Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, August 8, 2013
They Said It:
The Utopian socialists could explain in part how the state of affairs which they deplored came about. They could also explain why such a state of affairs did not appear deprecatory to others. But they could not explain in the slightest their own ideals of social reform. They appeared to themselves as if they were outside of the social process – as if they were historical mutants whose fertilising ideas would revolutionise the existing order. The philosophy of other people was determined by circumstances and education but not their own philosophy. And, in fact, how could it be on their simple materialistic assumptions, since their circumstances and conditions were quite similar to those of ‘the others’ who disagreed with them? That is why Marx properly points out that this mixture of socialism and materialism leads to a belief in a division of society into two parts – one of common-run people whose ideas are simply determined by circumstances and education, the other of choice Utopian spirits who are elevated above society and social laws, the rare gifts of the gods to an errant humanity. The cult of leadership among the Utopian groups, their assumption that they could appeal to any social class, from paupers to princes, for support of their ideals, their belief in a cure-all for every evil including natural stupidity – all flowed from the view that the keys to salvation were in the possession of a handful of right-thinking men – call them saints or scientists or philosophers or social engineers, as you please.
Sidney Hook, From Hegel to Marx, 1936.
JEFF BEZOS, PROFESSIONAL JOURNALISM, AND THE COLLAPSE OF THE PROGRESSIVE DREAM.
In the week since the Washington Post Company announced the sale of its flagship and namesake publication to Jeff Bezos, the CEO and founder of Amazon.com, countless journalists have weighed in on the sale, sharing their opinions, thoughts, and laments. In general, the commentary has taken one of two forms.
Many, if not most, of those commenting on the sale have speculated about Bezos’s plans and his strategy for “saving” one of the nation’s premier news-distribution brands. For the time being, we’ll leave this speculation alone, largely because we already commented on this subject last week; our position being that Bezos didn’t buy the Post to save it, but to destroy it, or at least to dismantle it and to use its content to further his real, long-term e-commerce interests.
The journalists opining on the sale don’t see it that way, of course. They can’t even fathom such a thing. They’re journalists, after all. And the Post is one of this country’s most venerable journalistic institutions. How could one not want to save it? It’s one of the things that make American journalism great. And, by extension, journalism is one of the things that make America great. Ergo, how could Bezos not want to save America?
This brings us to the second strain of commentary on the sale: the wailing and gnashing of teeth. As it turns out, selling the Washington Post to an internet guy was not only a business decision, but a lifestyle choice . . . or something. For ever and ever and ever, it seems, the Post has been more than a mere newspaper. It has been a beacon of some sort, a symbol of journalistic excellence and professionalism, a source of great strength and constancy. In a characteristic emotional outburst, the Post’s Ruth Marcus put it this is way:
Don Graham’s decision to sell The Washington Post was his reverse Sophie’s Choice moment.
She had to decide which cherished child to save and which to send to the gas chamber. Don and the Graham family weren’t forced to make an anguishing choice but did so anyway. They relinquished the newspaper they love in order to protect it . . .
Through good times and bad, and it has mattered most in the bad times, the Graham family has understood itself as having been entrusted with the care of a special institution. The Grahams served as buffer, insulating the paper from malevolent outside forces . . .
Intellectually, I and my colleagues get it. Emotionally, we are reeling. To us, as to the city, the Grahams are the paper. Monday afternoon was the day our earth stood still.
We’ll give you a minute to compose yourselves.
Better? Good. Now back to work . . .
Marcus’s dirge is, of course, a little over the top. But it is hardly unique. Indeed, we’d say, rather, that it’s pretty typical of the “journalistic” reaction to the sale. The key word here, which you may already have guessed by our use of scare quotes, is “journalistic.” In order to understand what is happening to the Post, why so many in the news business are upset about it, and what it all means for the future of the Progressive state, one must first take a look at the notion of journalism and how it has evolved over the last century or more.
Journalism, you see, is not just a job or a career. It is a profession. And how do we know this? Because the journalists tell us so. They are professionals. They have a professional code of ethics. They have professional standards. They have professional training facilities, i.e. journalism schools. They are not like you and us. They are different. They have specialized knowledge. They are journalists!
