Bowman: the corruption of journalism poisons America

Summary: Journalists shape our view of the world. But the mainstream press has become nakedly partisan, often circulating what Plato called “noble lies.” James Bowman gives a diagnosis. It is bad news for journalism and for America.

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Quid est veritas?

By James Bowman at The New Criterion, 31 October 2018.
Posted with his generous permission.

Too late for a mention in last month’s article in this space (see “Constituting Truth” in The New Criterion of September, 2018), in which I noted that what is called “truth” in the media and elsewhere does not necessarily mean truth as people used to understand it, was Rudy Giuliani’s getting himself in a heap o’ trouble by saying exactly that on “Meet the Press.” At least that’s what I think he said. Others would disagree. In discussing with the host, Chuck Todd, the possibility of Robert Mueller’s using a prospective interview with Donald Trump to spring a perjury trap (“Truth is truth,” Mr Todd, had disingenuously objected), Mr Giuliani said: “No, it isn’t truth. ‘Truth’ isn’t truth.” And who could doubt it when the media, in pursuit of political advantage for their fellow Trump-haters, chose to report his words without the punctuation I have supplied above, thus making him out to be either an imbecile or insane – or possibly a post-modern literary theorist?

Here, in other words, would seem to be a perfect example of the truth of what Mr Giuliani, and I, had been saying. But when The New York Times and others transcribed his remarks without punctuation as they did, they did so in order to express what, to Rudy and me, was the patent untruth – though one gratifying to their own prejudices – that he had denied the existence of truth itself. I ask myself two questions. First, how can the reporters and editors of the Times – who are themselves, presumably, neither imbecile nor insane (although, since most of them are graduates of our top universities’ languages and humanities departments, they may well be postmodern literary theorists) – let alone their readers, believe anything so absurd? Second, how can they remain blind to the damage such obvious dishonesty, so obviously in the service of their own partisan agenda, does to their credibility? How is it possible for such otherwise intelligent people to be unable to reach up to even the most basic level of self-awareness?

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At bottom, these are the same questions that spring to mind about the credulity of Bob Woodward, exactly like that of Michael Wolff earlier this year (see “Methods of Madness” in The New Criterion of February, 2018), in believing, and staking his own credibility on, every bit of back-stairs White House tittle-tattle to the discredit of President Trump for no better reason than Mr Wolff’s, which was, if you remember, that it fit his pre-conceived “narrative” better than anything to the contrary. What else but a failure of self-awareness, perhaps in his case dating back to his self-conceit as one of the two heroes of the famous Watergate putsch, can explain the apparent assumption that every scurrilous rumor or disgruntled employee’s resentful comment must be accepted as The Truth if he repeats it? He himself is a one-man truth constituency, in the terms of last month’s article, and not only in his own mind but in that of his legion of admirers among his fellow reporters.

Another recent example of rival truth constituencies coming to grips while pretending to be interested in Truth tout court came with the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Both sides had to uphold the pretense that the pseudo-legal “testimony” of the legal experts and professors on both sides, not to mention that of the nominee himself and his questioners on both sides was not self-interested and designed to promote a particular political point of view but part of a disinterested search for “truth” – though everyone knew that this particular truth would come down to who had the votes. Beneath that charade, and perhaps because of it, The New York Times slipped in another bit of tendentiousness with the headline: “Kavanaugh Portrayed as a Hopeless Partisan as Hearings on Supreme Court Nominee Open,

How, you may ask, is it possible for the person who wrote that headline not to see his own partisanship written into it – not to mention that of the Democratic members of the committee so obviously in search of anything to the discredit of poor Mr Kavanaugh, including the fact that he has worked for Republicans in the past, in order to feed their hostile questioning? But if we are to go on reading The New York Times it seems we shall have to accept that, just as only white people can be racists, so only Republicans can be partisan. How “hopeless” is that?

Looking back over the last couple of years, especially, I can see that this mensual {Spanish: monthly?} meditation of mine has been devoted, again and again, to the attempt to answer this same question of irony failure, this inability of those in the media not just to see themselves as others see them but even to conceive of others, not tinged by some mental incapacity, who don’t see them as they see themselves. Others are pondering the same question. The British political philosopher John Gray, for instance, writes that …

“Conspiracy theory has long been associated with the irrational extremes of politics. The notion that political events can be explained by the workings of hidden forces has always been seen by liberals as a sign of delusional thinking. A celebrated study by the political scientist Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964), linked the idea with the far Right.

