Michael Kinsley has just published a piece in Time, “Do Newspapers Have a Future?” He declares the end of newspapers - at least, in hard copy form. All is being lost in the tsunami of blogging and the internet. Yet don’t despair - “There is room between the New York Times and myleftarmpit.com for new forms that liberate journalism from its encrusted conceits while preserving its standards, like accuracy.” Furthermore:
“I’m not sure what that new form will look like. But it might resemble the better British papers today (such as the one I work for, the Guardian). The Brits have never bought into the American separation of reporting and opinion. They assume that an intelligent person, paid to learn about some subject, will naturally develop views about it. And they consider it more truthful to express those views than to suppress them in the name of objectivity.”
If we do get around to the British model, which is a lot more honest than the “objectivity” now practiced by the press, it will be a real victory. But for that to happen the American press will have to admit that it is not objective. Kinsley himself seems to have a problem with that. Never once in his piece does he entertain the possibility that the liberal bias that was the guiding principle of American newspapering for most of the 20th century contributed at all to the current collapse of their audience.
Kinsley’s piece is similar to one that ran a few months ago in the New York Times by Ted Koppel. In the Times, Koppel revealed that - yawn - Journalism is in Trouble. The problem is not liberal bias - no, ‘course not - but money. More specifically, the problem is the splintering of the audience, which has lead to news programs, mostly on cable, narrowly focusing on a particular demographic to attract advertising dollars. This is a disaster: “in news…it is the journalists who should be telling their viewers what is important, not the other way around.” Ted pines for the good old days: “Once, 30 or 40 years ago, the target audience for network news was made up of everyone with a television, and the most common criticism lodged against us was that we were tempted to operate on a lowest-common-denominator basis.” Furthermore, “Network owners nurtured their news divisions, encouraged them to tackle serious issues, cultivated them as shields to be brandished before Congressional committees whenever questions were raised about the quality of entertainment programs and the vast sums earned by those programs….The expectation was that they would search out issues of importance, sift out the trivial and then tell the public what it needed to know.”
Yes, by all means let’s go back to the good old days, when Walter Kronkite can tell us we’re losing the Vietnam War (when we never lost a battle), Murrow can browbeat Joseph McCarthy (and not touch Alger Hiss), and Ronald Reagan is called a dunce.
Both Kinsley and Koppel seem ignorant of the idea that journalism today is not as much experiencing an explosion of new freedom as returning to freedom that was lost. Before taken over by the elite left in the late 20th century, journalism once offered places were deep, sustained debate about the moral and political issues of the day could be played out with near-total freedom. These days, the debate has moved to the blogosphere and to the bookstore, where one can find folks like Ann Coulter and David Horowitz who twenty years ago would be denied a voice by leftist gatekeepers in journalism, television and publishing - gatekeepers like Koppel and Kinsley. In 1970 there was not New Criterion, First Things, Weekly Standard, or politicalmavens.com.
Kinsley mentions the British press, with its open admission of bias, either right or left. One of my favorite examples of the robustness that was once part of journalism debates is the face-off that once took place between Robert Blatchford and the great Christian writer G.K. Chesterton. Blatchford was a British reformer who was active from 1890 to 1920; he had converted to socialism after witnessing the misery in the slums of Manchester, England, and started his own paper, the Clarion, in 1891.
Yet Blatchford was not what we would consider a typical newspaper editor. After he vigorously attacked Christianity, he did something extraordinary: he invited the opposition to mount a defense in the pages of his own paper. We’re not talking about the modern liberal concept of newspaper debate, which entails trashing a conservative and then allowing them a paragraph to respond two weeks later in the letters section. This fracas was going to be detailed, allow for several responses and responses to responses, and go on for weeks. It provided the kind of intellectual fireworks that people, no matter what side they are on, will pay to see.
In 1904, a bright young journalist named G.K. Chesterton took up Blatchford’s challenge. (Much of what Chesterton wrote would wind up in the book Heretics). Blatchford even went to the incredible step of appointing a Christian, George Haw, to choose the defenders to would contribute to the Clarion. The writers wrote repeatedly and at length, although the controversy didn’t go on for weeks - it lasted for over a year. To Blatchford - and Chesterton - religion wasn’t something to be stuck on the last page of the Saturday paper, as the Washington Post now does. It was central to people’s lives, and as such deserved to be challenged and praised at length, in depth, and with absolute freedom.Indeed, the kind of freedom once allocated to journalists is stunning in retrospect. I recently purchased the full run of the weekly column Chesterton wrote for The Illustrated London News for the first three decades of the 20th century. Simple reading down the list of column titles is spurn enough to make one anxious to read the pieces themselves: “Joan of Arc and Modern Materialism,” “The Ethics of Fairy-Tales,” “Moral Education in a Secular World,” “Truth in the Newspapers,” and many, many debunkings of bolshevism when it was new. On January 11, 1908 - decades before Bill O”Reilly was born - Chesterton turned his attention to the idea floating around that the celebration of Christmas would not survive. He wrote:
“The Christmas celebrations will certainly remain, and will certainly survive any attempt by modern artists, idealists, or neo-pagans to substitute anything else for them. For the truth is that there is an alliance between relgion and real fun, of which he modern thinkers have never got the key, and which they are quite unable to criticize or to destroy. All Socialist Utopias, all new Pagan Paradises promised in this age to mankind have all one horrible fault. They are all dignified….But being undignified is the essence of all real happiness, whether before God or man. Hilarity involve humility; nay, it involves humiliation….This is why religion always insists on special days like Christmas, while philosophy always tends to despise them. Religion is interested not in whether a man is happy, but whether he is alive, whether he can still react in a normal way to new things, whether he blinks in a blinding light or laughs when he is tickled.”
After Vietnam, Watergate and the sexual revolution, mainstream papers sank into the kind of cowardly, mirthless orthodoxy that Chesterton diagnosed. They became more and more hostile to religion, sustained debate, and conservatism. For a while, conservatives operated in the margins, at magazines like National Review, The American Spectator and the New Criterion. Then cable happened, and the internet, and talk radio expanded. Then there was Fox News. Now there is genuine freedom in the air, and more and more conservatives, knowing full well what is going to be in that mornings Washington Post and New York Times, call up the Drudge Report instead. .And the conservatives, unlike the liberals, offered the freedom to challenge shared assumptions of readers. The Weekly Standard ran an essay of mine arguing against cars and suburbs. While the Washington Post was running some record reviews I wrote by rejecting those that made references to Christianity (I eventually got canned for questioning the literacy of some of the hipster reviewers), I could turn to a website like breakpoint.org, run by Chuck Colson, to air out my views.
What we have today is a kind of rediscovery of the freedom enjoyed by Blatchford and Chesterton. It would have made a better and more honest piece had Kinsley (and Koppel) acknowledged that this kind of freedom once existed, and was strangled by the kind of liberals who edited and ran their pieces. Indeed, by them themselves.
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