08/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How Political Journalists Wreck Politics

When Henry Fairlie died, he was hailed as "quite simply the best political journalist, writing in English, in the last fifty years." While editing Bite the Hand That Feeds You, a newly published collection of his essays, I often wondered how he would have felt about that distinction. He would've been pleased by the recognition, of course. Though Fairlie wrote about all sorts of subjects for The Spectator, The New Republic, The Washington Post, and other papers and magazines, he spent the bulk of his career--from his days as a Fleet Street prodigy in the 1950s to his death in Washington in 1990--covering government. He grew famous, and is best remembered today, for a column in which he introduced the term "the Establishment" to modern politics.

Yet few writers have showed more lacerating disdain for political journalists than Fairlie did. He knew that a free and intelligent press was essential to a healthy democracy, a way to supply "moral information" to voters and politicians alike. But Fairlie watched, aghast, as political journalists, individually and as a profession, failed to perform that duty. It's been two decades since Fairlie died, but his grasp of how political journalists can wreak havoc on politics itself has as much to teach us in 2009 as it ever did.

By the time Fairlie arrived in America in 1966 (never to return to his native England) he had developed a taste for intellectual combat: Words were weapons, deployed to effect change. He summed up his approach when he responded to reader complaints that he'd been too harsh in a New Republic column criticizing George Kennan. ("Old men can be very dangerous. They do not, as is thought by the vulgar, try to win their old battles. They try to lose them again," he'd written.) "Of course my criticism of Kennan was ad hominem; if it had not been it would have been ad nauseam. Politics and politicians live by words--free government is wordy government--and we had better be in there pitching our words ad hominem against theirs," he wrote.

There's no shortage of ad hominem attack and counterattack in blog-fueled American journalism today, Lord knows, even though few writers wield their words half as deftly as Fairlie. What's been lost is the realization that there needs to be a limit to the attacks.

Fairlie argued that in America, where politics is all that keeps big economic interests from dominating public life--a prospect that outraged his tory sensibilities--a political journalist has a special responsibility: "He may criticize an individual politician; he has no right to diminish the political function." This is what he saw his fellow journalists doing again and again. An attack on some politician would become a more general attack on politics itself: all motives reduced to self-interest, all speeches a variety of deceit. "It is as if every journalist is afraid that he might be caught in believing in something or in somebody," he wrote.

Fairlie never shared this cynicism. After reporting on politics in dozens of countries over four decades, he insisted that the political world is "inherently good" and politicians themselves "the most hopeful messengers of a society's will to improve." He maintained this unpopular belief even in 1980s Washington, where he saw politicians, consultants, and journalists begin a noxious collusion. Ronald Reagan was called a "Great Communicator", Fairlie argued, not because he led by his speeches (he didn't), but because the media "recognized a package of its own manufacture and labeled it Great Communicator." Fairlie described the problem this way:

Anchormen read scripts; politicians read scripts. Anchormen talk in bites; politicians talk in bites. Anchormen speak over pictures; politicians speak over pictures. Anchormen don't have to say anything; politicians don't have to say anything. 'Good Morning America' is a television program; 'It's morning in America' is a politician's slogan. Politicians merge into Brokaw, Jennings, Rather, and they merge into the politicians they have chosen. They are all, in the end, great communicators, while saying as little as possible.

What Fairlie witnessed - and diagnosed with remarkable acuity - was the birth of a kind of media/political complex inside the Beltway. Instead of occupying an independent perch from which they could dispense "moral information," journalists--particularly those on television--had helped create a symbiotic relationship that distorted the political process nearly beyond recognition. By 1988, he thought it was "becoming awkward to claim that elections remain free in America in any but a narrowly legal sense."

One by-product of this collusion could be seen all over Washington. "The very profession that should be the acid, relentless critic of the affluence and cynicism of Washington is now the most ostentatiously affluent and cynical profession in the city," he wrote. "For God's sake, why fudge words? This is deeply corrupting of what is meant to be the political capital of the nation, the symbol of its democratic faith." The Washington of today, a place that remains cynical about politicians' misbehavior even as it embraces celebrity and corporate sponsorships, is precisely the Washington that Fairlie warned against.

This is not to say that he saw any way out of our predicament. After watching the press barons of his youth give way to the media conglomerates of his later years, he knew only too well how intractable this "coil of mischief" would be. And while he named names in his critiques of political journalists - frequently and with glee - the primary fault he ascribed to his colleagues was their failure "to recognize or acknowledge that their -- my -- whole profession is trapped in a diminishing concept of human aspiration."

As prospective role models go, Henry Fairlie is deeply problematic. He drank, had countless affairs, and was so hapless at paying his bills that he once ended up in jail. But he also lived by the creed that a journalist's most perishable virtue is independence. He attacked anybody who needed attacking, especially his proprietors. (He had many good reasons for wanting to name his memoir Bite the Hand That Feeds You.)

Fairlie remained a freelancer for 36 years, even at immense cost to himself. In poor health and all but penniless, he spent his last few years living in his office at The New Republic, where he wrote and wrote and wrote. He preached a lonely philosophy in those years, one that is even lonelier now: "Grub Street is where we come from and where we belong."

Jeremy McCarter is a senior writer at Newsweek and the editor of Bite the Hand That Feeds You: Essays and Provocations by Henry Fairlie.