So much has been written on l’Affair Williamson that adding more to the pile feels excessive, but indulge me an additional thought: Is ideological diversity in media perhaps overrated?
A lot of commentators take it for granted that certain sorts of journalistic publications have a moral obligation to offer a diversity of perspectives from those who do their political and social commentary. The assumption holds that a great crime is being perpetrated against a readership when it’s not exposed to “all sides” of contentious matters, with consequences that presumably taint broader American democracy, which does not benefit from a sheltered or half-informed populace.
Yet such logic seems to rest heavily on rather dated assumptions about how opinion journalism is consumed in modern America, and about just how much freedom is enjoyed by those doing the consuming. Hand-wringing about a lack of conservatives here or a lack of progressives there evokes the technological limitations of a long-ago age when the allocation of physical space on the finite printed pages of a few elite publications was the only metric by which ideological diversity in America could be measured (in some cases, quite literally — media critics of years past would often bust out the ruler to determine what wasn’t getting enough, well, ink).
Today, however, poking around the websites of The Atlantic, or Slate, or Breitbart, or wherever, is not the equivalent of flipping through the pages of a hometown paper — surfing the entire Internet is. In this enormous amalgamation of human opinion, specific publications, or at least their opinion sections, are perhaps best considered the 21st century equivalent of what a single column used to be decades ago: a consistent, reliable space for a certain sort of commentary, unpredictable or unorthodox on occasion, but overall relatively stable. Those genuinely curious in their search for truth understand this, and know that browsing a diverse range of journalistic websites is every bit as critical as listening to a diverse array of voices within them.
In this enormous amalgamation of human opinion, specific publications, or at least their opinion sections, are perhaps best considered the 21st century equivalent of what a single column used to be decades ago: a consistent, reliable space for a certain sort of commentary, unpredictable or unorthodox on occasion, but overall relatively stable.
It would be nice, of course, if media institutions could be more maturely permissive of the occasional off-brand employee, but if that’s impossible, the consequences for the greater public are not necessarily severe, given that in America’s vibrant age of online journalism, there’s always room for someone, somewhere.
The downside of this phenomenon has been a big, ugly sorting of journalistic talent in a fashion that evokes Robert Conquest’s famous law about the ideology of institutions — anything not explicitly Right will inevitably become Left. Progressives now clearly feel entitled to ownership of a great many media outlets never previously intended to be ideological, and this expectation of control explains the growing difficulty many on the center-right face in straining to be a “good” or “safe” conservative voice in a non-conservative space.
The culture of the online left is increasingly mainstreaming the notion that when a conservative of any style or temperament shares an opinion on anything, the spectacle is inherently absurd, unless it’s actively sinister. If you’re not pushing the progressive ball forward, you’re not only wasting everyone’s time, you’re embarrassing yourself and making mockery of the intellectual seriousness of whatever publication was dopey enough to give you a platform.
The New York Times’ David Brooks, for instance, is no one’s idea of a bomb-thrower, yet he is the constant subject of furious progressive outrage, mockery, and calls for his resignation or firing simply because he is employed by the Times. The same is true for his colleagues Ross Douthat and Bret Stephens.
Theirs is the impossible task explicit conservatives face when attempting to interface with non-conservative media these days: On the one hand, they must be conservative enough to be unique and identifiable as such; on the other they must also be palatable and unthreatening enough to be tolerable to a hostile audience. Yet, paradoxically, being outwardly palatable in a paranoid, polarized age can cause a writer to register as more, not less, sinister, since cloaking oneself in respectability commits a whole other ideological sin — “normalizing” the indefensible.
The most practical proposal, under such circumstances, may be to simply defend more strongly the existence of openly ideological opinion outlets such as this one, while encouraging acts of cross-outlet engagement such as last year’s joint Jacobin–Reason public debate on the merits of capitalism, or the KCRW podcast Left, Right, and Centre. New political eras bring new expectations of conduct for the politically-engaged. In some ways, ours is an age that extracts an unprecedented, terrible price from those who publicly share honest opinions, but in others it’s never been easier to achieve fame and fortune from doing so. Knowing who’s on your side seems key, even as that group grows ever narrower.