How to critique the press without devolving into nihilism
This is the greatest post in the history of the young Substack medium. The subject, the position you take, the directness and confidence with which you argue, the wit and snappy remarks used to great effect to put your opponents and frame their objections exactly as you want.
Bless you. I feel blessed that this exists.
As a right-winger who loathes the woke MSM, I thank you for this persuasive article. Two important maxims are "see the world as it is, not as you wish it to be," and "always steelman your opponents." It's disappointing that so many right-wingers prefer to live in a fantasy world, rather than critically evaluate their own biases.
Although right-wing journalism is lacking, right-wing intellectual magazines are quite good and even better than their woke mainstream counterparts. Every serious right-winger should at least skim the tables of contents of American Affairs, the Claremont Review of Books, the New Criterion, Modern Age, City Journal, Chronicles, First Things, etc. to learn something from smart right-wing academics and intellectuals. For example, Stanley Payne, Angelo Codevilla, and Bruce Kuklick on "fascism" in the aforementioned journals are better than a year's worth of "fascism panic" in the NYT, Atlantic, etc.
The strongest part of your argument is the complete failure by non-leftists to build strong, effective, honest journalistic enterprises. Really, the pathetic, dishonest, and incompetent people that show up on the right wing media have done more to moderate me than anything else.
The weakest part of your argument is understanding that "learning true facts about the world" is at best a top 10 human activity. People rightly care far more about, among other things, seeing their values reflected in their community and in the world more broadly -- especially in public policy. I don't care if my neighbor is super well informed about the latest details in the Russia-Ukraine war. I do care if my neighbor is an advocate for banning gas stations in my town (and vaping, and gas stoves, and leaf blowers, and lawn fertilizer) because (a) that makes him an annoying person to be around and (b) I live in a community with a lot of people like my neighbor, and my town is the kind of place that loves to implement bans sought by progressive people. The MSM teaches people to be like my neighbor: people whose anxieties are fed by assumptions that underly everything the MSM reports concerning public policy. That's way worse than being uninformed.
I read this piece with particular interest, as I am a reporter (for the Sandusky Register). I even interviewed Richard once for a piece for my newspaper. A few points:
1. Journalism is fun, particularly if you like to write and are curious and like to go around asking questions about things that interest you. There are unique perks to the job. Once, I realized that I could not only watch my favorite show on MTV, I could call the network and interview the host! Similarly, I lean libertarian in my political views, and it was fun to track down Harry Browne, the Libertarian Party candidate for president years ago, and interview him on the phone.
That said, most journalists see what they do as a calling and really do believe they serve the public. Every single journalist I know could make more money and work better hours (seldom having to work on weekends, or at night, or take calls or emails from the boss after hours) by becoming a PR flack for a corporation of the government. Many do, but some still stick it out.
2. When I moved to Cleveland about 20 years ago, I could not find a job at first as a reporter, so I worked for a few months in a bookstore. I've always loved books and I always wondered what it would be like to work in a bookstore. I remember the store manager telling us that the public could be very mean, and that dealing with the public was not for everyone. Well, I thought bookstore customers were very nice, compared to dealing with the public as a reporter. It turns out, nobody hates you just because you work for a bookstore.
3. I do think that maybe reporters have generally gotten a bit more biased and partisan than in the past. There is more of an attitude that Republicans have gotten so crazy they don't always deserve to be quoted in the paper.
Of course, there aren't two sides to every question. Alexander Cockburn satirized this years ago, when he imagined a point/counterpoint PBS show, "Jesus of Nazareth: Should he be crucified?" But I think there are two sides more often than some reporters or editors would admit.
4. Dealing with politicians from both parties is usually the same -- if you are polite and don't act like an idiot, they will talk to you and treat you fairly -- but I have noticed some differences.
Republican politicians seem particularly grateful to be treated fairly. I get the sense they don't expect it. Democrats tend to assume you are in their camp and they can actually be touchier. I wonder if other reporters have the same impression.
