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Journal of Mass Media Ethics: Exploring


Questions of Media Morality
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Authentic Journalism? A Critical


Discussion about Existential Authenticity
in Journalism Ethics
Kristoffer Holt

Department of Information Technology and Media, Mid Sweden


University
Available online: 31 Jan 2012

To cite this article: Kristoffer Holt (2012): Authentic Journalism? A Critical Discussion about
Existential Authenticity in Journalism Ethics, Journal of Mass Media Ethics: Exploring Questions of
Media Morality, 27:1, 2-14
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Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 27:214, 2012


Copyright Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 0890-0523 print/1532-7728 online
DOI: 10.1080/08900523.2012.636244

Authentic Journalism?
A Critical Discussion about Existential
Authenticity in Journalism Ethics
Kristoffer Holt
Department of Information Technology and Media, Mid Sweden University

Authenticity as an ideal is construed in general as an expression of existentialist unhappiness


with the perceived dehumanization of man in modern society. Existential journalism can be seen
as rejection of the demands of conformism and compromise of personal convictions that many
journalists face. Ethically, existential journalism calls on journalists to live authentic lives, as private
individuals as well as in their profession. This means to resist external pressures and to choose
to follow a path that can be defended by the individual journalists inner conscience. Existential
journalism, in general, has been more debated in the field of mass media ethics than authenticity.
Authenticity is, however, a contested concept, and this essay applies a critical discussion about
authenticity as an ethical guide to the field of journalism. Weaknesses in the idea of existential
authenticity problematize the existential construal of authenticity as a route to heightened ethical
awareness for contemporary journalists.

INTRODUCTION
Mass media are a defining feature of modern society. Existentialism is a philosophical reaction
towards the conditions of life in modern society (Tillich, 1944). Existentialist thinkers such
as Sren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Martin Heidegger all expressed disapproval or
ambivalence about the effects of mass media. In the preface to A Literary Review, Kierkegaard
tells the reader that his book is not meant for those whose critical and aesthetic education
comes from reading newspapers but for rational creatures who have time and patience to
read a little book (Kierkegaard & Hannay, 2001, p. 3). There is a dimension of media-criticism
in existential thought that reacts against mediated sensationalism, shallowness, and idle talk.
Existentialism reveals anxieties about the consequences of levelling, alienation, and anonymity
resulting from an increasingly artificial, superficial, and media saturated milieu.
Correspondence should be sent to Kristoffer Holt, PhD, Senior Lecturer, Department of Information Technology
and Media, Mid Sweden University, Campus Sundsvall, S-851 70 SWEDEN. E-mail: kristoffer.holt@miun.se

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AUTHENTIC JOURNALISM

In light of this, it is possible to find a framework for an individual ethical approach towards
the journalistic profession in the thoughts of those philosophers who are often grouped together
as existentialists. John C. Merrill has made a sincere effort to describe what an existential
approach to journalism ethics would imply. Since Merrill first urged media workers to reject
herd mentality and to embrace freedom and responsibility in Existential Journalism (1977),
there has been an awareness in the scholarly field of journalism that existentialist philosophers
have much to offer in terms of raising important questions about the ethical aspects of
journalistic work (Conway, 1991; Gordon, Kittross, Reuss, & Merrill, 1996; Keith, 2000; Ryan,
2001; Singer, 2006).
It has been argued that existentialist philosophy provides a moral guide that can help mediapeople, for example, reporters and copy editors, do their work in an ethically justifiable manner
(Keith, 2000; Merrill, 1996a). According to Merrill, media people often work in environments
that encroach on the journalistic freedom to determine what is right and good to do in
a given situation and what kind of self or journalistic unit to become (1989, p. 19). In
such environments, the existential thing to do is to make decisions to follow ones conscience,
even though this may not be the opportune or professionally correct thing to do (Merrill,
1995). Pivotal in existential journalistic ethics is therefore the notion of authenticity (Keith,
2000; Merrill, 1996a; Ryan, 2001; Singer, 2006). The core of existential journalism is found
in the imperative for journalists to live authentic lives, as private individuals as well as
in their profession (Merrill, 1995; Merrill, 1996b). Consequently, subscribing to the ethics
of existential journalism entails rebelling against conformism in the newsroom in order for
journalists to stay (or become) true to themselves. This position is not without challengers. In
the communitarian/libertarian dichotomy, Merrill places existential journalism firmly among the
libertarians (Merrill, 1996b, p. 4). The communitarian perspective, represented, among others,
by Clifford G. Christians, suggests a focus on the politics of the common good rather than
the libertarian stress on individual freedom (Christians, 2004).
This article, however, is not intended to compare these two views but instead to look closer
into authenticity as a concept and its possible usefulness as ethical guide for contemporary
journalists. Authenticity as a concept and an ideal has been much debated in a general sense
as an attempt to find ethical direction in modernity, but there is still a need to bring the critical
arguments about this ideal into the discussion about existential journalism because it is so
intimately bound to this concept.
The approach entails a description of the ideal itself as well as looking into the most
important criticisms of this ideal. This article starts with a brief summary of how existentialist
philosophers have used authenticity in relation to ethics and how philosophy is reflected in
literature that promotes existential journalism. Then, the piece critiques this ideal. For this
purpose, two works, representing two different viewpoints, will be analyzed; Theodore Adornos
The Jargon of Authenticity and Charles Taylors The Ethics of Authenticity. The aim here is
to point out the central elements in their criticism and then outline what this implies in a
contemporary discussion about media ethics. Since personal commitment and responsibility
for ones actions is a central theme in existentialism, these themes will also be the focus of the
critical discussion.
Authenticity is today more and more regarded as a social construction, a matter of
appearance that is constantly in need of negotiation between the individual who have claims to
authenticity and the surrounding world. As Peterson notes, for someone to be accepted by others

