Why are the phrases “honest journalist” and “free press” so often greeted with a snicker? Of course, everyone exempts his own columnist or talking head from the general condemnation, but most Americans also exempt their own congressman from the universal condemnation of Congress as a body made up of toadies and swindlers. To see the American press in action, simply tune in a program like The Capital Gang. Whatever the question that divides the group—the veracity and competence of Condoleezza Rice, the payments to Haliburton for supplying oil to Iraq, the voting record of John Kerry—the response almost always breaks down along party lines: Bob Novak, Sean Hannity, Tony Snow, Kate O’Beirne, shilling for the Republicans; Mark Shields, Al Hunt, Alan Colmes doing the same for the Democrats. Occasionally, a speaker wanders off the reservation, usually because he is loyal to another reservation like the conservative movement or Marxist ideology, but such exceptions are rare interruptions in the smooth flow of thoughtless chatter and fact-free propaganda.
I do not know why anyone bothers to watch the show—or, rather, I do know, but the knowledge is dispiriting. Party loyalists watch, talking over the enemy and applauding “our side.” Listen to talk radio. Not all of the callers can be party activists, yet most of them have memorized their party’s talking points and buzzwords. I used to do a fair amount of talk radio, but I find the experience increasingly depressing. When, in the Clinton years, I came on as a guest to criticize the insane and vicious foreign policy of Clinton and Albright, the Republicans could not praise me enough for my independent mind and well-researched positions. The war in Kosovo was a monstrosity, they said, and, as soon as George W. Bush is elected, he and his crack foreign-policy team will put an end to nation-building.
Once Bush was elected, however, he chose a foreign-policy team as stupid and vicious as Madeleine Albright and Richard Holbrooke, but, if I ventured to criticize Paul Wolfowitz or to defend the lone voice of sanity, Colin Powell, the same Republicans denounced me, and, when they saw how the arguments against Kosovo could be turned against Iraq, they either changed their minds about the Kosovo war or even, in many cases, denied they had ever opposed it.
Mankind does not need to be taught to lie—Adam told his first lie in the Garden—but it is disconcerting to realize that the talk-radio listeners, in modeling themselves on Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, have learned to be as partisan and one-dimensional as their heroes. I suppose, in defense of the American people, we should concede that the best people do not listen to talk radio or read the newspapers. Proust suggests, somewhere in his unending novel, that we should reverse our reading habits and take a newsprint version of, say, Pascal to the breakfast table and, once a year, take down a leather-bound volume of society gossip. If, for “society gossip,” we substitute “pop news”—the celebrity scandals, airline disasters, human-interest stories, and political propaganda that fill up the front pages of newspapers and the filler space between the advertisements on the evening news programs—we shall be well on the way to leading a fulfilling and honest life.
Was it ever any better? Different, yes; better, probably not. In the 1950’s and 60’s, the knee-jerk conservatives at National Review and the knee-jerk leftists at the New Republic routinely anathematized each other, while only rarely examining each other’s facts or arguments. Now that conservatism is leftism, however, there is less to fight over. Republicans like to say that they have facts and arguments, while the Democratic left has only emotions. It is a pretty thought but not one that can survive an hour’s exposure to Hannity or either of the Limbaughs.
There is nothing wrong with cheerleading or partisan pamphleteering. The press, to a large extent, owes its origins to the party pamphlets of the 17th and 18th centuries, and it is good to see that they are sticking to the traditions that made the term “honest journalist” a contradiction in terms. The only question is, “Who pays?” In the heroic days of journalism, dishonest editors like Bennet, Pulitzer, and Hearst paid their writers to go out and get stories that would sell papers, and the journalist guns they hired would have cheerfully sold out either employer or party in order to gain fame and fortune—though not in that order.
“Honest journalist” and “a free press” are not only contradictions in terms; they are mutually exclusive, because the nearest thing to an honest journalist is a man who will sell himself to the highest bidder. Once a man has made enough money—that is, supposing he is a man—he can devote himself to telling the lies he really believes in.
So the question is not, as our colleague Humpty Dumpty never ceases to remind us, whether one has the right to “make words mean so many different things”—that is, to mislead and deceive the public. “The question is which is to be master—that is all.” In other words, since we must assume that journalists will twist and contort both fact and language in order to maintain the cause taken up by their master, the only question in American journalism worth debating (though even talking about the subject can sour the digestion of a philanthropic optimist) is who shall be the masters of the servile press—that is all.
The left generally answers, “the people,” by which they mean the government, by which they mean themselves and their leftist colleagues who end up as the cultural commissars who run the NEA, the DOE, the NEH, and every other set of unpalatable acronyms that, when reassembled, spell out the ignorance and stupidity which are the fate of the American people. The so-called right (though there is not now and never has been a genuine American right that amounted to anything) answers, “the individual,” by which they mean media corporations, by which they mean monopolies like Disney/ABC-Time Warner, by which they mean themselves and their friends who run the monopolies that spell the doom of the American mind and American freedom.
