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March 14, 2005

A Western Civ Course in What's Gone Wrong With the Press

For ideas that illuminate the rage out there journalists have to go outside their comfort zones, including the "liberal" zones in press thought. They have to find other sources of insight, and listen to explanations that may at first sound alien. Here are a few from the New Criterion...

“At a public meeting in Jackson, Miss., last week, a listener to NPR programs on Mississippi Public Broadcasting asked me if I had detected a sense of outrage growing in the country,” wrote Jeffrey Dvorkin, ombudsman for NPR (March 8). “If my inbox is anything to go by, I certainly have.”

Not just Dvorkin, but probably every ombudsman (male and female) could give the same report: a rising hostility pours in through the inbox. “The reasons for this cyber-outrage might be worth pondering,” he said.

Yes, the reasons. Who really knows how to explain the kind of rage and discontent—primarily about “bias”—that visits the ombudsman’s inbox anywhere there is such a box in the American news media today? If it’s deserved, how did journalists come to deserve it? If it’s not, how did so many Americans come to believe it?

Dvorkin’s reasons are semi-plausible— and totally familiar: “AM talk radio and cable television slugfests have given many the sense that this is what journalism should be.” Or: “E-mail makes our natural sense of impatience more pronounced.” These I would call factors. They are a long way from an understanding of causes, a long way from any why.

Calling for a more civil dialogue, as Dvorkin does, is perfectly well-intentioned. But it is not a reply to a sense of outrage growing in the country. Complaints about bias have mutated into something far more serious today: a campaign to discredit the liberal media, marginalize the national press, and deny professional journalism any hold on the public interest. I’ve been writing about it— and objecting. So have others. David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times says we’re paranoid.

A whole front in the Culture War is now devoted to these activities of disqualifying the traditional press, and raising substitutes like Jeff Gannon. That is action from the Right, but the Left often feels equally enraged at the failures of Big Journalism, and it is stupified by the success of the “liberal media” charge. What Liberal Media? as Eric Alterman put it (2003). Oh That Liberal Media, as the “reply blog” says back.

How did things get to this point?

For ideas that might illuminate the matter journalists have to go outside their comfort zones, including the “liberal” zones in current press think. They have to find other sources of insight, and listen to explanations that may at first sound alien. Better ideas to explain the rage about bias aren’t going to come from the ombudsman’s inbox because they aren’t revealed in the rage. You can listen forever to that and not know why it’s coming.

In the matter of how did we come to be attacked for being biased? I have an excursion to recommend. It’s not topical. It’s not typical. The tone is in fact classical; the frame of reference is the whole history and literature of the West. Journalism: Power without responsibility is an essay by Kenneth Minogue, who writes in the old school style of the learned man taking in a large subject and tracing things back to their roots. I found it in an obscure corner of the publishing world, Hilton Kramer’s literary and cultural magazine, New Criterion, “a monthly review of the arts and intellectual life.” (UPDATE, March 15: As I explained, “obscure corner” was a dumb way of introducing the magazine. Austin Bay agrees.)

Minogue’s excursion is a challenging read. It will not sound familiar to working journalists, unless they took a great books curriculum in college. He writes in a tradition of culturally conservative criticism (you could also say high-mindedness) that looks with disdain on “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.” Liberation into appetite is not his idea of social progress. But then progress is not his idea of what to expect from life.

This is not my tradition— at all. But today it has powerful voices speaking for it, and it always has. (The ur-text is Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses in 1930.) For a journalist wondering, “where is this rage coming from?” Minogue offers a unique vantage point. To caricature it, but only slightly: It’s like a Western Civ course in what went wrong in the press.

If we go back as far as we can without losing the thread, where do the roots of today’s bias wars lie? This is the matter Minogue spreads out on the table.

Critics conservative about culture let it be known that they mistrusted the modern media (as they distrusted the modern mass) well before the 1960s. They were reacting in part to the media diet of sensationalism, novelty, news, and scandal, which promised a kind of daily revelation. This was a false claim, they felt. Revelation was the business of religion, of the Church.

The ancient conservative complaint about the media is not liberal bias. It is the rising power of an institution celebrating novelty and change, and promising to reveal the secrets of the world through news reports about it. This conflicts with “the religious assumption that the essential truths of life have been revealed, but that the human world is dark and devious, and the connection between events is obscure.”

