Fourth Estate for Sale
The time has come to address the problem with modern journalism. I know, I know, it’s a sunny day, why ruin it. But something must be done. With a runaway Executive Branch hell-bent on a pointless war, a complicit Judiciary, and a Legislature with less cojones than a bull aphid, we need the Fourth Estate to check the power of a President out of control. But where is that final defense against tyranny, the voice of the Free Press, to save us in our hour of need? As far as I can tell, it’s lying on its deathbed, gumming a rusk and watching Wheel Of Fortune reruns.
At first, this history was to explain how the American journalist has devolved over the last few decades from stalwart truth-gleaner to shivering narcoleptic. However, my researches revealed a darker pattern than this: American journalism has always sucked the big weenie. There are occasional high points, but the norm is crapulent maundering of the basest kind. For every Paine, Morrow, Cronkite, or Bernstein, there are ten thousand inky dopes stuffing endless column inches with literary kapok- and there always have been. The only real difference between journalism today and journalism at any time during the last couple of centuries is that, for the first time, journalists are the last defense against a monde du merde of unprecedented scope. Our toes are hanging off the end of the cosmic diving board, and the press is our best hope to avoid toppling off. But people have always felt this way in their own times; if it wasn’t nuclear war, it was God’s wrath or the Bubonic Plague. I’m sure we’re just being myopic.
Edmund Burke, the British statesman, is primarily noted in this country (by about 11 historians, very dull company) for his attempts to get King George III to show a little diplomacy with the American colonists during the Revolutionary War. This is all fascinating, I’m sure (I’m not sure at all really) but his most durable contribution to posterity is an observation he made on the role of the journalist in politics, elevating the press to the role of “the Fourth Estate”. The 19th Century historian, Thomas ‘Chuckles’ Carlyle, attributes the following to Burke:
Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important than them all. It is not a figure of speech, or a witty saying; it is a literal fact. . . .Whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law-making, in all acts of authority. It matters not what rank he has, what revenues or garnitures: the requisite thing is that he have a tongue which others will listen to; this and nothing more is requisite.
Burke would be flipping his Whig today. The political Reporter’s Gallery of which he spoke has devolved into the Washington Press Corpse. As scurvy a crew of gutless stenographers has seldom been seen outside the Soviet Union during its salad days. But we can understand why the Soviet journalists toed the party line: it was that, or swim the Volga in a cement overcoat. Our own journalists are free to say what they will of whom they will- freedom of speech is guaranteed in most areas, at least as of this writing. So why have American journalists abandoned their charter? Are they an unusually poor crop, or has corporate control stifled their voices? What is different about today’s reporters, that they fail to report?
According to history, nothing.
Benjamin Franklin, the famous stove, had this to say to the editors of the London Chronicle in April of 1767, as the colonial situation was heating up:
Athens had her orators. They did her sometimes a great deal of good, at other times a great deal of harm; the latter particularly when they prevailed in advising the Sicilian war, under the burthen and losses of which war that flourishing state sunk, and never again recovered itself. To the haranguers of the populace among the ancients, succeed among the moderns your writers of political pamphlets and news-papers, and your coffee-house talkers. It is remarkable that soldiers by profession, men truly and unquestionably brave, seldom advise war but in cases of extream necessity. While mere rhetoricians, tongue-pads and scribes, timid by nature, or from their little bodily exercise deficient in those spirits that give real courage, are ever bawling for war on the most trifling occasions, and seem the most blood-thirsty of mankind.
In other words, you journalists are all chickenhawk punks. Of course Franklin and Thomas Paine and the other prominent journalists of their age ended up precipitating the Revolutionary War. But at least they knew they’d hang for it if America lost, a consequence absent from modern journalism- otherwise today’s news might be more interesting. Six score and some-odd years later, when the telegraph had revolutionized the distribution of news stories, here’s what Mark Twain had to say about the newspapers (newspapers are what they used to print television on):
It has become a sarcastic proverb that a thing must be true if you saw it in a newspaper. That is the opinion intelligent people have of that lying vehicle in a nutshell. But the trouble is that the stupid people–who constitute the grand overwhelming majority of this and all other nations–do believe and are moulded and convinced by what they get out of a newspaper, and there is where the harm lies.
