Journalism's Faulty Paradigm

Yesterday, OpinionJournal featured an fantastic essay (found via Ace) from critic James Bowman about the faulty paradigm that modern journalism has embraced, the idea that "getting the facts right" ought to be the foremost goal of government.

It's a ridiculous premise, Bowman argues, because that isn't what government is supposed to do. In an imperfect world populated by imperfect humans, mistakes and errors are inevitable. What ought to matter most is how governments learn from miscalculations and their will to pursue the important tasks we expect them to.

This odd prejudice may be partly owing to the huge social premium we put on intelligence in the era of the cognitive elite. People who have no idea on earth what to do about the war or any of the problems we face as a nation think it is some kind of program to ridicule the intelligence of the President. Even the political opposition has fallen into this trap by making mere perspicacity in the anticipation of evils rather than the determined effort to combat them its test of political success. Thus in Sen. Jim Webb's reply to the president's State of the Union Address in January, he had no alternative to suggest to the measures for dealing with Iraq that had been proposed, but he was full of indignation on the grounds that the mistakes of the administration had been foreseeable. He knew that they were foreseeable because he himself had foreseen them. The implication was that he was much cleverer than President Bush--as if that was all that need be said to the credit of the former and the discredit of the latter.

The fact that the opposition and the media frame the debate in this way means that much of the administration's energies have to be expended in defending itself against endless second-guessing, which in turn means that it is even less inclined to recognize and correct mistakes. This is infantile politics. Meanwhile, on the question of what is now to be done about the mistakes, no one seems to know any better than Sen. Webb, whose policy amounts to saying that we ought not to have made them in the first place. This is also the view of much of the Democratic Party, and almost all of the media, who repeat mechanically that we need a "change of course" in Iraq but never get around to telling us what they would change--short of surrendering, which is now becoming the default option.

This problem has its roots in that the press has flip-flopped on how it views war. Before the 20th century, war was something that was glossed over and even glorified by the press. That changed with the Vietnam War. Bowman writes:

There is also a paradox involved in the romance of exposing falsehood, for romance is itself a kind of falsehood. It may be a hopeful and a benign sort of falsehood, but it is still ineluctably false. By its very nature romance amounts to an exaggeration or glorification of what, looked at more closely, is at best mundane and at worst ugly or disreputable. Journalists, like novelists and filmmakers, used to romanticize warfare by closing their eyes to much of the horror of it; now they romanticize the victims of war and so undermine war's foundations by looking at nothing but its horrors. In the media's reporting of war, honor and glory have become at least as invisible as the ghastly flow of blood and viscera once were to their predecessors. Nowadays, any journalist who wants to succeed knows he is in the business not of celebrating honor or trust or heroism but of exposing whatever sordid realities may be found (or invented) beneath the appearances of those things. And if the romantic prize is now awarded to those who tell tales of war's evils, why should we not suppose that the supply of those evils will rise to meet the journalistic demand, just as the supply of heroes rose when the demand was for tales of heroism?

No fearless truth-teller that I know of has ever troubled to ask this question, let alone to answer it, for to do so would be to call into question the one unquestionable article of faith in the journalist's credo, namely his own "objectivity." Never mind the philosophical crudeness of this model of the media as a mirror in which realities are merely reflected. The transparency of the process, the neutrality of the observer in mediating for us the things he has observed must be insisted upon--barring occasional slips like the use of the word "romantic" above--at all costs if the journalist is to retain the authority he needs to be able to say with David Halberstam to the mighty of the earth: "You lie." Without that authority, what hope of joining Halberstam in the Pantheon of celebrity along with Gable and Hepburn? Yet that objectivity and that authority are themselves lies whose foundational nature preserves them from scrutiny even when the part the media play in shaping events--see, for instance, "Biased Sensationalism" in The New Criterion of December 2006--or being manipulated by others to shape events is obvious to anyone without a stake in the pursuit of journalistic glory.

Halberstam's old employer, the New York Times, took the occasion of his death to run a piece by Dexter Filkins, who writes for the paper from Iraq, comparing now with then. "During four years of war in Iraq, American reporters on the ground in Baghdad have often found themselves coming under criticism remarkably similar to that which Mr. Halberstam endured: those journalists in Baghdad, so said the Bush administration and its supporters, only reported the bad news. They were dupes of the insurgents. They were cowardly and unpatriotic." Small wonder then that, before he died, Halberstam himself "did not hesitate to compare America's predicament in Iraq to its defeat in Vietnam. And he was not afraid to admit that his views on Iraq had been influenced by his experience in the earlier war. 'I just never thought it was going to work at all,' Mr. Halberstam said of Iraq during a public appearance in New York in January." Yet neither Halberstam nor Mr. Filkins mentions one crucial difference between Vietnam and Iraq. In Vietnam, the enemy was militarily formidable even without any assistance from the media. In Iraq, the enemy is militarily weak and can hope to win only by exploiting the media's negativity--and the continuing romance of their role in Vietnam--to make the war seem unwinnable. The role of fearless truth-teller is no longer available, if it ever was. Like it or not, the media are already involved in the action and must pick a side.

Excactly right.

Incidentally, Bowman's piece was originally printed in the New Criterion, a lesser-known but superb conservative journal that is one of my favorite intellectual magazines. Their blog Armavirumque is also an excellent resource and well worth a visit.

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013