Skip to content
Media Criticism Is Often Cheap and Lazy. Here's Why.
Go to my account

Media Criticism Is Often Cheap and Lazy. Here’s Why.

Too many generalities, and too little grace, for starters.

In my Tuesday newsletter (sorry this one is a day late!), I wrote an indictment of the different ways specific media outlets covered the sexual misconduct allegations against Brett Kavanaugh compare to the way they covered recent allegations against Joe Biden. I found the New York Times’s explanation for the distinction singularly unconvincing. 

Today, however, I’m shifting gears. Today I’m going to defend the media.

Media criticism is popular—especially on the right—but most of it is lazy and cheap. A good bit of it is outright dishonest. It’s marked by wild and imprecise generalizations that impose collective punishment for individual failings. 

Yes, that’s a general statement, but specific examples abound. For example, you’ll see it when media critics indict “the media” when the real beef is with specific reports by specific reporters. You’ll see allegations that the “the New York Times” or “Washington Post” made a claim or argument, when the argument was really an opinion  piece that most assuredly and explicitly does not speak with the institution’s voice. Moreover, media critics frequently ascribe evil motives to members of the press and pretend that the press has greater capabilities than it really does—thus rendering it even more culpable when it inevitably makes mistakes. 

The critique is magnified by the fact that there is zero grace among those who complain. There is little acknowledgment of the core difficulty of the enterprise. Think of it like this—possessing a small fraction of the information-gathering resources of the federal government’s intelligence agencies (how many spy satellites does the New York Times have?), the job of a functioning national press is to provide—in real time—an accurate picture of complex events when many of the key players in the drama do not want the truth to be known.

Let me lapse into Southern-speak for a moment. Y’all, that is hard

My litigation experience gives me insight. When I tried a case, my task was to prove to a fact-finder that my client’s version of an often-complicated, multiyear saga of conflict was probably true. That was it. Not certainly true. Probably true. To aid me in that endeavor, I could compel witnesses to testify under oath. I could order companies and universities to turn over enormous piles of documents. I could subject hostile witnesses to the most withering cross-examinations I could muster.

And I’ll be honest with you—even after that entire process, there are still cases where I’m still not quite sure what really happened.

So, now, here’s the journalist’s challenge: Discover the truth on an often shoestring budget, with no ability to compel testimony, very limited ability to compel the production of documents (through Freedom of Information Act requests that are often stonewalled for months and years and/or come with inflated fees), and zero ability to truly cross-examine hostile witnesses. If the person you’re trying to investigate doesn’t want to talk to you, they don’t have to. 

A few weeks ago I wrote about coronavirus and the fog of war. The “fog of war” refers to the very real challenge of discerning the truth of complicated, chaotic events in real time. In Iraq, even with drone coverage and real-time radio communication, it could take several agonizing hours from the moment of the first blast of an IED or the first muzzle flash of an ambush to answer a simple question—“What just happened?” 

Because journalists are tasked with writing the first draft of history, they basically live in the fog. Certainly, over time, the fog starts to clear, but rare is the reporter who can look at their first reports of a complicated story and think, “Yep, nailed it from the start.” 

Now, to say that journalists have a hard job is not to say that all journalists are good at their hard job. This is true of all complex professions. Surgeons have an incredibly difficult job. Not all surgeons are good. It’s a formidable challenge to lead men in combat. Some soldiers aren’t up to the task. 

In fact, the very difficulty of the task—especially combined with natural human biases and an internet content monster that is always screaming, “Feed me! Now!”—makes it very tempting to cut corners and seize the quick, easy take over the longer, more patient look. Below is actual footage of the content monster confronting a young journalist:

I can think of few more glaring recent examples of feeding the hot-take content monster half-baked stories than the dreadful early round of reporting on the confrontation on the Lincoln Memorial steps between Native American activist Nathan Phillips and young students from Covington Catholic. Multiple reporters took a short clip of a longer incident (when video of the longer incident was available) and quickly ran fundamentally erroneous stories. 

Many of them corrected the accounts when they discovered the larger context, but an enormous amount of damage was done. And lest anyone think that members of the mainstream media don’t examine their own industry, these corrections were followed by an entire series of “what went wrong” stories and commentaries. I found these words, from the New York Times’s Frank Bruni, particularly compelling:

With everything from Twitter followers to television bookings, we’re rewarded for fierce conviction, for utter certainty, for emphatically taking sides and staying unconditionally faithful to what we’ve pushed for and against in the past. We each have our brand, and the narrower and more unyielding it is, the more currency it has and the more loyal our consumers. Instead of bucking the political tribalism in America, we ride it.

Bruni’s last sentence brings up an important additional reason that journalism is hard. It’s you, dear reader. Well not you, really. Dispatch members are great and wonderful. They’re open to new ideas, to exploring disturbing truths, and to re-evaluating long-held beliefs. You represent the Platonic ideal of the discerning news consumer. 

