The Media As Modern Day Philosopher-Kings

The modern media is, in many ways, not unlike Plato’s utopian dream city of Kallipolis. Eschewing democratic ideas and the concept of a meritocracy, Plato’s famous Socratic dialogue, The Republic, embraces a natural aristocracy of minds and argues that, for justice to be a reality, those of ability — the philosophers — should rule and those lacking the requisite mental acumen — the followers — should simply accept their lot in life and allow those who know better to order their affairs.

Plato’s philosopher-kings are more than dispensers of justice; they are the exclusive arbiters of justice, determining not only what acts are just, but also whether actors are genuine. It’s not hard to imagine a great many of the most prominent cable news talking heads nodding fervently, though with a solemnity appropriate to their weighty position, in support of this conception, for it is entirely in keeping with the media’s perception of itself as the Fourth Estate, as indefatigable foot soldiers holding the line in the rearguard of the army of Truth.

No less important a personage than Carl Bernstein, of the vaunted Watergate duo, recently made comments to this effect.

Appearing on CNN’s Reliable Sources, Bernstein, a columnist for the Washington Post, added his voice to the chorus of pundits who have termed America’s increasingly hostile partisan divide a civil war. He named the rise of a “right-wing counter-force” in news as a leading factor behind the eruption of this civil war and its accompanying culture, in which a fact-based debate is impossible to hold.

It is clear from Bernstein’s assessment that he sees himself as above the petty fray of this battle; partisanship is for the less enlightened. Bernstein, unlike the masses whose consumption of opinionated commentary reflexively proves them lacking in analytical rigor, possesses an infallible perception which allows him to separate Truth from the dreck of modern media.

Of course, his rather hyperbolic assertions, unsupported by any specific, verifiable evidence — odd behavior for a folk hero of investigative journalism — aren’t a product of partisanship. Nor is his reflexive defense of CNN as an organization substantively the same behavior as those who reflexively smear CNN as an organization, and therefore problematic for the same reasons. And it has doubtless occurred to him that the existence of a counter-force implies another prevailing force against which it is acting. Naturally, it would have occurred to such a celebrated investigative reporter to follow that analogy through to its logical conclusion, that a right-wing counter-force would result from a dominant left-wing force, and he would have seen how this undermines his insinuation that the ascendancy of conservative viewpoints dethroned an objective news media.

No, Mr. Bernstein is of the Fourth Estate and therefore incapable of such flaws in intellectual judgment.

Far be it from those of us who can’t claim the mantle of the Fourth Estate to presume to question our intellectual betters in the media, but perhaps there is another phenomena responsible for the death of substantive communication.

In the same interview in which he claims that “fact-based debating is becoming impossible,” and derides some facets of cable news, Bernstein also praises some of its components. In particular, he praises the ability of journalists to come on air and expand on their stories and provide “more interpretive information.”

For those non-journalists, burdened in life by having inferior powers of analytic acuity, this sounds like advocacy for a media discourse that departs from objectivity. To expand upon a story and to interpret it sounds less like hard-news reporting and more like analysis. For the most part, members of the general public are not so dense that they can’t distinguish between fact and opinion without the guidance of a newspaper section heading. But Bernstein, a journalist, seems to be praising the blurring of this line and advocating for the introduction of a new class in media, a sort of chimerical reporter-analyst hybrid.

And therein lies the primary problem with philosopher-kings. They are blind to the fallibility of their judgment; they cannot envisage that a counterargument or competing set of values has any validity because, from their perspective it doesn’t. But though there might be internal consistency to the analytical processes of a single mind in all problems to which they are applied, this has no substantive relationship to the objectivity of broader truth. And the infallibility of reason as a perceiver and interpreter of the natural universe requires a belief in absolutes. It allows for the existence of only one absolute, and one true comprehension of it, while acknowledging individualized perception.

The problem with rule by elites is that it requires hierarchy; the elites must have someone over whom to be superior. And their superiority, particularly when it is applied towards governance, and culture, which is downstream of politics, implies the existence of an inferior perception which needs to be redirected. But there must be something from which it must be redirected, meaning there is inevitably more than one culture operative in an elitist society.

And though the elites are aware that the masses are ignorant of what a life of superior intellect is like, they are blind to the fact that they do not know what life is like to those of inferior intellect.

Leaving this condescending bifurcation of society by intellect aside, the same principle holds true. People from different backgrounds are imbued in those traditions and not in competing lifestyles. There is nothing inherently good or bad in this; it simply is. Members of particular cultures, especially those which are rooted in nothing other than their own certain sense of smug superiority, are myopic on this point. They do not look to the underlying values of cultures and the relative merits of their tropes and practices in relation to the behaviors which are promoted. It is this subjective blindness, not the problems of poor rhetoric, which drives the hyperbolic “civil war” Bernstein and others accuse everyone else of perpetuating.

Originally published at The Politics of Discretion.

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