by Adam Ellwanger
Many media observers will recall the New York Times’ response to Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in 2016. In their subtle, tacit admission that the paper had covered the election with some bias, publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. and editor Dean Baquet promised to “rededicate” themselves to the fundamental mission of the Times and to bring “fairness” to their coverage.
Other mainstream news outlets and journalists issued similar mea culpas. Just about all of them had treated Trump’s campaign and supporters with an attitude of spiteful hilarity. The great irony in the media’s hatred, of course, is that his rise would not have been possible without them and their vain attempt to hijack the Republican presidential primary process to ensure Hillary Clinton had the weakest opponent possible.
With the 2020 election less than nine months away and with all the laughs silenced and the tears shed, we have enough distance to assess whether the media learned the lessons of 2016.
They have not. Alarmingly, it seems as though the only adjustment most media elites are making is to reject even more stridently the traditional standards and principles of their profession.
This was perhaps the main takeaway from the Columbia Journalism Review’s “Sleepwalking into 2020,” a recent survey of major media figures examining how they can avoid making the mistakes of 2016 in their coverage of 2020. The results aren’t pretty.
Many of the respondents emphasized the need for a bolder rejection of the standards of neutrality and objectivity. As Margaret Sullivan, a columnist at Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post, explained: “One of the things we didn’t do well covering the presidential election last time was that we failed to distinguish between the serious and not so serious—the term false equivalency comes to mind.”
MSNBC’s Chris Hayes echoed Sullivan’s assessment: “To me, the biggest sin of 2016 was proportionality. Particularly vis-a-vis Hillary Clinton and the email story, and then the Wikileaks story. . . . There’s no justification whatsoever for the proportion of coverage devoted to that story.”
Tanzina Vega, host of NPR’s “The Takeaway,” concurred: “The press has got to rid itself of the idea of a false equivalency.”
Samhita Mukhopadhyay, editor of the prestigious political journal Teen Vogue (ahem), recited the popular academic canard against neutrality: “‘Objectivity’ is not even possible; everybody brings something to what they’re reporting on whether they realize it or not.”
In short, these journalists are arguing for more subjective editorializing and more bias.
A Low Opinion of the Public
Some even take it a step further, acknowledging that rather than report on the issues that the public sees as most pressing, media outlets use their voices to manufacture the issues and generate public concern for them through their coverage.
Nicholas Johnston, editor-in-chief at Axios, describes this kind of manipulation. “We identified the themes we want our journalists to think about in 2020 and then get them to go force the campaigns to talk about them,” he told the Columbia Journalism Review. “We picked seven issues that we think are very important and we plan to spend the election year going out on the trail and talking to the campaigns and voters about these issues. What if we find a candidate doesn’t have a policy on climate change, or China or the future of capitalism? That’s great, let’s go call and ask him to make one because we think this is an important topic that the next leader of the United States should have a position on.”
Here we see an inversion of how a democratic election is supposed to unfold. Rather than allow open, free public discourse to determine which issues will be at the fore of the campaign, Johnston advocates a scenario where the media selects the issues that should be of concern to the public and then gins up coverage to generate public support for their objectives.
Generally speaking, these journalistic biases are driven by a low opinion of the public.
Hayes Brown from Buzzfeed suggests that the public should look to journalists as educators, asserting that “more journalists should engage in those actual conversations with people who just seem kind of confused.”
Steve Adler, editor-in-chief at Reuters, makes a telling statement: “Our craft is digging out information when the average person doesn’t have the skill to do that . . . then providing the background and the context and the knowledge base that helps people figure out where they stand.” Note that Adler isn’t saying that average people don’t have the time or the resources to gather knowledge of political affairs: they lack the skill. Given that perspective, it is no surprise that so much “news” writing carries with it a tone of pedantic exasperation.
The journalist’s job is to teach us, they presume, and the fact that the public doesn’t seem to learn the lesson is only made worse by Adler’s suspicion that we aren’t thankful for the lesson.
Perverting Freedom of Speech
Throughout “Sleepwalking into 2020,” the picture that emerges is one of the people in the media mostly viewing their fellow citizens as an obstacle to their political preferences and policy objectives. It makes sense, then, that a disturbing number of respondents called for censorship.
Referring to Facebook’s ongoing willingness to run political advertisements on its platform, Kara Swisher warns, “If you’re not scared when Mark Zuckerberg says it’s okay for politicians to lie, especially in the context of a system that iterates and iterates and iterates and is so viral compared to any other media, you should be afraid.
Zuckerberg, Swisher contends, “is a person with a lot of power who cannot be fired, but who has no idea what freedom of the press means. What Mark and others have tried to do is conflate paid speech with free speech. It’s intellectually bereft. Paid speech is not free speech.”
Swisher’s other distortions aside, the idea that speech in commercial contexts is not protected by the First Amendment is both wrong and dangerous.
