Should The Press Pick a Side?

New Republic editor Michael Tomasky fleshes out an argument I’ve seen alluded to many times in the comments here, “We Have Two Medias in This Country, and They’re Going to Elect Donald Trump.”

It’s often asked in my circles: Why isn’t Joe Biden getting more credit for his accomplishments? As with anything, there’s no single reason. Inflation is a factor. His age is as well. Ditto the fact that people aren’t quite yet seeing the infrastructure improvements or the lower prescription drug costs.

There is no one reason. But there is one overwhelming factor in play: the media. Or rather, the two medias. It’s very important that people understand this: We reside in a media environment that promotes—whether it intends to or not—right-wing authoritarian spectacle. At the same time, as a culture, it’s consistently obsessed with who “won the day,” while placing far less value on the fact that the civic and democratic health of the country is nurtured through practices such as deliberation, compromise, and sober governance. The result is bad for Joe Biden. But it’s potentially tragic for democracy.

So far, we’re in broad agreement. The news business has always been, first and foremost, a business. They were always in the business of selling more copies of the paper or magazine, getting more listeners or viewers, or generating more clicks—usually because it meant they could charge advertisers more. Further, the culture of the enterprise has generally been to emphasize the new (it’s right there in the name!) and novel. The combination of these things means that “Man Bites Dog” is news while “Dog Bites Man” is not. Ditto the old aphorism, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

But that’s not Tomasky’s main point.

Let me begin by discussing these two medias. The first, of course, is what we call the mainstream media: The New York Times, The Washington Post, the major (non-Fox) news networks, a handful of other newspapers and magazines. This has also been known as the “agenda-setting media,” because historically, that’s what they did: Whatever was the lead story in The New York Times that day filtered down, through the wire services and other delivery systems, to every newspaper and television and radio station in the United States.

Then there’s an avowedly right-wing propaganda network. This got cranked up in the 1970s, when conservatives, irate over what they (not incorrectly) saw as a strong liberal bias in the mainstream media, decided to build their own. Rupert Murdoch bought the New York Post. In the 1980s, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon started The Washington Times. In the 1990s, right-wing talk radio exploded (enabled, in part, by a 2–1 decision by a judicial panel of the D.C. Court of Appeals making the Fairness Doctrine discretionary; those judges were Antonin Scalia and Robert Bork). Then the Fox News Channel was launched.

Back then, even with the launch of Fox, the mainstream media was much larger and more influential than the right-wing media. If the mainstream media was a beachball, the right-wing media was the size of a golf ball.

Today? They’re about the same size. In fact, the right-wing media might finally be bigger. Mainstream media audiences and newsrooms have shrunk. Consider: In 1990, newspapers reached 63 million readers ; in 2020, that number was 24 million. In 2006, newspapers employed about 75,000 people. In 2020, that figure was 31,000. The right-wing media, meanwhile, has grown and grown: Fox, One America, Newsmax, talk radio, Sinclair and all its local TV and radio news operations, and much more.

So the right-wing media today is, I’d argue, at least equal in size to the mainstream media. 

The numerical comparisons strike me as sleight-of-hand. I consume a lot more news than I did two decades ago even though I no longer subscribe to a daily newspaper, two or three newsweeklies, and two or three opinion journals. That’s because of this thing—you may have heard of it—called the Internet. (I believe it’s a series of tubes.) I’d guess that the NYT and WaPo—indeed, the New Republic itself—are actually more widely read now than they were in the olden days because it’s far easier and cheaper to gain access.

But Tomasky’s bigger point still is this one:

The right-wing media has more power to set the news agenda than the mainstream media. It’s vital to understand this fact, and why it’s so.

The success of the right-wing media is by and large due to the way they speak in lockstep, with one voice, and the way they push one very partisan agenda. They promote Republicans and conservatives, and they say nothing good ever about Democrats or liberals (exception: people who go off the reservation and willingly foul the Democratic-liberal nest, like Joe Manchin or some liberal academic or talking head who turns right, like Glenn Greenwald). Their guiding ethos is not journalistic but political: to advance one party and creed and work their readers and viewers into a constant state of agitation about the other party and creed. And in a time when the Republican Party project has little to do with policy and everything to do with fomenting culture war, no matter how trivial, the right-wing Wurlitzer is adept at ginning up a good two-minute hate against something that got tweeted or what Mr. Potato Head is wearing that week—and here, the mainstream media, chasing engagement like a child fields for candy, follows the right down into these rabbit holes.

The mainstream media, in contrast, do not speak with one very partisan voice; they speak in many voices—critically, including many non-polemical ones. Their guiding ethos is not political but journalistic. Sure, they’re “liberal,” in two senses. First, their editorial pages typically endorse Democrats. And second, they are culturally liberal, because they are mostly based in big cities and their staffs include lots of LGBTQ people, for example, and precious few evangelical Christians.

