Annual Report 2009

Opinions in the Age of New Media

The sources of Inspiration by Sven Egil Omdal

  • Media Critic at Stavanger Aftenblad, Stavanger

Media criticism, eroticism and rotary whisks

Journalism does not need to be saved,
but has to be rediscovered. It is a public
service that is an indispensable precondition
for a functioning democracy

The sources of Inspiration Knowledge is a maze in which it is sometimes a joy to lose one's way and completely lose the thread. I was going to write about the danger of drowning in a sea of opinions, but ended up with Danish censorship, a beautiful lamp and the erotic potential of the rotary whisk. It is a long way to get there, but we have plenty of time and ample space available.
The idea was to find the wellspring for my own inspiration. All writers try to write like someone else. I wanted to return to the text that first got me thinking "this is the way I want to write" - in a journalistic way, to be precise. This was not exactly like finding the source of the Nile, so the expedition just took a few minutes. So there I was with a tiny little book in my hands. It is well over 30 years old, and it must be just as long since I last read it. Can a book of 132 narrow pages really make such an impression that several decades of keyboard tapping have always been driven by a desire to
create something similar?
The book has an impressively dull title: "Spidser om presse, radio og TV" (Editorials about press, radio and TV). The cover is a dirty grey colour and the publisher is Odense University Press. It would be difficult to get closer to the total literary anaesthetic. But the author is Børge Outze and the book is a collection of the finest media criticism that has ever been written in Scandinavia. It was Børge Outze who wrote of his editor colleagues that "of the two languages they best mastered - silence and Danish - they chose silence".
There is obviously a risk that today's journalists and newspaper readers do not know who Børge Outze was. This risk will be further reinforced because in Scandinavia we have stopped reading one another's newspapers. It is no longer the case that Politiken prints fellow newspaper Fædrelandsvennen's editorial articles two days before Fædrelandsvennen itself (the only explanation people in Kristiansand found for the fact that Fædrelandsvennen constantly had exactly the same opinions as Politiken, only two days later). When Oslo journalists meet in the cafes to drown their distaste at the last strategy note from the editors, they no longer dream of creating the Norwegian version of Information.
Børge Outze was the Danish paper, Information. He established Det Illegale Information (the Illegal Information), during the German occupation, and it became the principal organ of the Danish resistance movement. When peace rolled in over the country, Information's employees took over the editorial premises of the Nazi newspaper Fædrelandet (Fatherland) in Store Kongensgade in Copenhagen and carried on its business there. To start with, the paper was published as handbills, flyers and small four-page slips of paper, but it gradually
 Sven Egil Omdal, media commentator
and journalist at
Stavanger Aftenblad.
Employed at the Stavanger
Aftenblad newspaper in 1971;
Adresseavisen newspaper
1975-1976; editor at the
Information Service of the
Church of Norway 1976 -
1979; Vårt Land newspaper
1979-1991 – the last four years
there spent on leave of absence
to act as leader of the Norwegian
Union of Journalists
(Norsk Journalistlag). Since
1991, he has been at Stavanger
Aftenblad working as news
editor, culture editor, multimedia
editor and now as a
print journalist. Formerly
head of Norway’s Press Complaints
Commission (Pressens
Faglige Utvalg). At present, he
is working on a project at the
University of Bergen that is
undertaking research into new
methods of financing quality
journalism. In 2009, awarded
the Golden Pen (Gullpennen).
turned into the Danish daily that has ignored the force of gravity for the past 65 years in the most unique way.
Børge Outze was a man full of opinions. The opinions were not always equally consistent - they were rarely popular, but they were always considered - and they were put forward in a form that had no equal. His editorials, called spidser, were signed with a small o. and printed on the front page of the paper. There is no point in an opinion-carrying newspaper hiding its opinions under a bushel.
I was not a reader of the Information at the end of the 1970s when I, as fate (or perhaps Our Lord) would have it, ended up in Vårt Land (Christian daily in Oslo). I subscribed to the newspaper, as did many of my ambitious colleagues, but I did not read it. I ripped off the grey band around the middle to see if the little o. was there under the editorial. If it did, I read Børge Outze - the rest I put aside. Even the major debate about whether a vaginal orgasm according to Marxist theory was more correct than a clitoral orgasm went right past me. I got the Information quite simply for Børge Outze's art of formulation and for his ability and desire to criticise power, regardless of where and how it might manifest itself. He was just as elegantly merciless towards the USA's war in Vietnam as
he was against the iron grip of Soviet in Eastern Europe. Anti-communist, anti-imperialist, but also critical of all dogmatic tendencies in the generation that was gradually taking over the newspaper he had created.
