Walter Lippmann and American journalism today

About the author
Sidney Blumenthal is an author and journalist. He is former assistant and senior adviser to President Bill Clinton.
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Walter Lippmann (1889-1974) was the most influential American journalist of the 20th century. Born into one of the German-Jewish "our crowd" families of New York City, he began his career as a cub reporter for Lincoln Steffens, the crusading investigative journalist, then became one of the original editors of the New Republic, and was recruited to write speeches for President Woodrow Wilson and help formulate his plan to make the world "safe for democracy", the "fourteen points". In the 1920s, Lippmann became editorial director of the New York World, then a major daily newspaper with a Democratic orientation. When it folded, the New York Herald Tribune offered him a column, which, with the Washington Post, served as his journalistic base for almost fifty years.

Lippmann wrote books on philosophy, politics, foreign policy and economics. In one of them, The Cold War, he early defined the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union while offering penetrating criticism of US policy as a "strategic monstrosity" that would lead to "recruiting, subsidizing and supporting a heterogeneous array of satellites, clients, dependents and puppets", inevitably forcing poor choices of having to either "disown our puppets, which would be tantamount to appeasement and defeat and the loss of face", or else back them "at an incalculable cost on an unintended, unforeseen and perhaps undesirable issue." Lippmann's prophetic warning was realised in the Vietnam war, which he opposed at considerable cost to his personal and political relationships. (Anyone interested in Lippmann, or American politics, should read Ronald Steel's magisterial biography, Walter Lippmann and the American Century.)

This article forms the afterword to Walter Lippmann, Liberty and the News (Princeton University Press. 2007), a reprint of the journalist's 1920 book.

The new edition has a foreword by Lippmann's biographer Ronald Steel, and an introduction by Sean Wilentz

Among his varied roles, Lippmann was the original and most prescient analyst of the modern media. His disillusioning experience in the first world war prompted the first of three books on the subject: Liberty and the News, followed in rapid succession by Public Opinion and The Phantom Public. In them Lippmann deconstructed the distortions and lies of government propaganda eagerly transmitted by a jingoist press corps, the "manufacture of consent" and the creation of "stereotypes" projected as false reality.

Liberty and the News, first published in 1920, is being reissued by Princeton University Press, and its insights into the "error, illusion, and misinterpretation" in wartime of the "news-structure" remain as fresh as ever. For this volume, I have written an afterword, using Lippmann's ideas as a prism to illuminate the current crisis of the press and its professional collapse.

A journey through ruins

From the moment he entered onto the public scene as a writer for the new journal of opinion, the New Republic, established in 1914, Walter Lippmann's precocity was apparent. He made his way almost effortlessly into the highest levels of society and politics, his uninterrupted elevation almost proof in itself of the progressive view of history. Yet his thinking, particularly about the craft of journalism, derived chiefly from experience with the curdling of American Progressivism and the end of its innocence after the first world war.

Lippmann sharpened his early disillusionment into a perfectly pitched tone of omniscience. He descended from his lofty peak as a wise man with an Olympian air of detachment, permitting mere mortals to benefit from his counsel. Oracle to the powers that be, he was also the father of modern objectivity. He never saw any contradiction between his deeds and words or felt any need to pause over any supposed conflict. Nor did any public figure suggest that there was anything untoward or unseemly in his alliances or aversions. Instead, they sought his approbation and cordiality. His immersion in politics while holding forth as a disinterested observer did not taint him as hypocritical or false. Everyone understood that he was Walter Lippmann. If there were a prevailing prejudice about him, it was a tendency to judge him by his cogency and influence.

The standards of objective journalism Lippmann painstakingly advocated in the early 20th century, and which were adopted as ideal goals by major news organisations in mid-century, have long since been traduced, trampled, and trashed. The journalistic world before the Vietnam war was, to be sure, hardly a golden age. The pliability of much of the national press in the face of Senator Joseph McCarthy's red-baiting smear campaigns occurred in the middle of those happy days. Golden ages glitter only in retrospect as viewed from the junkyard of the present. Nonetheless, there has been a steady degeneration of the press over the past few decades, involving both the wilful self-destruction of hard-won credibility and the rationalisation of dull incomprehension as invulnerable self-importance. The gap between Lippmann's ideals and present realities is one of the major reasons why Liberty and the News remains so pertinent - and so troubling - nearly ninety years after its publication.