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as authentic (whether he/she is a country musician or a journalist), requires authenticity


workanalogous to Goffmans face work (Goffman, 1959, 1967; Peterson, 2005). Many
regard authenticity as something that is manufactured and then approved by others, rather than
an intrinsic quality of the free individual. In contemporary, liquid media work, Mark Deuze
notes, striving for authenticity has more to do with distinguishing ones work from others,
of accentuating ones uniqueness as trademark, than ethical commitment of true individuals
(Deuze, 2007, p. 240). On the other hand, Jane B. Singer points out that todays changing
media world, in which journalism itself is challenged by numerous variants of information
sharing online, demands more than ever an ethically motivated personal commitment to the
task of serving the public with good and trustworthy information from reliable sources (Singer,
2006). Although it appeared as a critique of the emerging modern, industrialized society, it still
continues to be highly relevant in the information age (Dreyfus, 2009; Singer, 2006).

AUTHENTICITY IN EXISTENTIAL PHILOSOPHY


Authenticity is a nebulous word with a wide range of meanings. In marketing, for example,
authenticity has recently become a major concern for the public identity of companies and
trademarks (Boyle, 2004; Gilmore & Pine, 2007). In tourism, it refers to the construction
of settings that will let tourists have experiences that feel as authentic expressions of the
culture they are visiting. In philosophy, it is a question of being in the world. Since Plato,
authenticity has been a central theme in the history of ideas in western thought (Nehamas,
1998; Peters, 1999). During modern times, due to drastic technological, economical, cultural,
and societal changes, authenticity surfaced more acutely as one of the major preoccupations of
intellectuals who were critical of the emerging society, most prominently among existentialist
philosophers and authors (Trilling, 1972). The ideal of authenticity, or perhaps rather the
gloomy understanding of life as in general often inauthentic, is construed as an expression
of existentialist dissatisfaction with the dehumanization of man in modern society (Tillich,
1944).1 Bernstein has pointed out that one of the major concerns for thinkers in the modern
industrialized era is the problem of finding motivation for action. A prominent literary theme
of the modern era is the social inauthenticity that baffles and defeats the will (Trilling, 1972,
p. 132). This was often figured in terms of fatigue, ennui, melancholy, and above all boredom,
which hence becamein Flaubert, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Simmel, Heidegger, and
so oncentral reflective concepts for interpreting the experience of modernization (Bernstein,
2001, p. 6). In existentialism, authenticity is often presented as an antidote to the sense of
meaninglessness and the lurking danger of fatalism that is often so painfully present in the
experience of a society bereft of divine sanction and dissatisfied with the false comforts of
modern life (Jay, 2006, p. 16). It is a concept that is deeply connected to the fundamental
ethical question of how to live life.
Even though it is still unclear whether existentialism is a meaningful classification of a
school of thought or an intellectual tradition, it is safe to say that philosophers such as Sren
Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, and Jean-Paul Sartre all
have elaborated on the concept of authenticity as a central ingredient in their philosophies.
Existentialist thinkers have in common the fact that they have dealt with the authenticity of the

