Dewey’s “a kind of newspaper government”

In searching for something meaningful to add to the discussion of the CBS documents (called RatherGate by Glenn Reynolds, among others), I keep coming back to the same place — where this madness all began.

“When pride comes, then comes shame,” the book of Proverbs tells us, but before you can get all puffed up with yourself, you have to have some thing, accomplishment or position about which to justify the puffiness. And when it comes to the press in America, I always go back to the beliefs and influence of Walter Lippmann and the Creel Committee of World War I. Lippmann is, after all, the “father” of professional journalism. As a social engineer, Lippmann believed that an educated élite should run everything, because the people in a democracy weren’t capable of doing it themselves. As such, he gave us the idea of a government “from” the people, not “of” the people. The only time the people should get involved, he believed, was during election time, but the task of studying candidates and providing “objective” information for the people fell to his “professional” press. But Lippmann couldn’t have imagined the Internet.

John Dewey debated Lippmann through books and other writings in the first half of the 20th century. He called Lippmann’s vision “a kind of newspaper government,” and he distrusted the idea of this “aristocracy of administrators” — including the press — because he though they would become a self‐interested power block in their own right. He told a gathering of laborers in the late 1920s that “we know that the instructions that went out to the publicity agents were to get hold of two things specially, the press and the schools.” Dewey would love the Internet.

This, to me, is what Dan Rather’s current discomfort exposes — the beginning of the end of the hierarchical press establishment. Television news, and especially network news, has for too long believed its own hyperbole. The disconnect that exists with everyday people is staggering, but that’s what happens when you separate yourself from others via a pedestal. The real problem with Lippmann and his crowd was that they never consulted with the American people about their plans and schemes, and the people are mad as hell. What’s happening in our midst today is nothing short of an informational coup d’état, wherein the people of this country are taking back the power stolen from them a hundred years ago. Citizen’s media, in the form of bloggers and their blogs, have proven themselves more than capable of the watchdog role that defines the Fourth Estate. More importantly, they’ve proven through this dreadful and unfortunate (but inevitable) incident that they are also capable of exploiting basic investigative reporting tactics in order to also watchdog Dewey’s not‐to‐be‐trusted “newspaper government.”

It’s a great day for democracy in America.

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