The traditional American mass media – the crumbling, Internet-besieged edifice of newspapers and news shows, magazines and roundtables and journalism schools – evolved to believe with equal vigor in two not entirely compatible ideals.
One is an ideal of balance, nonpartisanship and near-perfect neutrality.
The other is a much more ideological ideal, which treats journalism as a kind of vanguard profession – fighting for the powerless against the powerful and leading America toward enlightenment.
Both of these visions have inspired great journalists, but many of the establishment media’s worst habits arise from the doomed attempt to pursue both of them at once.
Consider, for instance, the Washington press’ tendency toward what critics have dubbed “bipartisanthink” – in which journalists fetishize centrism and deal making, and assume that the best of all possible legislation, regardless of its actual content, is the kind that has both parties’ fingerprints on it. By conflating the march of progress with the march of legislation through Congress, bipartisanthink allows journalists to root for particular outcomes without having to explicitly choose sides.
Usually this happens on fiscal issues, where the mainstream press’ attitude for the past few years has often been: “We need a grand bargain and we don’t care what is in it!” And usually bipartisanthink irritates liberals more than conservatives, because liberals sense that many of the media personalities talking up, say, the Simpson-Bowles deficit plan would actually be perfectly happy with President Barack Obama’s deficit plan but feel a professional obligation not to admit it. Conservatives, meanwhile, tend to be more frustrated by bipartisanthink’s cousin, “leading the conversation.” This is how the mainstream media tend to cover social issues, and it involves acting as a crusading vanguard while denying anything of the sort is happening.
I’m borrowing the term from The Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz, who used it to describe how the press should handle the aftermath of the Newtown shootings. The trouble is that when you set out to “lead” a conversation, you often end up deciding where it goes, which side wins the arguments and even who gets to participate. This was clear enough in Kurtz’s own piece, which assumed that stricter gun control was the only rational policy response to Newtown. And it’s been clear enough in all of the culturally charged debates – over guns and gay marriage, immigration and abortion – that have attracted media attention of late.
On these issues, an official journalistic commitment to neutrality coexists with the obvious ideological thrust of a thousand specific editorial choices: what kinds of questions are asked of which politicians; which stories get wall-to-wall coverage and which ones end up buried; which side is portrayed as aggressors and which the aggrieved; and so on.
“Leading the conversation” is how you end up with the major Sunday shows somehow neglecting to invite a single anti-amnesty politician on a weekend dominated by the immigration debate. It’s how you end up with officially nonideological anchors lecturing social conservatives for being out of step with modern values. And it’s how you end up with a press corps having to be shamed and harassed into paying attention to the grisly case of a Philadelphia doctor whose methods of late-term abortion included snipping the spines of neonates after they were delivered.
As the last example suggests, the problem here isn’t that American journalists are too quick to go on crusades. Rather, it’s that the press’ ideological blinders limit the kinds of crusades mainstream outlets are willing to entertain.
The core weakness of the mainstream media, in this sense, is less liberalism than parochialism. The same habits of mind that make bipartisanthink seem like the height of wisdom also make it easy to condescend to causes and groups that seem disreputable and to underplay stories that might vindicate them.
The best response to this problem probably doesn’t involve doubling down on a quest for an illusory neutrality. We’d be better off, instead, if our battered-but-still-powerful media establishment did more to lean into the Internet era, which for all its challenges offers opportunities as well – the chance to multiply perspectives, to promote a diverse array of causes and to pursue a wider variety of journalistic ideals.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for the New York Times.
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