To understand the political reality of America one should turn to the media. In its current state, this enterprise born of an institution designed to empower a people’s ideal for a free and self-governing society, serves that pursuit in two very distinct ways. Firstly, at a time when democracy and truth itself are under brazen attack, the tireless work of investigative reporters has remained an invaluable resource for every citizen trying to grasp the true state of their nation. Their work still addresses a free society’s needs and represents what gave the press its original raison d’etre. Unfortunately, present failures and shortcomings from this vital institution for democracy, hold an even more thorough guide to understanding the broader crisis in US politics. In them lies a story that replicates, but also expands an American problem to confront reality.
From the numbers that show a decaying trust in media, to events that exhibit the actions of an improperly informed society, the institution’s shortcomings could be measured and perceived through an array of metrics. One could point to a business model which denotes a proclivity for attention and a focus on drama, often by foregoing substance or merit; or to the use of a language and medium that doesn’t meet the technological and societal evolution of the past decades. From the lack of space in the public discourse for being honestly complicated, and the permission to be dishonestly simple… The spectrum is quite wide.
These deficiencies in the media — which will often be defended, redirected, or justified by some of its members — are of course complicated and not a consequence of the institution’s actions alone. But one could simply listen to the story the media claims for the institution of the press and its role in society, and recognize that at the core of many of its shortcomings lies a deep and most consequential belief. A belief in a set of immovable ideas and unshakeable concepts. A belief in seriousness, balance, and refuge. A belief in something that isn’t real. A mythology and an ideology. A delusion.
An inescapable fact about the press is that it’s an authority, whose job is, in some part, to be a check on other authorities. It’s also a fact that lays the seeds for the media’s broader delusion. “Our power and our influence comes from our independence,” Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times, expressed back in 2018. In this conception, independence grants the press its authority to inform society. Not the capacity to cover events or their thoroughness when doing so, but independence. As such, it is understandable for the media to want to aspire for it, and protect it. But here lies a crucial bifurcation from the press’s true purpose, and a key to exploring the media’s divergence into a narrative of devotion to ideas, and diminished loyalty to the public.
Independence, in the way it’s conceived in the media’s current creed, doesn’t mean independence from government, political party, social movement, or private enterprise. “Independence means being independent of everybody and of ideology — it just does,” Baquet expressed again, in February of this year. Independence, through that perception, is a mythical sanctuary. A space where the media can’t be accused of having any “strong point of view”, sheltering them from criticism, and from ideas themselves. Something professor Jay Rosen has wisely referred to as a place of refuge. The notion of being an entity with no stakes in a conflict of ideas could be understood from the perspective of an enterprise seeking to profit from its perceived impartiality. A good referee should be perceived as having that quality, they should be impartial to any particular result. The problem with this narrative is that the press, whether it wants to regard it as an ideology or not, should be partial to ideas like democracy and freedom. It should have a stake in the future of society. By declaring independence from that fact, the media has conceived a fallacy regarding its purpose. And as forces such as the Republican Party solidify themselves as fundamentally anti-democratic, the media’s detachment from reality prevents them from conveying, and perhaps even understanding, the true perils society faces.
As polarization takes hold in American politics, and the media landscape becomes more democratized, the press’s authority, as it chooses to perceive it or otherwise, has diminished. To tackle these conditions, the media has not deviated from its ill-conceived narrative. To try and regain some of the authority lost to polarization expanding from America’s two-party system, and more specifically from Republicans’ increasing distrust of the media, the media could have looked inward at possible missteps that may have contributed to that environment. They could have conveyed the imbalance between the two parties. But because their current creed demands they hold independence above most other values, the media surrendered to polarization. They have chosen to create a false sense of balance between Democrats and Republicans, between liberals and conservatives, and, more clearly every day, between liberal and illiberal forces. By deploying a both sides style of journalism, the media not only fails in its pursuit of regaining any of its lost authority, evident from the Republican Party’s ethos which now fundamentally includes being against the media, it also fails to live up to its own principle of being committed to the truth.
The misleading prism through which the media chooses to convey the reality of our times has encouraged the appearance of various new information outlets. These platforms for people to share information with each other, most of which certainly don’t follow the rigorous standards journalism holds to convey the truth the best it can, have caused the media to adopt a new kind of aspiration. With their legitimate authority vanishing in a cesspool of information, the sheer appearance of authority would be enough to satisfy their self-imposed narrative.
A way for the media to design such an appearance is by evoking a time when their authority was a given. An era when competition was scarce, diversity was not in high demand, and the ideological spectrum was not as wide as it is today. It has allowed itself to rely on its own legacy. Which is not in itself a bad thing, but when it serves as a statement for self-righteousness and omniscience about its own practices, at a time when society is going through consequential transformations at dire speed, then the reverence for the past does nothing but demonstrate a fear of the present.
