Towards a Philosophy of Journalism

“Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments. Man’s profound need of art lies in the fact that his cognitive faculty is conceptual, i.e., that he acquires knowledge by means of abstractions, and needs the power to bring his widest metaphysical abstractions into his immediate, perceptual awareness. Art fulfills this need: by means of a selective re-creation, it concretizes man’s fundamental view of himself and of existence. It tells man, in effect, which aspects of his experience are to be regarded as essential, significant, important. In this sense, art teaches man how to use his consciousness. It conditions or stylizes man’s consciousness by conveying to him a certain way of looking at existence.”

–       Ayn Rand, “Art and Cognition”[i]

 

The above passage by Ayn Rand eloquently describes the philosophical role and significance of art in man’s life and cognitive development. Put simply, she describes that the need for art arises from the need to concretize broad abstractions of the world as a whole into something tangible and directly perceivable before one’s eyes (or ears, in the case of music). It is art and only art (in all of its forms—literary, musical, performance, paint, sculpture) that can serve this function for man, condensing his most fundamental experiences of the world into something tangible and interpretable. This need has been present in human existence from the earliest pre-civilized cultures and has stood as a legacy of their aesthetic skill and sense of life, from the most primitive cave paintings to the architecture of modern skyscrapers. This sort of metaphysical knowledge of the world is prerequisite for man’s rational understanding of his existence. As civilization progressed, men came to live more closely among one another, forming social relationships and economic orders that transformed man’s previously hand-to-mouth existence into one of increased survival rates, longer lifespans, greater quality of life, even luxury. With these developments, knowledge not just of the metaphysical character of the world became increasingly significant to man’s existence. He required not simply broad generalizations, but specific and practical information, condensations of life’s more derivative and consequential elements—not the nature of himself or of the universe, but of the society in which he lives —not just history and philosophy, but journalism.

To be clear: journalism does not perform the same fundamental purpose of art. Its focus is not the illustration of metaphysical or ethical principles, but the relaying of the concrete particulars of social existence: culture, politics, and economics. It does not provide man with a concept of existence, but rather assists him in the otherwise impossible task of conceptualizing the society in which he lives— its nature and present course— and of acquiring information that will aid him in the pursuit of his own personal values. Despite their significant differences, there are distinct parallels in the professional performance of art and journalism. Both begin with a world of potential data and must perform the task of isolating and integrating aspects of reality, filtering and interpreting them through a set of criteria—in the case of art, the artist’s metaphysical value judgments; in the case of journalism, what we might call the writer’s or editor’s “journalistic value judgments.” These journalistic value judgments consist of what information the writer deems pertinent to a given news story or what an editor deems worthy of inclusion in a story, televised program, or newspaper as a whole. For an editor or publisher, the journalistic value of including a given story, piece of information, or opinion piece in the limited space afforded to him is determined by his own standard of value, “an abstract principle that serves as a measurement or gauge to guide [his] choices in the achievement of a concrete, specific purpose”[ii]— that which he perceives to be his ultimate aim in the performance of his role; the task in whose service all of his day-to-day actions must be integrated.

Throughout the last several centuries of western civilization, individuals and groups with ambitions as diverse as those of American revolutionaries and slavery abolitionists, Soviet tyrants, and everything in between have—implicitly or explicitly—recognized and acted upon this influential feature of journalistic media in the pursuit of their own specific purposes. In the United States, where the history of newspapers is inextricably linked to the time of the revolution and the founding of the US government, American journalism has enjoyed a nearly two-hundred-and-fifty-year reputation as the ultimate civilian defense of citizens’ rights and liberties. From the Federalist Papers debates of Hamilton, Madison, and Jay that played out in the editorial pages of The Independent Journal and The New York Packet to the ratification of the First Amendment, it is impossible to tell the story of American independence without admiring the virtue and power of a free press. This reputation of journalism as a defense of American society, however, rests soundly upon the assumption by the public that members of the media view themselves in that traditional light—as guardians of a way of life, tasked to preserve liberty through the exposition of truth—and that they hold as their standard of value those principles upon which our nation was founded: freedom and individual rights.

