The Elite Beat

From The New Criterion

Buried in the New York Times’s story on the news that the Washington Post Company was to put Newsweek up for sale was this fascinating detail:

Newsweek’s circulation was 3.14 million in the first half of 2000. By the second half of 2009, that dropped to 1.97 million. Time’s circulation declined from 4.07 million to 3.33 million in the same period. U.S. News & World Report, the also- ran newsweekly, abandoned its weekly publication schedule in 2008 to become monthly. Meanwhile, The Economist, which offered British-accented reports on business and economic news, and The Week, an unabashedly middle-brow summary of the weekly news that began publishing in the United States in 2001, were on the rise.

If The Week counts as “unabashedly middle-brow” what does that make Time and Newsweek, I wonder? There was a time within living memory when these publications would themselves have been the very examples which those inclined to intellectual snobbery would have cited of “middle-brow culture” — one cut, perhaps, above Reader’s Digest, which the very high-brow poet Randall Jarrell once described as having a level of meaning “so low that it seems not a level but an abyss into which the reader consents to sink.” Autres temps, autres moeurs, I suppose. The Times’s reporter, Stephanie Clifford, hardly mentions last year’s makeover that turned out to be the prelude to the announcement that the magazine was for sale, only mentioning that “Newsweek, in 2009, more or less ceased original reporting about the week’s events, and instead ran essays from columnists like Fareed Zakaria and opinionated analyses.”

Howard Kurtz, who works for the magazine’s present owners, calls this a decision “to go upscale,” a word which, like “opinionated,” appears to be a euphemism to describe what really amounted to a turn to the left. “Upscale” implies both socially and economically upscale — Mr Kurtz quotes the magazine’s editor, Jon Meacham, as hoping a year ago that advertisers would “accept a more affluent Newsweek demographic” — and therefore politically upscale as well. A certain kind of fashionable leftism that now goes under the name of “progressivism” is the politics of the social and media élites who have grown accustomed to looking down their noses at the “unabashedly middle-brow.” Among these unfortunates, dear Reader, you are likely to find yourself classed if you do not share those politics.

Mr Kurtz subsequently grew more frank — and critical — about the changes at Newsweek.

Part of the strategy was a radical redesign. I was not a fan of it, and neither, I can tell you, were a number of people who work there. By lumping a bunch of columnists together, playing up opinion and analysis in what Meacham called the “reported narrative” and the “argued essay,” he transformed the magazine into an odd hybrid. In practice, it did seem to turn Newsweek into a version of the New Republic or the Economist. Sometimes the cover stories were politically or culturally sharp, sometimes not, but they increasingly seemed to lean left. I lost track of the number of Barack and Michelle covers, one of them based on a Meacham interview with the president. And a couple of its top political writers double as MSNBC commentators.

He expects readers to know that “MSNBC commentators” is another euphemism for “lefties.” Ms Clifford in the Times quotes Charles Whitaker, research chairman in magazine journalism at the Northwestern University school of journalism, as a skeptic about both Newsweek’s and Time’s recent redesigns: “I don’t think Time and Newsweek, in this transformation, had enough of a distinct voice to capture the fancy of anyone in this incredibly polarized political environment” — as if the redesigns had not themselves been a response to that “incredibly polarized political environment” and an attempt to identify themselves with the more socially and intellectually prestigious of the two poles. The new Newsweek had simply been an acknowledgment of what had long been evident to those fleeing from it and other publications of the mainstream or “legacy” media — namely, that these publications are designed and written for an élite defined, at least in part, by its adherence to “progressive” political views.

Nor should we forget the importance of the fact that political, social and economic élites these days also see themselves as intellectual élites and thus their favorite reading material, whether Newsweek, Time or The New York Times itself, as ipso facto high-brow. Reading them is like voting Democratic in being not so much the result of their superior intelligence as a way of demonstrating it. This is a necessary demonstration, too, since braininess is the justification for their status among the mandarin class of those entitled to rule by virtue of their intelligence and education and whose legitimacy derives from their benevolent intentions toward the dependent class their measures have the effect of creating. This is why, during the Bush years, so many progressive Democrats spent far more time and energy decrying the stupidity of those in power than they did advancing any agenda of their own; this is why would-be populist Barack Obama has now nominated two more Ivy League lawyers, like himself, to the Supreme Court, and so created a full house of them.

This sort of intellectual élitism is another aspect of what Christopher Caldwell, writing in The Weekly Standard, has identified as the American “oligarchy” made up of financiers and others of the very rich, who are, if not democratic, overwhelmingly Democratic in their political sympathies, and our new masters in Washington who have continued the Clinton administration’s heavy reliance on Wall Street and the Ivy League to staff and guide the bureaucracy. This interpenetration of political and economic élites is now coming to resemble, thinks Mr Caldwell, that of certain Third World countries whose miserable economic fortunes ours are also coming to resemble. Others who have made similar points include Peter Berkowitz — who has shown that progressivism has had anti-democratic and technocratic biases since its inception a century ago — and Gerard Alexander, both of whom gave Bradley Lectures at the American Enterprise Institute earlier this year. (Full disclosure: my wife, Karlyn Bowman, helps organize the Bradley Lectures for AEI.)