Does anyone recall that jingle for Time magazine?

Throughout your world
Throughout your land
Time puts it all
Right in your hand
Read Time and understand!

“We might sometimes imagine that it is merely the stuff we read in the newspapers every day, but actually journalism is a mode in which we think,” Minogue writes. “It indelibly marks our first response to everything.”

But religion was supposed to do that: indelibly mark our first response to everything. Now it’s the news. Now it’s Katie Couric. “A passion to follow the actual events of the world seems to have continually grown,” he writes of the period from 1600s to now. “The steady diffusion of a journalistic interest in what is going on affects our consciousness of the world we live in.”

People sense this about the news, its effect on consciousness just by being all around us. But what language do they have for discussing it with members of the press? None. There is no language and there is no place. There’s only “bias,” and what is by now politicized rage.

Hegel said it: in his time, the newspaper habit was replacing morning prayer. The conservative mind began hating journalism right there. “Journalistic consciousness is imperialistic,” Minogue writes, in echo of this moment. “It invades every sphere of life and takes it over.”

He is trying to explain, to a much finer point than out current debates permit, the disdain that he and others of like mind feel for Big Journalism today, which in his view “has lost such integrity as it ever had and is being used to nudge us towards some version of right thinking.” What’s different is that he never—or almost never—simplifies. And in old school fashion he goes back many times to origins:

Historically, journalism emerged from the specific interests of princes, merchants, and administrators. A prince needed to know something of foreign powers, and his ambassador sent him back reports, just as a merchant needed to know of profitable opportunities and conditions of trade.

This is accurate. Among the first correspondents was “the ambassador writing to his prince.” What’s different today is that the part of prince is played by the national public. Rather than a specific interest, it is thought to have a general stake in news (which is where “the public’s right to know” comes from.) Minogue realizes how modern a generalized demand for news is:

No life can avoid gossip, ritual, and response to overriding events such as war or famine, but most people, especially if they are illiterate, have hitherto been interested in little beyond what affects them directly. Journalism is the cultivation of concern for things that are for the most part remote from us.

And there is a connection between that remoteness and the willingness to rage at the news criers.

Here, however, I have to point out that political business transacted at court or in the capital has always affected people directly and indirectly, regardless of whether they knew much about it. Literate and informed, or illiterate and out of touch, the great mass of people do have an interest—a very legitimate one—in things that are “for the most part remote from us” because they take place within the power structure that runs our world, allegedly on our behalf.

Suppose we believe in “trustee” government. How else can we know if it’s behaving responsibly, if not through news reports from an independent source? There’s an interest in following “remote” events that is inseparable from a modern citizen’s duty to hold elected government accountable. It can’t be “wrong” unless popular sovereignty itself is wrong.

But the conservative temper trusts little in what the mind loves immediately to know. An appetite for news involves a “lust to see and know things of no concern to us,” says Minogue (who would smile knowingly at a pop term like “news junkie.”) But he also says that the kind of curiosity modern journalism satisfies is “a distant relative of the ‘wonder’ thought to be the source of philosophy and science.” The DNA of the Enlightenment is thus involved.

And he further says that journalism is essential; we feel we can’t live without knowing of distant and nearby events. We depend on news to get our bearings in the world. But this is not incompatible with rage and may even increase it. Thus: “our addiction to journalism is virtually inseparable from our dislike of it.”

Contrary to what most are taught in journalism school, Minogue sees disaster in the “social responsibility” theory of a professionalized press. (A flash point.) He would name that a wrong turn. It was a disaster, he thinks, when it happened in education. “Teachers came to think that, because they were custodians of the minds of the rising generation, they held the key to social progress.”

Something similar happened in journalism, which began to acquire “the affectations of an elite possessed of saving knowledge.”

The Salvationism in this doctrine consisted in the belief that in being skeptical of all universal claims, the journalist as critical thinker was revealing a sophistication superior to that of the average voter. The test of such critical sophistication was that the journalist held opinions liberated from the influence of his or her milieu…

That’s true, I think. But here the argument takes one wrong turn and gets lost in a critique of academic fashion—the “everything’s a construction” school of thought—which is a whole chapter in the Culture Wars, and in the American university’s recent past. And while that chapter is important in the world of the New Criterion (and important generally, I believe) it has little to do with professional training or identity in journalism.

