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. This isn’t a narcissism of small differences thing. It’s a matter of real philosophical disagreements about morality and epistemology becoming more salient. I don’t have this reaction to libertarians, because I agree with them on almost everything, and even when I don’t I sympathize with and appreciate their way of reasoning about the world.
Spend any time among conservatives, and you’ll before long realize that few things get them as riled up as a chance to attack the media. In the article “Why Do I Hate Pronouns More Than Genocide?”, I wrote
Having come out of academia, I’ve known many liberals, and I’m also an observer of our political culture. Following Kahneman and Tversky, we can say that there is a “System 1” (instinctive) and “System 2” (analytic) morality. I’m sure if you asked most liberals “which is worse, genocide or racial slurs?”, they would invoke System 2 and say genocide is worse. If forced to articulate their morality, they will admit murderers and rapists should go to jail longer than racists. Yet I’ve been in the room with liberals where the topic of conversation has been genocide, and they are always less emotional than when the topic is homophobia, sexual harassment, or cops pulling over a disproportionate number of black men.
I like the idea of understanding people’s true motivations not just by what they say, but what they seem to have the strongest emotional reaction to. No matter what liberals tells you, opposing various forms of “bigotry” is the center of their moral universe. For conservatives, the equivalent is clearly hatred of the left. Tim Miller, a Bulwark writer who became disillusioned with the party during the Trump era, wrote in his book Why We Did It that there’s a lot of cynicism in Republican politics, but to the extent that many operatives have one genuine belief, it’s wanting to spite and harm liberals. And by liberals, they often mean what we refer to as the “mainstream media,” as represented by institutions like the Washington Post, the big three TV networks, CNN, Reuters, the Atlantic, and, most of all, the New York Times.
Ann Coulter was reflecting the spirit of the movement when she said that Timothy McVeigh could’ve done a lot of good for the country if he had blown up the New York Times Building. In 2018, about half of Republicans said that they agreed with Trump’s statement that the press is the “enemy of the people.” Clearly, he rose to the presidency in part because he tapped into real grievances.
Hatred of the media is not simply a conservative pastime, however, but is found among others who feel alienated from establishment centrism, including critics of American foreign policy, socialists, and tech entrepreneurs like Balaji Srinivasan and Elon Musk. In fact, it’s hard to think of groups that actually like the American press, other than the press itself, which has in the Trump era taken to advertising its own indispensability for maintaining a democratic society (“Democracy Dies in Darkness”). At most, those on the center left will choose to focus on the flaws of media critics, without offering much in the way of a defense of journalistic institutions themselves.
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.
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. I go on to explain how non-leftists can have a healthier relationship with the media, and close with some thoughts on why hysterical complaints about the press are ultimately counterproductive and self-defeating. Blind media hate creates a dumber society, with this effect influencing the conservative movement most of all, while making reform much less likely.
Compared to What?
Those who criticize Western civilization or capitalism tend to be good at finding flaws but bad at keeping those flaws in perspective. For those who spend most of their time complaining about either of these things, there’s usually an implicit argument that there’s a better alternative. If you think markets represent the best way to organize an economy but you want to make them better, it makes no sense to call capitalism the enemy. You’re simply a capitalist who sees that the system has problems, which is a reasonable view.
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. Before getting too carried away with such cases, the first thing one has to consider is that there are a lot of media institutions and they’ve been around for a while, and they cover a lot of different news. I recently heard a media critic recommend a book called The Gray Lady Winked: How the New York Times's Misreporting, Distortions and Fabrications Radically Alter History. Looking at the table of contents, the first chapter is about Nazis, the second chapter is about being too soft on the Soviet Union early in its history, and the third chapter is about Castro. Overall, there are ten chapters spanning a century, meaning that the book proves that at most the NYT got one thing really wrong every decade or so. Which knowing nothing else is a pretty good record! I notice that there’s no chapter on the First Gulf War or Iran-Contra, where there’s less to complain about. Of course I know that the NYT has gotten more than ten things wrong over the last century. The point here is just that making a list of mistakes, particularly when you’re covering such a long time period, doesn’t prove anything.
Imagine if you were a blogger trying to understand the world over the course of a century on a daily basis through the midst of wars, revolutions, and economic shocks. Surely, it would be easy to write a book about all the things you got wrong and what a fool you’ve always been. Just because one can find a lot of mistakes made by the NYT, it doesn’t mean that we have any right to expect that we could’ve reasonably expected any institution to do better.
