Is ISIS still losing? Why Vox keeps getting the news wrong.
When Ezra Klein joined together with Matthew Yglesias and a handful of similarly hard-working, earnest young journalists to found Vox, they pitched it as an antidote to ideologically slanted news. Vox would differ from the online competition in offering empirically based "explanation and analysis," which Klein, with characteristic modesty and self-deprecation, described as adding "a drizzle of olive oil and a hint of sea salt" to the "spinach" of straight-up news.
Nearly fourteen months after its launch, Vox's plan of serving up lightly seasoned, vitamin-rich leafy veggies appears to be working out, with traffic running far ahead of Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight, a similarly data-heavy site launched around the same time. Sure, there have been some minor bumps in the road, but most have been handled deftly. With the website growing, and hiring, Vox looks like a success.
But clicks aren't a measure of quality, and saying you aim to publish fair and balanced news doesn't make it so. Today Vox combines the kind of solid online journalism that can be found on any number of websites with stories that are almost a parody of liberal faux-neutrality. Too often what it presents as dispassionate, objective policy analysis is in fact a transparent attempt to "explain" why policies favored or pursued by the Obama administration are obviously, unambiguously correct.
In some ways, and despite all the high-tech bells, whistles, and card stacks, this makes Vox an extremely old-fashioned website.
During the middle decades of the 20th century, journalists actively pursued an ideal of objectivity that usually ended up endorsing the policy positions favored by the reigning liberal establishment. This was itself a break from historic American norms. From the time of the earliest days of the republic, American journalism had been nakedly partisan, with newspapers clearly supporting one party and agenda or another.
This began to change with the New Deal, and even more so in the postwar years. These were the decades of the great liberal consensus. Liberals saw themselves (and their policy expertise) as contributing quite straightforwardly to the advancement of the common good. To dissent from their outlook was to be selfish, stupid, or both. (Liberals nodded in assent when Lionel Trilling dismissed American conservatism for adding up to little more than "irritable mental gestures.")
Not that liberals thought they had a lock on capital-T truth. In good pragmatic fashion, they wanted to wave away talk of truth and falsehood in favor of just getting on with fixing problems. That their prioritization of those problems and favored approaches to solving them followed from a whole raft of liberal assumptions and commitments didn't faze them. It was a triviality, a distraction.
Journalists, for their part, were far more idealistic about their work. Partisans for an extra-partisan Truth, they were interested in pursuing objectivity and unshakably convinced that achieving that standard and publicizing it would be good for the country. At the same time, most of them personally favored a center-left agenda, presuming (often without saying so explicitly) that the facts themselves vindicated liberalism.
All of this now seems like ancient history. Major cultural shifts are usually overdetermined, and that was certainly the case in the reversion of the American media landscape to a far more nakedly partisan style. On one level, the liberal consensus was discredited by Vietnam and the urban crime wave of the 1970s. On another, intellectual developments spread postmodern skepticism about claims to objectivity. Finally, there was the rise of the new right that (justifiably) felt marginalized by the old liberal consensus.
All of these trends encouraged the overthrow of postwar liberalism and its journalistic enablers — and favored a return to the blatant partisanship that was once the American norm. Only now, the explicit bias metastasized far beyond broadsheet newspapers to talk radio, cable news, and above all the infinite expanses of the internet.
Viewed against this backdrop, Vox looks like a throwback to the heyday of the unchallenged liberal consensus, when a limited number of news outlets produced content that strove for "just the facts, ma'am" objectivity that just so happened to provide consistent backup for center-left policies.
The contrast with an explicitly liberal policy shop like the Center for American Progress is telling. CAP wears its liberal commitments on its sleeve, and so it's perfectly at home in the internet's hyper-partisan ecosystem. But not Vox, which at its best looks like a CAP that's deep in the throes of an identity crisis. It's a liberal website that thinks it can get away with pretending not to be a liberal website.
The pro-liberal slant is sometimes subtle, but often not at all. When Klein and Yglesias interviewed the president last winter, for example, they didn't just fail to challenge or pin him down on controversial issues; they didn't even try to. Jack Shafer captured it memorably:
Again and again, they serve him softball — no, make that Nerf ball — questions and then insert infographics and footnotes that help advance White House positions. Vox has lavished such spectacular production values on the video version of the Obama interview — swirling graphics and illustrations, background music (background music!?), aggressive editing, multiple camera angles — that the clips end up looking and sounding like extended commercials for the Obama-in-2016 campaign. I've seen subtler Scientology recruitment films. [Politico]
The partisanship is so obvious in the Obama interview (and in many of Vox's "explainers" about the administration's domestic policies and positions) that it's hard to imagine anyone being fooled. More insidious has been its coverage of foreign policy — and especially the Obama administration's efforts to defeat ISIS.
Vox has been remarkably consistent in recent months. On February 23, Zack Beauchamp wrote an article with a very forceful opening: "If you want to understand what's happening in the Middle East today, you need to appreciate one fundamental fact: ISIS is losing its war for the Middle East." That unmodulated position — "ISIS is losing" — is what Vox decided to use as a headline on the article, and it gets echoed again and again throughout the piece, as Beauchamp argues (backed up by abundant colorful maps) that Iraq is looking great, ISIS is stumbling in Syria, its extremist ideology is about to burn itself out, and so on. Message: The president's policy is going swimmingly; we have nothing at all to worry about; we'll have this one wrapped up in no time.
On April 2, Beauchamp was back to share the good news that "ISIS just suffered its worst defeat yet — losing the Iraqi city of Tikrit." If that wasn't enough optimism for you, a section heading a few paragraphs into the story proclaimed, "Tikrit shows that ISIS is losing in Iraq."
Johnny Harris and Beauchamp returned again on April 15 with a follow-up: "ISIS is losing. Watch how and why it's happening." Once again, right out of the gate, the authors announce that "the group is being turned back in Iraq" because the Iraq army, Shia militias, and "an international air power coalition" are "retaking territory." To back up these cheerful assertions, Harris and Beauchamp offer a slick embedded 3-minute video that assures viewers that the movement is in retreat.
Super-hawk Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) provided a new occasion to drive home the point in early May when he declared on CNN that "the Islamic State seems to be winning now." This prompted Beauchamp to respond, in yet another piece, "This is, in fact, the exact opposite of what is occurring." The evidence Beauchamp provided to back up the assertion sounded utterly convincing.
Until 11 days later, that is. That's when ISIS took Ramadi, capital of Anbar province in Iraq — and shortly thereafter, on another front, the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria.
Vox's string of Panglossian stories looks pretty embarrassing right now. ISIS wasn't losing three months ago, and it certainly isn't losing now. That doesn't mean it's winning either. But it does mean that the truth is more complicated than Vox has consistently made it seem. Which also means that its "explainers" about ISIS have been more like a disinformation campaign launched by a propaganda ministry than a series of illuminating articles published by a website that's genuinely devoted to news-gathering and policy analysis.
This is precisely the same sort of blunder that conservative news outlets made over and over again from 2004 to 2006, when denial about the Iraq insurgency became clinical. That an explicitly liberal website would engage in its own one-sided team-building exercise is hardly surprising.
What is surprising is that such a website would continue to portray itself as positioned above and beyond the partisan fray.