Kavanaugh Confirmation Coverage Echoes ‘Epic Fail’ of 2016

October 14, 2018 Updated: October 16, 2018

News Analysis

The U.S. presidential election of 2016 was widely acknowledged as an “epic fail” for the American media, an almost willful refusal to recognize Trump’s popular appeal and to understand the power of the populist issues he bannered.

In the weeks that followed the upset victory, there was a broad consensus that the press was deeply out of touch with important slices of the American electorate, especially white working-class men and, ironically, educated white women who had actually broken against Hillary Clinton.

There were promises of institutional rectification, including in-depth post-mortems that would examine the newsroom assignment policies and the editorial decision-making that had contributed to this massive choke.

Editors at elite news organizations were quoted as saying that the election result had highlighted a problematic cultural, social, and political insularity in the newsroom. To correct that, they would be looking to hire reporters, opinion journalists, and broadcast pundits who could identify with, or give voice to, those who had been ignored or dismissed as “deplorable” for embracing Trump’s “America First” agenda, especially its economic nationalism and opposition to illegal immigration.

But this institutional rectification never happened. By Inauguration Day in mid-January, the U.S. media had become a dedicated member of the anti-Trump “Resistance,” refusing to “normalize” the new president.

“Stay angry,” longtime liberal pundit Leon Wieseltier advised, while New Yorker editor David Remnick, who has become de facto dean of the Resistance’s journalistic wing, wrote that Trump’s election was “an American tragedy.”

Fascism isn’t our future, Remnick contended. “It cannot be; we cannot allow it to be so—but this is surely the way fascism can begin. … To combat authoritarianism, to call out lies, to struggle honorably and fiercely in the name of American ideals—that is what is left to do. That is all there is to do.”

In fact, some of the most prestigious news organizations dedicated themselves to the Resistance as an editorial branding strategy, to boost ratings or Facebook “likes,” which had become an important part of their digital survival strategies.

Rather than recruit journalists who could help them connect with pro-Trump voters, media organizations already obsessed with improving newsroom “diversity” redoubled efforts to hire minorities and millennials. In the process, they practically made an opposition to Trump, or posturing to that effect, an ideological work rule.

Journalists who had challenged the anti-Trump media tide were ignored, as if they were on some blacklist. And, as Trump has repeatedly pointed out, no news executives, editors, or elite columnists connected with the Epic Fail of 2016 lost their jobs. In fact, some found themselves in even more prestigious positions.

Never-Trumper Bret Stephens was wrong about almost everything related to Trump during the campaign and could not have been more disdainful or feckless toward the Trump voter in general. Yet he was able to leave The Wall Street Journal editorial page in order to join the Opinion section of The New York Times, which still has not hired a single writer who might be said to represent the kind of thinking that the place so painfully lacked before the 2016 election.

If anything, the parameters of acceptable debate within the media narrowed after the election. “Overton windows” that had widened during the campaign, and briefly after Trump’s actual election victory, were in many cases slammed shut.

The journalism of the Resistance will go down as one of the most profound breaks with objectivity and professional detachment in the history of the media, if not the very end of them.

Resistance journalism stands as a monument to media group-think, a lack of journalistic humility and rank partisanship raised to an exponential level. At its center is an intensification of anti-Trump tropes and jaundiced, ideologically deranged narratives that gave rise to the Epic Fail to begin with: Trump as a creature of the white electorate’s racism, sexism, nativism, homophobia, and Islamophobia; blood and soil-style “Hate” as the new core of American politics; white supremacy in mortal struggle against the values of the civil rights movement and transnational multicultural progressivism; diversity as a solution for the dilemma of widening social and income inequality instead of a distraction from it, if not an accelerant.

In the Resistance narrative, Trump is Authoritarianism Incarnate, Hitler in the offing, if not Hitler himself as many of our most important, if ethnocentric, pundits actually had the chutzpah to charge during the campaign. Enforcement of immigration laws is totalitarianism; ICE is the New Gestapo. There’s no difference between legal and illegal immigration. He’d never have gotten in if not for Russia’s anti-democratic collusion, and once Congress reveals the extent of the collusion, he’s to be impeached, his election effectively and righteously nullified.

Déjà Vu

The recent Kavanaugh hearings represent one of the more egregious examples of the media’s repetition compulsion, or what might be called 2016 Redux. The coverage shared the same blind spots of 2016 and echoed the same kind of bias that fed the original Epic Fail. It was a microcosm of history repeating itself—media history, at any rate. Déjà vu all over again.

