Media History Exchange, 2018 Joint Journalism and Communication History Conference

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“Walter Lippmann as ‘Non-Jewish Jew’: Objectivity and the Journalism of Detachment.”
Julien Sean Gorbach

Last modified: 2018-01-26

Abstract


This study examines Walter Lippmann’s fraught relationship with his American Jewish heritage, and the implications that had for his ideas and practice of journalism. Lippmann has been touted by journalism historians—most notably Michael Schudson—as “the most wise and forceful spokesman for the ideal of objectivity” during the years when objectivity became adopted as the foundational standard for the profession. But Lippmann has also been roundly criticized as a self-hating Jew for columns about Jewish assimilation and the rise of Hitler, columns that, like all his writing, were shaped by a belief in journalistic detachment. The controversy illustrates what can happen when “the journalist becomes the story”; it highlights the tensions, confusion and troubles that can arise when a reporter becomes torn between a professional commitment to maintain distance from his or her subject, and more visceral moral imperatives of journalism.

This is a story worth revisiting, not only because it yields fresh insight into objectivity by focusing on the challenges of its most famous champion, but also because it offers clarity about Lippmann’s nuanced ideas of reporting and news that remain misunderstood, despite the extraordinary attention that has been already paid to his work. There is a popular misconception, for example, that Lippmann espoused a “just-the-facts” approach to journalism, informed by a skepticism about the common man’s place in modern politics that he expressed in his classic 1922 book, Public Opinion. But he was actually a proponent of what is now known as “interpretive reporting,” nearly two decades before Curtis MacDougall first published a textbook by that name in 1938. And even those who well understand that Lippmann had a scientific spirit in mind in making the case for objectivity—which he did not do in Public Opinion, but in an earlier, lesser-known work titled Liberty and the News—may nevertheless find it curious to consider how Lippmann could have practiced what he preached in a six-decade-long career as an editorial writer.

Drawing on some of Lippmann’s more obscure works, as well as a 2001 interview with his research assistant, Elizabeth Midgley, this study further elucidates Lippmann’s ideas about objectivity, detachment and the role of the press. In doing so, it also explains his own rationale for what he wrote about Jewish issues, discusses his profound alienation as a modern American Jew, and offers a new assessment of his journalistic contributions, triumphs and failures.

 


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