Now more than ever: Walter Lippmann and the need for reliable journalism

Walter Lippmann. Photo via the Library of Congress.

Previously published at The Arts Fuse.

The crisis we are living through is, as Walter Lippmann would have said, a crisis of journalism.*  Never before have we had such ready access to high-quality sources of news and information (at least at the national level; local journalism, sadly, is in freefall). At the same time, those sources have been under constant attack since Spiro Agnew’s “nattering nabobs of negativism” speech of 1969, culminating in President Trump’s denigration of journalists as “Enemies of the People” and their work product as “fake news.”

The frequently stated truism that the public has lost trust in the news media is misunderstood. In fact, we trust the media we use, but the explosion of opinionated sources of news has led to an ideological sorting-out that has harmed democracy and civic discourse. As the Pew Research Center found a few years ago, a majority of liberals trust NPR, PBS, and the New York Times, whereas conservatives put their faith in Fox News, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh. It hardly needs to be said that the so-called liberal sources of news are practicing actual journalism, however imperfectly, whereas the conservative sources serve up a toxic brew of falsehoods, propaganda, and conspiracy theories.

This polarized, choose-your-own-facts media environment is very different from the one proposed by Lippmann. A towering figure in 20th-century American journalism who was, among other things, a co-founder of The New Republic, Lippmann nearly a century ago reimagined newsgathering as a profession encompassing educational and ethical standards. Lippmann also conceived of the notion of objectivity, which, properly understood, refers to a “disinterested” pursuit of the truth. What matters, according to Lippmann, is a reporter’s independence: “Emphatically he ought not to be serving a cause, no matter how good.” Unfortunately, objectivity later came to be seen as balance without regard for the facts. As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel wrote in The Elements of Journalism, first published in 2001, “the concept of objectivity became so mangled it began to be used to describe the very problem it was conceived to correct.”

Lippmann laid out his vision in Liberty and the News (1920), a collection of essays in which he vividly described the rancid state of journalism in the early part of the 20th century as well as his prescription for making it better. No one is likely to improve on his description of journalism’s importance in a democratic society:

The news of the day as it reaches the newspaper office is an incredible medley of fact, propaganda, rumor, suspicion, clues, hopes, and fears, and the task of selecting and ordering that news is one of the truly sacred and priestly offices in a democracy. For the newspaper, is in all literalness the bible of democracy, the book out of which a people determine its conduct. It is the only serious book most people read. It is the only book they read every day. Now the power to determine each day what shall seem important and what shall be neglected is a power unlike any that has been exercised since the Pope lost his hold on the secular mind.

He added: “There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the information by which to detect lies.”

Lippmann’s main concern was public opinion and how it is produced, for it is what we think of events, rather than the events themselves, that forms the basis of politics and policy. He takes us through philosophers from John Milton to John Stuart Mill, who espoused various forms of toleration for opinions, and he acidly observes that their indulgence of toleration tended to be in direct proportion to the inoffensiveness of those opinions. In that view, ideas are fine as long as they pose no threat to the established order. Which is to say that ideas that truly matter are not fine at all.

A better basis for public opinion, Lippmann argued, is fact — and that’s where an improved, more substantive journalism comes in. Journalists trained to use authoritative sources of information, to make sense of the torrent of news and non-news being spewed in every direction, and to report truthfully and with the proper context are vital to self-government, he wrote.

Interestingly, Lippmann predicted that if the news media could not reform themselves, they faced the specter of government regulation. “There is everywhere,” he wrote, “an increasingly angry disillusionment about the press, a growing sense of being baffled and misled; and wise publishers will not pooh-pooh these omens.” Some things never change. Yet, at the time Lippmann was writing, the Supreme Court was about to embark on a series of rulings that had the effect of greatly expanding freedom of speech and of the press by erecting high barriers for prior restraint, allowing virtually all criticism of the government, and making it nearly impossible for public officials and public figures to win frivolous libel suits.

***

Around the time that Lippmann was writing, the news business began adopting professional standards, partly in response to his ideas, partly as a natural outgrowth of the increasing complexity and specialization of the industrial age. Codes of ethics were promulgated, the organization that became the Society of Professional Journalists was founded, and schools of journalism were established at many universities. This was elite journalism designed to lead public opinion — a prospect that met with Lippmann’s approval. He disparaged the typical newsroom as comprising men for whom “reporting is not a dignified profession” but was, rather, an “underpaid, insecure, anonymous form of drudgery, conducted on catch-as-catch-can principles.” He added:

How far can we go in turning newspaper enterprise from a haphazard trade into a disciplined profession? Quite far, I imagine, for it is altogether unthinkable that a society like ours should remain forever dependent upon untrained accidental witnesses.

