Stanley Baldwin’s bitter jibe that journalists enjoy “the privilege of the harlot down the ages—power without responsibility”—still resonates. One reason is certainly because we recognize that—alas!—we cannot live without journalism. We might sometimes imagine that it is merely the stuff we read in the newspapers every day, but actually journalism is a mode in which we think. It indelibly marks our first response to everything. It dominates television and surrounds us in the vast publishing industry of popularization. The scholar and the professional may escape it as they specialize, but the moment they step outside what they really know about, they enter the flow of popularized understanding like the rest of us.
This means that journalism is a problem at two levels. Baldwin’s jibe points to the profound idea that there is something essentially pathological about the whole activity that daily satisfies our often pointless curiosity about what is going on in the world. But there is a less extreme position that accords more with common sense: namely, that in our educated and democratic world, a great deal of information is indispensable, and journalism is the only way we can have it. Even here, however, large events such as the Iraq war of 2004 have caused many critics to judge that journalism has lost such integrity as it ever had and is being used to nudge us towards some version of right thinking. Journalism had slid, it has been suggested, into propaganda.
We thus have two theses to consider. The first is that journalism in itself is a pathological distortion of our civilization, and the second is that the perfectly respectable and certainly necessary trade of informing us about the world has lost its integrity and become, in some degree, a parody of truth—in a word, pathological. It is not entirely possible to separate these ideas, but let us take each in turn.
Journalism responds to the old Roman question: Quid novi?—What’s new? The question only makes sense against a background of: What’s old? The answer must be composed of things called “events,” and, as the etymology of eventus suggests, an event is something understood as the outcome of some earlier situation. Event-making is an art that turns familiar routines and facts into patterns having a certain uniqueness. Some people are better at it than others, but once the art has been learned, most people can do it to some extent. It is all a matter of scale: the Bible tells some stories in a few sentences, while writers of fiction can spin someone’s day into a long novel. Responding to stories is one way of conducting life, distinguishable from the times when we are responding to routines, sensations, classifications, or reflections. No life can avoid gossip, ritual, and response to overriding events such as war or famine, but most people, especially if they are illiterate, have hitherto been interested in little beyond what affects them directly. Journalism is the cultivation of concern for things that are for the most part remote from us.
The basic contrast is with religion, which is concerned with rituals and sermons revolving around beliefs about our eternal situation. Kierkegaard mistrusted journalism because he thought it would feed our love of the ephemeral, and he was no doubt right about this. Hegel remarked that in his time, newspapers were replacing morning prayer. Perhaps the earliest writer to regard our involvement with daily events as a pathology distracting us from the realities of the human condition was Pascal. As journalism in the contemporary world has extended its range, it has certainly taken in churchly events and concerned itself with the beliefs of different religions, but the very context of such news robs it of the superior status it has for believers, and diminishes religion to the same level as the vast miscellany of other human activities that are also being reported. Religions are composed of archetypes that have a status above the constant flow of ideas and news stories. We respond (or do not respond) to such archetypes in a reflective manner that determines how we view the world, but where journalism dominates our thoughts, reflectiveness is diluted by the passion for novelty. We move from an article on religion to one on fashion, sport, or public affairs. Like democracy, journalism is a manic equalizer.
Historically, journalism emerged from the specific interests of princes, merchants, and administrators. A prince needed to know something of foreign powers, and his ambassador sent him back reports, just as a merchant needed to know of profitable opportunities and conditions of trade. A universal institution such as the Papacy needed a constant flow of information. The Greeks, Romans, Chinese, etc. were great annalists, and Herodotus is credited, as the father of History, with creating prose literature out of an assemblage of contingencies, but the drive of most of these writers was precisely to get beyond contingency and find a broader explanatory structure.
Printing, of course, transformed everything, leading to the movement of power away from grand patrons towards educated city-dwellers. Large political issues were argued out in books, pamphlets, and broadsheets. The writings of diplomats and merchants were soon being supplemented by correspondents writing for a wider audience. It was the beginning of the end for arcana imperii. By the eighteenth century, the flow of material was so reliable that publishers could be sure of filling an annual, a monthly, and ultimately a weekly or daily issue. This was the first and basic mechanical principle by which we became accustomed to a regular flow of news. Other mechanisms soon emerged to help the editor fill his space—the anniversary, for example, in which nothing related the writer and his subject but an interval of time.
