It used to be that taking potshots at the media was a right-left thing. From Agnew/Safire we got "nattering nabobs of negativism," and from Chomsky/Herman we got a "propaganda model" manufacturing mass consent. On the right, Accuracy in Media and on the left, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting.
These days it's a little more complicated. The right complains about the liberal media (and Eric Alterman denies it even exists in his book "What Liberal Media?"). The left charges that it lacks media access, and "fair and balanced" Bill O'Reilly invites "these pinheads" (me included) to come on his program and be insulted and interrupted by him.
Now something new has been added. The problem is not left- or right-wing journalism; it's not even journalism that's "top to bottom" (as populist Jim Hightower puts it). It's opinion journalism, period.
David Westin, the president of ABC News, told students at Harvard's Kennedy School: "There's too much opinion journalism and not enough objective journalism." Or read the august Committee of Concerned Journalists complaining in its noble statement of purpose that "serious journalistic organizations drift toward opinion, entertainment and sensation" -- making opinion guilty by association.
I have no brief for or against bloggers, and I can take or leave shout shows. But to me the problem is not too much opinion, it's too little. That's because the journalists I have most admired -- including I.F. Stone, a Jeffersonian Marxist; Carey McWilliams, the rebel-radical; Lincoln Steffens, crusading investigator; Mary McGrory, bleeding-heart liberal (to speak only of the dead) -- were all opinion journalists. I joined the cause when I took over at the opinionated Nation in 1978.
A few years ago, I set out to write a history of the journal of opinion, of magazines like the Nation and the National Review, which, as the latter's editor remarked, "exist to make a point, not a profit." As far as I knew, nobody had written such a book. That shows how much I knew.
It turned out that in 1962 Jurgen Habermas, the Frankfurt School philosopher, had published a definitive history of opinion journals. I hadn't heard of it -- possibly because it was not translated into English until 1989, when it appeared under the catchy title "The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society."
Habermas' theory of the public sphere, in the Enlightenment tradition, is based on the idea that to flourish, democracy requires open argumentation and debate. This happened (at least for white males) in the city-states of ancient Greece and again in Europe, where, by the 18th century, public argument and debate flourished in coffeehouses and taverns.
Habermas organically linked the public sphere -- a category halfway between government and the private or personal sphere -- to the opinion journal. Coffeehouses (there were 3,000 in London alone) began to publish newsletters reporting on princes, noblemen and the court. They ended by criticizing those they covered, and they set the agenda for public debate.
It all made such sense to me that I journeyed to Frankfurt, where I got the chance to ask him what I thought was the $64,000 question: What is -- what should be -- the role of the journal of opinion in the modern era? His answer may seem to be a platitude, but to me it had all the clarity of the Liberty Bell. "At the core of their mission," he said, "is to maintain the discursive character of public communication. Who else if not this type of press is going to set the standards?"
To set the standard for public discourse. Not bad.
Last month, Westin followed up his anti-opinion speech at Harvard with an article in the Columbia Journalism Review: "The more we fill up our reports with opinion," he wrote, "the less time we have for reporting the facts."
But suppose the purpose of opinion journalism is less to develop the facts (unless they are missing from the mass media) than to ask the right questions? Suppose the information that democracy requires can be generated not by "the facts" but only by the rigorous and vigorous policy debate and moral argument that journals of opinion were founded to provide? Suppose, as the historian Christopher Lasch, who regretted our lapse into what he called a spectator society, was right when he observed that "information, usually seen as the pre-condition of debate, is better seen as the byproduct" ?
The fact is that shout shows or no shout shows, blogs or no blogs, like Rodney Dangerfield, opinion journalism deserves a little respect.