Now, if you’re like most people, when you see the word “professional” attached to a job of some sort, you assume that it means merely that the person who performs said job receives money for his or her efforts. This is true, as far as it goes, but there is much more to the notion of a “professional.”
Throughout the history of Western civilization, dating back at least to Hippocrates in the fourth century B.C., there have been a handful of occupations in which “professionalism” has been a key element. Above all, “professionalism” imparts a sense that an occupation’s practitioner has some unique, specialized knowledge that sets him apart from the population. Professional practitioners have also traditionally been expected to adhere to certain standards of practice and to embrace certain codes of ethics, all of which are designed to protect the dignity and credibility of the occupation in question. Medicine, naturally, is the most obvious of these professions. And the Hippocratic Oath is the most obvious code of conduct. But they are hardly alone. Lawyers, engineers, and career military officers come immediately to mind as examples of the men and women who have, over the centuries, joined medical practitioners in the realm of “professionals.” In each case, specialized knowledge and the expectation of certain norms of behavior have long distinguished these “professionals” from the rest of the people.
Then . . .long about the turn of the last century, things began to change. Along came the Progressives.
The Progressive Era in American history is both fascinating and troubling. The Progressives had new, exciting, and, in some cases, valuable insights into the problems plaguing the nation. Unfortunately, most of those insights proved calamitous, based as they were on the Marxist/Utopian notion of the perfectibility of man. Among the other innovations introduced by the Progressives was the notion that many of the country’s ills could be alleviated by expanding the utilization of professionalism and professional standards. In any number of different realms of human activity, the Progressives looked at the problems, analyzed their source, and determined that professionalism was the key to perpetual and immutable improvement, which is to say the “perfection” of certain behaviors.
As the Progressives saw it, occupations critical to the “common good” had been perverted by the employ, in said occupations, of common men; men who did not grasp the importance of the occupation, did not have the knowledge necessary to perform the job properly and effectively, and did not have the moral fiber necessary to ensure that the job was performed without undue influence by the powers that be. Thus, the solution the problems, as well as the promotion of the common good, could be advanced by taking the practice of these occupations out of the hands of common men and placing them exclusively in the hands of men and women specifically and carefully screened and prepared for the successful performance of the job. Professionalism, then, was the key.
The most prominent example of Progressive Professional Proselytism was, of course, the job of “administration,” and specifically public administration. As we have recounted in these pages more times than we can count, the Progressives decided that the practice of government could and should be improved by the creation of a professional bureaucratic class, which is to say a group of men and women specially trained in the “science” of government and the “science” of administration, who would ensure that the business of the state was performed in a rational, non-partisan, efficient and professional manner. And so it was. Sorta.
Among the other prominent occupations that were “professionalized” at about the same time were education and, as you might have guessed, journalism. These occupations too had to be buffeted from the nastiness and ignorance of the common folk. Or so the Progressives believed. Eight years ago, in a piece for In These Times, Robert McChesney, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois, and John Nichols, the Washington correspondent for the hard-left Nation magazine, penned a brief and valuable history of journalism as a “profession.” To wit:
It comes as a surprise to many to learn that the notion of objectivity or simply professional journalism is a relatively recent development in the United States. In the first one hundred-plus years of the republic, journalism tended to be highly opinionated and partisan. Indeed, the first few generations of U.S. journalists–the years from Madison and Jefferson to Jackson and Lincoln–were diametrically opposed to what many Americans think is intended by the First Amendment: a commitment to neutral, values-free news reporting . . .
In recent journalism history textbooks, this period, especially the decades immediately following independence, has been referred to as the Dark Ages of American journalism–with the premise that the less said about it, the better . . .
[B]uilt within the commercial press system of the late nineteenth century were the seeds of its own destruction, which led to the greatest crisis in U.S. journalism until the one we are in the midst of today. On the one hand, as newspapering became an explicitly commercial enterprise, political journalism was no longer privileged per se, as the point was to generate as many readers as possible as inexpensively as possible. This led to the rise of sensationalism, blatant fabrication of stories, widespread bribing of journalists, and all sorts of other disreputable measures that undermined the legitimacy of journalism.