It’s bad enough when you’re using this methodology to judge one newspaper. Imagine how easy it is to criticize “the media” as a whole when you get to pick and choose what you pay attention to. According to a 2016 estimate, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and BuzzFeed publish 952 stories or videos a day. That’s almost 350,000 pieces of journalism a year in those three publications alone.
There are probably literally millions of articles published by major news sources each year. 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. January 6 was another vindication of a major media narrative that its critics doubted. For years, we were told about the dangers of Trump possibly not accepting the results of losing his reelection campaign, and as it turned out, he and his allies waged a comprehensive campaign to overturn the results in 2020, which culminated in the storming of the Capitol. Of course, I know that this position will seem shocking to many of my readers who think January 6 was a case of a tyrannical government oppressing innocent freedom fighters, but if you believe this it just demonstrates my point that you need to consume more credible sources of information. Others of you will change the subject and say “what about BLM?” or point out that the media’s coverage of January 6 wasn’t 100% accurate in every imaginable way, but the headline here is that they said the President was a unique threat to democracy and they were completely correct.
Moreover, the things that the media gets wrong, like Russiagate and WMDs, are often issues that are extremely complicated and involve weighing different claims made by various states, shadowy international figures, and factions within the American government. Again, we see the problem of unrealistic standards being applied, while critics of the media are never held accountable for anything. To compare being wrong on intelligence matters to 2020 election denial, which is a narrative composed of insane claims that are often decisively disproved as soon as they are made, would be to engage in a kind of false equivalency.
To take a less politically charged example, I’ve been following recent developments in nuclear fusion, and the MSM articles I’ve read have been well-written and informative. I’m not an expert in this field, so maybe there’s some ideological bias that I can’t detect, but I haven’t seen any scientists stand up and say that the coverage has been wrong. When I look at writing about academic fields I’m familiar with, the MSM generally does a good job of reporting what research says, and when they report wrong information, it’s usually because the experts that they rely on are themselves using flawed research methods or otherwise getting things wrong, just like how a lot of the mistaken foreign policy and national security coverage involves deferring to sources of information that are themselves most to blame for any false narratives that make their way into the news. Most issues are not like January 6 or BLM protests, but largely non-political, and here simply reading the media and trusting what it says is the best way to stay informed.
A lot of the coronavirus coverage has been and remains bad. But the question remains, compared to what? One of the most popular Substacks out there is written by Alex Berenson, who believes literally every random person in the world who drops dead is evidence that vaccines are dangerous. There are of course things that Berenson has been right about and on which the media has been wrong. But if you’re going to look at the overall record, there’s no real comparison. Of course, I’d rather people listen to the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration than either Berenson or the NYT, yet this just demonstrates how important it is to be selective in how one criticizes the press.
To have a fair and accurate understanding of the NYT, or any other media outlet, one must start with expectations that are reasonable. 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 right-wing press is more biased, less honest, and simply less competent than those they wish to replace. We know this in part because, among smart people, even conservatives take reporting in the NYT more seriously than what’s said on right-wing news sites.
The fact that people will read a book like The Gray Lady Winked is inadvertently telling. Try to imagine a book about all the lies and distortions of Rush Limbaugh’s radio show or Breitbart. No one would read it because we don’t even expect these outlets to even try to be fair or inform their audience beyond feeding them a few talking points and telling them who they’re supposed to hate. And the American right-wing press is probably good by historical standards! Something like Russia Today is probably closer to the norm.
The problem with taking a nihilistic posture towards the MSM is that there’s nothing to replace it with. 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. 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.
Intelligent conservatives in their revealed preference show that they largely agree with me. Every few weeks or so, I post links to what I’ve been reading. Probably 80% of the news reporting goes to liberal writers or institutions. Despite my readership being overwhelmingly right-leaning, no one ever questions why I link to so many left-wing sites when there’s all this great reporting being done by conservatives on paleoanthropology or the Ukraine War. No matter how conservative you are, if you want to know what’s happening in Myanmar, the latest news on nuclear fusion, or what researchers have been saying about the pace of scientific innovation, one has to seek out liberal reporters and institutions. Your choices are to rely on leftists to be an informed person, or to live in ignorance. Nothing is stopping conservatives from building their own media institutions, except for their own incompetence and lack of idealism. 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. After the 2020 election, Fox lost much of its audience to other news stations because it dared to acknowledge that Biden had won. Fox should be praised for maintaining its standards here, as it appears the Republican base has a much larger appetite for delusion than conservative elites are willing to provide.
