Commentary Magazine


Adversaries or Critics?

Daniel P. Moynihan (p. 41) is right, of course: the attitudes of the adversary culture have more and more come to influence the way in which the daily press, the news weeklies, and the television networks report on public affairs. In agreeing with this proposition I do not mean to say—any more than Mr. Moynihan means to suggest—that the New York Times or Newsweek or NBC deliberately distort the news to suit a particular political bias. On the contrary, the most rigorous and disciplined efforts are made to report the news as it happens, to be objective, to refrain from editorializing except on the editorial page or in clearly designated columns of comment. (This devotion to objectivity, as Mr. Moynihan himself points out, poses problems of its own with respect to staged events or the publication of irresponsible allegations; but that is another matter.) Whenever a story turns out to be distorted, the blame more often falls on carelessness or incompetence than on the conscious wish to mislead. No doubt there are instances of calculated misrepresentation, but I would guess that they are very rare indeed.

Nor, in saying that the attitudes of the adversary culture have come to exert an important influence on the reporting of public affairs, do I wish to suggest that a monolithic ideological perspective guides the writing and the editing of news. The vast majority of people who cover the news in this country are probably Left-of-Center in their own political views, but a range of diversified opinion can be found among them where concrete issues are raised. And even for those who may be exceptionally committed or dogmatic in their political ideas, there is no clear-cut “line” to follow on every question or in every case.

Nor, finally, in pointing to the influence of the adversary culture on the reporting of public affairs, am I speaking of the operations of a skeptical or critical turn of mind. It is admittedly difficult to distinguish in the abstract between a skeptical or critical attitude on the one side and an attitude of preconceived hostility on the other; between the impulse to expose dishonesty or error or corruption on the one side and the impulse to discredit through the tendentious manipulation of evidence on the other; between the wish to keep the officials who conduct the public business honest in every sense, and the wish to prove a case against the entire set of arrangements through which the public business is conducted in a polity like our own: between, in short (to borrow from the late Richard Hofstadter), the realm of “socially responsible criticism” and the realm of the adversary culture. Yet difficult though it may be to draw them in theory and sometimes even in practice, such distinctions are nevertheless real and crucial and need to be drawn.

In the case of the news media in general, the influence of the adversary culture shows itself not so much in the treatment of individual events—although it certainly shows itself there on a sufficient number of occasions—as in a marked disposition to seek out and play up stories which feed the belief that the country is breaking down. Not that the country has problems which it has been struggling to solve with varying degrees of failure amounting sometimes to success, but that the country as we know it is about to be defeated at last by the deficiency of its institutions and by the mediocrity and venality of its leaders. Here again the distinction is real and crucial, even though it may not always be easy to draw.

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But if Mr. Moynihan is right in stressing the influence of the adversary culture on the reporting of public affairs, he is also right, I think, in seeing the growth of this influence as a relatively recent development—a consequence of the entry into the journalistic profession of increasing numbers of highly educated people. To be subjected to higher education in America today (especially in the elite colleges and universities, but by no means in them alone, and especially in the liberal arts from which most young journalists come) is to be exposed to a tradition of ideas not merely at variance but actually at war with the values and premises of bourgeois or middle-class society. Since the adversary culture considers those values to be intrinsically corrupt, and since the polity is dedicated to their more perfect realization, the culture does not bless what the polity attempts to achieve. It withholds its blessing from the attempt itself, it gloats over every failure, and it curses every success.

This last must be stressed above all: that it curses every success. For the benefit of anyone who still doubts that this is so, who still believes that it is the failures of the American political system and of the American social order—the persistence of racial discrimination and poverty, for example—which have turned the adversary culture against that system and against that order, here is how an unusually candid spokesman describes the revolt of what he himself calls “the alienated middle class”: “. . . this revolt differed from other revolts—including the Negro revolt—which are revolts against acknowledged failures, because it was a revolt not only against failure but also against what America considered its notable successes. It was a revolt precisely against the American Way of Life.” (The words, and the italics, are Eric Bentley’s.)

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Previously confined to the world of ideas, this revolt “against the American Way of Life” has in the past ten years been reaching out to the world of affairs, its influence carried by hordes of such youngish apostles as have become so forceful a presence wherever the news is spread. Mr. Moynihan sees possible dangers and threats to the proper functioning of American democracy here. Paradoxically enough, however, it may be that the greater threat in this situation is the one it poses not to the workings of democracy but to the long-range prospects of the adversary culture itself, especially in the vulgarized form in which the attitudes of that culture most often survive the journey from the world of ideas to the world of affairs. Can a preconceived and simplistically-held hostility to the American political system and the American social order survive a prolonged exposure to the public business as it is actually carried on from day to day, from week to week, from month to month? Are not the missionaries more likely to go native, possibly even to the point of an acquiescence in the givens of the world as uncritical in its supine acceptance as it now is in its smugly undifferentiated hostility? The question is worth pondering, most of all for anyone who sees hope in the spread of the adversary culture and in the extension of its influence to the coverage and therefore to the understanding of the daily conduct of public affairs.

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