The Breakfast Table

To the Great Unread: Read This


Who died and made us the final arbiters of political virtue? Great question, one that I’m asked frequently (usually by people who write in crayon on the outside of the envelope). The short answer is, nobody. Reporters get to travel around on expense account asking total strangers invasive questions and passing swift and nasty judgment on their responses because … well, just because they’re reporters. Pretty unfair, isn’t it?

Sure it is, but I’m not complaining. For one thing, I enjoy doing it. For another, somebody’s got to ask the questions. I won’t give you the whole “we’re the guardians of the First Amendment” speech here–though I do recommend it for getting past the rope line at political events–but I do think that without the purifying influence of the press, the United States would devolve into a totalitarian police state within about 20 minutes. Shut down MSNBC and internal passports will follow.

OK, I admit I may be exaggerating a bit. (The sound you hear in the background is my emergency hyperbole alarm going off.) But if I tend to get overwrought on the subject, it’s only because there’s so much noise coming from the other side. I couldn’t be sicker of hearing how Ordinary People, Folks Outside the Beltway, Average Working Americans [insert your favorite euphemism for the Great Unread here] have contempt for journalists. (My gut response, seldom voiced, is: Good, now we’re even.) The problem is particularly acute in some conservative circles, where belief in the liberal media conspiracy is part of the catechism. Polls I keep reading about claim to indicate that most people consider journalists inaccurate and arrogant, if not simply evil.

This bugs me, and not just because it’s me they’re talking about. I don’t like the perception mainly because it isn’t true. Inaccurate? Ever read a newspaper from another country? England, say? How about Spain? I have a copy of a relatively highbrow English-language paper from South Africa that has a story about witchcraft–played straight, like witchcraft is real–on the front page.

But the charge that irritates me most is arrogance. It’s almost always made by politicians, and that’s the really galling part. It’s true that the national press is a bit taken with itself. On the other hand, I don’t know a single journalist who’s as dictatorial and self-involved as any one of the 50 governors. Not even close, actually. How many reporters do you know who routinely refer to themselves in the third person? Point made.

Wow, I’ve really worked myself into a frenzy here. Just in time for the debate tonight.