The Big News Organizations Naively Play Footsie with Trumpists, but Why?
by Neil H. Buchanan
What are the major media organizations thinking? It is hardly news that the "corporate media" (as people on the left refer to them) have always taken a soft stance on the issues that truly matter to the moneyed classes. The major papers and networks have hidden behind false equivalence and bothsidesism since long before those two terms had even become part of the popular lexicon, but the big players are most notable for not rocking the boat.
It is barely necessary for Republicans to "work the refs," given how eager the mainstream media are to be played. Early in Donald Trump's White House occupancy, a top editor at The New York Times announced with great solemnity that his newspaper was not part of The Resistance, saying that doing so would be "an untenable, non-journalistic, immoral position for The New York Times." Immoral.
In some recent columns (most recently here, with internal links to earlier pieces), I have been writing about the immoral choices that the editors of The Times and others have been making. They are not only agreeing with and amplifying the right's culture war tropes about "cancel culture" and "silencing" conservatives but continuing to reward young conservatives by airing their grievances.
Recently, for example, a student at the University of Virginia was given space on the op-ed page to say that when she expressed her opinion in class, "[t]he room felt tense. I saw people shift in their seats. Someone got angry, and then everyone seemed to get angry. After the professor tried to move the discussion along, I still felt uneasy." Stop the presses! "I was shaken," she wrote, "but also determined to not silence myself." How brave for a twenty-year-old to be confronted with disagreement -- people were shifting in their seats, mind you! -- but decide to persevere.
What is going on here? Why are the most powerful voices in journalism playing this crazy game?
The Times's editors, after all, did not stop with anecdotal reporting and self-victimizing commentary. They commissioned their own poll that was clearly designed to induce people to say, for example, that they worried that "some" people "do not exercise their freedom of speech in everyday situations," which was a scary-sounding way to describe people's choices to exercise their freedom not to speak.
But this is hardly limited to The Times. As I noted in my recent columns, the guardians of center-right orthodoxy at "Morning Joe" are all aboard the "woke panic" train. The Washington Post's editors worried about poor Mike Pence being "silenced and canceled." Last year, Harper's magazine infamously published a public letter signed by various big-name personalities who complained about cancel culture (without using that term).
One signatory to that letter, Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, did evidently have a change of heart, asking whether everyone is overreacting. Even so, Goldberg expressed sympathy in response to a reader's complaint that when her adult daughter visits, "I have to watch what I say because of the stubborn arguments that likely ensue if I happen to make a casual or joking remark that she considers politically incorrect or 'triggering.' It does make me sad, as well as mad." Goldberg wrote: "Many people I know feel similarly inhibited around people younger than they are." Rather than pointing out that it has ever been thus, Goldberg took the "Get off my lawn!" comment as if it was a serious point. (Maybe she was subtly mocking the reader, but if so, it was very subtle.)
A different phenomenon that derives from the same underlying problem is the efforts by the big news organizations to hire right-wing writers to overcompensate for supposed left-wing bias. The Washington Post cannot stop itself from bringing on right-wingers who, for example, insist that "partisan reality distortion include the false liberal convictions that Trump was a Russian asset or that Republican-run states today are imposing voting restrictions comparable to Jim Crow." The Times responded to the 2016 election by hiring climate denialist Bret Stephens and conservative activist Bari Weiss, the latter of whom predictably complained about being canceled when she was let go after a few years of doing nothing useful.
The most recent example of this nervous reaction by Big Media, and in some ways the most revealing, is CBS News's decision to bring former Trump chief of staff (and former Tea Party congressman) Mick Mulvaney on as a political analyst. In his first appearance on the network in his new role, Mulvaney was described only as a former director of the Office of Management and Budget, there to talk about the Biden Administration's proposed "Billionaire's tax," even though Mulvaney's political appointment was not based on any expertise on budgeting, taxes, or anything else.
That would be bad enough, but the network had already let the truth slip by defending Mulvaney's hiring in jaw-dropping fashion:
"If you look at some of the people that we’ve been hiring on a contributor basis, being able to make sure that we are getting access to both sides of the aisle is a priority because we know the Republicans are going to take over, most likely, in the midterms,” CBS News’s co-president Neeraj Khemlani told the staff of the network’s morning show, according to a recording of his comments obtained by The Washington Post. “A lot of the people that we’re bringing in are helping us in terms of access to that side of the equation.”
And there it is. CBS News is afraid of losing "access" after Republicans take over. Note that Khemlani did not say that they would gain access to unique arguments or points of view but to "that side of the equation." Had they never hired Mulvaney, would it have been impossible for CBS to interview Republicans? Would their reporters not have been able to pass along to listeners the Trumpist point of view? Of course not. The only access that hiring Mulvaney could given them is to a more congenial environment when Republicans begin to go after the media in earnest in 2023 (endless hearings about socialist news sources) and in 2025 ("opening up" libel laws).
This goes beyond the usual hippie-punching problem, where people desperate not to lose their invitations to the inner sanctums of power ridicule and actively cancel critics who are already systematically excluded from power. In all of the examples described above and more, the idea among the big players is to play both sides in order to remain relevant and safe.
In an old episode of "The Simpsons," news anchor Kent Brockman mistakenly believes that a "master race of giant space ants" will soon take over the Earth. He immediately announces that "I, for one, welcome the new insect overlords. I'd like to remind them that as a trusted TV personality, I can be helpful in rounding up others to toil in their underground sugar caves." Later, he just as easily pivots back to reality and disclaims his previous cowardice.
Whether or not the nonexistent giant ant overlords would have found Brockman a useful traitor, it is difficult to believe that the current efforts by The New York Times, The Washington Post, CBS News, and others will save them in the Republicans' post-democracy hellscape. After all, Trump is hardly known as a forgive-and-forget kind of guy.
And even if these craven displays do preserve "access," what exactly is the point? In late 2020, I wrote two columns about "the winner's curse," first asking what Republicans in Congress think would be so great about living in a Trumpian autocracy, and then asking whether Republican justices on the Supreme Court understand what they will lose to a president who has no respect for the rule of law. In both cases, one can see the logic that would cause a Tom Cotton or a Neil Gorsuch to choose not to swim upstream against the dictatorial future, but it is an open question whether they truly understand how severely their influence would be undercut.
And the CBS News's of the world? Even if they are allowed to continue to exist -- again, not at all a sure thing -- what would they do at that point? Run puff pieces about Trump and his greatness? Publish attacks on the by-then-powerless Democratic politicians who will continue to be useful foils to keep the base riled up? Assemble panels to discuss why it was necessary to force universities to police the political views of their professors and students? Explain why same-sex marriage and women's control over their own bodies were never good ideas in the first place?
It is not difficult to understand why even powerful people can become terrified -- indeed, why they might be especially easy to frighten -- if they think that their power and comfort are threatened. But if the people who run the big media outlets think that appeasing the people who hate them is going to help, they should at least try to understand that they will at best be allowed to remain free only so long as they play along with the new regime. Many of these organizations are already quite practiced at sucking up to power. They apparently have no idea how much harder they will soon have to work at it.