Deeper currents were at work. The modern Western world was based upon a close interest in and observation of the things going on around us. The marvels of science in important respects result from a simple propensity to measure things and discover laws relating these measurements. In the early modern period, the value of history, and also of reports of events, consisted in their being able to point a lesson or generate a moral or practical bit of wisdom. The meaning of an event was to be found in its outcome. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts has a painting by Tiepolo, dated 1745–1750, called (in a rather Heideggerian idiom) Time unveiling truth. The allegory is complex and the painting (to my eyes) not without grossness, but the broad idea captures something of how practical men came to understand wisdom. The contrast must be with the religious assumption that the essential truths of life have been revealed, but that the human world is dark and devious, and the connection between events is obscure. Here we have the view that time will tell whether we have been right or wrong to rely on someone. The interest of a contingency is precisely that it cannot be assimilated to a law. To follow the course of events over time is therefore to discover truth. And one possible implication of this view is that to come later is to know more truth.
Journalism thus emerges from deep currents in our civilization. It has roots in Greek and Roman experience, and, from the Middle Ages onwards, a passion to follow the actual events of the world seems to have continually grown. Prose literature and the novel were part of that development, and whole new areas of event-making came to be opened up. The narratives relating to kings, aristocrats, and saints were broadened to include a more general concern with individual life. In a religious idiom of life, such diurnal events were mere froth on the surface of the infinite. But as Kierkegaard saw, the ephemeral was coming to dominate our interests.
The steady diffusion of a journalistic interest in what is going on affects our consciousness of the world we live in. A nun has a different mind-set from a housewife, a philosopher from a man of affairs, but journalism equips them all with a generalized interest in the world. One dimension of how journalism affects the way we think is our propensity to become bored. Someone who is focussed on the novelty of events as they unfold in the newspapers is to that extent less reflective about the events to which he responds. The details of change crowd out the time and energy that would otherwise go into reflection. Religious people, philosophers, or scientists—people who are genuinely educated, we might say—will think about God, or Nature, or literature, and will find new things in quite exiguous materials, whereas the less educated become increasingly miserable without a continual flow of novelty, and since most of reality is repetition, the novelty is a function of triviality. People become, in a word, shallow. Here then is a new form of consciousness evolving under the spur of improving technology to the point where twenty-four-hour news and comment is available to us.
Journalistic consciousness is imperialistic. It invades every sphere of life and takes it over. Consider the world of scholarship, in which men and women dedicate themselves to exploring some area of reality in terms of a particular mode of inquiry—as historians, scientists, or literary scholars, for example. Scholarship is hard, focussed work, continually retracing its steps to check on its validity as scholarly discussion proceeds. It knows nothing of the urgency of the deadline. The scholars who practice this art are often pedantic and stuffy, and certainly impatient with those who think they can master the subject in question without a lengthy apprenticeship. And for centuries scholars used to defend themselves against the contempt of practical men for what is “academic” with an entrenched disdain for journalism and popularization. The Cambridge English don F. R. Leavis detested nothing so passionately as Sunday newspaper reviewing. The Oxford historian A. J. P. Taylor never got the chair to which his abilities entitled him because (so it is plausibly said) he brought scholarship low by writing for newspapers.
Might I perhaps focus the point a little more sharply with another British example? Early in 2004, Bernard Levin died. He had been a notable figure of London journalism, both witty and wide-ranging. Many friends remembered his often setting the table on a roar, but few could come up with examples adequate to exhibit his wit. And then Matthew Parris, himself perhaps the pre-eminent columnist of the day, wrote about this. The problem, he suggested, was something deep in the nature of journalism: its absolute dependence on the moment of writing. Good journalism gains some of its impact from responding to the mind of the moment, and that is precisely what cannot fully be captured at a later moment. And indeed, it is hard to read journalism critically without realizing the element of padding that goes into it.
