U.S.

The Failure of Modern Media

President Trump speaks to news media at the White House, January 14, 2019. (Joyce N. Boghosian/White House)
Viciously partisan and unbelievably rude.

In an article featured on the cover of the latest issue of National Review, Charles C.W. Cooke discusses how the media fail. Here he talks with Madeleine Kearns.

Madeleine Kearns: It’s fair to say that you have painted a pretty bleak picture of the national press. . . When did things start going off the rails?

Charles C.W. Cooke: I’m not sure that the press has ever been especially “good.” At the Founding, it was viciously partisan and unbelievably rude. In the late nineteenth century, it often printed outright lies in pursuit of donors and advertising revenues; literally, there was “fake news.” In the 1950s, there were three TV channels, and people tended to look up to the few national news figures as oracles. Now, it’s so atomized that it’s hard to arrive at the truth. The Internet’s preference for drama and speed certainly hasn’t helped, although some said the same thing about the printing press. In truth, I’m not sure that we’ll ever have an objectively “good” press. But we could have a more self-aware press; we could have a press that doesn’t see itself as special or anointed; we could have a press that is open about its prejudices; we could have a press that doesn’t conclude that the story of every screw-up is that horrible people noticed; and, above all, we could have a press that at least understands what the people it dislikes actually believe.

MK: As a Brit, which do you think is worse: the frantic and fractious partisanship of American media or the faux-neutrality of, say, the British Broadcasting Corporation?

CCWC: I don’t see a difference. Britain and America both have openly partisan and openly ideological outlets. But they also have institutions that pretend they don’t have a bias when they obviously do. It’s morally worse in Britain, perhaps, because one of the worst offenders, the BBC, is publicly funded; whatever one thinks of CNN, at least it’s a private company. But the same pathologies are on display. Again, it’s the self-delusion I find so irritating.

MK: You mention that you didn’t go to journalism school. If you could teach at an Ivy League journalism school for a day, what would you teach?

CCWC: First, that you can’t tell the truth as it exists and commit always to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” You must choose one. Second, that it’s okay to shut up sometimes.

MK: You write that nowadays a “bad journalist with the right opinions” will be “treated as if he were the very embodiment of liberty.” What is a bad journalist in your book? And why is he getting such an easy ride?

CCWC: My complaint in that section is the conflation of a given journalist or story or outlet with the First Amendment itself, which represents an extremely dishonest dodge. I don’t think that Sonny Gray did well at the Yankees, and I think, on occasion, he embarrassed himself. To say that is not to “attack the Yankees” or “attack baseball.” This is obvious to a majority in the press when the question is, say, Sinclair. It’s less obvious when it’s the bad behavior of somebody they think has the correct biases.

MK: Many in the journalistic class attended prestigious schools and universities. And yet, you observe, they suffer from “catastrophic historical illiteracy.” Explain this.

CCWC: Prestigious schools and universities are generally poor at teaching history. That, though, is a topic for another day.

MK: When I interviewed the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt a while back, he mentioned the growing concern among senior liberal journalists about the emotional hypersensitivity of their twenty-something colleagues. As this generation advances careers in media, is the problem likely to get worse?

CCWC: Probably. Perhaps more insidious than emotional hypersensitivity is the rank intolerance of many people within the press, coupled with the genuine belief that people with different opinions represent a physical threat. We saw this with Kevin Williamson’s firing from The Atlantic, and we’ve seen it elsewhere.

MK: Some have suggested there are snowflakes on the right, too (e.g. the overreaction to a Gillette advertisement). Is this fair?

CCWC: Of course. If you don’t think that there is such a thing as a “conservative snowflake,” try saying out loud that you’re not too fond of the police.

MK: What has been your favorite “Republicans pounce” story in the last twelve months?

CCWC: Try the last twelve days. That the Washington Post’s “digital” and “media” reporters took a long look at the Covington story and concluded that the following was a fair characterization tells you all you need to know: “A viral story spread. The mainstream media rushed to keep up. The Trump Internet pounced.” It’s beyond parody.

MK: How much of the media’s bias is unconscious?

CCWC: Most of it. It’s relatively easy for a progressive or apolitical person to go through college and other elite institutions without having to grasp what conservatives really believe. It’s almost impossible for a conservative person to do the opposite.

MK: There’s more appetite now for “opinion journalism” than straight news reporting. Why is this? And what does it mean for the future of journalism?

CCWC: I think there’s more appetite because we’re more divided than we once were, and because, in the Internet era, people often don’t agree on the same facts. That’s a bad thing. But, as a rule, I’m in favor of more opinion journalism, providing it’s well done. The problem is not that people in the media have opinions. On the contrary: Making arguments — i.e. sticking to the facts but adding in your own value judgements — is worthwhile. The problem is that too many people in the media believe that “reality has a liberal bias” or similar guff, and so deny that they are overlaying their own value judgments when they are doing just that.

MK: One of the problems with our current media climate is that it distracts from real stories. What are some of the conversations that we should be having that we aren’t able to have?

CCWC: I’m a broken record on this, but we should be far more concerned with process than we are. The great genius of this country lies in its constitutional order, and yet, under successive presidents and Congresses, that constitutional order has been warped. I would like to see the same level of hysteria from the media when a president circumvents the rules that we see when a president tweets something containing a spelling mistake.

MK: Of course, we at National Review are by no means immune to hysterical media culture. How can we resist the temptation to get dragged into it?

CCWC: Within reason, it’s not the being dragged in that’s the tricky part; it’s the staying patient and calm.

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