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When the Truth Takes a Back Seat
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When the Truth Takes a Back Seat

Perverse incentives are warping the profession of journalism.

Sean Hannity speaks during a live taping of his show in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

The trouble with journalism isn’t a dilemma—the tension between doing good journalism vs. the need to make money—but a trilemma, the constituents of which are: 1) the desire to do good journalism; 2) the individual and organizational needs to make money; and 3) the individual and organizational desires to use journalism as a platform for non-journalistic endeavors, especially fighting the culture wars.

As I argued on The Dispatch Podcast, these three factors interact with each other in complex ways, and different considerations carry different weight in different organizations at different times. For example, the New York Times’ smearing of Sarah Palin (who did not win her libel suit against the newspaper but should have) did not serve any obvious short-term financial interest of the newspaper. But it did serve the newspaper’s Kulturkampf interests, i.e., doing what it can to injure the reputation of a hate-totem such as Palin, who had nothing to do with the episode in question in the editorial until the Times went out of its way to drag her into it, falsely claiming (the Times itself concedes that this is a falsehood) that there was a direct link between Palin’s campaign rhetoric and the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabby Giffords, that “the link to political incitement was clear,” when it has been documented (in the Times and elsewhere) that there is no link at all, much less a clear one.

Because we live in the dumbest timeline, I know a little something about the internal politics of journalistic outlets afflicted with politically supercharged staffs: That imbecilic episode involving me and The Atlantic was pure Kulturkampf rather than part of a business strategy—the poetic fact is that the only person who made any money out of that mess was me. (In retrospect, it probably should have been more.) In any case, there was no question of good journalism or bad journalism, or, indeed, any question of journalism at all, only the spectacle of journalists who desperately wish to do something other than journalism, which is a profession distinct from social-justice crusading.

One might argue that the Times ultimately stands to benefit from the cheap and shallow partisanship of its opinion pages (Good luck, David!) because emotionally incontinent fan-service is good for subscriptions. I myself doubt that that is a very sound long-term business position, and I suspect that the senior leadership of the Times knows as much, too: The kind of politically supercharged stunts that resulted in the exits of Bari Weiss and James Bennett tends to come from callow young people, mostly junior staffers, though not exclusively so.

Fox News, to take the juiciest current example, seems to have been more directly motivated by financial concerns. We know that from texts from such figures as Tucker Carlson, who complained that the company’s share price was declining and schemed to have a reporter fired for providing an accurate factual account of the EF5 poopnado that was under way in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election. Fox was terrified of being out-boobed by competitors such as Newsmax and ONAN (I know, but, damn it, that’s how I’m going to write it, because it fits!), and Rupert Murdoch is on the record testifying that the decision to keep conspiracy kook Mike Lindell’s advertisements was purely financial: “It is not red or blue—it is green,” he said.

Ironically, Fox News’ troubles are very much a mirror image of the so-called mainstream media’s epic fumble on the COVID-19-origin story. It would have been one of history’s most unlikely coincidences if a novel vespertilionine coronavirus had just happened to pop up down the street from a laboratory whose business was engineering novel vespertilionine coronaviruses but from a totally unrelated source. Hate is a powerful intoxicant, and, like all intoxicants, it tends to make you stupid: In this case, the fact that Donald Trump and people around him were saying that the COVID-19 virus came from a Chinese laboratory was all that was needed to manufacture an airtight and unquestionable elite consensus that the COVID-19 virus did not come from a Chinese laboratory. It certainly is the case that many of those pushing the lab-leak theory did not have anything much in the way of evidence on their side, only the original astronomically unlikely coincidence, and there has never been any reason to take Trump or his tightest sycophants at their word on this or on any other subject. But that is not a reason to fail to investigate the shockingly unlikely coincidence. The problem is that the politics of Kulturkampf and the sweet debilitating high produced by all those eight-balls of rage and self-righteousness do not tend to produce good journalism. There were some people who did excellent work on the lab-leak story—Jim Geraghty of National Review was one such—but most of the organizations with the real heavy investigative-journalism artillery showed relatively little interest in the story and hardly made a priority of it. And say what you will about the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the Associated Press, all of them employ real reporters who are smart enough to know that the Chinese government is not always precisely scrupulous with the truth.

The confusing thing is that Republicans are currently in a kind of right-wing hippie phase, in thrall to a daft brand of Dionysian-ecstasy politics (there is a reason so much conservative discourse today sounds like a group-therapy session) and deeply suspicious of institutions that once were close to the Republican soul: the military, the intelligence agencies, the FBI, etc. Democrats, who are every bit as reactionary in the literal sense of that word as any Republican, have in response pledged allegiance to experts (both authentic and meretricious), government reports, elite consensus, polite society, etc. This is in keeping with the cultural reversals of the two parties, the Republicans having become the farmer-worker party and the Democrats having become the party of college-educated upper-income suburbanites. 

At the less-sophisticated level, the Democratic line—which perforce is nearly identical to the mainstream media line—is that whatever it is the Republicans happen to be saying at the moment, that must be wrong and probably racist.

And that is how we end up with big misses on the lab-leak story and on other important stories, too. Because Trump, et al., lie about the 2020 presidential election having been rigged or deformed by massive voter fraud, Democrats insist that there is no voting fraud to speak of, which, as anybody who is willing to do five minutes’ worth of reading knows, is not true. We have people in jail for election fraud, right now, in several states. We have seen fraudulent votes harvested from dementia patients and residential patients with profound intellectual disabilities. In Philadelphia (of course it is Philadelphia) a judge of elections went to jail for stuffing ballot-boxes. “Well,” comes the usual response, “we don’t know of any cases in which the outcome of an election has been changed because of fraud.” That isn’t quite true, but, even if it were, shouldn’t somebody be asking the question? Because it is safe to assume that the whole point of stuffing ballot boxes is to change election outcomes. Isn’t looking into that sort of thing exactly what journalists are here to do? In reality, many journalists shy away from such stories out of the fear that they will suffer professionally and socially for doing work that is seen as helping the wrong kind of people.

You know: Them. 

And so journalists bend to the enforcers of orthodoxy even as they boast about “speaking truth to power.”

Everybody is having a good laugh at Fox News, which richly deserves all this mockery and more, and the bosses are breathing a sigh of relief over at the New York Times. Cable news is, generally speaking, worse than print when it comes to this stuff, and Fox News is probably the worst of the bunch at the moment, in part because it is is the most important cable-news channel and in part because it is internally dominated by such specimens as Sean Hannity, a genuinely stupid amoralist. (Which is rare at his level. Clever amoralists are more common.) But the same dynamics are warping journalism over at MSNBC and at the most prestigious print outlets, too. We need institutions such as the New York Times to remind journalists what their job actually is but, unhappily, the bosses at those places are terrified of their Millennial and Gen-Z underlings—and, as with Fox News, the executives are mindful that excellent journalism is not the only commodity that does well in the contemporary media marketplace.

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.