Tragically, as the ever-growing displeasure of Americans with their popular media will indicate, that traditional understanding by the media of their primary task and purpose is eroding. In truth, it has been for generations, since the dismissal of Henry Hazlitt as editor of the New York Times for his having questioned the wisdom of the Bretton Woods Conference. As the growth of the state continued unchecked through the mid-twentieth century, American journalism slowly dropped the mantel of vigilance and came passively to accept the popular political wisdom of those in office more with passing years. The Baby Boomer generation, raised in the rhetoric of the 1960s and 70s, the nihilism of the New Left, and an era in which welfare statism and government programs flourished with hardly a trace of moral opposition in mainstream American politics, unsurprisingly produced a new crop of journalists who took government’s presiding over the economy as an unquestioned fact of life. Politics in the world in which they had been cultured, for all the noble rhetoric of Kennedys and the lofty ideals of the “love generation”, was distinctly without a rational, critical discussion of moral principles. What moral rhetoric remained was unadulterated altruism that saw an American Right struggling desperately and losing against a more ideologically consistent Left.

Though this uncritical acceptance of welfare statism pervaded journalistic culture, a professionalism was retained that valued the reputation of the industry as objective and concerned primarily with equipping Americans with the information needed to understand and preserve the political system under which they lived. So valued was objectivity that journalists covering a presidential election would work side-by-side for over a year without revealing to one another to which candidate they intended to give their vote. The profession and its defense of American freedom and our political process were preserved not by the political ideology pervasive among journalists, but by the solemnity and respect with which they addressed their profession—not by their views of citizens and government, but by a properly exalted view of themselves and the importance of their own actions to the preservation of liberties (to the extent that they conceived of them).

Today, as a new generation of journalists has emerged in a newly polarized political environment characterized by a fundamentally nihilist president and a more rapacious, unapologetic brand of statism blossoming on the Left, that professional demeanor is rapidly becoming a relic of the past. The mask of objectivity is slipping and beneath it is found the snarling, guilt-ridden visage of the same violent mediocrity that has stood at the side of dictators and mobs that have seized power and wrought havoc throughout the last century of human history. It is a particular kind of mediocrity most prevalent in journalism, academia, and the arts that does not seek political power directly, but prefers to serve as handmaiden to tyranny and midwife to the destruction it brings. Lacking the capacity for physical force needed to command power over other men, it seeks it indirectly, by lending intellectual and moral justification to the actions of those who possess such power and intend to wield it. It is the symbiotic relationship of what Ayn Rand called “Attila and the witch-doctor.”

As this new journalistic culture prevails, many no longer feel restrained in openly expressing personal political views in a professional setting. One retired journalist told me of an experience in the last several years of a senior producer at a national cable news network making an open endorsement of ObamaCare legislation during a daily production meeting, at which none seemed to bat an eye. That such avowed bias is taken as de rigeur in that context allows for no particular surprise when it emerges in daily news coverage. A cursory look at the pages of journalistic ‘watchdog’ publications such as Breitbart’s Big Journalism or the daily reports of NewsBusters gives one a sense of the depth and scope of statist bias in popular media today. Most are offensive, but given the dominant political culture in America today, unsurprising. As of late, however, a brazenly unapologetic variety of statism has emerged in the nation’s major news outlets that amounts to a renunciation of the institutions that defend our citizen’s rights and liberties and, as out of a dystopian fiction, a cry for dictatorship in America.

The examples of bias are nearly too pandemic to enumerate and they expand well beyond the scope of editorial pages—from the rapaciously hostile treatment given to Republican political candidates (such as journalist Candy Crowley’s engagement of Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential debates) to the mainstream media’s outright silence on stories that bear poorly on the Obama administration’s image (Fast & Furious, Benghazi). I will refer the interested reader to such ‘watchdog’ publications as mentioned before for evidence of day-to-day leftist slant, but suffice it to say that the instances are so numerous and prevalent as to constitute the dominant journalistic culture in America. From this culture, one more verbal jab at opponents of ObamaCare, one more misrepresentation of Ayn Rand, or one more groundless accusation that an act of terrorism is to be blamed on the Tea Party is unsurprising. Rather, what raises one’s ire is a rising crop of explicit cries by journalists and editorialists for the renunciation of Americans’ individual rights—even, most appallingly, their own.

