Affluence remakes the newsroom

The late Murray Kempton once described editorial writers as "the people who come down from the hills after the battle to shoot the wounded."

Had Kempton lived to suffer through American journalism's current age of anxiety, he might have reserved that description for the media critics who seem to proliferate like one of those exotic species with no natural enemies to hold it in check -- say, zebra mussels.

But in our system, unfortunately, irrelevance is no guarantee of silence. And, these days, this nattering class is loudly obsessed with the political bias that purportedly suffuses the news media from top to bottom.

To hear many of these people tell it, the average American newsroom is something like Barcelona in 1937: wall-to-wall revolutionary cabals buffeted by right-wing reaction. The only way forward is for every news story to be topped not only by reporters' bylines but also by their party registration, religious affiliation -- or lack thereof -- age, ethnicity and a quick checklist of their personal positions on issues ranging from free trade to same-sex marriage. As our understanding of genetic determinism expands, we'll probably also require a thumbnail sketch of their DNA.

All this makes for lively arguments, but it won't make for better journalism because it's an analysis and a solution in search of a problem. Programmatic politics of any sort are at best a vestigial presence in all but a handful of American newsrooms.

To the extent any bias is generally operative in the news media today, it is the middle-class quietism that the majority of reporters and editors share with other Americans. They are the suburban voters who now cast the majority of ballots in our presidential elections -- mildly libertarian on social issues, mildly conservative on fiscal matters, preoccupied with issues of personal and financial security. They are suspicious of ideology with its sweaty urgency and wearying demands for consistency.

The clearest and most concise statement of how this state of affairs came to be can be found in a brief note retired New York Times columnist Russell Baker has written for the letters column of the New York Review of Books' current issue.

A reader's letter wondered whether a review Baker had written underestimated journalists' willingness to modify their opinions to please the media's corporate owners and, thereby, hold on to their jobs.

Baker responded that "something more fundamental than household economics may be reshaping journalistic attitudes toward public issues. Today's top-drawer Washington news people are part of a highly educated, upper-middle-class elite; they belong to the culture for which the American political system works exceedingly well. Which is to say, they are, in the pure sense of the word, extremely conservative.

"Most probably passed childhood in economically sheltered times, came to adulthood in the years of plenty, went to good colleges where they developed conventionally progressive social consciences, and have now inherited the comforting benefits that 60 years of liberal government have created for the middle class.

"This is not a background likely to produce angry reporters and aggressive editors. If few made much fuss about President Bush's granting boons to those already rolling in money, their silence may not have been because they feared the vengeance of bosses, but only because the capacity for outrage had been bred out of them...."

These are not, in other words, ideologues afire with countercultural fervor but the sort of 401(k) voters who now make up America's electoral majority.

In a telephone conversation from his home in northern Virginia, Baker, 78, wryly mused that "generalizations about journalism do nothing but get you into trouble, and mine are drawn from observing the rather elite group of journalists with whom I'm familiar, particularly those who cover Washington. These are people who have been to rather good colleges, who come out of that secure, upper-middle-class culture that has flourished in the United States with the help of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the GI Bill of Rights. It's now easy in this country to become substantially educated and, therefore, well paid.

"I was a journalist for 50 years and hate to pronounce, but these are not adventuresome people. How could they be? Most have been to college and then have gone directly into journalism. What can you expect with that sort of background?"

What you get, in fact, is rather conventional careerism. In Washington, Baker said, that means journalists "who work hard; everybody in Washington works hard. But they lack empathy for the rest of the country. If you've never lacked health insurance -- and most reporters and editors never have -- you don't understand what it means for the 43 million Americans who are doing without it, any more than the Congress does."

In the New York Review, Baker wrote: "The accelerating collapse of the American health care system may illustrate how journalism's disconnection from the masses will produce an inert state. If every journalist in the District of Columbia had to have his health insurance canceled as a requirement for practicing journalism in Washington, quite a few might ... get to know what anger is, and discover that something is catastrophically wrong with the health care system."

For Baker, the general lack of empathy that precludes such anger is a far more powerful force in contemporary journalism than any covert political bias.

"It's like working at Wal-Mart," he said, "which I suppose is the survival form of poverty in today's economy. If you don't have to do it and nobody you know has to do it, you just don't think about it. Most people in journalism today don't anticipate ever being in a Wal-Mart as anything but a shopper."

It wasn't always so. Baker recalled that, as a young political reporter, he traveled around the country meeting other journalists. "The old-timers I met on those trips were an odd mixture. Many had only high school educations. One very good correspondent for the Scripps chain had spent the Depression pounding out tunes on a piano in a five-and-dime. They had a raffish but informative experience of the world that is very hard for journalists to acquire now.

"When I started out as a police reporter, I lived next door to a cop. Reporters don't come out of those neighborhoods nowadays. We've all moved uptown. Today, reporters join clubs. They play golf."

It's a long way from the 19th hole to the Revolution. Especially when what you've got on your mind is not politics -- left or right -- but where the Nasdaq closed and your carpool.

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