Journalism close to hitting rock bottom

“There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and to shame the devil.”

The esteemed American institution, Editor & Publisher, chose this statement by Walter Lippmann as its front page quote the other day.

For reasons known only to the American journalism myth-makers, Lippmann was and remains an icon.

Yes, Lippmann, if for nothing else than for his longevity, did have an impact on public policy: he occupied public rostrum longer than six decades, after all. But picking this statement of his borders on idiocy. The reason is simple: a journalist is either telling the truth, or announcing her/his opinion of the devil. Not both. Not at once, in any case, and definitely NOT in journalism.

That Editor & Publisher chose to do so makes it even more shocking.

Wide-ranging path

Lippmann’s career has been encompassing. He started his journey on the very left wing of the political spectrum, preaching Marxism as his gospel. Nobody knows who influenced whom, but accepted legend has it that then-President Woodrow Wilson relied on Lippmann’s opinion when creating his post-World War I Fourteen Points. This statement postulated America’s approach to the rest of the world and its position within it. Hindsight can be 20-20, but, in any case, the ideas proposed in that document didn’t achieve anything of what its authors hoped they would. Long-lasting peace was one of the victims.

Wilson would send young Lippmann to take part in the talks on what would become known as the Treaty of Versailles: the journalist would move smoothly into the role of U.S. Secretary of War Newton D. Baker’s assistant.

The Treaty of Versailles was supposed to settle once and for all the results of the First World War, making sure peace would be its eternal outcome.

It would become the detonator for World War II instead, having created economic conditions in Germany that no nation could sustain in silence. And especially not the Germans who had always seen themselves as one of the world’s powers (if not superpowers). Whether Germany should be a power remains questionable even today, but that’s another issue.

Lippmann’s active participation in the creation of the League of Nations wasn’t much to write home about, either. The organisation was a failure from Day One, revealing its authors’ pure naïveté, to put it very politely.

Lippmann would return to journalism. He concentrated on writing opinion columns. Even though he travelled the world to see things with his own eyes, to get first-hand information, his columns were not about reporting.

When he joined the ranks of the New York Herald Tribune, Lippmann’s status was secured: he rode on the coattails of a newspaper that had been made famous by his predecessors (rightly or wrongly is another question). In any case, since the New York Herald Tribune was very aggressive in its business dealings, making gobs of money off syndicating its material, Lippmann’s Today and Tomorrow column got the attention it needed, syndicated as it was to 250 American newspapers, and to publications in 25 other countries.

That would lead to two Pulitzer Prizes (1958: Special Citation, in Pulitzer committee’s own words, for the wisdom, perception and high sense of responsibility with which he has commented for many years on national and international affairs, and in 1962, International Reporting, and, again, in Pulitzer committee’s own words, for his 1961 interview with Soviet Premier Khrushchev, as illustrative of Lippmann’s long and distinguished contribution to American journalism).

That neither the Pulitzer committee nor Lippmann were aware that Khrushchev’s position of Soviet communist party central committee’s first secretary was much more important than his premiership only shows the illiteracy of both, not much more.

Lippmann’s political development was somewhat out of ordinary: leftist, aged 24, in his first book, A Preface to Politics, he would turn against Marxism a mere year later, in his Drift and Mastery, but it would take him till his 48th year to agree, in his The Good Society, that socialism wasn’t what it claimed it was, that is, manna from heaven.

Thus, Lippmann defied the famous observation made by the immortal Sir Winston Churchill: “Any man under 30 who is not a liberal has no heart, and any man over thirty who is not a conservative has no brains.”

So far as Lippmann was concerned, the United States would have been wrong to return to its previous isolationist policies after World War II, which would have been fine and dandy, had he offered how (not what, but how) else his country should have acted.

Lippmann’s 1955 book, Essays in the Public Policy concerned itself with the natural law theory, attracting criticism from those who had not understood its basics: human laws that permit inhuman acts are no excuse. See the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal ruling, now part of international law.

Hitting the nail on its head

But if there is one book Lippmann should be analysed for the most, it’s his Public Opinion. It should be a must-read for all who try to get what’s going on with and in this world these days.

Here’s why: so far as the masses of the unwashed are concerned, he observed, they have lost most of their ability to judge what’s going on. The rationality of it all’s gone out of the window. Mass media give their users (newspapers readers and radio listeners at the time of first publication, and add television viewers at re-publication) nothing but slogans. Those mass media that try to claim quality status add interpretations. Lippmann blamed the need for speed and abbreviation bordering on abridgement for this.

He would turn to that subject again a few years later, in his The Phantom Public, but, to his unending glory, Lippmann had never succumbed to the inviting notion that democracy be blasted, and let those in the know (a.k.a. elites, never mind how much self-imposed) rule.

No matter how much hindsight makes many of Lippmann’s olden times’ observations and comments obsolete, to the point of being laughable, still, his general views of modern journalism’s shortcomings make Editor & Publisher’s selection of the opening quote unforgivable.

It proves one thing: today’s mainstream journalism has gone the way dodo birds have gone, and America’s leading organisation for editors and publishers is all right with it.

Lippmann would have spanked them, if he could.

But he can’t.

Too bad.

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