Politics & Policy

We’re Plagued by a Partisan Press. Here’s One Cure.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders answers reporters’ questions in the White House in Washington, D.C., October 3, 2018. (Leah Millis/REUTERS)
Bring ideological diversity to the newsroom.

The Covington Catholic story is finally winding down, and now it’s soul-searching time. Only the wildest partisans are clinging to their original rage. The explosive initial claim — that a gang of Kentucky teens surrounded a Vietnam veteran Native-American elder, chanted “Build the wall,” and taunted him without provocation — has been thoroughly and completely debunked. And if you think only conservatives are troubled by what happened, think again.

For example, this piece from The Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan is one of the best things anyone has written about the media’s profound failure. On Tuesday, the New York Times’s Frank Bruni — hardly anyone’s definition of a conservative — wrote this, reflecting on Covington and the “pundit apocalypse”:

With everything from Twitter followers to television bookings, we’re rewarded for fierce conviction, for utter certainty, for emphatically taking sides and staying unconditionally faithful to what we’ve pushed for and against in the past. We each have our brand, and the narrower and more unyielding it is, the more currency it has and the more loyal our consumers. Instead of bucking the political tribalism in America, we ride it.

Lots of people acknowledge the failure. Lots of people regret the rush to judgment. Lots of people hope and pray that we can do better next time. And perhaps some will. There are many good journalists who try very hard to get stories right. There are many pundits and commentators who diligently analyze and scrutinize reports in good faith and with a sense of proportion.

But overall? I’m profoundly pessimistic. This will all happen again and again. It’s time to face facts: So long as our nation’s newsrooms are ideological monocultures, not even the best of intentions can block the formation of a partisan press.

After the Rolling Stone debacle, the Duke-lacrosse hoax, Dan Rather’s famous fable about George W. Bush’s being given special treatment in the Air National Guard, and many of the recent, grotesque errors in the Trump era, conservatives online always ask the same question: Why do these errors always go one way?

They don’t always. In October 2016, the New York Times wrote a report alleging, among other things, that Russia had not taken sides in the election — something that every major American intelligence agency later decisively refuted. But the general point is valid: The errors tend to run against conservatives and against the GOP.

And if we have a partisan press, wouldn’t it then be true that errors in conservatives’ favorite outlets would run against progressives? Look no further than Fox News’s role in spreading the reprehensible and baseless Seth Rich conspiracy theory to see how even the most prominent right-wing outlet can fall prey to wild claims. Groupthink, ignorance, confirmation bias, and market incentives work their dark magic in human beings across the political spectrum. We’re all susceptible to following our herd.

But this argument is common. Less common is an explanation of how the ideological monoculture warps the news — even if a person is trying to be unbiased. There are three key consequences of intellectual uniformity, even when reporters attempt to operate in good faith: rampant ignorance, selective interests, and narrow relationships.

First, let’s deal with ignorance. The prime reason that I held off from the initial Covington pile-on was simple. I know the culture of southern high schools, including southern private high schools. I know the culture of teenage boys. I’m raising a teenage son in the South. He’s been in private and public school. I’ve chaperoned two Washington, D.C., class trips. I’ve been surrounded by his friends for years, and I’ve seen the student bodies of countless high schools at sporting events across the state.

And so, while it wasn’t impossible (nothing is impossible) that the initial incriminating tweet was true, I knew that it was extraordinarily unlikely. For me, a group of Kentucky teens wasn’t the hostile “other,” but rather a community I know well. I felt nearly certain that there was another side to this story.

At some level, the modern newsroom gets the value of knowledge and experience when reporting on different American communities. They diligently seek to hire reporters from historically marginalized communities. They do not, however, apply the same diligence to hiring people who come from the intellectual and religious communities on the other side of the great American divide. This creates yawning gaps of ignorance.

It also narrows and warps the media outlet’s interests. As we know, American political divides are downstream from distinct cultural differences, and these distinct American cultures watch different shows, enjoy different sports (to an extent), and listen to different kinds of music. For example, in the run-up to Game of Thrones’ final season, watch the mainstream media (and progressive outlets) treat it as they would the Super Bowl or the NBA playoffs. It will be an Event.

In the meantime, conservatives (like me) who enjoy Blue America’s favorite show will have to leave our cocoon to find the best-informed speculation as to who will eventually sit on the Iron Throne.

Indeed, this difference in interests is one persistent answer to the question conservatives often pose to the mainstream media, “Why won’t you cover this?” — where “this” is a a terrible progressive scandal or good-news story about a conservative cultural icon. Why didn’t the mainstream media jump on Wisconsin’s dreadful John Doe investigation? It had all the ingredients of a dramatic story. Prosecutors abused their power – including by launching dawn raids on peaceful conservatives’ homes — to investigate constitutionally protected conservative issue advocacy. One reason is that reporters simply weren’t interested in overzealous enforcement of campaign-finance regulations. Their interest was in investigating the so-called “dark money” conservative machine that many Obama-era Democrats were convinced was at the heart of opposition to the Obama agenda. Abuses in those investigations were of much lesser interest.

Finally, if a person is analyzing media without understanding the role of relationships, they’re doing it wrong. Reporters are human. They make friends. They marry. The build networks. And when they live and work in ideologically sealed environments, all those relationships start to run in the same direction.

This means that when a progressive reporter at a mainstream publication is reporting on a potential Democratic scandal, there is a very good chance that he’ll be reporting on the actions of someone he knows — perhaps even someone he likes. And this isn’t just a Democratic issue. One of the hidden stories of conservative coverage of Trump is the extent to which members of conservative media have the same kind of longstanding personal relationships in the Trump White House that Democratic reporters have with members of a Democratic administration.

There is no question that some media outlets are better than others — even if they’ve built their own cocoon. For example, like my colleague Kyle Smith, I found it very interesting that the New York Times was notably cautious in its coverage of BuzzFeed’s now-contested scoop that Trump suborned perjury (by allegedly directing Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about Trump’s prospective Trump Tower in Moscow). There are progressive reporters (and conservative reporters) who do outstanding work. Unless, however, the mainstream media are willing to welcome different perspectives — and, by the way, “diversity” is not defined as “people of different races, genders, and religions who all vote alike” — the drift to a purely partisan press will continue, and in a polarized nation, I can think of few things that will divide us more.


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