Published October 31, 2018
Too late for a mention in last month’s article in this space (see “Constituting Truth” in The New Criterion of September, 2018), in which I noted that what is called “truth” in the media and elsewhere does not necessarily mean truth as people used to understand it, was Rudy Giuliani’s getting himself in a heap o’ trouble by saying exactly that on “Meet the Press.” At least that’s what I think he said. Others would disagree. In discussing with the host, Chuck Todd, the possibility of Robert Mueller’s using a prospective interview with Donald Trump to spring a perjury trap (“Truth is truth,” Mr. Todd, had disingenuously objected), Mr. Giuliani said: “No, it isn’t truth. ‘Truth’ isn’t truth.” And who could doubt it when the media, in pursuit of political advantage for their fellow Trump-haters, chose to report his words without the punctuation I have supplied above, thus making him out to be either an imbecile or insane — or possibly a post-modern literary theorist?
Here, in other words, would seem to be a perfect example of the truth of what Mr. Giuliani, and I, had been saying. But when The New York Times and others transcribed his remarks without punctuation as they did, they did so in order to express what, to Rudy and me, was the patent untruth — though one gratifying to their own prejudices — that he had denied the existence of truth itself. I ask myself two questions. First, how can the reporters and editors of the Times — who are themselves, presumably, neither imbecile nor insane (although, since most of them are graduates of our top universities’ languages and humanities departments, they may well be postmodern literary theorists) — let alone their readers, believe anything so absurd? Second, how can they remain blind to the damage such obvious dishonesty, so obviously in the service of their own partisan agenda, does to their credibility? How is it possible for such otherwise intelligent people to be unable to reach up to even the most basic level of self-awareness?
At bottom, these are the same questions that spring to mind about the credulity of Bob Woodward, exactly like that of Michael Wolff earlier this year (see “Methods of Madness” in The New Criterion of February, 2018), in believing, and staking his own credibility on, every bit of back-stairs White House tittle-tattle to the discredit of President Trump for no better reason than Mr. Wolff’s, which was, if you remember, that it fit his pre-conceived “narrative” better than anything to the contrary. What else but a failure of self-awareness, perhaps in his case dating back to his self-conceit as one of the two heroes of the famous Watergate putsch, can explain the apparent assumption that every scurrilous rumor or disgruntled employee’s resentful comment must be accepted as The Truth if he repeats it? He himself is a one-man truth constituency, in the terms of last month’s article, and not only in his own mind but in that of his legion of admirers among his fellow reporters.
Another recent example of rival truth constituencies coming to grips while pretending to be interested in Truth tout court came with the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Both sides had to uphold the pretense that the pseudo-legal “testimony” of the legal experts and professors on both sides, not to mention that of the nominee himself and his questioners on both sides was not self-interested and designed to promote a particular political point of view but part of a disinterested search for “truth” — though everyone knew that this particular truth would come down to who had the votes. Beneath that charade, and perhaps because of it, The New York Times slipped in another bit of tendentiousness with the headline: “Kavanaugh Portrayed as a Hopeless Partisan as Hearings on Supreme Court Nominee Open,”
How, you may ask, is it possible for the person who wrote that headline not to see his own partisanship written into it — not to mention that of the Democratic members of the committee so obviously in search of anything to the discredit of poor Mr. Kavanaugh, including the fact that he has worked for Republicans in the past, in order to feed their hostile questioning? But if we are to go on reading The New York Times it seems we shall have to accept that, just as only white people can be racists, so only Republicans can be partisan. How “hopeless” is that?
Looking back over the last couple of years, especially, I can see that this mensual meditation of mine has been devoted, again and again, to the attempt to answer this same question of irony failure, this inability of those in the media not just to see themselves as others see them but even to conceive of others, not tinged by some mental incapacity, who don’t see them as they see themselves. Others are pondering the same question. The British political philosopher John Gray, for instance, writes that
Conspiracy theory has long been associated with the irrational extremes of politics. The notion that political events can be explained by the workings of hidden forces has always been seen by liberals as a sign of delusional thinking. A celebrated study by the political scientist Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964), linked the idea with the far Right. Yet in New York in December 2016, many of the brightest liberal minds exhibited the same derangement. Nearly two years later, they continue to reach to conspiracy theory as an explanation for their defeat. The former lead book reviewer at the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani, devotes several pages to Hofsfadter’s work in her short polemic, The Death of Truth. Citing him approvingly, she notes that “the modern right wing” has “tended to be mobilised by a sense of grievance and dispossession”. As Hofstadter put it, they feel that “America has been largely taken away from them.” The charm of this citation is the lack of self-awareness it reveals. It would be difficult to find a better description of the anguish of liberals such as Kakutani, who feel they have been robbed of their historically appointed role as the moral and intellectual leaders of society.
Mr. Gray sees this lack of self-awareness as arising out of what he calls the “mass psychosis” of the anti-Trump hysterics. While not ruling out that possibility, I wonder if there might not be some other explanation, particularly for those in the media where they are so disproportionally represented?
We know, for example, that the 21st century media have increasingly sorted themselves, and continue to sort themselves, into niche markets. The niche served by The New York Times and The Washington Post — and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the other big metropolitan dailies — as well as the major networks and their cable imitators on CNN and MSNBC is now more and more limited to increasingly radically minded progressive Democrats and Trump haters of all parties whose political agenda they thus wholeheartedly share and who, so far, have shown few signs of having grown tired of hearing, day after day, the same news as yesterday: namely, that Donald Trump is the source of all corruption and mendacity in government, if not of all evil in the world. When the credulity of their audience is so prepared to accept anything they publish to the detriment of the President or his agents, they themselves are unlikely to be over-scrupulous in their reporting. More likely they will seize upon anything that can be twisted into a “gaffe,” as in Rudy Giuliani’s case, as eagerly as they know their readers will.
