James Bowman: journalism is triumphant but doomed

Summary: James Bowman gives an incisive analysis of our news media overlords, their myopia, and their unaware but self-destructive behaviors.

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Geography Lessons.

By James Bowman at The New Criterion, 28 February 2019.
Posted with his generous permission.

{James Meek wrote a 10,000 word review in the The London Review of Books of Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now by Alan Rusbridger. In it he sets out the origins of the antagonism between the new media and the old. Bowman explores the the implications of Meek’s analysis – and what Meek was unable to see.}

Available at Amazon.
Available at Amazon.

Yet for all the acuteness of his analysis of media economics, Mr Meek suffers from a typical case of blindness on the part of the media to their own part in driving away potential customers. He comes close to a juster view of the subject when he writes, possibly paraphrasing David Kolbusz {in 2012} …

“Open journalism was based on the idea that non-journalists would help news organisations navigate their way to an objective truth, when the world we’re actually in is one where different sets of people subscribe to different geographies of truth altogether.”

Like most media-folk, however, he seems to regard his own position on the truth-map as the only true one. This is basically that of the privileged class represented by The Guardian’s readership, identified by himself as “the hundreds of millions of university-educated, left-leaning, avowedly tolerant, socially concerned people around the world – global liberaldom, for want of a better expression.”

His idea of “geographies of truth” seems to correspond to what I wrote about in this space last year (see “Constituting Truth” in The New Criterion of September, 2018) as “constituencies of truth” or what Michel Foucault, who was more kindly disposed toward them than I am, called “régimes of truth.” Under any name, you would think that the idea must represent at least the glimmering of an understanding that at some point the media are going to have to come to terms with the fact that it is not only Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables,” a vicious minority written off as beyond redemption anyway, who don’t take it for granted that the media are automatically to be considered the arbiters of truth tout court. Such, however, appears not to be the case. 

Fake news - dreamstime_115632360
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Elsewhere, Mr Meek’s flickerings go out, as when he cites “the Russian election interference scandal in the US and the Cambridge Analytica affair in the UK” and sounds the usual media notes of outrage.

It’s a familiar posture among good-faith left-wingers who try to write with a modicum of honesty, rather than strict ideology, about our changing political landscape. Elsewhere, in the Guardian itself and at about the same time Mr Meek was writing, William Davies managed to get through almost 6000 words of a “Long Reads” article – “Why we stopped trusting elites” – without so much as a word of criticism against his own bit of the elite, the academic and journalistic one. He was willing to go so far as to admit that …

“There are copious explanations for Trump, Brexit and so on, but insufficient attention to what populists are actually saying, which focuses relentlessly on the idea of self-serving ‘elites’ maintaining a status quo that primarily benefits them.”

This is news to Guardian readers, apparently. Yet in taking the populist objections seriously, he somehow never sees himself or his friends in the media as being among these “self-serving ‘elites’” – which are kept safely at a distance from reality as well as from himself by quotation marks.

The elites he is willing to condemn include social media, crooked politicians, security forces, bankers, big business and even p.c. politicians who allow criminal behavior to go on for fear of being called “racists” (see “The irony of p.c.” in The New Criterion of March, 2015). But among journalists, only a now-shuttered (and Murdoch-owned) tabloid newspaper and, in one instance, the BBC are said to have besmirched the good name of the elite – and these were exposed by the more respectable sort of journalists.

Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts
Available at Amazon.

There is a noticeable dearth of criticism directed at “university educated, left-leaning, avowedly tolerant, socially concerned people” like, say, Mr Davies and other members of an academic elite which prides itself on its rhetorical anti-elitism. Self-criticism, like paying taxes in the view of Leona Helmsley, is only for the little people. Why, even Jill Abramson appeared, at least for a moment, to have been able to recognize the damage her former employers at The New York Times have done to their and its credibility by being so “unmistakably anti-Trump” in their reporting and analyzing of the news – not that she is any more mistakably anti-Trump herself. As Howard Kurtz reported at Fox News after seeing an advance copy of Ms Abramson’s book, Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts

“Abramson defends the Times in some ways but offers some harsh words for her successor, Dean Baquet. …’Though Baquet said publicly he didn’t want the Times to be the opposition party, his news pages were unmistakably anti-Trump,’ Abramson writes, adding that she believes the same is true of the Washington Post. ‘Some headlines contained raw opinion, as did some of the stories that were labeled as news analysis.’  What’s more, she says, citing legendary 20th century publisher Adolph Ochs, ‘the more anti-Trump the Times was perceived to be, the more it was mistrusted for being biased. Ochs’s vow to cover the news without fear or favor sounded like an impossible promise in such a polarized environment.’

