The Pulitzer Prize and the Corruption of History and Journalism
History has been subordinated to the “passions and interests” of the present.
Bruce Thornton is a Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
The Pulitzer folks have awarded their prize to the New York Times for the lead essay in its “1619 Project,” a bit of lefty agitprop so egregious that even throwback liberal American historians have ripped it to shreds. This offense comes two years after a joint Pulitzer award to the Times and the Washington Post for its brazenly partisan coverage of the Russian collusion lie cooked up by rogue clerks in the FBI and DOJ. Indeed, this bias is a long tradition for the Pulitzer. The Times’s man in Moscow, Walter Duranty, was rewarded with the prize for helping Stalin obscure his mass murders, which suited the leftist inclinations of the Times and the Pulitzer board.
Yet this latest Pulitzer awarded for corrupting two of our esteemed and prestigious institutions is nothing new. What we have been experiencing since the Sixties is the tearing away of the last few shreds of the emperor’s stained and threadbare clothes. As a result, ideological activism has driven truth and critical thinking from both these professions.
First, we should remember that the Pulitzer Prize, like the Oscars, the Emmys, and with a few exceptions the Nobel Peace Prize, is a trade-guild marketing tool, not a merit-based objective reward for true excellence and achievement. Political and ideological preferences are branded by such awards and made into megaphones for publicizing biases for those preferences. It’s no coincidence that the Nobel Peace Prize has historically favored evangelical globalists and one-world anti-nationalists, or enemies of the West like the leftist ventriloquist’s dummy Rigoberta Menchu, and the murderous thug Yasser Arafat. Watching the Oscars and listening to the winners’ speeches provide a seminar in left-wing platitudes and semi-literate bromides. Or look at this year’s Pulitzer Board members and you will find reporters, media executives, foundation functionaries, and university faculty, all of whom are notoriously progressive.
In pointing this out, however, we shouldn’t imply that once there was a golden age of journalism marked by high standards of objectivity and bias-free reporting. Newspapers going back to the Founding era were all characterized by a preference for one political faction over others. Forgotten Founder Fisher Ames, a die-hard antidemocrat, complained in 1805 about the media’s politicization. Scorning the press for “supplying an endless stimulus to their [readers’] imagination and passions,” Ames wrote, “Public affairs are transacted now on a stage where all the interests and passions grow out of fiction.”
Distinctions between the recording of facts and events also were not always separated from partisan opinion. Here’s an example from the San Francisco Herald of 1853, in a seeming news story about a ranchero whose encounter with the famous bandit Joaquín Murieta was told to an anonymous “correspondent.” The story reprises many dubious details about the bandit, including his claim that his crimes were in response to the hanging of his brother and rape of his wife by dastardly gringos. But the real point of the story is political: The Herald appealed to Californians who opposed discriminatory policies like the Foreign Miners Tax, which served the interests of the mining companies, but not those of the merchants who sold miners supplies and equipment, and didn’t want their pool of customers diminished.
Despite our pretenses that journalism has evolved from those bad habits, we see the same flaws today––reliance on anonymous sources, information taken at second- or third-hand, outright fabrications, and naked political bias––in the coverage of the ginned-up “scandals” like Russian collusion, Trump supposedly strong-arming Ukraine, and the predicates for the House’s articles of impeachment.
Back in the day, most people knew newspapers were politically biased. The origins of journalism’s claims to nonpartisan objectivity started around 1900 as another progressive bad idea about making human affairs and political behavior into a “science.” In his 1919 book Liberty and the News, progressive Walter Lippmann sought to make journalism a “profession” conducted according to the canons of science, and for society to provide “genuine training schools for the men upon whose sagacity [the citizens] were dependent.” Such schools would have “to wait upon the development of psychology and political science,” but once armed with such knowledge, their students could become objective journalists, above all the political passions of less “sagacious” folk. After World War II, this vision became realized in university “J schools,” whose degrees became a necessary credential for practicing journalism. Of course, that also meant that the increasing leftward shift of the universities over the years would transfer to journalists.
For a while, journalists paid the “homage vice pays to virtue”: hypocrisy. But by 2016 we were hearing a bit more honesty. The New York Times’ media reporter Jim Rutenberg had a front-page column justifying the media’s bias against Trump by a clever use of rhetorical and begged questions: “If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?” Over the subsequent four years, of course, the rhetorical questions have become declarative sentences.
The consequence of these developments is that the pretenses of professional integrity have been dropped. Starting in the Sixties and culminating in the two terms of Barack Obama, progressive corporate media have discarded professional standards, insincere as they may have been, that once checked the sorts of shameless and blatant activism we see today. Fact-based journalism is still being done, but has become less influential given the progressives’ dominance of the legacy media.
History as well has been notoriously subordinated to the “passions and interests” of the present. Even at its best, the history of human actions and events necessarily involves judgements about what’s important, representative, and meaningful, and requires a humble respect for the irreducibly complex motives and aims that keep history from ever being “scientific” and purely objective. But there are also facts that can be known, better founded arguments that can be made, and interpretations that are based on those arguments and facts not as we want them to be, but as they were understood in their own times and standards rather than our own.
But the dangers of letting ideological biases warp history accelerated in the Sixties and its rise of imperialist activism. Now most of our history resembles Jane Austen’s comic History of England, in which she declares her aim “to vent my spleen against & shew my hatred to all those peoples whose parties or principles do not suit with mine, & not to give information.” Compromised by the ideological biases of identity politics, history has become a form of melodrama, driven by the Leninist principle of “who, whom”: Who is the oppressor, whom does he oppress. But the answer is known in advance: The “who” is the white, male, heterosexual, Christian, capitalist, demon of history, the Dark Lord, usually America, that prevents the utopia of blissful equality and perfect justice denied to “people of color.” Worse yet for good history, it bespeaks a temporal arrogance about our own superior knowledge and morality, as we haul past eras before the judgment of one that is the most historically ignorant in American history. We call that the historiographical sin of “presentism,” the product of a temporal centrism that patronizes and condescends to the past.
This naïve, simplistic and bigoted view of history has permeated our politics, policies, social mores, school curricula, and culture both high and low. Much of it, like the “1619 Project,” is remarkably bad, both in content and in style. It explains the continuing popularity of Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, a tissue of Old Left and Cultural Marxist clichés; the yearly tendentious condemnations of Christopher Columbus’s voyages to the New World; the preposterous noble-savage idealizations of American Indians as gentle ecologists and proto-feminists; the knee-jerk condemnations of the West’s alleged evils while ignoring the fact that all such evils are universal to mankind, but the ideas created by the West––unalienable human rights, sex equality, eradication of slavery, liberal democracy––are unique to the West.
As a result, the affection for our country and its past is compromised, the “mystic chords of memory” frayed, leaving it to fewer and fewer citizens to shoulder the burden of fighting and dying for it. In the face of the expansionary ambitions of communist China that have been laid bare by the virus crisis, such disdain for the country that has made us rich and free is dangerous.
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Frontpage's Series on NY Times’ 1619 Project:
Daniel Greenfield: Project 2019 - How the New York Times Profits from Slavery Today.
Bruce Thornton: NY Times’ 1619 Project Puts Slavery at the Center of America’s Founding.
Jason D. Hill: Why New World Slavery Was Inevitable.
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