[This excerpt has been extracted from Joakim Garff’s Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography, trans. Bruce H. Kirmmse. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, trans. copyright 2005, pp. 471-472. The extractor (smh) was moved to place it here by a telephone interview he foolishly agreed to take, in which the interviewer was completely flummoxed by his utter and persistent lack of opinion on certain matters pertaining to professional sports that had, after all, been widely reported in the news. The reader will bear in mind that Kierkegaard wrote what Garff cites here in the 1840’s.]
The collision with The Corsair left Kierkegaard with a terrific loathing for the daily press and its practitioners, “those who rent out opinions,” as he called them, using an expression he found in Schopenhauer and became infatuated with. Schopenhauer had noted quite correctly that although most people avoid walking around in a borrowed hat or coat, they are only too happy to go around with borrowed opinions, which have been served up to them by journalists: “The great mass of people naturally have no opinion but—here it comes!—this deficiency is remedied by the journalists who make their living by renting out opinions.” This bizarre situation also has a logic of its own: “Gradually, as more and more people are wrenched free of the condition of innocence in which they were by no means obliged to have an opinion and are forced into the ‘condition of guilt’ . . . in which they must have an opinion, what can the unfortunate people do? An opinion becomes a necessary item for every member of the enormous public, so the journalist offers his assistance by renting out opinions.” In doing so journalists make people laughable in two respects: first by convincing them of the necessity to have an opinion, then by renting out an “opinion which despite its insubstantial quality is nonetheless put on and worn as—a necessary item.”
Thus Kierkegaard came surprisingly early to the realization that the press lives by creating its own stories—“it acts as if it were reporting on an actual situation, and it intends to produce that situation”—with the result that reality itself becomes pale and imaginary. “There is something the journalist wishes to publicize, and perhaps absolutely no one thinks or cares about it. So what does the journalist do? He writes an article in the most exalted manner in which he states that this is a need profoundly felt by everyone, et cetera. Perhaps his journal has a large circulation, and now we have set things in motion. The article is in fact read, it is talked about. . . . There ensues a polemical controversy that causes a sensation.”
. . . . The journalists also incur a moral responsibility because they are capable of completely altering a person’s fate overnight: “Take a young girl. Someone names her, using her full name, and then relates that she had got a new dress last Sunday. This of course is not the most unsavory sort of evil—and nonetheless she is made ridiculous. Everything private, the condition of privacy itself, is entirely incompatible with being mentioned all over the country in a newspaper.” The vignette itself is so shy and retiring that the reader can scarcely get a glimpse of the problem, but it is there. Even though an announcement such as this is ethically neutral in itself, the mere fact of its publication becomes a violation of privacy. Kierkegaard saw more and more clearly that the media’s transformation of the population into “the public” was accompanied by increasing infantilization, by the deprivation of the individual’s rightful authority, a condition that was all the more catastrophic because it was said to be identical to the public’s self-determination and its supposed possession of influence . . . .
“Suppose someone invented an instrument, a convenient little speaking tube that was so powerful it could be heard all over the entire country. Wouldn’t the police forbid it out of fear that its use would result in the whole of society becoming mentally deranged?”