The dirty secret of what Michael Young in 1958 first called — with satirical intent — “the meritocracy” and which Charles Murray now calls “the cognitive élite” has always been that intelligence and/or education equals entitlement, and journalism of a particular, “high-brow” and therefore fashionably liberal sort has long been the royal road to such élite status for those whose abilities do not fit them for any more intellectually demanding tasks — such as, say, running the economy into the ground. That, certainly, is the impression you get from Gerald Boyd’s posthumously published memoir, My Times in Black and White: Race and Power at the New York Times (Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 402 pp., $26.95). Boyd, catapulted to what passes for fame in today’s media environment by his firing from the Times over the Jayson Blair scandal in 2003, at once takes such fame as his due, uses it to justify his self-presentation as a figure of national and even historical importance and, at the same time, decries the unfairness by which the occasion of that fame, namely his dismissal from the Times, was visited on him. It’s enough to make a cat laugh, as Mark Twain would say.

Boyd’s book is a sort of Up from Slavery de nos jours and tells the story of a poor black boy from the streets of St. Louis, raised by his grandmother after his mother died and his alcoholic father abandoned the family, his subsequent rise by way of a scholarship to J-school and The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and so, by way of affirmative action and a corporate quest for “diversity,” to the dizzying heights of The New York Times’s managing editorship.

My rise at the paper was smooth and steady (he writes), and the view from the top was spectacular: as the Times’ managing editor, second in command, I witnessed and shaped history. I reveled in the paper’s legend, guarded its secrets, learned to analyze and strategize in the tradition of its best editors. Second only to my family, the Times defined me.

Not exactly epic, you might think. If Boyd had been witnessing and shaping history after climbing the corporate greasy pole to a position as, say, a senior vice-president at General Electric or IBM it never would have occurred to him or anyone else to write a book like this, but in the media culture of today, a senior editor at the Times, at least if he is involved in a highly-publicized scandal, has almost the public stature and prestige of a game show host.

Who, one wonders, would willingly read such stuff, apart from family and friends? But then, the point of celebrity journalism, like that of all celebrity and ever more journalism, is to make the rest of us feel like family and friends of the celebrity. Gerald’s very pedestrian struggles to get ahead in journalism while finding true happiness with his third wife and their child are couched in very pedestrian prose, but they assume the narrative arc of the autobiography of a great man, acting among other great men upon a world-stage. More than once he describes his sometime protector and friend, Howell Raines, who lost his job at the same time and for the same reason as Boyd, as a Patton of the press and the Times’s quest for Pulitzer Prizes as a gloriously victorious military campaign. To Boyd, being big at The New York Times meant being big everywhere. He “shaped history,” after all. That he died of cancer three years after leaving the Times while still in middle age and when his son was only ten years old, leaving his young wife to complete the manuscript, gives a tragic twist to the ending.

Yet the contrast between the endless — and endlessly petty — newsroom politics with which most of the book is concerned and the exaggerated status that Boyd’s limited success at such political manipulation is meant to confer upon him may strike some readers as a comical incongruity. In his own view, the achievements which entitle him to posthumous recognition, the equivalent of the political, military, artistic or sporting victories traditionally associated with greatness, are his own rise to near the top of the Times hierarchy — I am reminded of Barack Obama’s citing as “executive experience” the running of his own campaign — and those journalistically self-awarded Pulizer Prizes, themselves more often than not the result of political infighting, with several of which he was associated as editor. The epic defeats are, likewise, his pique over the Blair affair and at being passed over for promotion to jobs he thought he deserved.

But if we are all complicit in making a book like this a cultural event by taking the journalistic enterprise as seriously as it takes itself, there is a bit more to it than this. Besides Boyd’s self-importance there is also a sense of his social superiority, an ascension to a promised land of élite status that working at the Times confers, the potential loss of which on leaving the paper is really does come near to striking a tragic — or at least tragi-comic — note. If he’s not one of the aristocrats of the media-financial-political complex, then what is he? This, I think, is what he means by saying that the paper “defined” him. To the privileged and self-mythologizing class to which he once belonged, such a loss thus takes on some of the epic grandeur of the expulsion from Eden, and this drama is only heightened and deepened by its racial dimension.

