I Don’t Believe The Media
Damon Linker has a really good column about the revolution underway in journalism. He focuses on the New York Times. Excerpts:
It’s important to clarify at the outset what the change is not aiming to do. The revolutionaries are not attempting to impose political or moral standards where they were once absent. No newsroom is politically neutral and no editorial page ideologically unbiased. Every community, every organization, and certainly every journalistic enterprise makes decisions about what’s acceptable and what isn’t, where lines should be drawn, and what kinds of statements belong on which sides of those lines. Reporters and editors make judgments every day about what’s worth thinking about, taking seriously, and engaging with.
The rebels want to move the lines and impose new standards. Ben Smith’s recent and very informative essay in the Times about the revolts erupting in America’s newsrooms helps us to understand the character of the proposed changes. The journalists Smith quotes and paraphrases believe that “fairness on issues from race to Donald Trump requires clear moral calls.” That news organizations need to be devoted to “the truth” rather than some spurious ideal of “objectivity.” That in all things “moral clarity” is required. And that a journalist determines whether he or she has achieved such righteousness by measuring the volume of applause from likeminded followers on Twitter.
But what’s absent from Smith’s essay may be even more illuminating than what’s in it. No one acknowledges the difficulty of achieving moral clarity. No one notes that there are precious few “clear moral calls” in life. No one demonstrates awareness that “the truth,” like justice, is something our country is deeply divided about. No one expresses an understanding of how those divisions shape everyone’s standpoint, very much including that of journalists themselves. Or concedes that understanding a country as complex and divided as the United States might require a little humility and willingness to suspend judgment for a time.
In place of difficulty, complexity, and complication, today’s journalistic revolutionaries crave tidy moral lessons with clear villains and heroes. They champion simplicity, embrace moral uplift, and seek out evildoers to demonize.
Linker says that the recent Times controversy was not really about making journalism better, but about how a progressive advocacy view of what journalism is conquering an older liberal view. He writes:
Liberals aren’t relativists. They’re people who recognize that achieving understanding is hard, that what justice entails and requires is deeply contested in the United States, and that a news organization that aspires to explain our fractious country to itself cannot be guided by the sensibility of a single-issue activist. Lines need to be drawn, but they should be drawn broadly. A serious news organization cannot exclude views championed by one of the country’s two major political parties and held by more than 40 percent of the country’s voters.
Read it all. And read Ross Douthat’s long, thoughtful dissection of the controversy, which includes this important passage:
Kendi’s books are popular, but his Department of Anti-Racism isn’t likely to appear in the Democratic Party’s platform, and generally the successor ideology has flopped on the campaign trail. Joe Biden is the Democratic nominee, while candidates like Julián Castro, Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren found the voters cool to their jargon and appeals. And the inchoate shape of the new movement, the way the locus of power and authority keeps shifting between different groups — the fierce lean-in feminist is suddenly recast as the despised Karen, Jews and Asians are welcomed as allies one moment and regarded as suspiciously “white-adjacent” the next — may make it especially hard to translate into normal party politics.
But in professional-class institutions the successor ideology has made tremendous headway — especially among younger white people, interestingly, for whom it seems to supply a substitute for the structures of civic and religious meaning that their baby boomer parents overthrew. The dynamic in which the pursuit of liberal goals blurs into successor-ideology ambitions is now visible everywhere in upper-middle-class America, from the Ivy League to the young-adult fiction industry, from public school systems in liberal cities to H.R. departments all over corporate America. Indeed the successor ideology seems particularly adaptable (as DiAngelo’s career attests) to the corporate world, where it promises a framework for regulating an increasingly diverse work force that conveniently emphasizes psychology and identity rather than a class solidarity that might threaten the corporate bottom line.
And of course, the influence of the successor ideology is palpable in the media as well, where as closures and consolidation have made the profession more upper middle class and metropolitan, the old biases of the liberal media have given way to a more crusading spirit.
Again, this shift is happening on a continuum with the pursuit of old-fashioned and laudable liberal goals — more diversity in hiring, equal opportunity instead of old boys networks, newsrooms that more adequately represent the communities they cover. But bound up with these goals is a growing newsroom assumption that greater diversity should actually lead to a more singular perspective on the news, a journalism of “truth” rather than “objectivity,” in which issues that involve black — or gay or female or transgender or immigrant — interests are covered less as complex debates and more as stories of good versus evil. (Obviously, having Donald Trump as president, with his birtherism, bluster and Twitter-feed authoritarianism, has made this transformation seem more urgent and essential.)
And because the media is more consolidated than in the past, its talent concentrated in a few cities with a few papers (like this one) bestriding the landscape and smaller outlets fading every day, it’s a mistake to see this change as just a return of the partisan journalism that dominated 19th-century America. We don’t suddenly have a Democratic and a Republican newspaper battling in every city once again. Instead we have a national media (with Fox News as the exception that helps solidify the rule) that moves as a herd but doesn’t think of itself as partisan — because partisans are partial and biased, and the assumption is that in rejecting neutrality we’re just moving toward the truth.
What Douthat is talking about here is how an illiberal left-wing ideology is sweeping through liberal elites, even as ordinary people have no idea what’s going on, or like it very much. Given media consolidation, this means that the national narrative is set by fewer media outlets — and that they are likely to be staffed by these illiberal leftists, and driven by their prerogatives. Old-fashioned liberals who run these institutions refuse to stand up to the hotheads, and thus surrender their institutions to the progressive mob. It has happened at colleges and universities, and now it’s happening to the media.
