The Honest Journalist, Part One (of Two)


You cannot hope to bribe or twist

(thank God!) the British journalist.

But, seeing what the man will do

unbribed, there’s no occasion to.

A rhetorical question that hardly needs an answer: Why are the phrases “honest journalist” and “free press” so often greeted with a snicker?  Oh of course, everyone exempts his own columnist or talking head from the general condemnation, but most Americans also exempt their own congressman from the universal condemnation of Congress as a body made up of toadies and swindlers.  To see the American press in action, simply tune in any news and comment program on CNN, FOX, or MSNBC.  Whatever the question that divides the group, the response almost always breaks down along party lines: Most of the FOX commentators shill for the Republicans, while the others do the same for the Democrats.  Occasionally a speaker wanders off the reservation, either because he has a higher loyalty to another reservation like the conservative movement or the Marxist-Feminist-Environmentalist Left or because  he has been promised his 30 pieces of silver, but such exceptions are rare interruptions in the smooth flow of thoughtless chatter and fact-free propaganda. 

I do not know why anyone bothers to watch any of these shows, especially the current conservatives, whether Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson.  Or rather I do know, but the knowledge is dispiriting.  Party loyalists in the audience and at home, as they watch the hijinks, talk over the enemy’s presentations and applaud the silliest inanities from their side.

If you cannot endure the TV presenters, then listen to talk radio and pay close attention to what the callers say.  Not all of the callers can be party activists, yet most of them have memorized their party’s talking points and buzz words, whether they are condemning the Libtards and Drive-bys or the Wingnuts and Cuckservatives.  

I used to do a fair amount of talk radio, but I found the experience increasingly depressing.  When in the Clinton years I came on as a guest to criticize the insane and vicious foreign policy of Clinton and Albright, the Republicans could not praise me enough for my independent mind and well-researched positions.  The Kosovo War was a monstrosity, they said, and as soon as George Bush was elected, he and his crack foreign-policy team would put an end to nation building.

Once Bush was elected, however, he chose a foreign policy team as stupid and vicious as Madeline Albright and Richard Holbrook, but if I ventured to criticize Paul Wolfowitz or to defend the non-imperialist congressmen like Walter Jones, the same Republicans denounced me, and when they saw how the arguments against Kosovo could be turned against Iraq, they either changed their mind about the Kosovo war or even, in many cases, denied they had ever opposed it.  

Mankind does not need to be taught to lie: Adam told his first lie in the Garden, but it is disconcerting to realize that the talk radio listeners, in modeling themselves on Mark Levin and Shawn Hannity, have learned to be as one-dimensional and misinformed as their heroes.  I suppose, in defense of the American people, we should concede that the best people do not listen to talk radio or read the newspapers.  Marcel Proust suggested, somewhere in his unending masterpiece, that we should reverse our reading habits, and take a newsprint version of, say Pascal, to the breakfast table, and once a year take down a leather bound volume of society gossip. If for “society gossip” we substitute “pop news”—the celebrity scandals, airline disasters, human interest stories, and political propaganda that fill up the front pages of newspapers and the filler space between the advertisements on the evening news programs—we shall be well on the way to leading a fulfilling and honest life.

Was it ever any better?  Different, yes, but better, probably not or, at any rate, not much.  In the 1950’s and 60’s the knee-jerk conservatives at National Review and the knee-jerk leftists at the New Republic routinely anathematized each other, while only rarely examining each others’ facts or arguments.  Now that conservatism is leftism, however, there is less to fight over.  Republicans like to say that they have facts and arguments, while the Democratic left has only emotions.  It is a pretty thought but not one that can survive an hour’s exposure to Shawn Hannity or Rush Limbaugh.  I suppose the majority of Alex Jones’s listeners are “authentic conservatives.”  

There is nothing wrong with cheerleading or partisan pamphleteering.  The press, to a large extent, owes its origins to the party pamphlets of the 17th and 18th centuries, and it is good to see that they are sticking to the traditions that had made the term “honest journalist” a contradiction in terms long before Humbert Wolfe had penned the famous epigram I put at the head of this diatribe.  The only question that has ever been on the table is: “Who pays?”  In the heroic days of journalism, dishonest editors like James Gordon Bennet, Joseph Pulitzer, and Willian Randolph Hearst paid their writers to go out and get stories that would sell papers, and the journalist guns they hired would have cheerfully sold out either employer or party in order to gain fame and fortune—though not in that order.  When the occasional honest story turns up in the Washington Post,  conservative readers are inclined to think charitably of the writer.  Unfortunately, a Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein—to reach into the distant past—only gets the goods on a leftwing Democrat, when he smells the chance for the aptly named Pulitzer Prize.

“Honest journalist” and “a free press” are not only contradictions in terms; they are also mutually exclusive, because the nearest thing to an honest journalism is a man who will sell himself to the highest bidder, and once a man has made enough money—that is, supposing he is a man—he can devote himself to telling the lies he really believes in.

To be continued...

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina