[Paleopsych] Kenneth Minogue: Journalism: Power without responsibility

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Kenneth Minogue: Journalism: Power without responsibility
The New Criterion Vol. 23, No. 6, February 2005

[This is worth reading entire. He is one of the few conservatives I find 
worth reading. The others are Roger Scruton and, if he really is a 
conservative, John Gray. All three are English!]

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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.

    Kenneth Minogue's Concept of a University has just been republished by
    Transaction Publishers with a new introduction.

     1. This essay is adapted from a lecture presented at "Power Without
        Responsibility: Was Kipling Right?," a conference sponsored by the
        Boston, Oxford, Melbourne Conversazione Society and held at Boston
        University on October 7-8, 2004.

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