Mencken was right: journalists are incompetent

Mark Judge Journalist and filmmaker
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I have just come across an article that, for me, is the last word on American journalism. It accuses journalists of being lazy, cowardly, and meretricious. And it was written in 1924.

“Journalism in America” is an essay by H.L. Mencken, whom many people consider the greatest journalist of the 20th century. It can be found in a beautiful new edition of Mencken’s work published by the Library of America. (I recommend buying the two-volume set, which comes with a lovely slipcase.)

Mencken’s essay is 86 years old, but it offers insights into journalism that are sharper than anything you‘ll find at journalism school. In 1924, as Mencken notes, journalism was becoming more and more popular and more and more professional. It wasn’t considered a hobby for the aimless and artistic, and advertisers, cowed by growing circulations, were increasingly reluctant to try and dictate coverage. It was a fat time for newspapers. Thus, the journalist began to think of himself not as an artist or intellectual (i.e. Mark Twain) but as a professional man. Mencken sums up the transition and the journalist’s new view of himself:

Upon that cogitation [I.e. that he is a professional] he is still engaged, and all the weeklies that print the news of the craft are full of its fruits. He elects representatives and they meet in lugubrious conclave to draw up codes of ethics. He begins to read books dealing with professional questions of other sorts — even books not dealing with professional questions. He changes his old cynical view of schools of journalism, and is lured, now and then, into lecturing in them himself. He no longer thinks of his calling as a business, like the haberdasher’s or tallow chandler’s, or as a game, like the stockbroker’s or faro-dealer’s, but as a profession, like the jurisconsult’s or gynecologist’s. His purpose is to set it on its legs as such — to inject plausible theories into its practice, and rid it of its casualness and opportunism. He no longer sees it as a craft to be mastered in four days, and abandoned at the first sign of a better job. He begins to talk darkly of the long apprenticeship necessary to master its technique, of the wide information and sagacity needed to adorn it, of the high rewards that it offers — or may offer later on — to the man of true talent and devotion. Once he thought of himself, whenever he thought at all, as what Beethoven called a free artist — a gay adventurer careening down charming highways of the world, the gutter ahead of him but ecstasy in his heart. Now he thinks of himself as a fellow of weight and responsibility, a beginning publicist and public man, sworn to the service of the born and the unborn, heavy with duties to the Republic and his profession.

As Mencken notes, there was — is — only one problem with all this self-seriousness: most journalists are stupid. Not just marginally unintelligent, but, in Mencken’s view, deeply, intractably ignorant — “there are managing editors in the United States, and scores of them, who have never heard of Kant or Johannes Muller and never read the Constitution of the United States; there are city editors who do not know what a symphony is; there are reporters by the thousands who could not pass the entrance examination for a Harvard or Tuskegee, or even Yale.” On more than one occasion — and I’m sure I’m not the only one — I have had to slow down for a journalist interviewing me and explain to them basic concepts about the story they are writing. These people just are not intellectuals. Many don’t even read books.

They also are deeply insecure and will brook no criticism — “in general journalism suffers from a lack of alert and competent professional criticism; its slaves, afflicted by a natural inferiority complex, discountenance free speaking as a sort of treason.” True in 1924. Truer today.

Mencken’s piece points to why so many of us struggle to find reasons not to give up on newspapers and magazines and trust the evening news. A few years ago, I spent a brief time writing record reviews for the Washington Post. It didn’t pay well, but as the editors said, there was “prestige” to having a byline in the paper of Woodward and Bernstein and the Pentagon Papers. Then one day I sent the editors an email. A record review that had appeared, written by another writer, was incoherent. I pointed this out, noting that I was a customer as well as a contributor. I wanted to make the product the best it could be.

I was invited to never submit to them again. My criticism was not addressed. I was blackballed; after gushing to me that he thought I was a “terrific writer,” the editor of the section simply acted as if I did not exist. They quickly brought in reinforcements, and finally settled on Chris Richards, a hipster mediocrity, as their music critic. It was as if my criticism had never happened. Even across the span of more than eight decades, Mencken nails it: “This struthian fear of the light is surely not to be noted in any of the actual professions. The medical men, in their trade journals, criticize one another frankly and sharply. And so do the lawyers in theirs: the latter, indeed, are not above taking occasional hacks at the very judges, their lawful fathers and patterns of grace.”

So perhaps it’s time even for those of us who have been clinging to newspaper and giving the mainstream networks yet one more chance to just hang it up. After reading Mencken I realized that I often pick up the Washington Post out of habit and nothing more. Some days I literally turn the pages without stopping or slowing down once. Why pay for it, when I can get real nourishment from First Things, Down Beat, the New Yorker? Why endure Chris Richards’ weak clichés in the Post when I can go to websites like Pitchfork or Popmatters?

Indeed, why? Thankfully, with the internet, journalism is returning to what it was before it became the profession that Mencken saw rise after World War I. It is more free, more fun, more artistic, and more self-correcting. If you want your blood to run cold, imagine for a minute what the world would look like had Al Gore not invented the internet. No Drudge. No weird stem-winding dissertations from crazed geniuses. No Daily Caller.

I would only disagree with Mencken about one thing. He attributes all the bogus news that came out of Russia after the revolution to ignorance. As we now know, it wasn’t ignorance, but ideology that made hacks like Walter Duranty of the Times claim there was no famine in Russia. Since then it has only gotten worse. So the media is lazy, ignorant, meretricious — and corrupt. And, even at this late hour, they will not lift a finger to save themselves.

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.