From Richard Hanania’s Substack:
Why the Media is Honest and Good
How to critique the press without devolving into nihilism
I tend to get annoyed by those around me. Most of my adult life I’ve spent in academic institutions, and this has created a revulsion towards the woke. As my writing has gained attention over the last two years, I’ve made friends with lots of conservatives, and that has made me notice their flaws more and more, including ones that I could more easily overlook back when sexual harassment and diversity trainings were part of my life. Most writers have to worry about “audience capture,” but for me it’s the opposite. When I see what those around me think, I have to struggle not to get consumed by all the ways in which they’re wrong about the world….
In this essay, I’m going to argue that everyone is wrong, and the media is actually good and honest. You should be glad it exists, admire those who work in the industry, and hope for its continued influence and success. Scott Alexander recently said that the media very rarely tells explicit lies, a view he got a lot of pushback for. My position is more extreme than his. It’s that while the American media has serious flaws, it is one of the most honest, decent, and fair institutions designed for producing and spreading truth in human history. Like any institution, the press has to be judged according to realistic benchmarks, not simply criticized because it is imperfect or makes mistakes. And if you judge the mainstream media by historical standards, or compare it to anything that competes with it for influence – the right-wing press, popular influencers, social media, foreign sources of news, etc. – the institutions of American journalism come out looking extremely well.
Let’s take a topic I know some something about: baseball. New York Times sportswriter Tyler Kepner is outstanding at writing about pitching. If he has a bias, I don’t know enough to notice it.
Now, let’s take a topic I don’t know anything about: the fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan. If I saw a headline about renewed fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh and, for once, was interested in learning more, would I turn to the New York Times to read about it? Sure. The NYT employs a lot of smart, careful people to write and edit on all sorts of specialist topics, and watches out for some (but not all) conflicts of interest.
On the other hand, Noam Chomsky argued that the NYT and the like were beholden to the American government’s foreign policy apparatus. And he has something of a point. If you are a reporter covering a foreign war, one thing you’d want to do is to check with your U.S. Deep State contacts who have access to military satellite surveillance to see which side is conquering territory. In return, though, you’d be expected to put some spin on the news in a way desired by Fort Meade.
Personally, I don’t know what bias that would introduce: the Deep State tends to favor Azerbaijan, I think, because Armenia allies with Russia. But Congress tends to favor Armenia, because there are a lot of affluent Armenian-Americans who donate to candidates.
Likewise, my favorite novel is Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop about how hard it is to learn anything about a war when you are a foreign correspondent sent to cover it. In Scoop, the cream of the world’s war correspondents descend upon Addis Ababa, five hundred miles from the front, but the Ethiopian government won’t issue permits to visit the front, so the most famous reporters in the world just sit around the hotel bar to drink, complain, and lie. I can recall in 1980 reading an article about frustrated reporters covering the new Iraq-Iran war from the bar in the Baghdad Hilton with no way of getting to the front. It was amazingly like Scoop, although, now that I think about it, I’m sure the reporter who wrote it had read Scoop and was in on his own joke.
To cover an Armenia-Azerbaijan war even-handedly, you’d probably need one correspondent who’d spent years making friends in the Armenian capital and another who’d done the same in the Azerbaijan capital. Sounds expensive, especially since most of the time neither country generates much interesting news.
When it comes to a more relevant war, such as Russia-Ukraine, the headlines tend to be highly biased, always putting some kind of pro-Ukraine spin on it. If Russia conquered Odessa, the headline would be, “Russia Takes Odessa, Extending Its Supply Lines Dangerously.” In this case, not just the US government but most readers are on the side of Ukraine since Russia started this war of annexation.
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. The facts they give you even on these sensitive topics are usually correct, but it’s simply that the interpretation of these facts is wrong.
Or they don’t give you the facts at all. For example, I apparently invented that you can look up how often the NYT or WP use different tendentious terms over time, which the academics David Rozado and Zach Goldberg have greatly advanced. But, here’s a quick and dirty comparison:
Richard would say that transgenderism isn’t an important issue, but that’s not the New York Times’ opinion, evidently, because it has published 8,386 articles touching on the topic. On the other hand, the sex fetish that motivates many of the most influential M-to-Fs is news not fit to print.
