The Mozilla affair has sparked a lot of talk on Twitter and on NRO about my first book, Liberal Fascism. It’s happened at a bad time for me to join the conversation, alas (I recently drove to Hillsdale College, where I am a Pulliam Fellow for the next two weeks, with my boisterous puppy dingo, Zoë as my sidekick). More on the Eich affair in a bit.
But there’s another controversy that’s totally in my wheelhouse that maybe should be sparking a conversation about my other book, The Tyranny of Clichés. Ezra Klein has launched Vox and, allegedly, the era of “explanatory journalism.” I rather love the implications of the term. Question: Was the old journalism not explanatory? How weird cub reporters were taught to ask Who, What, When, Where, and Why if they weren’t in the business of explaining things. Of course, explanatory journalism is higher concept than mere reporting.
Which brings us to the other problem with the term. It assumes that the explanatory journalist has all the relevant information you need and anything they don’t tell you is either irrelevant or untrue. For example, here’s Vox.com’s “All You Need to Know About ObamaCare.” Without getting into the weeds, I am sure this is not all you need to know about Obamacare. But it may well be all the liberals running Vox.com want you to know and that is a very different thing.
Klein’s debut-essay-cum-mission-statement goes on at great length about how ideology makes us dumb. There’s some interesting stuff in there, but at the end of the day the whole thing is essentially about how ideology is something conservatives have. The unstated but transparent flip-side is that liberals have the truth. David Harsanyi, who beat me to the punch on this, puts it well:
It’d be easier to buy into the whole explanatory journalism experience if the editor-in-chief believed confirmation bias and identity-protective cognition existed on both sides. Not just with a throwaway line, but with an example. In Klein’s thought experiment, though, it’s radio host Sean Hannity — not Paul Krugman or Rachel Maddow — who is captive to an audience of rabid ideologues that would run him out of business if he took a contrarian position. Hannity, according to Klein, is slave to faulty ideas because he is a slave to his paycheck. Yet, in the same piece, Klein also brings up Justice Antonin Scalia, a man with a lifetime appointment and no fear of financial retribution for changing his position. Yes, he too is wedded to the very same evidence-free ideology because … well, because, evidently, it’s not politics that makes a person stupid, it’s right-wing politics that makes them stupid.
The whole explanatory journalism project fits neatly into the core argument driving The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas. They cheat by denying their ideological motivations — even to themselves. Indeed, it is a constant trope of liberalism to believe — dogmatically, ideologically — that they are just empiricists and fact-finders doing what is right and good in a battle against dogmatic ideologues on the right. The more honest approach would be to simply admit your biases upfront and defend the principles that inform your biases. Instead they prefer to make arguments grounded in the assumption that the liberal “frame” is really a perfect window onto reality.
It’s interesting how this has become such a fad these days. When Chris Hughes took over The New Republic he vowed:
The journalism in these pages will strive to be free of party ideology or partisan bias, although it will showcase passionate writing and will continue to wrestle with the primary questions about our society. Our purpose is not simply to tell interesting stories, but to always ask why these stories matter and tie their reporting back to our readers. We hope to discern the hidden patterns, to connect the disparate facts, and to find the deeper meaning, a layer of understanding beyond the daily headlines.
As I wrote at the time, this was essentially a ridiculous and unnecessary lie (though Hughes may have believed it himself). Does anyone think The New Republic is now free of ideology or partisan bias? Moreover, does anyone think it should be?
President Obama constantly talks about how he’s not an ideologue. He’s a problem solver, a pragmatist who only cares about the facts. If you believe this, than you are probably exactly the sort of reader Vox.com is looking for — one who needs to have his vanity flattered with the assurance that what you already think is “all you need to know.”
Meanwhile, I’ll probably still read Vox from time to time. But I read lots of liberal magazines, even the ones who for some reason feel the need to tell themselves they’re not liberal.