Things Are Seemingly Spinning Out of Control, and We Blame George W. Bush

Fans of WSJ.com’s Best of the Web Today and its author James Taranto got an unpleasant note yesterday, on the heels of the on-air departure of WTMJ radio’s Charlie Sykes:

By the time you read this, we will have started our new job as editorial features editor of The Wall Street Journal, in charge of the op-ed pages of the newspaper and its digital counterparts. This is our final column. In due course Best of the Web will return under the byline of our colleague James Freeman.

It was not an easy decision to leave one of the best jobs in journalism; we are doing so only because we were offered another one of them. The new job is a return to our editing roots. We spent most of the early 1990s as an editor at the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. When The Wall Street Journal hired us in 1996 it was as an assistant editorial feature editor. The following year we were promoted to deputy.

In 2000 we were tapped to edit OpinionJournal.com, the editorial page website. It launched on July 28 of that year, along with Best of the Web, an unsigned blog then written by Ira Stoll of SmarterTimes.com. As the months progressed we began contributing our own commentary on the 2000 election and other news. By the spring of 2001 we had found a distinctive voice, and the column began carrying our byline. In 2008 OpinionJournal was incorporated into the Journal’s primary website, WSJ.com. Best of the Web moved with it, and we continued writing the column, five days a week, for another nine years.

What made Best of the Web even more distinctive—and still does—is an innovation we stumbled upon early in 2001. We noticed that readers were replying to the column’s email newsletter with suggestions of stories we should write about. We used many of these tips and began soliciting them at the bottom of each day’s column.

The daily flood of ideas from our diverse readership made us seem smarter than we actually are. It also created a sense of community. More than one of our readers have, in correspondence with us, referred in the first-person plural to “our column”—a particular point of pride for your humble columnist.

There is something to be said for going out on a high note, and 2016 was a great year for this column. We don’t claim to have gotten the election right—we were surprised, if only mildly, by Donald Trump’s victory—but most journalists were so spectacularly wrong that simply taking Trump and his supporters seriously was enough to put us at least in the top decile, maybe the 98th percentile, of journalistic sagacity. (In the 99th percentile we’d place cartoonist Scott Adams, reporter Salena Zito and, oddly enough, left-wing propagandist Michael Moore.)

As 2017 begins, the general mood in the so-called mainstream media is a bewildered despond, captured well in the opening of a year-end New York Times editorial:

Let’s pretend we’re in some cosmic therapist’s office, in a counseling session with the year 2016. We are asked to face the year and say something nice about it. Just one or two things.

The mind balks. Fingers tighten around the Kleenex as a cascade of horribles wells up in memory: You were a terrible year. We hate you. We’ll be so glad never to see you again. The silence echoes as we grope for a reply.

We said captured well, not written well. A cascade moves downward, not upward. Here’s an example of the correct usage: The tears of unfathomable sadness welled up in the editorialist’s eyes. She clutched a Kleenex as she prepared for them to cascade down her face.

The fin d’année has occasioned a spate of columns about what went wrong with journalism in 2016. The column you’re reading now is in that category, although we have the luxury of extrospection. One who does not is Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times, who tackled the subject—or at least lurched in its direction—under the headline “Lessons for News Media in a Disorienting Year” in the paper’s Boxing Day edition.

We’ve come to regard Rutenberg as the liberal media’s chief spokesman. In August, as we noted at the time, he wrote a column urging reporters who “believe” that Trump is “dangerous” to “throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half-century”—to abandon even the pretense of balance in favor of an “oppositional” approach.

That column appeared on the front page of the Times rather than in its usual spot in the business section. We construed that placement as a statement that Rutenberg’s opinions were Times policy, an inference that Dean Baquet, the Times’s top news editor, confirmed in an October interview with Harvard’s NiemanLab: “I thought Jim Rutenberg’s column nailed it.”

Curiously, in his Dec. 26 column Rutenberg has nothing to say about his August advice, except that he disagrees with New York Post columnist Michael Goodwin’s characterization of it as (in Rutenberg’s paraphrase) “woefully unfair.” Does Rutenberg think the media followed his admonition to adopt an “oppositional” approach in covering Trump? In retrospect does he think it was wise advice? (Our answers, for what it’s worth, are largely yes and definitely not, respectively.)

“What the mainstream media did wrong is by now well established,” Rutenberg asserts in the December column:

It generally failed to appreciate the power of the anger that ultimately decided the presidency. And that was in large part because it was overly hooked on polling that indicated a Hillary Clinton glide path, overly reliant on longtime sources who believed the rules of politics were immutable and too disconnected from too many workaday Americans. It repeatedly underestimated Donald Trump, not to mention Bernie Sanders. And there could have been a lot more reporting on both candidates’ policy plans, or lack thereof.