On the other hand, as newspapering became big business, markets became much less competitive . . .
This led to a political crisis for journalism. It was one thing for newspapers to be stridently partisan when there were numerous competing voices and when it was not impossible to launch a new newspaper if the existing range was unsatisfactory. It was altogether different when there were only one or two newspapers and it was impossible to start a new one . . .
During the first decades of the twentieth century, the crisis spawned by sensationalism and right-wing crony partisanship reached a boiling point. In the 1912 presidential race, all three challengers to President William Howard Taft – Democrat Woodrow Wilson, Progressive Theodore Roosevelt, and Socialist Eugene Debs – criticized the corruption and venality of the press. It was in this cauldron of controversy that professional journalism was spawned. A driving force was the publishers themselves who understood that partisan and sensationalistic journalism was undermining their business model. They had to accept self-regulation to protect their profits and to ward off the threat of organized public-reform efforts.
Professional journalism was the solution to the crisis. It was the revolutionary idea that the owner and editor of a newspaper would be split, and a “Chinese Wall” put between them. News would no longer be shaped to suit the partisan interests of press owners, but rather would be determined by trained nonpartisan professionals, using judgment and skills honed in journalism schools. There were no such schools in 1900; by the end of World War I nearly every major journalism school in the nation had been established, often at the behest of newspaper owners. Professionalism meant that the news would appear the same whether the paper was owned by a Republican or a Democrat. Professionalism meant that there was no longer any reason to be concerned about the monopolistic nature of newspaper markets since owners would not abuse their power and, besides, so the theory went, more newspapers in the same community would merely reproduce the same professional content, so they were redundant.
Now, to be fair, McChesney and Nichols don’t pretend that journalistic “professionalism” has been the source of all that is good and wonderful in the world or that it is without its drawbacks. At the same time, their analysis is, we think, a little naïve and, in places, a little silly. For example, the idea that publishers pushed for “professionalism” simply out a desire to reform their business and to stave off government regulation is misleading at best. Certainly this motive may have played a part. But the greater force of the Progressive movement also played a part in this, even if only as the motivating force behind government’s alleged desire to intervene. Our authors don’t mention that, though, just as they don’t mention that all three of the presidential candidates who felt robbed by the press in 1912 – Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Eugene Debbs – were themselves Progressives whose desire to reform the institutions of the country was both personal and literally evangelical.
Additionally, McChesney and Nichols fail to grasp and fail to mention the self-interest involved on the part of publishers, editors, and writers, all of whom believed that their professionalization would distinguish them from the “rabble,” thereby giving them a new, exalted status and erecting new but seemingly noble barriers to the “practice” of journalism. We won’t pretend that we think that there was nothing good or potentially good about the professionalization of journalism or that it wasn’t an understandable reaction to the corruption of the times – just as we don’t pretend the same with respect to the professionalization of government administration. We understand the impetus behind each effort. Still, for our purposes today, it is this latter motivation, that dealing with the effort to distinguish the practitioners of journalism from lower sorts, that specifically interests us.
Professional journalists, like professional government administrators, took their newfound status seriously. And their self-regard has, in the aggregate, grown considerably over the last century. We’re not like other people, they say. We’re different. We’re professionals, after all, which means that we are entrusted with sacred duties, without which the government cannot function. And because of this, we should be treated differently – and respected more openly – than others.
Re-read, if you will, the bit with which we opened this essay, that quoting from Ruth Marcus about the sale of the Post. You see language like “special institution” and “the day the earth stood still.” Marcus and many of her journalistic colleagues actually believe this stuff. They think – and have been expressly taught – that their “profession” is somehow better and more important than others, that it somehow makes a bigger difference in the proper function of a democratic society.
