Andrew Ferguson‘s latest “Press Man” column for Commentary magazine, not yet posted online, tweaks a couple of fellow scribes: the late Washington Post reporter Haynes Johnson and New Yorker writer George Packer. Ferguson lumps the two together as “master and disciple” of a style of “Jeremiah journalism,” meaning “the news he brought was always bad, and spongy with a thick syrup of moral reproach.”

Most often, in the short run, America’s Jeremiahs are slightly less than half-right; in the long run, they are always wrong. In pretending to convey the country at large, a Jeremiah journalist works from three assumptions, all mistaken: First, that the bad news is the most important news; second, that the bad news is unprecedented; and third, that the bad news can only get worse.

Later in the piece, Ferguson muses on a passage from Packer’s new book, The Unwinding, focusing on 1987.

Packer pauses grimly to register a non sequitur: This was “the year that the Federal Communications Commission voted 4-0 to repeal its own Fairness Doctrine, which had been in effect since 1949 and required licensees of the public airwaves to present important issues in an honest and equitable manner (a vote that paved the way the following year for a Sacramento radio host named Rush Limbaugh to syndicate his conservative talk show nationally).” At such unbidden moments, you’re struck by how unserious this so-serious Jeremiad is, how dulled by its own tendentiousness. Packer evidently believes that freedom of speech was enhanced by the Fairness Doctrine, one of the creepiest intrusions ever come up with by government busybodies, who were empowered to decide which public issues were “important” and which journalistic treatments of them were “honest and equitable.”

It’s a strange kind of journalist who laments the death of the Fairness Doctrine. Haynes liked it, too, though, and the point is revealing. Like Haynes, Packer is a tireless reporter. He is also a vivid writer with a keen eye. But he is at heart a publicist, a laborer for an establishment whose powerful members revel in tales of the little people and their hopelessness. It is the make-believe populism of the movie studio, the faculty lounge, the nonprofit headquarters, the big-city newsroom, and the editorial offices of the Condé Nast building, where a reporter itches always to mingle among the common folk and “tell their stories” so long as he can get back to Zabar’s by the end of the week.