To answer that question with another question: What’s the point of status if you cannot wear it? The trouble comes because insider status, especially when flaunted, corrodes public confidence in news platforms.
The self-importance of Beltway-Manhattan media types in not in any way new. It was this way when I lived in D.C. in the ‘80s, and it was this way when my wife and I returned in 2016. There’s a reason the annual soirees of media-driven groups bring out the coverage in hives: The media loves to read about itself. They actually run more of “this town” than most citizens used to suspect because they typically last longer than the more transient, elected officials do. That longevity is most definitely not new.
Washington is a town is full of clubs, some formal and organized, with buildings and membership committees. Others are more opaque or remote. Some reach degrees of cachet not seen except at Harvard’s Porcellian Club or Yale’s Skull and Bones. Again, nothing is new except, well, the constant digital winking to each other by the insiders — in full view of the outsiders.
This is high-risk behavior. In his classic essay, “The Inner Ring,” C.S. Lewis warned about “the delicious knowledge that we — we four or five all huddled beside this stove — are the people who know.” Lewis lectured rising British university students that “from the first day on which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care,” that they would be driven by the desire to be within the Inner Ring.
It is, of course, a fallacy; there is no special knowledge that emanates from such bonfires. Lewis went on to describe the perilous dangers such an illusion carried, dangers to the soul if not necessarily someone’s career. “It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school,” he argued. “But you will be a scoundrel.”
“Of all the passions,” he added, “the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.” Lewis did not worry, as we must now do, about a self-selected group of people who conclude everyone else is beneath them and don’t seem to realize that their self-regard and self-importance is often on full display on social media platforms. It is part of what gives rise to the “populist moment” we are in and the feeling among many in the United States that the left and the news media are in harness. Neither partisans nor press types benefit from that arrangement.
This is not a condemnation of journalism. Lewis is careful to point out that wariness of the Inner Rings everywhere is never condemnation of excellence in any calling. He admonished his audience to aim for that excellence while steering far from Inner Rings.
That way, he advised, “You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it. This group of craftsmen will by no means coincide with the Inner Ring or the Important People or the People in the Know. . . . But it will do those things which that profession exists to do and will in the long run be responsible for all the respect which that profession in fact enjoys and which the speeches and advertisements cannot maintain.”
The late Atlantic magazine editor Michael Kelly, an audience favorite in the early years of my radio show until his death in Iraq in 2003, would often remark that journalism was a craft, not a profession. That was his way of saying that you don’t need to pass a test or earn a degree to enter the reporting and opining business. The truly great craftsmen don’t take to Twitter to brag about their friendships and connections in the world of journalism. They stick to their work. Those who do are likely seeking their own Inner Rings. It’s a foolish instinct.
Or as my Post colleague Ruth Marcus gently puts it: “No matter what party you’re at, there’s always a better one somewhere.” The “Marcus Rule” is meant to discourage vanity in the media. It should be on prominent display in every newsroom.
We should expect more from our journalists. Much of journalism’s value comes from what it publishes of course; but some comes from the confidence the public has in its practitioners’ habits and behaviors. Increasingly, the platforms that employ them have to ask: What do we want from our professionals?