“Yet in New York in December 2016, many of the brightest liberal minds exhibited the same derangement. Nearly two years later, they continue to reach to conspiracy theory as an explanation for their defeat. The former lead book reviewer at the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani, devotes several pages to Hofsfadter’s work in her short polemic, The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump. Citing him approvingly, she notes that ‘the modern right wing’ has ‘tended to be mobilised by a sense of grievance and dispossession’. As Hofstadter put it, they feel that ‘America has been largely taken away from them.’ The charm of this citation is the lack of self-awareness it reveals. It would be difficult to find a better description of the anguish of liberals such as Kakutani, who feel they have been robbed of their historically appointed role as the moral and intellectual leaders of society.”

Mr Gray sees this lack of self-awareness as arising out of what he calls the “mass psychosis” of the anti-Trump hysterics. While not ruling out that possibility, I wonder if there might not be some other explanation, particularly for those in the media where they are so disproportionally represented?

We know, for example, that the 21st century media have increasingly sorted themselves, and continue to sort themselves, into niche markets. The niche served by The New York Times and The Washington Post – and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the other big metropolitan dailies – as well as the major networks and their cable imitators on CNN and MSNBC is now more and more limited to increasingly radically minded progressive Democrats and Trump haters of all parties whose political agenda they thus wholeheartedly share and who, so far, have shown few signs of having grown tired of hearing, day after day, the same news as yesterday: namely, that Donald Trump is the source of all corruption and mendacity in government, if not of all evil in the world. When the credulity of their audience is so prepared to accept anything they publish to the detriment of the President or his agents, they themselves are unlikely to be over-scrupulous in their reporting. More likely they will seize upon anything that can be twisted into a “gaffe,” as in Rudy Giuliani’s case, as eagerly as they know their readers will.

This could certainly explain the legacy media’s apparent blindness to or unconcern about the declining asset of their credibility and thus to the serious devaluation of what was once their brand. Well, it’s not their brand anymore. Now that they have become outlets not for news but for propaganda, they don’t need to worry about their credibility among those who don’t read or watch them, as now hardly anyone does who does not already believe as they believe. It also explains why, in the pages of our once great newspapers, argument has given way to assertion, policy to scandal, hard news to gossip and speculation, and observation of political life to participation in it – with the result that there can be few people on either side of the political divide who any longer expect news to be the stock-in-trade of the news media.

There is also the broader culture to be considered, particularly that part of it which derives from the long-corrupt system of higher education which, as mentioned above, is the atrox mater {Latin: desperate mother) of so many in the media. Its legacy is clearly at work in the willingness prominent writers and editors, who would once have been among the first to defend freedom of speech and of the press, to consort with – and yield to the importunities of – the politically correct speech police and the no-platformers of the left.

In recent months two such estimable editors as Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic and David Remnick of The New Yorker have been forced by orchestrated electronic riot to reverse themselves and to confess their errors in public, like defendants in a Stalinist show-trial, merely for proposing to give an audience to those whom their truth-constituencies regard as being beyond the pale of political decency. They don’t feel inclined to object to the ever-shrinking boundaries of respectable opinion because it is not opinion that their constituents want anymore but moral certainty – and the fervor with which such certainty is proclaimed to the faithful and anathemas are pronounced upon its doubters.

Editor’s note: Another example is the reaction to “Reflections from a Hashtag” by Jian Ghomeshi in the NY Review of Books. The howl from Leftists forced out the Editor, Jian Ghomeshi.

The culture is also at work in the corruption of our language, especially in the media’s use of it, which is marked by casual unconcern for and adoption instead of good English of a sort of jargon or dialect that has spread all over the media swamp, like blooming algae, to the point where good English is on the point of no longer being understood, or even acknowledged to exist. This process of limiting thought by limiting what could be said was recognized by Orwell as the most insidious tactic of the left during one of its earlier heydays – because people, and especially journalists, are always ready to adopt new forms of words merely because they are new and interesting and regardless of whether they actually mean anything. “Post-truth,” for instance, which now only means that you don’t agree with whatever it is applied to.

But there are subtler and more insidious examples, as in this New York Times headline from last August: “As Austerity Helps Bankrupt an English County, Even Conservatives Mutiny.” Surely, you might think, at least if you learned English as long ago as I did, austerity has got to be the remedy for bankruptcy, not the cause of it. If the county of Northamptonshire in England is, as the Times claims, bankrupt, it can only mean that it didn’t practice enough austerity, not that there was too much of it. But to the New York Times, as to its counterparts in Britain, “austerity” doesn’t mean austerity any more than “truth” means truth or, conversely, “post-truth” means post-truth. In the political jargon of the left, adopted wholesale by the media, it means a fiscal policy of cutting spending rather than raising taxes or borrowing, which is the strategy the left prefers to keep, as they fondly imagine, real austerity perpetually at bay.