Vice as a Microcosm
Last week, I saw a Vice News report from Lebanon in which a journalist met up with some locals as they were committing a bank robbery. Banks in the country have stopped giving people their money, and depositors have started taking matters into their own hands and are being celebrated for it. The video is absolutely captivating, not least because of how beautiful and crazy some of the women are, and left me better informed on a topic I’d previously known nothing about. Vice releases reports like this from across the world all the time. I remember the first of these I saw being a video in which they hung out with former cannibal generals in Liberia. You can read about different conflicts and news stories from around the globe, but a video report in which a journalist is walking around and giving you the sights and sounds of a warzone or a criminal underground is a completely different experience. I’m not aware of any other media source that produces as much of this kind of content at such a high level of quality. Right now, on the Vice YouTube channel, I see video reports on holy prostitutes in India, bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, sneaking into North Korea, and, for some reason, being a white student at an American HBCU.
If your only exposure to Vice is what you see on your Twitter timeline, you might know it as the website that produces headlines like “How to Eat Out a Non-Op Trans Woman” (sorry) and “The Girl’s Guide to Tucking Your Dick.”
Vice strikes me as a microcosm of the strengths and weaknesses of the media as a whole. They produce some disgusting and stupid content, but also do a lot of actual reporting that you couldn’t possibly get anywhere else. What should my attitude be towards the entire enterprise? Should I see the latest article on how it’s harmful not to date trans and wish the whole institution would be destroyed? In an ideal world, I’d like to consume informative content from people who have rational views on race and sex. But reality is such that there simply aren’t many conservatives doing work this good, and anti-wokeness if anything seems correlated with a lack of interest in the broader world. I wish Vice wasn’t insane, but I’m not going to curse its existence or declare the journalists who work there my mortal enemies as long as I’m learning and benefiting from their work.
Emotionally, I naturally feel more goodwill towards people who contribute knowledge to the world than grifters who do nothing but criticize and seethe. Even if I agree with some right-wing influencer more than I do with your typical Vice journalist on most topics, I still find the latter more relatable and socially valuable (with the exception of those who cover the chicks with dicks beat and Taylor Lorenz). I’m part of the “anti-woke” team, but I’m also part of the “people who try to bring knowledge and understanding to the world” team, and so I can’t either fully embrace or condemn the press. If you find yourself having a more negative attitude towards the MSNBC or Vice than people who make their living doing stuff like this, you’ve lost the plot.
Where Media Critics Are Right
As I write this, the NYT homepage has stories about the rate of inflation, Ukraine claiming that Russia is sending more troops to the Donbas, and cougars expanding their range to the East of the Mississippi. I might suspect that each of these stories is biased in a certain direction: the inflation story to make Biden look better than if a Republican was in office, the Ukraine news to go against the Russian narrative, and the story on cougars to be tilted towards the perspective of environmentalists over free marketers.
Nonetheless, I can read each article in confidence that most if not all of what is being said is true. Even if Russia is not sending troops to Eastern Ukraine right now, I believe that the NYT is accurately describing what Kiev is saying about the topic. Moreover, I not only believe that the NYT doesn’t consciously lie, but that the writers and editors who worked on each piece made a good faith effort to accurately represent the facts on what is going on to the best of their ability. Yes, you can probably find flaws in each of the stories. Perhaps something should have been worded a little bit differently, or some relevant piece of information should’ve made its way into the article and was ignored for ideological reasons.
But I don’t have high standards for humanity. “Be intelligent, don’t explicitly lie to me, don’t see yourself as on a team trying to ‘own’ the other side, and have some kind of professional standards where you at least care a little bit about truth” is about the best that I think we have the right to expect. And institutions like the NYT, the Washington Post, and the Atlantic generally meet that standard, at least to a much greater extent than most of their critics. I would argue that much of academia is broken in the way that a lot of media critics think the press is. In many fields, reading the scholarly literature will either be worthless or actually make you dumber. The press largely works though, and I’m afraid that if we dismiss the Atlantic as crude propaganda that is destroying society we won’t have any words left to describe Queer Studies or much of bioethics.