"For in an exact sense the present crisis of western democracy is a crisis of journalism", Lippmann wrote. That sentence was distilled from years of hope turned to despair. Lippmann had ferried from the offices of the New Republic, located in New York, to the White House, where he helped work on speeches for Woodrow Wilson. After the entry of the United States in the world war in 1917, Lippmann enthusiastically accepted an appointment as the US representative on the Inter-Allied Propaganda Board, with the rank of captain. But Captain Lippmann soon crossed swords with George Creel, chief of the Committee on Public Information, an official federal government agency that whipped up war support through jingoism. When Lippmann submitted a blistering report in 1918 on how the committee manipulated news to foster national hysteria, Creel sought his dismissal - and Lippmann quit his post to assist the US delegation at the Versailles peace conference. The year following the war, 1919, began with Wilson greeted as a messiah and ended with him politically broken and physically paralysed. His collapse personified the wreckage of Progressive idealism. Lippmann focused his attention on the part played by the press.

The manufacturers of consent

"Everywhere today", Lippmann wrote in Liberty and the News, "men are conscious that somehow they must deal with questions more intricate than any that church or school had prepared them to understand. Increasingly they know that they cannot understand them if the facts are not quickly and steadily available. Increasingly they are baffled because the facts are not available; and they are wondering whether government by consent can survive in a time when the manufacture of consent is an unregulated private enterprise."

Lippmann had witnessed firsthand how the "manufacture of consent" had deranged democracy. But he did not hold those in government solely responsible. He also described how the press corps was carried away on the wave of patriotism and became self-censors, enforcers, and sheer propagandists. Their careerism, cynicism, and error made them destroyers of "liberty of opinion" and agents of intolerance, who subverted the American constitutional system of self-government. Even the great newspaper owners, he wrote, "believe that edification is more important than veracity. They believe it profoundly, violently, relentlessly. They preen themselves upon it. To patriotism, as they define it from day to day, all other considerations must yield. That is their pride. And yet what is this but one more among myriad examples of the doctrine that the end justifies the means? A more insidiously misleading rule of conduct was, I believe, never devised among men."

Public opinion was not a free marketplace of ideas, but was channelled and polluted by the managers of news. They concentrated their power at the expense of accurately informing the public, whose fears and hatreds they exploited. Reason was impossible to sustain in the whirlwind. Lippmann wrote:

"Just as the most poisonous form of disorder is the mob incited from high places, the most immoral act the immorality of a government, so the most destructive form of untruth is sophistry and propaganda by those whose profession it is to report the news. The news columns are common carriers. When those who control them arrogate to themselves the right to determine by their own consciences what shall be reported and for what purpose, democracy is unworkable. Public opinion is blockaded. For when a people can no longer confidently repair ‘to the best foundations for their information', then anyone's guess and anyone's rumor, each man's hope and each man's whim becomes the basis of government. All that the sharpest critics of democracy have alleged is true, if there is no steady supply of trustworthy and relevant news. Incompetence and aimlessness, corruption and disloyalty, panic and ultimate disaster, must come to any people which is denied an assured access to the facts. No one can manage anything on pap. Neither can a people."

A year before Liberty and the News appeared, the famous muckraking journalist and novelist Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle, published The Brass Check, the first contemporary exposé of the press as a corrupt special interest. Sinclair asserted that the press simply reflected its big business ownership and did its bidding. Lippmann's analysis, though, was at once more subtle and more penetrating, elucidating a form of corruption that ran to the foundations of the nation's politics.

By substituting propaganda for truth, brandishing jingoism to enforce conformity, and asserting arrogance and certainty over skepticism and humility, Lippmann contended, the manufacturers of consent confounded democracy. "In so far as those who purvey the news make of their own beliefs a higher law than truth, they are attacking the foundations of our constitutional system. There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and shame the devil."

