The Fourth Estate’s Estate

The Fourth Estate’s Estate


Soon after the surrender of Nazi Germany, the reporter Martha Gellhorn made her way to Dachau. There she interviewed a recently liberated doctor who told her how the Germans immersed inmates in icy water for hours at a time to determine the human body’s ability to withstand extreme temperatures.

“Didn’t they scream or cry out?” asked Gellhorn. The doctor smiled. “There was no use in this place for a man to scream or cry out. It was no use for any man ever.”

For Fred Inglis, professor of cultural studies and author of People’s Witness: The Journalist in Modern Politics, the exchange and the article that surrounds it are great examples of what journalism should be. It bears witness, it is “truthful” and “faithful to the facts,” and it matches a story with “adequate feelings and moral judgment.” Gellhorn is the first of a long procession of journalists who march through this book over the course of the twentieth century. The best of them, in Inglis’s view, fight the good fight for democracy, decency and international solidarity. The worst bow to the pressures of the market or fawn before the powerful. Together, their lives teach lessons about the purposes of journalism and its place in the history of what the historian Eric Hobsbawm has popularized as the short twentieth century, the period stretching from the beginning of World War I in 1914 to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Inglis insists that the purpose of journalism is about more than providing objective information. He conducts a respectful but pointed debate with Phillip Knightley, author of The First Casualty: From the Crimea to Vietnam: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist and Myth Maker. Where Knightley criticizes generations of war correspondents for partiality, errors and becoming little more than government propagandists, Inglis treats objectivity as an impossibility. Truthful reporting is possible, Inglis argues, but the search for the facts and their presentation can’t be separated from values and beliefs. “The moral view is always somebody’s, located somewhere,” Inglis writes, adding later that “the best journalists square their human allegiance with their feeling for truth.”

In showing how journalists responded to war, revolution, the Depression and the cold war, Inglis charts a ragged story that identifies the reciprocal relationship between journalists and their time. Themes that structure other histories of journalism–the quickening speed of communications, the growth of freedom of expression, professionalization of the press–receive less attention. More important for Inglis is how a journalist in a particular time and place balanced ideals and expedience, and helped to move the world toward more cruelty or less.

His method is to present a series of biographies, grouped according to events or themes. With a few exceptions (such as the Italian journalist and political theorist Antonio Gramsci) those chronicled here are British or American. Gellhorn’s story illuminates the moral lessons of covering the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Walter Lippmann’s life suggests the challenges of retaining intellectual integrity amid the American rise to globalism and Lippmann’s own proximity to the heights of power. Harry Evans’s career at the Times of London shows what happens when an intelligent and crusading editor meets with the purse and politics of a Rupert Murdoch.

The length of the biographies varies, from more than two dozen pages for the broadcaster Edward R. Murrow to a few sentences for the murdered Irish reporter Veronica Guerin. The longer biographies in People’s Witness provide rewarding lessons, but the short ones can be too brief to be satisfying.

The sources for People’s Witness are generally published biographies, memoirs and collected articles. (The book contains some unfortunate errors. James “Scotty” Reston is rendered as “Sonny.” Arthur O. Sulzberger of the New York Times is presented as “Sulzbeyer.” And Ben Bagdikian is identified as Ben “Bagdikim.”) Fresh material for the volume comes from the author’s interviews and own analytical insight. Some of the book’s most memorable lines are in its summary passages, as when Inglis describes Alistair Cooke as “tranquilly reactionary,” and Norman Mailer, on the eve of writing The Armies of the Night, as one who “had done everything a dustjacket could require.”

Yet People’s Witness is more than a collective biography that extols engaged journalism and criticizes conventional ideas about objectivity. What makes this book valuable is not one life story or another but its historical perspective–the place of journalism from World War I to 1989.

Inglis’s story is largely an international narrative, framed mostly by British and American experiences during World War II and the cold war. The book’s chapter on World War II, revealingly titled “The Blessed Simplicity of Action,” argues that for many journalists the war provided a way of reconciling reporting and antifascism. In the story of Edward R. Murrow, Inglis finds broadcasting that closed the distance between Britain and America with vivid details and high ideals. During the bombing of London, Murrow told listeners how “shrapnel clicked as it hit the concrete road nearby.” Covering the Normandy invasion, he said it was possible to imagine hearing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” above the roaring motors of Allied bombers.

