Friday, August 28, 2009

Max Weber on the Press

This is an excerpt from a lecture Max Weber gave back between the Great Wars entitled "Politics as a Vocation."

In this lecture, he is generally talking about the role of professional politicians, the civil bureaucrats that serve them, and the style and character of the rulers themselves. After the following critical digression about the slop that "boulevard sheets" deem it fit to present to us, he remarkably still has some praise for (some) journalists. Indeed, were he to give this lecture today, he might even be referring to some of the better bloggers.

Thus far, however, our great capitalist newspaper concerns, which attained control, especially over the 'chain newspapers,' with 'want ads,' have been regularly and typically the breeders of political indifference. For no profits could be made in an independent policy; especially no profitable benevolence of the politically dominant powers could be obtained.

The advertising business is also the avenue along which, during [World War I], the attempt was made to influence the press politically in a grand style--an attempt which apparently it is regarded as desirable to continue now. Although one may expect the great papers to escape this pressure, the situation of the small ones will be far more difficult.

In any case, for the time being, the journalist career is not among us, a normal avenue for the ascent of political leaders, whatever attraction journalism may otherwise have and whatever measure of influence, range of activity, and especially political responsibility it may yield. One has to wait and see. Perhaps journalism does not have this function any longer, or perhaps journalism does not yet have it.

Whether the renunciation of the principle of anonymity would mean a change in this is difficult to say. Some journalists--not all--believe in dropping principled anonymity.

What we have experienced during the war in the German press, and in the 'management' of newspapers by especially hired personages and talented writers who always expressly figured under their names, has unfortunately shown, in some of the better known cases, that an increased awareness of responsibility is not so certain to be bred as might be believed.

Some of the papers were, without regard to party, precisely the notoriously worst boulevard sheets; by dropping anonymity they strove for and attained greater sales. The publishers as well as the journalists of sensationalism have gained fortunes but certainly not honor.

Nothing is here being said against the principle of promoting sales; the question is indeed an intricate one, and the phenomenon of irresponsible sensationalism does not hold in general. But thus far, sensationalism has not been the road to genuine leadership or to the responsible management of politics. How conditions will further develop remains to be seen.

Yet the journalist career remains under all circumstances one of the most important avenues of professional political activity. It is not a road for everybody, least of all for weak characters, especially for people who can maintain their inner balance only with a secure status position. [In this regard, Ted Koppel and his "fast cars" springs to mind.]

If the life of a young scholar is a gamble, still he is walled in by firm status conventions, which prevent him from slipping. But the journalist's life is an absolute gamble in every respect and under conditions that test one's inner security in a way that scarcely occurs in any other situation. The often bitter experiences in occupational life are perhaps not even the worst. The inner demands that are directed precisely at the successful journalist are especially difficult. It is, indeed, no small matter to frequent the salons of the powerful on this earth on a seemingly equal footing and often to be flattered by all because one is feared, yet knowing all the time that having hardly closed the door the host has perhaps to justify before his guests his association with the 'scavengers from the press.'

Moreover, it is no small matter that one must express oneself promptly and convincingly about this and that, on all conceivable problems of life--whatever the 'market' happens to demand--and this without becoming absolutely shallow and above all without losing one's dignity by baring oneself, a thing which has merciless results.

It is not astonishing that there are many journalists who have become human failures and worthless men. Rather, it is astonishing that, despite all this, this very stratum includes such a great number of valuable and quite genuine men, a fact that outsiders would not so easily guess.

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