A zealous conformism

Woodrow Wilson waged war to make the world "safe for democracy" and to establish an international order based on collective security. Nearly a century later, President George W Bush appropriated Wilson's rhetoric as a gloss on pre-emptive war and unilateralism. Neo-conservatism stood Wilsonianism on its head, and, had he lived to see the day, Lippmann might have rubbed his eyes like Rip van Winkle at how much had changed. Yet Lippmann also would have discovered a depressingly familiar press corps on a bandwagon of jingoism, disseminating falsehoods leaked by government officials, engaging in ruthless self-censorship, and preening in careerist triumphalism.

Sidney Blumenthal is a former assistant and senior adviser to President Clinton. He is the author of How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime (Princeton University Press, 2006). He writes a column for Salon

Among Sidney Blumenthal's recent articles in openDemocracy:

"The Libby cabal" (13 June 2007)

"A legal noose around Bush" (27 June 2007)

"Lady Bird Johnson: a political journey" (16 July 2007 )

"The politics of protection" (1 August 2007)

"Colin Powell's responsibility" (15 August 2007)

"After the White House: discordant tunes, fading glory" (29 August 2007)

"The American politics of Iraqi war" (17 September 2007)

"Dan Rather, CBS, and George W Bush" (3 October 2007)

"Taxi to the Dark Side: an open letter" (17 October 2007)

The behaviour of the press corps under Bush revealed a corruption more in line with Lippmann's analysis than Sinclair's, although Sinclair's stress on the primacy of vulgar economics had its play, too. Indeed, Bush administration officials, including vice-president Dick Cheney, complained to the chief executive officers of major media corporations about reports and reporters, and the pressure fell down the chain of command like an anvil. Nearly every correspondent, producer, and commentator on every broadcast and cable network outlet was keenly aware of such interventions and adjusted accordingly. The cable network MSNBC's dismissal in February 2003, one month before the invasion of Iraq, of the popular Phil Donahue as host of a public-affairs program that had raised sceptical questions about the rationale for the war was cautionary and symptomatic. An internal memo claimed that Donahue presented "a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war" while "at the same time our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity." For crass reasons, jingoism became a criterion for presentation of news.

But economics did not explain everything. In 2002, the conservative Fox News anchor Brit Hume, well aware of the scent of fear in the air, declared ABC News unpatriotic: "Over at ABC News, where the wearing of American flag lapel-pins is banned, Peter Jennings [the news anchor] and his team have devoted far more time to the coverage of civilian casualties in Afghanistan than either of their broadcast network competitors."

Hume's attack reflected the general conservative argument that the press was a bastion of "liberal bias", and was thus untrustworthy and even potentially perfidious in the war on terror. A conservative columnist, Andrew Sullivan, who later became a disillusioned administration critic, articulated most clearly the right-wing dichotomy of domestic good-and-evil in the immediate aftermath of 11 September 2001. "The middle part of the country - the great red zone that voted for Bush - is clearly ready for war", he wrote. "The decadent Left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead - and may well mount what amounts to a fifth column."

In an atmosphere rife with intimidation, key reporters and editorial writers for major newspapers, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, also became cheerleaders for the neo-conservative project. In the case of the Times, the editors' avid desire for scoops initially overwhelmed all else - and put the newspaper in the forefront in publishing falsehoods, on its front page, about Iraq's supposed stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.

In May 2004, the Times, its false reports now exposed, issued an extraordinary "Editors' Note": "Information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged - or failed to emerge." Thereafter, though, the Times's reckless search for scoops gave way to the suppression of news that might damage the Bush White House. For more than a year after its apology over its WMD coverage - and throughout the 2004 election campaign - the paper refused to publish its reporters' accounts of how the Bush administration was engaged in domestic spying by evading the legal court established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

In the rush to war, from September 2002 through February 2003, the Washington Post editorialised in favour of an invasion twenty-six times. Every single editorial contained disinformation, some of it directly leaked by administration officials. On 6 February 2003, the day after secretary of state Colin Powell's speech to the United Nations Security Council presenting supposed evidence of WMD, the Post ran an editorial headline, "Irrefutable", and said "it is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction." (Two years later, Powell described his speech, which had been revealed as a string of disinformation, as a "blot" on his record, "terrible," and "painful".) Afterward, the Post's editorial board issued no "Editors' Note" or clarification like the one that had appeared in the New York Times. Factual reporting that suggested doubt about the existence of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction had been either buried or suppressed by the Post's editors. And, with the notable exception of the Knight Ridder news service, the Post's coverage was typical of the supposedly "liberal" press corps.