In opposition, the British Labour Party, whose stewardship of the fisc in the years between 1997 and 2010 was the reason for the supposed “austerity” budgets of the Tories in the years since then – which, by the way, never did more than reduce a bit what was once humorously known in Britain as the “Public Sector Borrowing Requirement” – has adopted as its anti-government mantra the slogan: “Austerity isn’t working.” It’s a ham-handed attempt to adapt the all-too effectively punning Tory slogan from the 1979 election that brought Margaret Thatcher to power – “Labour isn’t working” — for its own electoral purposes. Naturally, the media there (and now, as it appears, here) have picked up on this specialized and instrumental meaning of the word and now use it exclusively.

In the past I have written about the hollowing out and re-branding (as it were) of the words “lie,” “liar”, “lying” etc. (see “Lexicographic Lies” in The New Criterion of October, 2012) to mean any mistake or misstatement – and so onwards, as we are now seeing with the media’s misnamed “Fact Checkers,” even so far as to call any opinion with which we disagree a lie (example here).

A few months ago I also wrote of the tendentious use of the words “capitalism” and “socialism” (see “Trying Times” in The New Criterion of April, 2018) in order to pretend that well-meaning people, full of compassion for the less or not well-off, have a simple moral choice to make between the two. That is why the word “capitalism” was invented in the first place to describe what ought properly to be called economic reality – in order to imply that it was on equal terms with the economic fantasy of “socialism.”

In the latter article, I also noticed how The Washington Post’s youthful advocate for socialism assumed that it was her prerogative to use the word “socialism” to mean not what it has meant through the long and bloody history of attempts to turn fantasy into reality, all of which she believes to be irrelevant, but only a private fantasy of her own wherein none of the unpleasantness of the past will be allowed to sully the dream. This proprietorial approach to reality is now common in the media and the ultimate justification for the exchange of news for “narrative.”

But in claiming custodianship of reality for themselves, the media only opened such claims up to everyone. When Monica Lewinsky walked out of an interview in Israel last month after she was asked about her long-ago dalliance with Bill Clinton, she justified the action on Twitter on the basis of the general principle that “it is more important than ever for women to stand up for themselves and not allow others to control their narrative.”

There speaks the voice of the shill, the public relations officer, the Mad Man ad-man who, carrying all before him, has gone from trying to manipulate the media to teaching the media how to manipulate themselves. They now are the ones controlling the narrative to an extent undreamed of only a few years ago, but there are millions in the offing, not excluding Donald Trump, who want the same privilege for themselves. The more Mr Trump accuses them of “fake news,” the more fake news they have to generate in the attempt to discredit him, which is why there has been an exponential increase in the privatization of language since he came to office. It’s a sad irony but, as I have already mentioned, irony is like rational debate in being a dying art.

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James Bowman

About James Bowman

Bowman is a Resident Scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

He has worked as a freelance journalist, serving as American editor of the Times Literary Supplement of London from 1991 to 2002, as movie critic of The American Spectator since 1990 and as media critic of The New Criterion since 1993. He has also been a weekly movie reviewer for The New York Sun since the newspaper’s re-foundation in 2002. He has also contributed to a wide range of other major papers.

Mr. Bowman is perhaps best known for his book, Honor: A History, and his essay “The Lost Sense of Honor” in The Public Interest.

See his collected articles at his website, including his film reviews going back to 1994.

For More Information

Ideas! For shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts by James Bowman, about truth, about information and disinformation, about ways to reform America’s politics, and especially these…

  1. ImportantPolitics in modern America: A users’ guide for journalists and reformers.
  2. Becoming better informed won’t help. Here’s a small easy step towards political change.
  3. American politics is a fun parade of lies, for which we pay dearly.
  4. Ways to deal with those guilty of causing the fake news epidemic.
  5. The secret source of fake news. Its discovery will change America.
  6. A new year’s gift: two tools to help discover truth in the news.
  7. Trump brings the crisis in journalism to a flashpoint.
  8. See how journalists work as a pack to manipulate us.
  9. We can’t reform America without a new news media.
Honor: A History
Available at Amazon.

About Bowman’s great book.

Honor: A History.

By James Bowman (2006).

I strongly recommend reading this book about a lost but vital element from our culture. A sense of honor was a strength of the West from its earliest days. Now we have lost it. From the publisher…

“The importance of honor is present in the earliest records of civilization. Today, while it may still be an essential concept in Islamic cultures, in the West, honor has been disparaged and dismissed as obsolete.

