Is journalism official?
Readers may have noticed that, where most writers of my general ilk would refer to the mainstream media, I prefer to refer to the official press.
The second half of this eccentricity is easy to explain. At the age of twelve I returned to America from strange foreign parts and was promptly thrust into what was supposedly one of the best public high schools in Maryland. If this is so, and I have no reason to doubt it, God save Maryland. The school had been built in 1971 around the then-fashionable open-school fad, and the teaching areas—in which some crude, ramshackle partitions had been constructed, although “room” would still be an overstatement—swept in a great semicircle around the heart of the building, a large, wall-less library. (Because there should be no barriers to learning.)
Except that it wasn’t called the library. It was called the media center, and for the first month or two of my weird, disorienting existence in this appalling primate facility, I struggled to figure out where the media center was, what it was, and why everyone thought the question was so funny.
Since then I’ve had a profound allergy to the m-word. Moreover, I find McLuhan ridiculous, jejune and sophomoric. Moreover, considering the dignity of the institution, and considering the comical sound of a phrase like freedom of the media, I prefer the old term. It’s true that the New York Times is no longer printed by ink compression, and CNN is not printed at all. Nor does a “cable modem” modulate or demodulate.1 Somehow we manage to deal.
We are left with that other word—official. Is journalism official?
Because if journalism is official, we know exactly what it is. A “journalist” is an official writer. A member of the union of writers. If he writes for the Times, he may even be a member of the central committee of the union of writers. In our democratic society, the official press is entrusted with the important social responsibility of informing the public. Therefore, not just any poor schmuck can tell us what George W. Bush said today. No, it takes a “journalist.”
Of course, this is consistent with the Polygon hypothesis—that power in modern democracies belongs to those who manage public opinion. This hypothesis is actually not mine—I believe it was first stated by Walter Lippmann in 1922, in his book of that name. And Lippmann himself did quite a bit to put his system into practice. The Polygon is not so crude as to have a name or a mailing address—it is a movement, not a conspiracy. But if it did have a name and address, its name would be the Inquiry and its address would be 68th and Park.
The key to the Polygon hypothesis is that three words are synonyms: responsibility, influence, and power. The New York Times, for example, is responsible because if it does the wrong thing rather than the right thing, it can cause a great deal of suffering.2 It is influential because its actions affect the lives of many people. And it is powerful because there is no conceivable meaningful sense of the English word power which is not synonymous with responsibility and influence. Power is the ability to make a difference, to change the world. Remind me again what people say on their J-school applications?
For example: who is the most powerful man in the United States? There’s an easy way for me to answer the question: I can ask which American I would prefer, if I had to choose one and only one, to magically convert into a fanatical and unquestioning disciple of UR. Obviously my plans for the new, improved America involve a level of “social change” that would boggle the mind of even the most diversity-addled Yale freshman. Who would be the best individual to carry out this program? Note that the answer isn’t particularly dependent on the extremist ideology—neocameralism, communism, Nazism, whatever.
Suppose, to narrow the question slightly, I could choose between George W. Bush, Warren Buffett, Rupert Murdoch, and Arthur Ochs “Pinch” Sulzberger Jr. Which of these four individuals has more capacity to “create change”?
For example, when we equate power with influence and responsibility, we can see easily that George W. Bush is almost powerless. Our “decider” is often presented with decisions, which have been carefully prespun to ensure the correct outcome. He is treated as a sort of chimp-eared magic 8-ball. He cannot even write his own speeches. If he came to his staff with a policy idea, one which he came up with himself, their first thought would probably be to send him for an MRI.
Carlyle once compared a democratic leader to a rider on a mad stallion run amuck in a forest—his main concern being not to accomplish anything in particular, but just to stay on the horse. If the analogy was apt for the likes of Palmerston, how much more so for George W. Bush! Of course, American Presidents cannot be unseated by a vote of no confidence or a snap election. But one notices that when the President’s approval number slips below 30% or so, the White House loses any domestic influence it may once have had. The effect is about the same.
The White House—that is, the faction elected along with the President—has some power. At least, it had power in 2003, at least over military policy. And by force of ancient institutional habit, it strives constantly to equate everything it does with the person of George W. Bush. No one in Washington actually believes this, but no one bothers to contradict it, either. It’s just one of those Beltway things.
