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Breaking News

Two combatants; the one on the right is a culture warrior (Nattanon Kanchak/Getty Images)

In his column today titled “The Media Is Broken,” David Brooks writes:

An event is really two things. It’s the event itself and then it’s the process by which we make meaning of the event. As Aldous Huxley put it, “Experience is not what happens to you, it’s what you do with what happens to you.”

When a whole country sees events through a similar lens, then you don’t have to think a lot about the process people use to make meaning. It’s similar across the land. But when people in different regions and subcultures have nonoverlapping lenses, the process by which people make sense of events is more important than the event itself.

For reasons I don’t understand, we’ve had an epistemic explosion over the past few decades. Different American regions and subcultures now see reality through nonoverlapping lenses. They make meaning in radically different ways. Psycho-social categories have hardened.

Brooks goes on to say that the media “underreport on how meaning is made in different subcultures. You can’t make sense of reality without that.” He continues:

The big difference for those of us in media is that the main story is not only where the decision makers are creating events. It’s also and maybe more so in the eyes of those doing the perceiving.

Obviously, in this era it’s even more important to have a news organization that is ideologically, culturally and geographically diverse, so you can surface and explore the different unconscious ways groups see.

Read it all. This is an important column, and its importance is belied by Brooks’s characteristically modest tone. What he’s saying is that the old model of journalism is broken, and has not adapted itself to covering effectively the country as it exists. There has always, of course, been a gap between the country as it is, and the country as those in the media reflect it in their reporting. But Brooks points out that something fundamental has changed, not just in the media, but in the country itself, and the way the American people interpret news and events.

Put simply, we have lost a common narrative. If David wants to understand the “epistemic explosion” of recent years, he might start by reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, which, though now almost 40 years old, anticipates the epistemic fragmentation through which we are all now living — and the resulting clashes. Public life now is like an Arctic sea that is melting and breaking up, with giant icebergs smashing violently into each other .

There has never been a Golden Age when all people thought the same thing, and saw the world in precisely the same way. It is certainly true that in past eras, the media privileged certain voices, and marginalized others. It is kind of amazing to think now about my youth, when there were only three television networks (plus PBS), and most people tacitly agreed that the stories we heard on the national news each night were reliable guides to what really happened. “And that’s the way it is,” Walter Cronkite famously ended every newscast. Most folks assumed it was true. It’s very hard to convey to younger people, who did not live through that era, how different it was.

There’s a lot of psychological security in having a shared narrative constructed by the media. I wouldn’t go back to it, but I can recognize its therapeutic value — and I don’t say that sarcastically. The world is a violent, confusing, complicated place, and it matters a lot when we can share a story that orders it and gives it meaning. Alasdair MacIntyre does not talk media theory — he’s a moral philosopher — but rather explores the implications of ceasing to believe in truths that transcend us and bind us together. His core insight is that the Enlightenment freed Western man from imposed and inherited narratives that relied on God and other traditional authorities, but failed to create an effective replacement from Reason alone. Since then, we have all been living out the unwinding.

When I graduated from journalism school in 1989, I carried with me into the world fundamentally liberal assumptions about journalism. I don’t mean liberal in the sense of “the politics of the Democratic Party”; I’m talking more a matter of a basic approach to what newsgathering is. I believed that our jobs as journalists was to assemble the most factually accurate portrait of reality that we could, recognizing that it will always be incomplete, but doing our best anyway to represent the world as it is as free of our own biases as possible. This required talking to a variety of people surrounding a news event, to get their perspectives. Out of their multiple subjective views, and refining them based on what can be factually known, the journalist can sketch out a reasonably accurate version of events — one subject to revision, as more facts become known.

This is not what an opinion journalist does, mind you. That’s a different form of journalism, one that’s important, but not the same thing as how the newsroom works. In traditionally structured news organizations, there have been walls between the newsroom and the editorial staff, and between those two and the advertising department.

The important point to be made here is that I approached journalism — we were all taught to do this, if only implicitly — with the sense that The Truth Is Out There, and our task as journalists was to do our very best to discern it and reproduce it as accurately as possible. You might say that this is a “metaphysical realist” approach to journalism — that is, one dedicated to the belief that Truth has an existence independent from observers, and that it can be known, however imperfectly, through the methods of fact-gathering and sifting professional journalists learn and practice. We know that perfect knowledge of the Truth is not possible, but we believe that if we work hard enough, and are constantly questioning ourselves and our reporting, seeking to refine it, we can produce something good enough.