“In this lively and authoritative book, James Bowman traces the curious and fascinating history of this ideal, from the Middle Ages through the Enlightenment and to the killing fields of World War I and the despair of Vietnam. Bowman reminds us that the fate of honor and the fate of morality and even manners are deeply interrelated.”

9 thoughts on “Bowman: the corruption of journalism poisons America

    1. I agree.

      It appears to me that one thing the lack of good art in news and politics has brought out is better articles on the condition of news and politics.

      Of course, I also believe that hunger makes the best of sauces.

  1. I have read that Edward Gibbon, the author of “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, postulated that there were two major causes, to wit: a decline in the civic virtue of Roman citizens and the corruptness of the Praetorian Guard. As I view our situation, which may lead to a serious “decline of western civilization” I would reiterate Gibbons first assessment but replace the Praetorian Guard with our “institutions of higher learning and media”.

    1. Ronald,

      Gibbon have the most weight to the decline of civic virtue in Rome’s people (they were subjects, not citizens, for most of its history). The role of the Guard was one of many other smaller factors. Here is the closest he comes to a summary statement.

      “The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and, instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long. The victorious legions, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first oppressed the freedom of the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple. The emperors, anxious for their personal safety and the public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy; the vigour of the military government was relaxed, and finally dissolved, by the partial institutions of Constantine; and the Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of Barbarians.”

      — Chapter 38 “General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West.”

      If you believe that Americans hunger for a better form of news, I urge you to start a local shop and test your theory. It won’t require much money. With success, venture capitalists will flock to your door.

      I predict failure to your attempt. The news media are a business, and provide what we want. Otherwise they would not last a week. That we blame journalists for giving us what we want is a defining characteristic of modern America. We blame everyone for America’s faults but ourselves. That’s necessary, for otherwise we might feel impelled to act. Can’t have that. We just want to whine, as peons have done for millennia.

    2. IMHO, the demise of the western part of the Roman Empire was caused primarily by the end of the “Roman Warm Period.” The migration of barbarian tribes and the economic woes were all consequences of just that. And all the other “causes” surfaced as consequences of this.
      (BTW, I look at work of most historians from the pre-scientific period a bit as more sophisticated version of the Plato’s Cave ;o) — until the late 19th C, very little thought was given to, that time, “Unknown Unknowns!”)
      OTOH
      I sincerely hope that the “U”S / Post-Modern Western Empire will NOT follow the same roadmap with the coming economic crisis, as it is very likely, that’s its recovery could never take place due to the onset of glaciation.

    3. Jako,

      The Roman Warm Period was aproc 250 BC – 400 AD (Wikipedia). The Roman Empire was sliding long before that. It was a centuries long process, with ups and downs. The inflection point was the Crisis of the Third Century (235 – 284). The structural changes made it a quite different structure. It recovered, in a sense, but was never the same, and was much weaker in response to the ever-multiplying new problems.

    4. FM,
      First, the BTW: the cooling started way before then; ~400CE was perhaps the minimum! There are many who would disagree even with that. Just one of those:
      http://www.worldclimatereport.com/index.php/2008/02/11/a-2000-year-global-temperature-record/#more-307

      Then: yes, there were many structural and socio-economic changes during this dramatic era. Some think also of the later adoption of Christianity, general labour shortage, and the transition of ‘slaves + tenant farmers into serfs’ being in its infancy. Prosperity of the roman economic system was dependent on “expansion,” and, at those times, there was rather a major contraction, disintegration and civil war. Yet, these calamities were nothing new to the Empire, except, this time, there was no gold to pave way out of it.
      I still hold my original premise: The weather trends of early CE sure had not been the exclusive cause, but definitely far more influential than a mere trigger.

      Again, please note that in many published works on the ‘Crisis of the Third Century,’ the causation is rarely centered on the economy; IMHO, the historians, especially the contemporary ones, have failed to adopt the recent findings and advances of Climatology, Sociology and Economic studies into their considerations. And that was the trigger for my “contribution.”

      And, going back to the original theme of this article:
      Degrading media into a propaganda vehicle is nothing new; the most recent traces of this could be identified in the UK during the Boer War, in all media during the WW1&2 and, specifically, in the Soviet and Fascist/Nazi Media between the wars. The “newest” twist on this is the “Infotainment” phenomenon; started, perhaps innocently, by the Soviets in the fifties, but adopted and perfected over last couple of decades in the US. I don’t think Mr. E. A, Blair could have anticipated this…

      However, what is much more fascinating to me is the fact, that the Powers-to-be do “somewhat” tolerate sites: from AlterNet to ZeroHedge and even this, FM; why would they? I don’t think the following is any new, let alone revolutionary idea — I think the establishment realizes that it is far better for them that people are “chatting and grumbling from their basements,” rather than in such places as Beer Halls…

      There goes also my previous point of Feminism and all other -isms etc. in the context of Identity Politics — this is for the ruling elite a welcome development = Much ado about NOTHING (of value) = chaff.

