To witness journalists handling President Joe Biden with kid gloves, and to recall how they approached President Donald Trump with fangs bared, is to realize just how thoroughly the old ethos of nonpartisanship has collapsed.
Reporters of an earlier era would be downright embarrassed and disgusted at the conduct of the current Fourth Estate—not because of the hostility to Trump, but for the indulgence of Biden. They were mostly Democrats back then, just as they are now, but they had a cross-party suspicion of anybody in power, liberal or conservative, and they were experienced enough to have seen manipulation and prevarication from both sides and maintain some degree of independence no matter where their political principles ran. Never be a flunky, never a toady, or a naïf or a chump, gullible and credulous, putting all the good guys on one side and the bad guys on the other … that was the attitude.
You might point to the tenure of President Barack Obama as the moment things changed. Certainly, the press was tough on Reagan and the Bushes, but reporters and columnists went after Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton as well. Obama, though, was so beloved by the press that even the super-liberal Saturday Night Live devoted skits to it during the 2008 primary season. It was, indeed, a pathetic time for journalistic integrity, when the endlessly repeated “historic nature” of the advent of the first black president discouraged reporters from doing their investigative gadfly jobs.
Coverage of him sounded more like idol worship than information-gathering, and you could sense that if candidate John McCain had beaten him, nobody would have been more disappointed than the White House press corps.
But really to understand how journalism has become so one-sided, so nakedly and brazenly partisan, you have to go somewhere else besides politics. The deterioration of journalism is too profound, too radical, to have been caused by a political episode alone. The attitude we see on display when journalists throw softball questions at Democrats, laugh with Biden and his ice cream cones, and treat Trump and his supporters as juvenile delinquents has a longer history than the coming of Obama.
When a longstanding norm collapses and behaviors decay so precipitously, you have to assume a more fundamental change underlies it. The mindset that enables or prompts journalists to take a political stand before they start their day goes deeper than Democrat or Republican, right-wing or left-wing. We have to go back to their earlier formation when they were developing basic ideas about the world and their own lives.
Journalists today who see themselves as political actors, not just as observers of political actors, appall those of us who depend upon them to monitor the bigwigs and power brokers, to hold them—all of them—to account. But the journalists don’t see their political bias as a failing. No, they learned to think that way long before they entered the profession.
In the old days, they were taught to be objective, to dig for the facts, follow the evidence though it might lead to unappetizing conclusions, to stay independent and true to the truth. By the 1980s, however, in many of the non-journalism classes they took in college and sometimes in high school, too, they were told something else.
This was the time in which theory took over the humanities and the softer social sciences, and theory (as purveyed by zealous young teachers) urged students to question objectivity itself, to distrust neutrality, to “interrogate” the very notion of “the facts.” Old ideals of detachment and impartiality were themselves called into question; often those ideals were charged with upholding an unjust status quo (patriarchal, Eurocentric, “white”). The students heard it in all the “studies” classes they took, and also in freshman composition, Sociology 101, Francophone literature, and contemporary art history, where versions of feminism, Marxism, ethnic studies, psychoanalysis, gay and lesbian studies, and postcolonialism had to be absorbed.
The very first theoretical thing those courses taught ran directly against the foundation of good journalism: anti-objectivity. Value judgments are always embedded in a history and a culture, a time and a place and a group, so theory said. And so are facts! There’s no external standpoint from which facts can be uncovered in a neutral fashion, students were told, no free position from which one can judge things impartially, no escaping one’s own particular acculturation. There were sophisticated postmodern arguments behind those premises that got into sticky epistemological points, but that didn’t stop the teachers from pressing some blunt conclusions.
“You say Shakespeare is the greatest, better than ‘Miami Vice’? That’s just your own taste,” the reasoning went. “You think Mozart is way beyond the Rolling Stones? Well, your culture may think so, but that doesn’t make it so.”
Perhaps the teachers would accept a fact such as the temperature that afternoon, but they would go on to say that such facts never stand alone, that they’re always deployed in a certain direction, and that direction is never purely factual or scientific.
One time in a gathering of educators I attended, the importance of logic came up—“Americans must learn to make valid arguments!”—but some of the attendees insisted that any logic instruction begins with the assertion that all arguments transpire within a political context, that logic itself is political no matter how rigorous and philosophical it tries to appear. Students must know that nothing transcends power, not even the syllogism, they insisted. We shot that down, but if the point were made today in this “woke” era, it would pass easily. At this late date, the idea of an apolitical inquiry has no theoretical credence.
Indeed, the idea of such neutrality is worse than misguided. It’s a thought-crime. You can’t escape, you can’t assume a bird’s-eye view of things, much less a God’s-eye, so stop trying. You’re just pushing your own partial viewpoint as if it’s the universal verity, and that’s oppressive. You have a perspective, an angle, an interest you bring to bear on things. Accept it and move on. Accept the situational nature of truth. Become, in other words, a cultural relativist.
This was the common academic wisdom, and it had its advantages. One, it saved students the trouble of probing different traditions and cultures, artworks and novels, ideas and political systems, and assuming the burden of making judgments. No more did they have to compare and rank this and that, and that would bring peace. Disagreements over tastes and values could be avoided. You do your thing and I do mine, and we all get along. Don’t push your opinions too hard and nobody will be offended. Don’t call upon facts to win a debate. People matter, facts don’t, and besides, the facts you summon are always already coded and politicized, so ease up.
What could be more pleasing to the sophomore sensibility, especially to 20-year-olds with an eye for journalism, an eye that marks their social sense of things and yearning for justice? This tolerant relativism looks to them like the best way to the common good. We have less friction and more freedom.
Except that’s not what happens. We have a paradox. On ordinary social matters, this tolerance may work just fine, but when it comes to politics, we have groups competing over money and resources, individuals vying for office, and business interests jockeying for access and influence. Debate, contest, winners-and-losers are inevitable. Therein lies the problem.
When competitions break out, on what basis are they decided? If there are no neutral criteria, if nobody has a “pure” position, if nobody’s “innocent,” then all we’re left with is political positioning. Arguments over facts become rivalries over persons. What was thought to produce harmony ends up aggravating tensions. We see it all the time in the public square when a person’s statement is measured not by its accuracy to the facts but by its relation to the group identity of the person voicing it. In “woke” world, some people are allowed to speak, others aren’t, though the words are the same. We’re no longer in a universe where one can appeal to any hard realities.
This is particularly damaging to the journalist’s practice. He must believe in the truth no matter who speaks it; he has to, or else his reportage ends up merely another piece in a political game that everyone is playing. He must never forget that sometimes the individuals whose politics he admires say what is false, while individuals whose politics he abhors say what is true—and report those tendencies faithfully. If he can’t separate his words from the interests of the different parties he’s covering, he becomes just like them, another player pushing a political agenda.
A young journalist has a hard time thinking otherwise. He had too many professors telling him that objectivity is a myth, and smart people know better, and a young journalist wants very much to be in-the-know and up-to-date. It is, indeed, a competitive world, and he witnesses politics operating in his own profession all the time. Easier to run with it and go with the flow.
Independence can be taxing, people get angry, sources may dry up, you’ll have fewer invitations to dinner, neither side will like you. A liberal journalist who exposes the perfidy of a liberal politician puts his career in jeopardy. But it’s more than fear that holds him back. To reveal the corruption is to place the facts and the truth above politics, and that’s not his habit. He absorbed theory as an undergrad, believing it the higher thought, and he can’t go back now.
The current politicized state of journalism was concocted decades ago and far from the newsroom, and as long as academia peddles the postmodern outlook to eager, ambitious kids, things will not improve.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.