for Sale: Unfurnished
by BEN TRIPP
The time has come to address the problem with
modern journalism. I know, I know, it's a sunny day, why ruin
it. But something must be done. With a runaway Executive Branch
hell-bent on a pointless war, a complicit Judiciary, and a Legislature
with less cojones than a bull aphid, we need the Fourth
Estate to check the power of a President out of control. But
where is that final defense against tyranny, the voice
of the Free Press, to save us in our hour of need? As far as
I can tell, it's lying on its deathbed, gumming a rusk and watching
Wheel Of Fortune reruns.
At first, this history was to explain
how the American journalist has devolved over the last few decades
from stalwart truth-gleaner to shivering narcoleptic. However,
my researches revealed a darker pattern than this: American journalism
has always sucked the big weenie. There are occasional
high points, but the norm is crapulent maundering of the basest
kind. For every Paine, Morrow, Cronkite, or Bernstein, there
are ten thousand inky dopes stuffing endless column inches with
literary kapok- and there always have been. The only real difference
between journalism today and journalism at any time during the
last couple of centuries is that, for the first time, journalists
are the last defense against a monde du merde of unprecedented
scope. Our toes are hanging off the end of the cosmic diving
board, and the press is our best hope to avoid toppling off.
But people have always felt this way in their own times; if
it wasn't nuclear war, it was God's wrath or the Bubonic Plague.
I'm sure we're just being myopic.
Edmund Burke, the British statesman,
is primarily noted in this country (by about 11 historians, very
dull company) for his attempts to get King George III to show
a little diplomacy with the American colonists during the Revolutionary
War. This is all fascinating, I'm sure (I'm not sure at all really)
but his most durable contribution to posterity is an observation
he made on the role of the journalist in politics, elevating
the press to the role of "the Fourth Estate". The
19th Century historian, Thomas 'Chuckles' Carlyle, attributes
the following to Burke:
Burke said there were Three Estates in
Parliament; but, in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat
a Fourth Estate more important than them all. It is not a figure
of speech, or a witty saying; it is a literal fact. . . .Whoever
can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power,
a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law-making,
in all acts of authority. It matters not what rank he has, what
revenues or garnitures: the requisite thing is that he have a
tongue which others will listen to; this and nothing more is
Burke would be flipping his Whig today.
The political Reporter's Gallery of which he spoke has devolved
into the Washington Press Corpse. As scurvy a crew of gutless
stenographers has seldom been seen outside the Soviet Union during
its salad days. But we can understand why the Soviet journalists
toed the party line: it was that, or swim the Volga in a cement
overcoat. Our own journalists are free to say what they will
of whom they will- freedom of speech is guaranteed in most areas,
at least as of this writing. So why have American journalists
abandoned their charter? Are they an unusually poor crop, or
has corporate control stifled their voices? What is different
about today's reporters, that they fail to report?
According to history, nothing.
Benjamin Franklin, the famous stove,
had this to say to the editors of the London Chronicle in April
of 1767, as the colonial situation was heating up:
Athens had her orators. They did her
sometimes a great deal of good, at other times a great deal of
harm; the latter particularly when they prevailed in advising
the Sicilian war, under the burthen and losses of which war that
flourishing state sunk, and never again recovered itself.
To the haranguers of the populace among the ancients, succeed
among the moderns your writers of political pamphlets and news-papers,
and your coffee-house talkers. It is remarkable that soldiers
by profession, men truly and unquestionably brave, seldom advise
war but in cases of extream necessity. While mere rhetoricians,
tongue-pads and scribes, timid by nature, or from their little
bodily exercise deficient in those spirits that give real courage,
are ever bawling for war on the most trifling occasions, and
seem the most blood-thirsty of mankind.
In other words, you journalists are all
chickenhawk punks. Of course Franklin and Thomas Paine and the
other prominent journalists of their age ended up precipitating
the Revolutionary War. But at least they knew they'd hang for
it if America lost, a consequence absent from modern journalism-
otherwise today's news might be more interesting. Six score
and some-odd years later, when the telegraph had revolutionized
the distribution of news stories, here's what Mark Twain had
to say about the newspapers (newspapers are what they used to
print television on):
It has become a sarcastic proverb that
a thing must be true if you saw it in a newspaper. That is the
opinion intelligent people have of that lying vehicle in a nutshell.
