The Business of Manufacturing Opinion

Are you a fledgling journalist trying to plot a path to prosperity? Do you find yourself torn between high-minded activism and straight-news reportage? Between Michael Moore’s florid exposes and Britt Hume’s studied gravitas? Are you confused by corporate media efforts to discredit The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald when he scooped the the New York Times and other establishment media on the Edward Snowden revelations? Do you wonder if Greenwald is a journalist or just a partisan pundit engineering nefarious disclosures that threaten our troops? Should you simply trust in the defamatory columns by Thomas Friedman and other respectable men with meaningful moustaches and Pulitzers in safe deposit boxes? To help you cut through the fog of modern media, here’s a short primer on the options that await you, and how to get ahead in the cutthroat business of manufacturing opinion, the last American industry not to be offshored.

Choose Wisely

You may have witnessed plutocratic pundit David Gregory, in a televised interview with Greenwald, seemed not to recognize the latter’s right to the conventional protections of a journalist—leaving open the question whether mainstreamers saw Greenwald as a journalist at all. You may have read David Carr, in a recent NYT  essay, where he wrote with a bit more tact about whether journalism was compatible with activism. It began rather decently by conceding that Greenwald was both, but ended by questioning whether the combination was a good idea, seeding your mind with doubt. Let’s clarify.

Almost all journalists are activists in some sense of the word. Ann Robertson and Bill Leumer nicely contextualized Carr’s editorial by noting the fact that the question isn’t whether to be a journalist or an activist, but whether journalist-activists are serving existing power structures or majoritarian causes. The duo pointed out that there are really only two kinds of journalists. The first works to maintain the status quo, the second to overthrow it. They suggest both are activists, however, and call the first a “kind of activism” that aims at “refraining from changing” society.

Functionally, Greenwald is the latter species: a muckraker with a cause, a latter day Upton Sinclair with a sharp pen and fire in the belly. Think I.F. Stone, William Grieder, and Chris Hedges. This is a dodgy business for any young journalist to enter. As backers of progressive agendas, your role will be offensive—you will be the minority voice tirelessly seeking out systemic injustice. You may make a name for yourself by exposing safety violations in the meatpacking district or chronicling the sudden liquidation of wedding parties in Waziristan, but you’ll likely become a social pariah, perpetually under attack from smug and complacent establishment types. Google “David Brooks” to see your bête noire. You also might have to live in another country, as your personal correspondence will no doubt be tracked, collected, analyzed, distributed, and stored, should you need to be blackmailed, slandered, or detained in the near future. Let’s face it, nobody likes a gadfly.

Carr is typical of the former species: the establishment journalist who has internalized the values of power and seeks to discredit threats to their legitimacy. Think Fareed Zakaria, Joe Klein, and Thomas Friedman, among others. As supporters of the status quo, your job will be defensive in nature. You’ll be required to further the cause of the free market and security state above all—its maintenance, justification, and promulgation—with a fervency equal to Greenwald’s. Having already absorbed the value system of Social Darwinism, this will come easily to you. You will also be allowed to camouflage your ideological prescriptions with cheap conceptual siding borrowed from various whitepaper clearinghouses, also known as think tanks. Useful concepts may include Charles Krauthammer’s Democratic Realism, a version of our supposedly noble mandate to bring liberal democracy to the benighted developing world, whether they want it or not. This is, for instance, a useful justification for both military intervention and the imposition of prefabricated market economies (with a decided emphasis on foreign direct investment, of course).

The best advantage of using hackneyed updates on American Exceptionalism is that your prose won’t sound like the unhinged proselytizing of the far left or right. You will simply be espousing a consensus view that, because of its ubiquity, doesn’t sound like evangelism to the average reader. It sounds like normal. The fiery oratory of the cause crusader, by contrast, stands in stark relief to our complacent consumer society. It will sound like madness to the unaccustomed ear. Like an Old Testament prophet carrying a message of imminent doom to a community of happy sodomites, yours will not be a welcome storyline. That’s why Carr’s piece ends by smuggling a seed a doubt into the public mind. Maybe activism and journalism just aren’t a good fit? This is a false dichotomy the acceptance of which only harms Greenwald, but not Carr.

Manufacture an Air of Impartiality

A second difference between the types is in the manner of their appeal, the form their proselytizing or polemics take. Greenwald writes with passion. You can feel the animus simmering beneath the prose. He doesn’t bother to mask his outrage, doesn’t care to craft a veneer of impartiality.

Defending a status quo rife with injustice requires a different tack. If there’s little to recommend your position intellectually, its best to camouflage it behind a freshet of dispassionate prose, a vocabulary of enervated clichés. This is modest lexicon of the conscientious reformer: cautious, hopeful, trusting, and above all, patient. The reformer has enough ballast in his gut to weather the most turbulent of storms with aplomb. Even amid calls for gallows and guillotines, his message will soothe frayed nerves: Everything in its time. We must remember, change is incremental. Let’s not do anything hasty here. Let’s not do anything rash.

Unlike Greenwald’s alarming displays of rational thought, this tonality plays extremely well among the skittish bourgeois with too much skin in the game to stomach a revolution. Reform is the perfect palliative. It cauterizes the raw feelings of the mob by delivering nominal support for populist agendas, but crucially ensures that white-collar wealth will never be jeopardized during this lifetime.