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self and the ideal of staying (or becoming) true to the originality of ones own being in spite
of societal or cultural obstacles.
For Sren Kierkegaard, authenticity is an aim for the single individual, an ideal of becoming
true to oneself by facing reality in all its joy and horror, by making decisions, by making
commitments, and taking responsibility (Dreyfus, 1999, 2009; Golomb, 1992; Golomb & ebrary
Inc., 1995; Herrmann, 2008; Kierkegaard & Hannay, 2001; Pattison, 1992). Authenticity in a
Kierkegaaridan sense must therefore be understood as a remedy for the danger of nihilism
and anomie that he perceived of as especially present in his own age (Kierkegaard & Hannay,
2001). He saw both the news media and the bourgeois church-Christianity of his time as societal
obstacles for the possibility of living authentically. The press and the public were symptoms of
what Kierkegaard referred to as levelling, the process whereby individual significance is lost
in the emerging mass-culture of modern society. He characterized his age as one of shallow
curiosity and detached reflection, where meaningful differences had lost their significance and
where there was no great revelation and no deep secret, but superficiality all the more
(Kierkegaard & Hannay, 2001, p. 24). This created a world in which nothing matters enough
that one would be willing to die for it (Dreyfus, 2009, p. 72).
Unlike John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville, who mainly saw the problem of the
public sphere and the press in the 19th century as a danger of a tyranny of the irrational and
uneducated masses, Kierkegaard disliked the press because it offered a shortcut that bypassed
the forming of own opinions by presenting ready-made thoughts. In this respect, the public
constituted a false sense of unity among its members. Not until the single individual has
acquired in himself an ethical stance in face of the whole world can there be anything like
genuinely uniting because such a union of the individually weak becomes just about as
uncomely and corrupt as child marriages (Kierkegaard & Hannay, 2001, p. 95). The press
offered escape from personal experiences into someone elses experience, turning most people
into passive onlookers of life. For similar reasons, Kierkegaard was critical of the traditional
and routinized Christianity of the State Church, where what he calls the essentially Christian,
that is, the paradox that the eternal God had entered time in history, had lost its status as a
shocking reality demanding to be passionately rejected or passionately embraced (Kierkegaard
& Hannay, 2001). The church made religion into a tradition that was passively accepted by
people born into it. In this way, Kierkegaard saw both the media and the church as intervening
agencies, blocking peoples way to true experiences, authenticity and God.
Kierkegaards criticism of the press and of the church points to something other than just the
shortcomings of the present age (Herrmann, 2008). Kierkegaard did not simply contend that
human beings are left to perish in superficial chatter and bourgeois philistinism. His answer is
the quest for authentic faith, that is, the laborious task of facing reality, making a choice and
then passionately sticking with it (Golomb, 1992). Neither the restless curiosity of the aesthete
nor the logical reasoning of the ethical person will fully provide means of living authentically.
With respect to anything temporary, leveling is overpowering, but with respect to the eternal
it is impotent (Kierkegaard & Hannay, 2001, p. 80). To counter the effects of leveling, one
must make an active choice to surrender to something that goes beyond comprehension, a leap
of faith into the religious (Kierkegaard & Hannay, 1985).
Friedrich Nietzsche presented an atheist version of Kierkegaards religious construal of
authenticity. In Nietzsche, the morality of his contemporariesin the shape of Christianity
or of the secular democratic movementis described as a sign of weakness and lack of

