Published July 1, 2018
The New Criterion - June 2018 issue
Maybe it’s because I’m feeling rather lazy myself as I prepare to shuffle over the conventional threshold into old age, but I am thinking a lot lately about the paradoxical power of laziness and inertia over what we do and, especially, what we think. What I am inclined to think — perhaps out of sheer laziness — is that laziness is ultimately the reason why the media report half the things they do, especially when they are “too good to check.” That’s if, by “too good,” we understand “too conveniently in line with the ‘narrative’ we are promoting at the moment”; and if, by “check,” we mean (among other things) “looking skeptically at the stories told to us by people who have something — especially media celebrity — to gain by the publicity they are seeking on behalf of allegations against former bosses, husbands, wives, lovers or political opponents.”
This indolence on the part of the media, to the extent that it is indolence and not malicious bias, has now spilled over into other areas of public life. It’s now pretty clear that the FBI ran to the FISA court seeking a surveillance warrant against the Trump campaign with nothing but the highly dubious Steele dossier to back up the request — when they didn’t even know where its allegations came from, let alone whether or not any of them could be substantiated. Who could be bothered to run down such details? Likewise, in April, the nomination of Ronny Jackson to be head of the Veterans’ Administration was scuppered by vicious but unsubstantiated gossip that appears to have been too congenial to the prejudices of Senator Jon Tester to, er, test.
Well, I know how he feels. Laziness could also be a good fall-back position for me if I should find that I lack the energy (as, really, I do) for working up a proper conspiracy theory involving the media and government, both elected and permanent, including our leaky law enforcement and security services. The conspicuous mendacity and the manifold failures of professionalism on the part of James Comey, James Clapper and John Brennan, for example, in turning themselves into (well-paid) media celebrities by telling tales out of school when their public service is at an end (in every sense of the expression) look way too suspiciously coordinated to be the result of a sudden access of laziness striking all three of them at the same time.
Fortunately for me, the very energetic reporting of Lee Smith for Tablet has relieved me of the labor of putting the pieces of the whole hideous conspiracy together. His efforts are all the more admirable because he knows that the major media outlets and thus most of the country will take no notice of them — not because they are lazy, of course, but because they are parties to the conspiracy and by now so deeply into it that it would be ruinous for them to pull back and admit to such discreditable behavior instead of giving each other awards for it. As Mr Smith writes:
While it is difficult even for partisans to retail the literal version of the [Trump-Russia] collusion thesis with a straight face, some version of that narrative, however qualified, or figurative, has to be true — or else the [New York] Times, like the [Washington] Post, CNN, NBC, and countless other media organizations have printed thousands of stories and editorials whose underlying premise is simply false, sending the reputations of dozens of reporters and opinionators up in smoke, Pulitzer Prizes and all. It’s hard to imagine anything worse for a democracy than journalists coordinating with political operatives and spies who are paid by the press to leak information about American citizens. But that’s where we are. We have hit rock-bottom.
Or so one would suppose. I wonder, however. Not about hitting rock-bottom, for about that I’m afraid there can be no doubt. But it is just because we have already hit rock-bottom that the media have nothing left to lose by continuing to push their false narrative until they find something — the seemingly unrelated tale of Stormy Daniels, for instance — which, however far-fetched, will allow them to proclaim it true. Long before Mr Trump was elected, the polls showed the public had abysmal levels of trust in the media — something which cannot but be a big part of the reason why he was elected. People, that is, simply didn’t believe the pre-election “narrative” pushers when they kept warning, in ever shriller tones about how awful candidate Trump was. Or they believed it and were glad of his being awful — to the media. The more the latter accused him of lying, the more ready people were to think it evidence of the media’s own lying — which is why the Trumpian cry of “Fake News” resonated when so little of what was alleged against him did.
