More than 15 years have passed since I first read Thomas Sowell's classic, The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy, which I consider the single best analysis of liberalism ever written. Sowell's basic point is that liberalism is really about the liberal's need to feel good about himself, to think of himself as more intelligent, virtuous and altruistic than ordinary people. Once you understand this fundamental truth, it explains many things about liberalism that are otherwise inexplicable.
A narcissistic sense of personal superiority explains, for example, why certain journalists think they are better writers merely because they are liberal writers. Their political commitments ennoble and elevate their work, so that what they write contributes to Social Justice, Progress and Enlightenment, and we mere mortals are expected to be grateful that these lofty beings condescend to favor us with their life-bestowing words.
But why bring Sam Tanenhaus into this, huh?
Liberals think of their liberalism as proof of their own superiority, which explains why insecure incompetents rally to the liberal banner: The group-hug sense of solidarity soothes their need for self-esteem, and provides a sort of Kevlar vest to protect them against the consequences of failure. A great many mediocrities have enjoyed delusions of adequacy because of the praise heaped upon their work for its usefulness to the Left's various causes and crusades. That mere political utility could have such an effect seems strange to most people who have not contemplated what was meant by the infamous 1998 proclamation of Time magazine's Nina Burleigh:
“I would be happy to give [Bill Clinton] a blow job just to thank him for keeping abortion legal. I think American women should be lining up with their presidential kneepads on to show their gratitude for keeping the theocracy off our backs.”
Think about that for a minute, and you understand that Burleigh inhabits an imaginary universe where American women are menaced by a "theocracy" and where, at some point during the first six years of the Clinton administration, Bill himself singlehandedly prevented the outright prohibition of abortion. In Burleigh's demented mind, The Handmaid's Tale is a work of non-fiction, and the doomsday warnings of NARAL, Planned Parenthood and various feminist ideologues -- to the effect that Christian fundamentalists pose an existential threat to modernity -- are to be taken seriously, lest we be shipped back in cattle cars to that Dark Night of Fascism otherwise known as suburbia in the 1950s.
Whereas she imagines herself to be sophisticated, Burleigh is in fact a world-class chump, a True Believer, the kind of sucker whom P.T. Barnum said should never be given an even break. And yet this sort of credulous naïveté, this blind willingness to accept as truth whatever institutional liberalism declares to be true, is hegemonic in the world of journalism. Such is the overwhelming preponderance of liberals in the industry that, at Time magazine and other prestigious news organizations, they might as well post a sign outside the personnel office: "Conservatives Need Not Apply."
Nobody told me that when I got into the news business more than a quarter-century ago. I was a Democrat then, anyway, but there wasn't much opportunity for saving the world and advancing the cause of Social Justice as a $4.50-an-hour staff writer at a 6,000-circulation weekly in Austell, Georgia, which is where I started out in 1986.
Some people go into journalism to "make a difference," but I just wanted to make a living. And a mighty hard living it was, too. At my first job, in order to get extra hours, I spent Wednesday afternoons driving a circulation van, filling newpaper racks and dropping off bundles of papers at grocery stores from Powder Springs to Mableton.
Many newsrooms are liberal cocoons, where the Nina Burleighs of the world can cling to their self-aggrandizing myths without ever hearing a discouraging word, but a small-town newspaper writer lives a bit closer to rough-edged reality. By the time I was in my mid-30s and a married father of three working at a daily paper in Rome, Georgia, certain realities caused me to reconsider my lifelong (indeed, ancestral) loyalty to the Democratic Party.
There was no single "road to Damascus" moment, but my conversion to conservatism was both rapid and drastic. In 1992, I'd enthusiastically slapped a Clinton-Gore bumper stick on my car; by 1996, I was such a right-winger that I refused to vote for that worthless RINO sellout Bob Dole, instead casting my presidential ballot for Harry Browne on the Libertarian ticket.
That transformation was rather disorienting, and it took me more than a decade to develop a more mature and, dare I say, pragmatic understanding of politics. During that time I moved to Washington to become an assistant national editor at the Washington Times, where I worked in the newsroom through the Clinton impeachment saga, the 9/11 attacks, the Iraq war, two presidential elections and three midterms.
Then, in January 2008, management announced that Wes Pruden would retire as editor, to be replaced by a guy hired from our hated rival paper, the Washington Post.
This was a shock and an insult. The whole point of the Washington Times was to be the antonym of that damned liberal fishwrap across town, and a thoroughgoing contempt for "Posties" (as we called their staffers) was de rigeur in our newsroom. After the announcement of Mr. Pruden's replacement was made, I found myself outside smoking cigarettes with one of our investigative reporters, who remarked in her Kentucky drawl, "If I had wanted to work for a Postie, I'd have applied at the f--king Post."
Exactly so. I tendered my resignation the next day, and have been a freelance correspondent for The American Spectator ever since. This has been a most felicitous and fruitful relationship. Our editorial director, Wlady Pleszczynski, is generally content to let me assign myself to whatever interests me, and tolerates with remarkable patience my occasional bouts of late-night deadline-stretching. It has been my pleasure to file articles under datelines from across the country: Saranac Lake, N.Y.;Pasadena, Calif.; Boston; Las Vegas; New Orleans; Wasilla, Alaska; and Boca Raton, Fla., to name but a few.
My point in recounting all this is to establish three important facts:
- I was a working journalist for more than a decade before I ever came to Washington and got involved in politics;
- To me, liberalism is a philosophy "weighed in the balance and found wanting"; and
- Whatever success I've had as a political journalist is more properly attributed to my skill as a writer than to my political opinions.
Opinions are a dime a dozen, and nothing is more anathemic to good journalism than the acceptance of bad writing because the writer has the "correct" opinion.