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independent will he calls herding-animal morality (Nietzsche & Zimmern, 1997, pp. 6869).
It is morality that reveres lofty virtues without questioning, a morality that accepts uncritically
and therefore restrains man from realizing his true potential by supressing the will to stand
alone (Nietzsche & Zimmern, 1997, p. 67). For Nietzsche, the authentic man, the bermensch,
is someone who elevates himself over others in order to transcend the limits of conventional
morality in an attempt to decide for oneself about good and evil, without regard for the virtues
on account of which we hold our grandfathers in esteem (Nietzsche & Zimmern, 1997, p. 87).
Such men strive instinctively for a citadel and a privacy, where he is free from the crowd, the
many, the majority (Nietzsche & Zimmern, 1997, p. 20). In order to deliver the self from what
he describes as empty and self-deceptive principles (e.g., love your enemy, have sympathy for
others), it is necessary to be strong and original enough to initiate opposite estimates of value,
to transvaluate and invert eternal valuations (Nietzsche & Zimmern, 1997, p. 69).
Where Kierkegaard tried to find a way to authentic faith, a sincere involvement of the self
with God beyond the superficial practices of received religiosity and sensibility, Nietzsche
envisioned a road to a higher morality beyond the average goody-goodness of common
assumptions about good and evil (Nietzsche & Zimmern, 1997, p. 88). What they have in
common is the responsibility they place on the individual to take active part in the shaping of
ones beliefs and then to be willing to act on that belief. Nietzsches emphasis on the subjects
active role in the formation of an understanding of the world is in this way meant to counter
the effects of nihilism.
Along similar lines, Martin Heidegger describes existence, Dasein, as endowed with a
potentiality for authenticity that needs to be actively realized by each person because initially
Dasein has lost itself in inauthenticity (Heidegger, Macquarrie, & Robinson, 2008). This
lostness is partly because the individual has not yet taken it upon himself to define himself but
rather drifts along and is defined by circumstances; this is what Heidegger refers to as being-inthe-world, in its everydayness and its averageness (Heidegger et al., 2008). For the most part,
Heidegger writes, I myself am not the who of Dasein; the they-self is its who (Heidegger
et al., 2008, p. 313). This state keeps the individual from realizing his potentiality for being
authentic because he lives a life that has been decided for him, arbitrarily, by circumstances:
So Dasein makes no choices, gets carried along by the nobody, and thus ensnares itself in
inauthenticity (Heidegger et al., 2008, p. 130). This state of being can come to an end only if
Dasein specifically brings itself back to itself from its lostness in the they, if the individual
starts making active choices about who to become (Heidegger et al., 2008, p. 312). Authenticity
requires an active, conscious, existential modification of the they (Heidegger et al., 2008,
p. 312). The liberation of Dasein from the they into authentic being also entails learning to
listen to the voice of consciousness that comes from within (Heidegger et al., 2008, p. 312).
Heidegger acknowledges that the existence of such a voice might be hard to prove, but he
nevertheless sees it as crucial for the realization of the potential for being authentic. Decisions
about what is good and right are reached through inwardness and ones own conscience rather
than by simply accepting norms and morals that are handed down through tradition, culture,
and upbringing.
This responsibility for choosing comes with a certain amount of pain, anguish, and a sense
of abandonment (Heidegger et al., 2008; Kierkegaard & Hannay, 1985; Nietzsche & Zimmern,
1997; Sartre, Kulka, & Elkam-Sartre, 2007). For Heidegger and Sartre, who were atheists,
the sense of being thrown into existence and abandoned is related to the belief that no deity

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can be held accountable for throwing humanity into existence. Being authentic is therefore
not to discover what God might have had in mind when he conceived of us before creating
us. Sartre is strongly opposed to the type of secular morality that seeks to eliminate God as
painlessly as possible (Sartre et al., 2007, pp. 2728). Since God does not exist, the individual
alone must bear the full consequences of that assertion, which creates anguish because it
demands of him that he takes responsibility for his choices. Sartrean authenticity is therefore
quite minimalistic; there is nothing in Man except what he creates for himself: Man is nothing
other than his own project. He exists only to the extent that he realizes himself; therefore, he
is nothing more than the sum of his actions, nothing more than his life (Sartre et al., 2007,
pp. 2728).
Sartre also makes an important distinction between Christian and atheist existentialism. In
Christian existentialism (mainly represented by Kierkegaard and Jaspers), existence precedes
essence because God, the creator, conceived of man before creating him. Therefore, there is
something universally human, a human nature that is common to all men (Sartre et al., 2007,
p. 20). In atheist existentialism, the existence of the human reality comes first, then man
himself wills himself to be: Man first exists: he materializes in the world, encounters himself,
and only afterwards defines himself (Sartre et al., 2007, p. 37). What both Christian and
atheist existentialists have in common is their belief that existence precedes essence; or, if
you prefer, that subjectivity must be our point of departure (Sartre et al., 2007, pp. 2021).
Ethically, this imposes a huge responsibility on the individual, because every choice one
makes for oneself, one also makes for all of mankind, as a sort of categorical imperative. The
anguish that this creates is, however, is rather anguish pure and simple, of the kind familiar to
anyone who has experienced the burden of responsibility for others (Sartre et al., 2007, p. 22).
The idea of authenticity is, as this overview shows, a central issue in existentialist thought.
According to Jay, it had a considerable appeal for many intellectuals during the 20th century
because it appeared during a time when moral relativism appeared hard to overcome and
where the notion of authenticity seemed to lend at least a measure of value to whatever beliefs
were held with special intensity and fervour (Jay, 2006). The heart of the idea of authenticity is
the injunction for the unique individual to take ethical responsibility for how one decides to live
life. Conversely, the notion of inauthenticity is connected to the realization that, for the most
part, our lives are shaped by different factors that in various ways undermine our inclination
to take this responsibility seriously. This is also the foundation for existential journalism.

