In a big, complex society such as ours, the major features of public life have two main components: There are formal legal arrangements and there are institutions, and the former is not very useful without the latter — that means, for instance, that it isn’t enough to have the First Amendment, you have to have the New York Times, too, or at least something doing the job of the New York Times, which the New York Times itself often fails to do.
President Barack Obama, in his farewell address, struggled clumsily toward that as he shared his concerns that too much Fox News and too many fever-dream Facebook memes are undermining our “common baseline of fact.” He is a lawyer and a politician and, in spite of his reputation, not an especially thoughtful man, so it is unsurprising that he could not quite put his finger on what he was trying to say. Have no fear: It was his last address as president, but I would bet a testicle that he’ll average more speeches per annum in retirement than he did even as a logorrheic president of these United States.
Consider the case of the New York Times. Hating the self-proclaimed newspaper of record is a great conservative preoccupation (some time back, I oversaw a blog here more or less dedicated to that). But it was not always the case that it was discounted, even by the most gimlet-eyed of conservatives. No doubt that William F. Buckley Jr. found much in the Times to annoy and dismay him, but he also read it every day and cared about what was in it. If you go back and read WFB’s syndicated column, you will find evidence that it was written by a dedicated reader of the Times. By the 1990s, conservatives’ attitude toward the paper had changed dramatically. Rush Limbaugh used to describe his reaction to seeing something noteworthy in the Times thus: “That’s interesting! I wonder if it’s true?”
EDITORIAL: No, You Didn’t
That partisan instinct was and is deeply ingrained in the mainstream media. In his farewell address, President Obama boasted of achieving “marriage equality” for homosexuals, having seemingly forgotten that he ran for president as a candidate opposed to gay marriage. (Hillary Rodham Clinton was opposed as well in 2008.) That Obama the candidate and Obama the president both were given an indulgence on this question from the mainstream media is not a result of their trying to carve out room for disagreement on gay marriage — once Obama and Mrs. Clinton evolved on that issue, dissent became rank bigotry — but was and is simply a vulgar and craven act of partisan self-defense.
Rush Limbaugh and Fox News did not convince Americans to distrust the New York Times and Dan Rather.
Media bias made Rush Limbaugh’s career, giving him more than enough material for three hours a day. Media bias made Fox News, which finds itself in the odd position of being the most popular cable news network while programming a great deal of material about the defects of the media. Because most of the local newspapers that we grew up reading in the pre-Internet era did not have Washington bureaus or foreign correspondents, even those of us who grew up in very conservative areas were treated to a great deal of increasingly obvious and contemptible bias thanks to the Associated Press and other news services. We learned not to trust them, and, as technology began providing us with a rich menu of alternatives, our distrust grew into something like contempt.
But here is the thing: Rush Limbaugh and Fox News did not convince Americans to distrust the New York Times and Dan Rather. The Times and Rather saw to that themselves — talk radio, Fox News, and right-wing Web journals are the result of that alienation, not the cause of it.
Institutions matter. As President Obama intuited, we lost something when we lost a common understanding that the news is the news, and that while the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal might not necessarily see the world the same way, we ought not dismiss a claim of fact simply because of the flag under which it was published.
The American Left has long understood the importance of institutions, thus its embarkation some decades ago on its “Long March” through them. It has been remarkably successful: It is very difficult to be an open conservative while seeking a position as, say, a professor of liberal arts. A would-be history professor active in pro-life causes faces all manner of retribution and exclusion that a would-be history professor active in pro-choice causes does not. The public-school bureaucracies and the unions affiliated with them are organs of the Democratic party. The IRS has been, under Barack Obama’s watch, converted into an instrument of politics deployed against conservative organizations, as have other federal agencies. Did Barack Obama organize this or consent to it? Maybe, maybe not. But he and his administration saw to it that those who were commandeering these institutions for political purposes were sheltered from the consequences of doing so. Lois Lerner is not in prison, but enjoying a comfortable federal pension.
So prevalent is this bias — this abuse of power — that conservative organizations that help students connect with scholarships and internships routinely advise them to omit those associations from their CVs if they are seeking work in academia or the media. This is almost exclusively one-sided.
In his final presidential speech, Obama proposed redrawing congressional districts to make them less partisan. Who in his right mind would trust the people who weaponized the IRS — and who are at this very moment using prosecutors’ offices across the country to try to criminalize global-warming dissent — to do that in a fair and honest way? He proposed new campaign-finance rules that would purportedly reduce the role of money in politics, but who in his right mind would trust him and his colleagues — Lois Lerner, Loretta Lynch, Harry Reid — to oversee such regulations?Some years ago, I worked at the Institute for Humane Studies, a classical-liberal organization founded in the 1940s by a Cornell professor who had been told that he could not assign his students readings from the economist F. A. Hayek because they were “reactionary.” (Hayek would later win the Nobel prize in economics.) The superiority of central planning, he was told, was settled science, and he was a denier. The consensus was well established, it was unalterable, and it was intellectually irresponsible to question it. Conservative and libertarian counter-institutions ranging from this magazine to the American Enterprise Institute were founded for similar reasons: because the Left had occupied and corrupted the institutions that ought to be doing the intellectual work necessary to a free, liberal, democratic, self-governing republic.
T. S. Eliot once remarked that he was surprised by how much his American students had read but thought that they might be better off if they had read fewer books but had read the same ones. A shared body of knowledge and understanding is indeed desirable, and President Obama is right to lament the death of the institutions that once sustained it.
A more thoughtful man might see the metaphorical blood on his hands.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.