Entry from February 29, 2008

Yesterday, February 28, I gave a talk at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., about my new book, Media Madness, which is published by Encounter Books in its Brief Encounters series. Responding was Martin Walker, formerly head of UPI and Washington and Moscow correspondent for The Guardian of London. Here’s what I had to say.

You may not know this, but there’s a President’s Day sale on at NTB, formerly known as National Tire and Battery. President’s Day was ten days ago now, but the sale has been extended through the end of the month. Isn’t that exciting? But you ain’t heard nothing yet. If you get down there by tomorrow and buy four new Michelin tires, they will throw in the wheel alignment for free! And that, said the announcer when I heard the NTB ad on the radio yesterday, “is as good as it gets!” There was a film with that title — “As Good As It Gets” — a few years ago, which treated the expression in an ironic fashion. There’s also a wonderful poem by Philip Larkin called “Arrivals, Departures” in which the poem’s persona lies in bed in the morning contemplating the dreadful boredom and fatigue to be expected and the wrong choices to be made in the day ahead, the waste of time and life of the workaday world, and then ends, rather shockingly, by wondering if, “this night, happiness too is going.”

In other words, for most of us a free wheel alignment may not be as good as it gets, but our more or less unsatisfactory lives really are. I’m afraid there are no such bitter ironies intended in the NTB ad, however. Its absurdity is no longer heard as absurdity but is simply a feature of the rhetorical landscape. The language of hype is now so much taken for granted that we can hardly hear it anymore. In the post-industrial world, America produces more of information than it produces of anything else, but information, like anything else, must be sold. And to sell it the media, who are the main retailers of information, inevitably have recourse to the language of advertising — which, in concentrations of more than a few parts per million becomes toxic to the health of our public life and communications. The sickness which it engenders is what I call “Media Madness.”

Let me hasten to add that this sickness is only metaphorical. Suggesting that others with whom you disagree suffer from mental illness is, like an addiction to hyperbole, symptomatic of Media Madness itself and can obviously have no place in tracing its — metaphorical — etiology. But bearing in mind that these are only metaphorical symptoms, we may find others in the mindless worship of celebrity, the implicit belief that public life is merely a thin veneer which overlays and very imperfectly hides a fetid sink of scandal, an assumption that the only truth that matters is emotional truth and a tendency to value intelligence and sophistication over character and virtue.

The most debilitating of all these symptoms, however, the sickness unto death — metaphorically speaking — is self-righteousness. Recently Howard Kurtz, the media columnist of The Washington Post, reported on the appointment of a new executive editor — who was, coincidentally, hired out of the Post’s own newsroom — at the paper’s cross-town but much smaller rival, The Washington Times. “The Times,” Mr Kurtz wrote in a spirit of generosity he obviously thought he and his newspaper could well afford, “has been a feisty competitor to The Post but” — did you know a “but” was coming there? — “has occasionally been accused of pursuing an agenda.” Let’s savor what Howard Kurtz must have thought of as a witty bit of understatement. The Washington Times, he says, “has occasionally been accused of pursuing an agenda.” Not, mind you, that he was making any such accusation. No, no. He wants us to understand that we are to focus on that handsome concession about feisty competition. But there is just the little matter of that “agenda” still lurking in the background.

We might imagine that an agenda is, as the poet Tennyson says of mistrust in love,

. . . the little rift within the lute
That by and by will make the music mute,
And, ever-widening, slowly silence all.

No proper newspaper, Mr Kurtz relies on us to know — no real newspaper, no newspaper of the majestic authority of, say, The Washington Post — would ever, ever pursue an agenda. It’s all very well being feisty — or, like the Fox News Channel which has also occasionally been accused of pursuing an agenda, “lively.” But those whom the objective media regard as barely to be distinguished from flacks may be feisty and lively to their hearts’ content. They will never be numbered among those echt journalists like Howard Kurtz who live and move and have their being on another and entirely agenda-less plane far above them.

You’ve almost got to admire so heroic a capacity for self-deception. It reminds me a bit of Dan Rather’s contention, on being caught red-handed using forged documents in an attempt to discredit the military record of President Bush, that it was really his accusers and not himself or CBS who were at fault in this because they, the critics, were “partisans.” As an allegedly objective journalist, he obviously regarded himself as being above any suspicion of having an agenda, whereas those nasty partisans — well, who knew what they might be capable of? The quality of the evidence for forgery mattered not at all next to the fact that those who had produced it hadn’t his credential — the credential of working for CBS and sitting in Walter Cronkite’s chair — for proclaiming his own “objectivity.”