Like Trump, Kavanaugh was depicted as the nominee of white male privilege and “toxic masculinity,” a beer-swilling Deplorable and an avatar of creeping authoritarianism.

As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote, Kavanaugh was “a horrible calamity for democracy”—an embodiment of the same conservative resentments about status and demographic change that had driven Trump to run and his base to vote for him.

Coming as the Resistance’s “war on whites” has reached the frenzy level, the racialization of the nomination was stark. Senators like Cory Booker fulminated about “patriarchy” and media pundits discoursed about white privilege, as if sexual abuse and assault were not much more rife in minority and immigrant communities.

During the campaign, Trump was accused of acting like Joe McCarthy in fearmongering against Muslims and against immigrant foreigners. In the case of the hearings, as well as the coverage and commentary, the McCarthyism was sexual in nature. Pointing to racy yearbook references from 35 years ago became the equivalent of an inquisitor in the 1950s finding a flier for a Communist Party rally or panel discussion in an old scrapbook.

There was also the McCarthy-esque presumption that Kavanaugh had an obligation to prove his innocence, again for an alleged misdeed 35 years in the past.

It was hard not to notice a similar cultural prejudice that had been focused by the media on Trump being trained on Kavanaugh, although in Kavanaugh’s case, it as more anti-Catholic than anti-WASP.

As The Wall Street Journal’s Dan Henninger wrote, “The coverage of Brett Kavanaugh’s past has also put a whiff of anti-Catholicism in the air, with the constant invocations of ‘Georgetown Prep,’ suggesting not subtly that this all-boys school, founded by Jesuits in 1789, was an abusers’ breeding ground.”

As Henninger added, “To invoke a legal term, this is a slander, and many at this point resent it.”

There was also the media’s obsession with Kavanaugh’s alleged alcohol abuse and snickering about Kavanaugh’s youthful and current absorption in athletics. Both demeanments are classic “anti-gentile tropes,” which pulled the curtain back on an unfortunate kind of cultural snobbery and stereotyping.

The Daily Beast’s Jay Michaelson was obvious where others might have just been snide. Michaelson, who is a lawyer and a rabbi, produced a long conspiratorial screed about Kavanaugh being the nominee who had been approved by the very mysterious and very conservative Catholic organization Opus Dei. It was written to make Catholics look sinister and malign, as if Michaelson had taken the notoriously anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion and inverted the religious categories for prejudiced effect.

Through most of the Kavanaugh–Blasey Ford hearings, there was a striking failure on the part of the media to acknowledge that most mainstream America thought there was fundamental unfairness in revisiting an event from 35 years earlier, and using a high school yearbook from then as an investigative touchstone to sort out criminal culpability.

Just as there had been in the reporting on working-class Trump supporters’ thirst for a champion, there just seemed to be some fundamental estrangement from the common, lived experience of most average Americans. There was a lack of basic groundedness—a failure of moral imagination that should be antithetical to journalism.

Most Americans don’t care about college-age overdrinking, unless someone is still overdrinking into their 50s or beyond. Most Americans probably thought the New York Times editorial column was being insufferably priggish in braying that “even [Kavanaugh’s] small lies are not so small in context, since they relate to drinking or sex and thus prop up his ‘choirboy who indulged now and then defense.’”

In fact, it’s hard to know what’s worse: That editorial sentiment used as a mask for simply “getting” the guy, or this kind of morally simple-minded sentiment expressed in all honesty, if that’s not an oxymoron.

Likewise, the knocks on Kavanaugh for losing his temper had a rough parallel to what the media said was Trump’s unsuitable temperament during Campaign 2016. Most people thought that was classic “double binding,” on par with “Do you still beat your wife?”

Yet on CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser got away with saying that her magazine, which was horribly anti-Trump, anti-Kavanaugh, and anti-GOP, should be noted for its lack of partisanship in approaching stories connected to the #MeToo movement.

According to Glasser, the coverage of the Kavanaugh controversy “underscores the critical importance of journalism as the fourth estate, at a time when our national politics is broken.”

Politely ignored by the show’s host, Brian Stelter, was the fact that two of the New Yorker’s stories were so shoddy that any responsible organization would have retracted them once the supposed “eyewitness” allegations against Kavanaugh contained in them couldn’t be corroborated by anyone, even the FBI.

