James Bowman is one of the most perspicacious political commentators of our day. A movie critic for The American Spectator, he is also the media critic for The New Criterion. His latest book is titled Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture. In 2006, he published Honor: A History. Bowman maintains his own website, which features an archive of numerous movie reviews and assorted essays.
BC: Congratulations on the release of Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture. For those who are unfamiliar, how do you define “media madness?” Also, how does it differ from those allegations of leftist bias of which we are already aware?
Bowman: Let me answer the second question first. I think that those who complain about media bias are not wrong, but they’re a little bit off the point. The problem is not bias but the pretense of objectivity that allows the media to go on claiming to be unbiased when it is abundantly clear to anyone who doesn’t share their biases that they are no such thing. But why should we expect anyone to be unbiased? Bias is inevitable. The word is a fossilized metaphor from the game of bowls or lawn bowling in which every ball has a tendency to roll one way or the other, depending on the imperfection of its roundness. The game consists very largely of taking this bias into account, not pretending — what would be the point? — that it doesn’t exist.
This is just another way of saying that it is in the nature of things that we can’t see everything at once. All of us, in other words, have a point of view that is bound to color what we think and say about the world. It’s a form of Media Madness to imagine that it could be otherwise, or that because we have been to journalism school or work for a mass-marketer of information that we are exempt from this general human limitation. Yet if it is a form of madness, it is a very widespread one, and it leads to lots of other forms of distorted judgment. That’s what I’m talking about here, a form of folie de grandeur and not a clinical condition — since it is also one of the manifestations of Media Madness to imagine that those who disagree with one are crazy or otherwise out of touch with reality.
Among the others is an implicit belief in the secret causes of things, a tendency to wild exaggeration as a way of making people sit up and take notice, an overvaluation of intelligence and predictive foresight, an addiction to celebrity and a conviction that political problems are really moral and hardly, if at all, problematical. Obviously, these afflictions of the intellect are very far from being confined to the media.
BC: Okay, so while leftist bias may not be the media’s primary dysfunction what are your thoughts concerning its derivation? Why is the press ensconced in the camp of the Left?
Bowman: Well, I don’t claim to be an expert on this subject, but if I had to draw up a theory I might mention that the era of the mass media — that is, from the late 19th to the early 21st century — almost exactly corresponds with that of the intellectual hegemony of utopianism in political thought. And utopian thought is almost always leftist in tendency. Though Marxism began by being anti-utopian — the idea was that Marx’s theories were “scientific” rather than “utopian” socialism, and operated according to the iron laws of history and the dialectic — in practice it became the rationale for the already-existing utopian tendency among intellectuals in all parts of the world. What began as an economic and historical theory has now been adapted by Marx’s later followers into an all-purpose kit for the understanding of culture in general.
These little neo-Marxisms — going under the names of feminism, post-colonialism, queer studies, English and so forth — have come to dominate the universities where, today, almost all journalists are trained. To report on the world is to try to make sense of it, and it always helps the effort to make sense of it if you have a theory. That’s what education provides, and the educational culture in this country now is based on the left-utopian theory that all power is exploitative and oppressive and that history is one long progress — that’s why the left now calls itself “progressive” — of liberation of oppressed groups, many of whom didn’t even know they were oppressed a generation or so ago, from their notional oppressors.
I think this is a false model of the world, and that a far better one could be designed around the idea of honor. But this is an opinion which has virtually no constituency in our intellectual life today. The left-wing, oppression-and-liberation model is the only game in town if you need an explanatory theory, and journalists and other writers feel themselves in need of a theory as a framework into which to place their observations about the world.
BC: How much do you think the mainstream media influences the course of presidential elections? Have efforts to persuade increased as a function of declining social influence?
Bowman: I think they can influence elections, presidential and otherwise, in a negative way by encouraging the suspicions that they themselves have sought to build up over the years that public life is honeycombed with officials who are hiding discreditable secrets about themselves which, if they were known, would instantly disqualify them for office. There’s no doubt in my mind, for instance, that The Washington Post successfully did to Senator George Allen in 2006 what Dan Rather unsuccessfully attempted to do to President Bush in 2004 — that is, to bring about his defeat by insinuating that he was unfit for the public trust. Whether they’re doing this because of their declining audience or just because they can I don’t know that we have any way of telling. But what now looks like the failure of a similar hit job by The New York Times on John McCain may suggest that people are more aware of what’s going on than they have been in the past.
BC: Excellent point in Chapter 1 regarding your comparison between a lack of professional — i.e. trade standards — among bloggers and the mainstream media’s refusal to acknowledge their slant in the presentation of the news. You refer to this professionalism as being a “cloak of journalistic invisibility?” Care to elaborate?
Bowman: It’s Dan Rather, isn’t it? Caught red-handed trying to discredit someone with forged documents, he claimed that he was the victim of those who had caught him, whom he called “partisans.” As if — by definition, as it were, as a journalist with a major TV network — he had to be considered free from any taint of partisanship himself. He clearly expected the fact that he was reporting for the supposedly “objective” CBS News meant that he was immune to the slurs of those lesser folk that he could dismiss as mere partisans.
BC: You argue, “[f]or the media, as we understand the term, are finished.” What exactly do you mean here?