In the newsroom, reasonable rules apply. Policy prescriptions should always be introduced with subjunctive verbs, the better to promote the policymaker’s spin than to call its motives into question. The administration policy would aim to reduce dependency on federal aid…Noble intentions are axiomatic. Journalist I.F. Stone once wrote that war planning required one to believe the best about technology and the worst about man. It’s the other way around with establishment journalism: Every public servant always deserves the benefit of the doubt, while the technical aspects of bureaucracy deserve merely our contempt.

Beltway leadership, for instance, instead of being revealed as pampered Roman senators disfigured by bribery, should always be portrayed as conscientious men-of-the-people, sleeves rolled and workmanlike paws wringing sensible policies from the demotic fen. As the Congressional committee wrestles with how to regulate the industry without stifling innovation…

When police and military battalions beat up their own populations, be sure to cast this as a violent exchange between opposing forces, one legitimized by the imprimatur of the state, the other an unruly mob descending into madness. Protestors and police clashed again on Thursday… Naturally, these aren’t clashes; they’re instances of illegitimate state violence. But there’s no need to needlessly impugn riot forces if you don’t have to. Also, blur the focus on the increasingly callous nature of technologized state violence, such as liquidating distant villagers along darkened roads lit by thermal imaging cameras from 30,000 feet—achieved with a mouse click in a Nevada bunker. And be sure to spend considerable time criticizing the mob for not producing clearly outlined policy positions (they so rarely do). These are the hallmarks of the invisible activism of establishment reportage.

Abdicate the Role of the Fourth Estate by Avoiding Tough Questions

Another character trait of the establishment journalist worth adopting is an almost universal reluctance to ask hard questions. It would be uncharitable to call this indifference. As supporters of power structures, establishment media accepts the statements that issue from federal institutions such as the White House, State Department, Bureau of Labor, and so on, not from indolence, but from a simple faith in the purity of Washington’s motives. Asking hard questions leads to what Greenwald sees as the value of journalism: “to serve as a check on power”. But if you are servicing power, why would you seek to check it? That would be self-negating, and self-sacrifice is best left to environmentalists and right-to-life fanatics.

Perhaps rather cheaply, Truman Capote once said of Jack Kerouac’s work, “That’s not writing. That’s typing.” We might say the same of the NYT and its peers, minus the petty envy. For all we know, the staff may print the oracular statements of the government verbatim. It certainly feels that way. If you do rewrite, practice an overweening respect for power, make fastidious efforts to project a mannered impartiality in your prose, and enforce an absence of journalistic skepticism. This will add an air of credibility to the dictums of state. No, that’s not journalism. That’s stenography. But the paychecks are better.

What You Will Accomplish

When your story is chiseled, dusted off, and lifted to its full height, the effect will be tremendous. You will influence millions. You’ll also find yourself assuming some fairly astonishing positions. You might support empty accusations of WMDs against a secular Arab state America once supplied with WMDs. You might feel the need to heap calumny and defamation on a dying socialist president that you have long reviled as a serial falsifier. You may have to invoke the arts of obfuscation to characterize a peaceable Muslim nation as a bomb-obsessed existential threat to bomb-obsessed Israel. By contrast, it will be easy to support White House (false) outrage over (false) claims that an Arab government has deployed (false) chemical weapons against its own (false) citizens. Despite these indefensible positions, you will be lauded for your even-handed review of the facts on offer—except on the left fringe, where the nonstop fact-strewn fusillades will continue, but happily amount to nothing.

You will be widely read. That glistering star on the horizon? A Pulitzer for the mantelpiece. That email in the inbox? An invitation to join the lucrative lecture circuit.

It won’t be all sunshine and light, though. You’ll have to defend wars that turn sideways, policies that imperil the peace, and economic models that defy arithmetic. But this is the burden of the public intellectual—laboring to advance unpopular causes in the face of the ‘bewildered herd’, as PR godfather Walter Lippmann liked to call it.

But the educated classes will embrace you. For those of us with a degree, your paper is the gate-key to our ruling class pretensions. How we love to settle down in our sunlit living room on a Sunday morning to sip coffee and leaf through The Times, feeling the frisson of liberal respectability. We’ll swallow your politics along with the masterly literary and cultural reportage, and not think twice.

But be warned, this state of affairs may not endure. It has become difficult for average Americans to sustain the threadbare illusion that they are Middle Class. According to Paul Craig Roberts in his scrupulously researched The Failure of Laissez Faire Capitalism, about 16 million smart, naïve and mostly entitled college graduates have fired forth from our universities between 2007 and 2014. They will find just over a million jobs waiting for them that require a degree. Either they will launch a Facebook campaign to force fast casual restaurants to require PhDs to ‘build’ a naked burrito, or they will burn their papers of record, if not their degrees, in the nearest bonfire. There should be plenty to choose from.

Jason Hirthler is a writer, strategist, and 15-year veteran of the communications industry. He has written for many political communities. He lives and works in New York City. He can be reached at: jasonhirthler@gmail.com. Read other articles by Jason.