As for everyone else? Well … let’s just say that journalists are often reporting about people who don’t want to tell the truth to a consumer audience that very often doesn’t want to hear the truth

Back before the lockdowns I was at a small gathering of Christian thinkers who were addressing the problem of national polarization and the role of the church in healing American divides. One of the participants made an observation that I’ve been pondering ever since. “Don’t think of a confrontation with the truth as a moment of joyful enlightenment. Instead, the mind often perceives a challenging truth as an intellectual assault. In some people it can literally trigger a ‘fight-or-flight’ type response.” 

I thought of that concept while listening to a recent Ezra Klein podcast. He used an interesting phrase. He said that some on the left seem to think that the left never really fails. “It can only be failed,” he said. Ezra was attempting to combat that instinct. The same instinct exists on the right. Have you noticed that the most prominent critics of Dr. Anthony Facui on the right hardly ever critique his boss, the president who is completely free to disregard Fauci’s counsel? Part of this is because Fauci’s critics are afraid of Trump (or afraid of their own, Trump-loving audience), but part of it is because they’re so deeply in Trump’s tribe that they believe he can’t fail. He can only be failed. 

Why did I just spend 1,100 words talking about the challenges of journalism? Because we’re in the midst of yet another “what did the media know and when did the media know it” round of recriminations about yet another complex and difficult story. In 2019, the recriminations surrounded the media’s role in the Russia investigation. Today, the recriminations center around multiple news outlets publishing stories earlier this year that—in hindsight—were very, very wrong about the threat of the coronavirus. 

On Monday, Vox published a thoughtful piece by Peter Kafka asking, “What went wrong with the media’s coronavirus coverage.” It’s both thoughtful and unsatisfying—and I mean that as a compliment. You should read the whole thing, but Kafka essentially argues that most of the mainstream media reporters who published reports downplaying the virus did exactly what you’d want them to do—they went and talked to experts. The experts were confronting a new disease, they had partial information, and thus they were often wrong.

If the experts were wrong, then the story would be wrong. So the journalists are absolved, right? Not exactly. They can be more skeptical of expert conclusions. They can ask more searching, analytical questions. They can, as Scott Alexander argues in his own excellent piece, press experts to provide probabilities that their initial assessments are correct. In the final analysis though, it’s hard to avoid Kafka’s conclusion:

The truth is, there’s no good answer to this. You can be as diligent about your sourcing as possible and still get it wrong if the experts you talk to get it wrong. And you can err on the side of not scaring people, when scaring people into action may be the only thing that saves their lives. I don’t know that we’ll do better next time, and we may just have to live with it — no matter how early the warnings are.

There is no question that there are other reforms—aside from asking journalists to ask better questions—that can improve media reporting on complex questions. Greater ideological diversity in newsrooms is a must. Even the most diligent and fair-minded ideological monoliths are often too skeptical of ideological opponents and too credulous when facing ideological allies. 

Remember what I just said about the audience sometimes confronting the truth as a form of attack—one that triggers that “fight-or-flight” response? Well journalists are human too, and they have to fight through that impulse just as the audience does. In my experience, a consistent exposure to alternative points of view softens a person to challenging truths. By contrast, ideological uniformity all too often leads to intolerance and extremism.

While I’ve been mainly referring to the (hopefully) objective reporters in the nation’s newsrooms, opinion writers and analysts like me also have an obligation to be open to the truth, to revise our opinions and analysis upon encountering contrary facts and/or better reason. That’s hard—especially if you’ve achieved any degree of prominence in an ideological or political movement. Rather than change your mind, the temptation is to revert to the role of a lawyer for your partisan movement—simply making the best argument for your side that you can, even when your side is wrong.

Moreover, as my colleague Jonah Goldberg is fond of saying, the most corrosive influence on media isn’t money (the profession isn’t exactly overflowing with cash) but relationships. Simply put, it’s hard to be critical of friends. 

Ideologically monolithic newsrooms can be quite effectively adversarial against ideological opponents, but when they turn the same skeptical gaze on their own side, it can start to hurt at a personal level. That “senior Senate staffer” you think might be lying could be your best friend’s wife. It might be your former colleague. 

And if you think the press corps can’t be that close to the people it covers, think again. It’s a small, small world. In conservative media, part of the crackling tension you perceive in debates about Trump is the personal element. “We’ve been friends for years. How could you?” 

This newsletter is long. It’s too long. But I wanted to lift the curtain a bit. I wanted you to know how media criticism looks to a member of the media. Critique us, sure. But do so honestly. Do so precisely. And don’t forget that the audience that allegedly demands a solution is all too often a big part of the problem. 

One last thing … 

You know what’s next. A sports highlight. I can’t help it. The loss of live sports sends me down the YouTube rabbit hole on a daily basis. Here’s a question for you. Is there a single sports moment from your childhood that made you forever fall in love with a sport? 

I grew up in Kentucky. That meant basketball was in my blood and college football was a source of pain. I didn’t learn to love it until a single moment, watching a game between powerhouse Miami and underdog Boston College. Ladies and gentlemen, Doug Flutie:

Photograph of reporters working from their laptops by Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc./Getty Images.

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.