On December 30, 2012, an editorial was published in the New York Times by Georgetown constitutional law professor Louis Michael Seidman entitled “Let’s Give Up on the Constitution.” The author proceeds by deploring how long it has taken him as a professor of constitutional law to recognize that the problems of America today are the direct result of a dogmatic adherence to the US Constitution, “with all its archaic, idiosyncratic and downright evil provisions.”[iii] He goes on to deride what he perceives to be all of the inanities and injustices in our government for which the Constitution is responsible: the requirement that revenue measures (funded by tax dollars) originate in the lower house of Congress that by design is more directly representative of the people, that the unilateral “considered judgment” of party leaders and presidents be limited by the “shackles of constitutional obligation”, and the imperative that modern lawmakers operate upon the principles of governance laid out by “a group of white propertied men who have been dead for two centuries, knew nothing of our present situation, acted illegally under existing law and thought it was fine to own slaves.”

Professor Seidman, so he claims, is not advocating anarchy or the rise of a single dictator to preside unchecked over the United States. “Nor should we have a debate about, for instance, how long the president’s term should last or whether Congress should consist of two houses,” he writes, with the disgruntled caveat: “Some matters are better left settled, even if not in exactly the way we favor.” He ostensibly supports a continuation of the “freedom of speech and religion, equal protection of the laws and protections against governmental deprivation of life, liberty or property”, but argues that they should no longer be defended as a matter of Constitutional right. Rather, “[w]e should continue to follow those requirements out of respect, not obligation.” What of the third branch of government, that whose sole function is the interpretation of the Constitution and the assurance that all laws passed by congress and carried out by the executive remain soundly within the parameters it lays out? As if torn from the pages of Ayn Rand’s Anthem, he gives us an image of his ideal: “There is even something to be said for an elite body like the Supreme Court, with the power to impose its views of political morality on the country.” [Emphasis mine.]

This is Seidman’s vision: a tyranny of unchecked democracy, unlimited majority rule, and the exaltation of hundreds of whim-worshipping dictators, from the president to the legislature and the Supreme Court, to positions of what would be unlimited power over the people of the United States. His ideal is a world of non-objective, Soviet-style morality councils, one in which “Congress might well retain the power of the purse, but this power would have to be defended on contemporary policy grounds, not abstruse constitutional doctrine” and in which “[t]he president would have to justify military action against Iran solely on the merits, without shutting down the debate with a claim of unchallengeable constitutional power as commander in chief.” (Perhaps this last might sound justified—if it were true. Presidential war powers are not an unchallengeable constitutional power, but a highly controversial extra-constitutional practice that persists precisely because it has yet to be thoroughly challenged in the Supreme Court, though many constitutional scholars believe it would not stand the test of judicial scrutiny—something a professor of constitutional law should know.)

Seidman allows for certain objections to his proposition and provides his own counter-arguments. He emphasizes the importance of “respect” for certain principles established in the Constitution, claims that it is not “a poetic piece of parchment, but entrenched institutions and habits of thought and, most important, the sense that we are one nation and must work out our differences” which preserves political stability, and sternly asserts that “[t]he deep-seated fear that [constitutional] disobedience would unravel our social fabric is mere superstition. As we have seen, the country has successfully survived numerous examples of constitutional infidelity.” He enumerates several instances of presidents, legislators, and justices acting in ways either contrary to the constitution, or simply in manners not addressed by the founding document, leaving it for us to presume by inference that if the entire republic was not unwoven by those subversions and violations, then the Constitution itself was either inhibitive of justice or superfluous. After all, he writes, “[e]ven without constitutional fealty, the president would still be checked by Congress and by the states.”

