TCS Daily

The Forty Years War

By Arnold Kling - May 27, 2004 12:00 AM

"Political debate began to decline around the turn of the century [1900], curiously enough at a time when the press was becoming more 'responsible,' more professional, more conscious of its civic obligations."

-- Chistopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites, chapter 9 ("The Lost Art of Argument")

In Iraq, today's militia fights, terrorist attacks, and occasional outbreaks of mob violence are significant because they take place in the context of two larger wars. One is the war between the civilized world and radical Islam. The other is the war between the media elite and conservatives. However things turn out in Iraq, the relationship between the American people and the media is never going to be the same.

Christopher Lasch's thesis was that the media elite derives its self-image from the position articulated by Walter Lippman in the 1920's, which is that the general public is incompetent to evaluate political argument. It follows that the duty of the press is to supply an objective picture of reality. A news outlet must not be seen as participating in an equal conversation with its audience, but instead must be viewed as standing on a higher pedestal. To achieve this position, facts must be kept separate from opinion.

This distinction between facts and opinion is never as clearcut in practice as it might appear in theory. Lasch would have argued that people are best informed by an overall point of view that provides context for facts, rather than by an attempt to pretend that opinion can be filtered out of a story.

One could make a case that the clashes taking place in Iraq today have little bearing on that country's ultimate future. In the long run, whether Iraq is able to modernize or not, whether ethnic diversity divides the country or not, and whether democratic institutions take root or the country reverts to strongman rule all depend primarily on the internal dynamics of its people and culture. Meanwhile, here in the United States, the forty-years war between the media and conservative Republicans is reaching a climax.

1964: The Agony of the GOP

In 1964, Robert Novak was a young journalist covering the campaign for the Republican Party nomination, won by Barry Goldwater. His subsequent book, The Agony of the GOP, 1964, dramatically describes a scene at the party's convention, held at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. At one point, a speaker (I believe it was former President Eisenhower, appearing via remote hookup on screen), denounced the news media. This produced a thunderous response from the audience, which Novak described as standing up, shouting, and shaking its fists at the press gallery.

In 1964, Novak and the rest of the press were shocked at the behavior of the Republican delegates. That was a time when the media's aura of Lippman-esque objectivity was unquestioned.

By the time of the convention, the press had painted Goldwater into a corner as an ignoramus, a nut, and an extremist. The reality, even most liberals would now agree, was the opposite. Goldwater was sober and reflective -- one of the most cerebral political figures of his era. In fact, it was Goldwater's opponent, Lyndon Johnson, whose ego and insecurity were obstacles to seeing reality and making sound decisions.

1973: Woodstein

In 1972, the American voters overwhelmingly rejected the Democratic candidate for President, George McGovern. Two years later, however, the Democratic Party won decisive control of Congress, and two years after that Jimmy Carter won the Presidency.

The event that intervened to change the political dynamic was the Watergate investigation. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein played a major role in breaking open the cover-up. As a result, the mainstream press reached its apogee of prestige, and conservatism appeared to be moribund.

1980: Reagan

The myth of media omniscience was punctured somewhat by the Ronald Reagan presidency. Reagan's election victory took place in spite of a media portrayal that was reminiscent of Goldwater's. Like all conservative politicians, Reagan was characterized as stupid and out of the mainstream. But the American people, feeling frustrated by inflation at home and humiliated by the Iranian hostage crisis abroad, dumped President Carter.

During the Reagan Administration, the catastrophes predicted by his opponents and echoed in the mainstream media failed to materialize. Instead of leading to higher inflation and interest rates, his tax cuts were accompanied by disinflation due to conservative monetary policy. Instead of leading to nuclear holocaust, his defense policy contributed to the downfall of the Soviet Union.

The 1990's: "right-wing media"

The 1990's saw the emergence of conservative points of view in the media, most notably in talk radio. However, the mainstream press continued to view itself as the objective and professional Lippman-esque ideal, as opposed to "right-wing media."

Iraq: The Battle for Hearts and Minds

The war in Iraq has produced a battle for hearts and minds -- not over there so much as over here. The left, including most news reporters, is determined that the American people should view the situation in Iraq as chaotic, our presence there as a mistake, the prospects for success dismal, and our leadership as incompetent. News that fits this story line is emphasized, and news that contradicts it tends to be buried.

Glenn Reynolds pointed out that a recent poll suggests that this battle for hearts and minds is not going well for the left. One question, in particular, found that 60 percent of Americans surveyed were more upset by the beheading of Nick Berg than by the prisoner abuse scandal, while only 8 percent of those surveyed were more upset by the latter.

Perhaps this will change over the next year or two, if Iraq remains violent and unstable. This would serve to vindicate some of the opinions of the media elite, but it would not restore the impression of their neutrality. Moreover, if the situation deteriorates in Iraq, Americans will not necessarily gravitate toward the position that the Administration's intentions were evil and/or its execution was incompetent. Much of the blame may fall on the Iraqis themselves. The hearts and minds of the public are unlikely to be won over to the positions held by the left.

In fact, a debacle in Iraq could backfire for the liberal media. Suppose that the post-mortem on Iraq reads, "The media weren't reporting. They were taking sides. With our enemies. And our enemies won. Because, under media assault, we lost our will to fight on." In fact, that is what Ralph Peters wrote about Falluja.

I believe that if the liberal media wants to win the battle for the hearts and minds of America, the first step will be to admit, "We are the liberal media." That is, they should drop the pretense of Lippman-esque detached objectivity and instead acknowledge that they have a partisan position. From that perspective, they will realize that in order to shape others' opinions one has to understand and appreciate the opposing point of view, rather than assume a posture of know-it-all arrogance.

The Future of Debate

The outcome of the forty-years war could turn out to be the end of the myth of unbiased news media. A large portion of the American people will never again believe that the news pages are objective, just as they will no longer believe that the UN is moral or that college professors have worldly wisdom.

Instead, it will be understood that all reporting combines opinion with observation. People who want to be well informed will choose to read a variety of sources.

Even if reporters are forced to descend from their Lippman-esque thrones, research and fact-finding will continue to be important functions. However, the process will become more democratic. If a blogger calling himself "wretchard" can come closer than any newspaper to ferreting out the wedding party incident, so be it. I believe that if Christopher Lasch were alive today, he would find in blogging the revival of the lost art of argument.


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