Over the Labor Day weekend, NBC’s Chuck Todd published a much-discussed call to arms for American journalists. Decrying an “artificially stoked” hatred of the press, he calls for a “more aggressive” media:
That means having a lower tolerance for talking points, and a greater willingness to speak plain truths. It means not allowing ourselves to be spun, and not giving guests or sources a platform to spin our readers and viewers, even if that angers them. Access isn’t journalism’s holy grail — facts are.
Todd’s call to action is laudable. And, frankly, in my experience he’s a journalist who lives those values. I’ve found him to be fair and scrupulous. But his diagnosis of the problem is incomplete, and because it’s incomplete, I fear that his call to action will exacerbate, not ease, the crisis in American media.
In his piece, Todd rightly notes that there are opportunists and hucksters who exploit and whip up hatred for the media. He rightly notes that hatred for the media has crossed dangerous lines. The obscenity and fury you see at Trump rallies, to take one example, is beyond the pale. But Todd doesn’t adequately acknowledge that much of the distrust of the mainstream media is both organic and justified — and, even worse, there is no sign that the media are doing anything meaningful to deal with the root cause of that distrust.
To understand the origin of distrust, let me ask my media readers three questions:
First, how many members of your newsroom believe that Caitlyn Jenner is a man?
Second, how many members of your newsroom own a firearm for self-defense, much less possess a concealed-carry permit?
Third, how many members of your newsroom believe life begins at conception and should receive legal protection from that moment?
I picked those issues very deliberately. Each reflects an area of disagreement among tens of millions of Americans. Each side of that disagreement is supported by serious scientific, historic, or legal arguments. And yet I daresay that most of our mainstream-media newsrooms are overwhelmingly populated by people who hold the progressive position on these issues. Moreover, in newsrooms, the number of people who believe that no decent person can disagree with them on these issues probably far outpaces the conservative dissenters.
Now, let’s compound that media monoculture with a related problem: Ideological monocultures foster friendships and social networks (including marriages) from predominantly one side of the ideological spectrum. That means that reporters tend to be intimately familiar with progressive arguments, and they’re also bound together in close personal relationships with progressives. Taken together, these factors lead at the very least to a problematic degree of ignorance about the other side and a problematic degree of sympathy for the real people they know on their own side.
Finally, let’s also acknowledge that the problem is getting worse. As the shame campaigns after the hiring even of opinion writers illustrate, there is a growing cohort of “woke” members of the media who can’t abide working with, say, a known Christian conservative. They don’t want him working beside them three cubicles away — or even remotely from a laptop many states distant.
They feel “unsafe,” as if Christians or other conservatives are somehow uniquely likely to behave unprofessionally.
Let’s discuss a hypothetical. If a mainstream media outlet hired me to serve as a legal analyst — not as a commentator, but an analyst — there would be an immediate and vicious outcry. How could I possibly grant a fair hearing to, say, LGBTQ legal activists? After all, I filed an amicus brief in the Masterpiece Cakeshop Supreme Court case. I work for National Review and formerly worked for the Alliance Defending Freedom. All my years of litigation, my legal education, my time in the legal academy, my legal writings — they would be meaningless compared with my conservative Christian perspective. Yet, hire a prominent LGBTQ scholar from the progressive academy, and the same people would take umbrage at the notion that they’d be unacceptably biased. “What are you saying?” they’d cry. “That a gay man can’t be fair?”
I think a gay progressive can be fair, and I think a Christian conservative can be fair, and — to get even more radical — I think they would actually be more fair if they ended up working side by side, sharing thoughts and ideas. But I also think that even the most well-meaning Christian conservatives or most well-meaning gay progressives will be less fair if they’re constantly surrounded by like-minded colleagues. And, like the proverbial fish that doesn’t know that it’s wet, they might not even be aware of their own prejudice.
So, given that environment, how can a single conservative — especially a single social conservative — believe that the media will not just cover him fairly but that they will understand his arguments? I’ve been a Christian conservative my entire life. I’ve owned my own gun from the first moment I lived on my own. I’ve discussed these issues with members of the media for more than two decades, and throughout that time, I’ve encountered a staggering amount of ignorance on the most basic aspects of orthodox Christianity, persistent ignorance of the most basic facts of firearms, and a stubborn willingness to believe the worst possible interpretation of Christian or conservative actions.
And this is from reporters who I believe are working in good faith, trying their best to tell a straight story.
Why does this happen? Because they’re human, and human beings tend to believe the best of their ideological allies, to be suspicious of the motives of their ideological opponents, and to be especially forgiving of friends and others in their social network. Let’s be honest, rare is the person willing to torch a relationship to tell a story, even if the story is true.
And, by the way, don’t think this failing is unique to the mainstream media. Every sin of the MSM is reproduced in the conservative media bubble. There exists a network of relationships in the conservative media universe that causes members of the conservative media to press pause on stories that could negatively affect sources and friendships. And conservatives have faced their own version of political correctness when heterodoxy leads to gang-tackling, not on the merits but on the claim that dissent somehow equals weakness or surrender.
It is consistently interesting to me that mainstream media outlets have somehow convinced themselves of two contradictory things at once: 1) They cannot fairly cover America without a newsroom that more or less looks like America, but 2) they can cover American without a newsroom that thinks like America. In other words, their coverage will be woefully deficient if they don’t supplement progressive white male reporters, producers, and editors with progressive female, black, Latino, Asian, and LGBTQ reporters, producers, and editors; but it’s completely fine to build an ideological monoculture and also nurture an office environment that often views conservatives as morally depraved.
So long as this remains the state of affairs, mainstream media reporting will be so deficient that it will be ripe for exploitation by the cranks and hucksters that Todd rightly condemns. The media properly ask their critics to recognize their humanity. The vast majority of reporters do try hard to get the story right. They’re just folks doing their jobs, and they do not deserve the vitriol and threats they receive. Not every mistake is evidence of bias and incompetence. It’s hard to report stories, especially when the object of your reporting is trying desperately to conceal the truth. As a general rule, I admire the professionalism and integrity of the reporters I encounter.
I do not, however, admire the unwillingness of members of the media to recognize the full extent of their own humanity — not just that they’ll make mistakes in reporting but that their very presence in an ideological monoculture (compounded by the natural effects of their friendships and relationships) means that they’ll often miss important stories, misreport important ideas, and grant too much benefit of the doubt to people they may (rightly or wrongly) like or admire.
In the battle for decency and proper media aggression, I stand squarely with Chuck Todd. But if he (or anyone) believes that ideological monocultures aren’t harmful to the mission and effectiveness of the American press, then we’ll have to part company. Reporters are only human, and the sooner they realize that truth — in all its complexity — the sooner the media will be on the path to fully understanding and fairly reporting the facts about the nation they love.