It is said, invariably with a sigh and in mournful tones, that the press is biased—a proposition I find puzzling. The press is supposed to have a bias. Complaining that a newspaper is not objective is like complaining about a fish’s incessant swimming all over the place: “Can’t it sit still just for a minute or take a walk the way normal vertebrates do?”
It is another matter altogether that all newspapers in the United States, and, increasingly, in Europe as well, are biased in exactly the same way. It’s one thing to complain about fish swimming, but if all 32,000 species of them were to start shoaling and schooling like mackerel, eyebrows may legitimately elevate: “Ray, where is thy sting? Great White, whither thy pride?”
If the bias of today’s journalism is to be bemoaned, one ought to describe that bias properly. It would be all right if politically it was on the left, provided there were in abundant evidence all the gradations of liberalism, say, from John Stuart Mill to Herbert Marcuse. If these, moreover, were complemented by at least a minority press biased to the right, say, from G. K. Chesterton to Anders Breivik, then all would be well with the world.
Yet such is not the case. You can say what you like about Stalin or Pol Pot, but just try saying something nice in print about Hitler, or even Mussolini. Thus, as a journalist, I cannot think of an organ of opinion—not even the one you’re presently reading—that would encourage me to describe, say, the neoconservative intellectual David Frum as “a dirty Jew.” No similar hindrance, however, inhibited a university professor once describing me in The New York Times as “an intellectual thug.”
Our press is biased to mediocrity. That this mediocrity happens to be generally left-wing is neither here nor there. Wouldn’t you be just as distressed if all the Western world’s newspapers spouted regurgitations of Houston Stewart Chamberlain instead of Leon Trotsky or Antonio Gramsci? Just imagine a crazy world where editorials lauding, say, Ted Kaczynski were as ubiquitous as real-world plaudits for the founders of the various free choice movements—anti-abortionists and anti-vivisectionists among them—whose activities, whether ethically or legally considered, amount to murder on a far greater scale than the Unabomber’s, while their motives are conspicuously less ideological or altruistic than his.
I thought of all this afresh just a few days ago when stumbling across an article in The New Yorker that exposed the secret vices of a teacher I’d had when, in the early 1970s, I briefly attended Horace Mann, a private school in New York, which was then all-boys. The man’s name is Mr. Berman, and I suppose the article affected me to the degree that it did because, in 1993, in The Gingerbread Race, an autobiography I wrote while living in England, I had dwelled on the contrast between education as Mr. Berman understood it and the education I would later find on offer at Yale. Basically, Mr. Berman believed that mediocrity—not vice, illiteracy, fascism, or the atom bomb—is the greatest threat to mankind.
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