Look Upon the Media’s ‘Life of the Mind’

Every word she writes is a lie,” Mary McCarthy once said of Lillian Hellman, “including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” This wisecrack got her sued by the Communist author and screenwriter—the suit was dropped after Hellman’s death in 1984—but the bon mot has always seemed to me especially apt when considering the propagandists of the Left. Back in the heyday of The Group, they made themselves comfortable, and relatively invisible, in the “progressive” worlds of publishing, the theater, and Hollywood, dramatizing what today we might call their social-justice memes and themes in works of earnest, cloddish liberalism.

Those great geniuses of the American cinema, the Coen brothers, ably skewered these pretentious phonies in one of their early masterpieces, “Barton Fink.” The title character, played by John Turturro, was modeled after the radical playwright Clifford Odets, whose work, once popular, is all but forgotten today. In an early scene of the film, Fink interacts with an actual “common man” (John Goodman) and can barely be bothered to listen to him:

Fink, of course, is too wrapped up in the myth of his own rectitude to pay any attention to his neighbor, Charlie Meadows—a near fatal error, as it turns out. But that’s the way it is with “intellectuals,” who are so convinced of their superiority, as evidenced by their condescending “tolerance” for the lesser breeds, that they never see the backlash coming. Odets, Hellman, and the rest of their group came, postured, and went; still celebrated in the pages of their house organ, the New York Times, they are all but forgotten today. “Carousel” gets revived regularly; “Waiting for Lefty,” not so much.

Today, their largely talentless descendants have abandoned the theater for the more credulous audiences of the mainstream media. Don’t get me wrong—they’d all dearly love to become screenwriters if they could, and if Hollywood wasn’t so currently occupied in destroying itself in much the same way that Time Inc. destroyed itself, through pointless mergers that only serve to enrich the boffins and the lawyers, and stiff both their workers and their audiences, they might have had a shot a working in the writers’ rooms on “The Simpsons.” Nonetheless, even ABC News and the Washington Post is a living, for a while anyway, and so they go their merry way, sowing memes, planting doubts and suspicions, focusing on the trivial, pushing the Narrative, and otherwise driving America crazy.

Two decades ago, I came up with a formulation that today characterizes the media on every level: the Elevation of the Particular to the General. That is to say, the media seizes on the smallest local news story—some example of bad behavior currently out of Leftist favor—and then forces it, via the Narrative, to stand in for the entire country. Some barista slights a member of a minority group on a Starbucks cup? Racism! Some check-beater, indulging in the charming custom of “dine and dash” gets busted by a diligent waitress? Systemic racism! Kid down a well? Cat up a tree? Never happened before—what the hell is this country coming to? We suck.

I suppose another name for this journalistic phenomenon is “gaslighting.” Here’s where the term derives:

Think of the American public as Ingrid Bergman and you won’t be far wrong. The primary mission of the media today is not to inform dispassionately but, like Charles Boyer, to convince the public that it cannot trust the evidence of its own senses, observations, or experiences, and is in fact losing its collective mind unless it undergoes an immediate attitude readjustment and gets with the program.

Many of the reporters and commentators can’t help themselves. As Ben Rhodes famously observed, they’re small children who literally know nothing, and thus are prime receptacles for all kinds of counterfactual nonsense. (The myth of manmade climate change is a prime example, since it is so easily countermanded by a simple glance back at history.) Others are simply careerists, busily building their “brands.” The news business is no longer a calling, nor even a profession, but a trade once again, this time not in service to the truth but to the Narrative.

“All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” he said. “Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”

And they know even less today. History, languages, culture, literature, music, architecture—it’s all alien to them, the least- and worst-educated generation in American history. (When I was first hired on the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the managing editor asked me whether I had ever taken a journalism course. When I replied no, he said: “Good! Now we don’t have to unlearn you anything,” or words to that effect.) What they do know, however, is Critical Theory, and like juveniles everywhere, delight in the destruction of a world they never conceivably could have made and have no use for—or won’t until it’s gone. Then, like Colonel Nicholson in “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” they will wonder, “What have I done?”

Or perhaps even that last, terminal, bit of self-awareness is beyond them. What’s clear is they’ll be the last to know what they’ve done—to journalism, to history, to the country—in the name of a “higher moral authority” or an imaginary “arc of history.” They never seem to realize that the consequences of their aggressive “progressivism” are deadly, and generally arrive from an unexpected quarter: their own notional allies.

Let’s give the last word to Charlie Meadows’ alter ego, Madman Mundt, who reveals the source of his own inspiration with his chilling valedictory to the cops:

Say, why is it so goddamn hot out here? Show us the life of your mind, journos. On second thought, you already do.

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Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox

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About Michael Walsh

Michael Walsh is a journalist, author, and screenwriter. He was for 16 years the music critic and foreign correspondent for Time Magazine, for which he covered the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. His works include the novels As Time Goes By, And All the Saints (winner, 2004 American Book Award for fiction), and the bestselling “Devlin” series of NSA thrillers; as well as the recent nonfiction bestseller, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace. A sequel, The Fiery Angel, was published by Encounter in May 2018. Follow him on Twitter at @dkahanerules (Photo credit: Peter Duke Photo)