Good writing is not only clearly understandable but also enjoyable and, most importantly, good writing is true.
Wes Pruden's motto at the Washington Times was, "Get it first. Get it right." The deadline rush to "get it first" should never be an excuse to get it wrong. Like all the Old School editors for whom I worked on my decade-long climb up the journalistic ladder to Washington, Mr. Pruden was quite adamant about accuracy in reporting. Whatever heat might be directed at the paper for its coverage -- and things could get quite hot on occasion -- you were entirely safe in Mr. Pruden's newsroom, so long as you got your facts right. But woe unto the reporter who got his facts wrong.
Unfortunately, in much of the world of modern journalism, adherence to liberal orthodoxy is more valued than accuracy, with results that are frequently lamentable and occasionally hilarious, which brings us to the case of a certain young prose stylist named James Pogue.
Pogue is a would-be novelist who has found himself compelled to "slum it" in the journalism racket for a while. Everybody in the news business has encountered these aspiring literary types who figure they'll pay the bills by punching a clock for 40 hours a week at a newspaper or magazine office while waiting for their Big Break as a poet or screenwriter or whatever it is they really dream of doing. With rare exceptions, they fail at both: They never achieve their dreams, nor do they amount to much in the newsrooms where they half-heartedly pretend to be journalists.
I might never have heard of Pogue had it not been for a brief encounter last month at the Dayton Airport in Vandalia, Ohio, where I was covering a Mitt Romney campaign rally (see "Spiking the Ball Early?" Sept. 26). Pogue didn't make much of an impression on me, and I'd completely forgotten about him until Thursday, when I received a phone call from our esteemed Editor-in-Chief, R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr.
"Two M's, two T's, two R's, two L's," Mr. Tyrrell will tell you, if you ask how to spell his name. When he called me Thursday, our fearless leader was quite puzzled as to why some fellow named Pogue would be claiming to have met him in Vandalia, Ohio. This puzzled me, too, and when Mr. Tyrrell sent me Pogue's article, I was both amused and outraged.
It was amusing to see that Pogue had mistaken me for Mr. Tyrrell, whose name he misspelled, and had described me as “astonishingly slovenly” -- a phrase that my friend Marty Beckerman joked might make for a good cover blurb on my next book. The outrage involved Pogue's claim that at this Romney airport rally, he purchased from "a fat little man in a windbreaker" an anti-Obama sticker with a racist theme.
Here let me recount my own frustrations with outright bias in the media that have nothing to do with Obama, Romney or the 2012 campaign. Back in the late 1990s, when anarchists were rioting in Seattle in protest of the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund, I attended an anti-IMF protest at a park in D.C. where one could scarcely overlook the various Marxist outfits in attendance. Vendors around the entrance to the park hawked the Workers World Party newspaper, the WWP -- a Stalinoid splinter of the Trotyskite Socialist Workers Party -- being a main sponsor of the rally through one of its front groups. Elsewhere, one could find tables filled with propaganda from a constellation of other radical groups, including the Revolutionary Communist Party (a Maoist sect) and the Young Communist League, youth division of the Communist Party U.S.A.
Many news organizations covered that anti-IMF protest and not one of them -- not the Washington Post, not the Associated Press, not any of the TV stations -- said a damned word about the Bolshevik presence which, as I say, was absolutely impossible to overlook.
Through the years, I covered other left-wing protests in D.C., including various "peace" rallies during the Bush era, and it was always the same story: Commies, socialists and other radicals everywhere you turned, but evidently invisible to all the other reporters in attendance, who seemed to find nothing newsworthy in the heavy representation of groups espousing a brutal totalitarian ideology that, in the 20th century, was responsible for the deaths of 100 million people.
It was against that background that I witnessed with indignation how, as soon as the Tea Party movement emerged in 2009, reporters expended endless effort to document (or, if necessary, fabricate) evidence of "racism" or other extremist beliefs at anti-Obama rallies. This blatant double standard was abhorrent: Left-wing protests are always a freak show carnival of dangerous zanies (the thuggish "Occupy" mobs were the rule, not the exception), and yet when the Tea Party erupted, squadrons of reporters would descend on a massive peaceful rally of Republican grandmothers and chuchgoing families in a frantic search for one anomalous kook -- just one -- whose sign might possibly be construed as proof that the whole affair was tainted by bigotry.
OK, so having been at that September airport rally for Romney in Ohio, an entirely tame and respectable GOP event, now I discover two weeks later that this worthless punk James Pogue claims to have purchased from a vendor a sticker with the slogan, "Don't Re-Nig in 2012."
Two words: Bovine excrement.
Here is James Pogue, who clearly can't get his basic facts right -- I am not R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., and Tyrrell is spelled with two R's -- expecting us to take him at his word that vendors at Romney rallies are selling this merchandise, when no other reporter covering Romney's campaign trip in Ohio (and there were scores of them) claimed to have seen any such thing. As a matter of fact, I blogged about one of the official vendors on the very day of the Vandalia event:
I chatted briefly with him and he explained that he travels all over the country — it’s a full-time job — selling this merchandise at Republican rallies.
Click here to see the photo I took: Nothing racist for sale.
This bovine excrement from James Pogue about a "fat little man in a windbreaker" (whom only Pogue claims to have seen at the Vandalia rally) is the kind of dishonest smear that ought to get him permanently banished from the campaign press corps, and the people who published his provably false account owe their readers an apology. James Romenesko headlines his account of Pogue's hoax thus:
A "few things," indeed. My own personal reaction:
Damn you to hell, James Pogue.
Go find some other some other profession to disgrace.
His obnoxious sense of moral and intellectual superiority renders Pogue eminently qualified to make an ass of himself, but there is no reason anyone else should feel obliged to assist him in that project, and no reputable editor should have anything to do with that vicious liar.
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