Journalists Face Their Existential Crisis (or Not)

So what’s the primary job of journalism? Is it to report, or is it to manipulate? This little exchange between Tom Brokaw and Chris Matthews shortly after NBC declared Hillary Clinton the winner of the New Hampshire Primary highlights the distinction. 

…immediately after Hillary Clinton completed her victory speech, television analysts began asking why the polls, pundits and politicians had all forecasted a win by Barack Obama.

Tom Brokaw, somewhat of an elder statesmen of television news, may have said it best on MSNBC around 11 p.m. As [Keith] Olbermann’s co-anchor Chris Matthews commented on faulty New Hampshire polls, Mr. Brokaw pointed to a larger fault shared by media organizations, suggesting that journalists should “temper that temptation to constantly try to get ahead of what the voters are deciding:”

MATTHEWS: We’re going to have to go back and figure out the methodology, I think, on some of these.

BROKAW: You know what I think we’re going to have to go back and do? Wait for the voters to make their judgment.

MATTHEWS: What do we do then in the days before balloting–

BROKAW: What a novel idea–

MATTHEWS: –We must stay home then I guess.

BROKAW: No, no, we don’t stay home. There are reasons to analyze what they’re saying. We know from how the people voted today what moved them to vote. We can take a look at that. There are a lot of issues that had not been fully explored in all this.

But we don’t have to get in the business of making judgments before the polls have closed and trying to stampede and affect the process.

Look, I’m not picking just on us. It’s part of the culture in which we live these days.

But I think the people out there are going to begin to make some judgments about us, if they haven’t already, if we don’t begin to temper that temptation to constantly try to get ahead of what the voters are deciding, in many cases as we learned in New Hampshire, as they went into the polling place today or in the past three days. They were making decisions very late.

Poor Chris Matthews can’t seem to figure out what to do for a living if he actually would have to wait and, errrr… report. It seems to me he’s coming at it from the Edward Bernays school of journalistic priorities.

Edward Bernays was the “father” of public relations. His great claim to fame was getting women to smoke cigarettes, thereby creating a huge market for tobacco companies and perhaps millions of premature deaths. For this he was a great hero of American industry. He also wrote an influential little book called Propaganda in the 1920’s. Here’s the first sentence:

THE conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.

For Bernays, and by apparent implication Chris Matthews (aka “Tweety” to Blogistan), it is the job of journalists to manufacture “realities” in order to maintain the smooth fucntioning of society keep the rabble in line. Witness this morning, where Chris Matthews just can’t seem to help himself:

Look here, Tweetums. Those of us who’ve lived in New York a while remember a 2000 campaign in which Hillary Clinton demonstrated that she was a tireless and masterful listener, who could transform political visits into honest engagements among concerned individuals. I myself have been in face to face meetings with my Junior Senator and can assure you that her gifts for this, rare as they are among politicians, are real.

What happened to Chris Matthews and his colleagues was that the Toto that is the New Hampshire electorate tore the Bernays curtain from them, leaving their fallibility plainly in view. This morning Matthews blabbed on as if his illusory wizardry were still as dazzling as ever.

To switch metaphors, what Tom Brokaw offered was the same advice every good batting coach gives a small-statured contact hitter after he hits a rare home run (or more to the point, strikes out trying): “remember to play within yourself.” But with Matthews, is there a “self” anymore to play within? Or is bluster all that there is?

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