I have also noticed recently with some of the more MAGA Republicans that some of them just won't talk to the press anymore. This happened to me with Jim Jordan. Years ago, he was a normal politician and I could call his press secretary, and Jordan would call me back and answer my questions. Not anymore.
I think this may be simply that Jordan has become a national figure and can reach more people on Fox, through Twitter, etc. But I also noticed that the guy who ran for Congress in our local district, J.R. Majewski, would not talk to me either, even after I tried to reach out to him via a friendly local Republican. Is this part of a larger trend? Rob Portman, the outgoing Ohio senator, made himself available to reporters. I am curious whether J.D. Vance will, too.
5. Richard mentions that he's always been treated fairly by reporters. I suspect that his luck will run out eventually, but I'm pleased at his experiences. I also suspect that the people who interview him are self-selected to be unusually curious and intelligent. (Many of the people you interview are because you have to, they are newsmakers, but I suspect one seeks out a public intellectual out of interest). This is arguably a self-serving theory, as I interviewed Richard once, but I still think there might be something to it.
"There is a major exception when it comes to the “holy trinity” of liberalism, that is topics having to do with race, gender, and sexual orientation, but even here the problem is not lies as much as that the press is blinded by ideology. "
This sort of kills your entire article. The problem is the holy trinity is weaved into everything so everything becomes the exception. Being "blinded by ideology" has just a deleterious an effect as lies here so not sure why you frame it as "better." I would add mental health/therapy as a pillar of the regime's secular quasi-religion as well.
The media has an irrational hate for white people, conservative people and lesser so men. Since I am a conservative white man, and the media has a hate for me, I will in turn refuse to relinquish my hate of the media.
The media would much rather me die than live seeing as how I contribute to global warming and all. I don't see why I should be hospitable to anyone who would rather me die than live.
The gist of this essay seems to be: "When it comes to matters where I have deep subject matter expertise, the media is batshit bonkers. However when it comes to matters where I have neither the acumen nor the desire to gain deep understanding, I find the media to be highly informative." Isn't this the very definition of Gell-Mann amnesia?
My personal experience is that every time I have found an issue compelling enough to acquire a deep understanding, I realized the corporate media was presenting it in an irredeemably distorted light. Usually this isn't a matter of outright lying so much as selective curation (which in my opinion is far more pernicious). The first few times I encountered this, I thought maybe it was due to the journalists in question honestly overlooking important facets of their stories. Now I mostly attribute it to a combination of pathological glibness and ideological blindness.
So what is one to do? I have no idea. Relying primarily on the corporate media seems ill-advised because you're viewing the world through a funhouse mirror where you can never be certain precisely how it's being distorted. Right wing media is sometimes useful for filling in the blanks but not much else. Substack is nice but isn't all-encompassing--at least in a finite amount of time. I really don't know.
"If I talk to such friends long enough, I can usually get them to grudgingly admit that, yes, January 6 was an attempt to overthrow the government, and maybe that’s not the best thing in the world. But their heart is never into the conversation, and they then change the subject to BLM."
I think the obvious distinction here is the degree of coordination involved with, and elite support backing the months-long BLM riots/functional equiavalent of pogroms.
On the other hand the Jan 6 riots were the largely impulsive actions of retarded plebes, and it was an event of little consequence for most Americans (the only people whose livelihoods were destroyed that day were those of the rioters themselves).
Also, the BLM riots—coupled with mass third world immigration—are harbingers of a new social order, the foundations for which are already entrenched in many elite institutions. By contrast, the Jan 6 riots were doomed to fail at the start, and there is no prospect for some right wing junta in the states.
Your friends are therefore completely justified in dismissing and downplaying 1/6. Indeed, given the plausible threat that this country becomes a third world hellscape in the vein of South Africa or Brazil, anybody who entertains concerns about 1/6 or threats to "democracy" should be treated with suspicion.