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. 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. Critics of affirmative action need the NYT to know that, after Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology changed its admissions standards to diversify the student body, the number of Asians fell from 73% to 54%. Probably 9 out of 10 facts used to criticize liberals come from liberals themselves! I remember during the George Floyd and Trayvon Martin controversies coming across conservative analysts criticizing the NYT for its coverage while using facts from the NYT to make their case. Just the other day, the newspaper ran a front-page story on affirmative action that included the following sentence: “Recent polls suggest that most people believe colleges should not consider race or ethnicity in admissions decisions.” It didn’t qualify it by saying the polls were biased or that respondents were racist. I know, again, this isn’t the highest standard in the world, but this is what lawyers call an “admission against interest,” and it is more than you can expect from most haters of the press.
The MSM keeps showing you that there are massive racial and gender disparities, and they continue to exist no matter how much effort is put towards eliminating them. This is like if Pravda kept showing you the economic data proving that capitalist countries are rich and the Soviet Union can’t produce enough grain to feed itself, but encouraged its readers not to lose faith in socialism. I think a fair observer would have to conclude that, even if this is propaganda, it is of an unusually honest kind.
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. Sorry, but you’re not getting that from Infowars or your favorite right-wing anon Twitter account that you think is speaking truth to power. Hillary’s e-mails and Biden’s current difficulties with classified information are other examples of this. Yes, I know about Twitter and Hunter Biden’s laptop. That was unfair. But if you’re still upset about Hunter, odds are you ignored how Hillary’s emails got way too much coverage in 2016, which was likely much more electorally consequential. The press at least wants to be fair and that means it sometimes overcorrects, which again, is something that would be unthinkable for conservatives, and most humans throughout history, for that matter.
Of course, it never overcorrects on identity issues, where I’ve already granted to media haters that they’re insane. And when reporting on day-to-day politics, it’s certainly constructing narratives that are usually more beneficial to Democrats than Republicans. The other day, I saw a headline in the Washington Post that said “McCarthy says he’s willing to look at expunging a Trump impeachment.” Before clicking the link, I had enough experience as a news consumer to guess what had happened. McCarthy was probably asked a question, and he simply deflected, wanting to avoid the headache of being Trump’s avenger while also trying to avoid angering the MAGAs in the party. Sure enough…
Asked at a news conference about the prospect of an expungement now that Republicans control the House, McCarthy said, “I would understand why members would want to bring that forward.”
McCarthy then ticked off other priorities for House Republicans, including the economy and immigration.
“But I understand why individuals want to do it, and we’d look at it,” McCarthy said of expunging impeachments.
The headline was meant to give the impression that McCarthy was making redeeming Trump a top priority of the House GOP, when it’s clear that this is not what happened. A large portion of “politician says X” kinds of stories are like this, that is, technically true but misleading, especially if you only read the headline. And these types of articles are overwhelmingly written about Republicans. Critique stories like this, but by world historical standards, this isn’t something to get too excited about or make the entire center of your worldview. Part of the problem is that Republicans aren’t very smart, so they can’t pressure the media in effective ways to give them better coverage and do actually do things that can’t be defended like equivocate on who won the 2020 election.
Yet as bad as this kind of coverage is, it’s not nearly as biased as the alternative. One of my favorite recent examples demonstrating the difference between the conservative and liberal press relates to the issue of polling. In 2016 and 2020, MSM polls tended to have a slight bias towards Democrats, with the problem being particularly bad in the Midwest. Conservatives in response stopped believing surveys from institutions like CNN and started listening to their own pollsters like Robert Cahaly of the Trafalgar Group. In 2022, Trafalgar ended up being a lot more off than most mainstream pollsters had been in other elections, vastly overestimating Republican prospects. For example, the firm predicted a close outcome in the Washington Senate race, which Democrat Patty Murray won by almost 15 points. And it wasn’t just Tralfagar, as the New York Times ran a feature explaining how right-wing media kept demanding polls that told the audience what it wanted to hear, which skewed expectations of what would happen in the midterms.
