I used to get angry when I read the newspaper because of the foibles of politicians and other miscreants it described, or things like laws being enacted to make it impossible for women to get abortions. In other words, I didn’t like bad news, but I had to read it anyway. One must be informed.
Now, however, I get angry for another reason: the ideological bias of every news source I read, whether on the Right or Left. In fact, I don’t know of a news source whose bias isn’t worn on the sleeve. On the Left we have HuffPost, one of the most egregious examples, but also the New York Times and the Washington Post, both of which have gone nearly completely woke. Even in the editorial sections you’re hard pressed to find a conservative columnist (remember the firing of the NYT op-ed editor because he allowed an editorial by Senator Tom Cotton to be published?) The Right is even worse, with places like Breitbart or The Daily Wire having an absolutely predictable take on everything. I’m told the Wall Street Journal has a very good news section, but it’s editorially hard on the Right, and I’m not sure I want to subscribe to a paper like that.
I suppose what I’d like is a paper whose news is objective, not ideologically slanted in tone and the subjects chosen for coverage, and whose editorial section makes me think—challenges me with heterodox opinions that go against my own, or at least, if on the Left, has thoughtful and unpredictable takes. I know of no such paper. I am reading some Substack blogs like Andrew Sullivan’s and Bari Weiss’s, because sometimes they do surprise me but they’re also thoughtful, even when I disagree. But they don’t replace the news. They are commentary on the news.
In other words, the news situation is very dire. The thesis of this City Journal article by Martin Gurri (click on screenshot below) is that the mainstream media (MSM to the cognoscenti) has entered a “post-journalism” phase in which objectivity of news coverage isn’t the goal. That goal has been replaced, argues Gurri, by journalism that caters to a niche audience, aims to keep it coming back by scaring it, and makes no pretense of evenhanded coverage. That’s what the WaPo and NYT seem like to me.
Gurri is a former CIA employee and now a news media analyst, and City Journal is published by the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, but that’s no reason to dismiss Gurri’s argument. (By the way, it really irks me when people dismiss an argument solely because it comes from one portion of the political spectrum, or if the writer has said one or a few wrong or dumb things in another venue. Do not do that on this site, where we try to stick to arguments and not reject them because they come from this or that person or ideology. Scientists argue about the data and its meaning, and don’t worry about the ideology of their opponents.)
But I digress. There’s a lot I agree with in Gurri’s views, and I’ll give a few excerpts. You can can address his arguments in the comments, and you might tell me what news sources I would find more to my liking.
Gurri mostly goes after the Times, but his arguments could apply to any slanted paper. Here’s his definition of “post-journalism” journalism:
Led by the New York Times, a few prominent brand names moved to a model that sought to squeeze revenue from digital subscribers lured behind a paywall. This approach carried its own risks. The amount of information in the world was, for practical purposes, infinite. As supply vastly outstripped demand, the news now chased the reader, rather than the other way around. Today, nobody under 85 would look for news in a newspaper. Under such circumstances, what commodity could be offered for sale?
During the 2016 presidential campaign, the Times stumbled onto a possible answer. It entailed a wrenching pivot from a journalism of fact to a “post-journalism” of opinion—a term coined, in his book of that title, by media scholar Andrey Mir. Rather than news, the paper began to sell what was, in effect, a creed, an agenda, to a congregation of like-minded souls. Post-journalism “mixes open ideological intentions with a hidden business necessity required for the media to survive,” Mir observes. The new business model required a new style of reporting. Its language aimed to commodify polarization and threat: journalists had to “scare the audience to make it donate.” At stake was survival in the digital storm.
The experiment proved controversial. It sparked a melodrama over standards at the Times, featuring a conflict between radical young reporters and befuddled middle-aged editors. In a crucible of proclamations, disputes, and meetings, the requirements of the newspaper as an institution collided with the post-journalistic call for an explicit struggle against injustice.
The battleground was the treatment of race and racism in America. But the story began, as it seemingly must, with that inescapable character: Donald Trump. . . .
Trump, of course, was the bugbear who sold a gazillion digital subscriptions to the New York Times and other Left-wing venues (I don’t know about Right-wing ones). And Gurri dates the change in journalism to an article in the NYT in 2016 that more or less declared that slanting of news was understandable, if not okay:
In August 2016, as the presidential race ground grimly onward, the New York Times laid down a marker regarding the manner in which it would be covered. The paper declared the prevalence of media opinion to be an irresistible fact, like the weather. Or, as Jim Rutenberg phrased it in a prominent front-page story: “If you view a Trump presidency as something that is potentially dangerous, then your reporting is going to reflect that.” Objectivity was discarded in favor of an “oppositional” stance. This was not an anti-Trump opinion piece. It was an obituary for the values of a lost era. Rutenberg, who covered the media beat, had authored a factual report about the death of factual reporting—the sort of paradox often encountered among the murky categories of post-journalism.
The article touched on the fraught issue of race and racism. Trump opponents take his racism for granted—he stands accused of appealing to the worst instincts of the American public, and those who wish to debate the point immediately fall under suspicion of being racists themselves. The dilemma, therefore, was not whether Trump was racist (that was a fact) or why he flaunted his racist views (he was a dangerous demagogue) but, rather, how to report on his racism under the strictures of commercial journalism. Once objectivity was sacrificed, an immense field of subjective possibilities presented themselves. A vision of the journalist as arbiter of racial justice would soon divide the generations inside the New York Times newsroom.
Rutenberg made his point through hypothetical-rhetorical questions that, at times, verged on satire: “If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?” Rutenberg assumed that “working journalists” shared the same opinion of Trump—that wasn’t perceived as problematic. A second assumption concerned the intelligence of readers: they couldn’t be trusted to process the facts. The answer to Rutenberg’s loaded question, therefore, could only be to “throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of a half-century” and leap vigorously into advocacy. Trump could not safely be covered; he had to be opposed.
