The Book Club

Deconstructionism Edges Out Progressivism

Dear Jack,

That fucking computer with feet just popped onto my screen again, said, “It looks like you’re writing a letter,” and asked if I’d like help. Can you please do something about this?

Meanwhile, I don’t want to blindside you, but I wonder if you’ve read a book I referenced the other day, PR! A Social History of Spin by Stuart Ewen? There’s material in it that should make for very nervous reading among journalists.

As I mentioned on Monday, Ewen reminds us that modern journalism and modern spin spring from the same seed–the Progressivism championed (and later corrupted) by Walter Lippmann and his pals. In their early incarnation, the Progressives reacted to the “social pandemonium” of industrialization by leaping into journalism, believing that publicity directed at child labor, bad meat, and giant trusts would inevitably goad an enlightened public to demand action from the government. The early muckrakers, who even called themselves “Progressive publicists,” believed in an objective truth, the power of reason and the ability of public opinion to effect social change.

Of course, this movement also coincided with the physical growth of the press and the rise of tabloid newspapers, which lapped up the Progressives’ compelling narratives (and later, photographs) about corporate greed, degradation, etc. That soon led the Progressives to think of “the public” not as a reasoning body, but as spectators, easily manipulated. Ivy Lee, one of the first newspapermen to cross over into PR, came to believe, as Ewen writes, that “something asserted might become a fact, regardless of its connection to actual events.”

The thing is, with their experience in World War I, Lippmann and the Progressives concluded essentially the same thing. George Creel, remember, was a Progressive journalist who wound up heading the Committee on Public Information during the War. He and his cronies determined from that experience that intellectuals–Platonic philosopher-kings–had a responsibility to guide and lead the public, using all the available tools of communications, particularly the deployment of symbols and stories, to beguile it.

It’s an argument made powerfully by Lippmann in Public Opinion, in which, you’ll recall, he wrote about the power of stereotypes, coined the phrase “the manufacture of consent,” and asserted that “public opinions must be organized for the press if they are to be sound.” Intellectuals in the media–of which Lippmann was one–should collaborate in this process, for the public good.

But that’s a slippery slope, isn’t it? Once you start thinking that “the public is a ass,” you almost have to conclude that anything in which it believes is the product of manipulation. And that’s a short hop to not believing in anything–kind of the problem with journalism today, no?

I had a conversation about this a few years ago with my old colleague E.J. Dionne that still haunts me. We were discussing–mind you, this is pre-Monica, pre-McCurry, pre-Kurtz–the evolution of the political press into a cadre of non-believers. One of the spurs to our discussion was that famous Newsweek story on the Hitler diaries, in which the magazine’s editor proclaimed, “true or not, in the end it almost doesn’t matter.” E.J. speculated that deconstruction, which was rapidly losing favor in the academy, had managed to find a comfortable home for its relativistic reasoning in the news media. In newsrooms, E.J. mused, “there’s a philosophical war going on between a theory that says there is no truth and another that says there is a truth and it’s still worth pursuing.”

So look: You’re the deputy editor of a rag whose front of the book is headlined by a department that completely equates news and spin. Tell me I’m wrong. Calm me down. Cure me of my apostasy.

Oh, and tell me what you think of those Sony PlayStation spots. That Lara Croft–can I say “what a babe!” here without getting in trouble?

All best,