Tilting at Windmills

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

By Nicholas Lemann

This column marks the dawn of the post-Charles Peters era of “Tilting at Windmills”; at eighty-seven, Charlie has decided to stop writing the column himself, and from now on a rotating cast of alumni of the magazine will be writing it. It’s appropriate that I am beginning the rotation, because I’m the one who, many years ago, had the idea for the column.

My motives were not entirely pure. I came to work at the Washington Monthly on July 1, 1976, and in those days Charlie almost never wrote for the magazine under his own byline. But that didn’t mean he didn’t write. Often he would append material he’d written to other people’s articles, usually at the end, and usually as a means of getting more of his own and the magazine’s editorial positions into print. It fell to me to try to persuade the authors that Charlie’s additions had improved their stories, which wasn’t always so easy. Thinking of Frederick Jackson Turner’s theory that the open frontier had provided a safety valve to relieve the social pressures of nineteenth-century America, I wondered whether a column under Charlie’s byline could serve as an editorial safety valve, lowering the pressure on articles by other people to become the bearers of his views. And so it did. Because of what preceded the column, and because it’s how his mind works, the column became a collection of short takes, rather than a single essay; as several people have pointed out, he was a blogger before there were bloggers. And the title was a reference to Charlie’s favorite novel, Don Quixote.

The many shades of liberalism

Not long before I went to work at the Monthly, Saul Bellow’s novel Humboldt’s Gift was published. I often thought about the ecstatically hopeful conversations between the title character, Von Humboldt Fleisher, and his protégé, Charlie Citrine, about the golden age that would dawn when Adlai Stevenson was elected president, because that was the way we talked, in the summer and fall of 1976, about the prospect of a Jimmy Carter administration. The Monthly was a small enough magazine that our skeleton staff would open subscription-renewal letters by hand in the office, so that we could rush the checks to the deposit window at the bank. We knew not only that Carter was a subscriber, but that his subscription went to a home address, and was renewed with a personal check in his own hand. Even if Carter no longer had time to read every word in the magazine, we imagined, he could focus on Charlie’s new column and get the key points on how to conduct his presidency.

We had no idea that in four short years, an era would dawn in which five of seven presidential terms would be held by Republicans who were far more conservative than most of the Republicans one encountered in Washington in the 1970s. Our mission was to help Carter make liberalism, the country’s reigning creed, function better. Our name for this project was neoliberalism.

Today, all these years later, we are in another moment (possibly evanescent, as moments always are) in which the Democratic Party seems to have a firm hold at least on the White House, and the reigning form of liberalism is more centrist than was the reigning form in the 1970s. So one could say that the mission for which the Monthly was created and in which it participated with many other actors was successful, despite the very long detour along the way into a period of conservative rule. But that strikes me as too facile. In the strictly political sense, liberalism is nowhere near as regnant as the results of the last six presidential elections—four Democratic victories, one Republican victory, one tie—would lead you to believe. Republicans control the House of Representatives and most of the governorships and state legislatures, and they may control the Senate too after this fall’s elections. More importantly, the Monthly was always more about an idea of the good society than it was about promoting the fortunes of a political party. There, I’d see the picture as distinctly mixed.

A bygone age

Charlie has always been openly nostalgic for the West Virginia of his Depression- and World War II-era childhood—not in every respect, but because the culture (not just in West Virginia, but nationally) was more democratic and people had more faith in politics and government as an appropriate realm for projects expressing common purpose. The magazine was from the very beginning wary of social fragmentation, overemphasis on market values, exaggerated mistrust of the public sector, and disproportionate elite power, all of which Charlie was prescient in seeing as looming dangers. On these dimensions, it’s impossible to argue that things are better today than in the early days of the magazine. It isn’t just that economic inequality—of income and, even more, of wealth—has increased so much over the lifetime of the magazine. It’s also that the rising, optimistic feeling that has characterized the lives of many (especially white, of course) ordinary Americans from the very beginning seems to be disappearing, and there seems to be less shared social and political space. Both data and instinct indicate that a fairly small elite has pulled away from the rest of the country, and that we have only begun to feel the full effects of this change.
How and why did this happen? There are many reasons, but it’s the Monthly’s tradition to engage in painful self-examination, so let’s take a moment here to look beyond the idea that all these social and economic changes are the fruit of the efforts of a well-organized, well-funded, and successful conservative movement. Liberals are part of the story too.

Rage against the machine

If anybody asked me for a book to read that would capture the atmosphere around the Washington Monthly in the 1970s—other than articles in the magazine itself—I’d suggest Theodore Lowi’s The End of Liberalism, which was published in 1969. This was an attack on liberalism from the left, by a prominent political scientist. Lowi’s scorn was particularly directed at what he called “interest group liberalism”—the takeover of the apparatus of government, such as congressional committees and regulatory agencies, by people who wanted some goodie or other and knew what to do to get it. The Vietnam War was raging, the cities were burning, and Washington seemed unable to address the country’s real problems. Interest group liberalism had to go.

