Part 3—How smart is the Washington press corps: How sharp—if you must, how “smart”—is the mainstream Washington press corps?
Quite often we think, not real smart. Again and again, the men and women within that guild just don’t seem especially sharp.
Many people have a hard time coming to terms with that assessment, which may seem counterintuitive. Let’s start with a trivial example.
In this morning’s Washington Post, Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein share their recollections of the late Ben Bradlee, who died last week at 93.
Bradlee had an enormously important career at the Washington Post. He’s widely revered at the Post, as far as we know for good reason.
Bradlee was an impressive person. This is the way Woodward and Bernstein begin their portrait:
WOODWARD AND BERNSTEIN (10/29/14): Four decades ago, Ben Bradlee told us his general theory of newspapering and life: “Nose down, ass up and moving steadily forward into the future.”Their overall theme, as with everyone else, is Bradlee’s reverence for the truth. But before they begin exploring that theme, they entertain us with their reference to Bradlee’s salty language.
He understood the past and its importance, but he was utterly liberated from it. The past was history to learn from. And he refused to let himself be emotionally encumbered by it or deterred by either the lows or the highs.
The military analogy, so often a cliche, holds in his case: a great general, calm in battle, with the love and affection of his troops, of whom he was as protective as he was aggressive in sending them on their mission.
He was an original of his own creation, different from everybody else in his newsroom—different in temperament, different in outlook, and different even in his physicality and his language (a mix of high-church English and the locution of a savvy sailor). He transformed not only The Washington Post but also the nature and priorities of journalism itself.
Woodward and Bernstein presented this point in just their fourth paragraph. Ditto for David Carr, who recalled in last Thursday’s New York Times that Bradlee “swore like a sailor.”
Gene Robinson held off until paragraph 7 in yesterday’s Washington Post. At that point, he recalled Bradlee’s “blue language.”
As we’ve long noted, our journalists are only happy when they all say the same things. In the current matter, we’ve been struck by the somewhat childish way they’ve all run to Bradlee’s blue streak.
We assume the portrait is accurate—that Bradlee did swear like a sailor. This strikes us as a somewhat silly trait, though plainly the trait didn’t “matter.”
That said, we’ve been struck by the way our mainstream memoirists all run to that salty language. They seem to think the salty language is entertaining for us the rubes, even perhaps that it was secretly cool.
Over the years, we’ve been struck, again and again, by how unimpressive our journalists are. We’ve been struck by their love for silly stories designed to prove some important point, by their low intellectual standards, by their general lack of analytical skill.
By their lack of seriousness.
These people are famous, and they’re seen on TV. Many went to the finest schools, the much honored Bradlee among them.
For these reasons, people may find it hard to believe that our journalists just aren’t especially sharp. Prevailing press criticism is drenched in claims of ideological bias. You’ll rarely see a critic say that our journalists aren’t especially sharp, that they don’t seem especially serious.
In our view, our journalists don’t seem real sharp on a fairly regular basis. We had that reaction on Sunday morning when we read the lengthy excerpts from a lecture Bradlee once gave.
The excerpts appeared in the Washington Post, leading the Outlook section. They were drawn from The Press-Enterprise Lecture, which Bradlee delivered at Cal-Riverside in January 1997.
As far as we know, Bradlee was an impressive man who always did his job as he saw it. That said, we were struck by the fact that this lecture just wasn’t real sharp, even though it’s being held up as a tribute to press corps culture.
Yesterday, we noted one problem with the address. In his lecture, Bradlee seemed to say that every segment of society was engaged by that time in “a lot of spinning and a lot of lying”—every segment except his own, which was seeking the truth.
We’re giving Bradlee a pass on that framework, although it doesn’t seem hugely insightful. As we noted yesterday, our Grandfather Rufus did much the same thing in an earlier lecture, in February 1880.
Bradlee offered the world’s oldest framework that night: the other sectors are corrupt, my sector is truthful and honest. Beyond that, we were struck by the murky way he dealt with the very concept of “lying,” and by the highly promiscuous way he threw the charge of lying around.
How sharp was Bradlee that night? Not especially sharp! At the start of the lengthy excerpts in the Post, he complained that many people were “spinning the truth, shaping it to some preconceived version of a story that is supposed to be somehow better than the truth, omitting details that could be embarrassing.”
Without any question, that claim was accurate. Still:
Shaping the facts to a “preconceived version of a story that is supposed to be somehow better than the truth?” Earlier this year, Bill Clinton referred to that very practice, describing it as the use of a “storyline.”
Bradlee and Clinton described the same practice—but Clinton said the mainstream press corps is constantly engaged in that practice. That possibility didn’t intrude on Bradlee’s lecture that night—and Bradlee was quite promiscuous in his ascription of “lies” to everyone else.
As far as we know, Ben Bradlee always did his job in the way he saw it. We’d say he wasn’t especially sharp that night.
By the time he delivered that lecture, his own press corps had created and advanced a wide range of very silly stories, especially in their coverage of White House campaigns.
By now, those silly stories have plainly changed the world’s history. In our view, liberals need to understand those silly stories better.
Bradlee didn’t seem to know that this culture had invaded his own guild. In our view, he wasn’t real sharp that night.
Tomorrow, more detail on why we say that.
Tomorrow: Highly promiscuous charges
Capehart succumbs rather early: This morning, in an on-line post, Jonathan Capehart succumbed to the mandate in just his third paragraph.
“He said exactly what he thought and did so with the bluest language possible,” Capehart writes.
A bit later, Capehart adds this second point:
“I didn’t know Bradlee at all.”