In Liberty and the News, Lippmann balanced his fundamental elitism with his concern for the informational needs of the public. In his later writings, though, the balance tipped in favor of elitism at the expense of the public. As described by Jay Rosen in What Are Journalists For? (1999), Lippmann, starting with his best-known book, Public Opinion (1922), argued that the purpose of journalism was to mold opinion — to “manufacture consent” — for a public that lacked the time and the inclination to seek out the truth for itself. Public opinion, Lippmann wrote, was “an irrational force,” adding: “With the substance of the problem it can do nothing but meddle ignorantly or tyrannically.”

Speaking up in opposition to this pessimistic view, Rosen wrote, was the philosopher John Dewey, who answered Lippmann in his book The Public and Its Problems (1927). In Dewey’s view, the role of journalism was not to shut out public participation but, rather, to find ways for the public to participate, especially at the community level. “Democracy for Dewey,” according to Rosen, “meant not a system of government but a society organized around certain principles: that every individual has something to contribute, that people are capable of making their own decisions, that given the chance they can understand their predicament well enough to puzzle through it, that the world is knowable if we teach ourselves how study and discuss it.”

Today we can see the harmful effects of Lippmann-style elitism run amok. For one thing, “elite” has long since entered the vocabulary as a dirty word. Expertise itself is denigrated, and the so-called wisdom of the common people is held up as a virtuous alternative to decadent journalists and intellectuals who are allegedly out of touch with the concerns of everyday life. If we had followed Dewey instead of Lippmann, that alienation might not exist.

Here’s how the media scholar James W. Carey, in his essay “Reconceiving ‘Mass’ and ‘Media’” (reprinted in his Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society, 1989), summarized Dewey’s disagreement with Lippmann: “Public opinion is not formed when individuals possess correct representations of the environment [as Lippmann would have it], even if correct representations were possible. It is formed only in discussion, when it is made active in community life.” Imagine if journalism were a participatory process rather than a monologue driven from the top — the promise, still unfulfilled, of internet-based news. If we were in better touch with the public we ostensibly serve, it might be more apparent that the Washington Post is not the liberal equivalent of Fox News but, rather, is engaged in an entirely different sort of enterprise.

***

Lippmann lived a long and influential life. As David Halberstam wrote in The Powers That Be (1979), Lippmann urged Katharine Graham to consider hiring Ben Bradlee as executive editor of the Washington Post, a move that transformed the paper into a serious rival of the New York Times and helped bring down Richard Nixon’s presidency. As a syndicated columnist, Lippmann supported the Vietnam War and later turned against it once it became clear that the experts of whom he was so enamored had promoted a ruinous policy.

Despite Lippmann’s embrace of elitism, he remained convinced that the public needed reliable news. In 1971, when the New York Times and the Washington Post were under fire for publishing the Pentagon Papers, the government’s own secret history of the Vietnam War, Times columnist James Reston quoted at length from a speech his old friend had given eleven years earlier about the role of the press.

“If the country is to be governed with the consent of the governed,” Lippmann said, “then the governed must arrive at opinions about what their governors want them to consent to. … Here we correspondents perform an essential service. In some field of interest, we make it our business to find out what is going on under the surface and beyond the horizon. …

“In this we do what every sovereign citizen is supposed to do, but has not the time or the interest to do for himself. This is our job. It is no mean calling. We have a right to be proud of it, and to be glad that it is our work.”

Yet Lippmann could be withering about journalism that fell short of his standards. In 1920 he and Charles Merz published an in-depth analysis of how the New York Times had covered the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. They found that the Times had consistently skewed coverage in favor of what its editors wished would happen — that the Bolsheviks would continue Russia’s involvement in the war against Germany, and then, after the war, that the various White Army factions would defeat the Bolsheviks.

“In the large,” they wrote, “the news about Russia is a case of seeing not what was, but what men wished to see.” They added: “From the point of view of professional journalism the reporting of the Russian Revolution is nothing short of a disaster. On the essential questions the net effect was almost always misleading, and misleading news is worse than none at all.”