Who could feel secure in a society in which the sole political defense of his individual rights was the “respect” of others? By what means would institutions be preserved without a document to objectively define their parameters, establish their purpose, and integrate their actions with those of other institutions comprising the government? What happens when the habits of thought that uphold reason and individual rights are broken or altered? Can the lives and freedoms of an entire society of individuals persevere, flourish, or be improved by total reliance upon non-objective systems of rule subject to the shifting sentiments of a distant authority, or of the man next door? How would we, as a society, “work out our differences” without recourse to objective law? What anarchic struggle would Congress’ and the states’ “checking” of presidential power amount to in the absence of the Supremacy Clause or Article II of the Constitution? How long could our republic endure the ensuing civil conflict of all-against-all? If a man is stripped of his rights and made slave to a tyranny, of what consequence is it to him if it is the tyranny of a dictator, of the legislature, of a mob, or of a mid-level bureaucrat?

If this amorphous approach to law and the insecure, unpredictable society of mob rule and all-against-all offends or unnerves you, know this: what you are observing in action, fully articulated and faithfully applied, is the philosophy of pragmatism, the most successful and prevalent philosophy in the last century of American culture. It consists of the total abandonment of principle in favor of range-of-the-moment assertions and understandings, shifting beliefs, and the sacrosanct enshrinement of subjective whim. Its epistemological stance is that the truth is “what works”, and “what works” can only be determined by a post facto analysis of consequences, but that no understanding of consequences should be presumed before an action is taken, as such would amount to the arrogant delusion of resorting to principles. This is an epistemological stance. What of that branch of philosophy that bridges the gap between epistemology and politics: ethics?

As Leonard Peikoff writes in The Ominous Parallels (an excellent analysis of how German philosophy and culture made it highly receptive to dictatorship):

“By itself, as a distinctive theory, the pragmatist ethics is contentless. It urges men to pursue “practicality,” but refrains from specifying any “rigid” set of values that could serve to define the concept. As a result, pragmatists—despite their repudiation of all systems of morality—are compelled, if they are to implement their ethical approach at all, to rely on value codes formulated by other, non-pragmatist moralists. As a rule the pragmatist appropriates these codes without acknowledging them; he accepts them by a process of osmosis, eclectically absorbing the cultural deposits left by the moral theories of his predecessors—and protesting all the while the futility of these theories.

“The dominant, virtually the only, moral code advocated by modern intellectuals in Europe and in America is some variant of altruism. This, accordingly, is what most American pragmatists routinely preach . . .

In politics, also, pragmatism presents itself as opposed to “rigidity,” to “dogma,” to “extremes” of any kind (whether capitalist or socialist); it avows that it is relativist, “moderate,” “experimental.” As in ethics, however, so here: the pragmatist is compelled to employ some kind of standard to evaluate the results of his social experiments, a standard which, given his own self-imposed default, he necessarily absorbs from other, non-pragmatist trend-setters . . . When Dewey wrote, the political principle imported from Germany and proliferating in all directions, was collectivism.”[iv]

This is the fate that intellectuals such as Louis Michael Seidman make possible. I say, “make possible” because they do not play the role of dictators. That is a role for men of conviction—no less irrational and immoral conviction, but conviction nonetheless. Intellectuals such as Seidman comprise the rank of sleeping gatekeepers who have been present throughout history to permit and enable the rise of dictatorships, providing them with intellectual and moral rationalizations for their atrocities. To that extent, they are responsible for what follows. If a time ever existed when such men could plead ignorance, attesting that they could not have foreseen where their teachings would lead a culture, that they could not project the potential consequences of their actions, the last century of human history and the millions of lives lost to the philosophy of Kant and Hegel, the economic theorizing of Marx, the ‘social reforms’ of Stalin and Mao, and the gas chambers of Auschwitz saw its end. The veil of innocence is lifted.

