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Rise of the Underminers
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Rise of the Underminers

We live in an era where favorable media coverage is often no favor.


So I’ve been trying to figure out something about myself. For most of my professional life I wrote regularly about media bias. I had stints at the old American Enterprise magazine and at Brill’s Content as a regular conservative media critic. And that doesn’t even include the countless—hundreds? thousands?—columns, magazine articles, speeches, and blog posts I wrote on liberal media bias. Some of the most popular things I’ve ever written were on the topic.

And yet, I find myself increasingly exasperated with the whole thing. So, after a week with no food and little water in a sweat lodge in the Canadian Rockies, as disoriented from dehydration and malnutrition as I was high from the peyote and toad venom, I realized what the cause was, at least in part. The stakes have gotten lower. The “liberal media”—as oversimplified as that term has always been—once had enormous power to drive politics and culture. Yeah, yeah, it still has power. But it doesn’t have monopoly power.

More to the point, the now much smaller, and less powerful, liberal media’s distortions, excesses, and groupthink often hurt Democrats and the left while Republicans often benefit from unfair coverage. Right-wingers can raise money off of unfair attacks. Right-wing outlets eager to hype the “media’s war” on this and the latest “fake news” about that get massive amounts of free content.

Meanwhile, when liberal cable news hosts and op-ed page editors lend aid and support to crazy left-wing ideas and arguments, it doesn’t just undermine the credibility of their own reportorial work by association. It also perpetuates the perception that all Democrats believe the crazy stuff their fringe obsesses over. Here’s how I concluded my most recent column:

Much of the press is caught in a kind of “Baptists and bootleggers” loop, in which opposing forces become symbiotically co-dependent. Thanks in part to the blurring of reporting with partisan punditry, particularly on cable news and social media, not to mention the larger trends of tribal polarization, attacks from the left often benefit their right-wing targets (and vice versa). Weirder still, favorable coverage is often no favor. Right-wing denunciations of “defund the police”—a fringe position among elected Democrats—did far less damage to Democrats than the coverage the idea got from sympathetic media.

There are no easy answers to the problem, but one thing that would help is more skeptical tough love for politicians and political causes from the outlets most inclined to help them. Because the help isn’t helping.

In other words, if liberal journalists wanted to help Democrats, they would work tirelessly to police their extremists, curb their flights of fantasy, and apply their journalistic skepticism less to the stuff—and the people—they hate and more to the people they like or feel allied with. (Obviously, we at The Dispatch have a similar view about what right of center journalism should do more of as well. But one advantage right of center journalists have is that we tend to admit we’re right of center and are therefore conscious of our biases. Many liberal journalists still mostly delude themselves that they have no such biases, which makes it all the harder for them to check their biases.)

Jonathan Chait offers a good example of what I mean in his latest piece for New York magazine, “Democrats Must Defeat the Left’s War on School Achievement.” As Chait notes, there’s a growing movement on the left to “stop emphasizing educational achievement and instead focus on schools as venues for inculcating social values.” Chait, a guy I’ve had many disagreements with for decades now, is nonetheless entirely right to recognize that this “poses a serious threat to both American public education and the Democratic Party.”

My friend Andy McCarthy offered another good example last week. I sincerely admire Andy. We have our disagreements from time to time, but I always listen to what he has to say even when I disagree with it, because I know it’s coming from actual conviction and consideration of the facts. Andy has a very strong partisan rooting interest for Republicans and the conservative cause. But he doesn’t let that come at the expense of honesty and integrity. This is one of the reasons I rely on him. If he says there’s truth to some crazy-sounding right-wing theory, I pay attention, even if I may or may not ultimately agree with his argument. But if he says there’s no there there I generally take that to the bank, precisely because I know he’s arguing against his partisan interest.

Anyway, Sen. Josh Hawley recently tried very, very hard to paint Ketanji Brown Jackson as somehow beyond the pale in her handling of child pornography and pedophilia cases. Andy, a former prosecutor who has handled many such cases, called B.S. on it. The reaction from many on the populist right was to get angry at Andy, as if this was somehow disloyal. Telling the truth is not outrageous even if the truth is inconvenient for Republicans.

I’d love to rail against the popular front politics of the left and right for another few hundred words, but let’s go back to education for a second. If Democrats listen to ideological radicals and self-interested teachers’ unions, we’ll get more of what we saw in the Glenn Youngkin election and the San Francisco school board recall. If you’re a fairly mainstream liberal journalist, TV host, editor, or whatever, and you don’t want to see that happen, the biggest favor you could do for your own side is stop giving the radicals a megaphone. Instead, the default position of many of even sensible liberal journalists is to frame these controversies as another “Republicans pounce” story. Yeah, sure, Republicans will pounce like an arctic fox on a limpy hare when left-wingers do crazy things. But such pouncing pays off when the controversy is pounce-worthy. If you don’t want Republicans to pounce on idiotic fringe ideas like “defunding the police,” then maybe stop giving so much airtime and op-ed space to the idea in the first place.

The thing that many liberal journalists have a very hard time grasping is that a lot of normal, even very liberal Americans do not see the hard distinctions between not just opinion journalism and reporting, but between the agenda of the mainstream media and the Democratic Party. And who can blame them? First of all, those walls aren’t remotely sturdy or high in many cases. Lots of reporters are simply pundits on TV. And the wall between politics and punditry has become a ramp. But more importantly, the groupthink of mainstream media is there for all to see in the coverage. My sense is that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is treated to about one-thousandth of the skepticism, fact-checking, and scrutiny that, say, Joe Manchin is, never mind any Republican. Maybe you have some good or at least plausible explanations for that. But they have no weight with the end consumer, unless the end consumer is very, very partisan.

