Old testament and new testament journalism

"Each form can spur the other, keep it honest."

3 Nov 2013 6:03 pm 8 Comments

This is the sketch I am going to present in a few hours to the Public Knowledge Forum at the Sydney Opera House in Sydney, Australia. Because it is only a sketch, it leaves out a lot of detail and of course over-simplifies in the interest of avoiding another boring conference presentation.

The free press gods initially gave us the old testament. Then the news testament rose and took over for about 90 years. Recently the old testament has roared back to life and now we have something close to parity or détente, in which it is recognized that we need both. “Each form can spur the other, keep it honest,” as New York Times columnist Roger Cohen recently put it.

The old

In old testament journalism, “the public” is the people who gather around the news to talk about it. Political argument and the informational goods delivered by journalism — “what’s happening” and how we should think about it — are so intertwined that it makes little sense to separate the two. tp-dropA representative figure from the eighteen century would be the great pamphleteer Tom Paine, the trouble-making democrat who tried to rouse public opinion against arbitrary power.

Today Glenn Greenwald, recently of The Guardian, works the same way. He’s a trouble-maker who tries to rouse public opinion against the misuse of power. In his journalism there is no natural separation between political argument and information about what’s happening. Roger Cohen spoke of colleagues like former Times editor Bill Keller as “old school journalists” who observe the “traditional” claims to impartiality but in my view this incorrect. Greenwald’s is the old school, and New York Times journalism is the more recent tradition.

The events by which Edward Snowden came to trust Greenwald over the New York Times tell us a great deal about the return of old testament influence amid the problems with new testament journalism. But we are getting ahead our story.

In old testament journalism financial support is difficult to obtain, opposition is intense, competition is fierce, the authorities are frequently upset with the trouble-makers in the press, popularity balloons and contracts with events and revelations. It is a wild ride and a precarious way of life.

Old testament journalism began in the U.S. with the campaign to unite the colonies against British rule. A close cousin to freedom of speech, the old testament was memorialized in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution— which of course protects other forms, as well. It had a diminished presence in the 20th century as new testament journalism rose to power and the old became a sub-current. But it never stopped flowing and today it draws new life from the internet.

The new

In new testament journalism, “the public” is the people who are outsiders to political events— and to power. They are busy, preoccupied with making a living, raising their kids and attending to other spectacles, and so they need to be kept informed by specialists in news.

Salvation, in new testament journalism, is achieved by separating facts and values, symbolized of course by the division between the news and opinion pages in American newspapers, and by the imperative of “impartiality” encoded into the BBC in Britain and the ABC in Australia. Who is the Tom Paine of the BBC? There is none and there never has been. It’s against their religion.

New testament journalism is a 20th century thing. It is associated with the doctrine of “objectivity” but even more with the rise of professionalism in the press, which began with the first movements toward schools of journalism around 1908, followed by professional associations in the 1920s and 1930s.

In new testament journalism, the media’s financial security is the norm, made possible by high barriers to entry and large capital costs required to deliver news. The new testament style is risk-adverse because the news delivery franchise is so valuable. The mission is not to move public opinion but to maintain trust or, to put it another way, to protect the brand. Audiences tend to be stable. The authorities learn to regularize their relationship with the journalists. Professionalism in journalism and broadcasting interlocks well with professionalism in politics and other knowledge fields. Thus, the rolodex of reliable experts.

New testament journalism also has its heroic forms, especially investigative journalism. Its representative figure is Bob Woodward of the Washington Post (or, in the mythic version, Robert Redford) and the symbolic high point is the resignation of Richard Nixon in August 1974, in part because of the Post’s relentless reporting. Recalling those events, new testament sages talk of “shoe leather reporting” when they want to explain what virtue in journalism is.


Old testament journalism treats everyone as a participant in the great conversation of democracy. New testament recognizes that there are insiders and outsiders, players and spectators. It tries to mediate between them.

In new testament pressthink, people need the facts first. After they are informed by facts they can develop opinions and “make up their own minds.” In old testament logic, people first need to join the argument. Then they will feel the need to keep themselves informed.

