"For in an exact sense the present crisis of western democracy is a crisis of journalism."
--Walter Lippmann, Liberty and the News, published in 1920
Sidney Blumenthal's Salon article on legendary reporter Walter Lippmann (the afterword for the reissue of Lippmann's Liberty and the News) is required reading for anyone concerned about the state of journalism and survival of a free press.
"Walter Lippmann (1889-1974) was the most influential American journalist of the 20th century," begins Blumenthal, and soon delves into why Lippmann remains so relevant today:
Among his varied roles, Lippmann was the original and most prescient analyst of the modern media. His disillusioning experience in World War I [stemming from a stint writing speeches for President Woodrow Wilson] prompted the first of three books on the subject, "Liberty and the News," followed in rapid succession by "Public Opinion" and "The Phantom Public." In them Lippmann deconstructed the distortions and lies of government propaganda eagerly transmitted by a jingoist press corps, the "manufacture of consent" and the creation of "stereotypes" projected as false reality.
A little background:
"For in an exact sense the present crisis of western democracy is a crisis of journalism," Lippmann wrote. That sentence was distilled from years of hope turned to despair. Lippmann had ferried from the offices of The New Republic, located in New York, to the White House, where he helped work on speeches for Woodrow Wilson. After the entry of the United States in the world war in 1917, Lippmann enthusiastically accepted an appointment as the U.S. representative on the Inter-Allied Propaganda Board, with the rank of captain. But Captain Lippmann soon crossed swords with George Creel, chief of the Committee on Public Information, an official federal government agency that whipped up war support through jingoism. When Lippmann submitted a blistering report in 1918 on how the committee manipulated news to foster national hysteria, Creel sought his dismissal -- and Lippmann quit his post to assist the U.S. delegation at the Versailles peace conference.
How prophetic were Lippmann's ideas on the willful corruption of truth in the newspaper business?
Lippmann had witnessed firsthand how the "manufacture of consent" had deranged democracy. But he did not hold those in government solely responsible. He also described how the press corps was carried away on the wave of patriotism and became self-censors, enforcers, and sheer propagandists. Their careerism, cynicism, and error made them destroyers of "liberty of opinion" and agents of intolerance, who subverted the American constitutional system of self-government.
Keep in mind Lippmann described this nearly ninety years ago. Would we need to change a word in summing up big media's exuberant march to war in Iraq or its negligent oversight of the Bush administration's dismantling of our constitution?
Even the great newspaper owners, he wrote, "believe that edification is more important than veracity. They believe it profoundly, violently, relentlessly. They preen themselves upon it. To patriotism, as they define it from day to day, all other considerations must yield. That is their pride. And yet what is this but one more among myriad examples of the doctrine that the end justifies the means? A more insidiously misleading rule of conduct was, I believe, never devised among men."
Public opinion was not a free marketplace of ideas, but was channeled and polluted by the managers of news. They concentrated their power at the expense of accurately informing the public, whose fears and hatreds they exploited. Reason was impossible to sustain in the whirlwind. Lippmann wrote:
Just as the most poisonous form of disorder is the mob incited from high places, the most immoral act the immorality of a government, so the most destructive form of untruth is sophistry and propaganda by those whose profession it is to report the news. The news columns are common carriers. When those who control them arrogate to themselves the right to determine by their own consciences what shall be reported and for what purpose, democracy is unworkable. Public opinion is blockaded. For when a people can no longer confidently repair "to the best foundations for their information," then anyone's guess and anyone's rumor, each man's hope and each man's whim becomes the basis of government. All that the sharpest critics of democracy have alleged is true, if there is no steady supply of trustworthy and relevant news. Incompetence and aimlessness, corruption and disloyalty, panic and ultimate disaster, must come to any people which is denied an assured access to the facts."
If you think Lippmann is speaking in hyperbole, consider what the Bush years - as catastrophic as they've been at home and abroad - might have looked like without online access to news and opinion outside the mainstream. The chaotic national death wish Lippmann describes above aptly captures the course of America directly following 9/11: a precipitous devolution of a democratic society suddenly submerged in propaganda. It is largely the facts and reasoned opinions disseminated through trustworthy alternative online news outlets that kept millions of concerned U.S. citizens availed of the truth. It also surely played a hand in swaying public opinion, which helped elect a Democratic Congress (regardless of its underwhelming opposition thus far), and pushing mainstream news outlets to curb their ubiquitous mindless jingoism. Though to this day, of course, mainstream news coverage remains woefully inadequate in reporting on the Bush administration's profligate criminality and incompetence.
