There are few sights in modern life more ridiculous and sickening than watching a journalist try and explain why people hate him and his profession. When asked why this is so, the journalist will breathe in deeply, adjust his mien to express both noble victimhood and self-righteousness, and explain that he is disliked because he tells the truth. Sometimes people don’t like to hear the truth.
This, of course, is a lie. Most journalists are not interested in the truth, and most people know this. What is remarkable is how so many journalists think they can get away with obscuring or eliminating facts that they don’t like. After cable, after Fox News, after Bernie Goldberg, the media still thinks its problem is that people can’t stomach fearless truth-telling.
What I find interesting is that things in the fourth estate weren’t always this way. In my desk I have a copy of a column written by Meg Greenfield, the late and celebrated editorial page editor of the Washington Post. It is dated October 3, 1979. It is called “The Power of the Pope,” and was written when John Paul II was visiting America for the first time. From time to time, when I feel sickened by the stupidity and arrogance of modern journalism, I reread these two paragraphs:
My favorite story about [John Paul II] is that he caused great consternation by insisting, against scandalized advice, that he wanted a papal swimming pool built at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo. You got the idea that the pope 1) refused to view swimming as an act that could affect, let alone destroy, his dignity, 2) at the same time did not view it as some kind of humanizing or popularizing hey-look-the-pope-is-swimming gambit, but 3) wanted a swimming pool for the simple, direct and authentic reason that he likes to swim.
This evident self-possession looks to be the style of a man who is comfortable with his choices and the values they dictate. I know I am leaving out a religious dimension here that is unfamiliar to me, and also that some of those choices have worldwide political and social implications that many people, myself included, think are truly harmful. But I think there is a wholly admirable and tragically rare aspect to this man: he exudes the authority of personal strength, belief and commitment in a way that practically no other leader does. And this authority, clearly, does not depend on the orthodoxy and church law he is seeking to maintain. Rather, it comes from within the man, is in that place between insecurity and dumb arrogance where genuine leadership reposes.
Meg Greenfield was a liberal. Her claim that the authority of the pope has nothing to do with the law and orthodoxy of the Catholic Church is bunk.
But this passage is also filled with the kind of questing intelligence that modern journalism no longer allows for. Greenfield opened her eyes up to the pope in his entirety; she allowed herself to be surprised, to learn, to come to conclusions that would even challenge her worldview. And then she honestly wrote about it. She also displayed an attractive humility at not being an authority on Catholicism.
It is a stark and dispiriting contrast to what one finds in the media today. On October 3, 2010, exactly 31 years after Greenfield’s column, the Post ran an op-ed on Glenn Beck that was written by Dana Milbank. What is stunning about the piece is not that Milbank hates Beck, but Milbank’s rank cowardice. Unlike Greenfield, Milbank wrote his piece before he did any research. Milbank points to Beck’s dislike of Woodrow Wilson; Beck hates the former president, writes Milbank, because he was a leader in the Progressive Era, which “was the time of muckrakers and such things as the struggle to abolish child labor, break up monopolies, clean up meat-processing plants and give women the right to vote. For Beck, this was a dark time.”