But the trouble is that the stupid people--who constitute the
grand overwhelming majority of this and all other nations--do
believe and are moulded and convinced by what they get out of
a newspaper, and there is where the harm lies.
He could have been speaking of Fox News
or the tongue-pad Rush Limbaugh. I'm told by a reliable source
that Ari Fleischer (winner of the Otto Dietrich Award for most
devoted press secretary) has the above quotation tattooed on
Helen Thomas' backside. Naturally, journalists have always claimed
a higher purpose, as stated by Lawrence Gobright, a contemporary
of Twain who covered the Civil War and who broke the story of
Abraham Lincoln's assassination:
My business is to communicate facts.
My instructions do not allow me to make any comment upon the
facts which I communicate. My despatches are sent to newspapers
of all manner of politics. . . . I, therefore, confine myself
to what I consider legitimate news and try to be truthful and
impartial. My despatches are merely dry matters of fact and detail.
Gobright was in fact one of the dryest
of journalists, as shown in his description of the aftermath
of the assassination in Ford's Theatre:
The excitement was of the wildest possible
description, and of course there was an abrupt termination of
the theatrical performance.
In case you thought they just had an
intermission until the brains were mopped off the stage. In
some ways, Gobright's matter-of-factness is the grandfather of
today's dismal mock-objectivity. Mark Twain understood that
this mere recitation of facts was not enough- the news needs
Our papers have one peculiarity--it is
American--their irreverence . . . They are irreverent toward
pretty much everything, but where they laugh one good king to
death, they laugh a thousand cruel and infamous shams and superstitions
into the grave, and the account is squared. Irreverence is the
champion of liberty and its only sure defense.
You want irreverence in an American paper
today, you'll have to read the National Hog Farmer. If Twain
speaks for the press in the post-Civil War period, it must be
H.L. Mencken who speaks for the early twentieth century. Mencken
had this to say, when he wasn't dissing black people:
The average newspaper, especially of
the better sort, has the intelligence of a hillbilly evangelist,
the courage of a rat, the fairness of a prohibitionist boob-jumper,
the information of a high-school janitor, the taste of a designer
of celluloid valentines, and the honor of a police-station lawyer.
Of course, his day saw the height of
Yellow Journalism. In Yellow Journalism you invent a story for
the news section, and if the subject threatens to sue, you attack
him in the editorial section. Famous Yellow Journalists include
Randolph Hearst (the guy who played Orson Welles in 'Citizen
Kane'), Joe Pulitzer (the famous prize) and in the 'New Yellow'
school, such luminaries as Ann Coulter (no prize) and Matthew
Drudge (surprise! You've been slimed). Intense partisanship
in editors and publishers was the norm, and infected the work
of the reporters. But facts still had their uses, and modern
investigative reporting was born in the form of the Muckrakers,
a band of left-leaning reformist critics of industrial society.
Exhaustively researched exposés
by such Muckraking writers as Upton Sinclair (to whom we owe
the safe, clean meat supply we enjoy today) and Ida Tarbell (whose
history of the Standard Oil Company got Big Oil out of politics
for good) transformed the way journalists worked. For one thing,
they actually had to work, which shook up the rank-and-file.
The Muckrakers had strong opinions, but they used facts to support
them, not just rhetoric or innuendo (an Italian word meaning
'up yours'). Research and objectivity came back into vogue and
other publications. In 1908, Walter Williams founded the Missouri
School of Journalism, the first institution of its kind; Williams
was a visionary and opened his "Journalist's Creed"
with these words:
I believe in the profession of journalism.
I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all
connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility,
trustees for the public; that acceptance of a lesser service
than the public service is betrayal of this trust. I believe
that clear thinking and clear statement, accuracy and fairness
are fundamental to good journalism.
