The New Yorker ponders journalism’s future, ignores Walter Lippmann in profession’s past


A decent essay from Jill Lepore at The New Yorker. Longish, but worth the read.

However, one point where I strongly differ from Lepore:

For Pressman, the pivotal period for the modern newsroom is what Abramson calls “Halberstam’s Golden Age,” between 1960 and 1980, and its signal feature was the adoption not of a liberal bias but of liberal values: “Interpretation replaced transmission, and adversarialism replaced deference.” In 1960, nine out of every ten articles in the Times about the Presidential election were descriptive; by 1976, more than half were interpretative. This turn was partly a consequence of television—people who simply wanted to find out what happened could watch television, so newspapers had to offer something else—and partly a consequence of McCarthyism. “The rise of McCarthy has compelled newspapers of integrity to develop a form of reporting which puts into context what men like McCarthy have to say,” the radio commentator Elmer Davis said in 1953. Five years later, the Times added “News Analysis” as a story category. “Once upon a time, news stories were like tape recorders,” the Bulletin of the American Society of Newspaper Editors commented in 1963. “No more. A whole generation of events had taught us better—Hitler and Goebbels, Stalin and McCarthy, automation and analog computers and missiles.”

These changes weren’t ideologically driven, Pressman insists, but they had ideological consequences. At the start, leading conservatives approved. “To keep a reporter’s prejudices out of a story is commendable,” Irving Kristol wrote in 1967. “To keep his judgment out of a story is to guarantee that the truth will be emasculated.” After the Times and the Post published the Pentagon Papers, Kristol changed his spots. Journalists, he complained in 1972, were now “engaged in a perpetual confrontation with the social and political order (the ‘establishment,’ as they say).” By 1975, after Watergate, Kristol was insisting that “most journalists today . . . are ‘liberals.’ ” With that, the conservative attack on the press was off and running, all the way to Trumpism—“the failing New York Times,” “CNN is fake news,” the press is “the true enemy of the people”—and, in a revolution-devouring-its-elders sort of way, the shutting down of William Kristol’s Weekly Standard, in December. “The pathetic and dishonest Weekly Standard . . . is flat broke and out of business,” Trump tweeted. “May it rest in peace!”

Liberal, i.e. left-wing, “bias” and values — I don’t see Lepore’s distinction — were baked into journalism’s professional ethic when Walter Lippmann decided to develop one in the early 20th century. Lippmann pioneered journalism’s turn to objectivity, a methodological process carried out by technocrats, i.e. journalists, that was supposed to resemble science and emulate its epistemological rigor in scrutinizing society instead of the natural world. This is in large part because the masses, for Lippmann, could not be counted on to grasp what was really going on outside “the pictures in their heads” and accordingly make the appropriate electoral decisions.

So, for the liberal ideal of democracy to have a chance, the right public opinion — or range thereof — had to be nurtured and cultivated by a class of objective experts. Self-rule was perhaps only possible if elites gave citizens the information they needed to be truly autonomous. In other words, social reality was too complex, the electorate too incompetent for everyday people to govern themselves without the expertise of journalists.

That’s the theoretical basis in the 1920s that gets you in no small part the news analysis and “interpretative” coverage that Lepore notes occurred in the second half of the century. It’s also a significant factor in how we get a frantic press corps sallying its mighty influence to take down down a Constitutionally-elected president in Donald Trump in 2019.

This type of professional behavior was and is most definitely ideologically motivated. Modern journalism emerged from the moral fervor of American progressivism and its attendant influences. How could it not have similar values and beliefs? How does this not manifest in bias, particularly in these turbulent days?

To put it another way, Trump is the chosen talisman of the recalcitrant American masses who are repudiating the self-important oligarchical status quo within which journalists are a main player. He is an avatar of the populism threatening the neo-liberal order and their vaunted place in it. Thus, the reported narrative about his election and presidency tells of “white supremacy” and authoritarian impulses endangering democratic institutions — especially freedom of the press — empowered by an ascendant fascism percolating from 63 million “deplorable” voters. Hyperbolic and hysterical, this interpretation of the so-called facts, mind you, comes from those who see themselves as the objective caretakers of the “Marketplace of Ideas.” Yet, as evidenced by their histrionics, like in the above-mentioned yarn, these supposed adepts seemingly possess a disqualifying ignorance of the produce, the exchange of which they’re apparently duty-bound to curate. It’s that old Platonic notion of rule by the wise, except legacy news organizations, the self-proclaimed practitioners of objectivity, are increasingly proving themselves to be lacking the humility, temperance, and open-mindedness indicative of what the ancients called wisdom. So forget Lippmann and press theory. Nowadays, one just has to look at a grandstanding Jim Acosta on CNN or read the self-aggrandizing platitude of “Democracy Dies in Darkness” on top of the Washington Post‘s website — the addition of which occurred after Trump’s election — to discern the Fourth Estate’s dogmatism. No journalist is required to glean the truth here.

Shhhsh! They don’t want you to know that! And that patronizing attitude, dear readers, is the point. Such self-serving elitism is ideological. Moreover, it’s not a bug to be worked out of the operating system; thanks to Lippmann, it is a permanent feature of it. Lepore fails to see, let alone admits, this, projecting instead her own partisanship on the right, writing off conservatives as merely grumbling about phantasms of “liberal media bias” spawned by the specter of Spiro Agnew. It’s poor tact in an otherwise trenchant take on the crisis of modern journalism.

Real it all here.

Advertisements