Embedded and Elitist Left

The Long March through Schools of Journalism

by Bruce S. Thornton

Private Papers

If you want a good example of the “long march through the institutions” undertaken by sixties leftists after they left school, look no further than the career of Orville Schell, dean of Berkeley’s School of Journalism.

Since the political program of the left was unlikely to prevail through democratic means – given the innate good sense of most Americans, who can smell a totalitarian rat a mile away – those like Schell endorsing various socialist nostrums could realize their utopian schemes only “by insinuation and infiltration rather than confrontation,” as Roger Kimball has put it. Thus they settled in the universities and the media, “working against the established institutions while working in them,” in the words of sixties leftist guru Herbert Marcuse.

But there is another dimension of the institutionalization of the left, one also illustrated by Schell – what Tom Wolfe famously called “radical chic,” the use of leftist ideology as a fashion marker to signify one’s elitist superiority to the bovine middle class befuddled by a false consciousness that keeps them from seeing the horrible oppression and injustice of America. This combination of elitist privilege and ideology has been a pretty good deal for lucky leftists like Schell, for their insidious undermining of democracy’s institutions works just slowly enough to allow them to continue to enjoy the prestigious and profitable benefits of those same institutions that their “progressive” ideas are corrupting.

The circumstances of Schell’s hiring at Berkeley illustrate just how entrenched the left has become in American universities. Before going to Berkeley as dean, Schell had written for various publications, produced some television documentaries, run an organic farm, and published several well-received books on China, having given up on finishing his PhD. In other words, a pretty good career, but not one that would usually qualify you for being dean of one of the country’s most prestigious journalism schools. But if Schell lacked one of the requirements for the position, a completed PhD, he did have impeccable leftist credentials. That was qualification enough for Berkeley profs like Troy Duster, another ex-sixties-radical who was instrumental in Schell’s hiring.

We see in this episode one of the effects of the entrenchment of the left in the universities – the establishment of a “good-ole-leftist-boy” network that spreads around institutional goodies to its cronies. (I wonder where the female and minority faculty of Berkeley were when another privileged, prep-schooled white guy was given a job over the no doubt many better-qualified journalists “of color.”) Schell himself recently helped out another ex-sixties radical, Robert Scheer, by hiring him this spring to teach a course at Berkeley on “Covering the Iraq War.” Given that Scheer and Schell, both Nationcontributors, have been outspoken and shrill opponents of the war in Iraq, it’s hard to see how the whole notion of journalistic fairness and objectivity, let alone academic critical thinking on an issue, could cut any ice during Scheer’s lectures.

Schell’s ideology, however, doesn’t keep him from enjoying the privileges and prestige underwritten by those nasty old capitalists who create all that surplus wealth. He’s a regular at the yearly World Economic Forum shindig in Davos, where, as he has smugly written, “many of the attendees rank high on the periodic tables of wealth, power and fame.” Schell has hobnobbed as well with George Soros, fawningly interviewing the wacky billionaire who made a fortune by being a rapacious capitalist freebooter and who now, like some medieval knight buying masses for his soul, is doing penance by funding leftists and publishing screeds whose premises and prescriptions, if actually followed, would’ve kept him from getting rich in the first place. Like Soros, or John Kerry and John Edwards, for that matter, Schell finds a populist rhetoric of “equality” for the common man convenient camouflage for power and privilege.
This elitist disdain crops up regularly in Schell’s writings. A sure sign of this dislike for the common man is the obligatory sneering at religious believers, especially evangelical Christians. In his piece on the World Economic Forum in Davos, Schell pauses in his complaint about how Vice President Cheney’s security needs interfered with elite schmoozing to say that the Bush administration “reflects a spirit deeply evangelical. In its embunkered totalism, more concerned with justifying and converting than questioning and learning, it seems strangely akin in spirit to the discipline of Leninism.” This comment is remarkably ignorant and bigoted, the word “evangelical” nothing more than an epithet. More, this caricature of evangelical belief – something I’ll wager Schell knows nothing about except that it’s a Bad Thing – is compounded by the odious comparison to an ideology responsible for millions of deaths, an ideology, by the way, that has more in common with Schell’s political beliefs than with anything in evangelical Christianity. But this comment is sheer snobbery:  Good people like Schell are enlightenment rationalists sensitive to nuance and complexity, while Bush and those like him – which is to say a majority of Americans – are medieval throwbacks crippled by superstition and dogmatism.

