Tilting at Windmills

March/ April/ May 2014 A bygone age … The unraveling … Faith in institutions

By Nicholas Lemann

What if it turns out that journalism’s social mission and its economic fortunes have simply diverged—that ventures like Klein’s do a superb job of informing the public, but don’t make money? Should we just shrug our shoulders and say, Sorry, if the market won’t support you, you shouldn’t exist? From the very beginning, much of journalism has been informally supported by patrons rather than the market. No doubt that will continue. But I don’t think we would be comfortable relying on benign informal patronage to supply other important national needs.

A greater society

The Monthly started at a time when it was daring, and intellectually innovative, for liberals to suggest that there might be limits to the capabilities of government. The magazine was saying this mainly as a way of drawing more attention to the importance of sweating the details of performance in government—but by now it has become similarly daring to suggest that government can or should take on any task. The argument that government is too dangerously powerful, and too inefficient, to be entrusted with a vital national mission seems unanswerable.

Of course, there’s a difference between how people talk about government and what actually happens. After the financial crisis of 2008, the country, which has a long tradition going back to the early nineteenth century of tightly regulating the financial system, decided to call the grand experiment in financial deregulation of the 1980s, ’90s, and aughts to a halt. The main vehicle for this was the massive Dodd-Frank legislation, plus a myriad of new policies from the Treasury, the Federal Reserve Board, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and other agencies. Government, not just here but all over the world, acted forcefully to address the crisis, and created a more strictly constrained financial world in the name of safety. And it’s working. It would be great if people would ponder whether there’s a larger implication here about the role of government in society, which might be applied in other areas—even journalism.

Faith in institutions

One reason government seems so awful to people is that it’s democratic—
meaning, it can’t be managed in the same command-and-control fashion as a private business. There are disparate constituencies to be managed, voters to be persuaded, deals to be made. To many people, it seems blindingly obvious what the right thing for government to do is, and that it isn’t so obvious to the rest of the world seems to be evidence not of the wonders of democracy, but of the inefficiency of government. There was some of this feeling in President Obama’s State of the Union address this year, which evinced a deep weariness with the process of seeking legislation and a preference for executive orders, or for Congress to present solutions to him, rather than vice versa.

Journalism has its own version of this impatience with democratic politics. One example is a deep, automatic hostility to any government regulation or funding of the press. Journalists may long for the days when the television news networks had substantial documentary units, but they tend not to make a connection between broadcast deregulation and the end of those glorious days; they may admire NPR and the NewsHour, but prefer not to see them as organizations that were launched by government policy decisions.

Another example of the antipolitical prejudice is the widespread conviction among journalists that news organizations—which are private businesses, after all—have the right to declassify material that elected government officials and their appointees have classified. It’s true that the national security state is overgrown and overprotected, and that it overclassifies, but it is at least bound up in systems of democratic accountability. The emergence of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden—and surely there will be more like them—is going to make this traditional journalistic stance increasingly problematic. If hackers have the right to publish vast troves of classified material at the push of a button, then why do we need journalists to perform the vital function of revealing government secrets? If, on the other hand, the hacktivists aren’t entirely admirable, then why should we admire journalists for acting as conduits of their material?

I know the answers to these questions. First, journalists are capable of filtering out classified material that deserves to remain classified in ways that Assange and Snowden are not. Second, journalists can transform masses of raw information into fully explained, contextualized news coverage. On both of these fronts, big news organizations have handled the massive electronic leaks of the past couple of years admirably. But if we’re moving to a world where we won’t have big news organizations anymore, then what happens? For journalists, and for everybody else, it’s worth thinking about which is really preferable, an institutionalized world that comes along with constraints (like the constant presence of government), or a super-efficient, fluid, transactional world with more freedom, more inequality, and less protection, for the individual or for social missions?

Nicholas Lemann a Washington Monthly contributing editor, is dean emeritus at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker.

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