In reaction to Michael Lewis's puff piece of access journalism on Obama, Glenn Greenwald dredges up an Orwell quote: "Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations."
For example, here's an exercise in public relations I engaged in as a reporter: "Genes of History's Greatest Lover Found?" Nobody was actively resisting my printing this. I got lots of cooperation from the geneticist at Oxford who had led a team that identified Genghis Khan's Y-chromosome in a huge percentage of Asian steppe-dwellers.
On the other hand, there's a certain matter of tone or edge. I wrote the article to be as close as I could make it to what I would have liked to read when I was 14, so it's crammed with all sorts of non-genteel stuff: Buried treasure! Forty virgins sacrificed! Clone army? Hereditary differences! Tolstoy and Marx wrong about the Great Man theory of history!
But, how much of a market is there for smart stuff that is non-genteel? The Daily Mail does monster business by having an old-fashioned Front Page attitude. Whose side is The Daily Mail on? It's on the side of its readers, who want to read stuff that they will find interesting.
In contrast, more respectable publications are on the side of their readers, too. Their readers want their social status validated and their worldviews to remain placidly undisturbed by anything too interesting.
And even if interesting facts are conveyed, but in the genteel style, does anybody notice except the handful of people with close reading skills and a critical attitude? More disturbingly, when the facts merely appear in genteel surroundings, they are often assumed to confirm the conventional wisdom.
As I've often pointed out, the New York Times' genetics reporter Nicholas Wade spent a decade comprehensively trashing the conventional wisdom about race and genetics, and almost nobody noticed. As far as I can tell, 99% of New York Times readers took away the message they'd come in with: "Why, yes, we are ever so much more sophisticated than those mouth-breathing Creationists who don't realize that Science has proven that race is just a Social Construct."
Or, consider poor Jodi Kantor, the NYT's White House correspondent, who has been dog-whistling for half a decade that there are some things that aren't quite right about Barack Obama. (Here's her 2007 article on Obama and Rev. Wright that came out a full year before Wright briefly became an issue in the 2008 campaign. And here's her recent article about Obama's egomania.) Has anybody noticed?
We shouldn't, however, get carried away by the appealing notion that journalists in the past were all disreputable ne'er-do-wells whose chief loyalty was to getting an interesting story for the unwashed masses. There have always been newspapers whose first loyalty was to validating the gentility of their readers. T.S. Eliot lampooned one eminently respectable post-Puritan newspaper about a century ago:
The readers of the Boston Evening TranscriptSway in the wind like a field of ripe corn.
When evening quickens faintly in the street,
Wakening the appetites of life in some
And to others bringing the Boston Evening Transcript,
I mount the steps and ring the bell, turning
Wearily, as one would turn to nod good-bye to Rochefoucauld,
If the street were time and he at the end of the street,
And I say, "Cousin Harriet, here is the Boston Evening Transcript."