Knowl­edge is not a vice

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Eu­gene Robin­son

— Let us now praise the most re­viled group of peo­ple in Amer­ica: so-called “elites.” And how about a round of ap­plause for the hated “main­stream me­dia” as well.

If you lis­ten to Don­ald Trump, or even if you paid at­ten­tion to Bernie Sanders dur­ing the pri­mary sea­son, you might think all the na­tion’s prob­lems can be blamed on two pointy­headed ca­bals. The “elites” who rigged the sys­tem to ben­e­fit them­selves at the ex­pense of ev­ery­one else; and the puppy-dog “main­stream me­dia” or “MSM,” also known as the “cor­po­rate me­dia,” who were com­plicit.

Even as the Trump cam­paign de­volves into rav­ing lu­nacy and most Sanders sup­port­ers line up be­hind Hil­lary Clin­ton, the idea lives on: “Reg­u­lar” or “ev­ery­day” Amer­i­cans have been failed by out-of-touch elites and the MSM who ba­si­cally have screwed up the coun­try.

Such think­ing is no more sound than Trump’s con­vic­tion that all the na­tion’s ills should be blamed on Mex­i­cans and Mus­lims.

First, the elites: Who are they, any­way? I’ve al­ways tried to avoid us­ing the term be­cause it is so im­pre­cise as to be vir­tu­ally mean­ing­less.

If it means those with ex­cep­tional wealth, power or in­flu­ence, then surely a bil­lion­aire such as Trump and a U.S. se­na­tor such as Sanders would qual­ify as mem­bers. If you fly around in a pri­vate jet with your name on the side, or sit among just 535 men and women who get to write the na­tion’s laws, you’re ob­vi­ously not what any­one would call or­di­nary. I sup­pose their sup­port­ers might see them as traitors to their class.

Of­ten the word “elites” is used to mean “ex­perts,” as in “for­eign pol­icy elites have made a tragic mess of the Mid­dle East” or “eco­nomic pol­icy elites have given away the store in lop­sided free-trade agree­ments.” Let’s as­sume that both th­ese propo­si­tions are true. It is a mat­ter of his­tor­i­cal fact that the ar­chi­tects of the Iraq War — the sin­gle big­gest U.S. for­eign pol­icy blun­der in my life­time — and the au­thors of NAFTA and other free-trade pacts were, in­deed, rec­og­nized ex­perts in their fields.

But what makes any­one think the Mid­dle East would be less bloody, or the Is­lamic State less of a ter­ror­ist threat, if U.S. pol­icy had been run by peo­ple who had no ex­per­tise — who knew noth­ing about the re­gion’s his­tory, re­li­gious schisms or eth­nic di­vides? Or that a bet­ter Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship pact could be ne­go­ti­ated by some­one wholly un­fa­mil­iar with the ar­cane minu­tiae of in­ter­na­tional trade agree­ments?

Ig­no­rance is not a virtue. Knowl­edge is not a vice. Pointy-heads who spend years gain­ing ex­per­tise in a given field may make mis­takes, but the rem­edy is to re­place them with pointy-heads who have dif­fer­ent views — not with know-noth­ings who would try to nav­i­gate treach­er­ous ter­rain on in­stinct alone. (See: Trump’s pol­icy po­si­tions on, well, any­thing.)

As for the much-dis­par­aged me­dia, I get emails ev­ery day from peo­ple who de­mand to know why we in the “MSM” or “cor­po­rate me­dia” are cov­er­ing up some scan­dal. The emails then go on to de­scribe said scan­dal at great length and in mi­cro­scopic de­tail, of­ten quot­ing sto­ries from The Wash­ing­ton Post, The New York Times, NBC News or other lead­ing me­dia out­lets. I of­ten write back that if we’re try­ing to cover up the out­rage in ques­tion, we’re ob­vi­ously do­ing a lousy job.

One of the glo­ries of this coun­try is that any­body with a web­site can be a jour­nal­ist. One of the re­al­i­ties, how­ever, is that only news or­ga­ni­za­tions of a cer­tain size have the re­sources and, yes, the ex­per­tise to un­earth some sto­ries. There are ex­cep­tions, of course — blog­gers who come to own a cer­tain niche of sub­ject mat­ter, say, or scribes who know ev­ery nook and cranny of a given com­mu­nity. But day in and day out, it’s the MSM that de­liv­ers the goods.

Many who at­tack the me­dia for be­ing feck­less or out of touch re­ally have a dif­fer­ent com­plaint: You should spend more col­umn inches and air time re­in­forc­ing my view of the world.

Sorry, but that’s not what we’re here for.

When he bought The Wash­ing­ton Post in 1933, Eu­gene Meyer pub­lished a set of seven “prin­ci­ples,” which be­gan with this one: “The first mis­sion of a news­pa­per is to tell the truth as nearly as the truth may be as­cer­tained.”

There is such a thing as the truth, just as there is such a thing as valu­able ex­per­tise. Even if it’s “elite” and “main­stream” to say so.

Eu­gene Robin­son is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at eu­gen­er­obin­son@wash­post.com.

WASH­ING­TON

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