For years, I spent an hour every morning with The New York Times. It wasn’t that different from repeating a mantra or concentrating on the breath. Stories, like thoughts, would come and go; in time, it dawned on me that “objectivity” was pure myth, since no two people, journalists included, see the same event in the same way. The line between reality and illusion became increasingly watery — there were demons and avenging angels everywhere, on the corners of Harlem and on the campus of Kent State; America was drowning in the shallows of its own dream. The writing on the wall said it all; who needed The Times?

Besides, I had worked for a newspaper myself. I knew, as Ben Bagdikian had put it, that trying to be a first-rate reporter for the average newspaper was like “trying to play Bach’s St. Matthew Passion on a ukelele. The instrument is too crude for the work, for the audience, and for the performer.” I knew, too, how few journalists cared deeply about their jobs, how laziness and ignorance shaped the “facts” and facts, the “truth.”

But the news media, today, more than communicates the news; it is news itself. After the Watergate scandal, the power of the press is the headline. The headline, as usual, conceals as much as it reveals. The myopic inner eye of American journalism admires itself in the mirror; its adolescent pride is understandable, and a little dangerous. The reflections we are offered confuse the power of the press with its authority, the mirror for the eye itself.

Any story reflects fundamental assumptions about the world. No matter how “objective” a reporter tries, or pretends to be, the way he sees, the verdict of his perception, is what fashions the story — determines who he talks to, what questions he asks, what he’ll subtly emphasize or ridicule. We write about nothing as much as about ourselves, even when the subject seems to be “out there” — an election, or an earthquake. Our deepest-seated prejudices, opinions, and hunches — in short, our beliefs about reality — make up the news. The news is simply our agreement about what is novel, out of the ordinary, interesting, or controversial. For years, the agreement was that there was nothing especially interesting about poverty. Or the inadequacies of public transportation. Or the razor edge or racial prejudice. And so on.

What is often forgotten is that the assumptions of a culture shape the news more decisively than the influence of a particular politician or advertiser. Do we see events as separate and definable? It’s no surprise, then, that our newspapers describe them that way, rather than as features of one happening, ultimately impossible to define because observer and observed are one. Do we strip the world of its wonder, as we try to explain it to our satisfaction? What need, then, for the network commentators to pause in appreciation, or acknowledge the madness and the mystery — the real poetry of birth and death and violence and power; the exertions of the global heart; the sweep of great ideas; and every subtle movement and striving of the race. The front pages are nothing less than a blueprint of the collective unconscious, a map of the back of the American mind. If, in appearance, they are crowded and unattractive, junked up with unrelated facts and without order or grace; if the news wraps itself around the contests of the “great” like some whore on the arm; if the scandals and the strategies of the powerful dominate our attention; if the sports pages have become a big-money poem, where competitiveness is both rhyme and reason; if instead of finely-tuned language we are offered factory-pressed words and rhythms, some awful “pragmatic” soldering of cliche to form — what does this tell us about ourselves?

Do we expect any more from our columnists than our politicians? They went to the same schools, eat the same food, share the same fears. What can The New York Times tell us about America that we can’t learn from spending an hour in any suburban shopping center, if only we pay attention, to how people walk, how they speak, what they say, seeing the “news” in what is most familiar and most strange, but mostly, seeing with the naked eye.

There’s a much-advertised trend in journalism, called “adversary reporting,” which views the media as the watchdog, if not the enemy, of government and big business. It’s nothing new. In the old days, it was called crusading. Thomas Jefferson had warned us, long before Walter Cronkite, how, if forced to, he’d choose free press over free government, because without a free press no government would remain free for long. Reporters in this tradition openly place their humanistic concerns against what they see as the evils of governmental and corporate dishonesty or irresponsibility. They have a point of view, and don’t feign impartiality. This is the kind of reporting that makes heroes — of whichever social reformers the journalists may endorse (Ralph Nader is a good example; he has the kind of dedication bordering on fanaticism that idealistic reporters respect) and of the journalists themselves. Witness All the President’s Men, the new film starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as the Washington Post reporters who broke the Watergate story.

Redford, who had known Woodward and Bernstein, the real-life reporters, when the Watergate events began breaking, observed of the “professional reporter”: “He doesn’t accept anything the way it is, trusts nothing to be what it appears to be takes nothing for face value, and that’s only for starters.”

It’s a definition any good reporter, or Zen master, would endorse. Enlightened reporting begins with “seeing,” stripping ourselves of our comfortable fantasies about reality — such as false trust in the “powerful” or in surface appearances. As synthetic novelty — what Daniel Boorstin calls “pseudo-events” — flood our experience, and journalism degenerates into press agentry, a response to image rather than reality (as in the election campaigns), the best reporters, like the the best artists, honor their own instincts. What their instincts tell them, and what modern physics, and the various schools of Eastern mysticism remind us, is that observer and observed are inseparable; that we cannot break up the world into independently existing small units — be they atoms, or facts — because, in truest fact, the universe is not a collection of physical objects, or events, but a web of relations between the parts of a unified whole; and that, because of our fundamental interconnectedness, community is real, not merely the coin of politicians, and so the most important story of all. This doesn’t need to be communicated in so many words — spare us a “new spiritual journalism.” Nor does it mean that reporters should ignore the seeming separateness of events, for we’re meant to live with and understand these distinctions, not whip them into cosmic mush. Still, even the best “adversary reporting,” insofar as it reinforces the distinctions rather than illuminating the common space between them — the space it has always been the function of art, and religion, to report — does no genuine service. Nixon has resigned; Ford is President. But does anyone understand any more about America, and the mangled inheritance of innocence and corruption we carried, as our birthright, from Europe? Reporters wrote slanted stories against the hippies until the reporters’ own heads were bloodied at the Chicago convention; then, they started writing slanted stories against the cops. Ram Dass stated the dilemma succinctly years ago: “Hippies create police; police create hippies. If you’re in polarity you’re creating polar opposites.” As long as we see each other as symbols, rather than human beings — it is revealing that journalists distinguish “human interest” stories from the rest of the news; what news isn’t? — we repeat the mistakes of the past, creating a sense of isolation where none need exist, forgetting that “news” is neither good nor bad but only what we make it. If we reduce the world to a sadness of unrelated events, well that’s the world we’re stuck with. It doesn’t have to be that way. It helps to remember that every newspaper started out as a tree.