The part about assuming readers were dumb rings true: which paper now doesn’t have articles whose headlines are “X: here’s what you need to know.”
Gurri then gives a potted history of the Times‘s descent into post-journalism, exacerbated by, he claims, their and Mueller’s failure to turn up much on Trump and his associates in the “Russiagate” affair. While that looked like a coverage failure for the paper, it produce plenty of clicks—and money:
Yet what looked like journalistic failure was, in fact, an astonishing post-journalistic success. The intent of post-journalism was never to represent reality or inform the public but to arouse enough political fervor in readers that they wished to enter the paywall in support of the cause. This was ideology by the numbers—and the numbers were striking. Digital subscriptions to the New York Times, which had been stagnant, nearly doubled in the first year of Trump’s presidency. By August 2020, the paper had 6 million digital subscribers—six times the number on Election Day 2016 and the most in the world for any newspaper. The Russian collusion story, though refuted objectively, had been validated subjectively, by the growth in the congregation of the paying faithful.
This led to two video “town hall” discussions between the younger journalistic staff and the editors, the first being executive editor Dean Baquet, a black man. The first meeting was in August of 2019, and dealt with how to cover Trump, and whether to refer to him as a racist in the news section. Already, as Gurri percipiently notes, Twitter had begun to be an editor of the paper, and this remains the case. The future of the paper was limned by one young staffer in that meeting:
If Trump lied or made racist statements, journalists had a moral duty to call him out as a liar and a racist. This principle was absolute and extended to all subjects. Since, as one of them put it, “racism and white supremacy” had been “sort of the foundation of this country,” the consequences should be reported explicitly. “I just feel like racism is in everything,” this questioner asserted. “It should be considered in our science reporting, in our culture reporting, in our national reporting.”
And so it was. This had already been instantiated in the 1619 Project, which wasn’t really journalism—nor was it history—but a unique attempt of a paper to bend the minds of Americans and their children (it’s used in school curricula) towards a specific ideology.
It led as well to the debacle that prompted the second town hall meeting: the publication of Tom Cotton’s NYT editorial, “Send in the Troops”, arguing that troops should be sent in to quell violence when there were unruly demonstrations (he was referring to racial unrest). That opinion was shared by most Americans, but the young Times staffers argued that Cotton’s editorial caused harm, even endangered them. That, of course, was ludicrous, but it also spelled the end of true conservative op-eds in the paper. Look at the op-eds these days and you might find Ross Douthat spouting some weak conservative beer and criticizing Trump, but you’ll never see an op-ed like Cotton’s again. (Cotton’s editorial is now adorned with caveats and explanations inserted by the paper, and never appeared in the print edition.)
The day after the Cotton op-ed appeared online, Times employees sent a letter to Times decision makers, expressing “deep concern” over the piece. This document marked the logical culmination of the process that Rutenberg’s article had begun four years earlier. Objectivity now jettisoned, the question at hand was whose subjective will should control the news agenda.
The letter’s authors made a number of striking assumptions. First, the backdrop was an apocalyptic struggle between good and evil, a story “that does not have a direct precedent in our lifetimes.” The place of the New York Times in that struggle was at issue. Second, some opinions were dangerous—physically so. Cotton’s opinion fell into that category. “Choosing to present this point of view without added context leaves members of the American public . . . vulnerable to harm” while also jeopardizing “our reporters’ ability to work safely and effectively.” Third, the duty of the newspaper was less to inform than to protect such “vulnerable” readers from harmful opinions. By allowing Cotton inside the tent, the Times had failed its readership.
This was the essence of post-journalism: informational “protection”—polarization—sold as a commodity. Objectivity had crumbled before the dangerous Trump. On the question of who decided the danger of any given piece, the newsroom rebels presented a number of broad demands. Future opinion pieces needed to be vetted “across the desk’s diverse staff before publication,” while readers should be invited to “express themselves.” The young reporters felt that they had a better fix on what readers wanted than did their elders. Given the generational divide on social media, this was almost certainly true.
All that rings pretty true. Where I disagree with Gurri is his prognostication. He feels that the road the Times went down will reach a dead end, for the younger generation, who, by and large, control what the paper prints via kvetching on Twitter, are not its main consumers. Gurri sees this as untenable, but doesn’t realize that the writers for the paper are drawn from the generation who doesn’t read it, and the writers, combined with social media, will guide the direction of the Times. I see nothing that will stop this trend, which is why I think Wokeness will increase under Biden. What is there to stop it given that even Left-centrists cave to the Outrage Culture, quaking in fear of being called racists? But let me end with Guri’s prediction:
Revolutions tend to radicalization. The same is true of social media mobs: they grow ever more extreme until they explode. But the New York Times is neither of these things—it’s a business, and post-journalism is now its business model. The demand for moral clarity, pressed by those who own the truth, must increasingly resemble a quest for radical conformism; but for nonideological reasons, the demand cannot afford to leave subscriber opinion too far behind. Radicalization must balance with the bottom line.
The final paradox of post-journalism is that the generation most likely to share the moralistic attitude of the newsroom rebels is the least likely to read a newspaper. Andrey Mir, who first defined the concept, sees post-journalism as a desperate gamble, doomed in the end by demographics. For newspapers and their multiple art forms developed over a 400-year history, Mir writes, the collision with the digital tsunami was never going to be a challenge to surmount but rather “an extinction-level event.”
Well, what will die is good journalism, the kind practiced by the “good gray Times.” What will not die are news sites themselves—at least not for a while. And the most valuable thing that will go extinct is objectivity, the heartbeat of a democracy in which citizens are supposed to make up their own minds.