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Who Owns the Fourth Estate? | The Nation

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Who Owns the Fourth Estate?

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Dentists and cardiologists warn their patients about plaque, harmful to both teeth and arteries. Judging by Jay Rosen's attachment to another sort, found in the National Press Club in Washington, the caveat should be extended to media theorists prone to over-romanticizing their subject. Bearing "The Journalist's Creed," this plaque, presented to the club on its fiftieth anniversary in 1958, states principles so powerful to the NYU journalism professor--known in the business for seeking to turn reporters into good democrats--that he declares in his introduction, "Finding a way to take its declarations seriously has become my job as a university professor."

About the Author

Carlin Romano
Carlin Romano, literary critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer and critic at large of The Chronicle of Higher Education,...

Also by the Author

As truth-tellers, journalists remain the undocumented aliens of the
knowledge industry, operating in an off-the-books epistemological
economy apart from philosophers and scientists on one side

Devotees of "balanced," "objective," "fair" and "evenhanded"
nonfiction--well, they be hurtin' in these early days of the
twenty-first century. Enough, perhaps, to demand that self-help, how-to
and "wisdom of menopause" books return to dominate, as they once did,
the now separated-from-birth (and diet and crosswords) New York
Times
nonfiction bestseller list. In the
April 21 issue of the Sunday New York Times Book Review, nearly
half the top ten nonfiction bestsellers belong to a genre that
middle-of-the-road innocents might label "one-sided," "unbalanced,"
"exclusionary" or worse, though the Times's blurbs artfully avoid
the issue.

Michael Moore's Stupid White Men, which manages the non-Euclidean
trick of being centrifugally one-sided, denounces us as a racist, sexist
"nation of idiots" even though we're plainly not a nation of idiots.
Whether you love Moore for blasting the "Thief-in-Chief" or adore him
for bashing Clinton and paying dues to the NRA, he's still guilty, as
Ben Fritz's stiletto review in Salon demonstrated, of being "One
Moore Stupid White Man," because "Moore gets his facts wrong again and
again, and a simple check of the sources he cites shows that lazy
research is often to blame."

David Brock's Blinded by the Right castigates the conservative
movement, which Brock recently fled, as "a radical cult" bored by ideas
and committed to a "Big Lie machine that flourished in book publishing,
on talk radio and on the Internet through the '90s." Brock insists on
that even though many conservatives believe in right-wing principles as
honestly as leftists and liberals believe in theirs. While it was lauded
by Frank Rich as "a key document," by Todd Gitlin as a book that "rings
with plausibility" and in these pages by Michael Tomasky as essential to
understanding this "fevered era," its credibility on the left seems
largely based on Brock's hawking a story the left wants to hear, just as
the right thrilled to The Real Anita Hill: that a "convulsed
emotional state," as Tomasky construes it, rather than an ideology, "is
the real binding glue among the right." Despite Brock's repeated
acknowledgments that he's been an unscrupulous, self-serving liar
throughout his life, flatterers of his book give little credit to the
possibility voiced by Slate's Timothy Noah that lying may be "a
lifelong habit" for the author. Bernard Goldberg's Bias, in turn,
offers mirror-image goods to true believers on the right: chapter and
verse on how his old employer, CBS News, and the media in general,
"distort the news" in a liberal direction, even though the media, by and
large, do not distort the news--they report it. On the strength of one
purported conversation with CBS News president Andrew Heyward, however,
and his own epiphanic experience after writing an anti-CBS Op-Ed for the
Wall Street Journal, Goldberg sounds certain that he's packing
smoking guns. No matter that he fails to clarify, in case after case,
how "bias" differs from a presumptive judgment held on the basis of
revisable evidence, or why conservative bias poses no problem within
eclectic media.

Finally, Kenneth Timmerman's Shakedown, another targeted killing
by the only national publishing house with the reflexes of a helicopter
gunship, leaves Jesse Jackson barely breathing as a political player.
But if fairness ruled the world of book manuscripts, this one would have
swelled to far more than 512 pages. Because while Rod Dreher of The
National Review
complimented the author for "collecting the dossier
on Jackson between two covers," a dossier in court or an academic
department typically contains both good and bad. The Washington
Post
's Keith Richburg, crediting Timmerman's "meticulous research,"
rightly noted that the author also wholly ignores "Jackson's
accomplishments," like his registration of millions of new voters.

So is Moore a direct literary descendant of Adolf Hitler, that
over-the-top idea man whose snarly diatribes grabbed Publishers
Weekly
's number-seven bestseller slot for 1939? Will self-confessed
"right-wing hit man" Brock--political sex-change operation or not--be
remembered as an heir to the legacy of Barry (Conscience of a
Conservative
) Goldwater? Should Timmerman, whose Shakedown
batters Jesse so badly his reproductive equipment may never recover, be
considered just another scion of Victor Lasky, whose ferociously
critical attack on John F. Kennedy awkwardly arrived in 1963? And what
of Goldberg, our redemption-minded spy who came in from the ill-told?
Will his Bias someday be taught in the Columbia publishing course
alongside that 1923 bestseller, Emile Coué's Self-Mastery
Through Conscious Auto-Suggestion
, whose system apparently involved
repeating to oneself, "Every day, in every way, I am getting better and
better"?