I think the 2022 conservative polling fiasco demonstrates the problem with much of how people criticize the media. People pointed to a real issue, which was that mainstream polls were biased towards the Democrats. Conservatives tuned the media out and built an alternative ecosystem. Yet it turned out to be much worse. Moreover, conservatives didn’t simply point out the flaws in polling before 2022, but attacked and demonized those who told them what they didn’t want to hear, attributing malice where there didn’t appear to be any. And after the liberal press made mistakes in 2016 and 2020, polling coverage became extremely self-reflective, with journalists even coming up with innovative methods in 2022 so they could try to arrive closer to the truth. Conservative media, in contrast, takes no feedback from recent events, and has already forgotten how badly it bungled the last election. I don’t want to pick on the Tralfagar Group, as they did get 2016 and 2020 right, and Robert Cahaly should be credited for doing an interview explaining what he got wrong this time around. But notice it was published in New York, a liberal outlet, as there doesn’t appear to be an appetite for any kind of self-reflection in the conservative press. The point here isn’t to argue about the merits of various pollsters. Rather, it’s to stress that in the area of polling, the mainstream media may be biased but at least makes a good faith effort to try and get things right, while its critics simply have little to no interest in truth and build institutions that reflect their own values (or lack thereof).
Critical Race Theorists and other left-wing scholars have argued that Western civilization and all of its institutions are biased, and they may sometimes have a point. But bias is part of being human, so the best you can hope for is for individuals and institutions that recognize the problem and try to do something about it. People who openly announce their intention and desire to discriminate and crush their opponents, like Critical Race Theorists, are obviously much worse than those that they attack, in the same ways an individual who proudly indulges in his flaws ends up behaving much worse than an otherwise similar individual who feels bad about them. The MSM is in that sense a normal Western institution, while its right-wing critics, ironically enough, represent a drive towards a kind of third worldization where the information space is nothing but crude propaganda and shrieking tabloids. It’s in fact not a coincidence that much of the Anglosphere right-wing press, including the New York Post and the Daily Mail, function as sort of tabloid-real news hybrids.
My advice is to read the mainstream media, and trust the facts they present, while questioning the narratives. Understand where the biases are and correct for them. Read some of their critics too, but understand that those critics are almost more biased and less intelligent and honest than those that they attack. 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.
Media Hate as a Trap
So why should we care about any of this? One can say that maybe the media is honest and good by historical standards and compared to its opponents, but that criticism is still constructive and can make it better, or cause people to distrust the press when they need to. As a general matter, however, undue pessimism about institutions tends to have serious costs. There are a few problems I see with taking the perspective of the media as the enemy, which means using one’s energy to destroy confidence in the press rather than trying to constructively engage with it.
First of all, when people stop trusting mainstream journalists, there’s no guarantee that they start listening to better sources of information instead. If one thing has become clear over the last decade or so, it’s that decreasing trust in the media does not just lead to a citizenry no longer subject to their lies, but large sections of the population becoming increasingly untethered from reality. I shrugged when the media started talking about QAnon a few years ago, and thought they were exaggerating a movement that was and would remain insignificant. Now Trump plays their music at rallies, and his former National Security Advisor pledges allegiance to what is an openly genocidal worldview. The right-wing obsession with imaginary cases of “trafficking” and “pedophilia” appears to be Q entering the mainstream of the party, and conservatives reveal themselves just as susceptible to scams in this area as the most naive liberals are when it comes to their own sacred causes. Election denial is similar. Conservatives have reasonable questions about extended voting periods and ballot harvesting, but they responded by just starting to believe that all elections are fake. It’s now normal for Republicans to demand recounts even in areas that they overwhelmingly win and where there is no evidence of wrongdoing.
The situation with covid is a bit more complicated. One can debate the costs and benefits of covid vaccines for young people, but the most important fact of the vaccine debate is that the conservative movement’s elderly and overweight base has been dying in large numbers due to misinformation. I’ll admit though, that blind distrust and hatred of the media may have had a role to play in giving us fewer lockdowns, mask mandates, and school closures. Yet while on this particular issue I’m glad people hated the media, there’s no guarantee that things will be similar in a future public health emergency. During covid, as I’ve explained before, vax denial hasn’t been as bad as supporting lockdowns and mask mandates, since vax denial kills people who suffer as a result of their own decisions while non-pharmaceutical interventions have been the costliest policy and greatest infringement on liberty in Western countries since at least the Second World War. Nonetheless, it seems possible that in a future pandemic, or any other kind of emergency, the traits that led conservatives and populists to be anti-vaxx might have a much more important influence. If I’m going to steelman the case for nihilistic media hatred, it would be by stressing what happened during covid, and arguing that an elite that masked children for as long liberal areas of the country did is irredeemable.