“Abramson describes a generational split at the Times, with younger staffers, many of them in digital jobs, favoring an unrestrained assault on the presidency. “The more ‘woke’ staff thought that urgent times called for urgent measures; the dangers of Trump’s presidency obviated the old standards,” she writes. Trump claims he is keeping the ‘failing’ Times in business – an obvious exaggeration – but the former editor acknowledges a ‘Trump bump’ that saw digital subscriptions during his first six months in office jump by 600,000, to more than 2 million.”

All this would hardly count as news in a sane media environment, as the truth of it has long been obvious to the meanest intelligence which is still unencumbered by the ideological blinders worn by pretty much everybody in the news business these days. The words quoted by Mr Kurtz above may amount to the most sustained piece of honesty Ms Abramson has been guilty of in her lifetime – and yet she couldn’t hightail it fast enough to Politico in order to disavow it all …

“Former New York Times editor Jill Abramson says Fox News host Howard Kurtz took her forthcoming book, Merchants of Truth, ‘totally out of context’ in his Wednesday report headlined, ‘Former NY Times editor rips Trump coverage as biased’ …’His article is an attempt to Foxify my book, which is full of praise for The Times and The Washington Post and their coverage of Trump’ [Ms Abramson said.]”

With the clever coinage “Foxify” Ms Abramson of course alludes to the obligatory left-wing axiom that anything said on Fox News is not to be trusted because it is not in harmony with what is being said on all the other networks, but it is also a reiteration of the equally axiomatic but insanely arrogant proposition that anything said by those – like herself – who are so in harmony is to be trusted implicitly, even if it is blatantly self-contradictory or obviously false.

A similar arrogance was apparent in  The Washington Post’s granting a forum to a transparent bit of self-puffery from the incoming junior senator from Utah, Mitt Romney, publicly to thank his Mormon God that he is not as the particular sinner now sitting in the White House – where, by the way, he should have been instead. Of course it was all just grist to the media’s Trump-discrediting mills, but how drunk with self-importance do you have to be to imagine that people can’t see through this kind of thing and take it all at face value, as if the Post expected former Trump supporters all over the country to be saying, “I never thought of it before, but now that that nice Mr Romney mentions it, I do think someone like him would have made a better president”?

Or consider the New York Times report by Jonathan Martin, Maggie Haberman and Alexander Burns on the reactions among Republicans to Senator-elect Romney’s op-ed.

“Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, viewing Mr. Romney’s offensive as an opening to nurture his ties with the media-obsessed Mr. Trump, scheduled an afternoon conference call with reporters to target his soon-to-be colleague. ‘I just don’t think the president deserves to have a new senator coming in attacking his character,’ said Mr. Paul, accusing Mr. Romney of acting ‘holier than thou.'”

Of course the Times, like the Post, was trying to get the maximum possible ink out of Mr Romney’s attack on the president – as Mr Romney must have been smart enough to know they would. But look at that curious explanation of Senator Paul’s attack on Senator Romney’s attack “as an opening to nurture his ties with the media-obsessed Mr Trump.” Grammatically, “his ties” must refer to Mr Romney’s ties, but this makes no sense. How could Mr Romney be nurturing his ties – ignoring for the moment the fact that “ties” are not among the things in nature that can be nurtured – to the president by attacking him?

What the writers must mean, though they haven’t said it, is either that the “ties with the media-obsessed Mr. Trump” to be nurtured are Senator Paul’s ties or, as I believe, that Mr Martin (or Ms Haberman or Mr Burns) originally wrote not “the media-obsessed Mr. Trump” but “the Trump-obsessed media” – and then Ms Haberman (or Mr Martin or Mr Burns) changed it, sacrificing accuracy and even sense to the media’s pretense that they are not themselves involved in this squabble between Republicans but are merely silent observers of it.

