Gentlemen of the Press

It was as by a fifth-grader at St. Anthony’s that I was first introduced to the noble phrase “free press.” Brother Matthias had just quoted to the class Thomas Jefferson’s oft-repeated line about his preferring a free press with no government to a government with no free press, a statement, let it be noted, Jefferson made before coming to office. Christian charity precluded Brother from mentioning to us Jefferson’s later opinions on the press, decidedly less lofty in tone.

Everyone who reads has his favorite press foul-up, and most likely Jefferson had his. Back before Robert Redford, when the Fourth Estate was somewhat less pretentious, these foul-ups were the subject of movies like His Gal Friday (based on a play by Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur) and books like Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. In the days of Colonel McCormick, a spade was called a spade — and frequently more. Yet our own reluctance to make even the most elementary conclusion can be just as ridiculous, perhaps best epitomized by a photograph in the New York Daily News just a few years back. It was of a dead man in a jewelry store, lying in a pool of blood, a pistol in his outstretched hand. The caption referred to him as the “alleged robber.”

More recently the Russian shooting of Korean Airlines Flight 007 presented the American reader with much more material. On the front page of the New York Times, for instance, stories of “U.S. Says” were juxtaposed with the “Moscow Says” version(s); apparently the reader is supposed to discern the truth somewhere between these two extremes. Or consider the recent case of “Yellow Rain,” where our diligent investigative reporters finally came up with the requisite professors to blame the chemical deaths on . . . killer bird turd. Were it around for the event, I do believe the Washington Post would have been quite capable of “Attila to Pope: I Only Want Peace.”

Would Jefferson be surprised? Probably not, but. before I go on about The Press — which, after all, is a group of individuals ranging from George Will to Seymour Hersh — a crucial distinction has to be made between the “popular” and the “intellectual” press. The former is as diverse as “CBS News with Dan Rather” and the Martinsville Daily Reporter (Ind.); the latter, while it sometimes (particularly on the editorial pages) overlaps, tends to be more academic and includes everything from The Progressive to National Review. Though I myself went to graduate journalism school, and though friends rarely make the distinction between my magazine and the daily press, the people with whom I work at The American Spectator would be surprised to be lumped within The Press. Some would be distinctly hostile.

So from my vantage point of somewhere in-between, I see as the salient feature of modern journalism its preposterous attempt to transform it into a profession, akin to law or medicine. In the more pleasant past, a journalist was someone who either stumbled into the newspaper business or was denied employment in any of the more honorable lines of work. All that was required was the ability to write down, more or less accurately, what one saw. Naturally, with so many individuals and eccentrics, opinions (and newspapers) were much more diverse, and “newspaper wars” were frequent.

The present-day reporter, on the other hand, is more likely a J -school graduate, and considers himself (herself?) a professional. Yet J -schools are a very symptom of the professional delusion. For unlike law or medicine, there is no body of knowledge the journalist need master; in more candid moments it might be conceded that there are no special ethics, either. A journalist, quite simply, is anyone who calls himself a journalist.

J-schools also tend to homogenize the product. Now journalism degrees may not sound all that alarming. But think about it. What is there to teach in journalism school that six months in the newsroom of the local weekly wouldn’t do much better? Anyone who takes eight journalism courses — remember, at the expense of, say, eight English courses or eight history courses — is not going to be the next Ernest Hemingway. Add to this Irving Kristol’s observation that the only students less qualified than journalism majors are education majors and the chaos takes form.

For this reason, conspiracy theorists are pathetically off-target. If ever there was a class of people absolutely in-capable of carrying out a decent conspiracy, it is journalists. In the section 1 taught, for example, the students were required to read both the New York Times and the Boston Globe (the local paper) each day. Not that demanding, especially since they had almost no books to read. Yet when quizzed, most displayed an ignorance of the world one thought had vanished with the advent of Gutenberg’s type. Asked to identify “John Paul Stevens” a number confidently put down “Pope”; one fellow even labeled “Jesse Helms” a “civil rights activist” — which in a way I suppose he is.

Given the general lack of intellectual rigor, young journalists tend not to reason their way left but rather blow with the prevailing winds. My class would laugh smugly at jokes about a Nixon Administration they could not possibly remember. Thus, in their dealings with conservatives or people who do not share their assumptions, they tend to see such people as specimens as curious as the Trobriand Islanders: it is that exotic to their experience. But ultimately their attitudes and postures are determined for them, and this by the other class of writing, the “intellectual” or “opinion” press. To understand the radicalism of the 1960s writers, for example, one has to study the intellectual seeds sown in the 1940s and 1950s.

Here there is some good news. Now there is little disputing that the majority of these journals, even with Reagan in the Oval Office, remain on the Left. Neither can it be disputed that they still constitute established opinion. But I would submit too that they are undeniably dead, intellectually bankrupt, without ideas. Years of untrammeled Rationalism has made it impossible for these intellectuals not only to draw the line but even to admit that such a line exists

In other words the Left has become boring, something it most definitely was not for these many years. The complete loss of standards, together with the rigorous exclusion of experience, has launched periodicals like The Nation or The Progressive into Never Never Land — their conception of the universe unintelligible to all but undernourished vegetarians and professors of environmental studies. John Stuart Mill would not prate so confidently of conservative stupidity were he alive to witness Alan Cranston.

I think it also fair to say that Catholic intellectual magazines are even worse. An hour with their pages is like walking through a museum — here’s Colman McCarthy explaining why Jesus would be for rent control, there’s Michael Harrington telling us the answer lies in federal soup kitchens. In all of this, these magazines display an uncanny skill at embracing some policy recommendation only after it has been empirically discredited: their politics is de fide, with the moral all too often degenerating into the moralistic.

But I am optimistic about the long-range, for one reason: the life is no longer on the Left. If you want vibrancy, read Commentary or The American Spectator; the growth too is apparent in the existence of new magazines like Catholicism in Crisis — all unthinkable a few years ago. Still, it will take at least a generation for this to filter down, and in the meantime the world will grow more dismal and silly. As Newman wrote, “There are some men so immoderate that there is no greater calamity for a good cause than that they should get a hold of it.” Fortunately, they all seem to write for the National Catholic Reporter.

  • William McGurn

    William McGurn is an American writer. He was the chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush from June 2006 until February 2008, replacing Michael Gerson. McGurn served as the chief editorial writer with The Wall Street Journal. From 1992 to 1998, McGurn served as the senior editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review. Prior to this he was the Washington bureau chief of National Review. He writes the Main Street column at The Wall Street Journal and is an executive at its parent company, News Corporation. On Dec. 11, 2012, he was named editorial page editor of the New York Post.

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