Anyway. I digress. Back to the Times.
If there was one moment at which I realized how things actually work in this country, it was sometime in 2000, courtesy of a woman I dated for a few months. Since I have nothing bad to say about her, I’ll use her real name, Margot.
Margot was about seven years older than me, and she was more or less the Brahmin to end all Brahmins. She was an MD, an internist specializing in the many troubles of the homeless. At the time she was just coming off a stint as chief resident at UCSF. This is not a position that is easy to acquire. I believe she’s now a research professor at the same institution. Also not a position that is easy to acquire. Obviously I have no such credentials or ambitions, and Margot retains the distinction of being the only woman who has ever dumped me, a very sensible decision for which I’m quite grateful, as is Mrs. Moldbug—or so I hope.
At the time I had not quite developed my present extremist views, but I would not say I was still taking the blue pills, either. Since Margot’s opinions were exactly as one might expect for a person in her line of work, this led to a number of animated conversations.
I still believed, however, that the New York Times was presenting me with a basically accurate picture of current history. Of course it was clear to me that all the reporters were orthodox Universalists—not that I used that term—but I thought I could just read past their occasional devotional flourishes. This was kind of before the whole blog thing.
And one day the subject came up in an entirely different context. Margot was explaining to me how her research career worked. Obviously, the point is publishing, and there were different journals, which at least in her corner of the profession were commonly called by their colors. So the Journal of Endemic Gastroenterology might be the “green journal,” the Journal of Unquenchable Sinus Infections the “yellow journal,” etc., etc.
“But,” said Margot, “everyone’s real goal is to get into the gray journal.”
This is one of those facts too strange to boggle the mind—whose only option is to accept it as an axiom. So to us it is axiomatic that all the thousands of top-rank scientists in the US (of course Margot had a special political angle, being concerned with “public health”; but I pretty much guarantee you that any scientist in the world would trade any publication for a writeup in the Times) are doing pretty much anything they can to “get into the gray journal.”
Of course, they can’t do much. You can’t submit to the gray journal. There is no formal review process. You simply have to know someone who knows someone who… and who is on the end of this chain? Five or ten very ordinary people, with no particular expertise in anything, perhaps a BA in some science or other. Who happen to have gotten themselves assigned, through whatever feat of bureaucratic mastery, to the “science beat” at the Times.
Can you imagine having this job? Everyone in the universe wants to be your friend. Full professors, geniuses of historic consequence, winners of MacArthur grants, hacks, cranks and crackpots of every description. Because you have some decency, you don’t ask them to fall down and lick your shoes. “No, the soles… lower… ah, that’s it. Nothing like genius spit for dissolving those nasty wads of gum.” But, let’s face it, you could.
Don’t you think it’s slightly strange that this handful of basically-uneducated individuals essentially controls science? That, for example, they could have written up the Wegman report, and consigned global warming—rightly or wrongly—to the same category as cold fusion, N-rays and Hwang Woo-Suk? What do you think will happen the first time they actually do make a mistake, and get caught at it? And who even has the power to catch them?
And this is just science. For example, suppose you see an article about Israel on the front page of the Times with the by-line “Steven Erlanger.” Perhaps there is one of these every few days, and no doubt if you put them together they tell a story. But the one thing you are guaranteed not to read in this story is that one of the ten most powerful people in Israel—maybe even one of the most five—is… “Steven Erlanger.”
I recommend a lot of old books, but let me switch gears and recommend a new one, Mark Moyar’s revisionist history of the first half of the Vietnam War. What Moyar did was to go back through the archives and rewrite history as though the American correspondents in Vietnam were human participants in the story, not dispassionate, angelic observers. It’s really a remarkable read.
There is a sense one gets when one reads a history in which some of the players have been airbrushed out. It’s like being in a novel in which there’s a poltergeist. Plates suddenly fly out of the cabinet and leap across the room to smash on the wall. Flying plates! Irresistible forces of historical destiny! When you see the same story with all the characters restored, and you realize that someone actually picked up the plate and threw it, you get this very comfortable feeling of reality returning.
So I think we have a reasonable understanding of the level of power today’s press has. What we haven’t looked at is how it got that way.
One fact that every American learns in high school is that there used to be something called yellow journalism. If yellow journalism is with us today, it only exists in the sort of papers which no one of any quality reads, like the New York Post, or the Daily Mail, or Juggs.
