The sinking ship of journalism

Jacob Siegel:

On June 3, a week after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, New York Times employees took to Twitter en masse, claiming that the paper had “put Black staffers lives at risk” by publishing Sen. Tom Cotton’s call to use the military to suppress riots. That same day, Lee Fang, a reporter for the Intercept, tweeted a short video from a Bay Area protest that showed a young man named Max questioning the movement under whose banner he appeared to be marching.

“When I as a Black person look at the Black Lives Matter movement, I have questions,” Max said through a gray face mask. “Like I always question, why does a Black life matter only when a white man takes it.”

The full interview was 2 minutes and 6 seconds long. On June 6, with his job reportedly at risk for posting the video, Fang was forced to issue a public apology. The following day, a top editor at the Times responsible for publishing the Cotton op-ed resigned under companywide pressure.

What had Lee Fang done wrong? His colleague at the Intercept, Akela Lacy, accused him of “being racist,” of pushing “narratives about Black on Black crime after repeatedly being asked not to,” and of “using free speech to couch anti-Blackness.” Since June, more than 30,000 people have liked Lacy’s accusation against Fang on Twitter and over 5,000 have retweeted it, including a number of prominent left-wing journalists who endorsed the smear.

Fang arrived at the Intercept with impressive credentials. He’d made his name in progressive media as an investigative reporter focused on exposing corporate concentrations of power and showing how money buys political influence. But in the aftermath of Trump’s election, he expressed a number of opinions that made him a controversial figure within the Twitter left cohort: questioning the effectiveness of violence as a tactic to achieve social change, defending the principle that free speech extends to unpopular ideas, and criticizing identity politics and performative ideological militancy.

On May 31, a few days before posting the video that got him in trouble, Fang had tweeted: “Seeing so many manipulate the MLK quote that riots are the ‘language of the unheard.’ Read the actual speech. It’s a passionate argument against riots and in support of nonviolence at a time when much of the radical left despised MLK and embraced violence.” This, too, got him in trouble with fellow left-wing journalists whose objection rested on the strange claim that by defending Kingian nonviolence, Fang was somehow in league with the white supremacist forces responsible for murdering the civil rights leader.

The pluralist and democratic tradition on the left that Fang was identifying himself with put him at odds with the anti-majoritarian party line that progressive journalists have policed with growing intensity since Trump’s election, leading them to denounce Fang and others who hold similar views as “racists” and “crypto-fascists.” For these journalists, who now dominate the American media class, the “democratic majority” is a vehicle for the dangerous majoritarian mob lurking in the middle of the country plotting to oppress vulnerable minorities. The proper aim of politics, therefore, isn’t to try and convince the undecided—let alone the “deplorables” who disagree with them—but to wield the power of elite institutions to enforce right-think.

Yet the idea that a reporter could be tarred as a racist by his colleagues simply for quoting MLK and publishing an interview with a Black protester expressing an opinion that’s not at all uncommon in the Black community did not sit well with everyone. While dozens of high-profile journalists joined in publicly denouncing Fang, his fellow left heretics and hate-magnets Zaid Jilani, Matt Taibbi, and Michael Tracey were among the most prominent in coming to his defense.

“I worked at the Intercept for a while and my perception was that a lot of people who work there don’t think of crime as something that happens around them,” Jilani, who writes for Tablet, said. “They probably view invocations of crime as a political cudgel used to distract from things that they really care about, which is police reform. They care intensely and see it as a struggle between bad people, police, and good people, which are primarily Black people.” The Manichean struggle that Jilani describes would seem to leave no room for people like Max, whose commitment to police reform did not preclude his concern over the nonpolice related murders of two of his cousins in East Oakland.

“The reality,” said Jilani, “is that if you go to any high crime place in America, you’ll meet people who say exactly what that young man said to Lee. You’ll meet people who have the exact same concern, but they don’t view their role as just being part of a political narrative—as if they only exist to serve someone else’s political agenda.”

The secret motive driving people in the news business is the fear of standing alone. Most journalists look around to see what the journalists they imagine are important are doing, and they copy that. In today’s online journalism, the natural impulse to be part of the pack gets supercharged by social media algorithms that reward split-second conformity and, voila, you have big outlets independently pushing the same stories at the same time, with the same framing, all without any need for a larger conspiracy.

Over the past four years, the big names in journalism have shared a single overriding preoccupation: consolidating an emergent ruling-class social consensus that justifies itself in large part by the claim that Donald Trump’s presidency is an existential threat that makes every action by the White House a national emergency. The media both demonstrates and justifies its role in opposing this extraordinary threat by hyping one crisis of American democracy after another. Fascism is upon us! The Russians are taking over! The Russians are behind the white nationalists who are taking over! Kavanaugh! Ukraine! Impeachment! The Post Office!