AUTHENTICITY IN EXISTENTIAL JOURNALISM


Several scholars have found it useful to apply existential thought to ethical discussions about
communication in general and journalism in particular (Conway, 1991; Dreyfus, 2009; Herrmann, 2008; Keith, 2000; Merrill, 1977; Merrill, 1996a; Oates & Pauly, 2007; Peters, 1999;
Prosser & Ward, 2000; Ryan, 2001; Singer, 2006). I will focus here on the works of John
Calhoun Merrill because he has explicitly made himself the champion of existential journalism,
a term he coined. Existential journalism for Merrill is an orientation of being true to ones self
that is mainly manifested in an attitude of freedom, commitment, rebellion, and responsibility
(Merrill, 1996b, p. 28). It can be seen as an expression of dissatisfaction with the demands of
conformism and compromise with personal convictions that many journalists face.

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Merrill is highly critical of contemporary journalism. The people who work in mainstream
media are generally status quo persons who are afraid of the self and the stimulation and
creativity that comes from individual-oriented journalism (Merrill, 1996a). Existentialism, for
Merrill, is a philosophy of revolt against mass men, against all those who have lost their
authentic selfhood in modern technological and group-oriented society (Merrill, 1996a). In
newsrooms and journalism schools, journalists and students are often hindered in their pursuit
of authentic selfhood because they are required to yield to traditional and routine ways of doing
things (Merrill, 1995, p. 7). More often than not, the students who graduate from journalism
schools and who are seeking employment are gladly sacrificing individual authenticity to adapt
nicely to the highly regimented, depersonalized corporate structure (Merrill, 1995, p. 97). The
result of this is journalistic content that reflects crude commercial media logic rather than
ethical consideration of committed and responsible journalists. This is why most of what is
produced by contemporary journalists is, in Merrills words, brainless, illiterate, superficial,
and meaninglesscreated chiefly for the entertainment-hungry, the lazy, and the thoughtless
(Merrill, 1995, p. 98). It is against this state of things that Merrill proposes existentialism as a
road to a better and ethically more defensible journalism.
Throughout his works, Merrill points to authenticity as the fundamental ethical guiding
principle of existential journalists. Being an existential journalist, Merrill argues, is essentially
to strive to become authentic through taking responsibility for the choices made in the course
of a professional career as a journalist: At the heart of any existentialist ethics appear to lie
personal authenticity, integrity, honesty, deep concern with freedom, and the acceptance of
responsibility (Merrill, 1996a, p. 8). For journalists, the key to authenticity lies in not letting
oneself be controlled or restricted by institutional red tape; if, for example, a journalist finds
himself wanting to write a story but hesitates because it is in the twilight zone of policy,
the existential thing to do would be to go ahead and do it (: : : ) if he thinks it is the proper
action to take (Merrill, 1995, p. 8). According to Merrill, individual freedom and courage to
act is more valuable than collective adherence to journalistic codes of conduct: For a media
person to follow some group-designed code or traditional manner of action, either out of blind
submission or thoughtless habit, is inauthentic and depersonalizing (Merrill, 1996b, p. 22). Not
to go ahead would also be a choice and an action, but it would come from a superficial level of
the self, which according to Merrill hardly amounts to more than a conditioned reflex. Such
choices and actions say more about the institutions than they do about the persons authentic
self (Merrill, 1995, p. 94). Through this kind of choices, the journalist grows, matures, creates
himself, and projects himself into the future (Merrill, 1996b, p. 22). Authentic action, as a
result of conscious choice, makes journalists grow as persons and behave in a way that are not
merely socially determined (Merrill, 1995, p. 94).
Does this approach not create an ethics that is completely arbitrary, subjective and possibly
dangerous, because it encourages journalists to stop following norms and guidelines? Merrill
admits that there is a risk involved in promoting existential journalistic ethics, but he argues
there are other factors that are in play in the pursuit of authenticity that will guide the journalist
to make ethical decisions. Sartres notion of individual action as categorical imperative is
invoked as an example of one such factor. Nietzsche and Heidegger both refer to an inner voice
of conscience. For Christian existentialists, the golden rule, agape and concern for others, will
make sure that individual freedom is not exercised at the expense of others (Merrill, 1995, p. 94).
Becoming authentic means becoming something of a Nietzschean ber-journalist: finding the

AUTHENTIC JOURNALISM

courage to be a person who acts ethically but on grounds that lie beyond conventional moral
codes. Moral journalists, according to Merrill, are those who do not succumb to instincts or
passions, who do not change opinions without justification, who are not flatterers or falsifiers,
who constantly attempt to transcend self and traditional morality (Merrill, 1995).