Schell’s snobbery slipped out again in a comment he made after the election that recalled California governor Gray Davis. Asked why the Bay Area voted overwhelmingly against the recall, Schell responded, “It strikes me that the better educated people are, more often than not, they tend to be more liberal, and I think this is a very well-educated area.” He went on to add, “When you live in a beautiful place, which the whole Bay Area is, you draw people for whom that is important and the idea of preservation, moderation, of walking a little more softly, is important. And I think that creates a kind of liberal mind-set in an environmental sense and in a larger political sense.” In other words, if you’re wealthy enough to get an advanced degree and afford some of the most expensive real estate in the country, you’ll end up with the proper political ideology, one that is supposed to advance the interests of the common man who cuts your lawn or services your Volvo.

That Schell doesn’t think much of the average person is even more obvious in his vision of what should be the role of journalists in a democracy. If you think the media should attempt to discover and publicize the truth, and then let the people make up their own minds, listen to Schell: “In a democracy, indeed in any intelligent society, the media and politicians have to lead. The media should be introducing us to new things, interesting things, things we don’t already know about; helping us change our minds or make up our minds, not just pandering to lowest-denominator wisdom.” This brief statement is a gold mine of liberal media pathologies. First, there is the assertion that the media – staffed by the unelected and run by those dedicated to profit – should “lead” us. Lead us where? Who decides where we should go? Based on what ideas or principles? And how do we hold these media “leaders” accountable? If you dislike George Bush, you can vote against him in November. But if you don’t like the Los Angeles Times, all you can do is not read it. But it will still be publishing and influencing others with its biases.

The fundamental elitist assumption is that the people need “leading” in the first place, since they are incapable of knowing on their own where they should be going and how they should get there. Thus the media should be “helping us change our minds.” Again, who decides to which ideas our minds should be changed? Those in the media, who use their influence to promote their particular ideologies, prejudices, and preferences, not to mention their own careers? The op-ed page, not the front page, is where one should try to change minds. The blurring of reporting and opinion, obvious to any careful reader of a major newspaper like the Los Angeles Times or the New York Times, where “stealth editorials” lurk in nearly every story and headline, has never been so brazenly asserted.
But of course Schell avoids any overt recognition of the consequences of his own journalistic vision of “changing minds,” which will have to be a media driven by the vision of what exact ideology you want those minds changed to. When the liberal/leftist bias of those “mind-changers” is decried, however, immediately the apologists fall back on the old ideal of journalists as, in Schell’s terms, “truth-mongers.” Thus in Schell’s view, journalists should not have any loyalties to their own society and people: “We are not a national media,” he has opined. “We are a global media…I think we, above all other countries, need to view ourselves as journalists as something of a stateless people.” The implication is that journalists should be just neutral fact-gatherers with no other loyalties, not even to their own people. That arguable assumption aside, it’s hard to square this view of Olympian neutrality with Schell’s other vision of journalists as “mind-changers,” who will necessarily have loyalties to the ideas they think people’s minds should be changed to.

This contradiction between journalistic objective truth-gatherers and proselytizing mind-changers was papered over as well in Schell’s glowing New York Times review of fellow Nation-contributor Eric Alterman’s What Liberal Media?, that extended exercise in Oz-like “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” Alterman gives the game away early on in his book when he says that the liberal media “is tiny and profoundly underfunded compared to its conservative counterpart,” and then adds, “as a columnist for the Nation…I work in the middle of it [i.e. the liberal media].” If you define the hard-left ideology of the Nation as “liberal,” then yes, the media aren’t liberal, they’re downright conservative. But this is a verbal bait-and-switch, an attempt to use language to hide the well-documented and repeatedly demonstrated fact of liberal bias in the mainstream media.