The self-protective disdain of the scholar for the popularizer has now gone, or largely gone, and with its disappearance, journalism has been sloshing about in the world of scholarship. Scholars can now become popularizing celebrities without losing face, a further spread of the journalistic imperium. Worse, journalism has begun, by a curious conjunction of cultural tendencies, to invade the world of education. It has long been felt by teachers of subjects in the social sciences that a pupil’s reading of the newspaper is an important part of his or her education. And with the decline of discipline in schools, the teacher can no longer command that his charges must learn what he thinks is the next part of their education. He is forced to seduce them, by the guile of a popularizing involvement with their own interests. Journalism’s empire thus lies behind the rise of the impulse to make relevance the test of what is worth teaching in schools. A similar development is happening in universities as they expand to take in students with less native wits than before. Instead of the focus on method and discipline basic to education, many university courses have become interdisciplinary, which consists in focusing on some subject of broad popular interest, such as the environment, and investigating its problems in terms of a bit of science, a bit of history, a bit of practical wisdom, etc.
Journalistic consciousness, then, has spread into the wide field of the humanities and the social sciences. A journalist is the master of the gist of things, and gist is king of the world. The way it dominates contemporary politics might perhaps help to explain why in our time so much legislation has so frequently to be amended, corrected, and replaced.
Journalism may thus be taken as a systematic defiance of the Socratic maxim that wisdom consists in understanding one’s own ignorance. We who belong to the world of journalism know a great deal, and are proud of it, and sanctify such knowledgeability in quiz programs and a disdain for those who cannot tell in what century the Civil War happened, or how many states make up the U.S. Stanley Baldwin thought that journalists were prostitutes—but how can knowing a lot be thought to be the satisfaction of a kind of lust? The answer is that journalism satisfies curiosity, a distant relative of the “wonder” thought to be the source of philosophy and science. How then, one must repeat, can curiosity be a vice? The answer is that we are often curious about things that are none of our business. The malicious village gossip is the most curious creature on earth, and finds her successor in the “door-stopping” journalist and the paparazzo infesting the lives of famous people. Further, curiosity is one of those learned human responses that is dependent on what other people are interested in. In a shallow way, we can easily be influenced to take an interest in something merely because others are curious about it.
The most evidently vicious kind of curiosity is morbid. Plato recognized this in arguing that the mind was an arena of conflict rather than a Pythagorean harmony. In the Republic, Socrates tells the story of Leontius, son of Aglaion: “On his way up from the Piraeus outside the north wall, he noticed the bodies of some criminals lying on the ground with the executioner standing by them. He wanted to go and look at them, but at the same time he was disgusted and tried to turn away. He struggled for some time and covered his eyes, but at last the desire was too much for him. Opening his eyes wide, he ran up to the bodies and cried, ‘There you are, curse you; feast yourselves on this lovely sight!’” Some modern press photography is remarkable, almost an art (that of sport for example), but much that we see in tabloid journalism would disgust us had our sensibilities not been corrupted by learning to enjoy the satisfaction of this particular version of lust—the lust to see and know things of no concern to us. As Pascal remarks: “More often than not, curiosity is merely vanity. We only want to know something in order to talk about it.”
Here then is another arena in which journalism has “colonized” our minds. The very availability of a rather illicit satisfaction has developed in us the very appetite itself. All of this is given some kind of ethical coloring in terms of the public’s right to know, and indeed, it would be impossible in the modern world to draw a consistent line between genuinely appropriate objects of our curiosity and the bits of knowledge generously thrown our way. Indiscriminate absorption of information is the way we live. But there is another side to this richness of information available to us about the world we live in. It is that an endless preoccupation with ourselves as subsumed under social categories—as pensioners or teenagers, married or single, heterosexual or homosexual, and so on—dilutes our consciousness, and our identity spills out in all directions. We lose the focus that belongs to real individuality. We meld into others, becoming part of a strange kind of informational collectivity.