Lippmann would be dispirited to see that these flaws are still with us, and that they have played out to disastrous effect over and over again. That was especially true during the run-up to the war in Iraq, when most news organizations accepted at face value the George W. Bush administration’s claims that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed weapons of mass destruction. You could also see it in coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign, when Hillary Clinton’s reliance on a private email server was held up as an example of wrongdoing equal to Donald Trump’s racism, his boasts of sexual assault, and his corrupt dealings with his family’s charitable foundation.

Ninety-nine years after the publication of Liberty and the News, journalists are better educated, have higher professional standards, and are more likely to adhere to basic ethical rules. Lippmann surely played an important role in those developments. Yet deference to power and false notions of objectivity continue to plague the press, leading to coverage that falls short of serving even that portion of the public that seeks journalism rather than propaganda. Lippmann’s hopes remain unfulfilled.

*About a week and a half after this essay was published, I was paging through Thomas E. Patterson’s Informing the News when I came across this quote from Liberty and the News: “In an exact sense the present crisis in Western democracy is a crisis in journalism.” I have revised my lead sentence to credit Lippmann. Obviously I had seen the sentence and it had stuck in my head, but not so completely that I had remembered where I got it. Not surprisingly, Lippmann put it far better than I could have.

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Facing up to the damage wrought by Facebook

Previously published at The Arts Fuse.

Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy, by Siva Vaidhyanathan. Oxford University Press, 288 pages, $24.95.

The reason that Facebook is so evil is that Mark Zuckerberg is so good. According to Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, the former wunderkind has drunk deeply of his own Kool-Aid and genuinely believes that his creation is a benevolent force in the world. “Zuckerberg has a vibrant moral passion,” Vaidhyanathan writes in his new book, Antisocial Media. “But he lacks a historical sense of the horrible things that humans are capable of doing to each other and the planet.”

From propagating fake news to violating our privacy, from empowering authoritarian regimes to enabling anti-Semitic advertising, Facebook has become the social network everyone loves to hate. Vaidhyanathan, whose previous books include The Googlization of Everything — and Why We Should Worry (2011), has produced a valuable guide, written in clear, non-academic prose, to the monstrous force Facebook has become. And if his overview of what’s gone wrong with Facebook will seem familiar to those of us who obsess about these things, it nevertheless serves as a worthwhile introduction to the Zuckerborg and all that it has wrought. If only Vaidhyanathan had some compelling ideas on what to do about it. If only any of us did.

Facebook’s malign omnipresence came about quickly. Founded in 2004, it wasn’t until the dawn of the current decade that it became a behemoth. With 2.2 billion active monthly users, Facebook is, for many people, synonymous with the internet itself — the place where your aunt and uncle share photos of their pets, updates from their vacations, and, of course, links to memes and conspiracy theories about George Soros’s non-existent Nazi past and the “deep state” plot to overthrow President Trump.

Such craziness has serious real-world consequences. It may not be an exaggeration to say that Trump became president partly because of Facebook, as Russian propagandists, Cambridge Analytica, and the Trump campaign itself all bought ads to bolster Trump’s message and to persuade possible Hillary Clinton voters to stay home on Election Day. The Facebook effect was probably not as powerful as James Comey’s bizarre obsession with Clinton’s emails — or, for that matter, Electoral College math. But given that Trump was elected by just a handful of votes in a few swing states, it seems plausible that Clinton might otherwise have overcome those obstacles.

There’s nothing new about political advertising, even if Facebook’s tools for microtargeting tiny slices of users based on the information they themselves have provided are unusually precise and pernicious. More ominous, Vaidhyanathan argues, is that the Facebook environment encourages the sort of fragmented thinking and emotional reactions that are antithetical to healthy civic engagement and that helps give rise to an authoritarian figure like Trump. As my friend from DFY Links says, everything looks the same in your news feed. And since Facebook’s algorithm is designed to give you more of the type of content that you interact with, you become increasingly sealed off from viewpoints you don’t agree with. Vaidhyanathan’s attempt to shoehorn Trump into his overarching theory of Facebook is a bit awkward given that Trump’s social-media drug of choice is Twitter. Nevertheless, he is surely on to something in arguing that the reductive discourse that characterizes Facebook helped fuel Trump’s rise.

