The return of press complacency
Do journalists know how ridiculous they sound?
I generally agree with Tony Soprano that "Remember when?" is the lowest form of conversation. But a few weeks away from Joe Biden's presidential inauguration it is hard not to get misty-eyed thinking about the early days of Donald Trump's administration.
I remember when Ben Carson's furniture purchases ranked highly among the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind. I remember when stories about cabinet members spending money on travel that I had always scoffed at in my day as an editor at the Washington Free Beacon suddenly led the homepages of every major newspaper in the country. I remember when Trump was going to be impeached for tweeting about the NFL. I remember standing in the White House briefing room when Sean Spicer told Glenn Thrush to raise his hand and use his big boy voice (one of the administration's regular attacks upon the foundations of our vigorous and independent free press). I remember a time when Anderson Cooper's McCarthyite rants about the Russian menace were still shocking. I remember that there was a person called Scott Pruitt.
This was always going to be the upside of a Biden presidency. No more theatrical exchanges between White House officials and television journalists, no more over-the-top fact-checking chyrons — indeed, the whole blinkeredly tautological exercise of "fact checking" itself is likely to disappear, except in right-of-center publications. Instead we can go back to ignoring how many people are deported and the conditions at border detention facilities. We can bomb the Middle East and stay in Afghanistan indefinitely. We can ignore real, indeed painfully obvious conflicts of interest involving the president's family and foreign powers. We can pretend that big tech is a disinterested vehicle for progress rather than a toxic sewer of something called "misinformation." We might even let the '80s have their foreign policy back after all. All the existential threats to democracy will disappear like a bad dream because one septuagenarian opponent of single-payer health care is replacing another.
This is more or less exactly what CNN chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta and a number of other journalists said in a recent interview with The Atlantic. Acosta, who has published a book with the apparently serious title The Enemy of the People: A Dangerous Time to Tell the Truth in America, breathlessly insisted that Trump's relationship with the press has been a "nonstop national emergency." Another CNN reporter, Daniel Dale, informed readers that it "will not be a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week job to fact-check Biden." I'm sure it won't.
The extent to which these people are conscious of how ridiculous they sound is very much open to dispute. I am inclined to believe that most of what we think of as "media bias" is half conscious at best, a myopic inability to engage in what middle school teachers call "critical thinking," to place information in context, to observe well-defined professional norms, to do virtually any of the things that journalists apparently consider the hallmarks of their profession when they are not talking about Trump (or Willard Romney or George W. Bush before him, in a long line stretching back at least to Nixon). A much more interesting question is which would be the greater indictment of the American media establishment: if they were honest buffoons who sincerely believed that Trump was a paid-up KGB operative who ran for office in order to convince Chinese billionaires to pay dues at Mar-a-Lago, or liars who only pretended to believe these things to make a living? The mind reels.
This is the most amusing thing of all of these people: projection. The greatest threat to American journalism is not the outgoing president who occasionally (and rarely without humor) mocks reporters for their self-aggrandizing behavior, but the journalists themselves, whose staggering incuriosity is rivaled only by their outsized sense of their own importance and their willingness to gaslight the American people. Slavish toward actual power, almost willfully amnesiac even about very recent history, functionally illiterate: They have only themselves to blame for the low esteem in which they are rightly held by everyone who does not share their class priorities.
Maybe there is no upside here.