Until the twentieth century, people did not much consider the category of journalism. Some of what we would now recognize as such was the writing of educated men in books and quarterlies, and some was popular report for the masses. Reporters and newspapermen had relatively little professional standing. One thinks of twentieth-century newspaperman, according to the image in The Front Page and other fictions, as hard-headed drunks working with green eyeshades as they subbed copy in large offices. These were men who thought that journalism reported and therefore reflected the world, and that (as C. P. Scott put it) “facts are sacred and comment is free.” They were empiricists who took the description of “reporter” seriously; they purported to “tell it as it was.” To use the old logical formulation, “twenty killed in earthquake” was true if, and only if, twenty people had been killed in the earthquake. But at some point in the twentieth century, a familiar type of social evolution occurred. Journalism became a “profession” (rather than just a trade), and succumbed to the culture of universities.
The new sophisticated journalist had picked up a little learning and knew that a news story cannot be a mere “reflection” of events, because every event is infinitely complex, susceptible of many descriptions, and therefore that its meaning depends on the prior selection of the reporter. Journalism was something constructed. This view thus reflected the then popular vogue for mechanical images of “construction” and “invention” in the humanities and social sciences. Here was a theory that transformed the life of your humble journalist. He, or she, was no longer a mere agent of transmission, transferring facts to print. The journalist became an actual creator of news. Journalists were not, indeed, quite the same as novelists, but some element of creativity was thought necessary to report even the least significant bit of news. It was in part this cast of mind that led to the explosion of signed reports and photographs of the contributors to newspapers, and of the proliferation of columns. The result was an immense vogue among young people for becoming journalists. It was for the most part clean regular work, allowing plenty of self-expression without accountability, and it required no vast input of learning, or indeed remarkable talent of any kind.
Up to a point, both the reflection and the construction views of journalism capture some of its real features. A little light epistemology might have been a pretty harmless addition to journalistic self-understanding had it not soon mutated into a kind of Salvationism. Quite how this mutation occurred is a very large question indeed, but it can best be understood in terms of a similar process happening in most of the professions in the second half of the twentieth century. Teachers came to think that, because they were custodians of the minds of the rising generation, they held the key to social progress. Spreading the right ideas in the classroom would diminish violence and prejudice in the next generation, so molding the attitudes of the young became at least as important as education itself. Similarly, lawyers sought to expand beyond the dry technicalities of the law in order to make society more just, and many a doctor embracing epidemiology was less concerned with curing his patients than with instructing them about a better lifestyle. The idea of social responsibility—that we are all the molders of our society—spread far and wide, even into the temples of profit. We may summarize this by saying that all of these professionals began to acquire the affectations of an elite possessed of saving knowledge. In the case of journalists, this encounter with epistemology turned into a form of political partisanship.
The issue was often expounded in terms of the concept of “bias.” In the game of bowls, a certain distortion (known as “bias”) tests the skill of the player, and metaphorically, the subjective element in the interpretation of an event might be described as “bias.” No one doubted that such subjectivity was a distortion, but it was generally held that truth could emerge from discussion and criticism. The new doctrine insisted—at its least sophisticated—that since no judgement was unbiased, any utterance was as good as any other. Any claim to neutrality was treated with particular scorn. Whereas a generation before, facts had been distinguished as the hard stuff of truth by contrast with values, which were merely the porous vehicles of feeling and preference, now facts themselves lost their claim to superiority. Cultural analysts dissolved truth into power, following the lead of Michel Foucault.
It is a familiar feature of the history of philosophy that skepticism’s partner is dogmatism. The dogmatism emerging from this particular bout of skepticism held that all cultures were equally valid, and that all utterances, as expressing opinion, were equal, at least in this fundamental respect. They could only be discriminated in terms of some sort of notional “correctness.”
