Why write about “reasons for optimism” when so much is going wrong in our politics, economy, and environment? Optimism gives us confidence that we can make things better. As I like to say, today is another day of opportunity.
Jared Diamond, whose bestsellers have chronicled the rise and fall of civilizations, is one of several cautious optimists about the future of democratic societies. In this sixth installment, I plan to show some examples of people changing the way we think and communicate.
In his book “Guns Germs and Steel”, Diamond chronicles how accidents of botany, zoology, climate, and geography caused Eurasian societies to develop technology faster than those in Africa, South America, and the South Pacific. And his “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” describes how great empires fell by failing to adapt to changing internal and external conditions.
He is worried that today’s consumer capitalism is devouring or poisoning all of the world’s natural resources we depend on for life–air, water, soil, fisheries, and forests.
Yet he has hope because of his work on the boards of the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International, as he described in an interview with Steven D. Levitt:
“[W]e work a lot with big international companies, and I’ve seen over the last couple of decades, these companies developing more and more sustainable policies. Example, Walmart, of all companies, even oil companies in some cases. Unilever. Partly because the C.E.O.s recognize that the survival of their own children is going to depend upon a sustainable world.
“Also, it’s the case that big international businesses realize that their profits depend upon a sustainable world. And another thing that makes me optimistic is the change in attitudes even within the United States. Today, the majority of Americans do believe in climate change and do believe that climate change is caused by human action. That’s not the case of the majority of members of Congress, but it is the case that the majority of intelligent Americans do believe in the reality of climate change. So, I’m cautiously optimistic. I think we have a more than 50-percent chance of a happy ending.”
Mass communication, of which journalism is a part, has always played a role in changing attitudes, behavior, and society itself.
For several years, Larry Fink, one of the biggest capitalists on the planet, has been writing a letter to CEOs, telling them that they need to do more than simply maximize shareholder value. Journalistically, it is always a big story.
Fink says CEOs need to adopt policies that ensure the quality of life of all their stakeholders — their workers, the people in the communities where they operate, and the global community as well.
Fink is CEO of BlackRock, which manages $10 trillion (with a T) for pension funds, endowments, governments, companies and individuals. In his 2022 letter, he said, “Stakeholder capitalism is not about politics. It is not a social or ideological agenda. It is not ‘woke.’ It is capitalism, driven by mutually beneficial relationships between you and the employees, customers, suppliers, and communities your company relies on to prosper. This is the power of capitalism” (emphasis his).
A Wall Street Journal profile of Fink noted that its assets equal “more than 10% of the world’s gross domestic product in 2020. Its funds are among the three largest shareholders in more than 80% of the companies in the S&P 500.”
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The Journal noted that “BlackRock wields vast shareholder voting power, which it uses either to back managements or to prod them in new directions . . . Mr. Fink is telling CEOs that companies must prepare for a scaleback of fossil fuels, and that the private sector should work with governments to do so. He warns of the disruption climate change could cause both the economy and financial markets, but sees historic investment opportunity in the energy shift.”
Fink cites research showing that companies with better environmental, social, and governance (ESG) profiles “have outperformed their peers.” In other words, a social conscience is good for business.
One of the most cited advocates for change in journalism is Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University. Optimist is not the first word you would use to describe him. He has criticized journalists for practicing “the view from nowhere” in the interest of supposed impartiality. In order to prove that they are objective, they give equal weight to opposing viewpoints even when they know that one might be based on false or misleading information.
In an interview with Columbia University professor and author Nicole Hemmer on the Ezra Klein podcast, Rosen lamented what he saw as the journalism profession’s poor response to disinformation and misinformation campaigns by right-wing groups and the Republican Party.
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And what about solutions? Hemmer asked. “I don’t [know] the answer to that, except that I think it’s going to come from outside the national media,” Rosen replied. “I think it’s going to come from local journalists re-establishing relationships with local publics. And it’s going to have to combine this question of engagement — how do you engage people in material that’s, like, material to their lives and at the same time bring them new information that may be from outside their current understanding.”
In other words, Rosen sees a better future starting at the grass-roots level, which is something I have seen myself in years of writing about entrepreneurial journalism around the world.
And how should public-service-minded journalists respond to all the right-wing efforts to undermine their credibility? Hemmer asked. Transparency, Rosen replied. And although he didn’t go into detail about transparency in the interview, he does so on his website. He urges journalists to express a viewpoint on issues and to offer “viewpoint disclosure,” or “here’s where we’re coming from”, in which they present data and reasons for their viewpoints.
Rosen writes, “Now let’s shift from an individual journalist to a newsroom with a team of reporters. The investigative non-profit ProPublica says it practices a particular kind of journalism, the point of which is ‘to expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business, and other institutions.”
“If the powerful cannot be held accountable,” Rosen writes, “democracy becomes a joke. Abuses of the public trust are a special category of wrongs to be righted. In journalism the point of investigating is not just to document wrongdoing but to get results. That — in my paraphrase — is where ProPublica is coming from: ‘Using the moral force of investigative journalism to spur reform through the sustained spotlighting of wrongdoing,’ as they put it.
So there. He does see solutions. Call him a cautious optimist.
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I’ve written a formula for inspiring trust through “radical transparency” in a September blog post. Much of it is borrowed from recommendations of Tina Kaiser, an investigative reporter with Die Welt in Germany.
We in the news media can inspire trust:
The formula above has specific actions we can take. Every news organization, whether large or small, can adopt them. The obstacles and opposition are substantial. But hey, today is another day of opportunity to take them on.
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