Writing the Big Picture


People’s Witness: The Journalist in Modern Politics

It was with a kind of grossed-out amusement that I read, in a recent edition of The New York Times, that a band of Democratic party stalwarts, led by former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, intends to counter the influence of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News by planting more liberals on the radio and television. And not just any liberals, either. Angry liberals. According to unnamed “influential Democrats,” the latest round of Republican gains just might have laid the groundwork for “the emergence of an angry liberal who could claim the same outsider status that worked so well for Limbaugh in the early 1990s.” With that in mind, those influential schemers are going to conduct a nationwide talent search for radio personalities, which one can only hope will take the form of Mr. Podesta’s stationing himself in Wal-Mart parking lots and asking anyone who voted for Clinton to yell loudly into a microphone. Who knows, maybe the search will bear fruit–a related effort to try to match Republicans’ think-tank muscle seems long overdue–but it’s depressing all the same, to watch Democrats try, yet again, to catch up with the Republicans by imitating them. (Is this just another strategy to woo the almighty Middle American white male? And even if it is, aren’t there qualities beside anger that might play well on the radio?)

The hunt for the angry liberal suggests the extent to which party operatives believe the role of the media is to induce certain behaviors in the electorate. Not that that’s a particularly new or surprising development (of course political operatives regard radio and television as propaganda tools), and meanwhile, most readers of this magazine would probably agree that partisan political commentators serve an important function. Yet the blurring of the categories of journalist and operative can be dangerous–literally so for international reporters. The same week that the angry-liberal article appeared, The New York Times Magazine published a reflection by globe-trotting reporter Scott Anderson on the death of Daniel Pearl, in which he argued that U.S. foreign correspondents today face much more danger abroad than they did twenty years ago, because they are more likely to be perceived as agents of the state, rather than independent obser-vers. When you consider that CNN accompanies its reports with red-white-and-blue tickers and “America at War” slogans, Anderson continued, that perception doesn’t seem so mysterious.

It’s easy enough to say that we don’t want members of the media acting as agents of political parties or governments (or operating under a perception that they’re doing so); it’s more complicated to describe how a working journalist might actually negotiate her political sympathies, her obligation to be as accurate as she can, and the requirement that facts be assembled into a coherent story. As journalists tend to be pragmatic types, forever pressed to meet the next deadline, we may bandy about such terms as “objectivity,” “truth,” and “narrative,” but few spend much time philosophizing about them. In People’s Witness: The Journalist in Modern Politics, British cultural studies professor Fred Inglis undertakes to define the political roles journalists have played in the twentieth century, by way of a series of capsule biographies. His book is thus a kind of bestiary of media eminences, and his aim in cataloging them is not only to limn journalists’ relations to ideology and power, but to understand how the best journalists help shape society’s moral imagination.

Inglis believes that 20th-century journalism assumed the mantle of the 19th-century novel, literature that “taught its readership how to live gallantly and self-reliantly within the frames of politics.” In the 20th century, Inglis asserts, films and television weren’t up to that task. Rather, “the old, minatory connection between private lives and public places is then held together by political journalism,” Inglis writes. (Making questionable use of advanced vocabulary words like “minatory” is a habit of his.) “Since the end of the First World War, the political journalists have written the art of the possible and, at their best, have taught how to live a decent private life on behalf of your bit of the public one.”

Not quite sure about that one? Me neither, and Inglis doesn’t back it up with an argument. At any rate, he comes not to bury journalists but to praise them; he openly admires many of his subjects and repeatedly tries to defend them from others’ criticism. Part of his mission is to challenge the contention by British journalist-turned-historian Phillip Knightley, in his book The First Casualty: The War Correspondent As Hero, Propagandist and Mythmaker, that war reporting is too often unforgivably tainted by propaganda and omissions. Knightley sets too platonic a standard for “uncontested objectivity,” Inglis maintains. Reporting may be laden with emotion and partisan sympathies and still prove valuable. The first of his exemplary journalists (almost all of whom are British and American) is Martha Gellhorn, whose unflinching 1945 dispatch from Dachau opens the book. The “keenness of her sympathy for victims,” her “hatred of crude and cruel power,” her “tender heart and her excellent truculence,” and most of all “the exact correlation she could craft between her feelings and her prose” are the qualities Inglis names as he inducts her into his canon. These are the things that count, he argues, not the attainment of some unattainable sort of “objectivity.”

As the author is an academic, he from time to time introduces fibrous bits of cultural theory into the mix, most of which serve about as much purpose as cloves stuck into an omelet, since his view of what makes a good journalist can be summarized without allusion to Pierre Bourdieu. Courage, sympathy, literary skill, and the ability to muster all that in explaining the world to faraway readers (or later, viewers). By applying those talents to the reporting of wars, movements, and abuses, his favorite journalists not only recorded the twentieth century but influenced its progress. Such broad criteria allow for a range of journalistic modes, from the engaged radicalism of an Antonio Gramsci to the Washington hobnobbing of Joseph Alsop. There isn’t just one role for members of the press; there are many, from illuminating faraway corners, to exposing scandals at home, to making large trends and policy shifts comprehensible.

To try to catalog the varieties of British and American journalism in the twentieth century is certainly a broad project, which Inglis makes even broader by embarking on digressions about the major events of the twentieth century themselves, musing on fictional portraits of journalists in novels and movies, or recounting battles between editors and publishers. All these things may be relevant to his subject matter, but they make for a very diffuse book, without a strong narrative or argumentative thread. Inglis has taken the twentieth century itself as his general organizing principle.

At the close of the century, Inglis notes, the narrative seemed to have broken down; the current era is characterized by political news seemingly impossible to explain. In this period, “the political journalist does what he or she can to turn ideas to human benefit; to shape a plausible narrative history out of the shapelessness left by the deflation of ideologies and the uncomprehended shadow of terrorism; to give a speaking part to inhabitants of local history who had too frequently been marched to their destiny by catchwords; and to do all this in a decent prose.” In a brief, post-September 11 epilogue, Inglis declares that society continues to need great journalists to keep its ideals in the light and point out the places, both at home and abroad, where those ideals have been forgotten. The members of his pantheon did just that–and, he implies, so can we. His book doesn’t say how we ought to do so, nor does it address the prospects that such work will find funding or reach the broad public. Rush Limbaugh will always be more popular at home, and war reporting abroad will continue to be stifled by propaganda, limited access, and physical dangers. Nevertheless, in its clunky way, People’s Witness serves as a reminder that a certain high tradition of journalism exists, and as an affirmation to those who aspire to practice such journalism, or just hope to read it.

Former Observer editor Karen Olsson lives in Austin.