The little collection of Outze's spidser of media criticism, edited by Erik Lund, has a motto, taken from one of these spidsene:
"Much of what goes into a newspaper is like a sandcastle on the beach just before high water. But it so happens that some things are made of more solid stuff, so that they are not erased by the waves of time".
For more than 30 years, these waves have been washing over Outze's texts, without weakening them. I read them again, and feel the same strong inspiration: Media criticism should be written this way: sharp, knowledgeable and elegant. From the inside, but with a certain distance, or civil courage, so that not even friends and colleagues escape. And to encourage the impatient reader, we are now approaching the rotary whisk and eroticism.
On 31 August 1954, Børge Outze wrote a spids article headed "PHilologi" (PHilology). Today's digital spellcheckers want to reduce the capital H to a small h, but we are also still a long way from a time when machines have a sense of humour. For contemporary readers, the capital letters "PH" were a signal that the article dealt with the big PH, today best recognised as a lamp.
This article was a clash with the view of a close colleague, one of the few Danes who could compete with Outze in firmness of opinion. It started off as follows:
"Poul Henningsen, who is really going to be 60 presently, has been questioned by journalists because of that, and, if you can rely on their reports, they have even managed to get a word in now and then. PH says that he is an opponent of the decimal system, and that he would thus prefer to make a statement when he reaches 60.7 years of age, which will probably happen, because he is always keen to make a statement."
After an intro like that, the reader is held helplessly captive. We stay with Outze when he hits out at Henningsen's perception that renewal of the written language has to come from the spoken language:
"PH actually also works on us intelligently, every time he talks about something we do not know about; but with his talk about the language he cannot bluff us."
Outze was very conservative on language issues, and took a stand against the "bolleaaerne", the new Danish å character (replacing "aa"), for as long as he could. He believed that the written language should not drift with the winds that blow from the many inventions of everyday speech, but should constitute constancy.
"One should write "snedker" (once it has been decided that this is the way to spell it) but one might then say "sneker" or "snæker" or "snedker" with the softest Danish soft "d", or "sneeeeker", and it would not matter. We do not want to have Norwegian conditions in this area!"
Poul Henningsen was a polymath, although he now happened to be bluffing his way through philology. He was an anti-Nazi, humanist, first communist then strict anti-communist. Today there may not be too many people who remember his famous Denmark film, which was intended to sell the beautiful self-image abroad, but which finally ended up with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs censoring large parts of its content. No one had asked him to tell the truth. Even his three-volume work on the history of eroticism, which was a strong contributory factor in the legalisation of pornography (and made a greater change in the view the outside world had of Denmark than his film could ever have done), has been forgotten by most people. Outside marriage, Poul Henningsen became the father of Sten Hegeler, half of Inge and Sten, the sexologist couple who, with their outspoken recommendations for various sex aids, shocked even the hardened readership of Dagbladet, and made Fredrik Stabel, the founder of Dusteforbundet (the Association of Fools), draw them playing friskily above the wording: "A rotary whisk? It is quite normal".
About Poul Henningsen, his opinions and achievements, and indeed also about his family, it would therefore be possible to write a very much longer article than this one. Here he is just one little - but important - offshoot. Because the PH that Børge Outze took so strongly to task in the editorial column, is first and foremost known as the father of the «PH lamp». It was the PH lamp which made it possible for him to devote his life to debate and opinions, and which has given him lasting renown outside Denmark. In several variations, it is still hanging as a design trophy in innumerable Norwegian homes in the top price bracket, as a social marker on a par with Arne Jacobsen and Bruno Mathsson chairs.
So, there is also a line that stretches from the PH lamp to Børge Outze's works as a writer. It is as if they both strove to achieve the same effect, Henningsen with functionalist design with the multiple shades reflecting the light evenly and softly out into the room, Outze with his choice of adjective, with the structure of his arguments and the composition of his small comments articles. The lamp is a brilliant solution to the double problem: illuminate without dazzling, soften without removing the energy. It is the same thing with the spidsene articles.
Børge Outze's style of writing is exactly like the lamp: the form is elegant, but it does not overshadow the energy of the message. As when he clashes with provincial papers that do not have any opinions of their own, but which allow the political press bureaux to write their editorials for them, a tradition of which remnants still remain in Norway's A-pressen media group:
"We recently found an indignant attack on "Information" in the cosy newspaper, "Fyens Stiftstidende", where, amongst a lot of fluff, privileged conservative opinions are to be found from time to time, which at present have to find shelter in the provinces, because the "Berlingske Tidende" newspaper has rediscovered its traditional position of being the voice of whichever government happens to be in office".
No one could be in any doubt about what Outze thought about the practice ("It would be hard to imagine anything more pathetic than the line of provincial editors who, with mouths open, allow themselves to be spoon-fed by a bureau every morning"), but the form is the rapid swish of the rapier, not the blunt stroke of the sword.
