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What "liberal media?"
Plus, some thoughts about how the press is preparing for fascism.
Hey everyone! I’ve got a new piece out at Dame Magazine about the state of mainstream media. Below that, paid subscribers (reminder: you can get a free 7-day trial if you’re not already a paid subscriber; just click the trial button at the bottom of the page) can read some additional thoughts of mine on the topic.
An excerpt from my Dame Magazine story:
I’ve seen a number of stories in recent weeks about CNN’s supposed shift to a “less partisan” strategy under new CEO Chris Licht. “CNN to dull its liberal edge,” reads a February 26 headline at Axios, and earlier this month, the New York Times reported that Licht “said he wanted to book more Republicans and conservatives on political shows to offer a wider range of viewpoints.”
As a regular (yet reluctant) viewer of CNN and all things media, my exact thought was, “lol wut?” CNN? With a “liberal edge”? Was there a secret liberal version of CNN I’d missed these past years?
CNN? The place that currently or has previously employed the likes of Andre Bauer, Amanda Carpenter, Steve Cortes, Ken Cuccinelli, S.E. Cupp, Paris Dennard, Ben Ferguson, Jonah Goldberg, Alyssa Farah Griffin, Mary Katharine Ham, Scottie Nell Hughes, Sarah Isgur, Jack Kingston, Corey Lewandowski, Jeffrey Lord, Mia Love, Ed Martin, Kayleigh McEnany, Jason Miller, Ana Navarro, Rick Santorum, and J.D. Vance? That’s the media outlet with a “liberal edge”? Why? Because Jim Acosta would occasionally do a bit of grandstanding while interviewing Trump officials (something he also did during the Obama administration)? The place that fired Reza Aslan for criticizing Donald Trump on Twitter and booted Marc Lamont Hill for speaking out against Israel’s policies toward Palestinians? I must be confusing it with something else, because that’s certainly not some sort of bastion of lefty group-think that needs to “dull its liberal edge.”
The truth is that during the 2016 presidential campaign, pretty much every mainstream news outlet began moving to the right. And after Trump won, the quest to “understand” his voters began. Outlets would dispatch reporters to “Trump country,” who would parachute into a diner to interview voters who would affirm over and over that no, Trump’s latest controversy hadn’t changed their minds about the president. “There’s No Boom in Youngstown, but Blue Collar Workers Are Sticking With Trump,” reads a May 2019 headline from the Times.
The right-wing shift was both relentless and pointless. In 2016, MSNBC rolled out an ad campaign that featured photos of Republican consultant Mike Murphy, George W. Bush–era White House Communications Director Nicolle Wallace, right-wing radio host Hugh Hewitt, Republican consultant Steve Schmidt, Republican lawyer Ben Ginsberg, and former head of the Republican National Committee Michael Steele alongside the words: “People might start accusing us of leaning too far to the right.” When the New York Times hired Wall Street Journal deputy editorial page editor Bret Stephens to join the paper as an op-ed columnist, then-Times editorial page editor James Bennet wrote that Stephens’s hiring was part of a broader plan to “bring a new perspective to bear on the news,” and adding that the paper would add more voices to “continue to broaden the range of Times debate about consequential questions.” The following month, Bennet hired Stephens’s Wall Street Journal colleague Bari Weiss.
Okay, I thought. Maybe the rightward lurch of media that followed Trump’s 2016 win will be countered by a leftward correction following his 2020 loss. No such luck, as evidenced by the flurry of right-wing hires at mainstream news outlets following Trump’s loss (former Weekly Standard editor-in-chief Stephen Hayes was hired by NBC, Liberal Fascism author and National Review editor-in-chief Jonah Goldberg was scooped up by CNN, which also hired former Trump aide Alyssa Farrah; and former acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney was hired by CBS as a paid contributor to, as CBS News president Neeraj Khemlani said, to “make sure that we are getting access to both sides of the aisle,” and saying that it was “a priority because we know the Republicans are going to take over, most likely, in the midterms,” and that “a lot of the people that we’re bringing in are helping us in terms of access to that side of the equation”). The truth is that when Republicans win, the mainstream press feels the need to move to the right because they’re out of touch, and when Democrats win, the mainstream press feels the need to move to the right because it’s only a matter of time before Republicans win again. The answer to the millionaires and billionaires making these decisions is always to find an excuse to shift to the right.
Read the rest at damemagazine.com.
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Let’s chat a little bit about the context of that piece and the implications I’m making within it.
Over the weekend, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune published an op-ed defending the Proud Boys, a far-right neofascist street gang. “Attacking Proud Boys does disservice to caring parents,” read the headline.
