How do you appease those who wish to destroy you? More importantly, why would you try? This is the uphill battle we’ve watched the establishment of American news media wage for the attention of the conservative voting bloc, which has returned the favor most commonly with unrequited loathing.
Brian Beutler argues on Crooked.com that it’s time for journalists to give up pursuing acceptance from a crowd whose foundational beliefs include opposition to “mainstream media.” Instead, the paragons of American journalism should embrace liberalism in its most encompassing interpretation:
Outside of the specific American context, the word liberal describes something more abstract and less partisan. Internationally, it describes a philosophical approach to organizing society that is capacious enough to include people who believe governments should provide robust safety nets to citizens, and people who believe taxes should be low and the poor left to fend for themselves. What those people share is a common commitment to basic Enlightenment-era ideals like equality, democracy, and empiricism.
Neglecting to do so, says Beutler, will fundamentally impede news media’s ability to accomplish its primary purpose.
The job of the mainstream media isn’t to cast judgment on people with different value systems, but journalists can’t do their jobs well if they aren’t aware that the value systems of mainstream journalism and American conservatism are different and in conflict. It should be perfectly possible to apply the neutral rules of modern journalism to both American political parties while accepting that Democrats (and journalists and scientists) descend from the enlightenment tradition, while Republicans (and their allies in conservative media) descend from a different, illiberal tradition—and that this makes the parties behave in different ways.
It is why the right has felt comfortable spending the past weeks fabricating whole-cloth conspiracy theories about the FBI and setting about to cajole and intimidate impartial journalists into taking the theories seriously—or at least into offering liars big platforms to spread disinformation. Journalists have spent decades responding to this kind of manipulation with varying levels of appeasement, hoping to escape the curse of the liberal epithet. They should try embracing their own particular kind of liberalism instead, and letting their bad faith critics scream into the void.
A shift of the nature Beutler is proposing will, I believe, free mainstream journalists from the predicament they’ve created by their own adherence to bygone norms.
On Pod Save America (the trunk from which Crooked.com sprouted), Ashley Parker of The Washington Post recently claimed — partly with pride, partly in defense — that her employer covers the Trump administration just as they’ve always covered U.S. presidents.
But that’s the issue, isn’t it? In general, the American media establishment has always been a cheerleader for the president, regardless of party. Incurious reporting has glossed over scandals and war crimes of Democrats and Republicans in the name of an unspoken belief in the innate supremacy of the American president. Deference to an office of unimaginable power given to a fallible (and often malicious) human has always been problematic. But that behavior is especially rife with pitfalls when the president is a wannabe tyrant who relies on fawning press from his partisan media allies and normalizing press from mainstream publications.
Let this not be mistaken for a desire to blur editorial and news writing. It is, in fact, the opposite. Because treating Trump with kid gloves is an implicit statement of belief: that the institution of the presidency is of higher value than the truth. A more rigorous press — that calls lies what they are and refuses to cede valuable lines to outright propaganda — is what healthy journalism should be. And its lasting effect on the populous, even as those on the right wail about bias, would benefit readers and writers alike.
Enough hand-wringing about labels. Onward, to a diligent pursuit of truth.