I’ve been doing a fair bit of reading in preparation for a long essay on you know what. A couple of quotes I thought I’d share by way of a post this week.
The first is from James W. Carey’s wonderful essay. “American journalism on, before and after September 11″, in the 2002 collection Journalism after September 11. He’s describing the decline of journalism in the esteem of the American people in the latter third of the Twentieth Century. A nice evocation of a frame of mind that journalists are prevented from understanding by their professional ideology, and clearly relevant to the case at hand:
As poll after poll showed, journalists had earned the distrust of the public and were increasingly seen as a hindrance to, rather than an avenue of, politics and political reform. Rather than supporting democracy, the press, in the eyes of many, was an impediment to the democratic process. While the press dismissed the rising tide of criticism as merely reactionary politics, the problem went deeper. In the public’s eyes, the press had become the adversary of all institutions, including the public itself. Journalism was not only independent of partisan politics, it was independent of democracy itself. Some felt the press had come to practice what was called Werner von Braun journalism: “we just send the rockets up; we don’t know or care where they come down.” As the press sought greater constitutional power for itself and greater independence on the state, as it sought to remove all restrictions on its activities and its newsgathering rights, it pressed the legal and ideological case that it was a special institution with special rights–rights that trumped the interests of ordinary men and women and other institutions necessary to democracy.
He refers to Joan Didion’s magnificent “Insider Baseball”, which you can find in her collection After Henry, which I dragged off the shelf this morning. (It’s also available on the NYRB’s website – go read it right away). The essay addresses the 1988 US Presidential election. But Didion could be speaking the widespread frustration among Australians about the performance of the media and politicians in our recent election – the kind of frustration Grog was voicing. Of course, his voicing of it, and the evidence that it was shared, was what persuaded journalists that they were justified in asserting their own special rights over his interests:
When we talk about the process, then, we are talking, increasingly, not about “the democratic process,” or the general mechanism affording the citizens of a state a voice in its affairs, but the reverse: a mechanism seen as so specialized that access to it is correctly limited to its own professionals, to those who manage policy and those who report on it, to those who run the polls and those who quote them, to those who ask and those who answer the questions on the Sunday shows, to the media consultants, to the columnists, to the issues advisers, to those who give the off-the-record breakfasts and to those who attend them; to that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life. “I didn’t realize you were a political junkie,” Marty Kaplan, the former Washington Post reporter and Mondale speechwriter who is now married to Susan Estrich, the manager of the Dukakis campaign, said when I mentioned that I planned to write about the campaign; the assumption here, that the narrative should be not just written only by its own specialists but also legible only to its own specialists, is why, finally, … [the] campaign raises questions that go so vertiginously to the heart of the structure.
The passages encapsulate the thing that many journalists seem to struggle to understand — even the smart ones, even the ones I respect. It’s something I’m trying to write down as clearly and calmly as I can in the essay. In short, the most prevalent version of their professional ideology has it that they hold power to account, that they monitor the powerful on our behalf. But from the outside, it looks a lot like they’re thoroughly integrated in a dynamic that’s effectively limiting the political power, engagement and speech of ordinary citizens. Something has to give, perhaps.
Back to the grindstone.