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.”
Through a rhetorical sleight of hand, Milbank has accused Beck of being against child labor laws and women’s right to vote (the part about muckrakers is also a nice self-indulgent touch — oh Dana, what would we do without you brave diggers for truth?). He, Milbank, doesn’t engage in the recent conservative reassessment of Woodrow Wilson as an imperialist and racist. He doesn’t consult a history book, call Beck on the phone, or refer to Jonah Goldberg’s bestseller “Liberal Fascism,” which has a major section devoted to Wilson. He simply refuses to. Milbank is not here to find answers or challenge assumptions. He is here to propagandize.
As part of their dedication to causes but not truths, modern journalists also simply refuse to cover certain things. I noticed this when I became a conservative in the early 1990s. When I had been a liberal, the things I was interested in were covered by the media. I grew up in Washington; books I read were covered by the Washington Post, as were liberal political rallies I attended and lectures by left-wingers. When I converted to the dark side of the force and moved right, suddenly I was in a world that didn’t exist in the media. People and things I found fascinating simply did not exist for local editors.
Several years ago, my friend Dawn Eden moved to D.C. Dawn had been a rock and roll journalist in New York, but in her 30s converted from Judaism to Catholicism. She renounced the promiscuity of her former life and wrote a book about chastity, “The Thrill of the Chaste.” She is a popular blogger and speaker, and is currently studying for her doctorate at Catholic University in Washington.
Here, you would think, is a compelling story for the Washington Post. But Dawn may as well live on Mars.
How did journalism get to this pass? Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I always seemed to come across examples of journalists who were interested in ideas and people, and allowed themselves to be led by their conscience and their research, no matter the consequences. Rolling Stone magazine won a National Magazine Award for its coverage of the murderous disaster at the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont; the citation praised the magazine for “challenging the shared assumptions of its readers.” Republican journalist Bob Woodward brought down Nixon. Allen Weinstein set out to prove Alger Hiss innocent, but when the evidence led the other way he declared him guilty — and published a massive volume, “Perjury,” to prove it. It even goes back to before my time. One thinks of H.L. Mencken, who closely studied religion before attacking it in his book “A Treatise on the Gods.” Or the debates between G.K. Chesterton, a Christian newspaper columnist and book author, and George Bernard Shaw, progressive atheist. Or the fierce independence of George Orwell, who condemned the “smelly little orthodoxies” of the left.
Do such writers exist anymore? Honestly, are E.J. Dionne, Eugene Robinson or Maureen Dowd capable of Meg Greenfield’s integrity? The truth is, journalists have become so ideological, so fat and sloppy, so pampered and arrogant, that they could not challenge their assumptions and do honest writing and research any more than a dog. People don’t hate them for what they write; they hate them for what they don’t. And even the pope can see that.
Mark Gauvreau Judge is the author of several books, including Damn Senators and God and Man at Georgetown Prep. His articles and essays have appeared in various publications.