When as a young man I went to live among the English for some years, I was puzzled by many things that their language, ostensibly my own, habitually expressed by using words that I could understand but so arranged that I couldn’t understand them. Not the least of these enigmatical expressions, to my American ears, was “self-parody.” People would apply the expression to those of whom they were inclined to be critical, so I knew that the expression was also critical. But I still couldn’t quite see how it was critical. How could somebody be a parody of himself? It was only when my ear became further attuned to the British habit of ironical discourse and I began to understand how there is always a gap of some size, large or small, between the way people see themselves and the way they are seen by others — that gap which satire is perpetually being invited to fill — and that this gap, beyond a certain point of self-absorption, would inevitably become obvious to pretty much everyone but the self-absorbed ones themselves.
Irony’s sine qua non, however, is a culturally (and linguistically) shared sense of reality — that reality against which self-importance and self-deception can be measured and found wanting. Without it, irony and the ironical temperament must decline and fall, and that is in fact what we see happening today, even in Britain. How else to explain the fact that, so far at least, none of the parliamentary posturers over Brexit has yet been laughed off the public stage (though some have departed it)? How else to explain why a walking self-parody like Jeremy Corbyn is still the leader of the Labour party? It was Mr Corbyn, you may remember, who once said that Jews don’t understand English irony, thus betraying his own irony deficiency as well as that of the not insignificant portion of the country which has made him prime minister in waiting.
In America, I’m afraid, irony has declined even further, along with that shared sense of reality which makes it possible. Here in recent years we have come to think it the height of bad manners not to recognize everybody’s right to his own, private reality — including his preferred self-image — or to laugh at that pseudo-reality’s deviation from the kind that all of us used to share. “My” truth, at least in polite society, must always take precedence over “the” truth, since the latter is presumed to be either non-existent or unknowable or in the most extreme cases, such as that of the media, identical with “my” truth. Only some such belief could have produced an intellectual Wunderkind from Harvard to advocate, as one did some years ago, irony’s abolition — though perhaps he was only doing so ironically.
As that example reveals, until reality is entirely privatized, irony will go on undiminished, although to one degree or another deferred in its power to debunk. For it has never been clearer that, in our own time, our cultural betters in the media are by now at least as irony-blind as Jeremy Corbyn, even when they have not themselves become, as Nobel prize-winning columnist Paul Krugman has, a self-parody for the ages — though, alas, only for ages to come. As I write, Mr Krugman’s latest column is headed: “Donald Trump Is Trying to Kill You,” and if no one at The New York Times is any longer capable of seeing or hearing the screaming self-parody in that headline, it may be centuries before the radioactive intellectual desert that is today’s media will once again become hospitable to the growth of irony, or the self-awareness on which irony feeds.
You can tell as much from the media’s response to the Mueller report’s conclusion that, contrary to what they have been reporting with ever growing confidence for the past two years — confidence, that is, that their truth was the truth — President Trump did not, after all, collude with Russia to steal the 2016 election from their preferred candidate, Hillary Clinton. Anyone who has been paying attention could have predicted that the media’s new breed of propagandists would be unfazed by such a balk. Their self-importance is now such that they are simply incapable of imagining that they could be wrong about anything in which they have invested so much of their time, energy and credibility as the Trump-Russia narrative.
Such self-certainty must also be what gives them, in their own view, a sort of divine right to be seen by others just as they see themselves, rather like Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota who, according to the New York Post, has asked God to forgive the president for mocking her — as if it could only have been by inadvertency that the Almighty neglected to include among the Ten Commandments the one forbidding any mockery of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn). Perhaps it was meant to go in place of the one about bearing false witness. The media regularly speak or write of Mr Trump’s criticisms of themselves as a threat to their constitutionally-guaranteed freedom, which they must therefore suppose includes freedom from criticism. Those who dare to criticize them are presumably wrong by definition and can be automatically disregarded, and even expelled from decent society, since it is not possible for the media’s idea of themselves as noble crusaders for the unbiased Truth to be mistaken.
Self-parody in such a case is inevitable. The top example, in my view, came (as it so often does), from The New York Times whose edition of March 26th ran an article by Astead W. Herndon and Richard Fausset whose headline read: “Disappointed Fans of Mueller Rethink the Pedestal They Built for Him.” In other words, Mr Mueller must have blundered, somehow, since it was obviously impossible that The New York Times and other “fans” of the Special Counsel could have done so. Someone on Twitter said that the headline sounded as if it had come from The Onion, but it’s actually funnier than the one that The Onion came up with on the same day — “Liberal Feels Like Idiot For Placing Entirety Of Hopes On Mueller Probe Instead Of New York Prosecutors’ Investigation” — or even the one from the previous day: “Man Who Spent Last 2 Years Drawing Pictures Of Trump And Putin Making Out Beginning To Realize Just How Wrong He’s Been.” It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that, at The Onion, they find that funny because they think he’s not wrong — any more than they are — since the would-be parodists, in this case, are also self-parodists.
In this connection, see also the Times’s gripping post-Mueller podcast of “The Argument” (not an Argument, mind you, but the Argument) featuring three anti-Trumpers (Ross Douthat, Michele Goldberg and David Leonhardt) discussing “Who Botched the Mueller Report?” — “And Should We Abolish the Electoral College?” I somehow managed to skip it. Or what about the same paper’s report on the following day of how the “Mueller Report Exceeds 300 Pages, Raising Questions About Four-Page Summary.” That was also a popular talking point among congressional Democrats like Adam Schiff and Jerrold Nadler who clung with particular ferocity to the hope that, if the report’s bottom line was that there was no collusion, there might nevertheless be tucked away in some corner of its 300-plus pages a slender reed of evidence on which Collusion Mark II could be founded. In the old days, that would have been obviously comic self-delusion on their part, but neither Mr Schiff nor Mr Nadler looks like a man who feels in any danger of being laughed at.
