Jim Sleeper: Journalists should be jolting one another and the rest of us out of the frog bowl, before it boils over

[Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale.]

A little-remarked virtue of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth is its graphic rendering of The Parable of the Frog. What? You don’t know about it and aren’t haunted by it day and night? Well, if you’re a journalist in Washington or New York, it’s no wonder. You and some colleagues are probably the hapless frog himself....

As I noted here before the 2004 election, the nation’s Founders were worried about republican prospects because they were reading Edward Gibbon's then-new account of how the Roman republic had slipped, frog-like and degree by self-deluding degree, into imperial tyranny.

They knew that bad leaders throughout history had bedazzled citizens out of liberty by titillating and intimidating them into a mob mentality that, as Gibbon put it, "no longer possessed that public courage which is nourished by the love of independence, the sense of national honor, the presence of danger, and the habit of command. They received laws and governors from the will of their sovereign and trusted for their defense to a mercenary army … ."

Surely Founder Richard Henry Lee was anticipating a Frogometer when he wrote that "nations which have lapsed from liberty, to a state of slavish subjection, have been brought to this unhappy condition, by gradual paces." Surely Tom Paine had a frog in mind when he warned, in Common Sense, “Men of passive tempers look somewhat lightly over the offences of Great Britain, and, still hoping for the best, are apt to call out, Come, come, we shall be friends again for all this.” But if you can survey what is being done to you and “can still shake hands with the murderers, then... whatever may be your rank and title in life, you have the heart of a coward, and the spirit of sycophant.”

Surely a nation like ours, fighting a supposed war of self-defense against terror, shouldn’t rely on a “volunteer" army of kids driven toward supreme sacrifice by economic and civic emptiness at home. That nation would be lapsing “by gradual paces” into trusting “a mercenary army.” But I’ll leave the encroaching militarism, surveillance, cultural decay, and corporate fleecing to experts who’ve kept their independence, like retired generals who’ve spoken out.

I’ll mention just one bowl of warming water I do know fairly well – the one that holds “mainstream” (a.k.a. “liberal”) news media in New York and Washington. This is the water whose temperature George W. Bush, Karl Rove, and their faux-journalist retainers are raising, most recently in Bush’s disgraceful charge that The New York Times’s reportage on encroaching surveillance is “disgraceful” and has “harmed the United States of America” more than he has.

A word about the media bowl itself: Since the corporations that own most mainstream journalism are bound by law and their own charters to maximize profit and market share, they don’t really contribute to civic-republican deliberation by citizens who sometimes temper their market interests to advance a common good. Corporations don't deliberate that way; their civic gestures are write-offs, sales-lubricating "good will."

The effect on journalists? As Gore reminds us in his film, anyone whose salary depends on his not understanding something is not going to understand it. In his important blog, David Warsh wonders this week if that’s why Slate, absorbed by the Washington Post media conglomerate, hasn’t managed to find a serious economics columnist to replace Paul Krugman, who left there in 1999.

It happens all the time. I'm becoming a connoisseur of the ways undergraduates like those I’ve taught at Yale go into journalism with civic-republican, liberal-humanist standards like Paine's but adapt to their employers’ and editors’ characteristic ways of falling silent about -- or finessing, in a civic-republican idiom -- the yawning gap between civic-republican candor and the courtesanal behavior that deftly advances corporate priorities and practices. Soon they are serving up gossip, gotcha, and titillation, some of it with the telltale ironic posturing of people who know that they’re no longer free.

In the media bowl these days, more and more frogs are drifting listlessly in the rising heat. As the republic dissolves, writers who came to journalism with good civic-republican educations write little that Richard Henry Lee would have admired and more that Tom Paine would have considered cowardly or sycophantic.

Other scribblers thrive as warm-water snakes, like journalists of 19th-Century Paris whom Balzac portrayed in Lost Illusions. As that novel’s translator, Herbert J. Hunt, notes in the Penguin edition, “Balzac’s contention is that the majority of journalists under [Napoleon, the Restoration, and the July Monarchy], instead of recognizing that they were called to a serious, even sacred mission, turned the Press into an instrument for self-advancement, prostituted principles to intrigue and used journalism merely as a means of acquiring money, position, and power.”

You may think here of Judith Miller, Stephen Glass, Tony Snow, Matt Drudge, Hugh Hewitt (in his online Weekly Standard column), or the majority of the staff of the New York Post, which Rupert Murdoch transformed from a crusading liberal tabloid edited by my second-cousin James Wechsler into the daily reminder it is now that Australia was founded as a penal colony.

At a subtle remove, think of smooth operators like David Brooks, himself a temperature-raiser on the Iraq War and other threats to freedom who has nevertheless been making nice references lately to publications somewhat to his left (such as this one) where he has been criticized, while blasting the leftist blog Daily Kos as a corrupt political machine. This is all-too characteristic of the false, cloying comity and one-sided hypocrisy of Washington journalism. Brooks should be challenging the far-more powerful conservative blogosphere and excoriating Bush’s latest moves against honest reporting on encroaching surveillance.

And someone should be bringing back John Adams to warn us, as he did in 1786:

When the people give way, their deceivers, betrayers, and destroyers press upon them so fast, that there is no resisting afterwards. The nature of the encroachment upon the American Constitution is such as to grow every day more and more encroaching. … The people grow less steady, spirited, and virtuous, the seekers more numerous and more corrupt, and every day increases the circles of their dependants and expectants, until virtue, integrity, public spirit, simplicity, and frugality become the objects of ridicule and scorn, and vanity, luxury, foppery, selfishness, meanness, and downright venality swallow up the whole society....

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