Wanna Know What's Wrong With Journalism?
The other day I received an email from a reader named Christine who asked me to write a piece about the dangers of an “elite press.” What got her “riled” – her word – was a story she saw on one of the networks about the Whitey Bulger trial in Boston. According to Christine, the on-air network analyst said she would bet her “Hampton house” that Bulger is found guilty.
Get it? Not her house. Not her house in New York. Her Hampton house – just so we all know that she’s one of the swells who if she lived in another time would probably pal around with Gatsby and his girlfriend Zelda.
Christine was angry, she said, because she figured anyone who would gratuitously slip in that she hung out in the toney Hamptons might have trouble understanding people in the city where Christine lives, Youngstown, Ohio – a place where people are struggling just to get by.
Christine is on to something. Too many journalists (not all) really are out of touch with the America between Manhattan and Malibu. It’s not just that they live in the Hamptons, where no matter how liberal you are you don’t want any poor people around whose very presence could ruin your day, let alone your marvelous summer. It’s that many of the beautiful people don’t understand “ordinary” Americans who live in “flyover country.”
I’ve written that too many elites (again, not all) in the world of journalism think people in the Middle America are hayseeds who commit the unforgiveable sin of eating at Red Lobster and bowling and flying the flag on the Fourth of July. I mean, how corny can you get.
Too many elites don’t share Middle American values and too often their condescension comes out in their journalism. On just about every major social issue the elites who live and work in their media bubble in New York and Washington are far more liberal than the “civilians” who don’t work in journalism.
Politically, America is pretty much split 50-50, give or take a few points. But journalists overwhelmingly support liberal Democrats. My favorite statistic on that comes from the 1972 presidential election, when Nixon carried every state except Massachusetts. Still, 81 percent of journalists voted for George McGovern that year.
In 1980, twice as many journalists voted for Jimmy Carter over Ronald Reagan.
In 1984, 58 percent of journalists voted for Walter Mondale, who lost to Ronald Reagan in the biggest landslide in presidential election history.
In 2004 and 2008, journalists swooned over Barack Obama, prompting me to write A Slobbering Love Affair.
The point is that journalists don’t have much in common with the people they cover. And that’s not good for the people they cover, for the journalists, or for our country.
I thought about how out of touch with America so many journalists are after reading a piece in Commentary magazine by one of the most thoughtful writers in America, Peter Wehner. He was writing about a column in the Washington Post by Ruth Marcus, who was bemoaning the sale of her paper to Jeff Bezos of Amazon. Here’s part of what Ms. Marcus wrote:
"Don Graham’s decision to sell The Washington Post was his reverse Sophie’s Choice moment.
She had to decide which cherished child to save and which to send to the gas chamber. Don and the Graham family weren’t forced to make an anguishing choice but did so anyway. They relinquished the newspaper they love in order to protect it.
If the comparison sounds hyperbolic, you don’t know the Grahams."
I would choose another word over hyperbolic. Grotesque, I think, comes closer to describing the comparison Ms. Marcus makes. The decision to sell a newspaper is akin to the decision by a mother about which of her two children to save and which to give to the Nazis for extermination? In what universe would that be?
Was there no editor at the Washington Post who read the column who might have saved Ruth Marcus from embarrassment? Or did the editor, like Ms. Marcus, see nothing wrong?
Wehner says this about the analogy: “Now I don’t know the Grahams–but yes, the comparison does sound hyperbolic to me. Worse, actually. I for one would feel rather awkward explaining to my children why I’d consider the choice between selling a newspaper and sending one of them to Auschwitz to be a coin flip.”
No, this isn’t quite the same as making sure your audience knows you have a house in the Hamptons. But it is part of the same twisted way of thinking. The TV analyst feels the need to inform her audience that she is special, that she is one of the elite, that she has a house where you don't. The newspaper columnist feels the need to tell her readers that she doesn’t have a regular job – like you. No, no no. She is a journalist. She has a calling. She is not just different from you. By virtue of her occupation, she is better than you.
Again, Peter Wehner on the subject: “Ms. Marcus illustrates the melodrama and self-importance that some (certainly not all) journalists are afflicted with. They live in a make-believe world in which they fashion themselves as shining knights, truth tellers, exposers of corruption, defenders of the weak.
“Now I happen to like the Post as a newspaper. I’m one of the shrinking number of people in the D.C. area who still subscribe to it. I admire some of its reporters. And they are home to some outstanding columnists. But it is hardly a sacred, flawless, and fearless institution. It is, in fact, liberal in its orientation. It plays favorites. It tends to back down from speaking truth to power when those in power are of the left. And while Don Graham in particular seems like a fine man, the mythic personality some of his employees have created around him and Katherine Graham is a bit creepy.”
There are so many things wrong with modern journalism that there isn’t enough space in cyberspace to take them all into account. So I will borrow one last time from Mr. Wehner, who concludes his piece in Commentary with this elegant observation: “If you want to understand some of what’s gone wrong with modern journalism, you should read Ruth Marcus’s column."