His theory: because journalists became university-educated after World War II, and universities allegedly fell captive to social constructionists and tenured radicals who “took over” the campus, the ideas absorbed in college help explain liberal bias in the press.

Plausible from a distance. The truth is most journalists remained hostile to those ideas, and to reading the books in which they were found. The J-School, throughout the entire post-war period, remained a “boot camp” experience— the opposite of a book club. The professional culture of the press generally despises “academic” ideas about itself, reacts to jargon as if it were an S.T.D., and treats a name like Michel Foucault as a synonym for gobbledygook. Many times in my career I have been asked, by college-educated journalists, what I could possibly know about journalism since I never worked in a newsroom.

If Minogue was more familiar with that creature Newsroom Joe he would be quite impressed with how much overt loathing and intelligent resistance there is for “academic sophistication.” The reason is simple. Journalists like facts. They’re empiricists in the sense that currency, for them, is the verifiable fact not yet publicly known. They don’t want to become social constructionists and lose that.

And so journalists in the United States held on to ideas about objectivity and factuality that were under assault in other disciplines because in those ideas they found refuge from the criticism they knew would come their way. The notorious example is the mechanical “He Said, She Said” formula in newswriting. (See my post about it.) Useless for truthtelling but not bad in serving as refuge.

So Minogue gets it wrong about journalism and “academic sophistication.” The professional model for training young journalists, coupled with their introduction to workaday attitudes in internships and student newspapers, reinforced by the professional culture they immediately find on the job, prevented the “fall” of objectivity and old fashioned ideas like accuracy, verifiability, balance, fairness. At times Minogue seems to realize this.

The crudest way of formulating our dislike would be to say that the picture of the world presented in newspapers and television programs jars with our political opinions. The discontent is greater among those on “the right” than those on “the left” but both share it. And here the discontent must seem odd, because journalists pride themselves on covering, or trying to cover, all points of view.

Here at the “crudest” level, the bias wars rage indefinitely, filling the inboxes.

Minogue tries to explain the anger as a reaction to another cultural “formation” in mainstream journalism. Sometimes called the watchdog press, it’s the image of an adversarial system pitting journalists against officials and authorities. Included are the heroic figure of the investigative reporter, the pride taken in the “crap-detecting” skills that are native to the reporter’s craft, and the battle to reveal secrets that reaches its historic and dramatic high point in Watergate.

All were supposed to be “innocent” methods (and fair) because the skepticism applied to both sides, one’s friends and one’s foes. But this ignores the way skepticism of that type takes sides against authority itself, which always has something to hide— even when legitimate. Not even the most pious man fully practices what he preaches, and so there is always something to “reveal.”

And so the kind of revelation offered in journalism (“…further revelations today in the story of…”) is a degraded form— to some. A cultural conservative might be highly aware of this, while the mainstream journalist remains oblivious.

Minogue slows things down. He tries to pick out the point where suspicion becomes a pose and loses contact with political realities, with the situation of the ambassador writing to his prince. After pointing to some “philosophers of suspicion,” (Marx, Nietzsche, Freud) he says that “in journalism we find suspicion as the constitutive passion of an entire practice.” Journalists will thus fight for their chosen identity as society’s free-range crap-detectors. He says:

The rational basis of modern journalism, its claim to our attention as bringing us knowledge of the world, thus turns out to be the practice of revealing what other people want to hide from us. This is, of course, particularly true of what authority wants to hide.

The First World War was a watershed in the growth of cynicism about authority. People came to think that the official account of almost anything was generally wrong. Here then we find the beginnings of the journalistic posture of indignation as the reporter demands “full disclosure” of whatever the public might be thought to have a right to know.

That posture, he suggests, has hurt the press. And indeed there are journalists (I’ve met them) who define news as “what somebody wants to keep out of the papers.” Minogue traces the mythology of exposure back to the 19th Century realists in literature:

Novelists such as Dickens and Zola were certainly not the first to explore “low life,” but they extended the boundaries of social understanding in order to incorporate the experiences of socially insignificant people into the materials of drama, and also to reveal some of the realities—usually poverty, vice, and oppression—“behind” the facades of the time.

