Friday, June 29, 2018

The Media is Not Part of the Liberal Family

Max Weber has a quote (Yair Rosenberg just promoted it), regarding the proper role of a teacher:
"The primary task of a useful teacher is to teach his students to recognize ‘inconvenient’ facts--I mean facts that are inconvenient for their party opinions. And for every party opinion there are facts that are extremely inconvenient, for my own opinion no less than for others."
It's a good quote, and it's good advice -- not only for teachers. What it suggests is that among our most difficult deliberative obligations -- with respect to facts and also to opinions -- is to consider alternatives and counters and problems with our position. It does no good to harp on what we already know and what confirms our ideological priors. We must stretch wide to think those thoughts which are hard for us and ours.

However. There's a certain strand of malign media behavior which I think is in some ways attributable to this quote and needs to be addressed. It stems from a distorted understanding by media figures of who the relevant "parties" are and what facts actually are "inconvenient". It seems to me that quite a few major stories -- about growing right-wing authoritarianism, racism, prejudice, and Islamophobia -- are going undercovered because, in the view of many journalists, they're not "inconvenient" stories. It's not that they don't recognize that this sort of behavior is wrong. It's that they think that their wrongfulness is so obvious that there's nothing interesting to talk about.

Consider the recent debates about "civility" in the public square. It's come up primarily with reference to the ethics of a private restaurant owner (quite politely, by all accounts) asking Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave her establishment (oddly enough, that seemed to get more negative attention than protesters quite loudly haranguing Kirstjen Nielsen at a Mexican restaurant). And because it's come up in that context, liberals have been quite annoyed that it's come up in that context, as opposed to, say, the fact that Congress contains a man who was criminally convicted for body-slamming a reporter, or another man who's happily retweeting Nazis. Or, you know, everything the President of the United States ever says ever.

Under any objective metric, these are far more serious breaches of "civility" than Maxine Waters urging people to confront Trump administration officials in public settings. One can think -- quite abstractly -- that the question of whether restaurant owners should refuse to serve Sarah Huckabee Sanders is ponderable while acknowledging the obvious truth that it doesn't rank in the top 200 highest priority moral questions that the media should be placing on the public agenda -- even confined to the "civility" subcategory. Given that fact, there's something facially outrageous about devoting any non-trivial amount of journalistic attention to Sarah Huckabee Sanders' dining options over and above other, obviously higher-priority stories.

To that point, though, I think many media members would issue the following retort: Yes, body-slamming a reporter or being a bit of Nazi fanboy is obviously wrong. But that's the point: it's obviously wrong. It's not interesting -- who even disagrees? By contrast, the reporters probably know a ton of people who laud Maxine Waters or the Red Hen. That issue, consequently, has stakes -- it's interesting in a way that talking about physically assaulting reporters isn't. A similar motivation probably explains the New York Times' infamous "Most Americans Want Legal Status for 'Dreamers.' These People Don't" profile. From the vantage of the journalist, sympathy for Dreamers is the obvious position -- it scarcely needs explanation. Wanting to see them deported? That's novel. That's interesting. That's a truly alternate point of view.

Hence, the reason these -- objectively low-priority -- liberal (alleged) breaches of civility (or what have you) get the media attention that they do is, in a sense, precisely because they aren't viewed as self-evidently terrible. By contrast, the argument goes, nobody needs to be told that Dana Loesch is a thug or that Mitch McConnell utterly lacks any sort of principles beyond partisan hackery.

And let's be clear: within the liberal "family", that sort of introspective consideration is valuable. We should be considering the thoughts that are hard or inconvenient for us, we should be forcing ourselves to contemplate arguments or positions that challenge our own (conservatives should do the same). And the journalists, whom (I strongly suspect) are generally left-of-center in their private commitments, think that's what they're doing. They're not going to waste time confirming what's already known -- that there are some psychopaths in the Republican caucus who are pretty much avowed White Supremacists, or that there is a growing right-wing endorsement of explicitly authoritarian language towards the media as "enemies of the American people", or that undocumented immigrants remain human beings and do not deserve to be caged up and torn from their families. That's easy. What's hard is the act of forcing other members of the "family" to deal with truly inconvenient, facts and perspectives, ones that don't come naturally.

But here's the thing: journalists are not part of the liberal family. Not professionally, anyway. In their professional capacity, their job isn't to uncover the facts and narratives that are inconvenient for themselves or their tribe. Or more aptly, their "tribe", so long as they're acting as journalists, is the entirety of the United States. Which means that, for much of their audience, it is quite "inconvenient" that Republican Congressman Steve King is a White Supremacist, and it's quite "inconvenient" that Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte physically assaulted a reporter, and it's quite "inconvenient" that the Trump administration's Muslim ban was explicitly based on racism and the Supreme Court has now decided that's okay. That these facts may seem too obvious, too much like conventional wisdom, to the journalist, or even to all the journalist's friends, is utterly immaterial. Because as it happens, they're apparently not obvious for large swaths of the country.

Ironically, conservative media critics are right about one thing: journalists need to stop thinking of themselves as part of the liberal family. It's that self-identification that creates a paradoxical problem of conservative media bias. It emerges when private liberal political beliefs conjoin with the professional understanding that it's the journalist's job to unsettle received wisdom and disturb pat answers. The result of that cocktail is that journalists persistently undercover the "obvious" conservative wrongdoings (what are they really "disturbing"?) and overreport on relatively trivial liberal ones (it may be small fries, but it least it's a challenge).

This same dynamic is also why the charge of a conservative bias is so baffling and easily dismissed by journalists. Of course, part of it is because they're private liberals themselves, so how could they be biased against liberals. But part of it is because the locus of the critique feels like a complaint about journalists doing their job right -- tackling the hard issues, forcing people to think the hard thoughts.

And the thing is, that is the right way to be a journalist -- they're not wrong about that. The problem is that they're not actually successful at forcing people to grapple with the inconvenient thoughts -- they only think that they are because their sense of what counts as a hard issue and a hard thought is distorted by the false belief that they're just liberals talking to other liberals.

They're not. They're journalists talking to the country. And for this country, right now, the things that seem so "obviously" wrong are deemed by many to be entirely right.

A good journalist should think about how to unsettle that wisdom.

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