Is It Time to Ease Off On the Media Criticism?

by Neil H. Buchanan

It seems impossible to have anything but a love-hate relationship with the American media.  On the "love" side, not only is an independent press an absolute necessity for a free society, but the mainstream media has done its job amazingly well at many times during the Trump era.  With The Washington Post taking a clear lead, but with ample and impressive assists from The New York Times as well as CNN and other outlets, the press has been the source of almost every investigative bombshell that has put Donald Trump's presidency (quite rightly) in peril.

On the "hate" side, however, the American press continues to lapse into various forms of the conventional wisdom, sycophancy, false equivalence, and laziness that we have witnessed for years (most prominently in the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003).  All of that was bad enough when the threats to American freedom were the slow bleed of voter suppression, money-driven politics, and all of the other familiar problems that led to the metastasis of the radical-right Republican Party of the twenty-first century.  Under Trump and his pliant party, it seems unforgivable.

Unfortunately, the press's willingness and ability to confront Trump and call out his lies has resulted in Trump's proto-fascist tendencies coming to the fore, with increasingly unhinged attacks on the press -- not just criticisms of perceived mistakes in doing their work, but claims that they are terrible human beings, which has predictably resulted in Trump's fanatical followers threatening members of the media with violence.

The past week or so has been so bad that it is no longer surprising (though it should still be shocking) to see predictions from commentators that Trump will soon have "blood on his hands" as well as warnings about "deadly violence" when someone takes the fateful next step and attacks reporters violently.  Claims by Trump's enablers that he is merely attacking bad reporting are simply false, and his followers seem unmistakably to be getting the message.

In an environment that has become this dangerous and volatile, is it now necessary for those of us who criticize the press on the merits (that is, demerits) of their coverage to cut it out?  When is even principled criticism a bad idea?

I have commented with increasing frequency over the past few years about my surprise at having become a de facto media critic.  When I agreed to become a columnist for Verdict and Dorf on Law, I anticipated writing about specific policy issues, legal cases and controversies, and so on.  Doing those things, however, has led me onto what now seems to have been an inevitable path toward media criticism.

In a column from immediately after the 2016 election, I wrote: "Prior to this year, I had never really thought of myself as a critic of the media."  I quoted a top-flight academic critic of the media, NYU's Jay Rosen, who wrote in a 2011 essay that mainstream reporters are committed to what he called a "cult of savviness."  where "[s]avviness is that quality of being shrewd, practical, hyper-informed, perceptive, ironic, 'with it,' and unsentimental in all things political."  Perhaps Rosen's best line is that "the savvy don’t say: I have a better argument than you. They say: I am closer to reality than you."

This default motivation, happily, works very well for getting reporters to pursue charlatans like Trump.  A president who denies reality, to the delight and approval of millions of devoted followers, is more than fair game for anyone who wants to be closer to reality than anyone else.  Not only is Trump dangerous, but he denies the importance of evidence itself.

The problem is that the cult of savviness, as I discussed in my 2016 piece, worked against Hillary Clinton by causing every supposedly neutral reporter to respond to her every utterance by saying: "She's lying.  I know she's lying, even though the evidence that she is lying has been debunked.  My version of reality is not actually evidence-based reality in all cases.  Instead, it is the reality of the other people in the cult of savviness, all of whom are afraid of looking like chumps by actually believing that Clinton is not lying."

In other words, the cult of savviness is right to go into overdrive in response to a president who thinks he can make reality itself go away, and when the other political party is not really part of the story.  Unfortunately, the cult also goes haywire when it is confronted with a situation in which it cannot say that both sides are wrong, which is why they were such patsies for Republican spin not only against Hillary Clinton but also Barack Obama (as well as John Kerry and Al Gore and Democrats in general).  Republicans won battle after battle not by being right but by manipulating the press's desire not to call Republicans uniquely wrong.

This means that the press is at all times ready to fall back into its two-sides-to-every-story framing, which is clearly the comfort zone of journalists.  So long as Trump is not the reality-denying story, the press seems eager to reinforce utterly false narratives about, say, the tax bill or health care.  Indeed, I devoted multiple columns last fall to calling out reporters at The Post and The Times for writing, for example, that tax cuts obviously increase long-run economic growth -- against the overwhelming weight of the evidence.  (Although I am making up these sentences, they could easily have been written by any political reporter in the U.S.: "Republicans say tax cuts pay for themselves.  Democrats say they don't.  The public likes tax cuts but worries about deficits.")

Trump and his supporters thus criticize the press for being an independent, skeptical voice that undermines his attempts to manipulate our very sense of reality.  Everyone else should be appalled by the press's sloppiness and small-c conservatism (which might better be thought of as a panicky effort not to be seen as taking a position that is not safely within the conventional wisdom) in their professional habits.

The problem, as I noted above, is that Trump has gone beyond saying, "They're lying, so ignore them and listen only to me," which is plenty bad.  He is telling people that reporters are un-American, enemies of this country, low-life baddies who are out to get him because he is speaking the truth.  In other words, Trump is doing what dictators do all of the time, and we now need to worry not only that he might actually try to become a dictator but that the path there will be strewn with the bodies of some number of American journalists.

It is truly scary even write to a sentence like that, and I do not do so lightly.  In any event, even though I am absolutely comfortable with the content of my substantive (and stylistic) criticisms of American journalism, I wonder whether these times are too dangerous to say something that can quite easily become fodder for those who are being convinced that the media is the enemy.  "Reporters suck.  See, even liberals agree.  Let's get 'em!"

In trying to think of analogies, I recalled writing a column early in 2014 in which I discussed the loss of nuance in discussing (among other things) evolution and climate change.  That column was inspired by correspondence with a biologist at a Canadian university who described a troubling situation in which his colleagues rejected his proposal to teach a course about the gaps in scientific knowledge.

Why is that relevant here?  The push-back from his colleagues was not: "Hey, there are no gaps in science.  Teach the truth!"  Instead, they said, "Look, every good scientist knows that knowledge advances and that there are plenty of things that we don't yet know.  (That's why we're scientists, after all.)  But telling undergraduates that the science on evolution and climate change is uncertain is going to lead to misunderstandings that reinforce the political backlash by ignorant politicians who want to undermine science to please their hyper-religious and resource-extracting supporters."

One can disagree with the position that my correspondent's colleagues took in that instance (although I confess that I probably would have said what they said), but the point is that there are times when nuance goes out the window.  If the consequence of saying that scientists do not already know everything is for politicians to shut down the pursuit of scientific knowledge and to ignore what science can tell us, then it becomes arguably irresponsible to inadvertently reinforce an existing anti-science political movement.

In the U.S. today, the consequences of media criticism are potentially matters of life and death (and perhaps ultimately a move from constitutionalism to autocracy).  Should well-meaning people now take the attitude that it is too dangerous to say, "This reporter wrote something inaccurate/irresponsible/wrong/sloppy/whatever"?  I hope not.  At this point, however, I do think that it is necessary at least to begin and end every criticism of the media by making it abundantly clear that their existence is a bulwark of freedom.

Those who wish to take away our freedoms are far too eager to heap hatred on the press, which means that everyone else needs to rally to reporters' defense -- even (especially) when we are also pointing out that they are human beings who have made errors.  Sadly, we might soon reach the point where it will be irresponsible even to criticize reporters while being careful to issue such caveats.  We do not seem to be there yet, and I hope we never will be.