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ADORNO AND TAYLORTWO CRITICS OF AUTHENTICITY


In the following section I will focus on two rather diverse thinkers, Theodor Adorno and Charles
Taylor, for reasons I hope will become apparent. They have both dedicated much energy
to authenticity, and they both point to problematic aspects of the usage and understanding
of the concept (Adorno, 2002; Adorno & Hullot-Kentor, 1989; Taylor, 1992, 2007). While
deconstructing the jargon of authenticity, Adorno was not, in principle or practice, opposed
to the idea of authenticity. A composer could, for example, in his musical criticism be described
as authentic (Jay, 2006). What he opposed was the consequences of the intellectual sloppiness of
those who popularized the idea (Hammond, 1991; Jay, 2006). On his part, Taylor acknowledges
the fact that behind authenticity as a concept lies a powerful moral idea (Taylor, 1992, p. 14).
What he opposes is the effects of the translation of this philosophical idea into the everyday
understanding of a contemporary culture of individualism and self-fulfillment. Let us first turn
to Adorno.
A Quasi-religious Jargon
Adorno criticized Kierkegaards view of the self, and by doing so he also criticized the German
existentialism that was contemporary to him (Adorno & Hullot-Kentor, 1989). What he reacted
most strongly against was the way the Kierkegaardian ego claims freedom from the world and
therefore is based on an idealist ontology (Hammond, 1991). This claim to freedom looks away
from the fact that consciousness needs an external reality and is formed by social circumstances
and history: Even the objectless I and its immanent history are bound to historical objectivity
(Adorno & Hullot-Kentor, 1989). Adorno went further in his criticism of the idea of authenticity.
In The Jargon of Authenticity, the language used by philosophers who talked about authenticity
was attacked by Adorno as an ideologically dangerous ideal. He called the language, or jargon,
the trademark of societalized chosenness and referred to it as the latest version of the German
ideology (Adorno, 2002). He accused the mass of authentics (a number of German thinkers,
mostly inspired by Heidegger) for celebrating and popularizing an ideal that was empty of
meaning and that encouraged passive acceptance of powerlessness and nothingness in the
face of unsatisfying conditions. The jargon of authenticity was more in good standing with
the totalitarian state than a friend of freedom (Adorno & Hullot-Kentor, 1989).
Like many existentialists, Adorno was concerned with finding valid ethical guidance and
motivation for action, and like Nietzsche, he perceived of the modern world as a place in which
individuals utterly lack the motivation for pursuing significant ends (Bernstein, 2001). Adorno
agreed with Nietzsche that in modernity, the internal rational coherence between the highest
values (e.g., truth) and the framework of rationality is lacking. Modern rationality and reason
undermines the worth of our highest values because it makes suspect the ethical ideals we employ to orient ourselves through the world, making their pursuance increasingly irrational and

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without appeal (Bernstein, 2001, p. 6). In existentialist thought, authenticity is a strategy proposed to counteract this effect of modernity. It is therefore not surprising that one of Adornos
major preoccupations, throughout his career, was with the concept of authenticity. However,
for Adorno the starting point is a critical look at the language used to describe authenticity.
One of Adornos main concerns is the tendency to slide back into a religious way of thinking,
of using metaphysical language that derives from a theological worldview. Of those concepts
into which bourgeois morality has shrunk, following the dissolution of its religious norms,
Adorno sees authenticity as the most influential one (Adorno, 2010). However, because the
content of the religious worldview is no longer present in a disenchanted world, the language
it borrows becomes useless. What the jargon amounts to is a pretend religiosity, which
according to Adorno is dangerous: Dead cells of religiosity in the midst of the secular,
however, become poisonous (Adorno, 2002, p. 16). What determines who we truly are cannot
be derived from detached introspection but in things such as imitation, play, and the will to be
different from others (Adorno, 2010).
Adorno points out the lack of concretion in talk about authenticity; it has merely the
concreteness of whatever is as its own image (Adorno, 2002). This encourages people to
elevate religion into an end in itself, without regard to its content: to view religion as a mere
attitude, as a quality of subjectivity (Adorno, 2002, p. 16). Like believers in the intrinsic
value of gold, devotees of authenticity thought that they can isolate a standard of value
before the onset of the exchange principle, which reduces everything to a fungible counter in a
circulation without end (Jay, 2006, p. 20). A realistic understanding of the self would instead
imply embracing ones inauthenticity, an empty form of privilege. The highest goal turns out
to be to become what one is anyway.
In conclusion, what Adorno argues is that while authenticity is promoted by existentialists
as a cure for the lack of meaning and motivation for ethical behavior in modern society, it
is really a waste product of the modern that it attacks and therefore counterproductive in
terms of bringing about any change (Adorno, 2002). If one looks at the claims behind the
jargon of authenticity, it turns out to be mere wishful thinking, an ersatz-religiosity that is part
of the culture that produces the illusion of a society worthy of human beings, which does not
exist. This is, according to Adorno, is where culture becomes ideology, because while it tries
to offer consolation and hope it really conceals the material conditions on which everything
human is constructed (Adorno, 2010). The discovery of authenticity, Adorno writes, as the
last bulwark of individualistic ethics is really a reflex of industrial mass production: When
countless standardized goods pretend, for the sake of profit, to be something unique, does the
idea crystallizeas its antithesis (Adorno, 2010).

