Culture War Correspondents
Dear Reader (Including anyone looking for work as Secretary of Defense),
Greeting from the Great North. I’m up in Alaska for a family-get-together a year after my father-in-law passed away. I’m always glad for the opportunity to be here. I’m never glad for the ordeal of getting here. Because of the time-zone difference – I’m four hours behind the folks who need to cram this thing into the pneumatic tubes – not to mention the bears (they love the smell of whisky and cigar-smoked pundit jerky) I have to write fast.
My column today is on liberal media bias. I have a love-hate relationship with the topic. On the one hand it’s a legitimate issue that I’ve been writing about for most of my professional life (I was an actual media critic for a couple magazines). On the other hand, it can be an incredibly whiny, lame and lazy beat.
One of the reasons I stuck with it was simple annoyance. For years, Dan Rather and other MSM poohbahs would insist that liberal media bias was a “myth.” As Rather once put it, "anybody who knows me knows that I am not politically motivated, not politically active for Democrats or Republicans, and that I'm independent." This was, of course, before he walked like Sideshow Bob into an endless parking lot of garden rakes smacking himself in the face day after day, all because he was so desperate to “get” George W. Bush. But he stuck with this stuff even after.
As I put it 18 – my God, eighteen – years ago in this old school G-File:
If they’d admit they have a problem and move on, lots of conservatives would just give up on the topic. It’s the infuriating denial that bugs many of us. It’s like the friend who swears he didn’t drink your last beer. You don’t care about the beer, but you just can’t stand him not admitting it. (You took my beer! Say it!! Say it!!!) By denying the obvious, so many pompous elite journalists drive us batty by acting as if we’re imagining things.
This frustration was a big part of the reason conservative media has exploded over the last thirty years. It was the secret to Fox News’ early success. Whatever you may think of the phrase “fair and balanced” it was a brilliant way to brand itself as different from the liberal media hegemony. Liberals may have chuckled at the term, but millions of conservatives and independents were hungry for something that broke with the propagandizing pack mentality of the mainstream media. Rush Limbaugh’s (and that of his many imitators’) meteoric rise tapped into this frustration too. For years, AM talk radio was a kind rebellious underground counterweight to elite imposed orthodoxy. But things are different now. Conservative media was once a vital corrective to mainstream media, now it’s become an alternative to it for many people. This has been bad for both in myriad ways. Let’s walk through a few.
The Media Landscape Today
Just as a diverse diet is better for you than a steady diet of any single food product, a pure diet of conservative – or mainstream media – is deleterious to your health. The polarization of today leads millions of people to buy into single narratives that relegate all inconvenient facts to the category of “fake news” or propaganda of the left or the right.
Traditional media evolved as a counterweight to political power, the “fourth estate” as Edmund Burke referred to it. That was the role envisioned by the founders; a means of truth-squadding the government and other sources of established power. As a result, traditional media always had an adversarial orientation to the status quo, which is why historically it was always more attractive to progressives, reformers, muckrakers and rabble rousers. And while that tendency created problems of bias and excess it also contributed to a deep culture of reporting.
Aspects of modern conservative media served this function too, but culturally it also conceived of itself as a counterweight to liberal journalism. As a result, it inflated the importance – and villainy -- of the MSM and developed a kneejerk habit of saying “black” whenever “elites” said “white.” Worse, the more it could monetize its animosity to the media, the more invested it became in inflating the importance of the media. This is one reason why you see so many Trump defenders retreat to media criticism whenever Trump does something indefensible, like there’s some apples-to-apples comparison there. It is possible for The New York Times to be wrong without Trump being right. It’s just increasingly difficult to say so to conservative audiences – the reverse is true for liberal audiences.
Media polarization is both a driver -- and product -- of social polarization. The rise of Fox News should have been a wake-up call to the mainstream media. When millions of people rush to an alternative product to what you’re selling, that’s a sign of failure or obsolescence. That’s why McDonald’s changes its menus and Coca-Cola updates its product line. But rather than check itself, much of the mainstream media opted to wreck itself, doubling-down on precisely the behaviors that causes millions of Americans to reject it. The mainstream media behaves more like a class or clerisy every day. The result is more groupthink not less. When Dan Rather got that forged memo, if there had been a single journalist in the room who didn’t want the story to be true, they probably would have done their due diligence if only to get the guy to shut up about it. But everyone was bought-in to the too-good-to-check dynamic and now Dan Rather is an old man shouting at clouds on Facebook. Ideological bias is unavoidable, the trick is to use it productively, to fuel skepticism. Instead, vast swaths of the mainstream media work on the assumption that it is their job to protect, defend or rationalize liberal priorities in the culture war and there are precious few people inside these organizations to question basic assumptions.