Things get messier during the cold war. Some American reporters, such as I.F. Stone, maintained their independence. Others uncritically accepted government lines. In discussions of coverage of the Korean War, Vietnam and more, Inglis’s dual perspective–British and American–provides a second line of sight on America’s global struggle with Communism. For many American readers, the book is likely be an introduction to Commonwealth journalists–John Pilger and James Cameron, for example–whose perspectives have departed from the standard frames found in the US media.

For all its cruelty and bloodshed, and for all the confusion that has appeared since its end (especially since September 11, 2001), the short twentieth century was a remarkably good period for journalism. The years from the end of World War II to the end of the cold war, in particular, saw a flowering of public service broadcasting, muckraking, dissenting critics, samizdat publishers, adventurers reporting from hellholes and reporters’ efforts to hold democratic countries to their best values. Why?

Part of the explanation has to do with historical circumstances. As People’s Witness suggests, memorable journalism opposes something in the name of something better. (American journalists today may subscribe to a belief in “objectivity,” but some of their most revered forebears–Jacob Riis, Lincoln Steffens, Jessica Mitford–have been muckrakers with a pronounced political purpose in their work.) During World War II and the cold war, journalists in Britain and America had a great choice of adversaries–from fascists to Stalinists to citizens of democratic countries who trampled their country’s best values in the name of fighting Communism. Even if the early years of the cold war were marked by an excessive faith in government sources among American journalists, once conflict broke out within government over the Vietnam War, journalists began to expand and enrich public debate.

As communications professor Michael Schudson has observed, news gains power in societies when people believe that if they are armed with knowledge, they can influence the course of events. America in the era of the civil rights movement was such a place, and it produced great journalism that connected the demands of the oppressed with the consciences of the many.

In the same period, the successes of social democracy–or at least the mixed economy–gave journalists breathing room from the kind of economic pressures that afflict them today. In the extraordinary thirty years after World War II, in Western Europe and North America, nations concluded that the market was not to be the measure of all things. Activist governments were willing to provide everything from national health insurance to grants for artists. In journalism this meant financial support for public broadcasters who were, at least in theory, independent of both the political pressures of the state and commercial pressures of advertisers. The best work of the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Public Broadcasting Service testifies to the enduring validity of this idea. Among private broadcasters, specifically in American television, federal regulations required fairness and public service in broadcasting–a requirement that fostered, in thoroughly commercial networks, the creation of substantial news and documentary units. The death of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 led to the decline of public service broadcasting. People’s Witness offers yet more proof that journalists, whatever their party affiliation, have a strong interest in the maintenance of societies where the profit motive does not always rule.

In America, the journalists of 1945 to 1989 also enjoyed the benefit of reporting for a society characterized by mass media and mass politics. Particularly in television, journalists could act with the confidence that they were reaching large segments of their fellow citizens. Today, in the age of 24/7 cable television, when the public is subdivided into niche markets, much news and journalism can seem to be both ubiquitous and insubstantial. Then came September 11.

From journalists, in Inglis’s view, the good journalistic responses to 9/11 combined individual survivors’ stories and “what they could count on as the trustiest of their national values,” finding its heroes in self-sacrificing firefighters. Some of the worst reactions, he argues, came from elements of the left–which he would normally support–that failed to recognize the flaws in radical Islamism and the virtues of Western democracy. He identifies three journalists whose work can help bring us into an uncertain future: Seymour Hersh, who “discovers what we could not possibly discover for ourselves, and tells us what it is”; Tim Judah, whose reporting from the Balkans and then Afghanistan “moved easily between the obligatory self-deprecation of being there and the sure deployment of big strategic tropes”; and Michael Ignatieff, who calls for an internationalism with a strong sense of both ideals and interests.

Is this enough? As People’s Witness suggests, journalism as an institution rises and falls with the currents of its time. Journalists as individuals sometimes do better. Since economics triumphed over politics, it is harder to envision a solution to the market pressures that deform public and private broadcasters. This book, for all its virtues, has no obvious solution to that problem.

But in the lives of journalists, and in Inglis’s ruminations on the meaning of journalism, possibilities emerge. In the face of Pentagon media managers who would censor war news in the name of keeping up morale on the home front, journalists will need Knightley’s dogged insistence on independence and truth. In the face of the kind of men who murdered Daniel Pearl, journalists will need Inglis’s stouthearted vision of reporting that stands for democracy and decency, and against cruelty and sectarianism. But without a new version of the ideals and structures that serve to protect public service journalism, will this be enough?

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