The dramas of collusion

In the heady days before, during, and long after the press embedded with military units invading Iraq, making them feel close to the action, Bush was presented as decisive, commanding, and knowledgeable; national-security advisor Condoleezza Rice was brilliant; vice-president Cheney wise; secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld savvy; and Karl Rove a genius. In the fall of 2002, as the administration ratcheted up its propaganda offensive before the Iraq war, Bob Woodward, the renowned investigative reporter of Watergate, published a book, Bush at War - based on leaks of select national-security documents and interviews with officials up to and including President Bush. Senior officials, in fact, were ordered to grant Woodward his access. George Tenet, then the CIA director, later wrote in his memoir: "(We) kept getting calls from the White House saying, 'We're cooperating fully with Woodward, and we would like CIA to do so, too.'" Through administration packaging of high-level contacts and carefully chosen classified material, the imprimatur of the famous and trusted journalist was stamped on stereotypes favourable to the administration.

In early 2004, after receiving a call from the chairman of the joint chiefs-of- staff, General Richard Myers, CBS News withheld its own reporting on torture at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. (Only when CBS news executives learned that the New Yorker was about to break the story did they permit "60 Minutes II" to report it, but without any publicity or rebroadcast.) In May of that year, Senator Mark Dayton, Democrat of Minnesota, questioned secretary of defence Rumsfeld and General Myers about the incident. The transcript of the Senate armed-services committee hearing reads:

"Dayton: Mr. Secretary, were you aware or did you authorize General Myers to call CBS to suppress their news report?

Rumsfeld: I don't have any idea if he discussed it with me. I was -- I don't know. I don't think he did.

Dayton: So over the last two weeks, calling CBS to suppress the news report. You don't --

Rumsfeld: "Suppress" is not the right word at all.

Dayton: I'm sorry, sir, but I --

Rumsfeld: And it's an inaccurate word, I should say.

Dayton: General Myers, did you discuss it with the secretary?

Myers: This had been worked at lower levels with the secretary's staff and my staff for some time, and --

Dayton: That you would call CBS to suppress their news report?

Myers: I called CBS to ask them to delay the pictures showing on CBS' "60 Minutes" because I thought it would result in direct harm to our troops.

Dayton: ... Mr. Secretary, is that standard procedure for the military command of this country to try to suppress a news report at the highest level?

Myers: It didn't -- let me just -- Senator Dayton, this is a serious allegation --

Dayton: It sure is.

Myers: -- and it's absolutely -- the context of your question I believe is wrong."

In March 2004, more than 1,500 members and guests of the Radio and Television Correspondents Association attended its annual black-tie dinner, where President Bush entertained the throng with White House photographs showing him searching the nooks and crannies of the Oval Office for WMD and saying, "Nope, no weapons over there! Maybe under here?" The crowd roared with riotous laughter.

In the months before the 2004 election, CBS News's "60 Minutes" produced but declined to air its investigation into the Niger forgeries claiming Saddam was seeking yellow uranium for nuclear weapons, a fabrication used as a central justification for war. Two years later, on the revamped CBS Evening News, the vituperative right-wing talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who had been fired from ESPN for inflammatory racial remarks, was invited to inaugurate its regular commentary on "civil discourse" (a segment the network soon cancelled). And during the run-up to the 2006 mid-term elections, ABC aired a two-part dramatisation, supplied by right-wing partisans, of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. The shows fabricated events and dialogue in order to cast blame on the Clinton administration and exonerate President Bush. Even though ABC executives were alerted beforehand to the falsified history, they chose to broadcast it anyway.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), overseeing the Public Broadcasting System, Kenneth Tomlinson, contracted a right-wing activist to investigate "liberal bias" at PBS. The CPB inspector general, however, reported that Tomlinson had imposed a "political test" on employees and hired favoured consultants without properly informing the board. Tomlinson's crusade ended with his resignation in 2005.