And yet — paradoxically, as it might seem to those without Dan Rather’s entitlement to that credential — such objectivity is itself utterly subjective. Here’s Chris Matthews talking about “the feeling most people get when they hear Barack Obama”s speech.” In his case, he says, it manifests itself as “this thrill going up my leg. I mean, I don”t have that too often. . . And that,” he added, “is an objective assessment.” That is my emphasis but his word. Objective. In other words, even a thrill going up his leg is objective to Chris Matthews. This, I guess, is just because it is his leg and therefore, like the rest of him, dipped in objectivity as Achilles was dipped in the River Styx — and with the same result for the rhetorical arrows of his partisan critics.

The self-righteousness of “Media Madness” is at least partly a product of the discontinuity between the media culture and the rest of the world. The fact that Dan Rather lost his job over the incident of the forged documents may suggest that there are fewer people in America than there would have been a decade or so ago who are prepared to honor the claims of a privileged class to speak with greater authority than other men on the grounds of their supposed objectivity. But there are also many more people, outside the media but infected with media madness, who imagine that they are entitled to membership in the privileged class. There are also still incidents like the recent New York Times hit piece on John McCain — the powerful negative reaction to which took the Times so completely by surprise because of its long-standing and chronic case of Media Madness. What’s the betting that Bill Keller loses his job for such a shabby attempt to take down a Republican presidential candidate?

Media Madness has been around for a long time, but the reason why I have thought it worth while to write a whole book about it now is this enlargement of the incidence of the syndrome beyond the media and into the everyday discourse of America’s political culture. Of course politicians themselves cannot realistically pretend to the kind of objectivity that journalists routinely pretend to. They are partisans ipso facto. Or at least you might think so. But if they haven’t quite got the journalistic chutzpah to stake a claim to objectivity, they do, more and more, to non-partisanship, which shows how far the contagion of Media Madness has spread. That feigned contempt for partisanship seems to me to be the engine behind Obamania, the sub-classification of Media Madness that gave Chris Matthews that quasi-erotic charge. Over and over again, the man with the most liberal voting record in Congress tells us that he represents a new sort of politics, beyond partisanship, and the media lap it up.

So do a great many supporters who regard the Republican president that Mr Obama wishes to replace as an idiot, escaped from his village in Texas, or a criminal and the third of the population who still support him as dupes and troglodytes. Perhaps the non-partisanship that they look forward to in the Oval Office will depend on the deportation of the disgruntled remnant of a hundred million or so partisans? In other words, although Media Madness was incubated in the journalistic hot-house, it is now a hardy growth that seems to thrive even in the most unpromising environments. It has become an infection which afflicts the political culture itself and which even has the capacity to blind ordinary people to things that would once have been so obvious and unattractive as arrogance and self-importance.

I’m a bit of a collector of bumper stickers. Not the stickers themselves, but the slogans on them which, it is natural to suppose, express what the kind of people who stick them on their cars think of as moral or political profundities. For some years past, of course, the most common messages to be seen, at least in the part of the country where I live, have been anti-war and anti-Bush. Often virulently so. The other day I saw two that had not crossed my path before. One read: “Peace is not treason,” and the other read: “Yee-Haw is not a foreign policy.” What’s interesting about these is often what is interesting about bumper-stickers, namely that those who display them seem quite unconscious of their banality. They think they are making a barbed, even a trenchant comment about the world when those who do not share their ideology or worldview can hardly so much as understand their plain English meaning. Remember “Mean People Suck”? Or how about “Hate is not a family value?” For those outside a particular rhetorical consensus, a political community united by a language of its own that differs subtly from the language used by everybody else, such slogans are either so obvious as to be tautologous or virtually meaningless.