He could have been speaking of Fox News or the tongue-pad Rush Limbaugh. I’m told by a reliable source that Ari Fleischer (winner of the Otto Dietrich Award for most devoted press secretary) has the above quotation tattooed on Helen Thomas’ backside. Naturally, journalists have always claimed a higher purpose, as stated by Lawrence Gobright, a contemporary of Twain who covered the Civil War and who broke the story of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination:
My business is to communicate facts. My instructions do not allow me to make any comment upon the facts which I communicate. My despatches are sent to newspapers of all manner of politics. . . . I, therefore, confine myself to what I consider legitimate news and try to be truthful and impartial. My despatches are merely dry matters of fact and detail.
Gobright was in fact one of the dryest of journalists, as shown in his description of the aftermath of the assassination in Ford’s Theatre:
The excitement was of the wildest possible description, and of course there was an abrupt termination of the theatrical performance.
In case you thought they just had an intermission until the brains were mopped off the stage. In some ways, Gobright’s matter-of-factness is the grandfather of today’s dismal mock-objectivity. Mark Twain understood that this mere recitation of facts was not enough- the news needs some attitude:
Our papers have one peculiarity–it is American–their irreverence . . . They are irreverent toward pretty much everything, but where they laugh one good king to death, they laugh a thousand cruel and infamous shams and superstitions into the grave, and the account is squared. Irreverence is the champion of liberty and its only sure defense.
You want irreverence in an American paper today, you’ll have to read the National Hog Farmer. If Twain speaks for the press in the post-Civil War period, it must be H.L. Mencken who speaks for the early twentieth century. Mencken had this to say, when he wasn’t dissing black people:
The average newspaper, especially of the better sort, has the intelligence of a hillbilly evangelist, the courage of a rat, the fairness of a prohibitionist boob-jumper, the information of a high-school janitor, the taste of a designer of celluloid valentines, and the honor of a police-station lawyer.
Of course, his day saw the height of Yellow Journalism. In Yellow Journalism you invent a story for the news section, and if the subject threatens to sue, you attack him in the editorial section. Famous Yellow Journalists include Randolph Hearst (the guy who played Orson Welles in ‘Citizen Kane’), Joe Pulitzer (the famous prize) and in the ‘New Yellow’ school, such luminaries as Ann Coulter (no prize) and Matthew Drudge (surprise! You’ve been slimed). Intense partisanship in editors and publishers was the norm, and infected the work of the reporters. But facts still had their uses, and modern investigative reporting was born in the form of the Muckrakers, a band of left-leaning reformist critics of industrial society.
Exhaustively researched expos?s by such Muckraking writers as Upton Sinclair (to whom we owe the safe, clean meat supply we enjoy today) and Ida Tarbell (whose history of the Standard Oil Company got Big Oil out of politics for good) transformed the way journalists worked. For one thing, they actually had to work, which shook up the rank-and-file. The Muckrakers had strong opinions, but they used facts to support them, not just rhetoric or innuendo (an Italian word meaning ‘up yours’). Research and objectivity came back into vogue and other publications. In 1908, Walter Williams founded the Missouri School of Journalism, the first institution of its kind; Williams was a visionary and opened his “Journalist’s Creed” with these words:
I believe in the profession of journalism. I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public; that acceptance of a lesser service than the public service is betrayal of this trust. I believe that clear thinking and clear statement, accuracy and fairness are fundamental to good journalism.