In other words, the reputations that Lee Smith imagines the media folk to be so solicitous about have already gone up in smoke for most of the country. And yet he is not wrong about this. There is a significant minority of people who must imagine themselves to have as much at stake in the false narrative as The New York Times or CNN — which is why the audiences for such media have grown along with their biases. As our politics become more and more an exercise in virtue-signaling, the media have found a new role for themselves. Instead of reporting and commenting on the news in the old-fashioned way (Who? What? Where?. . . etc), they now only seek to validate what people already know, or think they know, in order to reassure them about their own membership in the club of the good people — whose goodness, as it happens, also constitutes their entitlement to govern the country. Isn’t that why they call it a meritocracy?
In the age of Trump, this imaginary entitlement entitles the good people, in their own eyes, to “Resist” the government of the bad and, ex hypothesi, improperly elected ones. But that bizarre assumption could be seen as a form of laziness too. Hate, as it so often does, makes an excellent excuse for not having to exert one’s thinking powers — as the NeverTrumpers themselves would no doubt be the first to point out when it comes to race-hatred. Somehow their own hatred, and those who, like Michelle Wolf, cater to it is assumed to be different. Ms Wolf, in case you have forgotten, is the comedienne at the White House Correspondents Dinner at the end of April who found that the Trump-hatred she shared with most of the media worthies in the audience relieved her of the necessity of having to think up any funny jokes.
Even when they are funny, political comedy and satire are often, I think, only forms of laziness, since they involve radical oversimplification of complex political problems and their reduction to simple black and white, bad and good in line with current moral prejudices that are themselves usually crude simplifications of real moral questions and precepts. Not that Ms Wolf even rose to that level, since her idea of what the papers used to refer to as “humorous remarks” consisted of calling Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Kellyanne Conway and others associated with the Trump administration liars. Bad people, in other words, and not very good looking either. But didn’t her fellow Trump-haters at the Dinner that night already know that?
Some, it’s true, thought she went a bit too far. Maggie Haberman of the New York Timesobjected to Ms Wolf’s saying of Ms Sanders that “she burns facts, and then she uses the ash to create a perfect smoky eye” — on the grounds that it makes fun of her personal appearance. That seems a bit misconceived to me. I can see objecting to a joke that isn’t nice about someone, but shouldn’t the prior objection be that it isn’t actually a joke? In The Washington Post, someone called Elahe Izadi, a Post reporter who moonlights as a “stand-up” artiste herself purported to give her fellow professionals’ point of view: “Several comedians,” she wrote, “say the smoky-eye was just a setup: The joke was calling Sanders a liar.” But that doesn’t exactly help, does it? Since when is it a joke to call someone a liar? And if it is a joke to call someone a liar, doesn’t that mean she’s not a liar?
Michael Grynbaum of The New York Times was also swift to leap to Ms Wolf’s defense:
“Before we criticize Michelle Wolf, let’s remember that Donald Trump has done and said some of the crudest things that any president in history has ever done,” said Howard Fineman, a left-leaning analyst at NBC News and MSNBC. “Just have a little perspective.” By Sunday, Ms. Wolf, a contributor to “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” whose Netflix talk show starts in May, had seemingly scandalized Washington’s intersecting political and media tribes. In one Twitter exchange, Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary — who recently turned up at Madame Tussauds to promote a wax statue of Melania Trump — described the dinner as “a disgrace.” “Thank you!” Ms. Wolf replied.
Neither Mr Fineman nor Ms Wolf herself can see how adopting the Trump rhetorical standard as their own — explicitly so in Mr Fineman’s case — undercuts the very basis of their criticism of him. If you’re both doing the same thing, then whence comes the sense of moral indignation at what he’s doing? At least “disgrace” — if true disgrace were still possible in this graceless age — is a by-product of Mr Trump’s combativeness. It’s apparently what Ms Wolf was going for.
Not much point then, I suppose, in expecting any gratitude toward her defenders from such a person. What Mr Grynbaum called “her most cutting joke” — though it seems to me as abysmally unfunny as the rest — was directed at the media themselves. “Mr. Trump, she said, ‘has helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster and now you are profiting from him.’” Oh, and by the way, did he mention that Michelle Wolf has a new Netflix talk show starting in less than a month? Apparently hating Mr Trump has not exactly been bad for her career either.