And, indeed, the laughter must die on our lips, too, when we realize that, on the release of the full report, some such pretext for nullifying its conclusion is not just likely but absolutely certain to be found by those who are determined to find one, as these men and many of their supporters are — and that there will be few of the people they care about who are prepared to fault them for it, let alone laugh at them. After a couple of weeks of such shenanigans, I finally realized what the media’s desperate will to believe in Mr Mueller as vanquisher of the hated Trump reminded me of, which was a particularly virulent form of unrequited adolescent love — love that is more like worship than love, love that is blind, unthinking and undiscourageable, love that remains undiminished when all hope is gone and hope that is inextinguishable no matter how often disappointed.
There is nothing more ridiculous to those who do not feel it themselves, than such puppy love; there is nothing more serious or more momentous for those who do feel it, which is why it can lead, in extreme cases, to suicide. Like the many followers of Goethe’s young Werther two hundred years ago, such lovers can only still the laughter of maturity at them and claim a share in reality for their phantasm of love by killing themselves. That will show them! And some similar thought must be what lies behind the intellectual suicide of the Trump-era media, for which I can think of no other explanation. As so often in the last two and a half years, it is instructive to go back to the original suicide note, written by Jim Rutenberg and published in The New York Times on August 8, 2016:
If you’re a working journalist 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.
Again like the teenage lover, he cites the world-shaking importance of what he feels as too great to be judged by the ordinary rules of sober adult conduct. Dare you doubt it? He’s prepared to destroy his own and his paper’s reputation to prove it to you. Little wonder, then, that neither can admit to error, or even to recognize that error is possible for him.
Not that there weren’t some honest journalists who recognized the disaster to the media that the Mueller report represented. But for the most part they missed the bigger, more revealing story of how the media themselves remained oblivious to the fact. Sean Davis of “The Federalist,” writing in The Wall Street Journal editorial pages, of “A Catastrophic Media Failure” saw that “it wasn’t merely an error here or there”:
America’s blue-chip journalists botched the entire story, from its birth during the presidential campaign to its final breath Sunday — and they never stopped congratulating themselves for it. Last year the New York Times and Washington Post shared a Pulitzer Prize “for deeply sourced, relentlessly reported coverage in the public interest that dramatically furthered the nation’s understanding of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and its connections to the Trump campaign, the President-elect’s transition team and his eventual administration.” A 2017 Time magazine cover depicted the White House getting a “makeover” to transform it into the Kremlin. All based on a theory — that the president of the United States was a Russian asset — produced by a retired foreign spy whose work was funded by the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Who us? We wuz just reporting the facts. That’s what some of them had the chutzpah to tell Amy Chozick when the after-tremors of their catastrophic failure were felt even in the newsroom of the New York Times. Ms Chozick had to acknowledge that some people — even some who were not in the White House or the right-wing media — thought there had been some media malfeasance, but she did so only in the context of a defense by supremely self-assured media blue-bloods of their own righteous and entirely justified behavior in the whole Collusion-gate saga.
Jeff Zucker, president of CNN, said he was “entirely comfortable” with the network’s coverage. “We are not investigators. We are journalists, and our role is to report the facts as we know them, which is exactly what we did,” Mr. Zucker said in an email. “A sitting president’s own Justice Department investigated his campaign for collusion with a hostile nation. That’s not enormous because the media says so. That’s enormous because it’s unprecedented.” Bill Grueskin, a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism, said there seemed to be some confusion about the role of journalists. “Mueller and Barr need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt — do we file charges or don’t we?” he said. “Journalists don’t have that standard.” In other words, Pulitzer Prize-winning reports of alleged wrongdoing do not need to provide evidence of criminality in order to be factual, newsworthy and relevant to readers. “The special counsel investigation documented, as we reported, extensive Russian interference in the 2016 election and widespread deceit on the part of certain advisers to the president about Russian contacts and other matters,” said Martin Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post. “Our job is to bring facts to light. Others make determinations about prosecutable criminal offenses.” Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The Times, echoed that sentiment. “We wrote a lot about Russia, and I have no regrets,” he said. “It’s not our job to determine whether or not there was illegality.”
The laugh-factor at such disingenuousness would be very high indeed in a cultural environment with any remaining tether to reality, and it is one measure of their own detachment from reality that the media are unembarrassed to print such drivel at all, let alone as a supposedly credible “defense” of their own behavior. Here was what Lee Smith of Tablet called “an extinction-level event” for the media, and there they were mouthing the same old platitudes about their factual and disinterested reporting while pretending that the presumption of the president’s guilt was not implicit in every line of these papers’ or networks’ coverage of the story for the past two years.
This was to show a contempt for their readers or watchers that only an even greater contempt for the president could mask. For in truth, it never was on the cards that the media’s progressive vanguard was going to admit to error except in the sort of scattered minor details that Ms Chozick cites, supposedly to show it capable of admitting fault. Sometimes. That the entire “collusion” narrative was misconceived, however, simply could not be true, in their view, since their entire political world-view was based upon it. They had managed to make an ideology out of the president’s evil purposes, which are axiomatic because they are so opposed in every respect to their own. And the great thing about any ideology for its adherents is, as Karl Popper pointed out long ago, that it is unfalsifiable. They say in criminal circles, I’m told, that if you don’t know who the patsy is, it’s you. In the same way, I think, if you can’t see the self-parody, you’ve probably become one.
James Bowman is resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.