How powerful is the news media? How powerful are individual media outlets and journalists?
Probably not as powerful as most of us—whether we are consumers or producers of news—tend to think. Americans of all ideological stripes are prone to see the news, whether for good or for ill, as more important than it really is. Not surprisingly, no one is as susceptible to this notion as the members of my own vocation. What could be more flattering than the idea that our coverage and commentary is actually steering the ship of state?
We live in a time when news coverage has never been greater in volume, but the quality of that coverage seems to be constantly in decline. It’s a kind of informational inflation in which there is too much news chasing consumers and the value of that news is not what it used to be.
But you wouldn’t know that from the way the right-wing critics of the press talk about it. The gang that Donald Trump called “the enemy of the American people” probably couldn’t muster being the enemy of all the Albanians, let alone the whole USA. If the news business was the kind of threat that many on the right claim, one would think that we would have come up with a way to actually, you know, make money and not keep going bankrupt.
Nor would you know about this news inflation to listen to left wingers who talk on and on about “disinformation.” To hear them tell it, the members of the American public are clustered around their Marconi sets hanging on every word from every news outlet like they were waiting for a fireside chat. It is certainly true that there are plenty of dupes and suckers out there. Somebody has to go to political rallies, after all. But it seems obvious that the far bigger group is the one that believes almost nothing that is being reported. The folks who want information czars apparently haven’t noticed how few Americans care about the news at all.
Grandiosity, though, isn’t just the province of those who hate the press. It belongs also to its members. Even as consumption of news declines, journalists remain prone to imagine our role in shaping elections, government, and cultural trends is unchanged. Part of this may be the fault of the invention of Twitter, a machine that both depletes the value of journalism by dribbling out coverage in an endless gurgle but also enhances reporters’ sense of their own importance by creating a large echo chamber into which they can holler affirmations of self worth.
The defining struggle in most of our lives, however we earn our livings, is honest self-evaluation. If we can’t see ourselves as we are—or close to it—there’s no chance we can be the people we were made to be or called to become.
All humans struggle with this, but journalists get to try this high-wire act in front of a larger audience. This is why we tend to be particularly embarrassed about our mistakes and prone to hiding from them.
“Political predictions are usually wrong. But even when one makes a correct one, to discover why one was right can be very illuminating. In general, one is only right when either wish or fear coincides with reality,” George Orwell wrote in his 1946 essay, In Front of Your Nose. “If one recognizes this, one cannot, of course, get rid of one’s subjective feelings, but one can to some extent insulate them from one’s thinking and make predictions cold-bloodedly …”
I can feel Orwell looking over his spectacles at me every time I’m trying to figure out how an election is going to turn out or which bill might succeed or fail. Have I been cold blooded enough, or did my feelings get in the way? Humility for a political forecaster and analyst is very much about understanding how susceptible we all are to seeing our hopes or fears instead of the way things really are. But other kinds of journalism rely more on other kinds of humility.
In one of his last pieces before leaving his perch as New York Times media columnist to launch a new news outlet, Ben Smith interviewed Brandon Brown, the 28-year-old stock car driver whose first-ever NASCAR win was overshadowed by the chants of “F–k Joe Biden,” misheard by the trackside reporter as, “Let’s go Brandon.” It is a very sad story. Here is a seemingly nice, respectful young man whose pinnacle career moment to date has been turned into a dumb vulgarity. Brown is a Republican, but wants nothing to do with the taunt against the president. But neither does he want to alienate the overwhelmingly anti-Democrat NASCAR audience.
When Brown agreed to be interviewed by Smith, he was willingly strapping himself in with one of the most unflinching interviewers in the business. The perils would have been just as real with a reporter from Fox News or another “let’s go Brandon” kind of outlet, too. But the cultural distance added a layer with Smith. Yale-graduate New Yorkers who are renowned tastemakers are not the obvious go-to for people who hang around with pit crews in Woodbridge, Virginia.
Smith could have given Brown enough rope to hang himself, gently leading the conversation back to hot-button issues until the subject said something that could produce a rage-click headline. Or, Smith could have squeezed Brown with gotcha questions. What did he think about the way NASCAR has treated black drivers? Does Brown condone the racism shown by some fans, etc. Smith did neither.
“He seemed resigned to the ritual of being interviewed by a newspaper reporter, and I think would have sat there with me by the track for quite a while more, navigating subjects he’s never really thought about,” Smith wrote. “We never got that far. It just didn’t seem fair. I found myself thinking that I would prefer to live in a country that permits racecar drivers, actors and musicians to avoid being grilled by people like me, and I made a quick exit.”
In a recent interview of my own, I asked Smith about the decision to not make Brown another log on the culture-war bonfire and if he would have done the same thing in the same situation 10 years ago. “Probably not,” he allowed.
More of that, please.