    5. Jako,

      “However, what is much more fascinating to me is the fact, that the Powers-to-be do “somewhat” tolerate sites: from AlterNet to ZeroHedge and even this, FM; why would they?”

      Because peasants protest. That is a natural relief value for their frustration at being peasants. It poses no threat to them. Not the slightest threat, because pleasant peasants are passive peons. Information and analytical insights will not awaken a desire for self-government in their hearts, or motivate them to risk their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” in the struggle for it.

      “in many published works on the ‘Crisis of the Third Century,’ the causation is rarely centered on the economy”

      Of course they don’t. Economic change is almost always the result of other – more important and larger — factors.

  2. “But there are subtler and more insidious examples, as in this New York Times headline from last August: “As Austerity Helps Bankrupt an English County, Even Conservatives Mutiny.” Surely, you might think, at least if you learned English as long ago as I did, austerity has got to be the remedy for bankruptcy, not the cause of it. If the county of Northamptonshire in England is, as the Times claims, bankrupt, it can only mean that it didn’t practice enough austerity, not that there was too much of it. But to the New York Times, as to its counterparts in Britain, “austerity” doesn’t mean austerity any more than “truth” means truth or, conversely, “post-truth” means post-truth. In the political jargon of the left, adopted wholesale by the media, it means a fiscal policy of cutting spending rather than raising taxes or borrowing, which is the strategy the left prefers to keep, as they fondly imagine, real austerity perpetually at bay.

    Since the 1980’s we have been in a new type of economy, running deficits and borrowing to make up the shortfall, all companies do this when they have cash flow issues, if they keep borrowing they reach a point they are unable to pay the debts and they go bankrupt or if the underlying industry is good they are bought out and rationalised, with a view to resale at a large profit to Goldman Sachs or Reacquire Bank etc who organised the buy out.

    Governments and countries have the luxury of continuing to borrow, the mass media supports this status quo, we import more and more people to push up housing prices, demand for goods and services, plus education (where many lefties work). Here in Australia education is our fourth largest industry, mention the students are coming for Permanent Residency and generally see Australian education as the same as Indian or Chinese ie slides straight form the lecturer pack with the global copy of a McGrawHill or Pearsons and they will call you racist.

    The left and many on the right have adapted to the new economic system, cheap imports, service jobs in professional areas (media, marketing and education) and moving production overseas to increase profits they know their position is dependant on continual outsourcing of someone else’s job and mass immigration to maintain demand.

    Austerity is the steady reduction in costs (and jobs), this makes the debt harder to repay, that is it forces the country to face a point where no more debt can be taken on and wages must fall, while public provisions also fall, the proverbial tightening of the belt in the repayment era. A company normally goes bankrupt soon after this, or is bought out, a country will not go bankrupt it will default on debt or carry on borrowing and slowly sell your country to the debtor nation, as did Sri Lanka with the Port deal to repay the Chinese loans or face an end of this type of economy that is mainly benefiting the rich, anyway, the Guardian, Times, The Economist and New York Times readers. The last option will be a complete re-organisation of the economy (which could be hard or hard and bloody)

    Hemingway writing in 1926 wrote “The city was bloated, glutted, stupid with cakes and circuses, and a new expression “O yeah?” summed up all the enthusiasm”. Frederick Lewis Allen described “the public spirit” as having reached a low ebb, everyone Knew the fun and frolics couldn’t last forever, but no one had reason to believe the end was coming soon. (From Fourth Turning Strauss and Howe).

    This is where we are on a continuum, we had 2008, solution, low interest rates and more borrowing, party on, workers ageing, wages too low at the bottom end more poor immigrants to do them, not enough educated at the Universities as demographics are reducing student numbers, lower the bar of entry for all and advertise for rich full fee paying students overseas.

    I can see why the rich don’t generally want the party to end, and the middle pinched between hungry low skilled immigrants and very well educated and hungry immigrants at the top are seeing wages fall, property prices shoot above their means and are just over this version of economics. They can avoid raising taxes much, or cutting services if they can just spread the tax burden over more new people, I can see one leftie reason to keep the borders open right there.

    The Press are their respective fog horns, we in the middle seem to have less representation.

    Great article, thanks.

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