ETHICS OF AUTHENTICITY IN THE CULTURE OF NARCISSISM


Charles Taylor points out that the ideal of authenticity is one of the most significant in modern
Western culture (Taylor, 1992). He asserts that the idea itself is something valuable that should
be taken seriously. What he criticizes is not so much the idea of self-fulfillment and of being true
to oneself but rather the fact that a popularized, simplified, and narcissistic way of interpreting
this originally moral ideal has led to negative consequences in our culture, such as causing
many people to lose sight of concerns that transcend them and the nonmoral desire to

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simply do what one wants without interference (Taylor, 1992, p. 15). Aspects of the ideal
of authenticity that places emphasis on the individuals obligation to discover and decide for
oneself how to live an ethical life, is often omitted when lived out in practice en masse.
Taylor identifies three malaises of modern society that are related to this slide in the
culture of authenticity: individualism, instrumental reason, and loss of freedom (Taylor, 1992,
pp. 112). Individualism, one of the defining features of the disenchanted modern world, means
freedom from constraints of a hierarchical worldview that in previous times controlled peoples
lives. As a result of the loss of a sense of a higher purpose, something worth dying for, its
flipside involves narcissism, an abnormal and regrettable self-absorption which flattens and
narrows peoples lives and reduces their interest in others and in society (Taylor, 1992, p. 4).
Furthermore, when society is no longer seen as divinely sanctioned, people around us lose the
significance accrued to their place in the chain of being and another principle, the primacy
of instrumental reason, becomes the new yardstick, allowing a view of others as raw
material or as mere instruments for our projects (Taylor, 1992). Together, individualism and
instrumental reason affect political life. A society that is structured around instrumental reason
imposes a great loss of freedom on the individual. The citizen is left alone in the face of
the vast bureaucratic state and feels, correctly, powerless (Taylor, 1992, pp. 810). This, in
addition to the individualistic life-style that is cultivated in society, causes atomism of the
self-absorbed individual who prefers to stay at home and enjoy the satisfactions of private
life rather than actively participating in the vigorous political culture that Tocqueville saw
as the only defense against this form of soft despotism.
But the pressing question that Taylor is seeking to answer is more specific: is it possible,
with the use of reason, to defend the ethical implications of the idea of authenticity? His answer
is in principle yes but, he adds, not in the way it is usually done by promoters of authenticity.
The problem, Taylor explains, is related to the moral subjectivism and the soft relativism that
has traditionally been associated with the ideal of authenticity although, Taylor argues, it is
not necessarily incompatible with other ways of reasoning. Moral subjectivism in relation to
authenticity omits the existence of horizons of significance, horizons against the background
of which some things become more important than others. The ethics of authenticity in this
sense rests on respect for subjective choices about who to become and how to achieve it. It is
a position that assumes a priori that anything we choose is all right (Taylor, 1992, p. 38).
Then again, the whole idea of self-choice becomes trivial and meaningless. If the sources of
motivation for choosing are to be sought purely subjectively, through introspection, in order to
avoid being restricted or influenced by surrounding elements, structures, authorities, or people,
the horizons of significance that make choices meaningful are collapsed. The result of this is
that the whole point of being authentic, that is, different from the herd, is lost. As opposed
to many who advocate authenticity, Taylor stresses that a correct understanding of authenticity,
is not an enemy of demands that emanate from beyond the self; it supposes such demands
(Taylor, 1992, p. 41).