Such denials of the obvious began with the media’s denials of their own biases and have now spread to much worse things than mere bias. They have also spread to other branches of the elite, the loss of trust in which Mr Davies laments. When Chief Justice Roberts rebuked the president merely for stating so obvious a fact as that the judiciary in our time has been politicized – what did he think the lately-concluded Kavanaugh hearings were all about? – and then stuck so firmly to his absurd contention that we don’t have Democrat or Republican judges, even to the point of rewriting the Constitution to limit the powers of a Republican president, you have to feel something close to despair that the public’s trust in their rulers, official or unofficial, can ever be restored.

I’m inclined to believe that the only way we can all be brought together again, as Mr Romney claimed to want, is by ceding all political authority to those whose motto, it is said, used to be: “Don’t be evil.” It is at least as possible to believe that they won’t be as that the media will start telling the ungeographized truth again, or that judges will cease being political.

————————————–

For another example of the rot Bowman describes, see this excerpt from Matt Taibbi’s new book, Hate Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another, coming out soon. He states the bottom line …

“It’s official: Russiagate is this generation’s WMD. The Iraq war faceplant damaged the reputation of the press. Russiagate just destroyed it.”

Bowman describes the decay of a vital American institution.
It is happening across our society.
For a broader explanation, see A new, dark picture of America’s future.

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.

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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.”

12 thoughts on “James Bowman: journalism is triumphant but doomed”

  1. Larry Kummer, Editor

    For another example of the rot Bowman describes, see this excerpt from Matt Taibbi’s new book, Hate Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another, coming out soon. He states the bottom line …

    “It’s official: Russiagate is this generation’s WMD. The Iraq war faceplant damaged the reputation of the press. Russiagate just destroyed it.”

    Another institution slowly crashes. Another domino falls.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor

      Godfree,

      From William Lind on the Right to Maximilian Forte and the Black Agenda Report on the Left – and you consider that “A to B.” Too weird for further comment.

      1. Larry Kummer, Editor

        Godfree —

        … and then there is James Howard Kunstler. Like me, he defies classification by the now obsolete definitions of left and right.

  2. Hi Larry,

    Great article by a keen observer James Bowman and not much to add to his powerful message. Just FYI in your intro I think “the new media and the own” should be “the new media and the old”.

    Regards,

    Bill

  3. Willem Steenkamp

    Bowman is right. I spent a large part of my working life as a reporter and columnist in the South African newspaper world, the most free in Africa (yes, in spite of apartheid and all that), much of it at the Cape Times in Cape Town, one of the then government’s fiercest critics. Our philosophy (and that of the other reputable South African newspapers) could be summed up as “tell the people – and tell the truth”. Which we did.

    It was rough stuff here. We hounded at least one cabinet minister out of office, exposed a number of juicy scandals, we defied the law to publish an interview with the ANC’s then still exiled leader, Oliver Tambo, and generally committed as much journalistic mayhem as possible.

    But we didn’t descend into muck-raking innuendo, a feverish grasping at dubious sources or a bias so ingrained that lies were as acceptable as facts. We stayed on the straight and narrow because our Editor, Anthony Heard, and his predecessor, Victor Norton, were genuine liberals of the traditional type, not the self-appointed unscrupulous blow-hards who have trashed this once-honoured label. by their lack of ethics and morality.

    So it has been sickening to watch some of America’s great newspapers wander away from the path of reputable journalism. To them I say: Shame on you!

    Willem Steenkamp

    Editor’s note: see his impressive bio on Wikipedia.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor

      Willem,

      Thank you for sharing your experience with us. I added to your comment a link to your Wikipedia entry.

      Considering your broad experience, as journalist plus Justice of the Peace and election observer – and your outsider’s view – what do you believe caused (still causing) the changes in American journalism? Also, are these occurring in other developed nations? Or globally?

