Still Manufacturing Consent
In journalism, contra Sulzberger et al., veracity rather than virtue offers the proper measure of merit.
A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of the august New York Times, recently contributed an important essay on “Journalism’s Essential Value” to the Columbia Journalism Review. Slightly more than a century ago, in the November 1919 issue of the comparably august Atlantic Monthly, Walter Lippmann published “What Modern Liberty Means,” his own thoughtful critique of contemporary American journalism. Both essays deserve careful reading. But of the two, Lippmann’s is more persuasive and more relevant to the current moment.
Sulzberger mounts a brave and sturdy defense of the tradition that he calls “independent journalism.” Fairness, balance, impartiality, all rooted in a respect for facts: These are the qualities that for Sulzberger define this tradition, one that in his estimation the Times itself pioneered and has always sought to embody.
Today, in an “information ecosystem overrun by misinformation, conspiracy theories, propaganda, and clickbait,” he writes, “public trust in journalism has fallen to historical lows.” In this environment, adherence to traditional journalistic standards has “become a radical pursuit.” Yet at a time when “polarization and misinformation are shaking the foundations of liberal democracies,” commitment to those standards “is the exact tonic the world needs.”
Following this commendable introduction, Sulzberger tips his hand. “Principled, independent journalists,” he avers, hold the key to “enabling a diverse, pluralistic society to come together to self-govern.” Independent journalism provides “the connective tissue of a common fact base,” Sulzberger writes, and simultaneously exposes “people to a wider range of experiences and perspectives.”
But diversity and pluralism are not neutral terms. Especially in contemporary America, they are fraught with political content. While bringing some people together, they alienate and even enrage others.
Sulzberger then cites Walter Lippmann as the “most prominent champion of this approach,” quoting with approval Lippmann’s dictum that journalists “ought not to be serving a cause, no matter how good.”
Yet however much Sulzberger may profess to revere Lippmann, his newspaper routinely throws its considerable weight behind various causes, large and small. One wonders, for example, what Lippmann would make of the “1619 Project” (which Sulzberger barely mentions), a sweeping challenge to journalistic orthodoxy if there ever was one.
Lippmann’s own Atlantic piece from 1919 provides an answer to that question. “Liberty,” he writes, “is the name we give to measures by which we protect and increase the veracity of the information upon which we act.”
In journalism, in other words, veracity rather than virtue offers the proper measure of merit.
On that score, Lippmann found the newspapers of his own day sadly wanting. Dominating international news in 1919 were stories that focused on the aftermath of the recently concluded Great War, especially controversies related to the Paris Peace Conference and the ongoing Bolshevik Revolution. “Now, the plain fact,” Lippmann wrote, “is that out of the troubled areas of the world the public receives practically nothing that is not propaganda.”
His axiom applies as much today as it did in 1919. Indeed, the more grievous the troubles the more egregious the propaganda, as press reporting on the Ukraine War and on China amply demonstrates. In both instances, even establishment outlets such as the Times have abandoned even the pretense of offering balanced coverage in favor of striking a virtuous posture, denouncing Russian brutality and Chinese authoritarianism. What Times readers learn about the course of the fighting in Ukraine and about the new Cold War with China—now treated as essentially inevitable—is laced with propaganda.
The point is not to declare President’s Putin and Xi innocent—they are not—but to acknowledge that Sulzberger’s paper has enlisted in any number of global causes. On foreign affairs, the Times traffics in interpretation as much as it does in facts. Much the same applies to various sensitive domestic issues as well, especially those related to race, gender, and sexual orientation. The Times promotes its views on such matters not covertly, but openly and unashamedly. For proof, consult any relevant A Section article classified as “news analysis.”
Whenever facts are in short supply, Lippmann wrote, “the quack, the charlatan, the jingo, and the terrorist” flourish. Those who report for and edit the Times may not be quacks and charlatans, but neither are they mere disinterested observers. They are active participants in America’s ongoing culture wars.
Lippmann was writing in an era before radio, TV, the internet, and social media. The daily newspaper of his day, he believed, occupied a singular position. The newspaper was “in all literalness the bible of democracy, the book out of which a people determines its conduct.” The newspaper was “the only serious book most people read.” As a consequence, the power exercised by newspaper editors “to determine each day what shall seem important and what shall be neglected is a power unlike any that has been exercised since the Pope lost his hold on the secular mind.”
Newspaper editors no longer exercise anything remotely like papal authority. To a considerable extent, news consumers have appropriated the essential editorial function. In a world awash with fact, alternative facts, fiction, and outright lies, individuals claim the prerogative of deciding what “news” to attend to and what to ignore.
And yet “where all news comes at second-hand, where all the testimony is uncertain,” Lippmann observed over a century ago, “men cease to respond to truths, and respond simply to opinions.” In such circumstances, a “pseudo-environment of reports, rumors, and guesses” prevails—a concise rendering of present-day circumstances in the United States.
Given the extraordinary dysfunction that prevails on our present-day political scene, the Congress has all but rendered itself hors de combat. Lippmann believed that a similar situation prevailed in 1919 with decisions made “not by Congress and the executive, but by public opinion and the executive.” Politics had devolved into a process of special interest groups mounting “a continual electioneering campaign upon the uninformed exploitable mass of public opinion,” with the people not so much consulted as manipulated. In practice if not in theory, the “locus of sovereignty” shifted, placing a “premium on the manufacture of what is usually called consent.”
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Journalism today has become a cacophonous process of manufacturing consent on a massive scale, with establishment voices increasingly likely to be marginalized or ignored. In 1919, Lippmann argued that “the axis of the controversy needs to be shifted.” Instead of “trying to make opinion responsible to prevailing social standards,” the more important thing was to “make opinion increasingly responsible to the facts.”
That requirement remains very much intact. Whether the newspaper (or its electronic equivalent) can once more become a bible to which Americans turn to determine their conduct is a large question. Arthur Sulzberger is well-positioned to take on the task should he choose to do so. But whether he will succeed in resurrecting what Lippmann referred to a “one of the truly sacred and priestly offices in a democracy” remains to be seen.
Doing so will require far bolder action than publishing an occasional lament in the Columbia Journalism Review. In the meantime, Walter Lippmann’s place atop the pantheon of American journalism remains vacant.