The Salvationism in this doctrine consisted in the belief that in being skeptical of all universal claims, the journalist as critical thinker was revealing a sophistication superior to that of the average voter. The test of such critical sophistication was that the journalist held opinions liberated from the influence of his or her milieu, and the milieu was taken to include not merely class or nation, but European civilization itself. Journalists saw themselves as “free floating intellectuals” in a world of prejudice and superstition. This pleasing self-image was often complemented by the further opinion that the critical thinker had unmasked the hidden partisanship in our common belief that Western civilization was superior to other forms of life. This civilizational self-criticism commonly took a moral form, applying the higher moral abstractions (such as human rights, anti-imperialism, and racial equality) to European societies themselves, and projecting this criterion back down the ages in a massive indictment of our ancestors. Collective guilt was discovered to be the appropriate response to a great deal of Western conduct, ranging from the Crusades to Slavery and Apartheid. Some enthusiasts demanded official apologies, and some politicians (Tony Blair among them) gave them. Skeptical non-judgmentalism had strangely morphed into dogmatic condemnation, generating a strange kind of collective guilt, from which the critic could absolve himself by his very recognition of it.
The history of this process, in the universities (especially the universities) and journalism schools of the Western world, is of course immensely complicated, but without referring to it, one cannot begin to understand why our addiction to journalism is virtually inseparable from our dislike of it. The crudest way of formulating our dislike would be to say that the picture of the world presented in newspapers and television programs jars with our political opinions. The discontent is greater among those on “the right” than those on “the left” but both share it. And here the discontent must seem odd, because journalists pride themselves on covering, or trying to cover, all points of view. “Points of view” is, of course, a vulgarizing simplicity that can recognize only those for, and those against, some all-too-familiar opinion. We have all, no doubt, been amused by the absurdities of the television interviewer swinging back and forth between two opposing personages, putting in a mechanically extreme way the opposed opinion (suitably made extreme) to its opponent.
No one, I think, seriously believes that the academic sophistication that journalists have acquired helps them give a better account of the world. We are no better informed today than we were when reporters told us how it was. Indeed, all shades of opinion regard “the media” with deep suspicion as giving a biased account of reality. Some bold journalists embrace this universal unpopularity as proof of a perverse kind of integrity, but early in the twenty-first century, it is hard to resist the view that, indispensable as it is in modern democracies, journalism is an increasingly pathological influence on the way we live.
For all their affectations of the critical spirit, journalists are putty in the hands of the latest intellectual fashion. What they have to say is dangerously linked to the posture they intend to reveal in saying it. Their basic moral stance must be an unrelenting concern with truth, and it is in this sense that journalism reveals itself as an essentially Western practice. For it has often been observed that ours is a “truth-obsessed” civilization. By “truth” here, we mean something rather beyond mere correspondence with facts; we must incorporate in the word an element, harder to define, of integrity. A really good journalist needs a sturdy ballast of good sense and an almost scholarly revulsion from the quick and the glib in order to transcend the corruptions that have surfaced over the last century.
It would no doubt be perilous to think that all Victorian journalists were more serious than our contemporaries, but in writers like Bagehot and Leslie Stephen we have figures who worked on the frontiers of journalism and scholarship without losing their integrity. It may be merely that the temptations of cheap sensationalism were less at that period than they are now, or it may just be that they had more space.
It was, however, in the nineteenth century that literary realism took the form in which it became the guiding star of modern journalism. Novelists such as Dickens and Zola were certainly not the first to explore “low life,” but they extended the boundaries of social understanding in order to incorporate the experiences of socially insignificant people into the materials of drama, and also to reveal some of the realities—usually poverty, vice, and oppression—“behind” the facades of the time. The crucial ideas of this literary movement were those of journalists themselves—indeed both Dickens and Zola had been journalists in their time. The basic idea of literary realism is that life is a theater put on for show, and that reality is what you find when you go behind the scenes. Reality, in other words, is something concealed by those whose interest lies in concealment. The posture of the journalist is thus that of the investigator debunking institutions by exposing secrets.
This general theory clearly domesticates scandal and conspiracy as instruments of revelation. The custodians of ritual and authority are, of course, particularly vulnerable to criticism of this form. Their outward aspect is their essential point, and what lies behind them may well be banal, or worse. We have here a view of reality that cannot distinguish between those things whose inwardness has no bearing on their force, and those things where hypocrisy or dissimulation may be usefully revealed.