I’d still say, however, that on the vast majority of issues, if the choices are between “blindly trust the media” and “blindly hate the media,” it’s clear that the former is preferable. Same if the choice is between “blindly trust the media” and “blindly listen to right-wingers on Twitter who hate the media.” (one more time, caveats for race issues, etc.) Intelligent people can think critically about what the media reports and account for its biases. But most people can’t do this and unfortunately are destined to become sheep following one shepherd or another.
Blind hatred of the media is worse for conservatives than anyone else, feeding into the oppositional culture that I’ve criticized before. Most of my friends are high-IQ conservatives, and it is fascinating to watch the extent to which their brains have been optimized towards the goal of “owning the libs.” If you think this is just a problem of Hannity viewers and Turning Point USA types, you are wrong. At least liberal insanity on identity issues involves opinions about substantive things out there in the world. I remember during the period between the 2020 election and January 6, turning to liberal outlets and seeing them freak out about Trump refusing to accept the results of the election. Conservatives generally fell into two categories: the dumber and more excitable ones bought into the stolen election narrative, while the smarter and more level-headed ones knew it was false, but spent most of their mental energy devoted to politics criticizing liberals for their reaction to what Trump was saying. Similarly, I know many conservatives who either have no opinion on mRNA vaccines or acknowledge that they’re probably good, while still being positively inclined towards vax denial because they see it makes libs angry.
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. The steps here seem to be:
1) Defend your tribe when you can.
2) When what’s been done can’t be defended, change the subject to talk about something that the other tribe either did, excused, or didn’t take seriously enough. Since there will always be something that fits in this category, you never have to think any negative thoughts about your tribe.
What a horrible way to go through life! Waking up every day and either taking stupid positions for purely tribal reasons or using spare IQ points to justify not having an opinion at all and being completely reactive to what one’s supposed “enemies” are doing.
I’ve also noticed that a lot of people in tech make hating the media central to their political identity, and in this case it’s understandable. Reading much of the coverage since the Great Awokening, it’s clear that many tech reporters don’t care about tech as such, but see their job as uncovering race and sex discrimination within the industry. As with art critics and sportswriters, it appears that to a large extent the subject of the reporting is almost secondary, and the real point is the narrative.
Nonetheless, just as how a victim mentality is not good for ethnic groups, it’s also self-defeating for political movements. It prevents people from seeing their own flaws and assessing their circumstances objectively, and makes them prone to accept conspiracy theories and engage in catastrophization. I’ve already mentioned the conservative polling disaster of 2022, which misled Republicans about their prospects and may have contributed to them nominating unelectable candidates that campaigned in the general election like they were still in the primary. What made many of these candidates unelectable was in part their adherence to the idea that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump, a narrative that itself was allowed to fester and grow in part because conservatives haven’t shown an ability to tell their voters they’re wrong or nip destructive movements in the bud before they consume their party, the way that Democrats largely did with Defund the Police.
The final major problem I see with broad attacks on the media is that it makes reform more difficult. There was once hope that the influence of the MSM would melt away in the era of social media, and some have similar expectations with regards to crypto. These predictions have generally proven false, and the New York Times is as influential as ever. 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. The New York Times and the Washington Post are biased, but, to their credit, they are not Occupy Democrats. Powerful individuals in government and business likewise grant access to the MSM because they feel comfortable dealing with people who represent institutions that have some mission based on discovering and propagating truth, rather than simply engaging in tribal warfare.
Conservatives, unfortunately, are in such a bubble that they don’t see much distinction between what the right-wing press does and its opponents, and think it is simply a matter of their enemies wielding arbitrary power. But if Breitbart and the MyPillow crowd moved into the New York Times Building and were allowed to use its offices and subscriber list, they would quickly run the institution into the ground. They might still make money by cutting the science section and sticking to their headlines about how Biden farted during a speech last weekend, but the newspaper would quickly lose its prestige and ability to influence people naturally inclined to become elites. For what it’s worth, the same could probably be said about the most enthusiastic online Bernie supporters, or say Falun Gong. This isn’t so much about how bad the conservative press is, as previously noted, I think that they are close to the human norm. But the human norm is terrible, and we’re lucky to have institutions that have some degree of respect for the principles of objectivity and truth.