These comments are too bland to provoke any strong disagreement, and the bit about “policy plans, or lack thereof” strikes us as something of an empty piety.

Yet while Rutenberg’s observation about “anger” is true as far as it goes, it tells only half the story. In our own postelection conversations with Trump supporters, the predominant emotions we’ve detected have been joy and hope. It reminds us very much of the prevailing mood in the mainstream mediaaround this time eight years ago.

No doubt before the election a lot of Trump supporters were angry about the incumbent and the status quo more generally. But the same was true of Obama supporters in 2008. Rutenberg perceives political emotion through a partisan filter, and we doubt he is even conscious of it.

Rutenberg’s list of mainstream-media missteps is serviceable as an answer to the question of how journalists blew it, but he doesn’t even attempt to grapple with the question of why. Partisan and ideological bias is part of the answer, but it isn’t sufficient. After all, no one is more biased than 99th-percentile Michael Moore. Nor is it very interesting. To those of us who are aware of media bias, it is so familiar that we find the subject almost as tiresome as do those who are suffused with, and therefore oblivious to, it.

It seems to us that partisan and ideological bias is a symptom of a deeper disorder that afflicts journalism (among other institutions). Without meaning to, Rutenburg points toward a diagnosis. Here is how he describes his year in retrospect:

Starting a weekly column about the nexus between media, technology, culture and politics in the middle of the 2016 presidential campaign was like parachuting into a hail of machine-gun crossfire.
Dense smoke was everywhere as the candidates and their supporters unloaded on one another and, frequently, the news media, which more than occasionally was drawn into the fighting.
The territory that was at stake was the realm of the true, and how all sides would define it in the hyperpartisan debate to come under a new president.

Fact check: “The realm of the true” is not a real place. It is even more notional than “the Clinton Archipelago,” though it does occur to us to wonder if the two places are coterminous in Rutenberg’s mind.

OK, that was facetious. We respect Rutenberg enough to take him seriously and not literally; and obviously “the realm of the true” is a metaphor. But a metaphor for what?

As it happens, we answered that question in a 2013 column:

[People] frequently interchange the language of authority and real estate. Managers aspire to “the corner office,” politicians to “City Hall” or “the White House.” Disputes over authority are “turf battles.” Ownership of one’s residence is a mark of adult authority: “A man’s home is his castle.” . . .
Territorial animals fiercely defend their turf: “When a territory holder is challenged by a rival, the owner almost always wins the contest–usually within a matter of seconds,” observes biologist John Alcock in “Animal Behavior: An Evolutionary Approach.” We’d say the same instinct is at work when the great apes who call themselves Homo sapiens defend their authority. When it is challenged, they can become vicious, prone to risky and unscrupulous behavior.
That, it seems to us, is the central story of our time. The left-liberal elite that attained cultural dominance between the 1960s and the 1980s—and that since 2008 has seen itself as being on the cusp of political dominance as well—is undergoing a crisis of authority, and its defenses are increasingly ferocious and unprincipled. Journalists lie or ignore important but politically uncongenial stories. Scientists suppress alternative hypotheses. Political organizations bully apolitical charities. The Internal Revenue Service persecutes dissenters. And campus censorship goes on still.

By “the realm of the true,” Rutenberg means the authority to issue pronouncements about what is true—an authority, he seems to believe, that rightly belongs to journalists and the sources they deem trustworthy. Elsewhere in the Dec. 26 column he describes the news media’s role as “to do its part in maintaining a fact-based national debate.” And this supposed authority extends beyond matters of fact to judgments of morality and taste:

So when Mr. Trump would, say, insult Senator John McCain for being captured while fighting for his country in Vietnam, or declare that he could grab women by their genitals uninvited, reporters covered those moments for what they were: jarring exhibitions of decidedly unpresidential behavior as it has been defined through history.

We argued in November that Trump’s election was “probably a necessary corrective” to left-liberal authoritarianism—a point PJMedia’s Roger Kimball echoes in a recent column:

Among the many things that changed during the early hours of November 9 was a cultural dispensation that had been with us since at least the 1960s, the smug, “progressive” (don’t call it “liberal”) dispensation that had insinuated itself like a toxic fog throughout our cultural institutions—our media, our universities, our think tanks and beyond. So well established was this set of cultural assumptions, cultural presumptions, that it seemed to many like the state of nature: just there as is a mountain or an expanse of ocean. But it turns out it was just a human, all-too-human fabrication whose tawdriness is now as obvious as its fragility.
What we are witnessing is its dissolution. It won’t happen all at once and there are bound to be pockets of resistance. But they will become ever more irrelevant even if they become ever shriller and more histrionic. The anti-Trump establishment is correct that what is taking place is a sea change in our country. But they are wrong about its purport. It is rendering them utterly irrelevant even as it is boosting the confidence, strength, and competence of the country as a whole. Glad tidings indeed.