There were parallels between coverage of Kavanaugh and earlier coverage of Trump in the “day after” stuff, too, establishing catastrophic, apocalyptic echoes between the response to Kavanaugh’s confirmation and the tone of what was said the day after Election Night 2016.

“Bitter Tenor of Senate Reflects a Nation At Odds With Itself” read one Times headline in 2018 that could have been lifted from two years before.

There was also similar handwringing about Trump and Kavanaugh sharing an analogous lack of majority support, a further echo of the “we’re on the lip of authoritarianism” theme.

Citing opinion polls of questionable reliability, as most were in 2016, The Washington Post ran a piece with the headline “Senators representing less than half the U.S. are about to confirm a nominee opposed by most Americans.”

And like Trump’s supporters in 2016, the divisiveness was all their fault. The Kavanaugh hearings represented “a triumph for conservatives,” but “a blow to the moral authority of the Supreme Court,” the Times legal correspondent maintained.

Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote that the Kavanaugh hearings were a preview of “the American Civil War, Part II.” Friedman said it “would be easy to blame both sides equally” for the shift to hyper-partisanship and political tribalism, but it was “just not true.” It was all the GOP’s fault, just as it was when Trump first won, never mind that he achieved the nomination and his victory despite the GOP party structure, not because of it. There would be no “it takes two to tango” here.

There was very telling symmetry between the way the media reported on anti-Trump protesters in the first few months of the Resistance and its response to anti-Kavanaugh protesters running amok in Washington during and after the hearings.

At points, these protesters were operating as angry mobs, obstructing the processes going on inside and outside Senate buildings. But, as glorified in many media outlets, especially the New Yorker and The New York Times, the protesters were protecting democracy and attacking privilege.

Just as it did in the early days of the Resistance, the New Yorker had its writers post-literary manifestos attacking Kavanaugh and the “patriarchy.” The result was something that recalled the radical chic posturing of the 1960s and the smug anti-establishmentarianism of the now defunct Village Voice.

What came across more than anything was the derangement of the journalistic Kavanaugh-haters, even as organizations like the Times obsessed about how adroit and cynical Kavanaugh was in exploiting broader Trump-era white male anger.

“The Angry White Male Caucus” was columnist Krugman’s headline, matched by analysis by veteran national correspondents who examined the way in which “Kavanaugh Borrows From Trump’s Playbook on White Male Anger.”

Meanwhile, feminist opinion writers at The New York Times were demonizing white women who supported Kavanaugh as “gender traitors” who were propping up white patriarchy in order to enjoy a “privileged” position within it.

The writer said that the women who wore “Women for Kavanaugh” T-shirts in the Senate gallery were among the 53 percent of the white women who had voted for Trump in 2016—“the same 53 percent who put their racial privilege ahead of their second-class gender status in 2016 by voting to uphold a system that values only their whiteness, just as they have for decades.”

Demonstrating the same tendency to racialize anything and everything to do with the Trump phenomenon—in 2016 and now—op-ed writer Alexis Grenell declared that “the gender gap in politics is really a color line.”

Writing in the very liberal Nation magazine two months before the Kavanaugh showdown, the liberal journalist Michael Massing took Resistance journalism to task for serious weaknesses in its coverage of Trump, “including bias, insularity, groupthink, and condescension, which have provided ammunition to Trump and his supporters as they seek to discredit the press.”

Unless some corrective action is taken, Massing warned, “the same shock and dismay that coursed through newsrooms in November 2016 could occur again in 2020.”

If it showed anything at all, the coverage of the Kavanaugh hearings definitely suggested that the “corrective action” that Massing was talking about was still very much undelivered.

William McGowan is the author of several books, including “Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of The New York Times Means for America” and “Coloring The News: How Political Correctness Has Corrupted American Journalism” for which he won a National Press Club Award in 2002. A regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal, he has been a frequent commentator on MSNBC, Fox News, CNN, NPR, Court TV as well as other cable and broadcast networks.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

William McGowan
William McGowan
William McGowan is author of several books including “Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of the New York Times Means for America" and "Coloring The News: How Crusading For Diversity Has Corrupted American Journalism" for which he won a National Press Club Award. He has been a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal, has published in a wide variety of prominent national magazines and has been a frequent commentator on politics, media and international affairs for CNN, NPR, MSNBC, Fox News and C-Span, as well as other cable and broadcast networks.