Take a look as well at the following, which comes from a profile of Kathryn Weymouth, the soon-to-be-erstwhile publisher of the Washington Post and the granddaughter of the famous Kathryn Graham. As you read it, keep in mind a few things. First, this glowing profile appeared less than a week before the Post was sold. Second, the profile appeared in the pages of the New York Times. Normal people might expect the Times and the Post to behave like the competitors they are, but the journalistic brotherhood appears to override any normal sense of competition. And third, note how approvingly the behaviors cited in the profile are portrayed. These behaviors are those of a gentry class, of the rich and powerful so removed from the “ordinary” people as to be ridiculous. Still, the “journalists” at the Times find them lovely, endearing, even comforting, whereas they would consider the same behaviors crass, tacky, and even evil if undertaken by, say, the Koch family, or, frankly, anybody else outside of the journalistic “community.”
On the eve of the 2012 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, this city’s annual media-politico-Hollywood love fest, Katharine Weymouth convened the sort of Washington power dinner for which her grandmother, Katharine Graham, the pioneering publisher of The Washington Post, was famous.
Around the dining room table in Ms. Weymouth’s airy Craftsman home sat a collection of Kay Graham’s intimates and descendants: Vernon Jordan, the Clinton consigliere; C. Boyden Gray, counsel to the first President Bush; her oldest son Donald, now chief executive of the company that owns The Post; and Lally Weymouth, Mrs. Graham’s daughter and Ms. Weymouth’s mother, a globe-trotting journalist and Manhattan socialite known for both her interviews with Middle East dictators and glitzy Fourth of July Hamptons parties.
At the head of the table sat Ms. Weymouth, a Harvard- and Stanford-educated lawyer, single mother of three and, at 47, a fourth-generation publisher of The Post. As her guests chatted, she gently intervened, steering the conversation, salon-style, toward the economy and presidential politics. When it was over, Mrs. Weymouth, not an easy one to please, showered her daughter with praise . . .
It was the kind of scene, rife with unspoken family drama, that captivates longtime Washingtonians, who have scrutinized and mythologized the Grahams for decades, much as the British do their royalty. Now, in an exceedingly difficult climate for newspapers, Ms. Weymouth is charged with saving the crown jewels.
If you haven’t read the whole thing, you really should. From the bit about Kathryn Weymouth dancing at a “club” in Aspen to the part about her wearing a J.C. Penney blouse to her dinner party as “a playful nod” to an important Post advertiser, the entire piece is just filled with veritable shrieks about how Kathryn Weymouth, her mother, her grandmother, and everyone else in the journalistic community are different – and better – than the rest of us. It is, in short, a paean to one critical component of the ruling class. Longtime Washingtonians are captivated by this? Really? And what does that tell you about longtime Washingtonians?
The simple fact of the matter is that professional journalists have allowed themselves to come to believe that they are different and better than others, and especially other writers, for a variety of reasons, many of which are now proving entirely false. They lament that one of their “crown jewels” is being sold to an outsider, and yet they have no idea what all of this means for themselves or the future of the republic they believe they serve in a unique and incomparable way.
As professionals, journalists insist that what distinguishes them is their training, their specialized knowledge, and their dedication to a handful of ethical practices. But what exactly do any of those characteristics truly provide in the real world? The ethical codes of most journalistic organizations focus on the desire to get information right, to source their material properly, and to pursue the truth above all else, including personal, ideological, and political agendas. But does anyone, anywhere really believe that this is the case? Specifically, does anyone – outside of journalists and journalism professors – really believe that the press is non-partisan and not ideological? Seriously?
As for the specialized knowledge and training, that too seems silly. We will happily grant that there is far more to journalists’ “training” than merely learning to describe the “who, what, where, when, and why” of a story in the first paragraph. Still, among our favorite writers and reporters of the last few years, and among the most accomplished and most effective writers we read on a regular basis, journalistic “training” is hardly a prerequisite. The late Christopher Hitchens, for example, studied philosophy, economics, and politics at Oxford. And the (always) inimitable Mark Steyn, nearly universally acknowledged as one of the most effective and diversified conservative journalists working today, never attended college at all, much less journalism school.
By contrast, some of the worst, most indecipherable prose produced in the English language appears in the newspapers of this fair nation. As Paula Bolyard noted in a column for PJ Media, the following sentence actually appeared in a recent editorial – written, edited, proofread, and published by the editorial board – for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the largest newspaper in the critical swing state of Ohio:
Obama wanted to explain to those Americans who have never been followed, suspected or singled out because of the color of their skins why those who have took the murder of an unarmed 17-year-old black high school student so personally and viscerally, The president was not criticizing the jury.