Jonathan Chait defends traditional journalism, from a liberal perspective. In his column, he says:
Without rehashing at length, my argument against the left’s illiberal style is twofold. First, it tends to interpret political debates as pitting the interests of opposing groups rather than opposing ideas. Those questioning whatever is put forward as the positions of oppressed people are therefore often acting out of concealed motives. (Even oppressed people themselves may argue against their own authentic group interest; that a majority of African-Americans oppose looting, or that Omar Wasow himself is black, hardly matters.) Second, it frequently collapses the distinction between words and action — a distinction that is the foundation of the liberal model — by describing opposing beliefs as a safety threat.
Working from these premises, many reactions by the left that might seem bizarre to somebody unfamiliar with this world (say, an older or more moderate person who doesn’t work in academia or the progressive movement) can make perfect sense. Since criticism of violent protests is racist, and racism obviously endangers black people, an act as seemingly innocuous as sharing credible research poses a threat to safety.
Read the whole Chait column. It tells the story of Lee Fang, a reporter for The Intercept whose views are far to the left of the Democratic Party on economics. He got crossways a black colleague, who at last invoked the Black Fatigue Rule to shut him up:
Tired of being made to deal with my coworker @lhfang continuing to push narratives about black on black crime after repeatedly being asked not to. This isn’t about me and him it’s about institutional racism and using free speech to couch anti-blackness. I am so fucking tired
— Akela Lacy (@akela_lacy) June 4, 2020
Fang had to apologize and abase himself to save his job.
See, this is why I would not go to work in a mainstream newsroom again, and why I discourage young people from becoming journalists. In this new world they’ve created, all it takes is an accusation from a person of color that your argument or truth claim harms them, and your career will be over. Even if you’re on the left, that will not save you. You must defer in all cases to the person of color, or face professional ruin. A.G. Sulzberger may be the publisher of The New York Times, and Dean Baquet may be the executive editor, but Nikole Hannah-Jones, who believes journalism should be all about advocacy, really runs that newsroom.
After this latest elite media spasm, which involves the Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and, I am sure, others to come (Washington Post, you’re next), I have noticed a sharp difference in the way I read the media. Any conservative has always known that the media are biased to the left. That’s just part of the deal. As someone who worked for many years in the mainstream media, I saw that confirmed countless times. But as I have explained over the years to my conservative friends outside the media, liberals in newsrooms don’t really understand the extent of their bias. They live in a cognitive bubble in which most or all of their friends are liberals, and news projects that explore and vindicate liberal preferences get rewarded. The point is, though, their bias is not conscious. Most of them really do try, within the epistemic limits of their perspective, to be fair.
I don’t believe that anymore. I believe that there are as many honest reporters in the Times newsroom as were there before last weekend, but I don’t know who they are. As a reader, they are just bylines to me. What we know now is that the work of those reporters is indistinguishable to the layman from the work of political advocates in news reporting and news editing jobs. We know that the current Times leadership has abandoned the old Abe Rosenthal dedication to “keep the paper straight” — meaning, to keep the newsroom as unbiased as possible in its reporting. We also know that the “straight” reporters — that is to say, journalists who just want to do as professional a job as they can — are now having to look over their shoulder in the newsroom to worry if some pissy little Red Guard is going to denounce them as secretly racist, or in some other way counterrevolutionary. How can this not affect their reporting?
Will we ever see reporting of facts like these that complicate the Narrative? Zach Goldberg is a PhD student in political science:
1/n Using the Washington Post Shooting Database (2015-2020), I entered the names of all ‘unarmed’ black and white police shooting victims into ProQuest and created a tally of search results.
— Zach Goldberg (@ZachG932) June 10, 2020
2/n What I find is that news media content covering black victims is about 9x greater than that of white victims (whether one compares the medians or the means). pic.twitter.com/VRt79NgrqK
— Zach Goldberg (@ZachG932) June 10, 2020
3/n To account for the skewed distribution of the data, I used a quintile/median regression to regress the # of results onto the incident/victim-relevant variables included in the Washington Post dataset. None of these variables explain the difference. pic.twitter.com/rk4hOcSInB
— Zach Goldberg (@ZachG932) June 10, 2020
It’s important to make clear here that I’m talking about ideological corruption of the news pages, not the op-ed pages. It is now impossible to have confidence that what one reads corresponds to the truth, or at least as accurate a representation of the truth as is possible to reach. It’s a strange and unwelcome feeling to read newspapers and to worry that I’m being gaslighted. Once more, to make clear what I’m saying: we have gone from a situation in which one knows that a newspaper is reported with a left-wing bias, but that one could still count on journalists as professionals who made good-faith efforts to learn and report the complicated truth; to a situation in which journalists openly disdain the old-fashioned liberal approach to newsgathering and reporting, in favor of openly advocating an ideology in the news pages. This is a radical (= at the roots) change in American journalism. All those journalists, whatever their personal politics, who are committed to the older standards now find their credibility going forward indelibly stained by the ideological corruption of their colleagues. Not only that, but if they have any sense at all, they are going to labor in fear that simply doing what good journalists do, and reporting on the world as they find it, will set them up to be professionally ruined by the Red Guards.
And all this because the old-fashioned liberal. newsroom leaders who should have stood up to the mob were afraid to do so.