He said more, but it’s so ironic I cannot include it here or you might suffer a cerebral aneurism. I only survived reading the full text by wearing dark glasses, a welding helmet, and gauntlets. Hunter S. Thompson sums up where Williams’ idealism led the business by the middle of the century:
Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits, a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the side-walk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo cage.
Mencken would be proud. Nonetheless, Walter Williams did have a good idea, but he could little imagine what would be made of it- or how fast. After the First World War, with the communist revolution in Russia and the rise of Socialist sentiment in America after the Great Depression (back then ‘great’ meant ‘large’, not ‘good’, as it does today; see also ‘gay’) the pinkish tinge to the Muckrakers was unacceptable. The corporate plutocracy was threatened on all sides and turned on the press: you want to be a respected profession, you join the Establishment like all the other respected professions.
Meanwhile propaganda was in its infancy, but a greedy little tyke growing like a weed- and subversion was defined even more broadly than it is today, although our current Attorney General is closing the gap by the hour. Journalists were getting scared. Such works as Walter Lippmann’s 1922 Public Opinion, containing the ‘Canon of Objectivity’, which suggested that subjectivity should be extirpated from serious journalism ( an impossible notion, a Buddhist koan that got taken literally) gave journalists the cover they needed to turn tail and hide in the woods.
Being a reporter is as much a diagnosis as a job description. -Anna Quindlen
Journalism hunkered down and got ‘professional’ over the next half-century, giving up exuberance and overt opinion in favor of staunch recitation of facts, twice checked and officially sanctioned. The age of the charismatic editor-champion was decisively over; without a figurehead to defend the journalist from attack, ‘unbiased’ reporting was the safest bet. To ensure your work was unbiased, you simply said what everybody else said- objectivity, after all, is really just subjectivity that everybody agrees on. By the time Senator Joseph McCarthy busted a move on the commies in the 1950’s, journalistic conformity was the rule- but the journalists didn’t dig it, man. The seeds of revolution were a-borning, and when they sprouted (into I.F. Stone’s Weekly, The Village Voice, The Los Angeles Free Press, Ramparts, et al.) the pavements cracked and the bastions of power buckled. Journalism bloomed from the grassroots, to stretch the horticultural metaphor still further. The power structure was unprepared for this courageous outburst of unfettered opinion and (to switch metaphors) the subterranean workings of so many scrivener moles beneath its walls. Burke’s promise -that a fellow with a voice was a real factor in governance of the land- was proven to be true. And by the mid-1970’s, what a voice they had! At its modern apex in 1974, the Fourth Estate brought down the Nixon administration, ended the Vietnam War, and debuted the foremost chronicle of our age, People magazine. Journalism was demonstrably the very breath of democratic society.
Today the Media (from the Latin ‘medianus’, meaning ‘asshole’) have tools of incomparable swiftness and scope at their command- the ability to report information and events at the very instant they arise to an audience of billions around the world through cable television and the Internet. Despite all this, the vital breath of democracy has been reduced to the merest fartling. Journalism possesses hardly enough wind to extinguish a candle, let alone topple the towers of the mighty- although it produces enough hot air to make a life-sized replica of the planet Jupiter. It is generally agreed, both on the left and the right of the political spectrum: the journalistic profession is in ruins.
But the voices of yore, as quoted above, will tell you this is nothing new; it’s just that things have gotten worse when they ought to be getting better. There has always been an ideal to which journalism is held, and which it cannot possibly achieve; selling papers, or ad spots on TV, is a commercial endeavor, not a labor of ideals. For editors, politics is life. For advertisers, it’s the kiss of death. Nobody wants to go broke peddling news; the idea is to make money at it, and if the occasional lump of truth surfaces in the nonce, so much the better. You can sell the movie rights. Yet there is a new factor which has changed the news business, and it’s not cable, or Internet, or anything technological. It’s celebrity.