It would probably have been impossible for any black man to live through what Boyd did without casting his public humiliation in racial terms — perhaps even more so given that Jason Blair, portrayed (erroneously, says Boyd) as his protégé, was also black. Without denying this racial element to the story, however, I think it more interesting to see it in terms of the social and intellectual exclusiveness so characteristic of the dominant political class in the Age of Obama. The media élite naturally identifies itself with the President, and he with it. Boyd’s book ends with his widow and son attending the inauguration of “our first black president” as if this were a sort of validation of the life of the man who campaigned for “diversity” in the newsroom and thus helped to produce it in the Oval Office. There, as elsewhere, diversity was only of the racial, sexual and ethnic variety. The diversity of opinion which used to characterize American public life is decidedly not what is wanted today, when there is increasingly only good and bad, right and wrong for people to choose between. And the choice of good means the choice validated by the élite.

A sense of this exclusiveness, and the unfairness of it, is what seems to me to lie behind the “tea party” movement, which is why the élite are so desperate to hurl the charge of “elitism” back in the faces of the tea-partiers — foremost among them, as you might almost expect, The New York Times which, with CBS News, published a poll in April which the Times trumpeted as showing that “Tea Party supporters are wealthier and more well-educated than the general public” and “tend to be Republican, white, male, married and older than 45” — not that that should have come as any great surprise to anybody. But the whiteness and the maleness and the Republicanness all added up in some eyes to — you’ll never guess — racism!

There was for a while a concerted journalistic effort, based on the New York Times/CBS poll, another survey by the University of Washington’s Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race and Sexuality, and an appallingly ill-designed and tendentious study by Harris Interactive to demonstrate that the supporters of the tea parties and their agenda were racists. None of these studies were persuasive to anyone not already disposed to believe this, but soon their racism became what we might call settled journalism — whereupon The Washington Post ran a story about how the tea-partiers were “battling perceptions of racism.” Lovely journalist’s weasel word that, “perceptions.” You don’t call them racist yourself, you say that certain unnamed people have a perception that they are racist — which in journo-world is tantamount to being racist. Also perceived as racists, even Nazis, were those who supported a new Arizona law which allowed the police to arrest illegal aliens if they had been stopped for some other reason and couldn’t furnish proof of legal residence, such as a driver’s license.

Even if not racist, the tea-party movement had a lot of nerve, in the view of the media and intellectual élites, to cast their dissension in the form of popular revolution. “Phony populists,” they were called by Peter Beinart who also quoted Robert Kuttner in describing theirs as “the revolt of the haves” — as opposed, that is, to the large majorities in 19 of the 20 wealthiest zip codes in the land who, as Mr Caldwell points out, gave political contributions to the Obama campaign. Mark Lilla in The New York Review of Books went him one better with a nicely calculated oxymoron in reference to “the politics of the libertarian mob.” Behind such sneering there lay snobbery, both social and intellectual, together with the socialist and oligarchical conviction that the unwillingness of such petit-bourgeois philistines — and their children and grand-children — to be the milch-cows for President Obama’s grandiose and ruinously expensive social schemes was fundamentally illegitimate, even outrageous. If the progressive-minded have already spent their money before they have earned it, then it is anti-progressive of them to object to the fact.

Meanwhile, it was on the other side of the Atlantic, during the British election campaign, that we had our clearest demonstration of the contempt in which the political and media élite holds ordinary people. Campaigning in Rochdale, Lancashire, the Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, was put together by his advisers with a woman they had seen as a typical and traditional Labour voter, a 65 year-old widow named Gillian Duffy, who proceeded to remonstrate with Mr Brown about his government’s laxity with respect to controlling the inward flow of new immigrants from Eastern Europe. He escaped to his motorcade and, not realizing that he was still wearing a wireless microphone, he in turn remonstrated with the bungling aides who, he thought, “should never have put me with that woman — whose idea was that?” Then he added: “She was just a sort of bigoted woman.” It was a massive and possibly fatal “gaffe,” demonstrating how out of touch Labour has become with its working class roots, and both the media and the leaders of the other parties exploited it to the hilt.

Yet Frank Furedi wrote a typically brilliant column for Spiked Online in which he noticed that the real measure of the extent to which not just Labour but all those of the political and media élites in Britain are out of touch lay in the fact that what Mrs Duffy objected to was not so much being described as “bigoted” — a word that terrifies the Mandarins, except when they are applying it to others, but not Mrs Duffy — but as “that woman.” She thought it disrespectful of him, and that he should have referred to her as a “lady” — a word that the élites regard as “sexist.” For all their political differences, the old-time socialists in Britain have at least this much in common with the tea-partiers in the United States: both resent the indignity of being taken for granted by élites from which they are excluded and towards which they are expected to show gratitude for their “compassion,” their benevolence and their brilliant schemes for social improvement. The fact that none of the three main parties in the subsequent election there won an overall majority may have something to do with this sense that ordinary people have of being subjects, no matter who wins, of a closed oligarchy with the power to re-define decency. I can’t say that I blame them.


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