I don’t think most people who read the news are too stupid to understand the news. I think they are too dishonest.
I am frankly embarrassed that we’ve found it necessary to append a note to Zachary Evans’s report on anti-Semitism to emphasize that quoting a person to illuminate his sentiments does not constitute an endorsement of those sentiments. That’s obvious. Every mentally functional adult is able to understand as much. But because there are people who want to smear National Review for political purposes, they pretend that an article about anti-Semitism written by a veteran of the Israeli military is itself an exercise in anti-Semitism. I have a hard time believing that is an honest error, because people dumb enough to make an error like that, and make it honestly, can’t read.
We get this a lot around here. National Review publishes a lot of different writers with a lot of different views. National Review also has influence and market share that is coveted by also-rans in right-wing media trying to punch their way up to Fox News contracts. And so what I think about x, or what Jay or Rick or Jason or somebody else around here thinks, becomes “National Review endorses x.”
(Never mind that they don’t even get x right, most of the time.)
National Review recently has started literally labeling certain positions as dissenting (“To the Contrary,” we call it) because Rich Lowry does not want to spend the next eleven months explaining that Ramesh Ponnuru’s views on impeachment are not those of National Review corporately. Again, I find it hard to believe that there is anybody reading NR (or reading anything else) who is actually dumb enough to need that explained to them, but it is useful to certain people to pretend otherwise. I know that NR gets a lot of grief over my work, because I am less inclined to follow the party line on Trump and on much else. I do not work for politicians and am not running for office; party lines are not my thing.
The servility of so much of conservative media in our time is astounding. I understand that there are partisans in the audience who want NR and other publications to function as party organs, but I am surprised and embarrassed by how abject and obedient conservative media has largely become. One America News Network (it is a real shame that the appropriate acronym ONAN doesn’t quite work there), which hopes to displace Fox News, runs commercials in which it boasts of the president’s “love” for the outlet.
Another commercial for a conservative television channel boasts, “President Trump says he likes us!” and notes that he has tweeted praise of them. I don’t remember whether that’s a One America ad or an ad for a different product, but it’s on the radio constantly.
Implied presidential endorsements are now part of a common marketing strategy in conservative media. Talk-radio hosts include words of praise from the president in their opening audio montages. “You wouldn’t believe the shows I’m turning down to be on your show,” Trump will say, or, “You’ll notice I walked over here very quickly!” I’m not making these up. That disgraceful stuff is what talk-radio hosts are actually bragging about in 2020. Of course most of them are smart enough to know that Trump says the same thing to everybody; they just think their audiences don’t know or don’t care.
Even making allowances for the fact that we are talking here for the most part about opinion programming, this goes well beyond what self-respect allows. Sean Hannity is for all practical purposes an arm of the Trump campaign. That’s not the same thing as hosting an opinion-oriented talk show.
It’s also unwise. When you are as all-in on a politician as, say, Hannity is with Trump, it is very difficult to forthrightly criticize him when he does wrong—and nobody takes you seriously when you praise him for doing right. Hannity is an especially slavish figure when he is trying to get out in front of a parade, and it was great fun watching him try to thread the needle in the primary when it wasn’t clear whether Trump would pull it off. But once it was clear, Hannity could not grovel hard enough, even as he criticized fellow entertainers for lacking independence of mind. Really—he did that. Remember Hannity’s tirade about Jon Stewart and Barack Obama? “I’ve never seen anybody kiss an ass like you kiss his. And now you’re sucking up to him, putting your head up Hillary’s ass and sucking up to her, too.” Is there any way in which that is not a perfect description of Hannity’s approach to Trump?
What A has to do with B here is that if media outlets don’t want to be treated like an arm of a political party or a campaign committee, then they should stop acting like an arm of a political party or a campaign committee. And this is, I think, especially true of the most partisan kind of conservative media, which in its subservience to the current administration and in its abject need to stand close to political power far exceeds the worst and most cartoonish aspects of, e.g. the New York Times opinion pages—and that’s saying something, because the New York Times opinion pages constitute one of the most insipid excuses for journalism that the English language can provide.
The awful thing is: That pathetic pandering works. There is a big market for servility.
We need better media, but we need better media consumers, too.