Why Journalism Needs the Punk-Rock Ethos
I planned to write my thoughts on the connection between journalism and the punk-rock ethos long before the dreaded night of November 8th. I’m not sure if I’d consider myself a punk, but as an aspiring full-time journalist, the punk ethos is something I can identify with. There’s more to the punk ideology than anarchy. It’s about rising from oppression and acting as a megaphone for the underrepresented, sometimes, with an angsty, youthful spirit. Isn’t that what journalists are supposed to do?
Drawing these parallels helped me understand my feelings on the election, the state of the nation and the future of media. I’m not here to yell at anyone or to spew hate speech. Our social media feeds are saturated with those comments already. Rather, I am writing to make sense of an uncertain future.
Before Election Day, I was afraid that although Millennials matched Baby Boomers in the electorate they would continue to be disengaged during the election, the first in 50 years without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act. Only half of eligible youth voters turned up at the polls. That number is pretty weak, considering the youngest Millennials were voting for the first time.
While young people may have squandered the opportunity to truly make an impact, the GOP enacted multiple barriers to voting across 14 states — including important swing states — like photo I.D requirements and voter purging that kept low-income individuals and people of color at home on Election Day. Democrats are also to blame for their failure to fight against voter suppression and still continue to sit on their hands with their mouths tightly shut.
Enter the media. Eventually, news on voting restrictions were drowned out by alternating waves of Donald Trump’s hateful rhetoric and coverage on Hillary Clinton’s supposed e-mail scandal. One journalist who continues to extensively cover voter disenfranchisement is Ari Berman of the Nation, who pointed out that not a single question about the Voting Rights Act was asked in the 25 debates during this election season. The overall lack of coverage meant that journalists failed to hold Washington accountable for a fundamental right that so many people before us had died for. So while people scrambled to make a decision on Election Day, there weren’t enough people concerned with the right to vote in the first place. Between the nonsense coverage and political jargon,
it’s no wonder that people — especially the youth — were left confused, powerless and struggling with the daunting task of “choosing the lesser of two evils.” That was never a punk attitude.
Punk has a long history of criticizing presidential politics, first in reaction to the nation-wide sweep of conservatism in the 80’s with a series of concerts dubbed Rock Against Reagan. Around the same time, Black Flag also released “White Minority”, fittingly with Latino vocalist Ron Reyes, as a response to the nation’s fear of rising minority populations. Later, there was Rock against Bush and Punk Voter founded by Fat Mike of NOFX. In between, Fugazi headlined an anti-Gulf War protest concert outside of the White House during the George H. W. Bush era. Rage Against the Machine also nurtured the flame during Bill Clinton’s presidency when (pop) punk’s a-political songs dominated the mainstream. Not to mention, the rise of the Riot Grrrl scene in the 90’s D.C., which was centered around women’s rights, empowerment and queer acceptance. There are many more artists and movements that I could list, but music was punk’s way of inspiring grassroots organizing and encouraging civic engagement. Punks exercised their First Amendment rights. Unfortunately, journalists did not live up to their potential.
They failed early on to abandon traditional reporting in the face of Trump’s unpredictability. Yes, journalists eventually adjusted their coverage but changed their tune too late in the game. The best the media could do was a bolded headline from the New York Times — America Elects a Bigot. With blatant racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, threats to healthcare, education, the environment, affordable housing, issues with foreign relations, in addition to intense voting restrictions, journalists lost hard the battle to protect democracy. Unlike many punk movements before my time, the media lost their chance to mobilize people, especially the youth, when it really mattered.
Maintaining neutrality when people’s lives are threatened would be apathy towards their well-being. And that is not why I chose journalism as my career path. Still, there are rogue journalists who dared to tread between the ever blurring lines of activism and journalism. There are greats like Ida B. Wells, who reported on the Civil Rights Movement and openly opposed lynching in the South. Christiane Amanpour, who covered ethnic cleansing and genocide in Bosnia in the 90’s, was criticized for her lack of objectivity when former Yugoslavia was the clear aggressor. These journalists posed an important question that becomes more pressing as the media continues to evolve: can we change what objectivity means? And should we?
I think it’s time to break some rules. Sometimes, it’s necessary to take a stance. A Gallup poll released in September says the public’s trust in the media is at its lowest since 1972. For where we are right now, I feel that increasing empathy in reporting is critical to changing the nation’s attitude towards the media.
Now is not the time to take a breather. Reporting will only become more challenging after Inauguration Day rolls around. It’s time to create new traditions and distinguish which ones to keep. I am not afraid to be a catalyst for change — that is the punk-rock ethos in journalism.