This could certainly explain the legacy media’s apparent blindness to or unconcern about the declining asset of their credibility and thus to the serious devaluation of what was once their brand. Well, it’s not their brand anymore. Now that they have become outlets not for news but for propaganda, they don’t need to worry about their credibility among those who don’t read or watch them, as now hardly anyone does who does not already believe as they believe. It also explains why, in the pages of our once great newspapers, argument has given way to assertion, policy to scandal, hard news to gossip and speculation, and observation of political life to participation in it — with the result that there can be few people on either side of the political divide who any longer expect news to be the stock-in-trade of the news media.
There is also the broader culture to be considered, particularly that part of it which derives from the long-corrupt system of higher education which, as mentioned above, is the atrox mater of so many in the media. Its legacy is clearly at work in the willingness prominent writers and editors, who would once have been among the first to defend freedom of speech and of the press, to consort with — and yield to the importunities of — the politically correct speech police and the no-platformers of the left. In recent months two such estimable editors as Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic and David Remnick of The New Yorker have been forced by orchestrated electronic riot to reverse themselves and to confess their errors in public, like defendants in a Stalinist show-trial, merely for proposing to give an audience to those whom their truth-constituencies regard as being beyond the pale of political decency. They don’t feel inclined to object to the ever-shrinking boundaries of respectable opinion because it is not opinion that their constituents want anymore but moral certainty — and the fervor with which such certainty is proclaimed to the faithful and anathemas are pronounced upon its doubters.
The culture is also at work in the corruption of our language, especially in the media’s use of it, which is marked by casual unconcern for and adoption instead of good English of a sort of jargon or dialect that has spread all over the media swamp, like blooming algae, to the point where good English is on the point of no longer being understood, or even acknowledged to exist. This process of limiting thought by limiting what could be said was recognized by Orwell as the most insidious tactic of the left during one of its earlier heydays — because people, and especially journalists, are always ready to adopt new forms of words merely because they are new and interesting and regardless of whether they actually mean anything. “Post-truth,” for instance, which now only means that you don’t agree with whatever it is applied to.
But there are subtler and more insidious examples, as in this New York Times headline from last August: “As Austerity Helps Bankrupt an English County, Even Conservatives Mutiny.” Surely, you might think, at least if you learned English as long ago as I did, austerity has got to be the remedy for bankruptcy, not the cause of it. If the county of Northamptonshire in England is, as the Times claims, bankrupt, it can only mean that it didn’t practice enough austerity, not that there was too much of it. But to the New York Times, as to its counterparts in Britain, “austerity” doesn’t mean austerity any more than “truth” means truth or, conversely, “post-truth” means post-truth. In the political jargon of the left, adopted wholesale by the media, it means a fiscal policy of cutting spending rather than raising taxes or borrowing, which is the strategy the left prefers to keep, as they fondly imagine, real austerity perpetually at bay.
In opposition, the British Labour Party, whose stewardship of the fisc in the years between 1997 and 2010 was the reason for the supposed “austerity” budgets of the Tories in the years since then — which, by the way, never did more than reduce a bit what was once humorously known in Britain as the “Public Sector Borrowing Requirement” — has adopted as its anti-government mantra the slogan: “Austerity isn’t working.” It’s a ham-handed attempt to adapt the all-too effectively punning Tory slogan from the 1979 election that brought Margaret Thatcher to power — “Labour isn’t working” — for its own electoral purposes. Naturally, the media there (and now, as it appears, here) have picked up on this specialized and instrumental meaning of the word and now use it exclusively.
In the past I have written about the hollowing out and re-branding (as it were) of the words “lie,” “liar”, “lying” etc. (see “Lexicographic Lies” in The New Criterion of October, 2012) to mean any mistake or misstatement — and so onwards, as we are now seeing with the media’s misnamed “Fact Checkers,” even so far as to call any opinion with which we disagree a lie. A few months ago I also wrote of the tendentious use of the words “capitalism” and “socialism” (see “Trying Times” in The New Criterion of April, 2018) in order to pretend that well-meaning people, full of compassion for the less or not well-off, have a simple moral choice to make between the two. That is why the word “capitalism” was invented in the first place to describe what ought properly to be called economic reality — in order to imply that it was on equal terms with the economic fantasy of “socialism.”
In the latter article, I also noticed how The Washington Post’s youthful advocate for socialism assumed that it was her prerogative to use the word “socialism” to mean not what it has meant through the long and bloody history of attempts to turn fantasy into reality, all of which she believes to be irrelevant, but only a private fantasy of her own wherein none of the unpleasantness of the past will be allowed to sully the dream. This proprietorial approach to reality is now common in the media and the ultimate justification for the exchange of news for “narrative.” But in claiming custodianship of reality for themselves, the media only opened such claims up to everyone. When Monica Lewinsky walked out of an interview in Israel last month after she was asked about her long-ago dalliance with Bill Clinton, she justified the action on Twitter on the basis of the general principle that “it is more important than ever for women to stand up for themselves and not allow others to control their narrative.”
There speaks the voice of the shill, the public relations officer, the Mad Man ad-man who, carrying all before him, has gone from trying to manipulate the media to teaching the media how to manipulate themselves. They now are the ones controlling the narrative to an extent undreamed of only a few years ago, but there are millions in the offing, not excluding Donald Trump, who want the same privilege for themselves. The more Mr. Trump accuses them of “fake news,” the more fake news they have to generate in the attempt to discredit him, which is why there has been an exponential increase in the privatization of language since he came to office. It’s a sad irony but, as I have already mentioned, irony is like rational debate in being a dying art.
James Bowman is resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.