Opinion

How a Washington Post exposé played into right-wing muckrakers' hands

You can't beat muckrakers at their own game

It's hardly surprising that an era marked by huge advances in communication technology would also be one in which independent muckrakers would enjoy a surge of influence for the first time in a century. What's at least a little surprising is that most of these muckrakers would be allied with the right. And it's impossible to make sense of that peculiar fact without grasping the distinctive alignment of forces reshaping our media and political landscape.

The original muckrakers were investigative journalists, writers, and photographers working independently or for magazines eager to expose corruption in big business and the political machines that dominated American public life around the turn of the 20th century. Their goal was to take the powerful down a peg, expose their rampant graft and self-dealing, and inspire popular support for progressive reforms.

A century later, the descendants of those progressives run many of the most powerful institutions in American civil society — the biggest newspapers, much of broadcast and cable television, public radio, the universities, public school classrooms and boards, and technology companies. Power changes hands between political parties fairly frequently, but the progressive predisposition of these institutions has remained quite stable over time.  

That's how we've ended up in our current situation, where right-wingers armed with cell phones and social media apps try to discredit a progressive establishment which uses its institutional power to try to discredit them right back.

This dynamic plays itself out in a host of ways, but no recent example illustrates it more vividly than the story of how a high-profile Washington Post columnist and reporter came to publish the identity of the person behind the popular and incendiary Twitter account "Libs of TikTok."

This account has played an outsized role in American politics over the past year by sharing short videos originally posted to TikTok (along with occasional screen shots and other material) that express culturally left-wing views. Often the clips show transgender people and sometimes people claiming to be public school teachers eager to spread their outlook among their students. In most cases, each item is introduced by a maximally inflammatory tweet clearly intended to make the left look as bad as possible.

Libs of TikTok first gained notoriety when Joe Rogan highlighted and praised it on his popular podcast last summer and then again in the fall. More recently, posts from the Twitter account began showing up on Fox News. They also played an important role in building support for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' (R) effort to pass a law designed to restrict what public school teachers in Florida can say in the classroom about gays, lesbians, and transgender people and their rights. The many copycat laws currently working through Republican-controlled legislatures across the country are partly inspired by memes connected to the Twitter account, which has also helped to popularize use of the highly tendentious term "groomers" to describe politicians, public institutions, and private businesses (like the Walt Disney Company) that oppose such laws.

All of this makes Libs of TikTok a digital, right-wing muckraking outfit. It exists to make left-wing causes and activists look politically and morally toxic, while also fueling a right-wing populist backlash against any institution deemed receptive to or encouraging of such left-wing messaging.

In this respect, the account is a close ally of right-wing activist Christopher Rufo, who frequently uses Twitter and Fox News appearances to publicize documents purporting to show support for "Critical Race Theory" and transgender ideology within elite public and private institutions. (The forerunner to both Rufo and Libs of TikTok is James O'Keefe, the right-wing activist who during the opening years of the Obama administration pioneered independent gonzo journalism for the internet age.)  

And that brings us to the Washington Post exposé written by technology columnist Taylor Lorenz. Readers of the column will learn a lot about how the Libs of TikTok account developed into its current form and style from several prior accounts; how its proprietor has gained considerable notoriety and influence (anonymously) over the past year; and how pro-LGBTQ+ activists have come to despise the account's stridently anti-LGBTQ+ message. Readers will also learn that Libs of TikTok is run by Chaya Raichik, an Orthodox Jewish woman who lives and works as a real estate agent in Brooklyn, New York.  

What readers will not learn is why Libs of TikTok is bad (Lorenz presumes its badness throughout but never attempts to establish it through argument) — or how or why any moral or civic goal is advanced by revealing Raichik's identity. The column reads like straight reporting to an audience of the likeminded with a scoop that isn't especially newsworthy. (Raichik is neither famous nor powerful in any way beyond the Twitter account she started to advance the political views she favors.) The effect is a bit like David and Goliath, and Lorenz does not comes away looking like the sympathetic party.

Journalists like to think of ourselves as champions of the powerless against abuse by mighty political and economic oppressors. But two decades into the 21st century, things are a little more complicated than that self-congratulatory story implies.  

The Washington Post may at times be animated by the spirit of the original progressive muckrakers, but it has also become a very powerful organization in its own right, with formidable institutional allies throughout the culture and political system. Those institutions now confront a new set of muckrakers, and that the institutions lean left and the muckrakers lean right doesn't change the hierarchical character of their conflict. Neither does the fact that the muckrakers often have powerful allies of their own. 

When a person working for a powerful media outlet goes after an ordinary citizen, it can't help but look like ideologically motivated bullying — which, of course, confirms everything today's right-wing muckrakers say about their progressive opponents. The best way for the Post and other leading institutions of American public life to defend themselves against the populist onslaught from the right, then, is for them to resist the temptation to sink to the same level. The powerful will never beat muckrakers at their own game.

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