The book was read quickly as soon as I got hold of it. On the other hand, however, I read it several times. So, there I stood as a newly arrived member of the national press corps, with my own desk in the legendary street of Akersgata, and knew that I wanted to be a media critic. In the absence of a formal education in journalism (well, actually any kind of education) I subscribed to the Columbia Journalism Review and followed the intense debates during and after the Watergate revelations and the publication of the Pentagon report. I had read David Halberstam's portrait of those
mighty American institutions the New York Times, the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Time Magazine in "The Powers That Be" (1979). Half of Vårt Land's editorial team crammed their way through this 800-page hagiography of the best of the best in the profession. Here was a description of the ideals for the free critical press, admittedly in Halberstam's rather pretentious style, but five years after the fall of Nixon, there was still room for pretension in the descriptions of journalism's democratic function.
I had also read the analysis, by media scholars Fred S. Siebert, Theodore Peterson and Wilbur Schrams, of the media's social and political role in the book "Four Theories of the Press" and knew their principal theory that the media always obtains its form and character from the social and political structure of the field in which it is operating. Journalism has no universal identity, when detached from the structures within which it operates. Its roots are authoritarian, arisen as it has under the British autocracy - it is loyal and orthodox in dictatorships, liberal and an adherent of laissez faire in societies where the thoughts of Milton, Locke and Mills dominate, and characterised by social responsibility and social awareness in Scandinavia and other countries in which social democracy holds a strong position.
Towards the end of the 1970s, the de-ideologisation of the Norwegian media was well underway. The investors had not yet discovered the hidden values within the newspaper houses, but ties to political parties were loosened, or, in the case of the Liberal Party of Norway: cut in two. After the break-up of the party in 1973, the old Liberal newspapers declared themselves independent, and gradually the right-wing press and the the social democratic press followed suit. In 1974, Reidar Hirsti was drawn into a broom cupboard in Folkets Hus and was removed from office as editor of the Arbeiderbladet newspaper, but as early as the following years saw an end to the poor practice of electing the newspaper's editor at the Norwegian Labour Party's national conference. The Norwegian media was going through a phase of change, journalism had never been more powerful - but no one was instigating any systematic media criticism from within.
I wrote my first piece of media criticism in 1982. It was on the back page of Vårt Land's new Friday magazine and was entitled "Verdens gang slik VG ser den" (The Way of the World as seen by VG). In form and content it was a long way from Børge Outze, but nevertheless it was something new. One of the secretaries at VG (Verdens Gang) was sent out to buy 20 copies of Vårt Land (a not insignificant increase in our sales) to enable the entire management team to read the crude remarks that the Christian upstart across the road was making.
Over the café tables, and in spontaneous seminars in the middle of the pavement in Akersgata, I was informed by some heavyweight names at VG that I had behaved like a disloyal little whippersnapper. Who did I think I was to take it upon myself to criticise the work of other journalists? If I had been reviewing the latest book from the famous norwegian author Dag Solstad, or a Nationaltheater production of Ibsen's "When We Dead Awaken", no one would have reacted. But criticising VG required a competence which I obviously did not possess.
There was certainly a lack of knowledge, but I had equipped myself for the onslaught by also studying another of the profession's great critics. From him, I had learnt the value of being in control of the facts. Lying alongside the little pamphlet containing the spidser articles was namely a considerably more full-bodied book - "The Press" by A. J. Liebling. This collection of Liebling's articles about journalism and the media were first published in 1961, my edition was from 1975. Here was the man I would be able to lean on, in addition to Outze. Gay Talese has written that "no one other than Liebling is able to create literature while he is writing about the media". Anthony Lewis maintains that no one has done more to teach American journalists about the faults of the media - and about its significance - than Liebling.
Liebling wrote a monthly column in The New Yorker, entitled "Wayward Press" for 18 years. It was in one of these articles that he formulated the sharpest piece of media criticism that has ever fitted into one sentence: "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one". The New Yorker was justifiably admired for its accuracy. Liebling relates that the editorial team had eight fact-checkers going through every word in the manuscripts, inserting a little tick beside every single factual detail: names, figures, goals, weights, geographical data, references and quotations. In that way, everything was checked until even the most critical of the checkers was convinced that the facts were actually facts. Even today, it is a delight to read the paragraphs in Liebling that it is possible to check. When a newspaper has written about all of the communists who are in control of Norway, Liebling points out that there is only one communist sitting in Norway's Storting, that his name is Emil Løvlien and that he has been elected by the county of Hedmark. He kept on like that for decades; finely honed comments packed around a core of rock-hard facts.
