Offending the “institutional voice” of the press

There’s a fascinating examination of the war between the institutional press and the public over at Buzzmachine this morning. Jeff wrote a column recently that challenged the need of newspapers to write editorials. With all of the voices in the conversation that is news today, Jeff simply raised the possibility that institutional editorials might have outlived their usefulness. Do yourself a favor and go read it, because it strikes at the heart of everything that’s wrong with contemporary professional journalism.

Not one to avoid an opportunity for my two cents, here’s what I added in the comments:

Frank Partsch’s reasoning is pure Walter Lippmann, the father of professional journalism. And whenever I get the chance, I want to remind people of the roots of our profession, for they are birthed in manipulation and social engineering. The apple, after all, never falls very far from the tree.

As a ranking member of the Creel Committee in the Wilson administration, Lippmann and his cronies (including the father of public relations, Edward Bernays) were charged with convincing the public that it was in the country’s best interests to enter World War I. This event heralded the beginning of a new hegemony in journalism, and Lippmann was its author.

But Lippmann was a social engineer first, and we know that by studying (and deconstructing) his writings. In Lippmann’s mind, people were incapable of governing themselves, a job he felt was better suited to an educated élite class, among which he included journalists. Here’s a fun paragraph from his book The Phantom Public:

“A false ideal of democracy can only lead to disillusionment and to meddlesome tyranny. If democracy cannot direct affairs, then a philosophy which expects it to direct them will encourage the people to attempt the impossible; they will fail…The public must be put in its place, so that it may exercise its own powers, but no less and perhaps even more, so that each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd.”
So this “institutional voice” of which Partsch speaks is cloaked in an elitist arrogance birthed in putting the herd-like public in its place. Is there any wonder the public — now armed with their own printing presses — is fighting back?

As our culture continues its drift from modernism to postmodernism, the institutions that are given “special” status through license, position or protected knowledge are all threatened. I don’t think we really want to lose any voice, so I’m not one of those critics who think the institutional press should just go away.

I just want to see them put in their place.

As the press — and especially newspapers — tries to figure out why circulation is dropping like a brick and they’re not able to overcome losses with their web offerings, they might want to take a few moments to examine their roots. Gallup’s trust measurement continues to fall as well, and one day we’ll all have to accept the possibility that this thing we call professional journalism is neither.

Let me repeat an old theme. American people are increasingly hip to the notion that the institutions which have served (themselves first) us well in the last century have failed. Everywhere we look, we see chaos, not the orderly American dream that hyperbole from the institutions has promised. The gap between the haves and the have-nots is growing, and we wonder why “they” can’t just be happy. We’re also stunned that our form of democracy — how we behave, not how we talk or what we intend — is rejected by the rest of the world. People sense at a very deep level that something is wrong and the minute they articulate those thoughts, they’re participating in the freedom of speech guaranteed by our founding fathers. That they can actually “publish” those thoughts today, moves them from free speech into free press status, and that, my friends, is why the institutional press feels so threatened.

To those wishing to do business in the new paradigm, here is a great piece of advice: Listen before you open your mouth.

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