None of these explosive revelations has managed to unseat the president or address the root sources of his support, but they’ve been great for business: A recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review showed that “news media have basically been running with 2016 campaign-level attention on Trump for four years straight now.” The strategy has provided a big boon to national media companies that had been near collapse even as local outlets continue collapsing.

The larger framing for the new social consensus is found in efforts like The New York Times’ 1619 Project that aim to replace the faltering, postwar patriotic mythology of America as the paragon of liberal democracy and individual rights with a new normative understanding of the country as a machine for identity-based systemic oppression. The project’s ostensible challenge to the establishment hasn’t prevented it from being endorsed by large corporations and entering the official curriculum of public schools and government bureaucracies.

What’s left is an image of the American media as a one-party system controlled by an unstable alliance of security state liberals and “woke” progressive identitarians. Militant progressives who denounce The New York Times and MSNBC for not being woke enough perform the angry id that pushes the media complex to be more extreme while reaffirming its fundamental premises. Occasionally, they go too far and have to be scolded for ruining the atmosphere by saying the quiet part out loud, like coming out in defense of looting; such instances of bad taste help to define the parameters of “good taste” within the media system.

Some of the bitterest attacks launched by the one-party media system are reserved for the few internal critics that dissent from the party line while remaining on “the left.” The small grouping of left-wing heretics exists more as a social affiliation or moral stance than a coherent political ideology. It includes people like Fang, Taibbi, Jilani, Tracey, Glenn Greenwald, Angela Nagle, Chris Arnade, and the hosts of the What’s Left and Red Scare podcasts. Despite their considerable differences, the outline of a broad, common sensibility is evident in the overlapping cluster of insults directed at these people. They are called racist, obviously, but they are also accused of being vulgar class reductionists, mere contrarians and provocateurs, transphobes, Strasserites, social conservatives, and closet reactionaries.

Tracey, Taibbi, Jilani, Fang, and others in their orbit all have political views that put them well to the left of the Biden-Harris ticket. Where they dissent is on core issues of the progressive media consensus like Russian collusion, the value of identity politics, and the legitimacy of rioting and political violence. To varying degrees, all four fit the mold of the elusive political creature known as the left populist (Bernie Sanders’ 2016 run, though not a perfect fit, was the closest thing to reach prime time in modern American politics). Left populism balances left-wing labor and economic policies with moderate, normie liberal social values and a strong aversion to the post-1960s temptation to treat political radicalism as an exercise in therapeutic self-expression for the upper middle class.

“I think a lot of this has to do with people within the press believing that Trump was such an extreme threat that they had to change the way they go about their business,” Taibbi said when we spoke by phone.

It’s telling that The New York Times didn’t write a correction to what happened in the anarchist zone in Seattle until two months after it started, and that it was a tech reporter who did it.

For Jilani, the Trump years have proved to be a reversal of his experience during his early days in progressive media during Obama’s second term. “When I started my career at Think Progress, I was much more left wing than the people I was working with,” he told me. “My colleagues generally felt like Bill Clinton was a really good president and Barack Obama was maybe a little bit squishy on some things, but overall a really good president. My feeling was that the Democratic Party was overall too driven by elites, too driven by donors, and wasn’t democratic enough.”

At the time, Jilani recalls, his political priorities were markedly different from those of his colleagues. “I used to write a lot about criminal justice over the years. I’ve reported a number of stories about police abuses, the drug war, and police militarization. And it’s funny, some people I worked with thought I was too radical and too out of the mainstream because I was so interested in those topics.”

These days, for heresies like disputing the claim that systemic racism is the main driver of police violence and rejecting fashionable proposals like police abolition, Jilani is regularly vilified as a racist and reactionary despite the fact that his views have stayed fairly consistent. “I think over the past few years, there’s been a kind of new groupthink developed on a number of topics among institutional progressives and a lot of people who are involved have the same zealousness as the convert to a new religion.”

On Substack, the independent publishing platform where Taibbi recently set up shop after leaving his longtime gig as a staff writer at Rolling Stone, he published an article on June 12 under the headline: “The American Press Is Destroying Itself.” The piece contained a strong defense of Fang’s journalism and decision to publish the video interview but went further than that. “It feels liberating to say after years of tiptoeing around the fact, but the American left has lost its mind,” Taibbi wrote. “It’s become a cowardly mob of upper-class social media addicts, Twitter Robespierres who move from discipline to discipline torching reputations and jobs with breathtaking casualness.”