Much of rightwing media these days is a mirror image of this dynamic. The culture war is everything now, subsuming the political parties, economics and even foreign policy. That’s in part because Donald Trump is, perhaps second only to abortion, the most important touchstone in the culture war. For example, right now, you can see various conservatives struggling to figure out what they want to do about Iran because they want to support whatever Trump ends up doing. It’d be easy if Trump had a coherent and easily understood position on the question. He doesn’t. So yesterday morning, Trump lickspittle Seb Gorka was positively tumescent about Donald Trump’s imminent strike on Iran. Then it didn’t happen. I don’t know what Trump will end up doing – no one does, including Trump – but you can be sure Gorka will hail it as brilliant no matter what. Bismarck may have said “No man is a hero to his valet” but he never met Gorka. To be fair, his sycophancy is cartoonish even for a Trump praetorian, but it is symptomatic of the larger problem.
Not One Step Backward
And the larger problem is much larger than Trump. Notions of truth and morality are taking it in the neck, or perhaps even in the Gorka. That’s because truth claims are now subject to a culture-war partisan litmus test. Facts and ideas are interpreted based on whether they will lead to gaining or losing an inch in the culture war. Even the virtue of (Classical) Liberalism itself is now dependent on whether or not it serves the war effort.
This was the underlying point of my column today. When Pete Buttigieg attacked Mike Pence as an anti-gay bigot, it was like champagne corks were blackening the sky at MSNBC. When it turns out that African-American voters might have a problem with gay marriage, it’s suddenly a very complicated issue. If white Christian Republicans are simply bigots for such misgivings, black Christian Democrats should be, too.
If Joe Biden were a Republican, his past civility toward segregationists would be trumpeted by the press as proof of the standard narrative of GOP bigotry. I think that would be unfair to the GOP, but the double standard is also unfair.
Kyle Kashuv’s gross text messages as a teenager were bad. But if Harvard rescinded its acceptance to a black applicant who had done or said horrible things, an army of sociologists would storm the battlefield to explain why Harvard was perpetuating racism.
Paul Krugman has been reduced to arguing that the left’s anti-Semites are better than the right’s.
I’ve avoided the whole “concentration camp” controversy because it gives me such a headache. Progressives have a point about the technical etymology of the term, even though it is obvious – to me at least – that Alexandria Ocasio Cortez wasn’t making a clever or nuanced point. She was deliberately playing on the colloquial meaning of the term for demagogic effect. My point is that Cortez’s media defenders are racing to her defense not to defend a historic or terminological truth, but because she’s on their team and Trump is not. The reason this is obvious to me is that almost none of these people bothered to call these detention centers “concentration camps” when Obama was filling them up or separating families.
On the right, it’s not just Iran it’s every issue where Trump violates conservative doctrine or dogma. When long-standing conservative truth claims run against the grain of Trump’s words or deeds, the truth is what needs to get out of the way.
One last point: Left wingers often accuse me of hypocrisy because – they claim – I was part of the effort that got us to where we are (similarly some conservatives accuse me of hypocrisy or “treason” or simply being a pain in the Gorka for abandoning the cause). My first objection to this is that hypocrisy implies a kind of deceit or bad faith. I never argued anything I didn’t believe. But you could argue I’ve been inconsistent. But I plead innocent here as well. I’ve been consistent, as best I can be. What’s changed are the facts on the ground. When Jon Snow turns on Dany at the end of Game of Thrones, it’s because the victory he achieved wasn’t the victory he was fighting for. I never signed up to be a rightwing version of everything I can’t stand about the left
Various & Sundry
Canine Update: We’ve left the girls with Kirsten our dogwalker and dogsitter extraordinaire. They were extremely grumpy the moment the luggage came out. But the moment their “aunt” showed up, all was forgiven. For non-dog owners it’s hard to explain how liberating it is to know the beasts are being well-cared for when you’re away. Virtually anyone with opposable thumbs and a can opener can house sit cats. But dogs, particularly ones as spoiled and entitled as ours, are a different thing. Even under the best of circumstances kennels are sub-optimal. And for Zoë they’re really not an option. When we kenneled her a few years ago, it was like when you send a fairly decent but troublesome kid to prison and they come out hardened. She came out looking to fight with any dog in the yard, so to speak. It took us months to get her back to normal. With Kirsten, she still scraps but it’s all in fun. Meanwhile, they still get to do all of the daytime stuff they’ve come to expect. I’ll be back in DC next week (though I have to turn around and go to Silicon Valley for some pow-wows on my new venture), so the regular programming of waggling and scritching will return soon enough. And Kirsten knows how important proof-of-life updates are.
The Remnant podcast is back, baby.
Last week I talked with George Will about the conservative sensibility and why he helped turn me into a pundit. For those who want a more conventional discussion of his book, I refer you to our C-Span conversation.
This week, I talked with my buddy Jim Geraghty about a zillion things. It was a grand time.
If you like the podcast, please spread the word. Ditto this newsletter which people can sign up for at Reagan35x.com.
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