The Atlantic

Should Journalists Be Insiders?

The media are still grappling with many of the issues that defined Walter Lippmann’s extraordinary career.
Source: AP

It’s been more than 40 years since Walter Lippmann died, but journalists are still grappling with many of the issues that defined his career: the value of reporting versus commentary; the question of who warrants our attention as journalists—the wealthy and influential or the marginalized and ignored. Perhaps above all, a journalist’s relationship with power: Should journalists be outsiders or insiders, and what happens when they shift from one to the other?

“Men like that have always fascinated me,” Lippmann said in a 1950 interview, speaking of Charles de Gaulle. “It’s as if the country is inside of them, and not they as someone operating within the country.”

One could say the same thing about Lippmann. He “may have been the most influential American of the twentieth century never to have held elected office,” writes Christopher Daly, in his book Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism.

Daly, a professor of journalism at Boston University, says Lippmann’s impact was global and his annual international tours cast him in the role of “something like a secretary of state without portfolio.” Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev once asked Lippmann to delay a visit to Russia because he was dealing with a crisis. When Lippmann said no, Khrushchev rearranged his plans to accommodate him.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, says Lippmann earned respect and influence because few perceived him as a partisan cheerleader: “He obviously inhabited the world of Washington. He consorted with these people, he talked to them, he was interested in having influence on them. But he was not predictably in one camp or another. And I think that’s why he was so influential and so widely read as a columnist for many years, because he wasn’t knee-jerk, he wasn’t a hack.”


As a student at Harvard, Lippmann relished his work at the socialist Cambridge Social Union because, he said, it allowed him to reach “some small portion of the ‘masses’ so that in the position not of a teacher but of a friend, I may lay open real happiness to them.”

Four years after graduating, his political outlook shifted. “[T]he winter of 1914 is an important change for me. Perhaps I have grown conservative,” Lippmann wrote in his diary while crossing the Atlantic that July. “At any rate I find less and less sympathy with the revolutionists … and an increasing

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