The only answer to media bias, then, is to reform the media, or otherwise build institutions that resemble it. And it’s much easier to make the media better if your criticisms are sober and specific rather than hysterical and scattered. The press, of course, is not a monolith. Resistance to wokeness and public health extremism exist within these institutions, and those outside of them should focus on helping those on the right side of these issues gain more influence in how such matters are covered. A dialectic in which you begin by saying to the NYT, “I wish Timothy McVeigh blew you guys up,” is much less likely to lead to something productive than “You guys did great covering the run-up to the Ukraine war and the 2022 midterms, but that one writer talking about tuna salad being racist is really discrediting the rest of the paper and I’m afraid that his work feeds into anti-democratic narratives.”
This advice of course isn’t going to apply to people who think January 6 was a peaceful protest, Trump really won the 2020 election, mRNA vaccines are dangerous, or that the world is run by a cabal of Satanic pedophiles, because such views, unlike anti-wokeness and anti-masking, don’t have any support in newsrooms or among the kinds of people who become successful journalists. And for good reason, as the views in the former category are indefensible, and if you hold any of them, you shouldn’t. But almost all reasonable critiques of the media can generally find at least some sympathy within newsrooms themselves, and the question should not be how to destroy the press, but how to engage with it in a more constructive way.
To take a concrete example of this, in 2022 the labor union representing NYT reporters accused the paper of bias for giving minorities lower performance ratings than whites. This data should have reflected well on the paper; disparities are practically always a sign that a process is fair, while equality of outcomes should make you suspicious and can only be found in the most politicized industries and professions, or where standards are practically non-existent. Of course, the NYT was attacked from the left for its supposed bigotry. But the report was also featured in conservative outlets, with the articles not disputing the NYT Guild’s assumption that differential scores for blacks and whites indicates something is wrong. More broadly, the conservative press and even Republican politicians are generally inclined to support unionization for companies they dislike in the first place, often in the correct belief that it will hurt the institution in question by doing things like requesting diversity audits (sometimes they actually fantasize about unions being a force for conservatism, but this is a delusion that ignores not only what most unions are like today, but the long history of organized labor almost always being at the vanguard of far left causes, with the only exceptions being when it was in bed with organized crime). If your goal is just to harm your enemies, that’s a great strategy, but it will end up making society even more woke, since you’re not going to destroy these powerful institutions, and, as we already mentioned, conservatives have nothing to replace them with if they did. The NYT having dared to give black journalists low ratings in the first place should be taken as a sign that the newspaper isn’t nearly as bad as you think, and that if you engage constructively with it you can make it better. But if the Right is going to join the Left in accepting witch hunts involving unfounded accusations of racism, there will be much less of a tendency to maintain current standards.
Personally, I’ve always been treated well by the mainstream press. My name has been mentioned in six different articles in the New York Times, excluding one op-ed I wrote myself, and four articles in the Washington Post, excluding two where I was the author. I’ve also seen my work talked about in Politico, New York, and other publications, in addition to press coverage of work others have done for CSPI. In practically every instance I can remember, my views or the CSPI research has been presented fairly and accurately, and I have practically no complaints about the coverage. This is despite me being anti-woke and often deliberatively provocative. I still think the MSM is biased – I of course deserve to have hundreds of mentions in the NYT and in fact a regular op-ed column. Still, I was recently talking to a young academic who said he never talks to the press, as only bad things can come of it. This reflects the same negativity bias I mentioned earlier. Everyone remembers the rare case when the NYT threatened to dox Scott Alexander, while forgetting the countless number of instances in which someone simply sees their work represented fairly and accurately. Of course, one dox or hit piece might outweigh a hundred useful articles in the amount of damage it causes. But my impression is that people vastly overestimate the frequency of such unfair pieces, and underestimate the good work that most journalists do most of the time.
Much of my public profile has been built on bashing the press, and my views about its shortcomings have stayed consistent. At the same time, observing the world of right-wing influencers on social media, reflecting on the right-wing press, and getting to know conservatives personally have helped put the flaws of outlets like CNN and the NYT in their proper perspective. Institutions do actually matter, and wanting to simply discredit or burn them to the ground without carefully thinking about what the alternatives are strikes me as the wrong approach to take.
Hate certain parts of the media, including specific articles, false narratives, and even, if you must, individual journalists who represent the worst of their profession. But if you care about having a functional society in which forming accurate perceptions of at least some portions of reality is possible, please temper your criticism.
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