Stephen Bannon called the press the opposition party. / Wikimedia Commons

Odd Time to be Evenhanded

We don’t need no stinkin’ civility badges

Stephen Bannon called the press the opposition party. / Wikimedia Commons
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One of the rarely acknowledged liabilities of a corporate-run media is its diehard resistance to plain speech and direct action. In one of my former, more respectable editing gigs, I was soberly instructed never to use the word “reform” to characterize pending legislation, because the phrase was simply too inflammatory. (Never before or since have I been so heartily sick of the word “overhaul,” that right-thinking outlet’s substitute phrasing of first resort.)

And now a fledgling administration composed mainly of antidemocratic thugs and amoral opportunists is mining the conflict-averse culture of mainstream American journalism for all its worth. Day in and day out, Donald Trump and his band of fascist clowns derides the press for its putative dishonesty, its elitism, its fatal bubble-fied out-of-touchness—in sum, its bald metaphysical wrongness. This is what White House strategist Steve Bannon, who assiduously wiped out any and all basic standards of journalist truth-telling during his tour as maximum leader of Breitbart News, was getting at when he sniped at a New York Times reporter that the press was now the White House’s “opposition party,” and should keep its collective mouth shut if it knew what was good for it.

Hiatt’s courtier-like difference trimming is something of a tour de force in meaningless meritocratic posturing.

And just the other day White House counselor and communications hand Kellyanne Conway took to the Sunday political talk-circuit to call for the mass firing of political reporters who “talk smack” about Trump and company—a complaint that turned out to be mainly a rebuke to the national media for failing to call the 2016 presidential election properly. This was just one small item in what one takes to be an endless litany of Oval Office-sanctioned exercises in phony media-perpetrated victimology. Perhaps next week Conway will demand reporters’ heads for their bad Super Bowl picks.

Typically, the press’s response to this arrant, administration-wide witch hunt has been to clear its collective throat and ask, “Pardon me, sir, may I have some more?” NPR has instructed its reporters not to use the uncouth term “lie” to characterize the Trump White House’s already fearsome record of shameless, orchestrated mendacity. The New York Times, to its credit, has adopted the L-word, rather extensively in fact, in its Trump reporting, but has also offered an ongoing, and ill-advised, series of post-election mea culpas that play right into Kellyanne Conway’s off-with-their-heads act. (You’ll note as well that the Paper of Record was the obliging platform for Bannon’s authoritarian press-baiting oratorio.) Meanwhile, my hometown paper, the Washington Post, in the guise of its mysteriously immovable op-ed editor Fred Hiatt, primly chastises any reporter tempted to direct any unseemly opprobrium toward our new fascist leaders. Cue the self-serious throat-clearing:

The opening of the Trump administration has not been encouraging, to put it mildly. But that doesn’t change our mission.

We must distinguish between words and deeds. We must sort the good from the bad. And, in a political culture inclined to view every adverse action as the onset of a potential apocalypse, we must distinguish the merely regrettable from the genuinely harmful, and the genuinely harmful from the irreversibly damaging.

When, as one of his first executive actions, Trump blocked a fee reduction for federally insured mortgages, he was taking a prudent, modest step to protect federal finances, not opening a war on working people.

When Trump ordered the creation of an office to assist the victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, he sent an inaccurate message about the prevalence of such crime, but the office itself seems unlikely to do much harm. But barring refugees from war-torn countries, and favoring one religion over another—that defaces our democracy. 

 While Hiatt’s last point is indisputable (at least to everyone not drawing a sycophancy bonus from the Trump White House and everyone not named Paul Ryan or Dana Boente), all the courtier-like difference trimming that precedes it is something of a tour de force in meaningless meritocratic posturing. There’s the rhetoric of impartial gatekeeping—the holy charge of distinguishing the “good from the bad,” and above all, of resisting any faint suggestion of justified public alarm. 

Trump’s mortgage order, thankfully, meets Hiatt’s criteria for golden-mean policymaking; it is “prudent” and “modest,” and by no means the first shot fired in a “war on working people.” Weary readers of the Neanderthal economics columnists that Hiatt is pleased to publish in his own prudent wisdom will recognize in this preening aside yet another bow to the WaPo household God of senseless fiscal austerity. As to the particulars of Hiatt’s risible defense of the mortgage order, well, the simplest thing is to call it what it plainly is: a lie. The order redistributes some $446 million in fees to financial services outfits, in open defiance of Trump’s inaugural pledge to represent America’s forgotten men and women. Meanwhile, the main event in the administration’s plutocratic giveaway package—Trump’s proposed $10.5 trillion tax cut—likewise only rates disapproval from Hiatt’s sage retinue of opinion-makers on grounds of deficit-busting.

Today’s journalistic establishment sees the economic mandates of the comfortable class as a call to arms.

Then there’s the confident, groundless assurance that the Trump administration’s founding of a racist federal body devoted to propagating the moral panic over a nonexistent immigrant crime wave is “unlikely to do much harm.” Identifying outgroups as a monolithic crime threat is of course a key organizing node for any authoritarian movement, and the founding of this bogus agency is clearly of a piece with the Muslim ban that Hiatt correctly views as a devastating blow to the rickety armature of our formal democracy, as anyone who’s paid even cursory attention to the Trump phenomenon well knows. It’s a poor gatekeeper of discourse indeed who deems one brand of institutional racism a dire threat to our democratic well-being, and the other as essentially harmless. 

But that’s the larger problem with the persona of grown-up centrist sagacity represented by Fred Hiatt and his ilk. Rather than functioning as the outraged guardians of the public weal—pledged to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable—today’s journalistic establishment sees the economic mandates of the comfortable class as a call to arms, as the section Hiatt edits demonstrates day after grinding day. And meanwhile, institutional racism, like any other stubborn issue that wafts in and out of official discourse, is something to be carefully modulated, not challenged or eliminated outright. 

That’s why, for example, a kindred spirit to Hiatt’s—the Wall Street Journal’s proudly quisling editor-in-chief Gerard Baker—has recently issued his own self-serious proclamation that his reporters must resist even calling the countries falling under Trump’s executive order “Muslim majority,” though that is the screamingly obvious import of this entire unconstitutional exercise in executive power. Displaying the flair for concise expression that no doubt won him his elite perch, Baker proposed this standard phrasing: “seven countries that the US has designated as being states that pose significant or elevated risks of terrorism.” Not wanting to distress the Breitbartian inner circle of Trumpniks, Baker hews just as blindly as Hiatt does to the fiction that the right arrangement of impartial-sounding verbiage will save him and his fellow managers pushback from the White House. And this, you see, is where Steve Bannon got it wrong: an actual opposition party might at least stand for something.

Chris Lehmann is editor in chief of The Baffler and author of Rich People Things. His latest book, The Money Cult, is out now from Melville House.

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