New testament journalism is strong on reliability, predictability, civility, professionalism and the maintenance of reputation over time, which has obvious benefits for advertisers and for political coalitions expected to vote to maintain taxpayer subsidies to the BBC and the ABC. Old testament journalism is strong on participation and mobilization. It is more risk-tolerant, less likely to censor itself to avoid giving offense. It gives the individual journalist a voice and identity.

Old testament journalism has vices too. It is financially precarious and so it can often be bought off. It goes to extremes more often and may distort the picture by neglecting the inconvenient fact. In old testament journalism the constant danger is that the truthtelling will decay into propaganda and news will become comfort food for loyalists. In the new testament style, the danger is that truthtelling will decay into “he said, she said” and the dialect of insiders that I have called “the savvy.”


Today, well-known troubles with the business model have weakened new testament journalism by eroding monopolies and opening the field to lower-cost competitors. The internet solves the distribution-of-news problem for all players. As my colleague Clay Shirky has said, it changes publishing from an industry or a job to a button. This has allowed the old testament forms to gain new life. Other weaknesses in new testament traditions have been exposed, as well, such as the intimidation of the press after September 11 and the failure to detect a faulty case for war in Iraq in 2003.

A kind of new testament fundamentalism common in journalism from the 1970s to the 1990s held form through the early years of blogging in this century. It felt scorn for the more opinionated style and ridiculed its followers as “echo chambers.” It defined itself as “the traditional” and dismissed everyone else as marginal. This was arrogance born of monopoly.

But then new testament journalists started blogging themselves and more recently they have taken to social media with genuine enthusiasm. Today they are not as confident that they have all the answers. They know that their business model is broken. They can see the advantages in personal voice and persuasive power that accrues to the Glenn Greenwalds and other practitioners of the personal franchise model in news. They understand that the people formerly known as the audience want to participate more in the news and that the insiders are less trusted than ever.

All of these forces are pushing new testament journalism toward reconciliation and détente with the old, a symptom of which is this exchange between former New York Times editor Bill Keller and Greenwald. Keller says:

I find much to admire in America’s history of crusading journalists, from the pamphleteers to the muckrakers to the New Journalism of the ’60s to the best of today’s activist bloggers. At their best, their fortitude and passion have stimulated genuine reforms (often, as in the Progressive Era, thanks to the journalists’ “political relationships with governments”). I hope the coverage you led of the National Security Agency’s hyperactive surveillance will lead to some overdue accountability.

But the kind of journalism The Times and other mainstream news organizations practice — at their best — includes an awful lot to be proud of…

True. Neither form has a monopoly on virtue. Great journalism, as Greenwald often says, can come from both traditions. I’m Jewish, and so more of an old testament guy. But I too think we need both, plus future forms that combine the two in novel fashion. The messiah hasn’t come yet.


Ramesh Kandukur says:

In the spirit of true christian tradition, the new school of journalism is actually the OLD school of journalism and the one practised by Glenn Greenwald would be the NEW school of journalism, for it LIBERATES the individual truly.

Salvation, in new testament journalism, is achieved by separating facts and values…

I see what you did there, Jay. You should probably have used the word legitimation instead, since it was not clear what potential damnation was being avoided by the division between news and opinion. But salvation was slotted in to give your metaphor more heft. Similarly, later, your allusion to a “mission” to maintain trust and the “fundamentalism” that felt scorn for a more opinionated style.

And in your Old Testament section, I caught how you alluded to the ten articles of the Bill of Rights by invoking the First Amendment. Presumably you were dropping a Mosaic hint that this amounts to our first, secular, commandment.

Yes: I quite understand your equation of Tom Paine or Glenn Greenwald with a wild-eyed Old Testament prophet, warning the Children of Israel about the error of their ways in straying from the Path of the Lord. Prophets are radical in their challenge to the powers that be and risk opprobrium for telling truths that are too close for home.

Funnily enough the line of scripture that is apt here happens to be from the New Testament: “A prophet is not without honor — except in his own country.”

Hence my quibble with your metaphor: you use terms like salvation and mission and fundamentalism in order to equate the institutionalization of journalism with the organization of religion. I argue that you elide the latter — organized Christianity — with the New Testament itself too glibly.

The start of the New Testament — the gospels of Jesus of Nazareth, the anecdotes of his life and preaching — turns out to be a continuation of the Old Testament prophetic tradition. The radical troublemaker rails against the narrow legalisms of the Pharisees, their interpretation of the law and their collaboration with imperial occupiers, and pays for it with his life.