Through the language, tone, and style of “an authority”, which may have once resonated with a public lacking in alternatives, the media wields its inherited power, in some part, to remind people of it. Legacy institutions like The New York Times, The Washington Post, CBS, NBC… will often display their air of authority through formality. By trying to convince the public that, because they’ve kept the mindset that once resonated with Walter Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow’s audiences, they are therefore legitimate heirs to their legacy. Formality itself can be a useful tool to denote the seriousness of the events the press has to cover. It can be the portrayal of a series of steps journalism rightfully has in place, to seek and convey the truth in the best way possible. But technological and societal developments of the past decades have changed the expectations the people have for their institutions. It’s not enough for the press to put on its proverbial suit and tie and claim its authority back. The internet has expanded, for better or worse, the mandate of those claiming to be worthy of being listened to.
The media has also re-imagined its authority by establishing itself as a “savvy” player, as professor Rosen would call it. By using the vestiges of actual authority, they play the role of the one-eyed man in the land of the blind, providing a “unique kind of insight” into the ups and downs, the ins and outs, of the current political drama. It manages to, both, be condescending to the public by removing more substantive elements of the political discourse, while capitulating to the entertainment-like coverage that could more easily resonate with a disengaged public. Not unlike their quest for a space free of any type of attachments, the pursuit for a semblance of authority is a reflection of the media’s broader narrative. Their attitude doesn’t reflect a quest for truth, as much as it reflects their perpetual quest for refuge. Refuge from an ever-changing world, from criticisms, and from their own reality.
So as democratic society faces an almost existential crisis, the media has focused more on upholding the scriptures of its own lore, than on reestablishing a common value for truth. After the 2016 election, if there was any kind of reckoning on the part of the media, it mostly focused on the lacking coverage of those who handed Trump his margin of victory. An array of diner interviews did follow. But there was no real deep dive into the institution’s practices regarding the Republican Party which had nominated him in the first place. There was no analysis as to the fundamental problem posed to the press’s own practices, when the President breaks political norms on a daily basis, and takes away shame as a tool to force consequences upon him.
Not even when the shameless, lying, racist with authoritarian tendencies President of the United States sparked an insurrection into the U.S. capitol, was there a collective moment of reckoning. The use of the word liar was strongly debated however. If anything, the media has doubled down on its dogmatic view of the political landscape. By continuing to give credence to Republican arguments that hold no basis in truth, in order to remain faithful to their commandment of impartiality, the media serves as a tool for the undermining of the democratic process.
“We are not at war, we are at work”, the now-former executive editor of the Washington Post, Martin Baron, uttered as a reaction to Trump’s attacks on the press back in 2017. The phrase was celebrated as a perfect illustration of what journalism at its finest should be about. And to push back on the idea that the press was a combatant in the way Trump falsely accused it of being, was undoubtedly a worthy idea to convey. In that sentiment, however, lie further hints of the ill-conceived expectations the media has for itself. The media was not a combatant when Trump made attacking them part of his political strategy, and it will not be a combatant when the broader Republican party makes attacking democracy part of theirs. Why? Because the media’s mythology dictates they be a stoic and static entity that exists beyond society. An institution independent from everything. The ultimate outsider.
The media is obviously not to blame for every problem in society. That’d be like blaming the locksmith when someone uses an ax to break down a door. A locksmith, however, surely can recognize a key from an ax. And at this moment, when an ax is being wielded at democracy’s face, the media still says it’s but a lumberjack doing what lumberjacks do, when it’s actually a deranged Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining. The press doesn’t have the solution to all of society’s problems, but it does hold the key to the people’s chances at overcoming them.
The press as an institution is invaluable for any country seeking to remain free and democratic. Their authority as such, is a reward granted to it by the people, not because it employs independence from their subjects in order to cover them, or because it’s objective in the healthy exchange of ideas. It is granted because the people trust it to use those tools to empower and inform them with the truth. While they are no longer the sole arbiter of what enters into the public discourse, whether they acknowledge it or not, the institution is still the filter through which all political calculations are made. If their own conception of what role they should play in society is misguided, so will the thinking that politicians and citizens alike will make when participating in the democratic process.
Humans have always relied on stories. In the ones that clarify the past, the ones that are crafted in the present, and in the ones that let people dream about a more ideal future. The press, better than almost any other institution, recognizes that. From that understanding, the media has created one for itself. Stories are important, people will always need stories. But they also need the truth.