What, then, is to be made of the kind of publication that distributes ideas such as Seidman’s? Editors are frequently apt to claim the innocence and humility of the intellectually curious, pleading that they do not necessarily mean to endorse such theories as would dispose of the U.S. Constitution, only to serve as a passive vessel for ideas and discussion. Citing a lack of expertise, they claim that it is not their place to ascribe value judgments to one set of ideas or another, merely to serve as a venue for competing cultural forces to make their cases. This is untrue and a denial of the philosophical nature of journalism as it has been described here. Incapable of relaying every piece of information in politics, economics, and culture, or of representing every opinion (even among experts and professionals) on a given issue, the editor of a news publication necessarily filters the information and perspectives available to him through the rubric of his journalistic value judgments, deeming some worthy of inclusion within the limited space of his medium and others not. By that process, he contributes to the intellectual character of his society and helps to craft the culture in which he lives. To that extent, he, like the intellectuals who pen such ideas, is responsible for the cultural changes brought about by the application of those ideas to the world—whether in politics, art, or any other human endeavor. This is the not inconsiderable measure of an editor’s or journalist’s responsibility.

(A caveat may be allowed for the editor who sets one opinion piece against another, publishing one commonly held idea with which he disagrees, only to publish another that refutes it, thereby effectively hosting a debate. However, if an idea is presented and left unchallenged, it can reasonably be inferred that the publisher perceives the opinions expressed as worthy of being afforded audience and consideration.)

A proper understanding of the active nature of editorial policy thus bodes poorly for the New York Times’ publication of Seidman’s proposal to dispose of the Constitution, as well as for CBS having run a segment on the professor’s ideas.[v] The scope of the issue, however, goes well beyond Seidman’s assault on freedom. In September of last year, The Atlantic published an editorial, spurred by a Federal Reserve paper[vi] to the same effect, entitled “The Case for Abolishing Patents (Yes, All of Them)”[vii], in which the author (quite tellingly, given our analysis so far) referred to the total abrogation of intellectual property rights as “a somewhat radical idea — but maybe one that deserves a place in the debate”. Other critics and commentators have joined in alternately recommending either the abrogation of one or another of Americans’ individual rights or the Constitution itself.

In June 2011, Time’s Richard Stengel made the pragmatic, concrete-based argument in the magazine’s cover story that since the Constitution’s framers could not have imagined the minutia and details of modern life, the normative principles of government that they set forth were essentially outdated and irrelevant.[viii] For a writer determined to evade the principled approach of that document, however, Mr. Stengel does not hesitate to assert with conviction, in principled fashion, that the Constitution is not to be viewed as a limitation on government power.[ix] In August of that year, in a panel discussion over the recent credit downgrade of the United States, ABC’s Cokie Roberts idealized “France and Great Britain… parliamentary systems where the majority gets what it wants no matter what. And the problem that we have here is the Constitution of the United States of America, which actually does require people to come together from different perspectives, whether it’s divided government or not.”[x] For those who might hold such critics as hypocrites, clinging to their own Constitutionally protected freedom of speech while seeking to deny the rights of others, the total commitment of the anti-Constitutional left to their pursuit may come as a shock. The George-Soros-funded leftist advocacy publication Media Matters for America makes no exceptions for the right of free speech, deploring in a 2012 strategy document “an expansive view of legal precedent protecting the freedom of the press, and the progressive movement’s own commitment to the First Amendment” as obstacles to be maneuvered or overcome in the pursuit of its long-term agenda.[xi]

The trend among leftist journalists and editorialists of various intellectual fields to oppose not simply certain rights and provisions of the Constitution, but the existence and essence of the document itself, is growing. For the remarkable explicitness of the anti-Constitutional left, the Tea Party deserves primary credit. By citing the Constitution as the guiding spirit of its protests and advocacies, it has drawn into the light of day those on the left who once paid lip service to our founding document while quietly disdaining it and seeking to undermine the defenses it provides. What should not be ignored or forgotten is the fundamental role played by media outlets in permitting their platforms (at considerable operating expense to themselves) to be used as vessels for the transmission of ideas that berate the first document to explicitly secure their own right of expression.