Yes, Flannery O'Connor was right: "There's many a best-seller that could
have been prevented by a good teacher." Each of these polemics keeps
rolling as a big commercial success for its publisher, even though, by
any standard of evenhandedness, each practices the big lie by what it
omits. Are they skyrocketing hits because they're tantamount to "big
lies," texts unwilling to address contrary views?

Maybe we've entered an era in which publishers and readers no longer
care about two hands working at complementary tasks--about evidence and
counterevidence, arguments and counterarguments, decency toward subject
matter. One way to interpret the ascent of the Feckless Four is to
accept that literary producers and consumers think we should leave all
that to college debating societies, scholarly journals and books,
newspapers of record and the courts. That's truth territory--this is
entertainment. And could that actually be the crux of the putative
trend? The recognition, by publishers, buyers and canny trade authors
alike, that well-balanced, evenhanded, scrupulously fair nonfiction
books bore the hell out of readers, however many prizes they may win?

Perhaps, in other words, the rise of the polemic is not simply a passing
curiosity, a reaction to political correctness cutting both ways in 2002
America, but a stage of evolutionary development in a post-
eternal verities culture. Educated readers--whether right or
left--hunger for books that simply smash the opposition and make one
feel the only sensation sweeter than orgasm: the sense of being utterly,
unimpeachably right. To update an old saw by publisher William Targ, too
many people who have half a mind to write a nonfiction bestseller do so,
and that's roughly the amount of brainpower the reader desires.

It certainly feels as if we're facing an epiphenomenon of the moment, an
upshot of the electorate we saw polarized on that red and blue 2000
electoral map. And yet, over the decades one spots many precursors of
Moore, Brock, Goldberg and Timmerman (a crackerjack adversarial firm
that might cost hundreds per hour if journalists billed like lawyers).
Michael Korda's recent Making the List: A Cultural History of the
American Bestseller, 1900-99
(Barnes & Noble), suggests
that curators of American bestseller lists could have put up the neon
Onesided Books 'R' Us sign long ago. Diet books, medical guides, how-tos
and self-improvement schemes, after all, ritually command readers to do
it this way, not that way. Dale Carnegie made it to the list with How
to Win Friends and Influence People
, not How to Win Friends,
Influence People and Also Estrange a Ton of Other Folks
. Books by
political candidates advancing their platforms may not sizzle with
Moore's streety phrases or Brock's inside snitching, but they slant the
truth just the same. Similarly, the titles of leading bestsellers of the
1930s--Ernest Dimnet's What We Live By, Walter Pitkin's Life
Begins at Forty
and Walter Duranty's I Write as I
Please
--suggest unshakable points of view promised and delivered.
Even in that war-dominated decade, one sees the forerunners of today's
divided left/right list, with Mission to Moscow, which offered,
Korda writes, a "benevolent view of Joseph Stalin," coming in second on
the 1942 bestseller list, while John Roy Carlson's Under Cover,
"an expose of subversive activity in the United States," rose to number
one in 1943. Yet, Korda observes, while Americans favor books that
"explain to them what is happening," they "still want to be amused,
entertained, and improved." So when authors like Moore, Brock, Goldberg
and Timmerman bring added assets to their unbalanced texts--Moore's
over-the-line wit, Brock's salacious gossip, Goldberg's hate-the-media
vibes and Timmerman's avalanche of dirt--it's like attaching an extra
rocket to the binding.

The presence of one-sided books on bestseller lists, in short, is no
fleeting phenomenon. It's a tradition. But might their increase threaten
the culture? Not likely. Here an insight from Korda fuses with a larger
appreciation of how philosophy in the broadest sense--the way we
organize what we know into views that hang together--operates in
American culture.

Korda extrapolates from bestseller history that "American readers have
been, since the 1940s, increasingly willing to be challenged and even
attacked. They might not have been eager to accept these challenges in
person...but they were willing to buy and read books that criticized the
status quo." He cites fiction as well Laura Hobson's novel
Gentleman's Agreement (1947), with its critique of anti-Semitism,
and Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955), which
eviscerated the "white upper-middle-class lifestyle." It's equally true
that American bestsellers from the beginning sometimes set themselves
against a prevailing yet vulnerableview. Tom Paine's Common Sense
took off and became common sense after he insulted George III and monarchy
the way Moore zaps George the Second, and, well, monarchy.

