “a world of appearances … a formalized language deprived of semantic contact with reality and transformed into a system of ritual signs that replace reality with pseudo-reality,” Havel once wrote. There’s no need to go to great lengths to identify the truth in this; it is sufficient to listen to the left’s definitions and plans for accomplishing “justice” and” fairness” for the “common good.”


So, if “progressive” journalism means that which embraces the strategies, intent, and language of the proselytizer, propagandist, and tunnel-vision kind of activist, ideological reporter, and opinion-maker, we need to say NO!  If, like the Marxist kind of “critical thinking,” such journalism only selectively chooses topics and facts that fit pre-established objectives, dismissing actuality in favor of the goal to be achieved, applying the skewed and limited reasoning and logic of the ideologue, we need to say NO!


Those who have lived through communism will, of course, instantly recognize this sort of “progressive” journalism.  None of us should ever forget how the Red Army “liberated” Eastern Europe by ridding it of Nazi totalitarianism, only to impose the Marxist-Leninist ideology. Let’s not duplicate that in our fight to liberate media from its contemporary deleterious capture in the region and in the West. Let this liberation be authentic.

Peter Gross, Ph.D., is a professor in the School of Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee in the United States. He has written extensively on the subject of East European media and its evolution since 1989.

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