The crucial ideas of this literary movement were those of journalists themselves—indeed both Dickens and Zola had been journalists in their time. The basic idea of literary realism is that life is a theater put on for show, and that reality is what you find when you go behind the scenes. Reality, in other words, is something concealed by those whose interest lies in concealment. The posture of the journalist is thus that of the investigator debunking institutions by exposing secrets.

After Watergate, this became a method for generating authority in journalism. One of its most stylized forms is, of course, the CBS program Sixty Minutes.

Indeed, journalism exposes things that perhaps ought to be exposed, and prevents evils, but by that very token, it becomes a practical player in the world, and thus finds itself in contradiction with its own posture as a critic above the battles of partisans.

True. And that contradiction, left unresolved, has been a big factor in the rage. Now we come closer to where the power of the essay lies. It begins with a strange observation about pleasure and pain, opinion and news:

To hold an opinion is to mortgage a certain amount of pleasure and pain to the turn of events. What confirms one’s opinion gives pleasure, what seems to refute it, pain.

Maybe it explains some of the inbox: Those people are in pain! This idea resembles the explanation most popular with journalists: “your anger is with a world that refuted your hopes, but you’ve directed it at us, the news criers, because we delivered the message.”

For example, one day the new criers might say: “Sorry, Republicans, but a new and credible study doesn’t support your hope that Charter Schools deliver a better education. Turns out the kids in Charter schools aren’t doing any better than kids in other schools, and some are worse off. Now here are the facts…”

And what Republicans then interpret as a contest of opinion (their own vs. the journalist’s) the journalist treats as a conflict between opinion and actual knowledge— reality in the form of a news report based on it. The critics, cast as true believers, cannot accept reality (bad news); that is why they rage at media “bias,” according to this view.

There was a deadly complacency in this attitude, for it gave a warrant to ignore what critics were saying. Minogue remarks on the dangers of what I have called the View From Nowhere, which only seems to be the safe position for a mainstream journalist to hold. It hasn’t turned out that way. (On this see my recent post, The Abyss of Observation Alone.) Minogue:

The journalist, living amidst opinions, knows by instinct the pains of being caught out holding a vulnerable opinion. The first move in his professionalization, as it were, must therefore be to evacuate any position that might be explained by others as arising from his own interest: anything having to do with class, nationality, or civilization: all such inherited baggage must be abandoned by the journalist. The problem is that whoever abandons interests—which have about them a certain discussable reality, where compromise is possible—finds that his stock of opinions consists of abstract ideas. These will usually take an ethical form, and that impels them towards righteousness. Any such package of opinions is likely to irritate patriots and partisans of all kinds. The holder of such a position is usually enormously self-satisfied, because, having arrived there by the process of identifying extremes as things to be challenged and questioned, he fancies himself as having all the rationality of an Aristotelian mean.

“Reality is what you find when you go behind the scenes.” The self-satisfaction in being the skeptic to everyone else’s true believer. The righteousness among society’s free-range crap-detectors. The self-image as balancer while “you and him fight.” The tendency to shout out abstractions when asked, “what are your interests in the matter?” “A sophistication superior to that of the average voter.” The hollowness of the view from nowhere. The arid rationality in trying to be an Aristotelian mean.

These are some of Kenneth Minogue’s suggestions for how things got to where they are between the cultural right and journalism. I don’t buy all of it, but then I am not a cultural conservative in the New Criterion mold. I do recommend reading Journalism: Power without responsibility. In fact, I recommend struggling with it.

And after that, go here to struggle some more.

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…

David Shaw, the Pulitzer Prize-winning media critic for the Los Angeles Times, takes on the de-certification of the press argument (and my defense of it) in: Is Bush really implementing a full-court press on media? His answer is no. Yet the argument is “one of the most interesting and provocative (and paranoid) of those espoused in recent weeks.”

Chris Satullo’s answer is yes, there is an attempt to discredit, intimidate and marginalize journalism. He’s the editorial page editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer:

My craft is in deep trouble. Our only coin of value, credibility, is plummeting.

These Romulans are smart; they know our weaknesses. And we keep handing them ammunition. So they are pressing their attack on the very idea of an independent press.

An independent press. A lofty abstraction. But if you are a person who would like to pick up a paper, flip on CNN, or surf the Net with reasonable confidence that the information you get is as accurate as possible, and untainted by hidden agenda, you might want to help us resist the assault.

