In Cold War Manhattan, there appeared to be no greater enmity than the hatred between Victor Navasky, editor of left-wing magazine The Nation, and William F. Buckley Jr, editor of National Review.
The Nation was, if not pro-Communist, then at the very least anti-Nato. Buckley’s aim, by contrast, was to destroy the liberalism of the Republican party and build a red-blooded conservative movement in its place. (Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice.) They argued about everything. Navasky was right to condemn conservatives’ support for McCarthyism and their opposition to the civil rights movement. But history has vindicated Buckley’s attacks on the Left’s myth that Soviet agents in America were innocent victims of the state.
In 2008, after Buckley had died, Navasky confessed to getting on well with his old foe. They both edited ideological magazines that had an influence far beyond their small circulations. They both despised the profitable mainstream media, which stuck to the daily news schedule. They wanted to find new ideas and stories the big news organisations chose to ignore or simply did not see. They challenged rather than informed their readers. Above all, “whenever we found ourselves within drinking distance”, they shared a bottle and despaired of their backers, who in their innocence expected small intellectual magazines to make a profit.
Buckley’s commitment to free enterprise would have led to his magazine closing. But, Navasky explained, he would excuse his appeals for charitable donations by saying, “You don’t expect the church to make a profit, do you?”
Their world is dead. I don’t know if there are intellectuals left in Manhattan. Certainly, here in London, when cliché-ridden hacks throw around the insult “Hampstead intellectual” they show only that they do not realise that no intellectual has been able to afford to buy a home in Hampstead since Michael Foot’s day. Where there were once second-hand bookshops for inquiring minds, there are now boutiques for second wives.
Gone too is the assumption that there exists a profitable mainstream media for mavericks to rail against. I spent the weekend in the company of an editor from the New York Times. Trump’s victory had driven him to despair, but he still found the spirit to reject my accusation that the US press had failed to do its job. It had reported on Hillary Clinton’s emails. It had exposed Donald Trump’s scams and tax dodging. But its exposés had no effect. New technologies had locked Americans in belief systems as rigid as anything the Cold War imposed. Where once the totalitarian state had controlled the news, now Facebook algorithms ensured subscribers only received information that confirmed their prejudices.
The objection that people always bought newspapers which suited their politics does not wash. Even though a left-wing New Yorker would have read The Nation and his or her counterpart on the Right would have turned to Buckley, they did not and could not immerse themselves in their ideological comfort zone. Broadcast news had to be impartial. It forced them to confront awkward facts and arguments they would rather not hear. In the US, famously, Ronald Reagan abolished the fairness doctrine for broadcasters and allowed the creation of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and Donald Trump. But it is vital to understand that regulated British broadcasting is not in much better shape.
Certainly, you can find an impartial or reasonably impartial view of the world from the BBC and other public-sector broadcasters, but many do not even see it. The biggest change the web has brought is the ability for users to immerse themselves in cyberspace for most of their waking lives. Readers of The Nation did not get up every morning and stay in touch with the magazine until they went to bed. Subscribers to National Review did not take all their news from one source. Now they have propaganda and outright lies delivered to them in their feed whenever they click on to it, along with news of their friends, gossip, showbiz and everything else they could want. What chance does the New York Times or BBC have against that? Who wants boring fact-checkers and reporters trained to consider opposing points of view, when confirmation biases are much more satisfying?
The unexamined life is not worth living, as Socrates said. But unexamined “news” is what hundreds of millions want, and what many millions more will receive, whether they want it or not.
As for Navasky’s picture of the mainstream media as well-fed monsters, it no more survived the Cold War than the Soviet Union did. Every major news organisation has cut back on reporters. Few apart from specialist magazines have a workable business plan for protecting what is left of their staff.
I accept that as you grow older you run the risk of sinking into pessimism. But I cannot see how print and broadcast journalism for inquiring people can survive anywhere except in specialist niches. In their place are Vladimir Putin propagandists using misinformation as a weapon of foreign policy. Alongside them, the web honours every variety of crank, nutjob and freak. To call them out is to commit the sin of our age and be an “elitist”. Once I would have said that the insult reeks of condescension because it assumes the masses can only handle lies. Now I suspect lies is what they want. Maybe I am wrong. Even if I am, it remains true, that the economic model for providing journalism which strives to be more than propaganda is everywhere failing.
I have gone back to Auden in 2016. He may have been all over the place politically but I can think of no better writer to have by my side in a time of chaos. He ended his “September 1, 1939”, written in the interval between the Hitler-Stalin pact and the outbreak of World War II, with:
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages
Real, fact-checked news that has not been tailored to suit your preferences is in danger of becoming one of Auden’s “points of light”. You will still be able to see it if you peer hard into the darkness. But you will only find it if you want to look for it, and the lesson of our times is that the majority of our fellow citizens do not.