I am still a metaphysical realist, both philosophically and journalistically (in that I believe the approach to journalism that I, and my generation, was taught is a sound one). But I don’t believe that American journalism is dedicated to that foundational proposition, not anymore. Rather, to fall back on High Middle Ages philosophical concepts, it has become nominalist — that is, journalists believe that there is no such thing as Truth, only interpretations. Well, let me rescind that remark. That’s not really what nominalism is; that is what postmodernism is, which is a kind of completion of nominalism. Nominalism is the philosophical idea that there are no universals, and that the meaning of objects in the sensate world is what we impose on them. You can be a good nominalist and a good journalist, certainly; nominalism does not take a position on the facticity of events.

Postmodernism, though — that not only assumes nominalism, but also extends its skepticism of metaphysical meaning to facticity itself. As I see it, most journalists today believe — and most are unconscious of it — that truth claims are really masks concealing the exercise of power. As such, they believe that the journalists’ task is to create and shape narrative to achieve certain political and social goals.

An example I bring up often in this space is an enlightening (for me) argument I have around 2006 or so with a fellow journalist about the way our profession was covering the debate about same-sex marriage. I complained that the media were doing a poor job of exploring the complexities of the issue, especially the socially and religiously conservative take on the matter. My indignant colleague said that there weren’t two sides to this issue: that there was Good, and there was Evil. He said, in all sincerity, “If this were the Civil Rights era, would you believe that we had a responsibility as journalists to give equal time to the KKK?”

Dwell for a moment on the fact that a professional journalist at a major news organization seriously believed that Christian churches and individuals who believe what almost everybody in the world believed about the sexually complementary nature of marriage until basically the day before yesterday — that those people are the moral equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan. This journalist was serious. And that statement he made was only the first time I’d heard it put like that.

More seriously, as a matter of fact, I do believe that a professional journalist would have a responsibility to fairly represent the views of Klansmen, insofar as people holding those views were meaningful actors in events, and understanding that people believed such things, and why they believed such things, was important to understanding events in the world. My colleague, though, believed that the journalists’ role is to advance a particular narrative for the sake of bringing about social change of which he approved. How many times have I heard from journalists that old chestnut that holds journalism’s role to be “to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable.” The sense among journalists that the profession is a prophetic one, one that speaks truth to power, and advocates on behalf of the powerless — that goes very, very deep.

It can take on absurd, even dangerous, qualities. When I was working at the Dallas Morning News in the previous decade, one afternoon a news alert went out in the city. A suspect had shot one or more people in a popular pedestrian area of Uptown Dallas, and was at large. Police were hunting for the man, and told the public in the area to stay inside and take precautions. Cops put out a description of the shooter, who was a black man. Get this: none of the Dallas media — not the newspaper, not the TV stations — included the race of the suspect in their immediate reporting. The idea was not to “reinforce stereotypes” of the kind of people who commit violent crime. In this particular case, the news media chose to deny the public information it needed to protect itself from a shooter at large, because it was more important to protect the Narrative. I remember exactly where I was sitting when I watched that play out. It was real moment of de-conversion for me, from once believing in my profession to seeing it as, in some important ways, a menace to society.

Anyway, if you believe that journalism’s mission is to side with certain classes of people against other classes of people, then you will have little to no interest in telling the stories of those you have identified as privileged or otherwise deplorable in the value system you hold, and that most of your colleagues hold (and study after study has documented that journalism is overwhelmingly populated by liberals and progressives). Further, you may convince yourself that the stories you assign, you report, you publish or broadcast — that they all be focused on advocating a particular narrative, or narratives, and de-emphasizing, or even ignoring, competing narratives.

I used to think that it was sufficient to point out to journalists their biases in particular stories, and that out of a sense of professional obligation, they would seek to correct those biases. Now I think that’s naive. The belief that epistemic bias is something to be overcome in the practice of journalism is a concept from a previous era. Now it is embraced as a virtue — but only if it’s a bias towards the Left.

Thus do you find The New York Times publishing stories like this:

(Link to story here.)

And this op-ed (link here):

 

I cite the Times constantly because a) it is the best and most important newspaper in the world, and as such b) it sets the agenda for other American news media, and c) it reflects the thinking and biases of the US cultural elite, as The Guardian does for Britain. The frequent refrain I hear from commenters here — “Who cares what The New York Times thinks about anything?” — reflects a serious misunderstanding of how media ecology works in the US. Though I’ve angrily quit subscribing to the Times twice over its outrageous bias against traditional Christianity, I always go back because I need a comprehensive source of information to do my own work — and when it’s good, nobody can touch the Times for quality — and because if you want to know what the cultural elite in this country think, and what they will be trying to do to the rest of us, you need to read the Times in the same way that Cold war Kremlinologists needed to read Pravda. I’m not joking.

So, to go back to the David Brooks column today, I’ll repeat these grafs:

The big difference for those of us in media is that the main story is not only where the decision makers are creating events. It’s also and maybe more so in the eyes of those doing the perceiving.