The scrivener moles are the faceless reporters about whom Twain (he’s such a quotable little bunny!) said:
I am personally acquainted with hundreds of journalists, and the opinion of the majority of them would not be worth tuppence in private, but when they speak in print it is the newspaper that is talking (the pygmy scribe is not visible) and then their utterances shake the community like the thunders of prophecy.
Classic modern examples of the mole/pygmy type are Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who broke the Watergate story and co-toppled the Nixon government, which was until recently the worst presidential administration this country had ever seen. These men toiled in obscurity, building a story of unshakeable facts and unspeakable import. These days you want an unspeakable import, you buy a Citro?n. They were not famous, even though Bernstein looked just like Dustin Hoffman in the movie. They were diligent craftsmen, not glamorous or telegenic, and they changed history. What has happened to the Carl Bernsteins and Bob Woodwards of the world? They have been replaced by pretty airheads who know not to cause trouble- people who are personalities, not journalists. And a personality is vulnerable in ways that a newspaper byline is not. Woodward himself said:
Another change in the media since Watergate is the attention given to journalists, especially television reporters and anchors. Many work under a spotlight. This is a big, big change. There’s so many examples of what this change is where working under a spotlight alters behavior.
-Like you start kissing every toches that sits in your guest chair. The TV personality does not end up on that set in front of the cameras because he or she wants to be a writer. Or because of a burning urge to discover hidden truths. They do whatever they have to do to get on TV. The reward is celebrity. Wolf Blitzer took some crappy job in Baghdad, ass-end of the world, in the valiant hope he might someday get on TV. Lucky for him, we bombed the city and he was in frame- on CNN, the ultimate expression of TV news. So Wolf Blitzer is now a famous reporter- and a pundit, even, that bastard child of modern news. Wolf achieved his own show, the holy grail of TV journalism. What are his opinions? What analysis, what discovery, what secret has he unearthed? None at all. Although courageous, he was never one of the scrivener moles, digging in the dark for real stories. He just stood in front of one.
Not that modern journalists won’t attack a story- far from it. The New Yellow Journalists are ravening Velociraptors; they leapt on the Clintonian Brontosaurus and tore him apart. But as wretched as Clinton was, there wasn’t a Watergate inside- the press disemboweled him because they were told there was a story, not because they found a story. This is classic celebrity behavior- gravitate to where the lights and noise are. Go for personality stories instead of policy stories; as Clinton discovered, the penis mightier than the sword.
Modern journalists all hope to get anthologized, televised, and lionized; if that means going with the ultraconservative flow, so be it. Who else can pay those $20,000 speaking fees? In any case, the real journalistic damage isn’t done through fact-finding any more, which is tiresome labor, but via the punditry. Pundits, for those of you born after 1999, are talking heads that hang pendulously on the right and left of any issue like an immense pair of testicles- and like testicles, the one on the right is usually larger. They issue opinions which, via the magic of Lexis-Nexus, can be backed up by one or more citations of other sources- which is all you need anymore. As long as somebody else said it first, you’re safe. Pundits were originally professional experts hired by celebrity journalists who wanted to ask the pundits questions about their area of expertise, which in turn made the journalists look clever and well-connected. Then the generalized pundits, who were not for example “Zinc Alloy Trade Restriction Scholars” but rather “A Liberal” or “A Conservative” or in the case of Ann Coulter “A Fruitcake”, began to gain their own air time. This state of affairs persists to the present day.
And so we now have journalism which is headlined by celebrities who are not journalists (except Geraldo Riviera of course) and informed by famous pundits who are not experts; celebrity has ruined journalism, just when we needed it most to save us from disaster. But look on the bright side: inobjectivity ruined journalism once, and then objectivity did; oppression and licentiousness have taken turns ruining journalism, when money and power weren’t at it. It’s always been ruined. The reason there is a special crisis now is suggested by a remark by Thomas Jefferson, who is the only person not yet quoted here:
. . . .[W]ere it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.
The crisis before us is we seem to have neither one.
BEN TRIPP is a screenwriter and political cartoonist. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org