Did you get that? Neither did we.
The truth of the matter is that for the last one hundred years or so, journalism has been the exclusive purview of journalists for a couple of reasons. First, they wanted it that way. And second, there really was nothing that anyone could do to change things. Journalists ran the newspapers and self-identified the qualifications for employ in the profession. And anyone would who wanted to break that monopoly had to have both the immense resources necessary to compete in the field and the business acumen to do so. Such men and women were, understandably, few and far between.
At the end of the last century, however, that began to change. Rapidly developing technology, from cell phone cameras to hand-held video recorders and especially the internet, changed everything. Technically what these technologies did was remove many of the advantages provided by “economies of scale.” No longer was it necessary to have a printing press to produce widely read copy. No longer was it necessary to have large advertisers to support the production of commentary. No longer was it necessary to have expensive cameras or multi-million-dollar video editing studios to produce clear pictures and compelling video. As Ray Kurzwell, an author and inventor, put it, “A student in her dorm room now commands the resources of a multi-million dollar music recording or movie editing studio of not so many years ago. The tools of creativity have been democratized and the tools of production are not far behind (Karl Marx take note).”
What all of this meant in the aggregate was that the pretensions of “professional” journalism were ripe to be exposed. And exposed they were.
Seven years ago, Glenn Reynolds, the University of Tennessee law professor and the blogger better known as “Instapundit,” wrote a book about the coming end of “bigness” (to coin a word.) Reynolds’ book, An Army of Davids, posits that technological change will revolutionize nearly all human interaction and, as the subtitle of his book puts it, make it possible for “Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths.” Reynolds thesis reads, essentially, as follows:
As technology moves toward smaller, faster, and cheaper approaches to many jobs, we’re likely to see an army of Davids taking the place of those slow, shuffling Goliaths. This won’t be the end of big enterprises, or big bureaucracies (especially, alas, the latter), but it will represent a dramatic reversal of recent history, toward more cottage industry, more small enterprises and ventures, and more empowerment for individuals willing to take advantage of the tools that become available. We’re likely to see a movement from the impersonal, imposed means to an end to a more individualized, grassroots way of doing things.
And with respect to the world of journalism, Reynolds notes that this means that “where before journalists and pundits could bloviate at leisure, offering illogical analysis or citing ‘facts’ that were in fact false, now the Sunday morning op-eds have already been dissected on Saturday night, within hours of their appearing on newspapers’ websites.”
We can’t say that we agree with Instapundit about everything. And we can’t say that we agree with his thesis here entirely. But we do agree with him that the revolution in technology over the last several decades has made it possible for individuals and small groups to challenge the primacy and the pretensions of the “bigs,” and Big Media especially. Reynolds himself – book or no book – is proof of this. He started in the independent music and recording business back in the 1990s and then went on to become not only one of the country’s best respected and most influential law professors, but one of the most powerful and agenda-setting political opinion writers in the world. And to reiterate, he’s a journalist of the most fascinating and commanding sort, which is to say a “non-professional” journalist.
Earlier this summer, the Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, decided that he was unhappy about the state of the world and especially about the fact that professional journalism no longer holds the sway it once did. And so in response, this most reactionary of the New Reactionaries stood athwart history and yelled, “I don’t have a damn clue what I’m talking about!” In an op-ed piece for the Chicago Sun-Times, Durbin tried to make the case that professional journalists – and ONLY professional journalists – should enjoy the rights and privileges generally afforded those who report the news. Specifically, he wrote:
Everyone, regardless of the mode of expression, has a constitutionally protected right to free speech. But when it comes to freedom of the press, I believe we must define a journalist and the constitutional and statutory protections those journalists should receive . . .
A journalist gathers information for a media outlet that disseminates the information through a broadly defined “medium” – including newspaper, nonfiction book, wire service, magazine, news website, television, radio or motion picture – for public use. This broad definition covers every form of legitimate journalism.
