National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: News & Virtue

If you spend too much time watching 24-hour all-news channels some things become unmistakable. The first is how little news is actually broadcast. Most of it is gossip and opinion. Anna Nicole, RIP.

Opinion wouldn’t be so bad, except that it too often doesn’t come from experts, but from loudmouths with little more real expertise than that obnoxious guy sitting at the end of the bar. CNN’s Glenn Beck comes to mind.

CNN also pays Johnny-One-Note tin-horn demagogue wanna-be’s like Lou Dobbs to rant for an hour every night while shamelessly manipulating what he tries to pass as “news” into apologetics for his own political agenda.

Real news, after all, has as much to do with editing as with facts. The responsible journalist or editor makes important decisions for us all when he or she determines what gets reported and what doesn’t. Dobbs, of course, chooses to report on nothing but his pet peeve, immigration, and all from his personal point of view. He pretends he is anchoring a legitimate “news hour.” What a joke.

How much more can you flaunt irresponsible journalism than by such means? CNN folks are apparently co-opting such ideas from Roger Ailes at Fox News and feel they have to mimic his sorry operation to compete for market share.

More subtle than this, however, is a phenomenon that has taken over virtually the entire journalistic profession over the course of the now-extensive post-Watergate period (that’s going on 35 years now).

It’s a trend that was propelled on key university campuses back in the 1970s by the Fund for Investigative Journalism (FIJ) and other similar entities.

In the period following the student ferment of the civil rights struggle and opposition to Vietnam, new cadres of smart and skeptical young Americans were found in droves eager to delve into and report on the shortcomings of all aspects of the “status quo” in society.

Unfortunately, the philosophic grounding that underpinned this new energy, as it was honed by the FIJ and others, involved a deep distrust, contempt and pessimism concerning human nature, especially as regarding any human with a modicum of power. There was, in this view, no real place for public virtue.

Every elected official, for example, is seen as either corrupt or wanting to be. This hard “realism,” touted for being the opposite of naivete, was the ideological teat upon which a whole new generation of investigative journalists was nourished.

Clearly there have been plenty of examples to prove there is some basis for such a view. Indeed, there have been more than a few public officials found to be on the take, peddling influence and engaged in webs of deceit more massive, sometimes, than even the most jaundiced of journalists can get their by-lines around. The names Jack Abramoff and Karl Rove come to mind.

But cynical journalism treats every move by any public official in terms of selfish self-interest. Any and all explanations offered up by journalists to account for any move by a politician or office-seeker is couched in such terms. Politicians, in the mind of the Fourth Estate, never act out of a genuine commitment to what’s right, but only to achieve ulterior motives in terms of self-preservation, advancement and aggrandizement.

While no journalist ought to take what a politician says at face value, on the other hand, it seems that well-honed powers of discernment should find in a lot of what many political figures do at least a mix of personal and genuinely virtuous motives.

This “finger-pointing” approach to journalism, and its attendant focus on personal scandal and “gotcha” techniques, tends to the kind of arrogant self-righteousness that is blind to its own flaws.

Virginia Freshman Senator Jim Webb is a rare case of a journalist turned politician. As he told journalists assembled at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., last week, he’s learning that, from a politician’s point of view, the journalistic tendency to portray him in the standard way, in his case as a “one issue” man among other things, can be mighty frustrating and downright unfair.

Looking at journalism from the other side of the table, perhaps he’ll enlighten his former colleagues that there can be virtue in politics.