Clearly the New York Times would stand out in this list, so clearly it is not yellow journalism. It would certainly dispute the characterization, and I certainly agree. But in order to compare the two, we need a parallel terminology. So I humbly propose gray journalism for the latter.
What is the difference between yellow journalism and gray journalism? Who invented gray journalism, when, and why? And is gray journalism—which its practitioners call responsible journalism, objective journalism, and so on—best defined as official journalism?
One interesting possibility is that the transition from yellow to gray journalism is identical to the transition from ochlocracy to mediocracy. Under this theory, the grayification of journalism is a sort of Gleichschaltung, a coordination or alignment. Yellow journalism, such as that practiced by Hearst, Pulitzer, etc., used its political power to serve a variety of divergent private interests which did not always coincide with the interests of the State. Gray journalism has learned its Hegelian manners, and invariably serves and upholds the State.
(Of course, this does not mean it serves “the government.” It means that when the New York Times attacks the White House, it sincerely believes that it is serving as a nonpartisan watchdog in the public interest. Apparently the State Department never does anything wrong, and thus never needs to be barked at. Perhaps this is because State too is a nonpartisan agency, selflessly performing its difficult work of diplomacy in the public interest. Ladies and gentlemen, the Polygon.)
Regardless of whether or not this theory is true, one question we can ask about the transition between yellow and gray journalism is: which is more powerful? We all know about Hearst starting the Spanish–American War. Most of us don’t know that Civil War journalism was even more heinous—with some of the things I’ve been reading, I’m starting to think the Civil War is best understood as a war between the Northern and Southern presses. So, when this evil octopus of yellow journalism was finally defeated by its gray successor, did it lose power? Or did it pull an Obi-Wan Kenobi, and become even more powerful than before?
One way to measure this is to look at social attitudes toward reporters around the end of the yellow-journalism era. Here, for example, is Lippmann, from Public Opinion:
This somewhat left-handed relationship between newspapers and public information is reflected in the salaries of newspaper men. Reporting, which theoretically constitutes the foundation of the whole institution, is the most poorly paid branch of newspaper work, and is the least regarded. By and large, able men go into it only by necessity or for experience, and with the definite intention of being graduated as soon as possible. For straight reporting is not a career that offers many great rewards.
(This is what I love about reading Lippmann. While he has his own agenda and is certainly not a trustworthy fellow, he is certainly describing the real world of 1922. You’ll read these long passages in which he could be describing the real world of 2007, and then blam! You’re on Mars. “For straight reporting is not a career that offers many great rewards.”)
Max Weber, in his famous Politics as a Vocation, is even more vehement. The journalist’s situation in Germany in 1919:
The journalist belongs to a sort of pariah caste, which is always estimated by ‘society’ in terms of its ethically lowest representative. Hence, the strangest notions about journalists and their work are abroad. Not everybody realizes that a really good journalistic accomplishment requires at least as much ‘genius’ as any scholarly accomplishment, especially because of the necessity of producing at once and ‘on order,’ and because of the necessity of being effective, to be sure, under quite different conditions of production. It is almost never acknowledged that the responsibility of the journalist is far greater, and that the sense of responsibility of every honorable journalist is, on the average, not a bit lower than that of the scholar, but rather, as the war has shown, higher. This is because, in the very nature of the case, irresponsible journalistic accomplishments and their often terrible effects are remembered. […] Yet the journalist career remains under all circumstances one of the most important avenues of professional political activity. It is not a road for everybody, least of all for weak characters, especially for people who can maintain their inner balance only with a secure status position. If the life of a young scholar is a gamble, still he is walled in by firm status conventions, which prevent him from slipping. But the journalist’s life is an absolute gamble in every respect and under conditions that test one’s inner security in a way that scarcely occurs in any other situation. The often bitter experiences in occupational life are perhaps not even the worst. The inner demands that are directed precisely at the successful journalist are especially difficult. It is, indeed, no small matter to frequent the salons of the powerful on this earth on a seemingly equal footing and often to be flattered by all because one is feared, yet knowing all the time that having hardly closed the door the host has perhaps to justify before his guests his association with the ‘scavengers from the press’.