The Washington Post’s Sullivan has also called for the media to silence or censor certain people, and by extension, certain ideas. “The Sunday TV talk shows will bring on people like Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s White House [adviser], who is just an inveterate liar,” Sullivan told the Columbia Journalism Review. “By having her on, she is allowed to say things that aren’t true and although she can be challenged, it’s still a very strong message having her on air. My feeling is, don’t have her on, you know she’s going to lie her way through every broadcast. That’s not censorship.”
So, to sum up what 2016 taught the media elites is that we need more bias, more subjective coverage, more editorializing, more manipulation of public discourse, less free speech, and more censorship.
Audiences who are sympathetic to conservative perspectives in American life cannot afford to brush media bias off as a mere annoyance. It must be understood as a threat. It is a threat to people whose views don’t neatly conform to elite Left opinion and to the democracy at large.
“Repressive Tolerance” Redux
Historically, a free press in a free society serves the public through a good-faith effort at reporting events with a politically neutral objectivity. It is not a coincidence that the rapid leftward movement of American elites has coincided with the rapid erosion of journalistic integrity.
Herbert Marcuse, a member of the Frankfurt School of radical, left-wing European cultural theorists, described the new order in detail in his 1965 essay, “Repressive Tolerance.” Marcuse’s general thesis is that the liberal doctrine of tolerance must be significantly narrowed. Tolerance for speech, he argued, should be granted conditionally, and only to voices and perspectives that advance the Left’s agenda.
Explaining that even Western democracies afford the individual only a severely limited notion of freedom, Marcuse noted, “society cannot be indiscriminate where the pacification of existence, where freedom and happiness themselves are at stake: here, certain things cannot be said, certain ideas cannot be expressed, certain policies cannot be proposed, certain behavior cannot be permitted without making tolerance an instrument for the continuation of servitude.”
In such a society, Marcuse argued, we cannot simply wait for the bad opinions to be uttered before we issue the corrective:
Withdrawal of tolerance from regressive movements before they can become active; intolerance even toward thought, opinion, and word, and finally, intolerance in the opposite direction, that is, toward the self-styled conservatives, to the political Right—these anti-democratic notions respond to the actual development of the democratic society which has destroyed the basis for universal tolerance.
He continues: “Liberating tolerance, then, would mean intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left. […] [T]rue pacification requires the withdrawal of tolerance before the deed, at the stage of communication in word, print, and picture.” These ideas provide an explanation of and justification for the media climate that we see in 2020. Our journalists increasingly tolerate and disseminate left-wing perspectives on virtually every issue, and increasingly silence, censor, shame, or slander any perspective from the Right that doesn’t come from “conservatives” like George Will, David Brooks, or Joe Scarborough.
Marcuse’s understanding of media communication is explicitly propagandistic in its implications, but the legacy media has embraced these ideas in the wake of the public rejection of elite opinion embodied in the election of Donald Trump. As they deride objectivity as a fantasy, journalists imagine that if everything is subjective, then their subjective opinionating should advance the projects of “liberation” and “social justice”—narrow, dogmatic concepts that deserve our skepticism if only because these purportedly democratic aims are increasingly pursued by abandoning traditional democratic values.
Marcuse spelled out this inversion at some length:
The tolerance expressed in such impartiality serves to minimize or even absolve prevailing intolerance and suppression. If objectivity has anything to do with truth, and if truth is more than a matter of logic and science, then this kind of objectivity is false, and this kind of tolerance inhuman. And if it is necessary to break the established universe of meaning […] in order to enable man to find out what is true and false, this deceptive impartiality would have to be abandoned.
Of course, only sentences later, Marcuse betrayed that it should be ideology that determines truth: “the facts are never given immediately and never accessible immediately; they are established, ‘mediated’ by those who made them.”
Given that, historically, official public discourse has affirmed the existing social order, Marcuse saw the media’s role as working against the status quo. Coverage of ideas and events “would have to be reversed: [the public] would have to get information slanted in the opposite direction.” And this is why all people sympathetic to democratic life in America must recognize that the mainstream media, driven by ideological objectives, embodies a danger to our social order. We must remember Marcuse’s goal in manipulating public opinion: he was hoping to achieve a Marxist revolution.
That Marcuse’s strategies for bringing such a society about so neatly reflect the state of American media in 2020 should serve as a reminder. The bias and censoring impulse that we observe in our news coverage isn’t incidental. It isn’t an unintended side effect of the fact that our major media outlets are located in the urban centers of the bluest states or come from left-leaning universities. And it isn’t a fantasy, imagined by the paranoid conservative hive mind. It is a calculated, coordinated attempt to shape public opinion in ways that are conducive to a socialist reorganization of American life. As the dust clears in Iowa, is it any coincidence that the media is beginning to celebrate the prospects of a “democratic” socialist for the presidency?
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Adam Ellwanger is an associate professor of English at the University of Houston – Downtown where he directs the M.A. program in rhetoric and composition. His new book, Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, will be released from Penn State University Press in 2020.