The journalistic profession plays an integral role in a free society. It is the means by which man comes to learn of the actions and events that shape his society and the ideas that guide its culture. Publications and their management must not be exempted from the moral condemnation directed at individual journalists and editorialists. In the management of such highly coveted space as the New York Times’ opinions page, with writers and intellectuals throughout the country competing for its consideration, the selection from among so many applicants of such a piece as Seidman’s cannot be pardoned as passive participation in the intellectual culture— no more than passivity and intellect can ever coincide in the same man or the same society. The task of writing, publishing and editing must be regarded with full respect for the integral role that man’s moral and intellectual value judgments play in the performance of his profession and the final product of his efforts. The requirement incumbent upon editors to selectively represent and interpret the events and details of their society imposes certain epistemological and moral responsibilities on them in the performance of their work and places full responsibility for the final product on their shoulders, forbidding them the nihilistic, valueless claim of having indifferently given a voice to any perspective, any idea, no matter its content or design.


[i] “Art”. The Ayn Rand Lexicon. http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/art.html Online. Accessed 1/20/13.

[ii] “Standard of Value”. The Ayn Rand Lexicon. http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/standard_of_value.html . Online. Accessed 1/20/13.

[iii] Seidman, Louis Michael. “Let’s Give Up on the Constitution”. The New York Times. 12/30/2012. Online. Accessed 2/9/2013. (Unless otherwise noted, all further quotes in this article are taken from this source.)

[iv] Peikoff, Leonard. The Ominous Parallels. New York: Penguin, 1982. p. 128

[v] “CBS Runs Segment Called Let’s Give Up On The Constitution.” Breitbart. (http://www.breitbart.com/Breitbart-TV/2013/01/27/CBS-Runs-Segment-Calle-Lets-Give-Up-On-The-Constitution ).1/27/13. Online. Accessed 2/9/2013.

[vi] Boldrin, Michele and Levine, David K. “The Case Against Patents.” Federal Reserve Bank of Saint Louis. 2012. (http://research.stlouisfed.org/wp/more/2012-035) Online. Accessed 2/9/2013.

 

[vii] Weissman, Jordan. “The Case For Abolishing Patents (Yes, All of Them)” The Atlantic. 9/27/2012. (http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/09/the-case-for-abolishing-patents-yes-all-of-them/262913/). Online. Accessed 2/9/2013.

[viii] Stengel, Richard. “U.S. Constitution Under Siege Over Libya, Taxes, Healthcare.” Time. 6/23/2011. Online. Accessed 2/9/2013.

[ix] Thomas Sowell, in typical brilliance, argues against Stengel’s view a National Review editorial. Sowell, Thomas. “The Constitution Matters.” The National Review. 6/28/2011. Online. Accessed 2/9/2013. (http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/270584/constitution-matters-thomas-sowell).

[x] Sheppard, Noel. “Cokie Roberts on Downgrade: ‘The Problem That We Have Here Is The Constitution.” NewsBusters. 8/7/2011. (http://newsbusters.org/blogs/noel-sheppard/2011/08/07/cokie-roberts-problem-we-have-here-constitution-united-states-america#ixzz2KQ74QaOF). Online. Accessed 2/9/2013.

[xi] “Media Matters’ ‘War On Fox’ Memo” BuzzFeed Politics. 2/13/2012. (http://www.buzzfeed.com/buzzfeedpolitics/media-matters-war-on-fox-memo) . Online. Accessed 2/9/2013.

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One thought on “Towards a Philosophy of Journalism

  1. From a military perspective, mainstream journalism — aided and abetted by the education industry — is by default or explicitly assaulting each citizen’s OODA loop, man’s pinnacle capability to Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. By never being able to, first, develop and adequate historical and Constitutional understanding, citizen’s routinely can’t observe what’s going on and develop any valid orientation to make rational decisions and perform actions that, hopefully, would be historically, Constitution, and long term self-interest based. The result of this over time is, and seemingly perfectly acceptable to “Progressives”, the total erosion of the kind of “citizen” who sees, thinks, decides, and acts in his/her own self interest. The citizen becomes merely a sort of governmental pet who is served what is on a very very limited menu and is presented the veneer of choice (deciding among false alternatives) and a vote (a mere formality of action for the predetermined outcome of the “masters”). Circumscribed men managing, not leading, further circumscribed men who are nothing more than pets or livestock. For me one word: Satanical.

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