And she is relieved of any necessity for the hard work of being funny or witty by sharing that hatred with an audience, as lazy as she, that wants nothing more than to hear what it already thinks ratified by a certified cool person, preferably from on TV. Trust them not to notice, or to care about it if they do notice, her lack of self-awareness — something of which, as I may have mentioned before, there is a lot about. For those of us whose taste in humor runs more to the ironic than Ms Wolf’s, there are rich pickings of this kind in the pages of The New York Times, whose deadpan delivery of the latest in scandal news never, ever shows the slightest awareness of its own role in creating what it purports only to record.
“Another day, another casualty,” wrote Ms Haberman and Peter Baker in an article headed: “For Many, Life in Trump’s Orbit Ends in a Crash Landing.” The latest casualty that day (along with Michael Cohen) had been Ronny Jackson, “whose life,” wrote the team of Haberman and Baker, “had been picked apart for public consumption” and who had then withdrawn his nomination. “A ride on President Trump’s bullet train can be thrilling,” they went on, crafting an elegant metaphor, “but it is often a brutal journey that leaves some bloodied by the side of the tracks. In only 15 months in office, Mr. Trump has burned through a record number of advisers and associates who have found themselves in legal, professional or personal trouble, or even all three.”
Remarkable isn’t it? That’s the cue for the straight man to ask Haberman/ Baker: “And why are the reputations of so many people being trashed in this regrettable way, merely through their associations with Mr Trump?”
“Because,” as they coyly decline to answer, “we trash ‘em.” Ba da boom.
Yet somehow, they never see all the trashees and other “casualties” of the media-led war on the hated Trumpster as anything to do with them — or with their esteemed colleagues at The New York Times and other prominent publications. They just report the news, right?
One bit of news reported with weird — and patently bogus — precision last month by the crack “Fact-Checker” team (Glenn Kessler, Salvador Rizzo and Meg Kelly) at The Washington Post was headlined: “President Trump has made 3,001 false or misleading claims so far.” 3,001! What a lot of work must have gone into documenting and, presumably, checking, such a fact (from the Latin facere, to make or do, participial form factum, meaning a thing done) as that! And yet when you look into it, the 3,001 false or misleading claims is not even close to being a fact itself. The “claims” include:
Fifty-three times, the president has made some variation of the claim that the Russia probe is a made-up controversy. (If you include other claims about the Russia probe that are not accurate, the count goes to 90.) Forty-one times, the president has offered a variation of the false claim that Democrats do not really care about the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that Trump terminated.
Isn’t that a false or misleading claim? Aren’t Mr Kessler and his colleagues getting a little ahead of their own facts here? Both of these “claims” by the President are matters of opinion — and the first is, with every new revelation of skulduggery at the FBI, looking more and more like a true opinion. The “fact checkers” turn out to have been just as lazy as everyone else, chucking into their “falsehood” bin everything that is at odds with the received media narrative without any need for further checking.
Even the energetic-sounding “investigative” type of journalism, insofar as it is a euphemism for scandal-hunting, can often be a dreadfully lazy sort of enterprise. For scandal is the one thing that, when you go looking for it — and when you are not too scrupulous about what you are prepared to accept as “fact” — you are sure to find. Sure as shooting. For there is always going to be someone, and usually several someones, with a strong personal interest — even if it is not an overtly political one — in ruining and discrediting almost anybody, let alone anybody as “controversial” as Donald Trump. But the media must studiously ignore this obvious truth, and, in order to do so, they must paradoxically maintain their self-conceit as monopolists of The (discreditable and therefore hidden) Truth — which, when uncovered, always seems to turns out to be gratifying to the media’s own prejudices. All I’ve got to say is that you have to be awfully lazy to accept such truths as that at face value.
James Bowman is resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.