“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” — Thomas Jefferson
As a former media member and someone who half buys in to old TJ’s above belief, I’m usually cast in the role of media defender. And I will continue to do that unasked, and usually unwanted, service because I do believe in its importance, its ability to find facts and its role in keeping the population informed about what’s officially going on, and occasionally what’s really going on.
All that said, I have always thrown a caveat in there when it comes to a sprawling defense of the fourth estate: “Political media is the worst.”
Once upon a time, that described a pretty small amount of general media coverage. That began to shift a bit as cable news became a thing, but since the dawn of social media, that statement becomes less and less true on an almost daily basis. Since I’m quite sure you don’t want me to slip into “David Foster Wallace writing about tennis” levels of verbiage, I will spare you the blow by blow as to why this has happened. In short: Capitalism capitalized on the business side, and propaganda is a way easier sell and FAR cheaper to produce than news on the editorial side. (As a side note, perhaps I’ll do an AMA about this like @LemmyKilmister someday and I can write 75,000-word screeds about the nitty gritty as you all recoil in horror.)
There are many outcomes to this trend, and most of them are bad for both the media and the concept of civic literacy. There’s one in particular that’s a growing concern: The center for media power is almost entirely located in two places, New York City and Washington, D.C.
Admittedly, that’s kind of always been true. NYC has been the media capital of America since at least the early 1900s, and Washington is the country’s capital, thus a pretty obvious spot for reportage. But there also used to be lot of reporters and news outlets in other places as a counterbalance to all national news, all the time. That side is nearly gone. Local papers are becoming a thing of the past, particularly in smaller areas but even in big cities. TV stations increasingly rely on pre-taped padding given to them by their ownership (or in the case of Sinclair-owned stations, forced to run loyalty oaths to Mango Unchained on Election Day.) Radio news is almost entirely gone other than NPR; the few alt-weeklies that’ve survived are mostly owned by ghouls; and even good national and local blogs that sprung up 10-15 years ago to fill in some of those cracks have
been murdered by Peter Thiel been almost entirely co-opted for video ads or buried under the molten stupidity of Facebook comment threads.
Without those local counterpoints, the NYC-DC axis has all of the power when it comes to setting the national media agenda. And what is that agenda?
Well, how about this: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/20/business/media/tucker-carlson.html
NYT’s media columnist Ben Smith reveals a dirty little secret from the nation’s elite media: Many of them are pals with supposed mainstream media hater and billionaire scion cum phony populist Tucker Carlson.
Last month, I texted Tucker Carlson to ask him a question that was on my mind: “Did you get vaccinated?”
“When was the last time you had sex with your wife and in what position?” he replied. “We can trade intimate details.”
Then we argued back and forth about vaccines, and he ended the conversation with a friendly invitation to return to his show. “Always a good time.”
One question you may be asking, if you are a New York Times reader, is: Why are you exchanging texts with Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host who recently described the media at large as “cringing animals who are not worthy of respect”?
Smith at least has the grace and self-awareness to implicate himself in Carlson’s little game of liberal media footsie. But let’s continue forward…
And if you are a Tucker Carlson viewer, you may also be asking: How can the guy who tells you every night that the media is lying be texting with the enemy?
The answer is one of Washington’s open secrets. Mr. Carlson, a proud traitor to the elite political class, spends his time when he’s not denouncing the liberal media trading gossip with them. He’s the go-to guy for sometimes-unflattering stories about Donald J. Trump and for coverage of the internal politics of Fox News (not to mention stories about Mr. Carlson himself). I won’t talk here about any off-the-record conversations I may have had with him. But 16 other journalists (none from The Times; it would put my colleagues in a weird position if I asked them) told me on background that he has been, as three of them put it, “a great source.”
Of course no loyal Fox viewer is reading the New York Times or cares about Carlson’s friendships with “the enemy” so long as he excoriates them on air. But this isn’t about conservatives; they instinctively understand and fear the elite media and have already made their choice for easier-to-swallow propaganda that fits more in their worldview.
Smith’s column should be an eye-opener for everyone else who doesn’t quite see the problem. Liberals have always believed that the media will pass along their message if it’s done well enough and seem offended by the very idea of getting their hands dirty with propaganda. Except … well, you should read the whole thing, but Smith well and truly gives away the ballgame away a little bit later in the column:
Mr. Carlson has said he turned against his fellow elites after the 2008 financial crisis. His political shift also transformed his long journeyman’s career as a magazine writer and MSNBC conservative, and made him Fox’s leading tribune of the pro-Trump masses.
But his decades of Washington relationships have produced a tiresome conversation among Mr. Carlson’s old friends about what he really stands for, whether he’s really a racist or whether he cynically plays one on TV. Who knows, and what does it matter anyway?
“Who knows and what does it matter anyway?” It is a tiresome conversation, I suppose, if you make six figures and live in a nice city neighborhood with your white-collar pals, driving your Mercedes to your highly touted job every morning. It’s perhaps less tiresome to ponder if you’re the target of Carlson’s violent rhetoric. And it doesn’t really matter if he’s making a cynical career move or has gone fully fascist if your state’s Republican governor decides to not to take federal funding for expanded Medicaid and let his citizens die simply on the basis of knowing it’ll play well on his favorite news network.
But what does it matter anyway? Tucker is an obvious example here, but have you not wondered why there’s so much coverage this month of the NYC mayor’s race when nobody north of Harlem, west of Staten Island or south of the Rockaways really care? Have you noticed how when conservatives talk about the horrors of academic speech, it’s almost always private universities or elite private schools in big cities? (What are the children of these avatars of the working class doing at Harvard or Dalton anyway?)
Part of it, always, is economics: Political races are easy story generators and tend to get a lot of clicks. But in a far bigger way, the answer is that’s what they think the news is, because that’s what’s being talked about by their pals, or overheard at the cocktail party or in the country club, or discussed with a fellow parent of a Phillips Academy student.
It’s how you can get Maggie Haberman defending her access to Trump’s inner circle by mixing the gentlest of news scoops — he’s not lying, he’s misleading or dissembling or misremembering or misstating or equivocating — with puff pieces on the banana bread brained grifters in the White House. Hope Hicks, hey, there’s a good source, she probably shouldn’t have her reputation damaged by selling her soul to a sentient mound of Orangina, right? Meanwhile, Haberman and her Acela corridor pals steadfastly refused to reckon with a far more obvious story: how DID half the country come to completely overlook the obvious on Trump?
But no, you can’t ask that question because the elite media won’t cross the line of hurting their own, and as Smith’s story shows, Tucker Carlson is exactly in that wheelhouse. Even if it means exposing fellow reporters to danger from Carlson’s rants — which have lead to death threats made to journalists and trespassing charges for his less-hinged followers.
But then, that’s not how it works when you’ve Made It in the elite media. Consider this from the Daily Beast a few weeks back: More than 140 members of the NYT voted against a small rise in NewsGuild union dues and the removal of a cap on dues that started at over $140,000. The dues hike, literally hundredths of a percent, was going to raise funds for more staffing, legal support and new organizing drives because the union is trying to expand its reach but doesn’t get dues from new members until they negotiate a contract, a process that can take years. Meanwhile, the Guild has dipped into emergency funds to cover the employees already under its umbrella — most of whom will never have to worry about earning $140,000 a year. And it won’t shock you to hear that Maggie Haberman is among the NYT reporters who voted against the proposal.
That’s how they treat their colleagues who aren’t star sources like Tucker Carlson.
Just imagine what they think of you.