Most of those who commented on Durbin’s proposal noted specifically that it is both unconstitutional and a patent attempt to curry favor with an overtly partisan/ideological group that is rightly in a panic over its future and would undoubtedly handsomely reward anyone who could help ease the transition to said future. All of this is true, of course. But Durbin’s proposal was also a cri de couer of the Progressive ruling class, which sees its “professional” monopoly on the “professional” management of society slipping away – and slipping away quickly.
And just for the record, journalism is not the only field in which this is the case.
For the last couple of decades, whenever schools are shown to perform poorly; whenever teachers are shown not to have taught students effectively; whenever greater and greater sums of public money are spent only to yield worse and worse results, the school reformers start proposing a variety of changes to public education that could, in theory, produce better results than does the status quo. And always chief among these proposals is the idea of doing away with the distinction afforded “professional educators.” Why, reformers ask, should someone with a master’s degree in mathematics be considered an inferior candidate to teach middle school algebra to someone with a bachelor’s degree in education but no specific training in mathematics?
Earlier this year, the National Education Association (NEA), which is the single largest union in the country, complained again about the “risk” of alternative certification programs, which it labeled the second most “dangerous reform” with respect to the maintenance of “teacher professionalism.” According to the NEA:
Alternative teacher certification programs that push candidates into classrooms without any real intensive training contributes to the already pervasive sentiment that teaching is something anyone can do. [Researcher Richard] Milner singles out Teach for America for recruiting teachers from top schools who, while they may have impressive knowledge of a specific content area, often lack proper training in learning theory, child development, or pedagogical skills. Attracting the best and brightest candidates to the classroom is a worthy and valuable goal, writes Milner, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of extensive classroom preparation. Nor should teaching be seen as a pit stop between college graduation and another career.
This would be comical, if it weren’t so sad and so damaging. The inflated sense of self-worth and the misrepresentation of much of what passes for “pedagogic instruction” combine to form another cri de couer, another fearful collective cry from a group of “professionals” that sees its self-declared extraordinariness and its self-appointed eminent position in society slipping away. To date, teachers’ unions like the NEA have done a good job of protecting their members from such reforms. But they will not be so successful forever. As it becomes more and more apparent not only that there are qualified potential teachers who do not possess teaching degrees, so will it become more and more apparent that “professional pedagogy” is an idea that has outlived much of its usefulness.
We are less sanguine, of course, about the prospects that professional government administration will eventually meet its proverbial Waterloo. We know that the Progressive administrative state has been a disaster, as we have written here countless times. We know that the notion of professional government administration is undoubtedly more fraudulent than any of the other Progressive Era professions, as we have written here countless times. And we know that professional government administration as it is currently practiced is fiscally unsustainable in the post-Boomer era, as we have written here countless times, especially in our “war for resources” series.
At the same time, we know that the ruling class is strong and deeply entrenched. It will do everything within its power to maintain its status and to perpetuate the fiction that government – and, by extension, your lives – can be managed according to rational and “scientific” principles. The Dick Durbins of the world may have to sacrifice the professional journalists to save the government. The Martin O’Malleys, Deval Patricks, and Jerry Browns of the world may eventually have to sacrifice the teachers to save the rest of the government. But believe us, in order to salvage the administrative state, they will all make these sacrifices.
In the near-to-mid-term, all of this will likely play out with a handful of teachers’ strikes, with a handful of “reformers” being ignored and relegated to the fringes of political debate, and with a handful of newspapers being sold for fractions of their recent value. Life will carry on and the Progressive state will persist.
In the long-term, though, this state will collapse in some way or another. It has to collapse. The fanciful notion on which it is based – that man’s interactions with one another can be perfected – is as absurd as it is dangerous. How this collapse will come is a question for another day, as is the state that will replace the Progressive administrative state. In the meantime, as you watch the mainstream media business collapse and as you read the “professional” journalists kvetch and complain about the new media interlopers, know that this is all part of the process. Professional journalism was always something of a con. And today, the little people – the rabble, if you will – have access to the technology to prove it.
More to the point, Jeff Bezos has promised to show us all how it will be done.