Gone to Press
The less-than-perfect messenger.
Jun 23, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 39 • By JOEL SCHWARTZ
According to a February -Harris Poll, only 10 percent of Americans have "a great deal of confidence" in the press, 48 percent have "only some confidence," and 41 percent have "hardly any confidence at all." For purposes of comparison, 51 percent of Americans have a great deal of confidence in the military, and 47 percent of Americans have a great deal of confidence in small business.
James Bowman has written Media Madness to explain why Americans are right to lack confidence in the media. In fact, he thinks they should have even less confidence: "To me, the remarkable thing is how much trust there still is in the 'mainstream' media."
There has obviously been much conservative criticism of the media's leftward slant in recent years, but here Bowman tries to do, and succeeds in doing, something more: As he says, he wrote the book "not to go back over the old ground of media 'bias.'" Instead he seeks to understand the roots of what he calls "media madness . the real arrogance of assuming that no other belief [than that espoused by a media consensus] is possible without the assumption of the believer's lunacy, imbecility, viciousness, corruption, or some combination of all four to explain it."
Why do so many journalists believe that they are uniquely privileged to understand and define reality?
A good recent example of this arrogance about which Bowman complains concerns NBC's editorial proclamation of a "civil war" in Iraq. As White House counselor Ed Gillespie noted in a May 19 letter to the NBC News president, Steve Capus,
On November 27, 2006, NBC News made a decision to no longer just cover the news in Iraq, but to make an analytical and editorial judgment that Iraq was in a civil war. both the United States government and the Government of Iraq disputed [this] account at that time. Around September of 2007, [the] network quietly stopped referring to conditions in Iraq as a "civil war." Is it still NBC News's carefully deliberated opinion that Iraq is in the midst of a civil war? If not, will the network publicly declare that the civil war has ended, or that it was wrong to declare it in the first place?
Needless to say, Capus did not respond to Gillespie's questions. NBC can proclaim when there is a civil war, but cannot bring itself to admit that it erred in so proclaiming.
Bowman's previous book--succinctly entitled Honor--was a first-rate cultural history, examining the rise and decline of belief in honor, the need for its contemporary revival, and the unlikelihood of its being revived. The shift in subject matter from honor to media madness may seem surprising, but in fact, the two books are connected: Bowman declares that "the mind of the media and therefore the media madness that it has given rise to has been formed by [our] post-honor society."
What does Bowman mean? In Honor, Bowman began by defining his subject as "the good opinion of the people who matter to us." Media madness, we learn, stems in large part from the absence of people and institutions whose opinion might matter to, and so constrain, the media: It came into existence "through the gradual elimination of any authority in church and state or even in scientific or intellectual life to which the media, or those who think as the media have taught us to think, might defer."
It is this collapse of intellectual authority--and intellectual seriousness--that explains much of the phenomenon that Bowman laments. Consider the tendency of many journalists to revere the feelings of those who have suffered, as though their suffering somehow gives them expertise. Bowman quotes Elspeth Reeve, who observed that "it's a little absurd to hold up a person as an expert judge of the 9/11 Commission Report . . . just because she lost a loved one."
Nevertheless, as Bowman notes, journalists tend to ask "a father whose son was stillborn because of the distance to the nearest hospital for his views on hospital closures" or "the mother of a child killed by a speeding driver about traffic regulations." When the Washington Post ran a story about an antiwar blogger who proclaimed that she was "insane with rage and grief," it seemed to regard her proclamation "as a reason to take her and her views seriously instead of a reason not to take them seriously."
But that journalistic predilection points to a failing that transcends the media. Within the culture more broadly, feelings are king insofar as reason or reasons are no longer in sufficiently high regard. If it is considered easier to determine who feels more strongly than who thinks more clearly, and if vivid emotions are judged to be more "authentic" than arid rationality, feelings rather than thoughts will be given preference. This embrace of irrationality, evident also in the respect accorded fanatics because of the strength of their "commitment," augurs poorly for the future of rational discourse--and of reasoned democratic deliberation.
My point here--and Bowman would not disagree, I think--is that arrogance, irrationality, and know-nothingism are hardly unique to the media. Arguably journalists are, as one would expect, primarily messengers: The transmitters, not the originators, of a problematic message. The intellectual failings of the media that Bowman insightfully and wittily dissects are failings of American culture as a whole. The media worsen the problem of our intellectual incoherence, as Bowman convincingly shows. But they did not invent it.
Joel Schwartz is an adjunct senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.