I say, a plague on both their houses. Television, movies, radio, books, magazines, and newspapers determine to a very large extent what sort of people we are living with. Imagine you could choose your next-door neighbor, and the choice were between Candidate A, who eats junk food, watches snuff films as he plays video poker, and reads the New York Post, Hustler, and the Weekly Standard, and Candidate B, who cooks at home, watches old Capra and Ford movies, and divides his reading between Chronicles and the English classics. If you are a neoconservative, you will choose A, but normal people will choose B. Why is it impossible to choose the cultural influences that will determine what sort of people most Americans are—other than the fact that public education is set up specifically to create A and eliminate B?
One quick answer, the answer we always receive, is that the nation is too diverse to impose a uniform culture. Then why, whenever it is a question of public money or monopoly money, are we imposing the uniform culture of Candidate A?
See how the fates their gifts allot,
For A is happy, B is not,
But B is worthy, I dare say,
Of more prosperity than A.
But let us accept the argument—and its consequences. The news and entertainment that would please Sean Scallon’s readers in northwestern Wisconsin would leave Jim Tate’s effete and affluent Long Islanders cold. Then why not entrust control over the news media—radio, television, and newspapers—neither to monopoly capital nor to monopoly government? Why not give these formative institutions to the small communities and cities that actually compose the mosaic of American life? Imagine a Corporation for Public Broadcasting set up as a federation of independent stations, none of them with power enough to cross the county line, the city limits, or (in some cases) the neighborhood boundary. (If we wanted competition, stations might be allowed to broadcast to two counties, so long as the other county had its own station.)
If competition is, as our classical liberal friends tell us, the prerequisite for excellence, then these thousands of independent community stations and community newspapers would be vastly more competitive than the handful of newspaper chains, major networks, and media conglomerates. Locally produced programs would draw on existing pools of talent and local interests, but they would also stimulate the local theater and music scene. Writers and performers would no longer have to dream of going to New York to “make it,” especially since local shows could be sold to other stations, though a majority of the programming would have to be local.
In the “Golden Days of Radio,” local stations had to be responsible for their own programming, and, although it was hardly a cultural renaissance comparable with the 14th century, it was nowhere near as bad as the entertainment programming today on cable television. Unless you have a package that includes Turner Classic Movies, your $45 per month buys nothing but the leering prevarications of Fox News and an endless series of sitcoms and drama shows as entertaining as a skin rash. I forgot: There is still The Simpsons, whose worst shows are better than the best episodes of other programs. (Yes, I have held my nose and watched just enough television to make such a statement.)
Local radio and television is fine, you will tell me, if it is only a question of putting Lonesome Rhodes and his guitar in front of a microphone. How could local stations cover international news? That is not a difficult question. After all, it would be better to know nothing than to know only what the networks and newspapers tell us—which is the case today. Complete ignorance is not the worst-case scenario. We have the worst-case scenario, and anything would be an improvement.
Under this utopian scheme, wire services could be allowed to operate, though (in my imaginary world) they would have to register a political affiliation and ideological orientation. “This in today from the Marxist-Feminist News Service . . . ” or “According to a report in the New York Zionist, the Israeli Defense Force has killed a mad-dog terrorist.”
The orientation and policies of a local station would be determined by a large media board elected by the neighborhoods. In larger cities, where there would be obvious conflicts, there might have to be several boards, each with its own stations and newspapers and each reflecting the ethnic, social, and religious views of its electoral community. Who would sit on such boards? The same opinionated, self-seeking slobs who sit on school boards today. The difference is that there would be no outside pressures and no state or federal money. And the voting districts would be so small that there would be no excuse for not knowing the candidates, who (like all political candidates in this imaginary democracy) would have to go door to door: No political commercials would be allowed in the media.
Imagine what would happen if Southern Baptists or black Muslims or Greens controlled even part of the media in their communities. There might be something like a genuine debate over principles. Americans might actually figure out what they really believed, as opposed to what they are told to believe. New parties might spring up, and the old ones might, for the first time in decades, stand for principles instead of representing the powerful special interests who pay for their campaigns.
If you like this proposal, do not write your congressman. My scheme has as much of a chance of being adopted in this America as the Constitution of 1787 and considerably less of a chance than John Lennon’s “Imagine,” which has become our ideological national anthem. Obviously, no decentralized system, either in education or in the media, will ever be created in the United States. It is useful, however, to think of how a truly American system might have been created, taking advantage of the only real American talent (now being lost): Our ability to mind our own business and take care of our own affairs within our own communities. The very fact that such a proposal seems so utopian tells us how far we have come from the real America and the impossibility of ever having a “free and honest” press.
This article first appeared in the June 2004 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.
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