Published November 3, 2016
The New Criterion - October 2016 issue
“What journalism is about is to attack everybody,” said the late Warren Hinckle, sometime editor of Ramparts, according to his obituary in The New York Times last August. “First you decide what’s wrong, then you go out to find the facts to support that view, and then you generate enough controversy to attract attention.” Though the article, by William Grimes, seems to associate this attitude with what it calls “the no-holds-barred reporting style known as gonzo journalism,” it could also describe the approach to the news implicitly advocated on the paper’s front page a couple of weeks earlier by Jim Rutenberg:
If you’re a working journalist (he wrote) and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him? Because if you believe all of those things, you have to throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half- century, if not longer, and approach it in a way you’ve never approached anything in your career. If you view a Trump presidency as something that’s potentially dangerous, then your reporting is going to reflect that. You would move closer than you’ve ever been to being oppositional. That’s uncomfortable and uncharted territory for every mainstream, nonopinion journalist I’ve ever known, and by normal standards, untenable. But the question that everyone is grappling with is: Do normal standards apply? And if they don’t, what should take their place?
The difference between Mr Hinckle and Mr Rutenberg is that the former knew what he was doing while the latter treats his advocacy of one political party or tendency as if it were a higher form of “objectivity” — to use a word that appears in the headline but not the body of his article. For sheer irony-blindness — which Mr Rutenberg obviously shares with his editors — it would be hard to beat this, though Paul Farhi in The Washington Post came close when he wrote to express his shock on discovering that there were people on TV, even (if you can believe it) CNN, who were passing themselves off as pundits but could be more accurately described as propagandists for one candidate or — well, mostly only one candidate. Guess which one. True, he did acknowledge that CNN “also employs a number of identifiable advocates for Democrat Hillary Clinton. . . But veteran pundits say that not all TV commentators are created equal and that there are nuances in pundit partisanship.” Just so: “nuances” that tend to favor the view that there is a big difference between Trump-supporting pundits and those who support, say, Hillary Clinton. Naturally, the latter are to be considered “independent,” the former not.
Both the Times and the Post must now assume that any readers of those papers with a different view of media “independence” or “normal standards” will long since have been purged, leaving a rump of true progressive believers likely to take the same view of their own and others’ impartiality and objectivity — and of the Trump menace which now threatens it — that Messrs Rutenberg and Farhi do. The progressive ideology which alone can make such absurdities plausible is now taken for granted. So it is by most of those high-brow pundits who have lately introduced a new media talking point in the ongoing anatomization of Mr Trump as the dangerous political and social phenomenon they take him to be. This is the idea of the “post-truth” (or, sometimes, “post-fact”) political culture, a media meme which appears to have grown out of numerous comparisons drawn, especially in the British media but later by Donald Trump himself, between his campaign and the “Brexit” referendum in June which produced a shock result in favor of British withdrawal from the European Union.
For example, Catherine Bennett of The Guardian, proved a British equivalent of Jim Rutenberg when she wrote of how “the BBC’s fixation on ‘balance’ skews the truth.” Though she came to the subject more than two months too late to save Britain’s EU Remainders, she thought it worth protesting just the same since, like Mr Rutenberg too, she found it natural to assume that impartiality could be at odds with “the truth” only when it tended to favor those who disagreed with her.
As with climate change, implicit in extreme BBC impartiality is a distinctly un- BBC like, post-truth proposal that, since all opinions merit equal coverage, the public might as well give up on evidence-based argument. So much was plainly stated by Today’s Nick Robinson when he assured voters [in the EU referendum] who were, in huge numbers, seeking information from the BBC that the debate was all “claims and counterclaims”, “guesswork”. “No journalist,” he declared, “no pundit, no expert can resolve these questions for you.”
The idea! What are journalists and pundits (like Ms Bennett, for instance) for if not to resolve these questions for you, and others like you, who must be either willing dupes or hopelessly unable to make up your own minds? Like Jim Rutenberg again, she is incapable of self-irony and never for a moment doubts the absolute authority of her own “claims and counterclaims” to be accepted as truth. At least she purports to base her claims on their being allegedly “evidence-based.” Mr Rutenberg and The New York Times simply assume the journalist’s moral authority to decide what is truth and what is not.