Korda's insight jibes with a larger truth. Our growing readiness not
only to tolerate but to prefer lopsided views of things arises from our
gut-level understanding that America, at the dawn of the twenty-first
century--and contrary to its clichéd cultural image--stands as
the most vibrant philosophical culture in the history of the world, an
unprecedented marketplace of truth, argument, evidence and individuated
positions on sale to any browser with a browser. Anyone with a pulse and
a laptop can access material supporting the right, the left, the up, the
down, the Israeli view, the Arab view, the Zoroastrian, the pagan, the
poly, the foundationalist, the nonfoundationalist, the libertine, the
puritanical, the environmental, the deconstructionist, the Lacanian, ad
infinitum. That reservoir of opinions, attitudes and slants lifts our
tolerance for one-sidedness into an appetite for edifying entertainment.
Because we can order or click our way to the other side of almost any
viewpoint, and can get it wholesale or retail, we forgive omissions. In
our cornucopia culture, only diners have to offer everything.

TV executives, of course, knew from early on that brash, partisan
talk-show hosts would outrate scholarly balancers every time. (The talk
show, from Alan Burke and Joe Pyne to Bill O'Reilly, has mainly been an
exercise in getting someone to scream uncle.) So, in turn, canny
commercial publishers know that supplying "the other hand" can safely be
left to the equally one-sided polemicist around the corner, or to the
culture at large (particularly if the status quo is the "position"
omitted). The nonfiction polemic, like provocative theater, demands an
interactive audience member who'll supply or obtain elsewhere whatever's
missing, up to the level of individual need. The upshot of rampant
American pluralism, if not neatly packaged truth or beauty in marketable
texts, is an unburdening of public intellectuals and trade authors from
the academic obligation to be fair, judicious and open-minded. Like
artists, they're simply expected to arouse.

It's an unholy system, all right. A typically American market solution
to our supposedly innate demand for equity in the pursuit of knowledge.
But it's ours. And the big bucks it produces for paperback and foreign
rights? Don't even ask.

According to the plaque, journalism is a "public trust" and journalists are "trustees for the public." Any "acceptance of a lesser service than public service is a betrayal of that trust." Journalism, Rosen writes, "thus expects the individual practitioner and the practice as a whole to serve the general welfare...directly, through acts of journalism that amount to public service." As a result, Rosen continues, journalism is "our" possession--it belongs to the public--even if it's the profession of journalists. ("The trustee--the press--does not own journalism....") While he acknowledges that how "to square the notion of trusteeship with the First Amendment principle of an unregulated and independent press" is a problem, he never lets that impede the press policy he advocates, an agenda we now call "public journalism."

What Are Journalists For? is Rosen's long-awaited book-length treatment of that agenda and topic: the decade-old movement to encourage citizen consciousness among mainstream "objective" journalists. Rightly understood as a state of mind rather than a technique or formula, public journalism aims, says Rosen, at "enhancing democracy, nourishing public life, aiding in the search for solutions to public problems, changing the reflexive attitudes of the profession." It particularly targets the daily press's "relentless insiderism, its weakness for cheap drama, its narrow focus on winning as the one true story of politics" and its denial that it is "a political institution."

As a real-life movement, public journalism's decade-long track record boasts triumphs and defeats. It gets credit or blame for leading some news organizations to arrange public meetings and exchange traditional horse-race, mudslinging campaign coverage for intense analysis of issues and occasional civic boosterism. It suffuses the nineties media criticism of many journalists, from James Fallows, who quoted Rosen repeatedly in Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (1996), to Jeremy Iggers in Good News, Bad News (1998), who quoted Rosen a little less.

It fits almost hand in glove with burgeoning laments or observations about America's civic health from different sectors of academe: Robert Putnam's work on our dwindling associational life, Michael Sandel's communitarian vision, Michael Schudson's careful optimism about citizenship in The Good Citizen.

One study suggests that readers of newspapers inclined toward public journalism developed greater respect for the media. At the same time, the movement has driven a few of the "most prestigious minds in journalism," according to Rosen, to turn "thumbs down on the experiment, using tense words like fraud, menace, cult." Critics such as Gene Roberts, former managing editor of the New York Times, see some public journalism as a smokescreen for diminished coverage of state politics, a misconception of reportorial function and other ills. Rosen, chief academic catalyst of the movement, is sometimes dubbed its "evangelist."

Yet by any measure, What Are Journalists For? arrives as the most intellectually textured explanation of public journalism to date. Rather than mockery, Rosen deserves a tip of the green eyeshade for an earnest, fair-minded and candid account of the newsroom phenomenon he helped shepherd. An academic with virtually no reporting experience beyond a summer internship with the Buffalo Courier Express, Rosen is used to being tweaked and condescended to by hardboiled editors in the Eastern media establishment. They like to marginalize him and pointy-headed colleagues as dreamers who confuse newspapers with the League of Women Voters. Rosen, who admits his own missteps as a public advocate, is by contrast remarkably fair in his assessments here, much more generous to opponents than they've ever been to him.

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