AUTHENTIC JOURNALISM?
Together, this analysis aims at pointing out three things that are problematic about the ideal
of authenticity. First, one of the main points made in Adornos work is that the idea of an

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HOLT

authentic self derives from a theological perspective, where man is made in the image of
God and, therefore, originally genuinely unique and valuable. Authenticity is, Adorno writes,
an unsuccessful attempt (by Heidegger and followers) to secularize this thought. But when
the value of the self is disconnected from the fundamental source of value, God, it becomes
meaningless and unsupported wishful thinking (Adorno, 2002). Instead of liberating people, it
is a dangerous and pacifying ideal that preaches contentment with a false sense of personal
authenticity instead of the embrace of the stigma of inauthenticity.
Second, as a moral idea, authenticity suffers from the weakness of what Taylor refers to
as soft relativism and moral subjectivism (Taylor, 1992). This implies that it is impossible to
postulate any general ethical stance other than an imperative to strive for personal authenticity.
Going any further in terms of normativity would impose restrictions upon that very imperative.
Third, what both Taylor and Adorno show is that the subjectivist idea of an authentic,
original self that can stand and develop alone, irrespective (or in spite) of surrounding social
and material contexts, is an exaggeration of the personal freedom that human beings can ever
hope for. Furthermore, even if it were possible, such a stance leads either to a misguided focus
on personal achievement, self-realization, and negligence of responsibility to others (Taylor)
or to self deception, passivity, and false acceptance of inacceptable conditions (Adorno).
What follows are the implications for existential journalism. First, the dark picture painted by
Merrill of contemporary journalism is a good example of the same predicament that Taylor describes as the primacy of instrumental reason. In the large apparatus of journalistic institutions,
the individual journalist is a small player whose personal taste and sense of what is right and
good are often sacrificed on behalf of the need to reach goals that transcend the journalistic
self. The description of how conformity spreads as a result of young aspiring journalists
willingness to sacrifice their authenticity in exchange for an employment is indicative of what
Adorno and the existentialists agree upon as a situation in which the pursuance of higher ideals
appears irrational. What Merrill proposes as a key in existential journalism is simply to have
the courage to make a decision about becoming a different sort of journalist and accompanied
by a willingness to act.
The problem that becomes apparent when looking at this dictum through the lens of Adornos
criticism is the risk that authenticity as an antidote for bad journalism becomes complicitous
in what it strives to resist (Jay, 2006). Since authenticity, in Adornos view, is nothing but a
quasi-religious chimera, it is something unattainable. Holding on to a belief in ones personal
authenticity as a journalist, then, would merely serve to hide the real problems that would
still be there, no matter what gestures of heroic rebellion the individual journalist might make.
Believing, for example, that one is acting completely freely as a journalist obscures the fact
that one is indeed influenced (positively or negatively) and shaped by surrounding people and
structures. This would rather enable things to continue being as they are than to help bring
about any change. Furthermore, if change is indeed desirable, it follows that the change would
replace something bad with something good.
Taylors articulation of the lack of moral criteria for judging, in this case, good from bad
journalism, makes it problematic to deem the choices of any individual journalist authentic or
inauthentic. What seems inauthentic for Merrill, for example, choosing to write a trivial story
that is likely to be rewarded by appreciation from readers and management over writing a
story about a subject that might be sensitive and that could generate criticism from colleagues
as well as audience, might very well be felt as truly authentic and self-fulfilling to another

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journalistic individual who perhaps sees it as a way of making a dream about a certain job
in the future come true. The existential stress on the individuals freedom to choose requires
tolerance of different choices, which in turn makes it impossible to define some choices as
higher than others.
The problem is that this is exactly what Merrill doeshis construal of ethically bad
journalism and its causes contains detailed elaborations about what sort of choices are higher
(e.g., rebellious, independent, challenging) than others (e.g., going with the flow). Therefore,
authenticity, as construed in existential journalism, undermines itself as an ethical guide for
journalists and as a remedy for bad journalism. Last, although it certainly might serve as
an ethical eye-opener to some, holding authenticity up as an ideal that is supposed to guide
journalists ethically might actually in many cases be counter-productive in the sense that there
is a risk that it will rather encourage a more narcissistic and cynical focus on individual
career-achievements than stimulating closer scrutiny of journalists inner conscience.

NOTE
1. The question about who to include in a list of existentialist philosophers, and the related
question about the accuracy of lumping these individualists together under one common
term is difficult to solve. For reasons of limited space, I have chosen a narrow focus on
Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre, since they are prominent and frequently
cited in Merrills work.

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