Out in the Texas hill country, a short drive to the northwest of San Antonio is the town of Boerne – a name picked by German Catholics who emigrated there in the mid-nineteenth century. Those who know the history of those times would hardly be challenged to explain why these immigrants would pick the name of Ludwig Börne. He hailed from Hesse, as they did, and he was one of the greatest voices of his era – a defiant voice calling for liberty and democracy at a time when those things were in short supply. I once paid the town a visit and asked what the folks in Boerne did to celebrate the memory of the great man for whom their town was named. And I discovered to my chagrin that no one there seemed to have an inkling of who Ludwig Börne was. (“A writer, I think,” was the closest answer I got.) And in the same way, Börne’s legacy to America, exposé journalism, has gone missing.
Börne is a transformational figure in Europe’s history, and a man who influenced America at a critical point in its history. He was born Juda Loeb Baruch in Frankfurt, in Europe’s heart, in the city’s Jewish ghetto. But he broke out of those stifling confines to leave a mark on his home city, his country and the broader world beyond. His life was tragically cut short in 1837, but what he accomplished in his fifty years of life was amazing. Above all things what marked Börne was his courage, his determination to stand for a liberty that embraced the fundamental dignity of all mankind without regard to religion or ethnicity, and his willingness to raise a critical voice just when it was needed – no matter the cost to himself.
Börne was a journalist. His work helped define a new profession and show what the medium could offer. For a developing educated class, newspapers offered a passport to knowledge, social participation and education. To be sure, the quality of newspapers of his day was varied, and many of them seem, viewed today, almost comically bad. But Börne was a practitioner of the highest form of the journalistic art, and today one reads his Letters from Paris not as newspaper contributions, but rather as works of high literature. They continue to inspire. His command of language; his ability to mobilize facts and thoughts to a certain end is amazing. Börne’s vibrant style was unlike anything that had been seen before. He shows us that a journalist can be both a careful observer and a person passionately engaged in the world around him. He was, to be clear, an opinion-journalist. He worked to inform and persuade. And to expose – especially to expose injustice.
If there was one voice that inspired the liberal revolution of 1848 in Central Europe – the revolution that demanded for Europeans the democratic institutions that Americans had won for themselves two generations earlier – it was Ludwig Börne’s. He had influence in America as well, since two figures who played a key role in American political life in the mid-nineteenth century – Francis Lieber and Carl Schurz – were addicts of Börne’s writings and followers in his wake. And in fact, Börne’s American followers heeded his message and were heavily engaged in politics. They rallied to John Charles Frémont and Abraham Lincoln and helped to form the Republican Party and raise its banner. Börne would have approved unequivocally.
One aspect of Börne always impressed me: his constant consciousness of the need for critical detachment from those in power. A writer who trades his critical faculty for a comfortable, possession-filled existence forfeits his soul. A writer who craves the approval of the established order and seeks to be rewarded by them is fundamentally corrupt.
“Every crowned head in Europe fears for his porcelain factory,” he remarked with typical irony to his friend Heinrich Heine. “And indeed you have no idea how the ownership of fine porcelain can fence you in. Consider me. I was once a wild man, when I had little luggage and no porcelain. But with property and especially with fragile things comes fear and servitude.”
(There is another, darker spot of irony in this little back and forth between Heine and Börne that will be lost on a modern reader. Namely: German princelings often required Jews to buy porcelain from their factories to subsidize their operations and rid themselves of unwanted inventory. For both Heine and Börne, this was a badge of servitude, humiliation and racism.)
America had a proud culture of exposé journalism – it had an army of writers who followed in the footsteps of Ludwig Börne. Some names are still remembered today: Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens and Ray Stannard Baker. One or two passed into the literary canon – like Frank Norris. But it’s a legacy which has all but vanished. Today the headlines speak of the latest acquisition by Rupert Murdoch and his corporate empire is a model of the new journalism in which everything that Börne warned against has come to the fore. The typical successful journalist of America today is not engaged and critical, but a fawning participant in a cult of power. A study of Murdoch’s engagement in China and the effect it had on his media empire’s coverage of Chinese politics – such as the New York Times very commendably offered this week – is a good sign of what the future holds. And note that even self-described media critics, such as Howard Kurtz, are swallowed up in this process.
I embrace exposé journalism as a form of art and professional practice. It can furnish life’s blood to a democracy. It offers a threatened society the essential purgative to its ills. It is in short supply today. Indeed, it exists only at the fringes of the journalistic community, having been banished from the broadcast and mainstream.
Writing today in the Los Angeles Times, my colleague Ken Silverstein defends himself from attacks from journalistic sycophants over an exposé piece that gave us a penetrating look into the heart of a lobbying industry which putrifies our political process:
Chuck Lewis, a former “60 Minutes” producer and founder of the Center for Public Integrity, once told me: “The values of the news media are the same as those of the elite, and they badly want to be viewed by the elites as acceptable.” In my case, I was able to gain an inside glimpse into a secretive culture of professional spinners only by lying myself. I disclosed my deceptions clearly in the piece I wrote (whereas the lobbyists I met boasted of how they were able to fly under the radar screen in seeking to shape U.S. foreign policy). If readers feel uncomfortable with my methods, they’re free to dismiss my findings.
Yes, undercover reporting should be used sparingly, and there are legitimate arguments to be had about when it is fair or appropriate. But I’m confident my use of it in this case was legitimate. There was a significant public interest involved, particularly given Congress’ as-yet-unfulfilled promise to crack down on lobbyists in the aftermath of the Jack Abramoff scandal. Could I have extracted the same information and insight with more conventional journalistic methods? Impossible.
Based on the number of interview requests I’ve had, and the steady stream of positive e-mails I’ve received, I’d wager that the general public is decidedly more supportive of undercover reporting than the Washington media establishment. One person who heard me talking about the story in a TV interview wrote to urge that I never apologize for “misrepresenting yourself to a pack of thugs … especially when misrepresentation is their own stock in trade!” I’m willing to debate the merits of my piece, but the carping from the Washington press corps is hard to stomach. This is the group that attended the White House correspondents dinner and clapped for a rapping Karl Rove. As a class, they honor politeness over honesty and believe that being “balanced” means giving the same weight to a lie as you give to the truth.
This is a fundamental point. And Ludwig Börne put it a bit more eloquently: “In the service of truth” he said, “it doesn’t suffice simply to display your intellect. You must show courage as well.” A journalist who doesn’t adhere to that credo doesn’t deserve to call himself a journalist.