As this benighted year comes to an end, you, dear reader, are no doubt wondering why our media has failed so miserably when tested by a political party that seeks to destroy our democracy and our planet with it. The answer, sadly, is its complicated.
The media critic Dan Froomkin wrote an excellent column recently which pointed to another aspect of the problem. Nina Bernstein, a reporter who covered homelessness for The New York Times, tells him that at the Paper of Record, To write factually, up close, with what I like to call intelligent compassion about these peoples lives basically invited charges of partisanship Many reporters across the traditional news media are struggling against institutional tics and timidities that make balance a false idol. The result: The inadvertent normalization of existential threats to democracy and public health by one party and its right-wing media echo chamber. Bernstein points the finger at Times mid-level editors. They are often the ones who are more timid, more ready to water down or reject a story. But, she notes, Theyre trying to do what they think the top editors want.
This is how an allegedly liberal newspaper ends up whitewashing Republican corruption, cruelty, and purposeful (often, but not always) faux stupidity, because its really true that reality has a well-known liberal bias.
Bernsteins comments cohere with a number of recent trends Ive noticed in the Times (and elsewhere). One is the numerous instances where a terribly misleading headline will appear above a reasonably OK story. Given the fact that the headline is all most people will ever read, people receive a completely false picture of reality. The below is not a perfect case because Jonathan Weismans story is itself false and stupid, though not nearly as false and stupid as its headline: Boebert Reaches Out to Omar After Incendiary Video, Escalating a Feud. The words reaches out are a flat-out lie that Boebert herself admits. After making a phone call to Omar, Boebert explained (in the same damn piece!): I told Ilhan Omar that she should make a public apology to the American people for her anti-American, antisemitic, anti-police rhetoric. She continued to press, and I continued to press back. If thats reaching out, then Kenny G is Duke Ellington.
Elsewhere in the article, the truth suffers from Weismans foolish framing. He introduced the piece with this nonsensical graf: Some gulfs are too wide to bridge, but it appeared at first as if Representative Lauren Boebert, the far-right Republican from Colorado, was trying to do so on Monday when she reached out to Representative Ilhan Omar, the progressive Democrat from Minnesota. The word appeared is a well-trodden journalistic weasel-word that invites its author to spout whatever bullshit he or she pleases. In his nut graf, he explains, Ms. Boebert, a freshman who has built her brief political career on incendiary comments and right-wing provocations, angered Democrats over the Thanksgiving break when a video surfaced of her suggesting that Ms. Omar, a Muslim who wears a hijab, could be a suicide bomber, and bragging to constituents about confronting Ms. Omar on an elevator with an Islamophobic epithet.
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Note, yet again, the foolish framing. Boebert angered Democrats, not any actual people without an axe to grind, with her blatant racism and proudly ignorant Islamophobia. (We pause to note that such rhetoric routinely inspires an avalanche of death threats against Omar and other high-profile Muslims in American public life.) But to Weisman and the Times, concern lies only with Democrats.
When I first read this story, I reacted as I often have during the Trump era, wishing that the Times would fire its entire political headline writing staff and find a bunch of people who can simply tell the truth in a few words. Remember Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism? That one got a lot of attention, but it was hardly an outlier. But quite obviously the problem is not the headline writers, or even the mid-level editors to whom Bernstein points. It is with the culture of our political journalism. Its timidity in the face of evil is connected to, but also in some ways distinct from, all of the other problems one can point to in the unfortunately complicated explanation for why our mainstream media is not going to save us from fascism.
Some of the others, each of which deserves an essay of its own, would include:
The word news: Note that it contains the word new, but not the word context, much less the word historyan actual curse word in almost any newsroomand so invites purposeful lies and distortion on the part of anyone who wishes to exploit this.
Savviness: Want to know why journalists treat politics like a sporting event? Jay Rosen has this covered here.
Professional/class interests: In other words, attempting to impress one another rather than inform the public. Walter Lippmann and John Dewey actually had a lot to say about this in their 1925(ish) debate. (This has been an obsession of mine. Ive written about that here, here, and in most of my books, and given lots of talks about it, which you can find pretty easily if you care to with this Google search.)
Corporate interests: This is one of the many important points people miss when they speak about the liberal media. Yes, most journalists are liberal on social issues like abortion and gun control and even, God help them, evolution. But most also work, by and large, for multinational corporations whose top executives earn eight-figure salaries and hate taxes, unions, and anything that threatens their power and profits. So, too, do most of the people they hire to run these properties and represent them before the public. (Some of them pull down eight figures as well. Theres a chapter in What Liberal Media? called Youre Only as Liberal as the Man Who Owns You addressing this conundrum.)
Ref-Working: Its no secret that working the refs works. I get credit for the phrase, but I originally lifted it from Rich Bond, a former chair of the Republican National Committee, who explained following George H.W. Bushs 1988 campaign, There is some strategy to it [bashing the liberal media]. If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is work the refs. Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack on the next one. Today, the far right has an entire media-industrial complex that exists explicitly for this purpose.
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Source-greasing: This one is actually more complicated than it looks at first glance. Its not just that journalists need sources to do their jobs, but also the fact that they are entirely dependent on them owing to the fact that they are unable to witness most of what they need to know. If those sources happen to be liars, racists, fascists, or rapists, well, its best not to mention this.
Republicans are from Venus, journalists and Democrats are from Mars: But there is also the problem that in the case of elite MSM journalists and Democrats, they are the same sort of person. They went to the same colleges, go to the same parties, and see the world in a similar way. When Democrats do not do what journalists think they shouldwhich is quite frequentlyjournalists take it personally and attack them, regardless of how inconsequential the offense. Republicans, whom journalists tend to find weird and scary, might be attempting to overthrow our government, but this turns out to be less of a concern. (See under: But Her Emails, for instance, here, here, and most infuriatingly, here.)
Both-Sidesism: Journalists like to pretend to objectivity, but what they really mean is quoting from both sides and failing to distinguish between what they know to be lies and what they know to be true. In this lengthy article on the 2016 election, I went into a great deal of detail about how it works and where it comes from. It feels trivial now, given all we have experienced, but I do love the example of the APs Ron Fournier, who excused Republicans lying about Obamacare because The GOP would have no excuse to release a biased survey had the White House bothered to conduct one of its own. Actually, the White House did conduct its own. It was just that Fournier made his complaint while they were still waiting for the outcome of their study. According to the precepts of Fournierism, it ma[de] perfect sense to equate obvious Republican falsehoods with the Obama administrations desire to secure accurate data.
Policy is boring: Well, if you are a regular TAP reader, you disagree with this. But you are also likely not your average mainstream media reporter. Take a look at Politico or the Times or the Post or MSNBC or CNN or really anything that purports to take politics seriously. How much of it is about the content of legislation or the effect of actual government programs on peoples lives? How much of it is about alleged personality conflicts? Is it any wonder that people support the content of Build Back Better when it is explained to them but disapprove of the president whose policies it represents?
I could go on, alas, but I already feel the breath of the space-police breathing down my metaphorical neck.
Christopher Hitchens died roughly ten years ago. I published this piece shortly before his passing.
In honor of the death of bell hooks, here is a Boston Review roundtable she was featured in on the responsibility of Black intellectuals.
Finally, for people obsessed with irrelevant medical opinions, you can save yourself the tsuris with this version of Layla. It is almost as great as the great anti-vaxxer/guitarist who shall not be named.