Also see Satullo in the comments on Kenneth Minogue “nailing it.” (Or at least part of it.)

The New Criterion has a weblog, called Armavirumque. See James Panero’s response, The J-don weighs in. (“Well worth reading, both for Rosen’s insights into Minogue’s article as well as for what I detect to be a few moments of genuine surprise as a courtier learns that his Sun King might be fallible after all.”) See also this National Review column about Hilton Kramer and The New Criterion.

AKM Adam, theologian and “Random Thoughts” blogger, e-mails:

AKMA: “Give voice to the truth, and we show ourselves responsible.”

My theological vocation suggests that “revelation” doesn’t stand in opposition to “investigation,” but that our apprehension of the truth always requires of its suitors a humility and reticence alien to both the insatiable curiosity to which Minogue points and the boisterous confidence of many partisans (right, left, and center). The truth, so understood, offers itself to theologian and journalist alike, and unfolds itself to those who attend patiently to the complexities that truth entails.

Responsible journalists (academics, theologians, et al.) address themselves to the truth by eschewing both arrant axe-grinding and heedless novelty-mongering.

Here Minogue’s criticism of the appearance of even-handedness strikes home: justice entails not Aristotle’s mean between extremes, but a comprehensive commitment to that which is just — to the truth, in other words.

Minogue supposes that the disjunction between journalism and truth arises because journalists have assimilated a lukewarm epistemological relativism. It seems more likely to me, though, that journalists’ work has been undone by commercial motivation than by intellectual pretension.

Minogue asks twice, “How much truth can any human activity sustain?” Is he equivocating subtly? Does he mean that we by our activities sustain a truth that might perish without us, or that our activities cannot endure long when saturated with truthfulness? Whatever his intent, I must rejoin it is only to the extent that our activities address and give voice to the truth, that we show ourselves responsible — as journalists, critics, philosophers, or theologians.

PressThink (Jan. 7, 2004), Journalism Is Itself a Religion (Special Essay on Launch of The Revealer.) “The newsroom is a nest of believers if we include believers in journalism itself. There is a religion of the press. There is also a priesthood. And there can be a crisis of faith.”

Tom Matrullo at IMproPRrieTies responds to this post:

These discussions invariably seem to take as given that what we understand as “journalism” is sufficiently uncontested to allow us to fruitfully discuss it.

In other words, the moment in which a piece of journalism, or several pieces, are actually read, is not there. Jay Rosen does spend a lot of time exploring Minogue’s think piece, to very good effect. But where do we see the same attention given to actual works of journalism? That moment is elided, in order to get to the fray of opinion about its place, its role, its trajectory, biases, and failings.

What does this elision possibly foreclose? What purpose does it serve?

Basically, he’s right. That’s the weakness of this style of essay, and blog post.

Scott Rosenberg of Salon in comments: “Minogue may have no interest in rationalizing his critique of journalism with the structure of the contemporary world economy. But for those of us who live and work in it, and try to manage our lives so that we can be comfortable and take care of ourselves and our families, paying attention to the news is not mere fad or cult of novelty or sick pop obsession; it is a survival trait.”

Here’s a first: I am described as a “white blogger” today at Romenesko. Jeff Jarvis, also named as “white blogger,” has a post about it: Blogging White Male. Chris Nolan explains it best. Doc Searls: “Nobody dominates the blogosphere. What makes the ‘sphere is indomitability. Of anyone. By anyone else.” Suffette (Lisa Stone) is doing something about it: A Bloggercon for women. Dave Winer is thinking on it.

Steve Lovelady, the boss over at CJR Daily, in comments:

It was Lord Northcliffe, founder of the London Daily Mail and London Daily Mirror who first propounded, almost 100 years ago exactly, that: “News is anything that someone somewhere wishes to suppress; all the rest is advertising.”

That’s been the operating principle for a century, in newsrooms ranging in size from three employees up to 1,200.

It will be quite interesting if we are indeed now in the process of thrashing out a replacement operating prinicple for the next 100 years — or if we’re only going through the motions.

The State of the News Media 2005. Major report from the Project on Excellence in Journalism. The final lines of the Conclusion are exquisitely apt: “Somehow journalism needs to prove that it is acting on behalf of the public, if it is to save itself.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at March 14, 2005 12:59 AM