The ‘scavengers from the press’! Today there is absolutely no social context, anywhere in the world, where the presence of a Times reporter would not be a feather in the host’s cap. We cannot even imagine this old pre-1914 ‘society’ that held itself superior to the press. Again, Weber might as well be talking about Mars.
So Obi-Wan Kenobi is about right. Powerful as the yellow press was, the gray press appears to be even more powerful. At least judging by its social status. Note also that both Lippmann and Weber, quite presciently, see that this is a temporary misalignment of status and power, and expect it to resolve in favor of the latter.
But is gray journalism official? Can we use this word? After all, the New York Times Company is a private company, just like Microsoft or McDonald’s. Its journalists’ independence is rigorously guarded, not just from the government, but even from many parts of its own corporate hierarchy. Certainly no one is sending them emails telling them what to write or not to write, whether it’s the White House or the Democratic National Committee. Is this really, as the phrase official journalism implies, in a class with Pravda or the People’s Daily?
Another way to ask this question is: what is the minimal set of structural changes needed to make gray journalism unarguably official? And, if we make these changes, have we created something totally different, or have we only made a few cosmetic modifications?
First, we’ll have to create a Department of Journalism. This will be an elite branch of the Federal Government, with its own grade system—like the Foreign Service, only more elite. Ranks will follow the GS/SES system, but with a special J code, for journalist. A senior journalist, such as “Steven Erlanger,” might be hired as a J-15. J-School deans, editors, and the like will carry the special SJ rank, meaning simply “senior journalist.”
The Department of Journalism will pull the entire “mainstream media,” with all its features and appurtenances, into this system. It will have three branches: Training, Reporting and Investigation, and Editorial. Training will coordinate the journalism schools. RI will align the news desks from all existing newspapers and broadcasters. Editorial will develop opinion content from a diverse mix of political columnists, both Republican and Democrat. And so on.
The critical question is: under this regime, which clearly qualifies as official journalism, how different would the job of a journalist be? I suspect the answer is: not different at all.
For example, it would be unthinkable for any other branch of government to tell RI what to write, or how to write it. It would be like the White House ordering the Justice Department who to prosecute, or how to prosecute them. Absolutely scandalous—if discovered. And, of course, RI is right there to discover it. We usually think of “independent journalism” as a consequence of freedom of speech. But perhaps it’s easier to see it as just another form of civil service protection.
For example, the UK has something very close to a Department of Journalism. It’s called the BBC. How different is the job of a BBC reporter from the job of a CNN reporter? Not very.
For me, the reason I see journalism as official is that I think journalists are civil servants. Stators, we might say, in the rotary system. They have the same ethos of public service, they have the same protection from political interference, they are nonpartisan—they serve only the State. If you believe in the Hegelian apolitical civil-service state, you believe in official journalism. Of course, then you have to explain what was so wrong with Brezhnevism, but that’s another story.
Moreover, the Department of Journalism is clearly one of the most powerful departments in the Western civil-service state. A journalist can attack anyone, and no one can attack him—except a judge, and then only in a limited set of ways that correspond to approved procedures, aka “laws,” which journalists have great influence in designing.
This is perhaps the most salient remaining difference between the post-Communist civil-service state, as seen in China and increasingly in Russia, and its Western cousin. In the post-Communist system, power is in the hands of the security services, who can command the journalists and judges. In the Western system, it’s the other way around. Of course, as a Westerner, it’s easy to see the advantages of our approach. But it’s also interesting to look at who runs a trade deficit versus whom.
So, if all this is true, why do people believe this stuff? Why do they still read official journalism? Why, for example, do I visit nytimes.com on a regular basis?
When I think back to when I thought I was getting an accurate history of reality from the Times, I am full of amazement. I mean, when you read the Times, you are reading stories that were written by people. Their names are right there. “Steven Erlanger.” “Don Van Natta.” “Andrew Revkin.”
Do I know these people? Do I trust them? Do I have any reason to believe they are doing anything but feeding me a mile-long crap sausage? Why should I? Is it because they work for an organization called “The New York Times”? What do I know about this organization? How does it select its employees? How and why does it punish or reward them? Do I have any damned idea? If not, why do I trust its correct views on everything? Why not trust the Catholic Church instead? At least its officials make up cool names for themselves, like “Benedict XVI.” Imagine if all Times reporters had to choose a Pope name. Would this make them more, or less, credible?