He said more, but it's so ironic I cannot
include it here or you might suffer a cerebral aneurism. I only
survived reading the full text by wearing dark glasses, a welding
helmet, and gauntlets. Hunter S. Thompson sums up where Williams'
idealism led the business by the middle of the century:
Journalism is not a profession or a trade.
It is a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits, a false doorway
to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed
off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino
to curl up from the side-walk and masturbate like a chimp in
a zoo cage.
Mencken would be proud. Nonetheless,
Walter Williams did have a good idea, but he could little imagine
what would be made of it- or how fast. After the First World
War, with the communist revolution in Russia and the rise of
Socialist sentiment in America after the Great Depression (back
then 'great' meant 'large', not 'good', as it does today; see
also 'gay') the pinkish tinge to the Muckrakers was unacceptable.
The corporate plutocracy was threatened on all sides and turned
on the press: you want to be a respected profession, you join
the Establishment like all the other respected professions.
Meanwhile propaganda was in its infancy,
but a greedy little tyke growing like a weed- and subversion
was defined even more broadly than it is today, although our
current Attorney General is closing the gap by the hour. Journalists
were getting scared. Such works as Walter Lippmann's 1922 Public
Opinion, containing the 'Canon of Objectivity', which suggested
that subjectivity should be extirpated from serious journalism
( an impossible notion, a Buddhist koan that got taken
literally) gave journalists the cover they needed to turn tail
and hide in the woods.
Being a reporter is as much a diagnosis
as a job description.
Journalism hunkered down and got 'professional'
over the next half-century, giving up exuberance and overt opinion
in favor of staunch recitation of facts, twice checked and officially
sanctioned. The age of the charismatic editor-champion was decisively
over; without a figurehead to defend the journalist from attack,
'unbiased' reporting was the safest bet. To ensure your work
was unbiased, you simply said what everybody else said- objectivity,
after all, is really just subjectivity that everybody agrees
on. By the time Senator Joseph McCarthy busted a move on the
commies in the 1950's, journalistic conformity was the rule-
but the journalists didn't dig it, man. The seeds of revolution
were a-borning, and when they sprouted (into I.F. Stone's
Weekly, The Village Voice, The Los Angeles Free
Press, Ramparts, et al.) the pavements cracked and
the bastions of power buckled. Journalism bloomed from the grassroots,
to stretch the horticultural metaphor still further. The power
structure was unprepared for this courageous outburst of unfettered
opinion and (to switch metaphors) the subterranean workings of
so many scrivener moles beneath its walls. Burke's promise -that
a fellow with a voice was a real factor in governance of the
land- was proven to be true. And by the mid-1970's, what a voice
they had! At its modern apex in 1974, the Fourth Estate brought
down the Nixon administration, ended the Vietnam War, and debuted
the foremost chronicle of our age, People magazine. Journalism
was demonstrably the very breath of democratic society.
Today the Media (from the Latin 'medianus',
meaning 'asshole') have tools of incomparable swiftness and scope
at their command- the ability to report information and events
at the very instant they arise to an audience of billions around
the world through cable television and the Internet. Despite
all this, the vital breath of democracy has been reduced to the
merest fartling. Journalism possesses hardly enough wind to
extinguish a candle, let alone topple the towers of the mighty-
although it produces enough hot air to make a life-sized replica
of the planet Jupiter. It is generally agreed, both on the left
and the right of the political spectrum: the journalistic profession
is in ruins.
But the voices of yore, as quoted above,
will tell you this is nothing new; it's just that things have
gotten worse when they ought to be getting better. There has
always been an ideal to which journalism is held, and which it
cannot possibly achieve; selling papers, or ad spots on TV, is
a commercial endeavor, not a labor of ideals. For editors, politics
is life. For advertisers, it's the kiss of death. Nobody wants
to go broke peddling news; the idea is to make money at it, and
if the occasional lump of truth surfaces in the nonce, so much
the better. You can sell the movie rights. Yet there is a new
factor which has changed the news business, and it's not
cable, or Internet, or anything technological. It's celebrity.
The scrivener moles are the faceless
reporters about whom Twain (he's such a quotable little bunny!)