“After a decade of deep and constant engagement with Facebook, Americans have been conditioned to experience the world Trump style,” Vaidhyanathan writes. “It’s almost as if Trump were designed for Facebook and Facebook were designed for him. Facebook helped make America ready for Trump.”

Vaidhyanathan is not the first to take note of the distractedness that has come to define the digital age. Nicholas Carr, in his 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, laments that the internet has given rise to a culture of skimming rather than deep reading and warns: “As our window onto the world, and onto ourselves, a popular medium molds what we see and how we see it — and, eventually, if we use it enough, it changes who we are, as individuals and as a society.” Carr barely mentions Facebook, which at the time had not yet become a hegemonic force. But there is little doubt that it has only accelerated those trends.

So what is to be done? In a healthier political climate, Vaidhyanathan writes, we might expect our elected officials to act — by mandating greater privacy protections and by forcing Facebook to sell off some of its related businesses such as Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger. But he holds out little hope, even though Europe is moving in that direction. And he identifies a specific reason for his pessimism by describing two competing philosophies of corporate leadership in the United States, neither suited to dealing with the menace we face. One, market fundamentalism, holds that the sole obligation of a corporation is to make as much money as possible for its shareholders. The other, the social responsibility model, sees a role for corporations — but not for government — in addressing environmental and cultural concerns and in helping to make the world better. Vaidhyanathan places Facebook squarely within the latter tradition. Remember, he sees Zuckerberg at root as an earnest if misguided idealist.

The problem is that both of these philosophies are based on differing notions of corporate libertarianism. Each exalts the business leader as the exemplar to which society should aspire. By embracing a binary view of the corporation’s role, we have, Vaidhyanathan argues, essentially eliminated the public sphere from the discussion of how to solve universal problems. Rather than looking to elected leaders, we look to people like Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Laureen Powell Jobs, and, yes, Mark Zuckerberg. We embrace “innovation” rather than real progress that benefits everyone. Given the state of our politics, that might seem like logical behavior. But it’s also behavior based on the nostrum popularized by Ronald Reagan that government is the problem, not the solution. Say something often enough over the course of nearly four decades and it becomes true.

There is some hope. Although Vaidhyanathan doesn’t mention it, there are signs that journalism is becoming less dependent on Facebook. According to the web metrics firm Chartbeat, news organizations are seeing a decreasing amount of referral traffic from Facebook and an increasing amount of direct traffic to their websites and other digital platforms. “The increase in direct traffic matters because it enables publishers to control their own destiny,” writes Lucia Moses of Digiday. “They have more data on reader behavior, which enables them to better target readers with more content and offers for subscriptions and other revenue drivers.” Given the parlous state of the news business, any shift away from Facebook is a positive development.

Moreover, there are signs that we have reached peak Facebook, with young people in particular turning away from the service. According to Hanna Kozlowska, writing in Quartz, Facebook usage among 12- to 24-year-olds is declining, and overall usage in the United States and Canada is starting to shrink as well. That’s not to say Facebook is about to go the way of Friendster or MySpace. But perhaps a shrinking user base, combined with the controversy and legal woes Zuckerberg is dealing over privacy violations and other scandals, will lead to a kinder, gentler Facebook.

Ultimately, Vaidhyanathan says, it’s up to us. “Reviving a healthy social and political life would require a concerted recognition of the damage Facebook has done and a campaign to get beyond its spell,” he writes. “If millions were urged to put Facebook in its proper place, perhaps merely as a source of social and familial contact rather than political knowledge or activism, we could train ourselves out of the habit.” Later he writes: “Resistance is futile. But resistance seems necessary.”

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The Arts Fuse reviews “The Wired City”

Bill Marx has written a favorable review of “The Wired City” for The Arts Fuse, a Boston-based online arts magazine that he founded in 2007. Our paths crossed at The Boston Phoenix in the 1990s, and I know that Bill is a tough audience.

Bill also offers a worthwhile criticism — that the hyperlocal sites I write about should do more arts coverage, and that I should have held them to task. He’s right. At one time the New Haven Independent’s lack of in-depth arts coverage was on my radar, but I failed to follow up. But let me offer two points.

First, the Independent’s arts coverage is quite a bit more extensive today than it was when I was doing my research, with much of it funded by beat-specific grant money.

Second, though this doesn’t quite get at Marx’s critique, both the Independent and The Batavian, the two sites I cover in the most detail, emphasize excellent photography. That visual appeal is part of what has made them a success.