Catherine Bennett’s use of the expression “extreme impartiality” took me back more than 40 years to a speech by her late fellow-countryman Harold Wilson, then Prime Minister, to the Labour Party conference in 1975 in which he characterized Labour’s intramural strife — which, after a period of quiescence under the leadership of Tony Blair, has lately broken out again under that of Jeremy Corbyn. “This Party,” said Wilson “needs to protect itself against the activities of small groups of inflexible political persuasion, extreme so-called left and in a few cases extreme so-called moderates, having in common only their arrogant dogmatism.” There, the words “so-called” saved him from the absurdity of “extreme moderates,” but he was still relying on the rhetorical poison of “extremism” used absolutely and without reference to any continuum (except for that of his own distaste) on which the offending opinion might be supposed to stand at the extreme end. “Extreme impartiality” is a similar formulation and meant to taint the very idea of impartiality as something that journalism might aspire to — as an alternative to her own calls to advocacy.
Ironically, such calls themselves depend on the “post-truth” political culture they inveigh against. Another and somewhat more thoughtful Briton, one William Davies of Goldsmiths (formerly Goldsmiths’ College, formerly Goldsmiths’ Technical and Recreative Institute) of the University of London, took to the op ed page of the Times a couple of weeks after Jim Rutenberg appeared on the front one to announce that “we have entered an age of post-truth politics.” Although his prime exhibits in evidence for this contention were, like Ms Bennett’s, Donald Trump and the Brexit campaign, he seemed to think there was more to this post-truth era than the implausible successes of people he didn’t like. “We are in the middle of a transition,” he wrote,
from a society of facts to a society of data. During this interim, confusion abounds surrounding the exact status of knowledge and numbers in public life, exacerbating the sense that truth itself is being abandoned. . . The promise of facts is to settle arguments between warring perspectives and simplify the issues at stake. . . The promise of data, by contrast, is to sense shifts in public sentiment. By analyzing Twitter using algorithms, for example, it is possible to get virtually real-time updates on how a given politician is perceived. This is what’s known as “sentiment analysis.”
“It is possible,” wrote Mr Davies, “to live in a world of data but no facts” — which certainly seems to describe the world we have been living in for some months now. But I think it would be more accurate and even more factual to say that it is necessary, when you live in a world of data, to say good-bye to facts. By a sort of Gresham’s Law of information, data drives out facts by devaluing them to its own level. “How can we still be speaking of ‘facts’,” Mr Davies asks, “when they no longer provide us with a reality that we all agree on?” The answer is that we can’t. Reality as such has itself disappeared, along with the facts, in the sea of data that promises infinite adaptability to our own, partisan purposes and whatever realities, plural, may suit them best.
The media, of course, find it convenient to go on using words like “facts” and “truth” and “reality” just as if their meanings were unchanged — as, indeed, we would expect such meanings to be. So do the political candidates and their media apologists who accuse each other of “lies” — or, more fashionably, being “post-truth” or out of touch with that reality that we are now all of us out of touch with, thanks to the work of the media’s purveyors of new and better realities. It is this multiplication of nonce realities and not an anachronistic and misplaced journalistic conscience about balance and impartiality which leads to headlines like: “Clinton, Trump exchange racially charged accusations” or “Trump, Clinton declare each other unfit to serve as commander in chief.” It wouldn’t take a whole lot of self-awareness applied to their own moral irreprochability, their own intimacy with the truth, for reporters and editors to see the absurdity in reporting as news that the candidates are insulting each other — and with no hint that the news itself, as it is now understood, has encouraged and even required such disgraceful behavior in order for the media to take notice of the candidates at all.
In an otherwise typically partisan piece in Granta Peter Pomerantsev seems at least dimly aware that there is more involved in what he calls our “‘post-fact’ or ‘post-truth’ world” than just the mendacity of Mr Trump or the Brexiteers.
This equaling out of truth and falsehood is both informed by and takes advantage of an all-permeating late post-modernism and relativism, which has trickled down over the past thirty years from academia to the media and then everywhere else. This school of thought has taken Nietzsche’s maxim, there are no facts, only interpretations, to mean that every version of events is just another narrative, where lies can be excused as ‘an alternative point of view’ or ‘an opinion’, because ‘it’s all relative’ and ‘everyone has their own truth’ (and on the internet they really do).