What makes the New Testament truly new — more than a continuation of that old prophetic tradition — is the theological gloss supplied by Paul in its later books, the epistles. Paul, not Jesus, is what is new. He makes two crucial contributions. First, he insists that Christian law supersedes Mosaic law: the Two Commandments, to love God and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, offer liberating permission in replacement for the categorized restrictions of the Ten Commandments and the Books of Moses. Second, he sees Christian outreach as being universal and catholic, as opposed to the Judaic tradition, which applies to just one, chosen, people.

So, to return to your metaphor, your “old testament” and “new testament” seem to me to refer more properly to two strands within the Jewish tradition — the Prophets and the Pharisees, the radicals and the legalists — rather than to Judaism and Christianity.

Second, your old-testament formulation relies on the idea that the world being covered by journalists and the self-governing body politic that relies on such journalism is coterminous. In other words, it is a tribal model, not a universal-and-catholic one. Your new-testament formulation imagines professional journalists sponsored by established organizations. Yet they may violate your requirement of relevance. They may travel abroad — outside the borders of the body politic — to provide information that may be useless to the democracy. It may be newsworthy, not because of its assistance to self-governing, but just because it is fascinating!

So this second Pauline sense of the new resonates with your description of the institutionalized journalism of the C20th. It is another way to describe the “impartiality” of the BBC — as a universalist impulse to take in the whole world, outside our tribal limits, without fear or favor, and without necessary utility.

Thanks, Andrew. Thoughtful, as always.

It’s true that New Testament journalism is more “universalist,” a point I could have made more of. New testament journalism tried to claim that the messiah had come, that there was one way to achieve grace in news work: the separation of facts and values, news and opinion. But I don’t think the New Testament journalists even believe this any more. They have become more pluralist. That seems to me a significant development.

Actually, I think the metaphor is better than Jay intended. The essentially division of Christianity from Judaism lies in their treatment of communication. In Judaism, the “prophetic” tradition was changed into a relatively open academic tradition of the rabbinate, with a limited hierarchy. To a large extent, rabbinic authority is like prophetic authority: charismatic and personal.

However, by elevating one particular prophet to a status of godhood, the Christian tradition put that prophetic tradition into amber (Islam plays a similar game). The position of the priest in Christianity is therefore much less charismatic, and much more bureaucratic. THe priests authority doesn’t come from his personal characteristics, but from formal investiture, since the prophetic element belongs to the church through that freezing process, rather than to it’s members. Of course, Protestantism then moves back from the full traditional Christian position of the orthodox churches.

So, what does this long rant mean? Well, the “Old Testament” press depends upon personal characteristics (“a personal brand”), involved in ongoing revelation and discussion. On the other hand, the orthodox New Testament press turns a few examples of prophecy (think Nixon) into a frozen spectacle that therefore is difficult to repeat — you have to be able to answer “Who do you think you are? Woodward and Bernstein” with a positive to do that!

So the analogy is quite good — it ultimately reflects two parallel processes of bureaucratization, of taking a tradition that is local and disruptive, and then turning it around to stabilize larger social structures and prevent local eruptions of change.

Great post, Jay. I’d only add this….

The Old and New Testaments have something fundamental in common: They both address readers not as passive bystanders to History, but as active participants.

In the Bible, History is not a show to be watched, but a drama in which we’ve all been blessed with speaking parts. It’s a Story in which the Author says to the reader: The drama of human history is still underway, and you have a role to play. It’s a Book that says to Pharaohs and Emperors, then and now, that power ultimately resides not in the palace, but with the people.

Or, in Pressthink terms: the Old and New Testaments are two attempts to mobilize and activate “the people formerly known as the audience.”

…the religious metaphor falls very flat IMO, but you are entitled to experiment on your volunteer{?} Sydney audience.

If “The free press gods initially gave us the old testament. Then the news testament rose…” — are there only these two types bestowed upon us ?

Didn’t say that. These are the two types I decided to talk about.

G’day Jay 😉
As always, i enjoyed you presentation which confirms that Both,old and new, testaments demad that the storyteller’s role is to inform the public of what the elites are doing or not doing …