Michael Tracey had been even less restrained. He went on the attack, tweeting a response to Lacy’s accusations of anti-Blackness, in which he called her “a giant fucking baby … coddled by colleagues who are petrified of offending you” and condemned Fang’s colleagues at the Intercept for failing to stick up for him. In response, the author Naomi Klein, also a writer for the Intercept, called Tracey a “fucking troll,” one of several insults directed at him on Twitter by left-wing luminaries. Tracey, whose temperament seems especially well-armored against the napalm tactics of online debate, responded to each insult in turn.

For a person under attack, of course it’s better to be defended than not. But for social pariahs and heretics there are special considerations. “There’s this thing that happens when these denunciations really get rolling,” Taibbi told me. “The aim is to create this ‘ick’ factor around the name. People will even say to you on social media, ‘you’re being a Michael Tracey,’ or, you know, ‘way to take sides with Bari Weiss on that one.’ It sounds like it’s not a big deal, but in this environment people find themselves not wanting to get the ‘ick’ on them, and they will keep at arm’s-length from those figures.”

Life outside the one-party media state can be lonely, but it also has rewards—like being able to actually do reporting on stories that the collective has decided to censor. Tracey has spent several years supporting himself as an independent journalist by fundraising online. For the past three months he’s been covering the fallout and damage from the looting and riots that have taken place in hundreds of cities across the country, an assignment that puts him at odds with the chorus of media figures who have minimized the severity of the destruction or justified it on ideological grounds.

Tracey and Taibbi were both early skeptics of claims about the Russiagate collusion myth. Taibbi’s reporting on the story, one of many acts in his career that burned bridges with fellow journalists, was informed by his own years in Moscow. In turn, it has clearly informed his view that the press is self-immolating. “I’m at a loss to explain why conducting surveillance of a presidential campaign is not an explosive story or as explosive a story as something like Watergate,” he said.

Taibbi thinks the press’s role in constructing the debunked Russia collusion narrative is now pulling back the curtain on how the news gets made. “It’s really instructive for people who don’t understand how the media works that you can have one set of circumstances and facts presented as the biggest outrage in the history of mankind, and 10 minutes later you could have exactly the same set of circumstances, but the politics will be a little different and it won’t even rate a page 15 mention.”

That basic pattern could describe at least a dozen different revelations that have come out about the probe into the Trump campaign: the brazen suppression of exonerating materials, the documents forged by FBI lawyers, the fact that the whole thing was based on a flimsy dossier presented as an intelligence product when it was actually a contracted political hit job.

“If this situation were reversed,” said Taibbi, “and the fact pattern had involved an incoming Democratic president and an outgoing Republican administration, the howling would still be going on. Personally, I’ve never voted Republican in my life and I would never vote for Donald Trump. But I still don’t understand why this story doesn’t resonate from a purely journalistic point of view.”

In fact, the standard of a purely journalistic point of view has changed, the result of profound economic and technological transformations that have empowered the ideologies best suited to the new political economy.

“I saw a poll recently showing that 85% of Americans think that people rioting and committing arson should be arrested,” Jilani told me toward the end of our conversation. “Yet it would be very hard to go through progressive media and find arguments against just illegal nihilistic violence taking place, like in Portland and Seattle. It’s telling that The New York Times didn’t correct the record on what happened in the anarchist zone in Seattle until two months after it started, and that it was a tech reporter who did it.”

Like the name implies, populists believe that the instincts driving the mass of American voters—mostly related to core material interests and the desire to get a fair shake—are a positive force, not a threat from which the country needs to be saved. The media establishment operates on a different axis. It is increasingly driven by top-down narrative constructions based on theories of identity and power. Considerable emphasis is put behind symbolic issues like the adoption of the ethnic designation “Latinx” that generate enthusiastic support from large corporations and elite institutions but are alien to the lives and sensibilities of ordinary Americans including the groups on whose behalf such measures are justified (according to a recent Pew poll, only a quarter of Latino respondents had heard of “Latinx” and out of those who had, 65% do not favor its use).

Spectacles like the ritual denunciation of left heretics can help enforce cohesion among journalists and within the larger educated professional class. They provide an effective deterrent for anyone tempted to notice the yawning gap that separates elite moral crusades from the priorities of ordinary Americans. The disinterest evinced by the media complex toward the violence and destruction carried out over the past three months that cannot be blamed directly on Trump or white supremacists is a striking early case of the collectivized decision-making process that now governs the larger American information space, in which a self-appointed elite decides which riots Americans will be told are mostly peaceful—and which ones they won’t be told about at all.

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