Friday, August 26, 2005

The New Yorker takes a fair and balanced look at Hugh Hewitt

Nicholas Lemann’s New Yorker piece on conservative radio host/blogger Hugh Hewitt (inexplicably unavailable online) is a fascinating cultural artifact. A hundred years from now historians will find it a useful distillation of the trends now roiling the media landscape, especially the conservative media’s attack on traditional journalistic standards.

In this piece mainstream media coolly regards conservative media. Writer and subject are each symbols of the competing empires. Lemann is the dean of the Columbia Journalism School and an accomplished practioner of the craft. Hewitt is a hyperpartisan ideologue whose main purpose, aside from destroying the Democratic Party, is to expose the mainstream media for being a big cabal of “far left” liberals.

Lemann’s point of view is that of the thoughtful, fair minded liberal intellectual meeting a man and a cultural phenomenon. Hewitt’s point of view (at least as Lemann presents it) is that Lemann’s approach is essentially dishonest, masking a tissue of political biases and attitudes.

Of course there is no real comparison between these takes. Hewitt is a hack whose political agenda determines everything he does. Lemann’s journalism is interesting because it’s unpredictable.

Lemann portrays Hewitt as unencumbered by reflection or doubt, genially multitasking his way through the day, spreading conservative memes via radio, the web and TV. But he bends over backwards not to condescend or dismiss – at one point going a bit too far in insisting on Hewitt’s independence from the conservative echo chamber.

In the most interesting part of the piece, Lemann watches Hewitt grill Dana Milbank of the Washington Post on his radio show. Hewitt is right about one thing: the MSM does tend toward self-deception. It purports to be fair and politically detached, but attitude – especially anti-Bush attitude – seeps into the coverage, which journalists then preposterously deny. Hewitt delights in exposing this, twisting his prey – even the redoubtable Milbank - into knots.

But if the piece illustrates one thing, it’s the essential rigidity of the conservative media enterprise – something that will one day be its downfall. Hewitt’s belief that politics determines everything – that it is everything – sounds little different from the guiding principals of various Marxist-Leninists and ivory tower liberals he despises. They had their day, he’ll have his. With luck the Lemanns of the world will survive them all.