I am personally acquainted with hundreds
of journalists, and the opinion of the majority of them would
not be worth tuppence in private, but when they speak in print
it is the newspaper that is talking (the pygmy scribe is not
visible) and then their utterances shake the community like the
thunders of prophecy.
Classic modern examples of the mole/pygmy
type are Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who broke the Watergate
story and co-toppled the Nixon government, which was until recently
the worst presidential administration this country had ever seen.
These men toiled in obscurity, building a story of unshakeable
facts and unspeakable import. These days you want an unspeakable
import, you buy a Citroën. They were not famous, even though
Bernstein looked just like Dustin Hoffman in the movie. They
were diligent craftsmen, not glamorous or telegenic, and they
changed history. What has happened to the Carl Bernsteins and
Bob Woodwards of the world? They have been replaced by pretty
airheads who know not to cause trouble- people who are personalities,
not journalists. And a personality is vulnerable in ways that
a newspaper byline is not. Woodward himself said:
Another change in the media since Watergate
is the attention given to journalists, especially television
reporters and anchors. Many work under a spotlight. This is a
big, big change. There's so many examples of what this change
is where working under a spotlight alters behavior.
-Like you start kissing every toches
that sits in your guest chair. The TV personality does not end
up on that set in front of the cameras because he or she wants
to be a writer. Or because of a burning urge to discover hidden
truths. They do whatever they have to do to get on TV. The
reward is celebrity. Wolf Blitzer took some crappy job in Baghdad,
ass-end of the world, in the valiant hope he might someday get
on TV. Lucky for him, we bombed the city and he was in frame-
on CNN, the ultimate expression of TV news. So Wolf Blitzer
is now a famous reporter- and a pundit, even, that bastard child
of modern news. Wolf achieved his own show, the holy grail of
TV journalism. What are his opinions? What analysis, what discovery,
what secret has he unearthed? None at all. Although courageous,
he was never one of the scrivener moles, digging in the dark
for real stories. He just stood in front of one.
Not that modern journalists won't attack
a story- far from it. The New Yellow Journalists are ravening
Velociraptors; they leapt on the Clintonian Brontosaurus and
tore him apart. But as wretched as Clinton was, there wasn't
a Watergate inside- the press disemboweled him because they were
told there was a story, not because they found
a story. This is classic celebrity behavior- gravitate to where
the lights and noise are. Go for personality stories instead
of policy stories; as Clinton discovered, the penis mightier
than the sword.
Modern journalists all hope to get anthologized,
televised, and lionized; if that means going with the ultraconservative
flow, so be it. Who else can pay those $20,000 speaking fees?
In any case, the real journalistic damage isn't done through
fact-finding any more, which is tiresome labor, but via the punditry.
Pundits, for those of you born after 1999, are talking heads
that hang pendulously on the right and left of any issue like
an immense pair of testicles- and like testicles, the one on
the right is usually larger. They issue opinions which, via
the magic of Lexis-Nexus, can be backed up by one or more citations
of other sources- which is all you need anymore. As long as
somebody else said it first, you're safe. Pundits were originally
professional experts hired by celebrity journalists who wanted
to ask the pundits questions about their area of expertise, which
in turn made the journalists look clever and well-connected.
Then the generalized pundits, who were not for example "Zinc
Alloy Trade Restriction Scholars" but rather "A Liberal"
or "A Conservative" or in the case of Ann Coulter "A
Fruitcake", began to gain their own air time. This state
of affairs persists to the present day.
And so we now have journalism which is
headlined by celebrities who are not journalists (except Geraldo
Riviera of course) and informed by famous pundits who are not
experts; celebrity has ruined journalism, just when we needed
it most to save us from disaster. But look on the bright side:
inobjectivity ruined journalism once, and then objectivity did;
oppression and licentiousness have taken turns ruining journalism,
when money and power weren't at it. It's always been ruined.
The reason there is a special crisis now is suggested by a remark
by Thomas Jefferson, who is the only person not yet quoted here:
. . . .[W]ere it left to me to decide
whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers
without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer
The crisis before us is we seem to have
is a screenwriter and political cartoonist. He can be reached
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/ 27, 2002
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