Schell, however, endorses Alterman’s chicanery by falling back on the notion of “how crucial it is to have fair and accurate news media at home” whose job is to keep “this democracy well enough informed to make intelligent decisions.” No “mind-changing” journalist “leaders” here, only media Joe Fridays seeking “just the facts.” But Schell can’t help giving the game away either, once more his elitist prejudices and biases undercutting all these claims to objectivity. “Liberals,” he writes, approving Alterman’s similar bigoted assertion, “do not tend to see themselves as representatives for any ideological movement.” Unlike those close-minded, doctrinaire conservatives, “they favor self-criticism, diversity and fairness.” The arrogance of this is breathtaking, not to mention laughably false, given the ideological rigidity and complete lack of diversity that characterize, with some few exceptions, the liberal and “progressive” worldview. That’s why one of the best recent books on the media and bias, William McGowan’s Coloring the News, was ignored by all those “self-critical” and “fair” editors at the New York Times.

In fact, a conference at Berkeley last year on media coverage of the Iraq war, hosted by Schell, was notably deficient in “diversity” and “fairness.” CNN, National Public Radio, PBS, ABS, CBS, the BBC, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, even the notoriously propagandistic Al Jazeera were all invited, but not the Fox News Channel, the Wall Street Journal, or the Washington Times. A few conservative writers like Victor Davis Hanson were invited, but they were drowned out by the chorus of consensus that the media, particularly the “embedded journalists,” were complicit in the Bush administration’s packaging of the illegitimate war in Iraq.

The low value of fairness, objectivity, and balance in Schell’s thinking is most obvious in his commentaries on the war, which follow the old Marxist script of evil capitalists pulling all the strings of government and culture alike in order to further their nefarious greedy ends. In a piece entitled “No Exit Strategy?” Schell recycles this discredited thesis. The Bush administration, Schell intones, “has brought the notion of the ‘marketization’ of American life to heights unequalled in history.” Government cabinet-level departments “are now run more like large corporations than agencies of government.” Schell then spices up his anti-business prejudice with some more anti-evangelical bigotry: those in Bush’s administration “exude a faith-based fervor in their market-driven conviction that they have been almost divinely anointed to usher us into a new world, one guided by new styles of management and sanctified by the accumulation of wealth.” But just like their buddies in the business sector, these apostles of greed over-reached in Iraq, and now find themselves facing “a version of collapse that may one day look not so different from that of Enron, WorldCom, or Tyco.”
This demonizing of business, a hoary staple of Marxist thinking, was stale back in the sixties when it was popularized by Herbert Marcuse and the novels of Thomas Pynchon. Forty years of history, however, have rendered it as convincing as phrenology or mesmerism, except in the minds of those like Schell whose intellectual clocks stopped around 1970, leaving them ideologues incapable of “self-criticism,” “fairness” and a “diversity” of ideas.

For those stuck in the amber of the radical sixties, Vietnam is their most glorious memory, a time when they rose up and confronted the military-industrial complex and forced it to retreat from its neo-colonial and imperial ambitions. That’s why at every opportunity Vietnam is trotted out, surely the most overused false analogy ever. So too with Schell, in a piece last year called “From Sands to Quagmire,” where he mediates on his own begged question, which is that Iraq is indeed a “quagmire”: “Body counts, B-52 strikes, wounded GI’s in medi-vac choppers, downed helicopter gunships surrounded by AK-47 toting peasants, ‘Five O’clock Follies-like’ Centcom briefings, anti-war demonstrations, troops escalations, and a repetition of official expressions that the war is still ‘on track,’ all have a haunting ring.”

We all know what this comparison to Vietnam is really about: America deserves to lose in Iraq because its aggression is unjust and driven by profit and imperial ambition, just as in Vietnam. But of course the analogy is false on numerous levels, the most important being that the insurgents in Iraq do not have what Uncle Ho had: two nuclear superpower sponsors to provide armaments, personnel, and international political pressure. What does have a “haunting ring” about this war, however, is the relentless assault of those domestic critics like Schell who attempt to erode our will to pursue to its proper end a conflict democratically sanctioned by Congress. We know the results of their earlier success: an oppressive tyranny in Vietnam, replete with gulags, ethnic cleansing, torture, millions of refugees, and economic backwardness; and the “malaise” of the seventies, which emboldened the Soviet Union in Central America and Africa and kept us from responding to the first attack by the Islamists, the take-over of the American embassy in Tehran.

With someone like Schell running one of the country’s major journalism schools, there is little hope that the corruption of the media by its ideological prejudices and preferences can be changed. The “long march” has done its work, leaving our public institutions in the hands of those whose ideology runs counter to the basic principles of American life.

2004©Bruce Thornton

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