That may prove overly optimistic. On the other hand, do you see what we mean about joy and hope?

But where did journalists, of all people, get the idea that they have, or should aspire to, that kind of authority? A major influence in recent decades was surely Watergate and “All the President’s Men,” which cast reporters as heroes who brought down a corrupt president. But the impulse goes back much further. In a 1999 (pre-Best of the Web) Journal column, we quoted a 1934 book by Stanley Walker, city editor of the New York Herald Tribune:

[We] opened “City Editor” expecting to be made wistful for an age when journalism took itself less seriously, when reporters drank before deadline and newspapers reflected the outsized personalities of crusading owners like Joseph Pulitzer and Col. Robert McCormick. It turns out, however, that the professionalization of the press was well under way by 1934.
Although Walker viewed the growing concern with objectivity and ethics as a good thing, he was disdainful of the tendency to moralize. “There has long been, in the curious business of journalism, a yearning for respectability, a hankering for righteousness,” he writes. “There have been solemn meetings at which pious tenets have been set forth as guiding principles for working newspaper men. Somewhat in the fashion of sentimental madams who obtain an inner glow from attending early Sunday mass, the editors feel better for a few hours after such sessions. Then they return to the job of getting out a newspaper, there to find what they knew all along—that it is a business of imponderables, of hairline decisions, where right and wrong seem inextricably mixed up with that even more nebulous thing called Good Taste.”

Our advice to journalists who wish to improve the quality of their trade would be to lose their self-importance, overcome the temptation to pose as (or bow to) authority figures, and focus on the basic function of journalism, which is to tell stories. Journalists are not arbiters of truth; we are, unlike fiction writers (or for that matter politicians), constrained by the truth. But fiction writers bear the heavier burden of making their stories believable.

When you think about journalism in this way, its failure in 2016 becomes very simple to understand. Whether you see Trump as a hero or a goat—or something in between, which is our still-tentative view—his unlikely ascension to the presidency was a hell of a story. Most journalists missed the story because they were too caught up in defending a system of cultural authority of which they had foolishly allowed themselves to become an integral part.

Speaking of missing stories, last month the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi reported that major newspapers “are facing a shortage of people able, or more likely willing, to write opinion columns supportive of the president-elect.” Even conservative columnists at places like the Post and the New York Times are generally hostile to Trump. Smaller newspapers like the Des Moines Register and the Arizona Republic, Farhi noted, have the same problem.

“USA Today may have been the only large newspaper to buck the general trend,” Farhi wrote. “It published Trump-supportive columns from law professor and Instapundit founder Glenn Reynolds and regular contributor James Robbins.” (As a point of personal privilege, we note that Reynolds was a Best of the Web contributor before he launched InstaPundit in August 2001.)

Farhi’s insulation from the wider world is so thoroughgoing that he does not even know his own industry. If this report is to be believed, he has never heard of The Wall Street Journal, the biggest newspaper in the country as measured by print circulation. If he had, as the American Spectator’s R. Emmett Tyrrell notes, he would have come across several columnists who are “favorable, or at least serene, toward Donald Trump,” along with some stalwart Trump critics.

An opinion section with a variety of opinions—imagine that! Or just open the paper and look, and you will understand why we assume our new duties with enthusiasm even as we leave the job we have loved doing for so many years.

One of Taranto’s traditions was the “bye-ku,” a haiku written for every losing presidential candidate, from those who dropped out before votes were cast, such as Scott Walker …

Does he wish he had
Answered hypotheticals?
He isn’t saying

… to Hillary! herself:

I’m ruing the day
That Al Gore invented the
Internet. Please print.

So of course his fans wrote their own bye-kus using long-standing tropes of the column (two of which are in the headline):

The Best of the Web
Isn’t what it used to be
Hail and farewell, James.

French-looking leaders
Still have the hat to this day
We blame George W. Bush.

So sad that he of
the 98th percentile will
Amuse us no more.

Things are seemingly
Spinning out of control
Missing James already

Question and answer:
Someone Set Us Up the Bomb?
Tautological

Taranto bye-ku
Longest book ever written
Nothing gold can stay.

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