An emblematic case

The transactional nature of the Bush-era press corps surfaced in the 2007 trial of the vice-president's chief-of-staff, United States v I Lewis Libby, when evidence of the administration's extensive manipulation of journalists was adjudicated under oath. The scandal began with a campaign ordered by vice- president Cheney to attempt to discredit former ambassador Joseph Wilson. After undertaking a mission for the CIA to ascertain whether Saddam Hussein was seeking yellowcake uranium in Niger, Wilson had found an utter absence of proof. In an op-ed article published in the New York Times in July 2003, he exposed as false President Bush's claim to that effect made in his 2003 state- of-the-union address - the president's most urgent reason for going to war. The White House tried to besmirch Wilson by prodding journalists to publish that his wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, an undercover CIA operative working on WMD, was responsible for sending him to Niger (a falsehood debunked in the trial).

Libby sought out Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter who the administration had used to plant the original disinformation about WMD, but, unbeknownst to Libby, Miller's editors had taken her off the beat. Karl Rove, the president's chief political advisor, spreading the smear, told a TV talk-show host, "Wilson's wife is fair game." Finally, conservative columnist Robert Novak exposed Plame's identity, despite having been warned against doing so by the CIA's public-affairs officer. Novak sent a copy of his pre-publication column to Rove through a Republican lobbyist to let him know the hit was made.

More than a few members of the press had been recipients of the Plame leak from various White House aides, but they refused to disclose their sources, citing journalistic privilege. Miller went to jail for eighty-five days until she said her source, "Scooter" Libby, had released her from confidentiality. The court ruled against those journalists refusing to offer their testimony as witnesses to a crime, demolishing the customary journalistic privilege that actually had no standing in law but had received deference from government authorities until then. Libby claimed he had not been the source of the leak and repeatedly lied to the grand jury, saying that he had learned about Plame from journalists. After a trial featuring testimony from White House officials describing their techniques for exploiting the press, Libby was convicted on four counts of perjury and obstruction of justice.

A professional collapse

As Lippmann observed almost ninety years ago, the crisis of journalism cannot be disentangled from the crisis of national government. Government and journalism now share a crisis of credibility, trust, and competence. At the least, the crisis of journalism reveals a changing standard for and definition of "objectivity". Journalism, or more precisely, freedom of expression and freedom of the press, has been plunged, as a result of casual, callow, craven, or simply career-minded attitudes, into complicity, tacit and active, with a harsh and secretive administration that seeks to concentrate unaccountable power in the executive and sees itself as above the law and above reproach.

Only incidentally does the crisis of journalism involve the conflict between impartiality of judgment on the one hand and advocacy on the other. This might be a salient question under other circumstances, but it is peripheral here. Neither is the problem caused by slight inattentiveness; nor can it be solved by minor adjustments. The failure of most of the press for most of the Bush era to cover most of the basic reality was because to do so was too radical and threatening, not only to the administration but also to the news organisations themselves. Their dismal behaviour goes to the root of a professional collapse. The press fiasco under Bush marks the culminating contradiction, if not repudiation, of Lippmann's original ideas about shaping journalistic standards for a modern age. It is not sheer happenstance, but the outcome of a long history that was by no means inevitable.

