Rare is the product that is so widely used, so badly needed, and so little loved as journalism. Its detractors can now rejoice as the critical US branch of the industry, already on the ropes economically, is tearing itself apart over politics.
First came self-flagellation after the fluke 2016 victory of Donald Trump with the serious media agonizing over its failure to connect with, understand the anger of and foresee the behavior by voters inclined to be screaming “Lock her up” about Hillary Clinton.
Now comes an equal and opposite reaction, with the same institutions turning on their own who fail to bow without question to a new hard-left orthodoxy.
All this mirrors what’s happening in society. On one side are strikingly illiberal and mostly youthful progressives, on the prowl for all things “inappropriate.” Arrayed against them are Trump conservatives, seething with alternative facts from their bizarre alternate universe. Caught in the middle are the suddenly unfashionable liberals, with their old-school fealty to freedom of all kinds; they view the populist right as more dangerous but are perhaps most annoyed by the progressive left.
The animosity between liberals and progressives in journalism began in the United States but is likely to spread, and its practical manifestation is a gradual but unmistakable discarding of objectivity, an elusive ideal that was fundamental to Western journalism for the past century. Muckrakers and partisans were always in the mix, but serious journalism meant objectivity. That was the world I entered as a teenage reporter for our local paper near Philadelphia 40 years ago.
In a fascinating twist, that world is under attack now by the political left, once a journalism-friendly zone. Instead of dispassionate and fair examination, it seeks “moral clarity” on causes it deems self-evident – journalism crusading for societal change with minimal tolerance of dissent.
This may sound like a needed correction to some – but it is bad news for a society and an industry already reeling from the past decades’ crackpotization of the right.
Pretty much around the time the US right started sneering at higher education, perhaps 30 years ago, it also began to obsess about the media’s supposed bias. Conservatives noticed that most journalists – like most academics – lean left. Those drawn to journalism as observers, storytellers and analysts (as opposed to entertainers, activists and politicians, which is a more common mix today) backed freedom of ideas and discourse. This was, for a time, a notion of the left.
These liberals tended to resist conservative notions that race, ethnicity, nationality and other involuntary identities should prevail over individualism and universal human rights. That did not sit well with the right, because in a tribe as in a family, loyalty trumps truth. That was the classic identity politics of the right. And viewed through its prism, the right was not wrong in thinking objectivity was not its friend.
As long as the US conservative movement was represented by patricians like the Bushes and erudite columnists like George Will, one could still conceive of a national debate taking place on common platforms and underpinned by shared societal foundations. That is history now that the right is dominated by a populist movement whose signature qualities are xenophobia, conspiracy theorizing, disregard for expertise and burning hatred of the “elites.” It came from globalization moving power away from the West, toxic inequality that correlates to education, the decline of white dominance, and the educated classes’ widespread disinterest in religion.
It would appear that publishers of serious journalism (with some exceptions like the Wall Street Journal) do not expect supporters of the new populist right to soon return as customers. These voters are now solidly with Fox News, conservative talk radio, agitprop websites and the social media madhouse.
Meanwhile, the media’s business model has been shredded by the Internet. People of all political stripes resist paying for content when so much is available for free, and most advertising has floated away to search and social where targeting is more effective. About half the journalism industry has been wiped out, local media is on its last legs, and publishers are scrambling to persuade their ornery, fickle audience to fork over a few coins.
They cannot afford to lose another consumer. They certainly cannot afford to lose the younger generation.
This is at the heart of the war on objectivity, which is part and parcel of the younger generation’s startling indifference to objectivity’s cousin, liberal democracy. The uproar spreading through newsrooms in America is essentially a rear-guard business strategy to win over the youth.
Of course, every outgoing generation has its issues with the one coming in. What is new is the pace of change today and the intensity of the stakes. It is a quantitative difference that becomes qualitative.
Today’s young generation is enraged that the climate of the Earth is being destroyed; that careers and safety nets are vanishing; and that toxic inequality and discrimination persist in the West. In the United States the political system is so bankrupt that one finds little hope of fixing outrages like gun massacres in schools, gerrymandering, minority rule and millions without healthcare. It’s not hard to see why the youth have lost faith that their broken world will fix itself without a starting over.
But there is a difference between being right and being smart. In their anger many young people are ready to burn down the house. Many of them don’t bother to vote (and then bemoan the result) and dismiss objective journalism as a conspiracy of the elites. Seeking empowerment the youth have found Twitter, where they formed a mob and have certainly been heard.
That is why a steady stream of journalists who insist on freedom of discourse – which includes the quaint right to give offense – are finding themselves defenestrated or compelled to resign. In recent days it was Andrew Sullivan from New York Magazine and Bari Weiss at the New York Times.
Weiss claimed she was bullied by colleagues and abandoned by the publisher. Sullivan, an early champion of gay rights who supported Barack Obama and plans to vote for Joe Biden, wrote that a “critical mass” of his colleagues rejected association with him because he criticizes “critical theory” and woke politics. Essentially, he does not believe arguments should be judged by the identity of the speaker.
One wonders what Sullivan’s colleagues would have made of Martin Luther King, whose “I Have a Dream” speech outlined a color-blind vision violently at odds with identity politics. Dr. King might not have been employable in today’s serious American media on account of his outspoken liberalism.
What will become of the liberal US readership? What’s left for those who are not conservatives and yet also do not see history as zero-sum struggles between “social constructs,” who are not easily “triggered,” who are not affronted by inappropriateness and have little interest in “canceling” careers? They’ll always have The Economist, but maybe not much else.
The situation is at odds with the vision of journalism that underpinned my time in the industry, most of it spent at the Associated Press. Whether we were covering Kosovo or Gaza, Haiti or Afghanistan, we felt no lack of moral clarity in believing facts are paramount, inconvenient truth was still truth, and connecting the dots did not mean crusading.
Criticism of objectivity is not unfounded, I admit: excessive impartiality can make journalists seem absurd. Craven “both sides-ism” can be so cautious as to lean on quotes for plainly observable fact: Stalin said he wanted to murder the poets at Lubyanka Prison; the poets, meanwhile, said Stalin’s decision was unfair.
On top of that, the very choosing of what’s an important story to cover, and then the presentation, are subjective. Everything we all do and say is filtered through the experience that informs our understanding. So the search for newsroom diversity, beyond fairness considerations, might produce a product with broader appeal.
I never felt comfortable claiming journalists’ personal opinions and backgrounds had no impact on our work. But most of my colleagues did their best to be fair. We did not always succeed, but we tried. We also aimed to respect boundaries between reporting and analysis, between analysis and opinion.
There was a very good reason for this. If no one even tries to be objective, then all presentations are equally valid and there is no such thing as truth. Free societies and free markets need truth. Drop objectivity as a goal, and all becomes opinion, and half your audience stops listening.
This is the worst time for journalism to make such a mistake. All over the democratic world politics are dysfunctional because social media has enabled people to put up walls. Crusading progressive media will be met with higher walls.
“Moral clarity” can beget fanaticism, but rarely persuasion; what is clear to one side will not be clear to the other. Persuading the other is difficult work, more so in our mulish times than perhaps ever in the past. The only way to persuade is to be heard. That is what the progressive puritans in journalism have essentially given up.