The entire piece was a mess and included lines like, “When I think about the Proud Boys, I think of fathers, business owners and veterans.” It was a poorly-written piece that whitewashed what that group actually does. After backlash, the paper retracted the piece, writing that the opinion piece “did not meet our standards,” adding that “the Herald-Tribune opinion page will not provide a forum for support of the Proud Boys, an extremist group that promotes white nationalist views and which has been labeled a terrorist group by two countries and has top members under indictment on charges of seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.”
Over at Aaron Rupar’s Public Notice newsletter, Sam Thielman shared his thoughts on this and other newspaper blunders of the past week.
But that’s only tangentially related to what I wanted to talk about. Let’s continue below.
Yesterday, journalist Wesley Lowery tweeted, “Last week I had the very clear realization that as we approach elections that will be crucial in determining if we continue to have a multiracial democracy — in which moral panics about sexuality, race, and safety will be the leading issues — the media is completely unprepared.”
Some people replied to Lowery’s post with variations on, “You’re just noticing this?” but he’s a smart and talented guy who has written a lot about issues within the media, so I don’t think he was being especially literally with his comment about this realization coming just last week.
In January 2019, I wrote a piece for Media Matters arguing that it was crucial that the press learned from the mistakes of how it covered the 2016 election so as not to open the doors to chaos in 2020 and beyond. My thinking at the time, hopelessly naive, was that the endless treks to diners to interview Trump voters, the clear curve Republicans were being graded on, and everything else I wrote about at the time, were mistakes and overcorrections for flaws these news outlets saw as a misunderstanding of who Trump and his voters were. I no longer believe that.
As I wrote in a Twitter thread yesterday, I think that if anything, mainstream media outlets have spent time “preparing” … by moving to the right in hopes that when the type of right-wing authoritarian government they’re begging will emerge will welcome them into the fold.
I wrote about how places like the New York Times and CNN have never been “liberal,” and that efforts to make them “less partisan” and to “win people over” were just euphemisms for making their coverage even more favorable to the right. The Times gets called “liberal,” but it doesn’t function at all like conservative outlets like the New York Post, which rushed out an October 2020 story about Hunter Biden’s laptop even though it’s still not clear what was so scandalous about it. Oh, he did drugs? Okay? Oh, he used his dad’s fame and influence to land jobs? Yeah, that sucks, but okay?
Rudy Giuliani, who was the source for the New York Post story, said he gave it to them because “either nobody else would take it, or if they took it, they would spend all the time they could to try to contradict it before they put it out.” What Giuliani described was journalism. You don’t just put things out before verifying them. But that’s what the Post did, and it came off as extremely sloppy.
In 2016, the New York Times spent six weeks investigating a tip it got about a supposed connection between a server in Trump Tower and Russia. Here’s what Elisabeth Bumiller, the Washington bureau chief for the New York Times at the time told the Washington Post about that story:
We looked at this a long, long time — a lot of reporting, a lot of effort. It certainly looked like a really good story in the beginning, but the more we looked at it, and the more sources we talked to, we just couldn’t say what it was. … Many of our sources became less confident over the weeks that it was something nefarious.
And that’s what journalism is. It’s putting in a lot of work that sometimes doesn’t amount to much. And when that happens, you can’t just publish the story anyway. That’s just not how it works. If the New York Times was actually “liberal” in the way that the New York Post is “conservative,” the Times would have happily churned out a story making a claim it couldn’t prove. But it didn’t. Because it is not and has never been a “liberal” news outlet (its opinion section typically lands left-of-center, though that’s certainly changed in recent years).
I wrote that what’s happened since 2016 has been fascinating in an “oh no, this won’t end well” kind of way. As Trump and others on the right turned attacks on the press into a big part of their communication strategy, the press kept trying to appease them. CNN didn’t renew the contracts of a number of prominent left-leaning commentators, for instance, while loading up on both “pro-Trump” and “Never Trump” conservatives, both of whom fell into either establishment right or far-right buckets. CNN hired a former Trump Justice Department spokesperson with zero journalism experience and had pledged loyalty to Trump to “coordinate coverage for the 2020 campaign.” After outcry, CNN panicked and changed her role to that of an on-air commentator (she’s since left CNN and landed a job at ABC).
The mainstream press has been shifting more and more to the right, and I think that shows exactly how they’ve “prepared” for the fascist right’s rise. There’s no penalty for this, either. If Republicans win, these news outlets can hope that their pandering and appeasement has won them a spot in the right’s good graces. If Democrats win, nothing happens. The right has shown that it will punish individuals and companies with the power of the state if they step out of line (see: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis attacking Disney and the Tampa Bay Rays for speech).
The future is looking pretty scary, and the billionaires in control of the so-called free press are abandoning the public.