Bowman: I mean that people now have too many choices of media outlets to cluster around the same three network news broadcasts or the same one or two newspapers that, within living memory, they would have had to rely on for most of their information. As the technical, material and social conditions that created the mass media of the 20th century have begun to change and disappear, so eventually will those media, at least in the form they have taken up until now. What worries me is that the Media Madness — perhaps we should call it senile dementia — that has afflicted the mass media in their old age will migrate to the Internet along with their audience.
BC: What fuels the journalist’s arrogant attitude towards the population he supposedly informs? How much of this haughtiness is a result of group thinking? I say this because of my belief that so many pundits only associate with those who possess similar views.
Bowman: Journalists themselves will be the first to inform you of the importance of group-think in their trade. They will say it is because of the pressure of deadlines, and this clearly has something to do with it. But I think there is also a class angle related to the pretense that journalism is a profession, like medicine or law. It is, in other words, a short-cut to status in our meritocracy. But that status depends, at least in part, on the willingness of the rest of us to give them and their views about the world the kind of authority that doctors or lawyers possess because of the long years of study and training that they have.
Like doctors and lawyers, journalists may have differing views, but they differ within a fairly narrow range when it comes to the scholarship of their professions. Only with journalists, there is no scholarship of their profession, or none worthy of the name, and therefore no real profession. But because they want to cling to that professional authority, they pretend that proper journalists, journalists with the professional cachet like themselves, will have political views pretty much like their own.
One corollary is that these authorized political views will tend to migrate from the realm of the political to that of the moral. That’s why they also love politicians, like Barack Obama in 2008 or John McCain in 2000 who sell themselves as being above or beyond “partisanship.”
BC: Is the media primarily responsible for the antagonistic and adversarial nature of public debate in America today?
Bowman: I think they are antagonistic and adversarial on principle, because they see their job to be uncovering politicians’ discreditable secrets, but actually this has a chilling effect on debate, properly so-called. To have a real debate you have to have two sides with equally — or nearly equally — compelling claims. But the media are not much interested in this kind of debate because it doesn’t allow them to participate. “Objectivity” would not allow it. They much prefer the kind of one-sided debate — not really a debate at all — in which the two sides are right and wrong, good and evil. Every issue aspires to the condition of global warming or campaign finance reform, on which there is only one side for decent folks to take — and therefore, there’s no debate.
In other words, you can be “objective” and still against evil. “Torture,” for instance. Merely to use the word puts an end to any debate, which is what it is meant to do, even though there are all kinds of hard questions that it leaves unresolved. This is another example of what I mentioned earlier, the moralization of differences that really ought to be political. The media are always trying to kill debate in this way — and that’s what leads to increases of incivility and acrimony, which are what I think you may have intended to ask about. If you call someone an evil torturer, liar, criminal etc. you can’t expect him to take it well.
BC: Why do you think the mainstream news organs so devoutly embrace political correctness? Is there any possibility this practice will discontinue?
Bowman: I don’t know that political correctness is a terribly useful category anymore, since the irony has been squeezed right out of it. The term is really an oxymoron. If something is properly political, then there is no correct view of it. There are those two (at least) sides of the debate that I mentioned earlier. If there is only one side — i.e. the “correct” one — then the matter has stopped being political and started being moral. That’s the way the media want it partly because it gives them infinitely greater scope for sniffing out scandal. In 2006, Senator George Allen’s use of a word whose meaning no one was really sure of gave the media a chance to suggest, over and over again, that he was a secret racist and therefore unfit for office. He lost by a narrow margin. Political correctness was nothing but a useful tool for the media to use to bring about the defeat of someone whose politics they disliked. Do you think they’re likely to give that up?
BC: No, I guess not. On a more cheerful note, not to plug your last book here, but can we safely say that “there is no honor in the mainstream media?” Are their behaviors a perfect example of our living in a “post-honor society?”
Bowman: I would go even further and say that the media as we know them today could not exist without the destruction of the old honor culture. They didn’t kill it themselves, but they have grown up in the compost of its ruins. Just imagine what would happen if we still thought it dishonored a man to call him a liar! Or what if we thought that our leaders and public officials were entitled to a certain respect and even deference on account of the office they hold? The media of today simply could not exist. What a beautiful dream! And think of the entertainment value in the duels that might be fought. Our seventh president fought a bunch of them, though I believe they were mainly about his wife’s chastity rather than his own veracity. It’s hard to imagine that anything like that could ever happen again, though maybe that’s what it would take either to go back to a public life based on honor — rather than scandal or psycho-therapy — or to end the media’s dominance of that life.
BC: Emotion-based reasoning comes far more naturally to humans than logic. How much is the transcendence of “feelings, failings, and foibles” to blame for the state of America today?
Bowman: Do you mean the failure to transcend them? Feelings, failings and foibles we all have, but the media are to blame for thinking they are the most important things about us. The importance of emotion in politics is undoubted, but it must be tightly controlled if it is to be effective. The media’s tendency to elevate emotion to the place of highest importance trivializes and falsifies it and robs it of its capacity for good or ill. Ultimately, it’s what reduces the media to an adjunct of the celebrity culture, as all news tends to boil down to gossip and tittle-tattle — or, ideally, to scandal.