It's odd that the author thinks that without the NYT and WaPo and others serving as uncritical mouthpieces for American power we will descend into "nihilism"
The culture war bias I can almost live with. It's the fact that the media every day fails to perform its fundamental responsibility of speaking truth to power that warrants all of our antipathy and mistrust.
The most interesting and important stories are ignored by media when they are inconvenient for America power. Why aren't we seeing endless reporting to uncover the origins of covid? Why so little reporting on Epstein? Why so little critical reporting on the military industrial complex and the rot that allows America to constantly, destructively and profitably make war with the world without consequences for its warmakers? Why so little reporting on the Russiagate hoax that should be one of the biggest scandals in American political history? Where are the stories about the Ukraine Russia war that challenge the NATO narrative, such as on neo Nazi influence or western meddling? Why so little attention to the Twitter files which reveal a fascistic merger of state and corporate power to thwart our first amendment?
All of these neglected stories reveal a media that serves the American establishment rather than holding it to account. Again this is a corruption of the fundamental democratic purpose of the fourth estate. The media therefore deserves all the contempt and mistrust it receives. The American people will be better served when the legacy media is bankrupted and replaced by a new media willing to earn the trust of the American people by doing it's job.
Hmm, not bad. Many fair points.
1) I also use NYT and WAPO when making arguments with liberal friends. But this is mostly because I don't think my friends will believe things if they don't come from those sources.
2) "If conservatives are at war with the left, then the fact that they give you the ammunition that you use to fire at them, which conservatives don’t have the industrial base to manufacture themselves, is itself impressive." True, but I'm not convinced this will continue on indefinitely. There have been ongoing efforts over the years to conceal data in favor of narratives. What makes you think the censors can't eventually win?
3) Even if the data is often correct, the framing is almost exclusively most friendly to progressive ideology. One of my favorite articles about homicides:
https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/black-americans-are-killed-at-12-times-the-rate-of-people-in-other-developed-countries/ which is framed as a "blacks are victimized in America" article instead of a "blacks commit way more homicides article". I also love this article because it demonstrates that, despite our ridiculously large number of guns, whites in the US are victims of homicide at a rate close to Finland or Latvia!! But I digress. The point is that most people don't dig into the actual truth or data in the articles, they just read the headline or skim the article for the vibe.
4) And the endless stream of anti-white propaganda is worrisome and gross, even if it only makes up <1% of their content.
"As long as the topic does not involve sex, race, class, genetics, IQ, illegal immigration, the effects of social policy, constitutional law, or life in flyover country. On everything else, they’re terrific."
Well said, Charles Murray.
The fact that 99 out of 100 stories run in the MSM are technically "factual" in no way minimizes the harm they do to truth and balance in reporting. As I hope you appreciate, it's all in what they cover, and what they choose NOT to cover. In other words, editorial policy is everything... e.g., Hunter Biden's laptop
Furthermore, lulling the readers into a false sense of trust with factual reporting on mundane issues allows an opening for influential papers like the NYT to more effectively slip their sick Marxist race, class and sex agenda into the minds of a naive public. Advancing their woke agenda is much more important to the activists running NYT than worrying about the number of tanks on the battlefield in Ukraine. They're happy to do a good job providing accurate data for the latter, if it will help build the trust necessary to facilitate the former.
Fought my own cognitive dissonance but found myself in surprisingly high agreement with this piece. Especially hard to disagree with that last concluding paragraph (yes I read the article merely pointing it out for its summative value).
Recently was looking for videos on the early days of war in Donbass and Russia's invasion of Crimea, and Vice did a ton of videos back in 2014 in those places that are almost all worth watching. Very interesting to see what's changed, how the Russian and Ukrainian attitudes were back then, as well as the populace.
You should have Scott Adams on the podcast, it would be a very interesting conversation as despite being from different backgrounds I see you both as being on similar planes of thought.
