Ed Driscoll

The Proper Victorian Gentleman Lives--Inside Your Newspaper

It’s been a while since I’ve linked to Andrew Sullivan, but I think he’s got a great observation here, regarding journalism’s role in the Great Cartoon Crisis of 2006:

It’s fascinating, isn’t it, how this war has so often come down to what we are and are not allowed to see. We were not allowed to see (for long) the video deaths of those who jumped out of the World Trade Center. We were not allowed to see the coffins of soldiers arriving back in the U.S. We are still not allowed to see the most revealing photographs of what really happened at Abu Ghraib (the case is still tied up in appeals). We were not allowed to see the beheading of Nick Berg. And now we are not allowed to see the cartoons that are being used by Islamists for another round of violent intimidation of free societies.And then, of course, there is what makes this war different. The web has made it possible to see almost all of this, if you look hard enough. Only the government-withheld Abu Ghraib pics are actually out of view for most people – and, even then, some have been kept back by editors, who see their job as preventing the flow of information, rather than enabling it. And so we have two media now in the world. We have the mainstream media whose job is increasingly not actually to disseminate information but to act as a moral steward, to become an arbiter of sensitivity and good taste. And it’s up to places like Wikipedia or the blogosphere to disseminate actual facts, images and informed opinions. Obviously, I don’t see the need to publish everything. And editorial judgment counts. But we are approaching a time when the MSM may have that as precisely its role – not as a source of information, but as an arbiter of social etiquette and good judgment. The NYT as Miss Manners.

But that’s actually nothing new. When Tom Wolfe wrote The Right Stuff, he described newspapers, collectively, as the Proper Victorian Gentleman. He saw firsthand how much news is withheld from readers, in an effort to be, as Sullivan writes, arbiters of “social etiquette and good judgment”, as this response to a 1980 interview with Rolling Stone’s Chet Flippo indicates:

I’ll never forget working on the [New York] Herald Tribune the afternoon of John Kennedy’s death. I was sent out along with a lot of other people to do man-on-the-street reactions. I started talking to some men who were just hanging out, who turned out to be Italian, and they already had it figured out that Kennedy had been killed by the Tongs, and then I realized that they were feeling hostile to the Chinese because the Chinese had begun to bust out of Chinatown and move into Little Italy. And the Chinese thought the mafia had done it, and the Ukrainians thought the Puerto Ricans had done it. And the Puerto Ricans thought the Jews had done it. Everybody had picked out a scapegoat. I came back to the Herald Tribune and I typed up my stuff and turned it in to the rewrite desk. Late in the day they assigned me to do the rewrite of the man-on-the-street story. So I looked through this pile of material, and mine was missing. I figured there was some kind of mistake. I had my notes, so I typed it back into the story. The next day I picked up the Herald Tribune and it was gone, all my material was gone. In fact there’s nothing in there except little old ladies collapsing in front of St. Patrick’s. Then I realized that, without anybody establishing a policy, one and all had decided that this was the proper moral tone for the president’s assassination. It was to be grief, horror, confusion, shock and sadness, but it was not supposed to be the occasion for any petty bickering. The press assumed the moral tone of a Victorian gentleman.

Mark Steyn explored this phenomenon as well, in his obituary of Katharine Graham, longtime publisher of the Washington Post:

Her formula for her publications was succinctly expressed: “Mass With Class” — “perhaps the best three-word definition for what a good news magazine should be,” wrote Mark Whitaker in Newsweek. But what “Mass With Class” boils down to in practice is the genteel middlebrow conformity that makes so much of the mainstream U.S. media such a world-class yawnfest. “Mass With Class” means you don’t ask Hillary Clinton about her husband’s perjury and trashing of his, ahem, female acquaintances but only whether she finds it difficult coping with the accusations and if she thinks this is because conservatives have a difficult time dealing with her as a strong intelligent woman in her own right. “Mass With Class” means Dan Rather piously declaring that the Chandra Levy story is too unseemly for the CBS Evening News, no matter that it involves a Congressman obstructing a police investigation.”Mass With Class” equals “All the news that’s fit to print” and it’s never more protective than when giving the mass a glimpse of the class. Thus, Mrs. Graham’s death clippings tell us more in their oleaginous uniformity about the relationship between journalism and politics than the heroics of Woodward and Bernstein ever did. The mourners at her funeral “read like a Who’s Who,” albeit a somewhat obvious one: Alan Greenspan, Bill Gates, Oscar de la Renta, John McCain, Tina Brown. I shall refrain from disparaging the guest list any further as our own power couple, Conrad Black and Barbara Amiel, were also among those present. But the cosiness of this world is American journalism’s principal problem: There is “us” and there is “them,” the “class” and the “mass,” and the media have long since decided which side of the fence they belong on.

It may be that one of the reasons why the press hates the Blogosphere is not just that they’ve lost control over the flow of information, but that they’ve also lost control over the tone of public discourse.

This isn’t to say that I’m happy to see the proper “social etiquette and good judgment” that Sullivan describes disappear from public discourse. (Though I’d argue that it disappeared long before blogs, as anybody who in the mid-1980s watched CNN’s Crossfire or The Morton Downey Jr. Show saw: both shows were little more than pro-wrestling without the body slams or sexy girls holding the round cards.) But I’ll happily take unfiltered information and opinion, via blogs whose tones I am comfortable with, than have it bottlenecked by self-imposed “Mass With Class” Victorian Gents.

Update: To easily see the Victorian Gentlemanly style in action, pick up a copy of a paper like the San Francisco Chronicle. (Or scroll through their Website of course, but it’s even more obvious “on dead tree”.) Read their coverage, of say, the protests outside the gates of San Quentin during Tookie Williams’ execution. Then peruse the photos of the same event at Zombietime.

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