Journalism begins, then, in genuinely “sensational” events such as wars, earthquakes, and the rise and fall of governments, but it can multiply sensation by getting “behind” the events. Some social personages—royalty, politicians, actors, etc. —are worthy of note in themselves, but even better is to discover how they behave “behind the scenes.” Spontaneous irritation is thought to be more revealing than measured dignity, a little light lust than a policy of self-control. Recent philosophy has been strongly influenced by the so-called “philosophers of suspicion”—Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud—but in journalism we find suspicion as the constitutive passion of an entire practice.
The rational basis of modern journalism, its claim to our attention as bringing us knowledge of the world, thus turns out to be the practice of revealing what other people want to hide from us. This is, of course, particularly true of what authority wants to hide. The First World War was a watershed in the growth of cynicism about authority. People came to think that the official account of almost anything was generally wrong. Here then we find the beginnings of the journalistic posture of indignation as the reporter demands “full disclosure” of whatever the public might be thought to have a right to know.
Such is the rational basis of journalism, but it is important never to ignore the passions it may be supposed to feed? Baldwin, as we have seen, thought it supplied the demand for a kind of lust almost as powerful as the sexual, and perhaps less linked to vigorous youth—the passion for scandal. What journalism most obviously supplies is “sensations” or small shocks of pleasurable surprise because something unexpected has happened, and the journalistic “story” itself may incorporate the contexts within which it was unexpected. But what if the small shock is the discovery of some change in the private life of someone celebrated? Here we would have a case of Pascal’s idle and pointless curiosity, the malice of the village gossip in earlier times writ large. Perhaps the best comment on this is Goethe’s “No man is a hero to his valet de chambre,” to which Hegel added: “not because the hero is not a hero, but because the valet is a valet.”
It is in expressing this impulse towards psychological valetism, a lowering and demeaning passion, that journalism clearly loses any real contact with its immemorial mission to understand political realities, the mission of the ambassador writing to his prince.
As it has evolved, journalism has bent to conform to that universal passion of our civilization: entertainment. So far as most people up until quite recent times were concerned, amusements and entertainments were rare treats. This seriousness of workaday practicality may well have made church services more tolerable, and it certainly conduced to a more reflective cast of mind, for, as Pope remarked, “amusement is the happiness of those that cannot think.” In our time, however, radio, television, books, magazines, and a ubiquity of music have had the result that a quiet mind is a rare luxury for many people. Given that most of the information in our ever-expanding journalistic world is of no direct concern to us, it follows that the basic point of most journalism is to entertain. Just as freaks and bearded ladies amazed us in the past, so too do the remarkable private contortions of people we do not know arouse our wonder and astonishment today. This merger between journalism and entertainment is unmistakably evident in the way newspapers treat the news, and at a higher level it is replicated in the corporate expansion by which, for example, the same company may control film, television, and newspapers. And I am not, in saying this, hinting at corporate conspiracy. The corporate connections merely set the seal on a process that had long been bubbling up internally out of the developing dynamics of journalism itself.
We are all familiar with many of the corrupting devices of modern journalism—the hopeless addiction to pointless puns in headlines, the treating of politics as if it were a sports contest, the turning of rivalries into “rows” by talking up competition into conflict and hatred. In its pursuit of revelations, journalism has corrupted the servants and employees of famous people and made the vilest of crimes a paying proposition. But evident corruption is the least danger we face from journalism.
For how much “truth” can any human activity sustain? I am not here recommending a philosophy of Machiavellian deception, but merely pointing to the familiar fact that to act is to focus one’s understanding on the pros and cons of a project, with an inescapable loss of perspective. To act and to philosophize action are two separate and incompatible activities. One cannot do both at once. But the journalist takes up a posture notionally above the battle, and therefore thinks he has little difficulty avoiding the obvious peaks of partisanship with which he is familiar, so long as he can recognize them. Is he then, a kind of philosopher? If he is a passably honest journalist, he will give “left” and “right” more or less equal time, at least so long as he gets the difference right. He understands that there are two sides to a war, and may well parade his neutrality by giving extra mileage to our opponents. Accused of distortion, he takes satisfaction in his own consistency: he is not reporting conflict as a partisan, but as a neutral observer, though he would today be edgy about the term “neutral.” Here is indeed a kind of integrity, but it is integrity whose orientation depends on fluid and moving points.