I actually found this hitting a little too close to home. I've got an ongoing axe to grind against Wokeness for what it did (or, what we, the geeks, let it do) to my hobbies; to tabletop gaming, video games, fantasy/sci-fi literature, and cinema (and the media surrounding these).
Now even complaining about Wokeness has become Cringe.
"If I talk to such friends long enough, I can usually get them to grudgingly admit that, yes, January 6 was an attempt to overthrow the government, and maybe that’s not the best thing in the world."
I'm surprised your high IQ friends don't pick the low-hanging fruit here. If a toddler attacked me with a plastic fork, that might in some extremely literal sense be attempted murder.
January 6 was a bunch of losers doing loser crap for loser reasons and all they'd ever have done is lose, lose, lose. This is actually part of why I still think there's hope for conservative media, as that is close to the narrative I've gotten from National Review, for instance.
In that regard, I don't think it's too much to ask for the MSM to incorporate a few more smart conservatives, like Charlie Cooke, Kevin Williamson, or Aaron Sibarium (or even Victor Davis Hanson!), but even this does indeed seem to be too much to ask. For two glorious days Kevin Williamson worked for the Atlantic, thanks to the advocacy of none other than Ta-Nehisi Coates, but then he was tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail for bog-standard smart conservative views.
Instead, the best I get are weirdos like Ross Douthat who are clearly smart and knowledgeable but whose worldviews are fundamentally too tangential to real life to be more than a little 'See?! We have conservatives!!1!" token, or the truly idiotic like Bret Stephens. George Will I think is still kicking around somewhere, but he's well over the hill.
And clearly, the best outcome would be for the best of the liberal media to unite with the best of conservative media (even if this did happen the NYT would still be like 65-70% liberal, I am happy to acknowledge). The fact that this extremely obvious thing has not happened does not inspire confidence. In fact, there has been substantial ideological homogenizing in the media since 2000, which I think is at the root of many of our modern media problems.
Mainly because of this, I don't think I'll ever be at peace with the media. But my sanity is more precious to me than anything other than maybe my immediate family.
One question I'm really interested in is whether the good parts of (for example) Vice are severable from the bad. I'm increasingly thinking not (don't forget Vice was founded by Gavin McInnes, among others, and the Huffington Post was also founded in part by Andrew goddamn Breitbart!; this kind of thing always seems to go one way, see homogenization; see also the SSC post on neutral versus conservative institutions), and that bodes ill. Me personally, I'm a right-wing nutjob who nevertheless can't STAND to watch anything political, and can only read. For me, even the cool Vice YT stuff isn't very palatable, but I'll work on changing that. Speaking of, highly recommend the hilarious Netflix series Documentary Now. One of the episodes was an amazing parody of Vice docu-shorts called "Dronez."
I suppose in the end I agree with your point (Scott Alexander's too, though I still think his definition of 'lying' is a bit narrow) and on reflection I think I mostly always have, despite growing up listening to Rush and Dennis Prager in the car with my dad. But I think we're still heading in the wrong direction. I don't know where the breaking point is, but it exists.
Just look at academia. As you pointed out in another post (I forget), it wasn't until government became involved with any given institution that it became left-liberal. Once, the academy (in 1930s Germany, the academy was an extremist hotspot generally, both fascist AND communist, for instance), bar associations/the legal profession, media, and business were right-wing, and then the government started mandating quotas and DEI and such, and presto-chango, left-liberal (to varying degrees and at varying times, of course).
Maybe we can stop it. Maybe. But a big part of me thinks things need to get worse before they get better.
I was not expecting the heel turn into you being a NYT liberal. Hopefully more life experience will teach you not to help and give money to people who hate you.
Normal people who aren't autistic are all tribal. People make decisions for tribal and emotional reasons and then make up logical explanations after the fact. The NYT is in the tribe that hates me so I'm not going to see it as legitimate. On the other hand, those in the liberal tribe will trust NYT on issues like race riots, the Iraq War, and masking toddlers because that's their tribe.