Yet in the end it doesn’t appear to have trickled down quite so far as to reach Mr Pomerantsev himself but only to those he happens to disagree with, who also happen to be the usual suspects in the left’s rogues’ gallery.
‘The twenty-first century is not characterized by the search for new- ness’ wrote the late Russian-American philologist Svetlana Boym, ‘but by the proliferation of nostalgias . . . nostalgic nationalists and nostalgic cosmopolitans, nostalgic environmentalists and nostalgic metrophiliacs (city lovers) exchange pixel fire in the blogosphere’. Thus Putin’s internet-troll armies sell dreams of a restored Russian Empire and Soviet Union; Trump tweets to ‘Make America Great Again’; Brexiteers yearn for a lost England on Facebook; while ISIS’s viral snuff movies glorify a mythic Caliphate. ‘Restorative nostalgia’, argued Boym, strives to rebuild the lost homeland with ‘paranoiac determination’, thinks of itself as ‘truth and tradition’, obsesses over grand symbols and ‘relinquish[es] critical thinking for emotional bonding . . . In extreme cases it can create a phantom homeland, for the sake of which one is ready to die or kill. Unreflective nostalgia can breed monsters’
Does she then suppose that the actual homelands for the sake of which actual people have actually died and killed within living memory are also the “phantom” creations of mere nostalgia? Those of us of a conservative bent have long since learned to recognize in the raising of the spectre of “nostalgia” an attack on ourselves — especially, perhaps, on our defense of the family and traditional morality, as in Stephanie Coontz’s The Way We Never Were (and passim for the last 20 years). But, as R.R. Reno pointed out last year in a lecture titled “Thinking Critically about Critical Thinking,” that which Ms Boym prefers to “emotional bonding” is not so easily relinquished nor so readily disentangled from “critical thinking” as she supposes. For, just as “extremism” has to be extreme about something, so critical thinking has to be critical about something, and neither term can be of much use without specifying what that something is — the something, in the latter case, to be affirmed before it can be criticized. I think what some people mind about when President Obama goes on one of his international “apology tours” — as he did again recently in Laos — or when a professional football player refuses to stand for the national anthem, or when both flatter (as much as they dare) the Black Lives Matter movement, is the lack of this sense of prior affirmation, expressed or implied. Their criticisms do not seem to come from within, from a love of the thing criticized. Instead, by echoing our country’s enemies, they suggest the same ideologically-founded enmity to what America is, has been and still stands for in most of the world.
In other words, as in Warren Hinckle’s day, bias is giving way to mere advocacy because the political culture has again become (rhetorically, at least) revolutionary — which is the only way so establishment a figure as Mrs Clinton can claim to be the candidate of “change.” She and her fellow progressives, like the revolutionaries of old, have themselves created the “post-truth” era as the quickest way to claim for their own ideology the “truth” that everyone else is supposed to be “post.” But their certainty of owning the truth has only served as a permission to the other side to emulate it. That’s how we do politics now: by each side shouting “liar” and “bigot” at the other because post-truth culture has given them title to their own, proprietorial truth. Mr Trump is simply playing the game the way the progressives do, without the gentlemanly reserve and forbearance of a Bush or a McCain or a Romney. At least he doesn’t pretend to any high-mindedness about his scurrility and vulgarity.
In the pre-post-truth era, Mr Trump’s appeal to patriotism might have been expected to prevail over Hillary Clinton’s claims to moral superiority over Mr Trump and those “deplorable” and unsophisticated millions who support him. No more. The late Irving Kristol once said of Mr Trump’s predecessor as the American left’s chief bogeyman, Senator Joseph McCarthy, that the American people knew one thing about him: that “he, like them, is unequivocally anti-Communist. About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing.” Large-C Communism is now supposed to be defunct, but its utopianism, its historicism and much of its anti-Americanism live on in the progressive left. We shall see in November if, 60 years on from Senator McCarthy, the utopian, politically correct dream has become more compelling to a 21st century American electorate than Mr Trump’s mere nostalgia for a long-dead past. If that is what it is.
James Bowman is resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.