Two years after writing Liberty and the News, Lippmann published Public Opinion, perhaps the most important book on American journalism in the 20th century. It opened with an invocation, a long quotation from Plato's Republic, of the famous scene of cave-dwellers who discern reality only as shadows dancing on the walls. Americans, Lippmann wrote, inhabited a cave of media misrepresentations of "the world outside", stereotypes, distortions of distortions - "not a mirror of social conditions, but the report of an aspect that has obtruded itself." Journalism became a media phantasmagoria, he wrote: "There are no objective standards here. There are conventions." He argued that a professional "intelligence bureau" of "expert reporters" that would present "a valid picture" of "the relevant environment" should be created, "interposing some form of expertness between the private citizen and the vast environment in which he is entangled." Disillusioned with politics, Lippmann turned to experts to act as arbiters of reality. He hoped that these anti-political engineers would "disintegrate partisanship," establishing "footholds of reason." With that, Lippmann composed a Magna Carta for professional journalistic objectivity.

Gradually and imperceptibly, after taking decades to establish, the standard of objectivity shifted to become the opposite of what it had once been. Rather than serving as a method of describing the object, objectivity became an artificial balancing-act of presenting competing claims about it. Objectivity turned into finding one hand and then the other hand, "fair and balanced", as the mocking slogan of Fox News put it. Editors, publishers, and other news executives often came to consider establishing the facts as untoward activism and advocacy. Fear of being accused of lacking "objectivity" drove them to bend over backward to demonstrate lack of bias by refusing to declare the facts themselves. Fairness was equated with lack of controversy. Objectivity became transformed from reporting into rationalising the act of avoiding reporting. Professionalism, or expertise, as Lippmann understood it, was caricatured as a "liberal" ideological point of view - on the one hand - that must be balanced by another "conservative" ideological point of view - on the other hand. To the degree that this polarisation became the standard, it successfully altered and neutered journalism. Professionalism receded in the name of professionalism.

Just as Lippmann's sense of objectivity took hold within the major news organisations by mid-century, the conservative movement began a counter- trend. Objectivity was assailed as subjective, facts treated as opinion, reality as wholly ideological. Of course, during the New Deal and through the 1950s, most newspaper publishers were Republican, as they are today. But conservatives believed, nevertheless, that the new encroaching standards of objectivity in the major metropolitan press and national broadcast media reflected the power of a monolithic liberal establishment.

The conservative moment

Richard Nixon turned his simmering resentment against "the establishment" into a focused strategy against the press. In November 1969, vice-president Spiro Agnew delivered a speech denouncing it as a "small [and] unelected elite." He warned, "The views of the majority of this fraternity do not - and I repeat, not - represent the views of America." And he even cited Walter Lippmann as an authority against "monopoly" over public opinion.

After his landslide victory in 1972, Nixon urged the eccentric right-wing billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife to buy the Washington Post. Nixon's ploy launched Scaife on his subsequent crusade against "liberal media." In 1985, Scaife spent millions subsidising a failed lawsuit by former general William Westmoreland against CBS News, trying to prove it had defamed him. (The same Scaife agents involved in that foray turned up later at the center of the $2.4 million Scaife-funded Arkansas Project of dirty tricks against President Clinton.)

As the Watergate scandal proved, Nixon's effort to demonise and isolate the press was part of his larger plan to formalise and institutionalise an imperial presidency. He sought an inherent power for the president to make war, declare national emergencies, nullify checks and balances by impounding funds at the president's discretion, create a system of secrecy, all rationalised by claims of national security. Checks and balances, oversight and accountability, exemplified by a rigorous press, were cast, following Agnew, as a fundamental threat to the country. From Nixon to George W Bush, the impulse to build an unfettered executive has driven the essential struggle between the press and the presidency. The conservative movement's relentless campaign against "liberal bias" has been a lever to remove this check and balance.

The growth of a countervailing conservative media machine has also been a decisive political factor in mobilising public opinion and insulating a part of it from contamination of "liberal bias." In October 2004, the University of Maryland Program on International Policy Attitudes conducted a study, "The Separate Realities of Bush and Kerry Supporters", revealing that 72% of Bush supporters believed that Saddam Hussein had WMD and that it had been proven, even though there had been extensive news reports from the Iraq Survey Group that it had found no WMD. Furthermore, 75% of Bush supporters believed that Saddam was substantially helping al-Qaida, 63% believed that that evidence had been found, 60% believed that experts agreed with that conclusion, and 55% believed that the 9/11 Commission had proven the point, even though it proved exactly the opposite.