Compared to What?
… People who complain about the media tend to implicitly judge it by the standard of perfection, while either offering no alternative or arguing that people instead listen to sources that are even worse. They find it easy to list its mistakes, including WMDs, Russiagate, and the narratives surrounding various shootings of young black men.
Alternatively, they could be worse than in the past. Several things have made the NYT worse than it used to be: the combination of the Great Awokening from 2013 onward and the By Any Means Necessary push to dump Trump from 2017 onward combined with the marketing department’s growing awareness of what kind of clickbait subscribers like has done bad things to the Times relative to the first decade of the century.
In 2019, the NYT’s executive editor Dean Baquet was recorded apologizing to the staff that their Plan A to take down Trump, RussiaGate, had flopped, but they now had a Plan B: racism 24/7.
… There are probably literally millions of articles published by major news sources each year.
There are two angles on this: I agree with Richard that it’s silly to get too worked up over a handful of really wrong articles in the numerator compared to all the okay articles in the denominator.
On the other hand, as Stalin liked to say, quantity has a quality all its own. Publishing 8,386 articles that include the word “transgender” has done a lot to signal the rest of the media that trans was the Next Big Thing. If the NYT started running articles about how so many of the most famous transgenders are motivated by their sex fetish, other outlets would gain courage to do so too. But they don’t, so a decade into transmania, practically nobody knows about it.
An entire right-wing ecosystem centers around finding the most absurd headlines and stories and using them to build a narrative about how terrible the media is, with journalists the moment they make a mistake being dunked on by grifters who’ve never in any way made their fellow human beings smarter or better informed.
This kind of criticism is cheap and selective, and it ignores how the media gets things right a lot more often than it gets them wrong. In late 2021, I read in the NYT that Russia would invade Ukraine in a few months. Practically every major critic of the media that I saw on Twitter doubted that reporting. When Russia did invade Ukraine, people forgot that the press, and the “deep state” for that matter, had gotten things right.
Had the NYT been wrong, we would’ve never stopped talking about the great Ukraine invasion hoax of 2021-2022.
… Instead of comparing the MSM to some idealized standard of reporting, I prefer to judge it relative to other institutions. Conservatives have tried to build alternatives to the NYT and other major papers. This has been a failed experiment….
The problem with taking a nihilistic posture towards the MSM is that there’s nothing to replace it with.
Actually, that there’s no replacement for the MSM sounds like a good justification for pointing out flaws in the MSM.
If someone spends all their time complaining about capitalism without making the case for a realistic alternative, what they’re advocating for is chaos, or more likely, socialism, which is much worse.
Ralph Nader complained about capitalism and got seat belts in cars.
Likewise, simply trying to discredit the media when it’s in many ways the only means we have to acquire accurate information about the world should be understood as advocating for making society dumber.
I argue for getting smarter at how to read the mass media: e.g., the inconvenient facts tend to get buried deep within the article.
… Even the few conservative institutions that people take seriously like The Wall Street Journal have to rely to a large extent on left-wing staff. There is no shortage of right-wing grifters though, and the movement should spend more time reflecting on this fact and less time criticizing others. …
The MSM is at its worst when it comes to issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation because the left has lost its mind on these issues. One should be able to disaggregate various areas of coverage.
But of course, people who like the NYT don’t. They assume that if the NYT is fairly legit on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, then they they must be giving us the straight story on the Racial Reckoning.
If the media was as bad on every topic as it is on identity, I would probably join conservatives in suggesting we burn the whole thing to the ground, which is the posture I’m in favor of taking towards much of the academy. The press is committed to a narrative in which disparities are caused by discrimination and whites and men are constantly oppressing women and people of color. Even here, they’re usually not explicitly lying. For example, they’ll lower their standards in order to publish an unconfirmed report about an alleged hate crime against a minority, and often treat what should be at most local stories into matters of national significance. Recently, three black UVA football players were killed, and the Washington Post made it into a story about white racism, not informing the reader that the shooter himself was black until paragraph 8. This article may not technically contain a “lie,” but it is clearly giving a false impression regarding what happened.