As with “Peace is Not Treason” or “Yee-Haw is not a foreign policy,” those not privy to these speech codes may be tempted to ask: “Who ever said they were?” Technically, of course, nobody did. But one of the things that unites this community of discourse of which I speak is the communal pretense that its political enemies — currently the hated Bush-Cheney régime — have, if only in some sort of indirect and inferential way, affirmed the very things that these stickers deny. This is also the Garry Trudeau style of satire, which is to characterize your opponent’s views as being tantamount to some outrageous absurdity and then to rip them for the same outrageous absurdity that you have taken the precaution of putting into their mouths. Satire for dummies, you might call it, except that the people who stick these slogans on their cars or enjoy the wit of Garry Trudeau are often the smartest people around. I guarantee you that you will find more stickers carrying the message that “Peace is not Treason” or the equivalent on college campuses than you will anywhere else.

The reason is that academia in America is, like journalism, largely a closed community of like-minded people which has the power to exclude or marginalize those who do not agree with them. It was the great and good Bill Buckley, only yesterday taken from us, who first alerted us to this feature of American academic life in God and Man at Yale, and I’m happy to give him credit here for being the first forensic pathologist to spot the symptoms of what I am now calling Media Madness because they have spread so far beyond Yale. Who can forget the most famous of Buckley’s many bon mots in proclaiming, back in the 1950s, that he would rather be governed by the first 2000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the faculty of Harvard University? In 2008 he might want to amend that to some other telephone directory than Boston’s, on the one hand, and, on the other, to the production staff and corporate management of the CBS Evening News or The New York Times, so similar is the culture of the media not only to that of Harvard but that of most universities today.

Journalists, like professors, are likely to find it easy to believe that President Bush or one of his minions has actually said that peace is treason because they live almost exclusively among those who share their assumptions about the world. Their political wits have atrophied and grown dull through underuse because they have been so long protected by the intellectual homogeneity of their surroundings from any serious challenges to their views. No wonder, then, that the journalistic world has become so continuous with the academic one as reporters turn academic and academics turn reporters. The result is a kind of na ve cynicism that is ready to believe almost anything to the discredit of those outside the community in which Media Madness is endemic.

A good example was the journalistic meme of a few years ago about “the reality-based community.” Remember that? Ron Suskind, a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal who ghost-wrote the memoir by Paul O’Neill, President Bush’s first and famously disillusioned treasury secretary, published a piece in The New York Times Magazine, in which he claimed that an unnamed “senior adviser” of the Bush administration had told him that “guys like me” — that is, guys like Ron Suskind — “were ‘in what we call the reality-based community’” while guys like him — that is, guys like the senior adviser and his colleagues in the administration — were in, well, some other kind of community.

To tell the truth, the words that Mr Suskind went on to put between quotation marks to describe what he alleges the aide told him was his preferred alternative to “the reality based community” don’t make much sense to me, though I have an idea of what he might have been trying to get at in a garbled and incoherent sort of way. But this doesn’t matter. What mattered to Mr Suskind and the hundreds of thousands — to judge by a Google search — of anti-Bushites on the Internet who subsequently went about proclaiming themselves to be proud members of the reality-based community, was the belief that he had on record a high administration official acknowledging that he and, by implication, the president he served were out of touch with reality.

Apart from its inherent implausibility, of course, this belief raises an interesting philosophical conundrum, like that of the liars and the truth-tellers. How far can you reasonably believe that a man is out of touch with reality when he tells you he is out of touch with reality? Perhaps that’s the very reality he’s out of touch with! Or perhaps he’s not out of touch with reality at all except in believing that he is out of touch with reality! At the very least you’d think that hard-headed reporters would regard the claims of such a man with a certain skepticism — as much skepticism, anyway, as they bring to every other pronouncement of the administration. Yet the words “reality-based community” swept through the journalistic and academic communities without a touch of irony, just like the NTB ad, as if they had been said as a testimonial to themselves and a hyperbolical self-condemnation by the Bush administration.

The credulity that it takes to believe anything so preposterous as that those whose politics you despise have confessed to you their own emigration from the reality-based community — of which you yourself remain such a solid citizen — can only be the product of Media Madness, and of the fact that the media are like the academic world in being a one-party intellectual state. At least in the case of the media, this may be about to change. But as the mass media begin to break up and break down, and as their audience migrates to the niche media that are more and more replacing them, we may expect that the media culture will also have to change or even disappear. We are all journalists now, as Scott Gant says in his new book of that title. I just hope that we don’t carry with us into the new journalistic world — where the chance to associate only with those who agree with us must be, if anything, increased — the contagion that was bred in the old one.

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