      1. Willem Steenkamp

        Dear Larry

        I suspect it’s a worldwide thing, part of a wide-ranging change in mores that is part good ad part bad. I am not one for nostalgic clinging, but in this instance I believe the old way was and is the best. I spent most of my career working for the South African media, but for three years in the 1960s I and two others were resident correspondents for United Press International – real man-eaters who still hewed to the old way – excuses weren’t accepted, but if you did well they gave you a pay rise on the spot.

        After that, nothing ever scared me again, and the 1960s were a wild time in Africa, with tremendous stories breaking all over the place, and no internet or cellphones – when Prime Minister Verwoerd was assassinated in Parliament we got through to London by telex in about 10 minutes by some fluke, instead of having to wait for anything up to 45 minutes. We kept that line open for a couple of hours at five pounds sterling a minute (a lot of money in those days) and scooped everybody, including our (very chagrined) main local rivals, the Associated Press office.

        How did we do it? Sheer hard work, ingenuity as the situation demanded, a reckless disregard (in retrospect) for personal danger and, most of all, an iron-clad take-no-sides work ethic. . Those merciless bastards in London (our immediate head office) were hard-news men and they made sure we were, too – and that philosophy has stuck with me ever since.

        These new elites Bowman was talking about don’t seem to realise that they are destroying the media. Time was when people believed what they read in the better newspapers, but that credibility is fading fast, and what it amounts to is what the Army calls a self-inflicted wound. I remember being very proud one night, years after the UPI experience, when I was on the late shift at the Cape Times and a young American tourist came wandering in and told me that on his way from the airport he had asked the taxi-driver about which newspaper to visit and the driver had said to him: “I’ll take you to the Cape Times – it tells you the truth.” The newspapers are losing people like that.

        Like a lot of other newspapers we had a hypothetical reader, in ourcase “the girl on the Woodstock bus” (Woodstock is a working-class suburb of Cape Town). We envisaged a woman in her late twenties, probably not well-educated, possibly a single mother who worked hard all day long; she would be tired, with aching feet, but she wanted to know what was going on in the world.

        Our job was to make sure she had the facts, impartial and clearly phrased, so that she could make up her own mind. Bless her heart, we tried to help her, together with all the other readers who were more affluent, better educated and with more spare time. We didn’t despise her as a “deplorable” – she and others like her were part of the country’s backbone, regardless of race or creed. So our watchword was always “news in the news columns, opinions on the leader page”. I think that was a pretty healthy approach. Too bad today’s journalists seem to forget it, if they ever learned about it in the first place.

        I really enjoyed my time as a journalist, but I am glad I’m not one way more; I think it would be unbearable.

        regards

        Willem.

      2. Larry Kummer, Editor

        Willem,

        Thank you for sharing your perspective and experience. I hate to disagree with an expert, but from what I’ve seen – this isn’t wrong, but isn’t spot on either.

        “These new elites Bowman was talking about don’t seem to realise that they are destroying the media.”

        Almost certainly true, but not the key point imo. Our new news elites serve ends higher than the guild of journalism. They are serving causes – broadly speaking, those called “the left” – which they believe more important.

        Here’s something you have the contacts to do: ask a practicing journalist (junior or senior) if preserving the institution of journalism through neutral reporting is more important than serving whatever Leftist causes they most value – ever-greater rights for women and POC, ending western “imperialism”, bringing down Trump and the GOP, etc? My guess is that it would take some time and effort to cut through the cloud of chaff that would be the initial response. But eventually you might get an interesting result.

        Also – we’d like to have a post by you. Your experiences – and analysis of today and predictions about tomorrow – would be valuable for our readers!

  4. Willem Steenkamp

    Dear Larry

    I can answer that question right away. IMHO it doesn’t matter what you, the big boss, holds politically dear. What matters is whether you harness your reportage to your political beliefs or not. The best of our editors in times past managed to do resist that temptation to a greater or lesser degree. In the case of the Cape Times, for example, Tony Heard was a strong supporter of the Democratic Party (today’s Democratic Alliance, the leading opposition party). How the board of directors voted I don’t know, but they gave him a pretty free hand and I never detected any sort of pressure being exerted on him – I think I would have known, because we were friends of long standing, and he never abused his position. News reporting was generally straightforward and comment was on the leader page.