Bush supporters did not hold these misperceptions because of inattention to the news. Another University of Maryland study, "Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War", revealed that misperceptions varied significantly according to news sources and that higher levels of exposure to Fox News in particular compounded factual misperceptions and approval of Bush. 80% of those who cited Fox News as a major source of their information suffered serious misperceptions, according to the study, compared to 23% citing National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System.

The subversion of reality

"Without protection against propaganda, without standards of evidence, without criteria of emphasis, the living substance of all popular decision is exposed to every prejudice and to infinite exploitation", Lippmann wrote in Liberty and the News. "The quack, the charlatan, the jingo, and the terrorist, can flourish only where the audience is deprived of independent access to information." Yet Lippmann assumed that the people were passive, acted upon by politically motivated elites. Today, about one-third of the public actively chooses sources of information that play to their prejudices. The readers, listeners, and viewers of the Drudge Report, the Rush Limbaugh show, and Fox News have consciously selected "the quack, the charlatan, the jingo" to seal themselves from objective information. The "breakdown of the means of public knowledge", as Lippmann called it, rests on a carefully cultivated preference for crank opinion over unsettling fact. The more reality defies this public's understanding, the more fervently it redoubles its resistance to it, embracing the distorted stereotype as the only true account.

The entrenchment and exploitation of this segment of public opinion has become big business and political necessity on the right. In May 2003, Matt Labash, a writer for the neo-conservative journal the Weekly Standard (published by Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox News), explained how the conservative attack on "liberal bias" operated as a profitable game. "While all these hand-wringing Freedom Forum types talk about objectivity, the conservative media likes to rap the liberal media on the knuckles for not being objective", he said. "We've created this cottage industry in which it pays to be un-objective. It pays to be subjective as much as possible. It's a great way to have your cake and eat it too. Criticize other people for not being objective. Be as subjective as you want. It's a great little racket. I'm glad we found it actually."

The degree to which this "great little racket" has been accepted and assimilated by members of the press was expressed by Mark Halperin, then political editor of ABC News, in an appearance on a right-wing radio talk-show in October 2006:

"Many people I work with in ABC, and other old media organizations, are liberal on a range of issues. And I think the ability of that, the reality of how that affects media coverage, is outrageous, and that conservatives in this country for forty years have felt that, and that it's something that must change ... And news organizations putting their heads in the sand for forty years, and not caring that half the country thought we were too liberal and biased against them, was an insane business decision. But it was also insane to do from the point of view of what we're supposed to do as our core mission ... I don't know if it's 95 percent [the percentage of people with whom he works who are liberals], and unfortunately, they're not all old. There are a lot of young liberals here, too. But certainly, there are enough in the old media, not just in ABC, but in old media generally, that it tilts the coverage quite frequently, in many issues, in a liberal direction, which is completely improper."

The century's test

"From our recent experience", wrote Lippmann, "it is clear that the traditional liberties of speech and opinion rest on no solid foundation." Journalism must reconstruct itself for a new age, at least as urgently as in Lippmann's time. So far it has failed the tests of the new century. Nearly ninety years after Lippmann first assayed the crisis of journalism, it finds itself back at ground zero - or in Lippmann's cave. Even some of the impassioned amateurs of the internet have been more factually reliable on central issues than the most august news organisations. Their fear - as readers, viewers, and influence seep away in the face of new technology - has provoked more anxiety than self-examination. But journalism may yet be revitalised, as part of a general reawakening of American democracy that discovers new forms of expression and forces new debate to achieve its ends.

The filigree of wire, cathode-ray tubes, woofers and tweeters, satellite dishes, and printing presses are the same everywhere in a flat world. But Americans are wired differently. The freedom of the press is part of our constitution, the first right, the first amendment; and our democracy - public policy, politics, commerce, and nation - has been shaped by its exercise, its use, and its abuse.

In 1822, in a placid time, an "era of good feelings", as it was called, James Madison was nonetheless eternally vigilant about liberty and the news. "A popular Government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both", he wrote. "Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."