The prospect of replacing interest group liberalism with something that was better targeted at the needs of the country, and also more effective, was deeply alluring. In those days we were about as distant from the heyday of the New Deal as the 1970s are from us today; you’d still see white-haired former aides to FDR (Joseph Rauh, Thomas Corcoran) wandering around the streets of downtown Washington. They had come to town to do good and had stayed to do well, and now it was time to sweep their old corrupted structures away and create new, purer ones. This was also the long-forgotten heyday of Ralph Nader as a super-respectable figure, who had an initiative staffed by bright young people aimed at reforming just about every department and agency of the government. Deregulating industries, using the power of markets to make government work better, embracing technology, targeting government social programs on people who really needed them, helping consumers rather than politically connected businesses, taking down trade barriers, reducing the power of the Democratic Party establishment and the labor unions, orienting government toward the public interest rather than toward interest groups—all of this was our dream.

I don’t mean to renounce these ideas entirely, but in retrospect they present a couple of problems. First, we had too much faith in the ability of people like us, smart and well-intentioned upper-middle-class (defined by family background, not by what the Monthly paid) Washington liberals, to determine what was and wasn’t a genuine social need. Our scorn for interest group liberalism led us to undervalue the process of people organizing themselves and pushing the political system to give them what they wanted from it. Second, we failed to anticipate the way that eliminating all those structures that struck us as outdated—the government bureaucracies, the seniority system in Congress, the old-line interest groups—would almost inevitably wind up working to the advantage of elites more than of the ordinary people on whose behalf we imagined ourselves to be advocating. The frictionless, disintermediated, networked world in which we live today is great for people with money and high-demand skills, not so great for everybody else. It’s a cruel irony of the Monthly’s history that our preferred label for ourselves, neoliberal, has come to denote political regimes maximally friendly to the financial markets. I’ve come to see the merits of the liberal structures I scorned in my younger days.

The unraveling

The recent history of journalism makes for a good example of what happens when society becomes less structured. In this case technology, especially the Internet, has been the main driver of change. As in many other realms—personal finance, telephone service, entertainment, and air travel, just for starters—the playing field has been rearranged in ways that advantage consumers, and there’s something undeniably attractive about that. I have constant open access to virtually everything in the world produced by a news organization (paywalls are not only rare, but also porous), which makes my life as a reader of news better than I ever could have imagined. But there is inevitably a trade-off between the interests of consumers and the interests of producers. The world of journalism online, thus far, has been so disadvantageous to traditional professional producers of news that they have had to reduce their staffs far beyond the literal meaning of the word “decimated” (reduced by a tenth). Information produced by volunteers and surfaced by search algorithms can fill some of the gap, but not all. So we’re now entering a world where the free and easy access we have to news is reducing the quantity and quality of news we have access to.

I think this situation is more dire than most people realize. Professional journalism has been supported overwhelmingly by advertising, not subscriptions or newsstand sales. In the pre-Internet days, commercial publishers would amass a large audience, often at a financial loss, and sell advertisers access to it. It wasn’t crazy for them to assume that far larger nonpaying audiences, assembled online, could lead to an advertising bonanza. But that didn’t happen. The reason is that most online readers are getting their news in the form of individual stories, which they are far likelier to have found through a search engine, an aggregator, or a social network than by going to a news organization’s site. If a big newspaper’s notionally enormous audience actually consists mainly of people who are spending just a few seconds looking at one disconnected story, then it’s hard to persuade advertisers to pay a lot of money to reach the paper’s entire audience, as they do in print.

Unstructuring tends to produce concentrations of power. Something like three-quarters of all digital advertising revenue goes to just two companies, Google and Facebook. Yes, it’s true that the smarter online-only news organizations, like Slate and BuzzFeed and Huffington Post, have figured out how to produce much higher ratios of audience to staff than the traditional, print- or broadcast-based news organizations. But keep in mind that as large as their audiences are, they are only a fraction the size of Google’s and Facebook’s—and those companies don’t create any journalistic content at all, they just focus on building a massive distribution system. Online news achieves its big numbers, in substantial part, by sending stories out on Google’s and Facebook’s vast networks, but that means Google and Facebook have the ability to sell advertisers access to any news organization’s audience, at a lower price. It’s not an accident that no online journalism organization has yet had the confidence in its present and future economic fortunes to organize itself into a publicly held corporation and sell shares (which would mean also releasing data about its economic performance) on the open market.

Limits of the market

Journalists starved for good news have been cheering about Ezra Klein’s departure from the Washington Post for Vox Media, to start a policy-oriented site. The hosannas are a tribute to the quality of Wonkblog, the site Klein built at the Post, and also to a deep collective yearning for the elusive new business model for online to arrive. Maybe this is it!

It’s great that Klein, and others, have demonstrated that a more substantive, policy-oriented form of journalism, if executed with authority and flair, can attract large audiences. This kind of journalism has always been a cause of the Washington Monthly’s. But I’m not persuaded, thus far, that his venture will make money. One very smart businessman, Jeff Bezos, the Post’s new owner, must have thought it wouldn’t, or he would have signed on to Klein’s proposal to make the new venture an internal project of the Post’s. It’s also not a positive development that journalism, like a wide range of other fields including finance, technology, law, and even academe, seems to be developing its own version of superstar economics, in which a handful of the most talented people pull away from the mass of their professional colleagues. Organization gives journalism a significant measure of its power to do good; that’s why Klein wanted more resources from the Post.

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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