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End of Another Progressive-Era Relic

Mises Daily: Thursday, October 07, 2004 by

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Most of our present governmental institutions (and many private ones) are a creation of that era which lasted from the late 19th into the first quarter of the 20th centuries. Progressivism could not have made the strides it did, however, had it not been for the advent of what we would call modern journalism.

From the "muckrakers" of the turn of the century (who really were nothing more than socialists trashing capitalism and calling it reporting) to the vaunted 1925 "Canons of Journalism," the modern press was re-created in the image of a "scientific" institution in which the "objective" reporter would replace the "non-objective" political hack.

Furthermore, when radio (and later television) news broadcasting emerged as competition to newspapers, Congress "regulated" that medium as well, putting the government squarely in the business of regulating the content of news.

Like many other institutions created during that sorry era, "objective journalism" was an attempt by journalists to change their image following the "Yellow Press" era of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, who vied with each other to see who could make the most outlandish (and mostly untrue) claims about Spanish rule in Cuba.

In fact, it is the supreme irony that a news organization that used forged documents in an attempt to break a "big story" (CBS) is in large part a creation of an institution that was born partly of a reaction against "news" organizations that used forged documents and doctored photographs in an attempt to influence U.S. foreign policy and make war against Spain.

The Progressive Era is a period of one big lie after another, crafted upon the false belief that modern government somehow could replace a free market, private property order and create an economy marked both by prosperity and "fairness."  From "scientific" management to "enlightened" religion (called theological liberalism and, later, secularism) to Prohibition to "objective" journalism, the belief was that modern society had found the key to "onward and upward" progress.

Not surprisingly, each of these institutions has collapsed, always with disastrous effects. Prohibition led to gangland warfare and a permanent plague of organized crime. It also spurred on the current drug war and all of its evil results. "Tax reform" and other amendments to the constitution ultimately resulted in high income taxes and the gargantuan growth of government. The "War to End All Wars" had the opposite effect, and the 20th Century was the bloodiest in all of world history.

The implementation of John Dewey's "vision" of public education has created generations of semi-literate people. Ultimately, the supreme irony of "Progressivism" is that it turned back the real advances of the age of classical liberalism and turned back the clock of civilization. To put it another way, "Progressivism" resulted in large-scale social and economic regression.

"Scientific, objective" journalism certainly fits into the category of the Progressivist "big lie."  Ever since the Progressive Era, American journalism mostly has been about the promotion of government. For all of the blather about the mainstream press serving as a "watchdog of government," most journalists—and especially those who are "prestigious"—are little more than political operatives, along with being cheerleaders for the growth of the state. The alleged watchdogs of the state in reality are government's lapdogs.

Such words are meant as condemnation of the mainstream press, but the fact that the press acts in such a fashion should not surprise anyone. After all, modern, mainstream journalism is a product of the Progressive Era, and Progressivism was—and is—about the expansion of government power.

One of the campaign issues this past year has been alleged "concentration" of media companies. Some political candidates have called for government authorities either to disallow media mergers or even to "break up" some of the larger firms. (This is in the name of having "competitive" news firms.) 

Of course, what the critics fail to point out is that regulation of broadcasting has served as a cartel device that for many years gave viewers just three networks for news. The fact that government "regulated" these broadcast news organizations did not "preserve" competition; it had the opposite effect.

To further highlight the blatant bait-and-switch hypocrisy from politicians and their media allies, many "good government" advocates, including a number of mainstream journalists, campaigned against the Bush Administration's proposal to change ownership requirements for the various media outlets that could be owned by one firm. What the critics failed to mention was that the Nixon Administration established that very rule as a way to punish the Washington Post for its critical coverage of that president's administration. Thus, a policy that was put in place as a way to damage a newspaper critical of a president is now touted as a way to "protect" freedom of the press.

Prior to the Progressive Era, newspapers tended to be the voices of political parties or individuals who wanted to have a forum for their own political and social viewpoints. Papers had names like the Arkansas Democrat or the Hicksville Republican, and people immediately could recognize the particular political angle from which the paper's reporters wrote their stories.

Today's blogs represent a much-welcome recapturing of that original spirit: aggressive reporting, aggressive rhetoric, aggressive partisanship, and reader beware. Bloggers both on the right and the left provide a useful service, since they are politically motivated writers and investigators.  Yes, one always should be careful in accepting everything they say at face value, but then one also should say the same about the products that come from mainstream news organizations, which claim that they are hampered by supposedly presenting both sides of a story, or are hampered by other things.  

For example, in the wake of criticism of her handling the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco, Texas, in 1993 (in which 80 people died after the F.B.I. attacked their building), Attorney General Janet Reno ordered a "re-enactment" to see if F.B.I. agents actually fired their weapons.  (The F.B.I. was denying it, but a documentary, "The Terms of Engagement," had made a powerful claim otherwise, and Reno wanted to destroy that claim.)

After examining the tape of both events (using a heat-seeking tape called FLIR, which could detect heat flashes coming out of a barrel of a gun), investigators concluded that the flashes coming from the gun barrels during the re-enactment were shorter than the flashes detected in the FLIR film of the real assault.  Thus, Reno concluded, there was no gunfire from F.B.I. agents when they assaulted the Branch Davidians.

Mainstream news outlets presented all of this as fact, and it fit the conclusions of the political classes: the Branch Davidians were "gun nuts" and deserved what they got.  However, James Bovard wrote a much different account.  According to Bovard, the agents in the re-enactment used flash-suppression ammunition and guns with 20-inch barrels (instead of the guns with 14-inch barrels that were used the day of the assault).

Here was a story of a major government deception—and criminal deception at that—yet the information came out only because of an ideologically-oriented website.  Not surprisingly, mainstream news organizations missed—or ignored—the story, but at least it was able to see the light of day, something that could not have happened before the advent of the Internet.

There is nothing wrong with this kind of journalism; in fact, it is to be expected, for no writer is going to be neutral on a political subject. For that matter, when one reads an article in the New York Times, one should expect something written from a secularist, left-of-center viewpoint by a registered Democrat. Likewise, when one listens to the latest pro-war drivel on Fox News, most likely the words are being spoken by a Republican.  However, there is an important difference between the old press arrangement and what is in existence today.

A newspaper named the Arkansas Democrat or the Hicksville Republican was engaging in truth in advertising. The principals of the New York Times or Fox News, on the other hand, continue to try to promote the fiction that they are "unbiased" purveyors of news.

Perhaps one should not be surprised at the spin and outright lies coming from CBS and its defenders, and they are not limited to concerns over Bush's National Guard duty.  Progressive Era institutions have been disastrous failures, but they do not lack for supporters. From promoters of government schools who quote John Dewey as an "authority" on learning to economists who champion antitrust laws, there is a never-ending line of shills for these failed institutions and its poisonous ideology of statism.

Historians are fond of saying that the Progressive Era ended at the end of World War I. In truth, it is an era that never has ceased. If one should doubt that statement, just watch the statist nonsense on Fox News or CBS or read the Washington Post. When David Broder, the erstwhile "dean" of the Washington press corps, lamented in a recent column that journalism has "lost its way," he was wrong. The press has not taken a wrong turn or become confused and disoriented.

No, journalists—including Broder—have been trying to lead the rest of us down the same dark path toward the Leviathan State for more than a century. Except for those few people who understand the horrors of unchecked government, it has been a long and dreary episode of the blind leading the blind.

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William Anderson, an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute, teaches economics at Frostburg State University. Send him MAIL. See his Mises.org Articles Archive