Obviously, in this era it’s even more important to have a news organization that is ideologically, culturally and geographically diverse, so you can surface and explore the different unconscious ways groups see.

I think Brooks is both 100 percent right, and 100 percent tilting at windmills. In most cases, the elite media do not want to know any facts that complicate the Narrative. If you are a traditional Christian, or a rural white person, or member of any other demographic disfavored by cultural elites, then you are either not seen at all by these people, or you are seen as a Problem To Be Solved. We all went through a Moment in 2016, when the national media wondered how on earth they missed the rise of Trump. Do you think they are any closer in 2019 to understanding why so many Americans still stand by Trump, despite everything we’ve seen from him? Do you think they want to understand?

I don’t. I really don’t. I regularly read the Times and other national news sources, and listen to NPR, and very rarely see or hear stories about people like me, and those I know. If you listen to NPR, you will know more about the lives and struggles of Central American migrants than you will about the lives and struggles of working-class white people in Alabama, or middle-class churchgoers in the Midwest. This is who NPR cares about — and as much as I like NPR in general, I don’t think the people who run it care about how out of touch they are with the people of the country they cover. You can find all flavors of diversity on NPR, but ideologically, it’s all vanilla progressivism.

I’ll stop now. You’ve heard this all from me before. And look, this is going to disappoint some of you conservative readers, but I don’t believe either than conservatives and other kinds of people routinely ignored or diminished by the coverage in mainstream sources have any greater desire for balance than liberals. Some do, but mostly, I think all people these days prefer to have their chosen narratives reinforced by news coverage. One of the earliest lessons I learned in this was in helping a German journalist friend cover a story in south Louisiana’s chemical industry corridor in the early 1990s. I met a small-town pharmacist who noticed an alarming number of prescriptions for a special drug used to treat a rare form of cancer. She went to state authorities with her findings, and the media. For her trouble, she was made into a pariah by the people of her hometown. She was telling them something they didn’t want to hear — even though she was trying to save their lives. I heard her tell the German journalist that the priest of her and her husband’s parish had asked them to go somewhere else to mass, because their presence was too disruptive.

I’ve seen versions of that play out over the years — even within myself. Between September 11, 2001, and the start of the Iraq War in 2003, I, conservative media sophisticate that I am, routinely dismissed journalism — even journalism that appeared here in this very magazine — that contradicted the narrative I preferred to believe about the coming war. It is unnerving to think about this, even today, because not once was I aware of what I was doing. It was obvious that all intelligent and virtuous people believed that war was necessary. This belief of mine was reinforced by those in my social circle, and by the media I consumed. I wasn’t one of those mindless liberals who were hostile to the facts, and to logic. Not me!

We know how well that all turned out, don’t we?

I tell you that as a warning that every single one of us is subject to epistemic closure — especially in a time like today, when there is no cultural pressure from the expectation that the unbiased search for Truth is something to which we should all aspire. People don’t actually want to know the complex truth. They want help building an epistemic Maginot Line. The problem is that reality always finds a way through the Ardennes.

This epistemic shattering is not something that the “liberal media” is imposing on us all, though the liberal media certainly reinforce it. This is what it means to live in postmodernity, which is above all a time of collapsed metanarratives (in simpler words, a time when we can no longer agree about the larger story within which we all participate). I mean, look: The New York Times takes it as an uncontestable truth that penis-havers who say they are women really are women, and that to deny that “fact” is to mark yourself out as a wicked person. In Britain last week, a judge ruled that Maya Forstater — a feminist — who denies that penis-havers are truly women holds an opinion that is “not worthy of respect in a democratic society.”

Consider what would happen to a journalist who stood in The New York Times and said that Maya Forstater is correct, and that a person born male can never truly be a woman. Do you think that journalist would long be employed at that newspaper? This is where we are today.

And this is why liberalism has reached its end: it depends on an Enlightenment metanarrative to sustain itself. The epistemic value of the scientific method was a core of that metanarrative. So too is the epistemic value of journalism that holds rigorous efforts to overcome bias as a professional virtue. All of this is going away now. Our news media are broken because it mistakes its ideological dream for reality, and by hypermoralizing its craft, has placed obstacles to observing the facts in front of its eyes.

It is difficult for someone like me, a professional journalist, to give up the idea that my profession is dedicated, deep down, to the proposition of telling the truth without fear or favor. But I think it’s probably necessary at this point, for the sake of protecting the people and the institutions I care about from the culture war these journalistic combatants wage on us. I cannot express to you how much this depresses me. I still believe that journalism is an honorable profession, and that there are journalists — liberal ones too! — who do courageous, honorable work. But the profession is no longer what it was, because our liberal democracy is no longer what it was. Better to face that and figure out a way forward than to dwell in the nostalgic past.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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