But I repeat: how much truth can any human activity sustain? In religious activities, the point is ritual and feeling, not truth, and an insistence upon truth (as empirically understood) is a category error, and often a destructive one. With too much truth, the glory in war gets lost in the details of blood and body bags. Universities depend on finding themselves in a dark and obscure corner of social life largely free from social pressures. Were they to be forced to explain themselves partially or prematurely, they would sound foolish and pretentious, and scholarship would be diverted into righteousness. The ceaseless glare of light from journalism illuminates the dark places in our civilization—and sterilizes many of them. No doubt a significant part of this illumination may prevent evils and expose things that ought to be exposed, but it also takes some immemorial human activities to the brink of extinction.
Indeed, journalism exposes things that perhaps ought to be exposed, and prevents evils, but by that very token, it becomes a practical player in the world, and thus finds itself in contradiction with its own posture as a critic above the battles of partisans. In adopting a posture of oppositionality to everything powerful, established, pretentious, and superior, it embraces a kind of universal skepticism, perhaps indeed of nihilism. Some journalists can indeed sustain an opportunistic negativism about everything, but most cannot, and in fact a meta-moralistic addiction to tolerance, secularism, ecumenism, and anti-discrimination becomes evident as what one might initially call “the journalistic ideology.” To hold an opinion is to mortgage a certain amount of pleasure and pain to the turn of events. What confirms one’s opinion gives pleasure, what seems to refute it, pain.
The journalist, living amidst opinions, knows by instinct the pains of being caught out holding a vulnerable opinion. The first move in his professionalization, as it were, must therefore be to evacuate any position that might be explained by others as arising from his own interest: anything having to do with class, nationality, or civilization: all such inherited baggage must be abandoned by the journalist. The problem is that whoever abandons interests—which have about them a certain discussable reality, where compromise is possible—finds that his stock of opinions consists of abstract ideas. These will usually take an ethical form, and that impels them towards righteousness. Any such package of opinions is likely to irritate patriots and partisans of all kinds. The holder of such a position is usually enormously self-satisfied, because, having arrived there by the process of identifying extremes as things to be challenged and questioned, he fancies himself as having all the rationality of an Aristotelian mean. In fact, he has arrived at a form of Whiggery—
“A levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind
That never looked out of the eye of a saint
Or out of a drunkard’s eye.”
But as the sage in Yeats’s poem adds: “All’s Whiggery now.” For us, it’s all journalism.
It seems a vile thing to take so serious a view of the newspapers we read with pleasure every day, and the radio and television that entertain us endlessly, but it is no business of philosophers, any more than of journalists, to reinforce our lazy habits. All civilizations are built upon specific distortions of reality, and ours is particularly concerned with observing, measuring and responding to the discrete objects in terms of which we construe reality. Journalism is a development of this cast of mind, and may be contrasted with other possible worlds, in one version of which we might focus our attention upon what we conceive to be eternal things. Christian writers have been prominent in stigmatizing an interest in ephemera as a dissipation of spiritual energies. The very fact that the journalistic world can focus its attention on nothing for more than a few days at a time, forever seeking a new sensation, makes it clear that this judgment on journalism as one of the pathologies of our civilization should be taken seriously.
Change the focus, and we may take journalism as an inescapable development of our Western adventures into literacy and education for all, so that it becomes the mode by which we take our bearings in a rich and exciting world. Journalism now becomes a category of its own, alongside science and history, as something to be valued in its own terms. But what are its own terms? We cannot avoid discovering that these terms constantly change, partly in response to ideas about truth, such as reflection and construction, and partly in response to the demands that the customers of journalism make upon it. We have suggested that the terms of journalism conceal self-contradiction. A pseudo-philosophical commitment to evade partisanship turns at this level into a partisanship of its own. And not the least of the paradoxes we find in examining journalism is that this most Western of all practices should embrace so anti-Western a stance. The logical problem journalists face parallels that of liberals who embrace all lawful forms of freedom, only to be told that this apparent openness is itself a form of concealed partisanship. Liberalism and journalism, we might say, are virtually Siamese twins among the commitments of our civilization, and their fates are bound up together.