The smiling Doppelgänger; or: the fall of the fourth estate

1. As a result of the debate between Lippmann and Dewey, what we know as journalism has been instrumental in the simultaneous marriage and autonomy of economics and politics. For what began as a means for communicating information that may affect prices and trade—which quickly turned out to be anything and everything—their debate was predicated on the idea that the very possibility of a people to govern themselves required a robust and rigorous media, free from distortion and misinformation (this was Lippmann’s point in Liberty and the News after WWI). In his philosophy of education, Dewey showed that we must be able to think well; Lippmann insisted that we must be able not only to think but that we must always think about something and that our capacity to think is limited not only by subjective but also objective possibilities.

Lippmann knew, of course, that journalistic practice does not consist of getting “just the facts”. The essential problem for both journalists and audiences, he said, is that between the individual and her environment is what he called a “pseudo-environment”, which consists of the habits and fictions that orient our behavior—put simply, our beliefs about the facts (or, as Nietzsche had said, there are never “mere facts” but facts interpreted as facts).

In 1919, the Washington Post ran a story that in the Adriatic a US Rear Admiral had apparently received orders from the British via the War Council. It seemed, the article concluded, that American naval forces could be commanded by foreign powers under the new League of Nations without the knowledge or consent of American commanders. Republican senators immediately expressed indignation at the possibility of American military operations being conducted without the consent of Congress, adding this news to support their opposition to the League of Nations. It turned out that no orders had come from the British and that the American forces had landed in Italy at the request of the Italians for protection, acting under established international practice that had nothing to do with the League of Nations.

Lippmann’s point in this example is not only that the Washington Post “got the facts wrong”, which is indeed true, but also that it illustrates the way in which we act, form opinions and convictions, and consequently act from information gathered not only by our environment but by our pseudo-environment. How is it possible for two people—or even two nations—to enter a conflict, both fully convinced that they are acting in self-defense, for example?

2. Without having to make any decisions on what constitutes the “facts” of an event, what distinguished journalism from other forms of popular media for Lippmann was not simply a dedication to the facts but, rather, its civic duty. His recommendations of now standard editorial practices and “journalistic ethics” were predicated on the principle that the journalist’s responsibility was quite literally to be the medium from citizen to world.

It did not take long, however, for the culture industry to corrode this sense of duty. On the left, for example, The Daily Show has explicitly erased the distinction between journalism and entertainment (with all the ironic consequences that have followed in its critical impotence); on the right, Fox News asks viewers to vote for which story they would like to see just as American Idol asks audiences to vote for which singer they would like to hear.

A Yahoo! News story reported that a recent story about a $1.33 tip from a banker on a $133 restaurant bill (with the sentence “get a real job” written by the word “tip”), which provoked outrage across the Internet, may have been digitally altered. The restaurant claimed to have found the merchant’s copy of the receipt, which shows a standard tip ($7) for a smaller bill ($33) without the accompanying insult.

Quite apart from the question of whether this event counts as significant news, the Yahoo! story ends with the reporter asking what has become an obligatory query addressed to the audience: “what do you think? Who’s telling the truth?” What is at stake in this story is the fact that the outrage over the original story is (likely) directed at a false source. If there is a story here, it is that our outrage over callous wealthy privilege is misfounded (at least in this case) and that the facts of the matter do not justify such a response. But the reporter’s final question makes the truth irrelevant: the truth of the matter seems not to be the point—the work of establishing it has not been done by the reporter—but only what I think about it.

What are the possible responses to that question? 1) “I think the original story is true and the restaurant is lying about the original receipt.” – Then the facts don’t matter. 2) “I think the receipt is a hoax.” – Then the story has not gone far enough in collecting the relevant evidence to allow us to come to a reasonable conclusion. 3) “I suspend judgment.” – Then what I think is irrelevant since I should precisely think nothing (notice that this is the only reasonable response to give).

Among the objective failures of journalism, this question “What do you think?” and the compulsion to “register” (to whom?) an opinion on anything and everything signifies the decadent subjective failure of civic duty. If Lippmann had entrusted to journalists the responsibility to the truth, Dewey had asked us to remember that democratic politics demands not opinion but thought, i.e., not only simply to insist on our “right to have an opinion” but that we have a responsibility to think about them.*

*Incidentally, recently I claimed that the intellectual dereliction of the left was one of the only two things about which Rand was right. This is the second: that the appropriate converse of a closed mind is not an open but an active mind.

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