Democracy's demolition derby

By Robert J. Samuelson
Monday, December 28, 2009

It's been an education, my four decades in Washington journalism: an anniversary that prompts this personal reflection. In 1969, I arrived as a young newspaper reporter. Journalism appealed to me because it offered an excuse to learn about how things worked -- to satisfy my curiosity -- and provided an antidote to shyness. It was a license to ask people questions. I have never regretted my decision, in part because I always doubted I could do anything else. I wasn't smart enough to be an engineer and would have been a lousy lawyer, chafing at representing other people's beliefs. The pursuit of truth seemed a higher calling.

This was a common conceit among journalists of my generation. We would reveal what was hidden, muddled or distorted. The truth would set everyone free. It sustained good government. We were democracy's watchdogs and clarifiers. One thing I learned is that these satisfying ideas are at best simplifications -- and at worst illusions. Truth comes in infinite varieties; every story can have many narratives. There are always new facts, and sometimes today's indisputable fact qualifies or rebuts yesterday's.

I started with the naive notion that, by exposing and explaining how the world worked, I would in some small way contribute to better government and a saner society. What I discovered firsthand is what I already knew intuitively: Democracy is a messy, often shortsighted, unreasoned and selfish process. People have interests, beliefs and prejudices that, once firmly entrenched, are not easily dislodged -- and certainly not by logic or evidence.

Good information does not inexorably lead to good government. "Never underestimate the difficulty of changing false beliefs by facts," the economist Henry Rosovsky once said. People do change their minds, but experience has more influence than argument. World War II convinced most Americans that the isolationism of the previous decades was mistaken. The high inflation of the 1970s (and not essays about inflation's evils) convinced most people that economic policy had gone disastrously wrong. And so on.

During my time in Washington, the quantity of information has increased but its quality has decreased. The explosion of advocacy organizations, interest groups and "think tanks" -- along with the growth of cable television and the Internet -- has bloated the supply of studies, factoids, sound bites and blog posts. The decline in quality reflects the polarization of political elites, of both left and right. More raw information flows through political or philosophical filters that screen out facts and arguments that do not fit the approved viewpoint or advance "the cause." (Note, however, that the polarization mainly affects political elites, not the general public. I agree with political scientist Morris Fiorina of Stanford University, who argues that most Americans are more "pragmatic" than "ideological.")

Journalism has evolved similarly. When I started, most print reporters were anonymous. They had bylines, not much more. With three television networks (ABC, CBS and NBC), the number of well-known TV journalists was small. There really was a "mainstream media" of top papers, newsmagazines and networks. Their ethos was "objectivity," even if most editors and reporters knew it was an unattainable ideal.

Now journalism is a jumble. Just who is a reporter and who is an advocate is often blurred. Some journalism is openly partisan. Hardly anyone values anonymity. Reporters and editors have become multimedia self-promoters. They blog and tweet; they do TV and radio. Although career advancement and political bias have always influenced journalism, their impact has increased. The "marketplace of ideas" often resembles a demolition derby -- victory goes to the most aggressive.

I haven't escaped this. I never intended to become a columnist, but writing a column was part of my job at National Journal magazine in the 1970s, and the column later moved to The Post and Newsweek. I also do some radio and TV. A column is inherently analytical and opinionated. Offended by many liberal and conservative dogmas, I aspire to the "sensible center." Whether I succeed, I'm still trying to do what I've always done: Explain things to myself and my readers; provide enough information so that even people who reject my viewpoint and values will emerge knowing more.

In a democracy, information is power, but you can never know whether it will make us better or worse off. Journalism's contribution, though not always constructive, is essential. At our best, we do serve as watchdogs at all levels: Watergate is but one spectacular example. We do illuminate crucial facts and clarify popular confusions. But too often, our conformist and crusading instincts make us complicit in episodes of collective folly, delusion or vengeance.

For me, there remains the personal pleasure of discovery and a faith that the unfettered pursuit of truth -- no matter how contentious or futile -- has stand-alone meaning. It's called freedom.

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