Before he got that far, Liebling had been a reporter in Providence, Rhode Island, a sports editor on The New York Times (in 2002, Sports Illustrated chose a collection of Liebling's essays on boxing as the best sports book of all time) and in Joseph Pulitzer's New York World. To get that last job, he paid an unemployed Norwegian seaman to walk past the Pulitzer building for three days carrying a sandwich board which read: "Hire Joe Liebling".
Since I had first been in search of old sources of inspiration, I also brought out Liebling's book from the bookshelf, which had been standing there untouched for two decades. The prologue of the book is entitled "The End of Free Lunch" and it is so topical that it is spooky. Liebling starts off with the information that the British government is so worried about the growing concentration of newspaper ownership that it has set up a Royal Commission to look into how to guarantee diversity in the voices heard by the general public.
"In the United States, the American Newspaper Publishers' Association would treat such a pronouncement as heresy and interference in their own damned business, not to mention an infringement of the freedom of the press and a partisan pronouncement - since the press being almost exclusively Republican, any criticism is implicitly Democratic".
In 2010, more than 60 years later, public enquiries are being set up in Norway, Denmark and a number of other western countries to find out how journalism can survive as a public service when the commercial business models look as if they are crumbling. Even the American Federal Communication Commission is searching for arguments to support new legislation that will secure the general public's access to journalism of the scale and quality needed for society to function democratically and to develop in the best interests of its citizens.
In May last year, I wrote a media column under the heading "Livet etter avisdøden" (Life after the Death of the Newspaper), in which I attempted to discuss how we can - and ought - to reconstruct journalism as a public service. This article provoked aggression in some places and curiosity in others.
In January, an American book was published, written by Professor Robert McChesney and John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation. These two are also the founders of Free Press, well-known think-tank in the media field in the USA. Their book has exactly the same approach as my column, and is called: "The Death and Life of American Journalism". First death, then new life.
McChesney and Nichols write that we need to understand that journalism, as we know it, will never be profitable again, at any rate not in the foreseeable future. There is no smart business model for the iPad or iPod that can finance journalism on such a scale and of such a quality as society needs.
Their message is therefore that American journalism has to be rediscovered, by going back to the time before big advertising revenues, to a situation in which the politicians recognised that a free, critical press is the most important precondition for a
people's self-government. The American press was not constructed upon advertisements for department stores and toothpaste, but upon public subsidies. The American postal service was established to distribute newspapers all over the country, virtually free of charge. Presidents like Jefferson and Madison saw that the United States could only develop via an informed public. McChesney and Nichols characterise this way of thinking as an understanding of the role of journalism as the infrastructure of democracy.
In his famous essay "Democracy in America", Alexis de Tocqueville wrote with amazement about the incredibly large number of newspapers that had been established in the USA. At that time, the printed newspaper was the journalist's only platform. The extent to which anyone is able to write impressive essays on the future democracy in Norway, will largely depend on our managing to retain a sufficient number of journalists with sufficiently good working conditions.
This is the point we have to reach in the debate about public subsidies for the media. Instead discussing whether the Nationen (paper) or Nettavisen (online) newspapers ought to get most support, we need to formulate the requirements for journalism that Norwegian society is going to need in the years to come. These requirements will be of a quantitative and qualitative nature, and they will have to adapt to the new technology. If we - after having formulated the requirements - decide that the market will not be able to supply this journalism, we need to look at alternative public solutions. Journalism does not need to be saved, but it has to be rediscovered. Not as an item people can live without if the market fails, but as a public service which, like education, is an indispensable qualification for a functioning democracy.
Børge Outze and A.J. Liebling entered the profession on completely different terms. Outze started out in a situation in which each word he wrote brought him into
mortal danger. He founded an illegal organ which, after the end of the war, first became a small publication, then an impoverished newspaper that never possessed one Krone of a surplus. This is also the way Information lives today. Liebling was employed within organisations that were so powerful that presidents came to visit, not vice-versa. He had a support apparatus that could help him with research and marketing.
The scale of the Danish public was small and it was well-arranged - it was not too difficult for someone like Outze to be seen and read. The scale of the American public was enormous, the voices innumerable. Nevertheless, Liebling stood out as someone completely outside the norm, Tom Wolfe called him "irreplaceable", an adverb that Wolfe otherwise reserves for himself.
This is the consolation for journalism in a media landscape undergoing total change. The finances will probably become difficult for most people, as it was for Outze. The number of competing opinion-holders and writers would be tremendous, as it was for Liebling. However, in the struggle for the readers' attention, their loyalty and their willingness to pay, these three factors remain constant: Facts, language and trustworthiness. The media critics of the day must foster these three values in journalism, and try to manage them personally as best they can.
In addition, it must also be permitted to play about with the greatest special rewards of journalism: the delightful joy of being able to learn something completely surprising, such as there really being a link between media criticism, lamps, eroticism and rotary whisks.