    Admittedly the DP usually got good coverage, but not at the expense of other points of view – probably you won’t believe this, but I wrote two different columns and sometimes they pretty much went against what he was saying on the leader page, and he genuinely didn’t care. His attitude was that it was all part of the greater mosaic, so that when a reader opened the day’s Cape Times he never knew what to expect.

    Once, I remember, I wrote a column which directly contradicted a leader he had written the previous day, and this one was so in-your-face that for once I passed him the copy before handing it in. His answer was: “Never mind, I’ll read it when it’s in the paper tomorrow.” Which he did and then strolled into the newsroom to tell me: “It’s nice to work for a newspaper where something like this happens and nobody gets fired.” You’ve just got to love a man like that. That’s what I mean by a genuine liberal, whom I regard as a national asset.

    Then after 1994 an ally of the ruling African National Congress party bought the paper together with a couple of others and turned it into a propaganda sheet, getting rid of most of the experienced senior reporters (along with most of the institutional memory) and restocking with pliable young ones of the new type. So now the Cape Times’s circulation is down into the 30 000 bracket, so I am told, as its core readers vote with their feet, and its very survival is doubtful – a sad fate for one of SA’s oldest and once most respected newspapers.

    For me the crunch came a year or two ago when a CT columnist – a wild man named Max du Preez – wrote something pretty scathing about then-President Jacob Zuma, who was busily looting the national fiscus, almost to the exclusion of anything else. Next day the CT board actually published an apology for the column, at which Du Preez resigned. By that time I was long gone, thank Heaven. So I sat back and watched it all happen, not just at the Cape Times but with some other former top-notchers.

    So actually it’s simple: a fish rots from the head, whether in SA, the USA or anywhere else, and makes sure everybody in its control rots along with it.. It is a profoundly immoral anti-democratic tendency which shows little sign of abating anywhere, and in fact in spirit it is actually more fascist than anything else. just like the so-called Antifa movement.. In SA a few papers are still holding out, and a number of online newspapers and blogs are carrying the banner of true press freedom, and I expect the same ting is happening in the States. I am not saying that there are no good, honest journalists left on the various tainted newspapers ovet there – I am sure there are, and my heart goes out to them.

    Regarding the “non-deplorable” elite, I am minded of something the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote once (on Soviet traitors in the British and American establishments during World War II}: “Educated liberal Englishmen and Americans failed to understand that communism is a religion … (which) can easily paralyse the mental and moral faculties of its converts and cause them to commit any turpitude and to suffer any indignity for its sake”. Sounds a lot like the prevailing leftist attitude in the US today, except that they don’t do indignity very well. What the hell has happened to the Democrat-in-the-street?

    regards

    Willem

    1. Dear Willem,

      I’m certain the community of Fabius Maximus would agree — we thank you for visiting our site.

      I and my family visited RSA about ten years ago and we loved the experience.
      My highlights were in and around Wilderness and in Paarl Valley (French Hoek). We visited some people’s homes and we felt the most welcome there — even more so than at home (whether in Canada, our new home, or in the Czech Republic, our birthplace) — unbelievable experience. Also, we went to Kruger Park and there we experienced another eye-opening encounter; there was a new concept (I guess) of enterprise at work there: a black community taking over a resort of sort. The supervisor showing the other girls how to sweep the floors, the black cooks were mentored by a colored chef on how to make a proper whatever… And even there, as white as we could get, we felt very welcome.
      I know, the further development in RSA got, somehow, out of hand; however, the new government may prove to revert to the “uplifting to all” and restore the processes once cultivated (I hope I’m not going to be accused of smoking the cheap stuff;) In any case, I wish you and your country the best!

      As a side note — there are plenty of websites managing to avoid the “main-stream” propaganda; I am a fan of one gentleman, about your generation, Dr. Paul Craig Roberts — he calls the new “breed” of “journalists” the “presstitute” — a very fitting name; I think you’d like his attitude…
      https://www.paulcraigroberts.org/2019/03/19/the-difficulty-of-writing-for-americans/

      Please, do take care,

      Jan

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