What Mike Royko Knew that Jon Stewart and the Mainstream Media Don't

The late Mike Royko -- a columnist in Chicago for many decades -- warned young reporters against hobnobbing with politicians because it might compromise their objectivity.   As he noted, “[i]f you get too close, then you’re going to feel uncomfortable when you have to stick it to them.”  Unhappily, contemporary media personalities such as The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, along with most of the press, seem to be unaware of Royko’s wisdom.  As we shall see, the need for journalists to abide by Royko’s advice is just as compelling today as it was when he wrote.

It was recently revealed that Stewart, who will depart his show following tonight’s episode, secretly met with President Obama in the White House in 2011 and 2014.  The left-leaning Stewart’s faux news show has been especially popular among younger Americans, because they believed he told it like it is.  (Young people are the least politically knowledgeable segment of the populace.)  Now, after revelations that he secretly met Obama in the White House, and especially since Obama’s most recent appearance on his show, Stewart is not credible when it comes to speaking truth to left-wing Democrats in power.   

Stewart’s cozy relationship with Obama (and other left-wing Democrats) is all-too-typical of practices of today’s media, many -- if not most -- of whom have incestuous connections with America’s ruling class.  Not only do many media denizens routinely associate with the ruling class at work and at play, it is no longer rare for a journalist’s significant-other and/or relative to be a key government official.   The presidents of CBS News and ABC News, for example, have siblings who are major players in Obama’s administration.   In 2013, CNN’s deputy bureau chief, Virginia Mosley, was married to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s deputy, Tom Nides.   One also thinks of instances in which a former key member of a Democrat administration -- such as George Stephanopoulos -- becomes a TV anchor at ABC News.  (I originally wrote that Stephanopoulos “changed careers” to join ABC News, but after remembering that he donated at least $75,000 to the Clinton family foundation, I decided he hadn’t “changed careers” after all.)  Other former political operatives may not work in the media, but they hold prominent positions in major J-schools.  (Guess what that means for socialization of future generations of media personalities.)

There were instances in America’s past -- such as Thomas Jefferson’s favorite newspaper -- in which the press hobnobbed with elite pols, but those practices later waned.  Today the connections between the media and the ruling class are so close that it is virtually impossible to separate them.

To complicate matters further, and to demonstrate why Royko’s unwillingness to hobnob with pols is an necessary (but not necessarily sufficient) step toward some degree of media objectivity, media personalities and the ruling class tend to come from the same socio-economic background, and to attend the same schools and colleges/universities. 

Once-upon-a-time, members of the press, who were known as “ink-stained wretches” -- the media were almost entirely print in those days -- came from working-class backgrounds, and most of them grew up pretty close to main street America.   Royko, for example, exemplified the earlier tendency.  Born to working-class parents, Royko grew up in an apartment over a bar in Chicago.  He briefly attended junior college, but dropped out to enlist in the Air Force in 1952. 

As a high school graduate with some junior college experience, Royko was better educated than many other “ink-stained wretches” from a by-gone era.  Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, for example, perhaps the most famous journalist of the late 19th century, dropped out of school after the 5th grade.

Perhaps the best-known American journalist of the first half of the 20th century was H. L. Mencken, a.k.a. “the Sage of Baltimore.”  Mencken graduated from a mathematics, technology, and science-oriented high school, and took a correspondence class or two in journalism from Cosmopolitan University.  Beyond that, Mencken learned journalism on the job.

Mencken’s career illustrates two practices that were common in the press prior to the middle of the 20th century.  First, entry into the profession was usually a matter of starting at the bottom, most likely serving a period of apprenticeship before being accepted as a working journalist.  Second, virtually every member of the press came out of the lower social orders, had little if any formal schooling, and toiled in a low-paying job, mostly rubbing shoulders with hoi polloi.  Elite journalists -- such as James Gordon Bennett, Sr., Samuel Bowles, Horace Greeley, and Henry Raymond -- who hobnobbed with major national political figures, were few and far between.  Press tycoons, such as Joseph Pulitzer or William Randolph Hearst, were rarer still.

Media practices of yesteryear are almost never encountered today.  As is true of most professions these days, “credentialism” reigns supreme when it comes to recruitment of media personnel.   Virtually all members of today’s media are college/university graduates -- a Peter Jennings is an oddity -- and, increasingly, take classes in journalism schools.  (It goes without saying that the academic credentials of media personalities reveal few who matriculated at third- or fourth-tier schools -- using the U.S. News & World Report’s system for ranking American institutions of higher learning -- public universities, and that degrees from elite national universities and liberal arts colleges are disproportionately represented.)

Another factor common to most elite media personnel is that, even if they were born and raised in “fly-over country” -- Tom Brokaw, for example, came from South Dakota, while Dan Rather spent his youth in Texas -- they tend to live and work inside the New York City / Washington, DC corridor, and share the outlooks and value systems common to that region.

There are at least two consequences of today’s media patterns.

First, since virtually all media personalities are college/university graduates, and many have advanced higher education experience, few come from America’s lower social orders.  Most working-class families, especially those sending a first-generation child to college/university, can’t afford the expense now associated with attendance at an elite institution of higher learning.  It isn’t unusual to see lower-middle-class families frozen out as well.  That means a large portion of those working in the media have, at worst, upper-middle-class backgrounds, and thus have little or nothing in common with America’s “common” men and women.

More important, given their socioeconomic background, and the locales in which they live and work, today’s media personalities have much in common with our ruling class.  They inter-marry, send their kids to the same schools, intermingle at rest and/or play, and very often view the world through the same lenses as the ruling class.

That is why Royko’s dictum against close relationships between journalists and politicians becomes especially worthwhile.  If journalist X and politico Y tend to share the same class background, attended the same kind of -- maybe even the identical -- college/university, live in the same locale, are related by blood and/or marriage, and share other qualities associated with upper-middle to upper-class existence, it is essential to maintain some professional separation.

Too bad that more journalists don’t practice what Mike Royko preached.  Who knows?  Maybe the media would have a slightly better public reputation for integrity.