I know I’m already rehashing (or, to be more charitable to myself, expanding) the argument from my column, but let me take another oldie off the shelf. Too much of the media—on the left and the right—is about doing party work by proxy. And that’s what makes me more reluctant to do the media bias stuff. It was once about, literally, speaking truth to power, given liberalism’s hegemonic control of the media. It’s now mostly about partisan fighting by other means. Polls show that distrust of the media is overwhelming among Republicans. A 2021 AEI/YouGov poll found that 92 percent of Trump voters agreed strongly or somewhat with the statement that “the mainstream media today is just a part of the Democratic Party.” I think that’s overstated but also understandable. And while I’m sure many in the mainstream media attribute that to Trump’s demonization of “fake news,” that finding is roughly consistent with years of polling. Trump exploited something real; he didn’t invent animosity toward the media. And maybe, with a little introspection, some members of the mainstream media would take a beat and think, Maybe our critics have a point. Maybe we’re part of the problem.

Jackson’s cheering section.

Okay, all that notwithstanding, let me put on my old right-wing media critic hat and actually provide a timely, concrete example of what I’m talking about: the coverage of Ketanji Jackson Brown.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn asked Judge Brown if she could offer a definition of the word “woman.” Brown demurred, saying she couldn’t because, “I’m not a biologist.”

Coverage of this has been scant in the mainstream media. When I searched Google News for “Ketanji Brown Jackson” and “biologist” I got one Daily Mail piece, some transcripts, and one or two “analysis” pieces that mention it in passing, as a data point in a larger “Republicans pounce” vein. The New York Times did have one 470-word blog post along these lines.

Jonathan Weissman begins: 

Republicans have spent hours this week trying to portray Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as an extremist on issues of race and an apologist for child sexual abusers. Late Tuesday, Senator Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, added another social issue to the list of cultural grievances the G.O.P. is foisting upon her in her confirmation hearings: gender — specifically, what makes a woman a woman.

Okay, so partisan Republican strategy is newsworthy. You know what else is newsworthy? That a woman who was nominated to be on the Supreme Court explicitly because she is a woman cannot offer a ballpark definition of what a “woman” is on the grounds that she’s not a “biologist.”

Even if you’re all in for transgender rights, that’s interesting. Indeed, if you think these hearings should be covered through the prism of political pressures and narratives roiling our politics—the precise frame Weisman uses in this piece to discuss Republican motivations—isn’t it also interesting that a woman and mother feels it politically necessary to dodge this question? Is it really the case that refusing to offer a once common sense definition of “woman” is now a litmus test for Democratic judicial appointees? How many times have you seen journalists ask litmus test questions? Do you believe in the science of climate change? Do you believe the election was stolen? Do you believe in evolution? The answers—and non-answers—have been fodder for vast swaths of media analysis and thumbsuckery. But not here. Why? Don’t tell me it’s not relevant to anything. First of all, it’s relevant to a lot of Americans. Moreover, it’s relevant to the job she’s applying for.

I’m no fancy pants lawyer, but I’m pretty sure that the concept—and biological reality—of what defines a female intersects with all sorts of legal questions. Someone can fact check me, but I do think it has some bearing on this thing called “abortion.” Title IX might also make a passing reference to this apparently ill-defined condition that applies to a majority of Americans.

There is no reason—other than bias of one sort or another—that justifies treating this as solely a Republicans pounce or boob bait story. By the way, where are the “follow the science” people who now think having two X chromosomes and a reproductive system is irrelevant to the definition of “female”? Again, my point is such favorable coverage of liberal and Democratic causes doesn’t necessarily help those causes. Instead, it sends the signal that the media is choosing sides in a culture war controversy that has merit on both sides. If Democrats and their enablers in the press think the transgender issue is just a contest between the forces of the enlightened and the bigoted, they will create more Republican voters and even more skeptics of their coverage.

The same holds true for the widespread pushback on Republican invocation of the harsh treatment of Brett Kavanaugh. As Noah Rothman notes, the new mantra is that Republicans are hypocritically overlooking the “fact” that Kavanaugh was “credibly accused” of sexual assault. The liberal line, indistinguishable from the mainstream media line, is that when Lindsay Graham preens about how Republicans aren’t dragging Jackson through the mud by digging up her past, he’s deliberately ignoring the fact Kavanaugh was “credibly accused” of rape.

The problem is that it’s not an established fact that Kavanaugh was credibly accused. He was simply accused—one could argue incredibly accused. But that’s hard to acknowledge for two reasons. The first is just the rank bias and partisanship involved. The other is that acknowledging that the allegation was, at minimum, unproven would also require acknowledging that much of the supposedly mainstream press beclowned itself by carrying water for charges it could not corroborate.

I don’t expect liberals who believe Kavanaugh was guilty to pretend they don’t (though that is actually what journalistic and legal standards require). But this “credibly accused” talking point is precisely the kind of liberal bubble talking point you get when you think your job is to police a partisan narrative or to tell your audience what it wants to hear.

Liberal audiences love this kind of Republican hypocrisy charge. And there’s plenty of Republican hypocrisy that is fair game. But the simple fact is that it doesn’t work here because the Republicans don’t agree with the factual premise. They think what happened to Kavanaugh was a smear job. I think they’re right, but even if they’re wrong, that doesn’t change the fact that the Republicans saying it believe it to be true, and for defensible reasons.

Given that no media outlets proved the charge a couple years ago, you’d think some of them would have now put in the time to settle the issue once and for all. Their failure to do so—or try—speaks volumes.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.