My conclusion is that people trust the Times—and the rest of the official press—not despite the fact that they’re basically reading Pravda, but because of it.
We live in a world made by gray journalism. If you don’t believe in gray journalism, you believe in nothing. You are a nihilist. I go to nytimes.com and I read a story about Pakistan. Does this “Pakistan” on the page have any resemblance to reality? Is there even a country called “Pakistan”? Once you deny gray journalism, you can deny anything. Your paranoia becomes unlimited.
These days I read the Times not because I think of it as true, but because the Times is the collective reality that, for better or worse, most of the educated planet lives inside. I read the Times to know what Times readers are thinking, much as an atheist might read the Bible to know what Christians are thinking.
While I am revealing personal confidences, let me note that my stepfather (who certainly does not endorse these messages) is actually a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He has a PhD in politics from Harvard and was once a protege of McGeorge Bundy, and his story about the Times is that one day in the ’60s, when there was a newspaper strike for several days, Bundy said something to the effect of “we’ve lost the best interoffice memo system we have.” This is perhaps the best way to think of the Times, and of the official press as a whole: it tells you what the State is thinking. Which is certainly a sufficient reason to read it.
Of course, if journalism is official, we have to be able to lustrate it. If you agree with me that this system is thoroughly pernicious, and that the State should not be managing the minds of its citizens, how do we get rid of it?
I have many bad things to say about the US system of corporate regulation, but sometimes it turns out a real gem. One such rule—a really well-designed law—is a little thing called Reg FD. The “FD” stands for “Fair Disclosure,” and the impact of the law is that when public corporations disclose information, they must disclose everything to everyone at the same time.
My view is that an uncorrupt 21st-century government should adopt its own version of Reg FD. No government has any good reason to practice or allow any kind of selective disclosure. When the State releases information, it should release to everyone at the same time—without according any privilege to “journalists.”
This has a larger impact than you might think. Almost every press story you’ll see is either (a) a rewritten press release (a practice even the ‘scavengers of the press’ find degrading), or (b) a product of selective disclosure by some government or other. The practice of talking off the record, or even downright leaking, to journalists, is widespread and uncontrolled, despite the fact that it is generally illegal.
The result is a very complicated power relationship between journalists and the civil servants who are their sources and contacts. Each is using the other. The journalist wants a story, the civil servant wants a story that contains certain information and is told in a certain way. There is plenty of room for compromise and quid pro quo.
Every time I read some piece of “investigative journalism” in the Times, I have one question which is never answered: why is this story being told? How did it happen? How did these events come to the attention of the author? For some reason, this is never in the text.
Compare this to the work of a genuinely free reporter, such as Michael Totten. Totten, because he is not institutionally attached and thus is unofficial, simply cannot participate in these kinds of relationships. Nor does he have any interoffice-memo credibility. His voice is simply his own and he tells us how he gets his stories, and his only tools for convincing us are his words and his pictures. And he succeeds. If the Times and Totten disagree, I simply assume the latter is right and the former is snowing me. Your mileage, of course, may vary.
This species of journalism deserves its own color as well, and I will take the liberty of suggesting my own favorite, orange. Orange journalism is any writing about current history which does not depend on any official credibility, and is not filtered or authorized by anyone. It has only its own voice to create and maintain trust. The eXile is another fantastic example of orange journalism—I don’t know that I trust Ames, Dolan & Co. as much as Totten, but I sure as hell trust them more than The Economist.
Imagine if “Steven Erlanger” quit his job at the Department of Journalism and started a blog. Competing with Michael Totten, on his Middle East beat. What would it take for me to trust him, the way I trust Totten? One heck of a lot. So why should I trust him more now, just because he works for the Man? I don’t. And I don’t think anyone else should, either.
Losing your faith in official journalism is an extremely large mental step. It’s really in the category of giving up a religion. It creates an enormous set of questions which you thought were answered, and now suddenly are questions again. And it’s very easy to get those questions wrong. To paraphrase Chesterton, when people stop believing in the Times, they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything.
So if you’re not sure you’re prepared for this step, perhaps the safest and most sensible option is to just keep reading the official press. Put the whole thing off for a year or two. Reality doesn’t go away—when you’re ready for it, it’ll still be there.