But even with all that, the mainstream media do not serve a transparent political agenda in the way the right-media do. When The New York Times or CNN or MSNBC gets a scoop about serious corruption in the Biden administration, they pursue the lead and, if verified, report it. If Fox got such a scoop about Donald Trump … well, it’s conceivable that there’s someone left there who wants to do real journalism and who might pursue it. I wish that person luck, though, in getting it on the air. And even if Fox were forced to report it, they’d quickly find ways to rebut it.

This is a reasonably strong, if overstated and somewhat convoluted, point. We should always be skeptical of arguments that take the form, “Our enemies are better organized and more ruthless than we are,” in that they surely think the same. And the news side of Fox certainly reported all manner of the Trump scandals—it’s just that the talking heads on the opinion side are more influential.

Still, it’s true that there’s a right-wing infotainment complex that’s united in their hatred of Democrats and that the mainstream press isn’t a left-wing analog. (There is a fairly substantial left-leaning press—Daily Beast, HuffPo, etc.—but it’s likely less coordinated.) So, we indeed have a normal press whose reporters and editors lean left but will nonetheless have an ethos that requires relatively balanced coverage in parallel with a partisan press that doesn’t.

Now—back to Biden and the question of credit. The right-media will never give Biden credit for anything. He could cure Alzheimer’s, and they’d lead with the fact that he failed to cure Parkinson’s. So, in their world, nothing good that happens in the economy can or will ever be credited to Biden.

And in the mainstream media? Yes, Biden gets credit for things, but the mainstream media do not speak with one voice as the right-wing media do. So, to the loud and bumptious anti-Biden chorus that blames him for everything bad, there is no equally loud and bumptious pro-Biden answering chorus speaking as one and giving him credit for everything good.

So, again, this is a category error. It’s not the job of the mainstream press to “speak with one voice.” And, frankly, they pretty much have on the matter of Donald Trump, at least going back to the first impeachment. They routinely call out his lies in a way that is really unprecedented in the era of objectivity.

And with respect to economics specifically, the imbalance is made worse by the fact that the mainstream business press, as Tim Noah pointed out  not long ago, tends to accentuate the negative and see bad news nearly always coming around the corner.

That ethos prevailed during Trump’s administration, too, no?

And that’s why today, the right-wing media have become the agenda-setting media: They set the political agenda because, on core issues, they speak with one very loud voice.

This is just a wild leap from a more-or-less reasonable setup. Even factoring in the proliferation of Sinclair-owned local stations, what percentage of the voter population is consuming the right-wing media? I’d guess it’s pretty low and self-selected.

Tomasky and I agree here:

By the way—and I want to stress this—I’m not arguing that the mainstream media should speak with one loud and liberal voice. No—the mainstream media should do journalism. Politico doesn’t exist to provide cover for Democrats, nor should it. It and other mainstream outlets should try to treat both sides equally.

But I remain skeptical of this:

Except … when they shouldn’t. There are times when it’s impossible, from a journalistic perspective, to treat both sides as equals. And the press has to get a lot better at recognizing when those moments arise.

We agree that the two sides are currently not comparable. Biden has many flaws but he’s a generally decent person who generally supports democratic principles and the rules of law. Trump, not so much. But I was able to figure that out without the mainstream press turning into a left-wing propaganda machine.

After a few paragraphs about conservative media critics working the refs for decades, making the major players bend over backward to avoid appearing to have a liberal bias, Tomasky gets to the other part of his headline:

There’s a malignant manifestation, and it’s the one that profoundly poisons our democratic well: the pursuit of “balance” in the coverage of politicians. This is what’s going to help elect Donald Trump.

How? Because media, by its nature, decontextualizes facts. That’s how news is presented. No news outlet ever tells you the full story, because the full story is long and complicated and, often, pretty boring. What’s “news,” on the other hand, is the stuff that’s interesting and that stands out. So outlets run with that, and even when they try to contextualize later, it often doesn’t matter.

Take the classified documents cases. They could hardly be more different. Trump had hundreds of documents with classified markings; Biden, about 20. Trump ignored repeated requests from the FBI to come down to Mar-a-Lago and do a search. Biden’s attorneys, upon discovering a few classified documents among his papers, immediately and voluntarily called the White House, which immediately and voluntarily notified the National Archives and Records Administration, which immediately took possession of the docs.

And yet the story, for a lot of voters, is, “They both did it.” I’m not sure what can be done about this. The right-wing press promoted that line, and of course it lied and lied and lied about Biden, using the phrase “1,850 boxes” as if that number of boxes was full of classified documents (it was the total number of boxes of papers from his Senate career). And lies, as we know, get around the world a lot faster than the truth.

So the right-wing media spread the lies, but the mainstream media were surely guilty of overhyping the Biden docs story—and, for that matter, the Mike Pence docs story. In both those cases, it’s likely that some aide made a mistake. Couldn’t be more different from Trump. Yet the media coverage in both the Biden and Pence cases for the first few days was salacious. There just has to be a way to cover things proportionally.