And it is this connection, the relationship between the news media and the government, with which Lippmann was most concerned:
A year before Liberty and the News appeared, the famous muckraking journalist and novelist Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle, published The Brass Check, the first contemporary exposé of the press as a corrupt special interest. Sinclair asserted that the press simply reflected its big business ownership and did its bidding. Lippmann's analysis, though, was at once more subtle and more penetrating, elucidating a form of corruption that ran to the foundations of the nation's politics.
By substituting propaganda for truth, brandishing jingoism to enforce conformity, and asserting arrogance and certainty over skepticism and humility, Lippmann contended, the manufacturers of consent confounded democracy. "In so far as those who purvey the news make of their own beliefs a higher law than truth, they are attacking the foundations of our constitutional system. There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and shame the devil."
"Asserting arrogance and certainty over skepticism and humility" - not a bad tagline for our Beltway pundits during the Bush years. For those who carried the White House's water before and after the invasion of the Iraq, and those who continue to cover our leaders not like journalists but amnesiacs, reporting events in a vacuum utterly devoid of necessary context and history, and conferring in every instance the benefit of the doubt to proven liars, torturers and warmongers.
Woodrow Wilson waged war to make the world "safe for democracy" and to establish an international order based on collective security. Nearly a century later, President George W. Bush appropriated Wilson's rhetoric as a gloss on preemptive war and unilateralism. Neoconservatism stood Wilsonianism on its head, and, had he lived to see the day, Lippmann might have rubbed his eyes like Rip van Winkle at how much had changed. Yet Lippmann also would have discovered a depressingly familiar press corps on a bandwagon of jingoism, disseminating falsehoods leaked by government officials, engaging in ruthless self-censorship, and preening in careerist triumphalism.
The behavior of the press corps under Bush revealed a corruption more in line with Lippmann's analysis than Sinclair's, although Sinclair's stress on the primacy of vulgar economics had its play, too. Indeed, Bush administration officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, complained to the chief executive officers of major media corporations about reports and reporters, and the pressure fell down the chain of command like an anvil. Nearly every correspondent, producer, and commentator on every broadcast and cable network outlet was keenly aware of such interventions and adjusted accordingly. The cable network MSNBC's dismissal in February 2003, one month before the invasion of Iraq, of the popular Phil Donahue as host of a public affairs program that had raised skeptical questions about the rationale for the war was cautionary and symptomatic. An internal memo claimed that Donahue presented "a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war" while "at the same time our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity." For crass reasons, jingoism became a criterion for presentation of news.
Blumenthal then spends several paragraphs cataloging big media abuses leading up to and following the invasion of Iraq, some (or many) of which you might be familiar. But they're worth revisiting. Distance certainly has a way of diminishing the acute madness of a moment in time. And, more specifically, Blumenthal recounts these incidents as further evidence of his argument:
As Lippmann observed almost ninety years ago, the crisis of journalism cannot be disentangled from the crisis of national government. Government and journalism now share a crisis of credibility, trust, and competence. At the least, the crisis of journalism reveals a changing standard for and definition of "objectivity." Journalism, or more precisely, freedom of expression and freedom of the press, has been plunged, as a result of casual, callow, craven, or simply career-minded attitudes, into complicity, tacit and active, with a harsh and secretive administration that seeks to concentrate unaccountable power in the executive and sees itself as above the law and above reproach.
Only incidentally does the crisis of journalism involve the conflict between impartiality of judgment on the one hand and advocacy on the other. This might be a salient question under other circumstances, but it is peripheral here. Neither is the problem caused by slight inattentiveness; nor can it be solved by minor adjustments. The failure of most of the press for most of the Bush era to cover most of the basic reality was because to do so was too radical and threatening, not only to the administration but also to the news organizations themselves. Their dismal behavior goes to the root of a professional collapse. The press fiasco under Bush marks the culminating contradiction, if not repudiation, of Lippmann's original ideas about shaping journalistic standards for a modern age. It is not sheer happenstance, but the outcome of a long history that was by no means inevitable.
Do yourself a favor and read this brilliant article in its entirety.
Here's a parting thought:
From our recent experience," wrote Lippmann, "it is clear that the traditional liberties of speech and opinion rest on no solid foundation." Journalism must reconstruct itself for a new age, at least as urgently as in Lippmann's time. So far it has failed the tests of the new century. ...But journalism may yet be revitalized, as part of a general reawakening of American democracy that discovers new forms of expression and forces new debate to achieve its ends.
The filigree of wire, cathode-ray tubes, woofers and tweeters, satellite dishes, and printing presses are the same everywhere in a flat world. But Americans are wired differently. The freedom of the press is part of our Constitution, the first right, the First Amendment; and our democracy -- public policy, politics, commerce, and nation -- has been shaped by its exercise, its use, and its abuse.
Use or abuse that could determine whether Americans remain "wired differently" or face a permanent short-circuiting of democracy.