Republic of Denial: Press, Politics, and Public Life

Works discussed in this essay:

Republic Of Denial: Press, Politics, and Public Life, by Michael Janeway. Yale University Press; 216 pages.

And now a word of discouragement. Abandon hopes, all ye who look to the nation's journalists to lead the way through the valley of darkness. For the republic is in deep doo-doo, as former President Bush once said, and it's going to take more than a collection of civic-minded scribes nattering about democratic renewal to save us.

Or, as Michael Janeway puts it in Republic of Denial, a book of unrelenting lamentation, "the forest is vast and dark," and "we are in it with no clear path out."

This dark forest, as Janeway describes it, is an America that has been utterly transformed since the years after World War II. We have passed from an era of good fortune and "heroic national enterprise" to a time of "alienation, pessimism, loss, and disintegration." Our government is dysfunctional and unconnected from citizens, the political system is a cause for "widespread despair," our culture is sick, and the populace is reeling from "devastating shocks."

Janeway gives occasional nods to the economic upticks of the late 1990s, yet in reviewing the events of the last half of the twentieth century, he finds "overwhelming" evidence that America faces "a democratic crisis in a republic of denial--that is the more threatening because of helplessness to date in coming to terms with it."

He writes as a disenchanted journalist. Janeway spent 11 years at The Atlantic Monthly and eight years after that at The Boston Globe, including a 15-month stint as editor of that newspaper. (He left the Globe in 1986 and is now a professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.) But he set out to write something more than another book of media criticism.

In Janeway's view, you can't analyze the deficiencies of the mass media without putting that story into context: The entire society is affected by "malaise." As the political system has become corrupted and as the citizenry has withdrawn, it stands to reason that the press will also lose its way. The one story is part of the other.

Putting both stories together makes for quite a jeremiad. Almost all the ills Janeway touches on will be familiar to anyone who has been paying attention since the 1960s. Yet when recounted together, it makes a striking "accumulation of national trouble," as he puts it. Not just the Vietnam War and Watergate and the rise of urban violence and the narcotizing effects of television ... But the 1964 Supreme Court ruling (New York Times Co. v. Sullivan) that made it almost impossible to libel a public figure (and hence the ever-increasing boldness in the press's scrutiny of politicians), and the decline of the crucial role of strong political parties, and the conversion of electoral politics into expensive television ad campaigns, and the gradual inability of the public to be shocked by the kind of scandals that marked the Clinton era ...

On top of this, Janeway adds a critique of the news industry: newspapers bought by corporate chains, the bottom-line concerns of marketers and ad sellers encroaching on the newsroom, the entertainment-oriented values of television distorting political coverage. And because the media are implicated in the general breakdown, which is made worse by the power of giant corporations, the press has missed the "story of our time."

Janeway's analysis of political decline may be correct in its particulars. Certainly there is a case to be made that democratic governance is ailing. But I wonder if he is too pessimistic about the one factor he says the least about--the public. "The audience," he writes (by which he means the citizenry), "was hard to know." At other times he refers to the "fickleness of public concern" and "appalling public ignorance." And he posits a diagnosis: We have been passing through "a profound, buried depression--of a psychological and emotional rather than the economic kind--together with man-kind's best friends among defense mechanisms against depression: denial and escapism."

Maybe not. Throughout America, if one looks at local politics (which Janeway does not), there is evidence the democratic impulse is alive and kicking. People still get out of the house for school board politics, town meetings, local controversies, and all kinds of volunteer activities. We are for the most part frozen out of national politics, and people no longer envision a way to challenge the power of big money. That's saying a lot, but it doesn't mean the public has lost all sense of what democracy is supposed to look like. There are few sentiments as popular today as "getting money out of politics." It would be an even more popular idea if people had real conviction it could be done.

Is it true, as Janeway says, that by the late 1990s a "populist nihilism" hung over the country "like a toxic cloud"? It seems just as likely that the vast middle class is part of a "culture of contentment," as John Kenneth Galbraith argued several years ago. Even Janeway hedges a bit in his final chapter, suggesting that our societal dysfunctions "aren't toxic enough" to force reform. Maybe it matters little. Depression or contentment--if complacency is the result, we have a problem.

Here is what Janeway says in conclusion: All our ills are part of the same democratic crisis. "Journalism cannot solve these problems however empowered or wise in a 'civic' role it might become. Nor can American politics in its current sorry shape." He disposes of the "civic journalism" approach because it "bit off only half of the fundamental issue." He does not see any political movement that offers hope, nor does he propose any sweeping reforms that could invigorate democracy. "The powers of inertia at work today are too persistent to permit meaningful reform," he contends.

Shortly after I finished reading Republic of Denial, I made a visit to the Long Island suburbs. As I drove the expressways and saw the endless tracts of housing and shopping malls, it seemed maybe Janeway's gloomy assessment is right. Maybe we've lost our way. From a certain vantage point, America today seems to be devoted entirely to commercialism, acquisitiveness, individualism, entertainment, and banality.

On the other hand, if you happen to visit good, civic-minded people in those tract houses, you tend to feel differently. I would like to retain some faith in the American people and their capacities. There is more to this country than the Long Island suburbs, and there is more to the American experiment than Janeway addresses here. But this book does have a way of getting under your skin.