Granting that I’m an outlier in many ways, I read lots of mainstream press coverage of the documents cases and came away with pretty much the same conclusion as Tomasky. But maybe more casual news consumers would have lumped them all together— especially if they never got beyond headlines.

The bit about de-contextualization is reasonable enough, although I’m not sure it’s true anymore. Half a century ago, Ben Bradlee’s decision to have Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein write long stories on the Watergate scandal, constantly re-contextualizing and putting previous reportage into perspective, was extraordinary and controversial. But the digital age has made that pretty ordinary.

Again, I’m not the typical news consumer but there was more content on the documents scandals than I had time or inclination to read. Even aside from niche venues, places like NYT and WaPo now routinely provide PDFs of indictments, often with detailed annotations. Lots of news stories now link back to previous coverage, either internally or on the sidebars. Context and analysis are available in abundance for those who want it.

And this will happen between now and the election: Biden has been known from time to time to embellish stories. He used to tell a story about being arrested in South Africa some years ago because he refused to use a “whites only” door. He apparently did refuse to use that door, but he wasn’t arrested; he was detained, as he ultimately admitted. But Fox can string together a few of those, and the narrative will become, “They both lie.” What will the mainstream media do about that?

Again, this is a category error. “The mainstream media” and Fox are not analogs. It’s not their job to do something about the narratives in the partisan press. That falls to outlets like TNR.

So, no—on matters like these, both sides absolutely cannot be treated equally. One side lies all the time, and with specific intent. On the other side, lies and exaggerations are sometimes told to gain advantage or gild a lily (by the way, this used to describe the Republican Party as well as the Democrats, but no longer). But for the right, lies are a weapon. The media must recognize the difference, and they must point it out, over and over and over.

I don’t know what that looks like in practice but it sounds like editorializing, not reporting.

Simple rule: When fairness and the truth are in conflict, journalism has to choose the truth. If it doesn’t, there goes democracy—killed off, in part, by the free press that is supposed to be its frontline defender.

Fairness and truth aren’t in conflict. It doesn’t even make sense. Perhaps he means “balance,” of the both-sides variety? Because there I would tend to agree.

A media environment that doesn’t put truth above all other considerations is by definition a media environment that promotes spectacle. The right-wing media—which, again, is now the agenda-setting media—promotes spectacle intentionally. The mainstream media does it unintentionally, but it does it all the same. And we know who benefits from that. Again, another point that’s important to understand: “The media” as an entity, as a sort of self-perpetuating machine, is different from “journalists.” I have little doubt that most mainstream journalists revile Trump, either because of his politics or (if they’re not personally liberal) because he is an enemy of free speech, independent inquiry, serious discussion, and every value journalists cherish.

But that isn’t what matters here. What matters is that the mainstream media, as a machine, loves Trump. Or at least, the machine loves how useful he is. He seeks constant attention, he provokes, he’s self-centered, he’s bombastic; he and the media beast feed off each other. Biden, on the other hand, is none of those things, and he has qualities that the media beast finds uncompelling. He’s serious, knowledgeable, not flashy, not attention-seeking, and empathetic. It’s just not a fair fight.

Again, this seems patently obvious from even casual news consumption. But, yes, Trump’s ability to attract eyeballs shouldn’t lead to him being treated as a normal politician.

So that’s where we are. What should the mainstream media do? I don’t have all the answers, but here are a few thoughts.

Call a lie a lie.

Don’t seek to create false equivalencies in the name of “balance.”

Don’t be afraid to say that one side lies constantly and with the specific intent of muddying facts, while the other side lies far less frequently or maliciously.

Again, it seems to me that the major mainstream press outlets are very much doing this already and have been for some time.

Remember that we are not just in the “news” business. We’re in the information business. We’re in the preservation of the civic fabric business. And we’re in the business of people: Wherever people need the intervention of journalists, we don’t check to see how they voted first. It’s our responsibility to try to build an informed public. This means for example reminding voters of the lies Trump told as president and the norm-crushing actions he took. That’s not “news” per se, but it’s information the electorate tends to forget and will need in order to make an informed decision.

Again, this is both a violation of longstanding journalistic norms and what the mainstream outlets have been doing for quite some time now.

The right-wing media will be out there promoting Trump’s lies and telling their own lies about Biden. The mainstream media shouldn’t cover for Biden—if the law ends up having Hunter Biden dead to rights, it should of course be covered truthfully. But in addition to telling the literal, factual truth on any given issue, the mainstream media must remember that it can’t shirk the larger truth, that American democracy is under grave threat.

If that’s taking sides, well, it’s the side Abraham Lincoln took against a racist, authoritarian regime, and the side Franklin Roosevelt took against fascism. That strikes me as the side a free press, if it hopes to stay free, should want to join.

Lincoln and Roosevelt were politicians, not journalists. But, again, it’s been pretty obvious to me since at least Trump’s inauguration what side WaPo and NYT were on.