That being said, even here, the media is still in many ways more useful than most of its critics. Steve Sailer does a fantastic job of scouring MSM race coverage, but his articles often rely on the NYT for the reporting of basic facts, which he interprets in his own ways.
It’s called “admission against interest.” For example, in 2016 the New York Times looked into every mass shooting (at least four casualties) in 2015 and found that in almost three-fourths of the cases, both the shooters and victims were black. I cite that in Twitter debates a lot because everybody knows the NYT is biased on race, so if they admit it against their interest, it must be true.
On the other hand, I’ve likely quoted that New York Times finding more times over the last seven years than the New York Times has. As far as I can tell, the NYT has written “nearly three-fourths of victims and suspected assailants” only in its original 2016 article and has never again brought up the finding it spent a fair amount of labor to come up with in the last seven years.
Of course, it never overcorrects on identity issues, where I’ve already granted to media haters that they’re insane.
OK, but identity is kind of a big deal.
… The few media critics who are better than the press are rare and deserve your support. The exception here is anything having to do with race, gender, or sexual orientation, where you should understand that establishment journalists are trying their best but can’t be trusted because they’ve lost their minds, or are scared of those that have, and you’d be better off listening to people with cancelable views. Continue to criticize the press for where it falls short, without devolving into nihilistic hate.
… First of all, when people stop trusting mainstream journalists, there’s no guarantee that they start listening to better sources of information instead.
… I think people keep expecting the MSM to go away because they misunderstand the source of its power.
Balaji calls what they do “fiat information,” Yarvin refers to “the Cathedral,” and Sailer talks about “the megaphone.” Each of these phrases misleads us about why the press is so powerful.
Media institutions are influential not simply because they have arbitrary power that could just as easily be bestowed on anyone else. Rather, they produce the kind of content that educated Westerners want to read, in part because, unlike many conservatives, most people who consume serious newspapers, books, and magazines want sources of information that at least make some basic effort to be fair and neutral in their analysis, and that try to cover a wide variety of topics.
Of course, that’s my point about the New York Times’ possession of “the megaphone.” The rest of the media pays careful attention to what the New York Times considers fit to print because it’s a giant and serious institution.
If the New York Times were to use its megaphone announce tomorrow: “Hey, you, all that George Floyd Black Lives Matter stuff seems to have discouraged policing, which, ironically, has wound up getting many thousands of extra blacks murdered and killed in car crashes. Oops, sorry,” most of the rest of the press would sheepishly follow along shortly.
A second opinion, from Paleo Retiree, who worked for decades at a major weekly news magazine. After I wrote about the bronze statue boom of the last third of a century, which I’ve seen with my own eyes all across the country but can’t recall ever reading about in the national press as a subject worthy of art criticism, he responded:
BTW, there’s a surprisingly big world out there of gifted people — architects, painters, composers, poets, etc — creating delightful, solid and beautiful stuff in trad kinds of ways. I’ve met a bunch of them. The reason your average American culturefan isn’t aware of this activity is that the press doesn’t cover it, so you aren’t being told about it. You won’t know about it if you don’t stumble into it yourself.
You can trust me on this, btw: back in the ‘90s I pitched a lot of story ideas about the various New Traditionalisms to a lot of different editors, and 99.9% of the time my ideas were shot down. I had to have had the worst batting average of any arts reporter ever, lol.
You’d think editors of arts sections and arts publications would find such people and developments interesting, and would want to explore them and tell readers and viewers about them. But no: in fact what I found was that the editors and producers (and the people behind them) who run the discussion about the arts in our country aren’t interested in mere reporting, let alone in giving their readers and viewers a fair picture of what’s really going on culturally in the world. They’re interested in dictating terms and promoting agendas. A few scales fell from my eyes. It’s almost like the entire news business generally!