Even amid the fast-multiplying agora of digital platforms, tweets, and instagrams that make up our new millennial mediaverse, one almost-touching platitude continues to transfix the sober lords of the establishment press: the impartial, stern-yet-blasé myth of purely noncommittal, “objective” reporting. While the primly opinionless chronicler of current events is, like Lewis Carroll’s wild snark, something only beheld fleetingly in the wild, the managers of our leading news brands will recur to it reflexively in telling moments of crisis.
This reaction overtook the management of CNN today, as controversy threatened over a tweet authored by the network’s global affairs correspondent Elise Labott about yesterday’s shameful, demagogic vote by the House of Representatives to tighten restrictions on the inflow of Syrian refugees into the United States, on the grounds that many of them are non-Christian, other-than-white, and therefore almost certainly cunning terrorists in the making. Labott’s sin against the cult of cable-news impartiality was to append one short comment as she directed her followers to CNN’s news of the House vote: “Statue of Liberty bows head in anguish.” (My own less decorous tweeted response to the House vote, for the record: “Deport the House of Representatives.”)
The Washington Post’s ever-vigilant media critic Erik Wemple blew the whistle on this deviation from CNN’s official posture of serene above-the-fray omniscience, contacted the network brass for comment, and the predictable managerial outcome ensued: Labott was forced to retract her offending comment, and was given a two-week suspension. CNN thereby gravely dramatized its commitment to opinion-free reportage, and all was right with the media world.
Except, that is, if you were to pay any attention to CNN’s actual news product, or compare it to the way that an other-than-corporate independent press should function in a democracy. From the network’s disaster-porn impresario Anderson Cooper to the bottom-feeding concern troll Don Lemon, callow attitudinizing is the CNN business model—together, of course, with generous helpings of raw mayhem footage. As The Baffler’s own Alex Pareene noted in his masterful dissection of the network’s blood-soaked coverage of the civil unrest in Baltimore and Ferguson “Sending superstar anchors to the scene of a currently raging riot is not, by any definition, ‘reporting.’ It’s just pure exploitation of suffering for ratings. . . . The product is not a story, but a spectacle.”
Viewed against this backdrop, Labott’s one-line lament on Twitter doesn’t look objectionable at all. Yes, she is a news correspondent, and hence is expected to refrain from the kind of robust editorializing bruited among the network’s rotating cast of major-party shills leased out for debate and primary election “analysis.” But evoking an anguished Statue of Liberty hardly counts as a partisan incitement— indeed, the image is a rather hackneyed totem of the American civic faith, trotted out by editorial cartoonists of every ideological coloration to conjure a vague mood of sorrow over the republic’s reliably failing state.
Indeed, even by the narrowly construed standards of faux-objective reportage, Labott’s tweeted aside pretty clearly passes muster as fair comment. The Statue of Liberty, after all, was a gift to the United States from the republic of France—the society victimized by the ISIS-led massacre that provoked the xenophobic House vote. (France’s political leaders, it’s worth noting, did not succumb to the ugly temptation to meet a terrorist crime spree with a clampdown on Syrian refugees.) Shouldn’t it be well within the purview of a global affairs correspondent to linger on the irony of the fabled American nation of immigrants turning its back on the very virtues that our French allies have singled out for praise? What is reporting, after all, if not establishing some intelligible historical context for the news of the day?
More to the point, however, is a more urgent and simple truth lost in the mainstream media’s rote Kabuki script of comment-retract-retreat: in threatening to deny political refugees entry into the country on the basis of ethnic heritage and professed religious belief, the House vote pointedly—objectively, you might even say—desecrates the entire tradition of civil liberties that the press relies on to do its job.
A society in which people cannot potentially count as citizens on the basis of the conditions of their birth or the substance of their faith ceases to be a democracy, since it has carelessly surrendered the heart and soul of its pluralist civic culture to the enforcement arm of the state. A truly democratic press can’t afford to be meekly silent in the face of this outward-facing demagoguery, any more than it could defer with any semblance of self-respect to the inward-facing brand practiced by Joe McCarthy. (That plenty of press organs now observe this ritual silence, as many did in McCarthy’s day, speaks volumes about how readily the US media abandons its self-flattering posture as the “fourth estate” of government, shielding the public interest, when the real mouthpieces of American power start throwing their weight around.) If CNN really believed in the free-press platitudes it ritually mouths, it would not merely support a principled utterance like Labott’s—it would also point out that yesterday’s House vote is very much of a piece with Donald Trump’s (again objectively) fascist proposal to institute a nationwide law enforcement database of Muslim believers in America.
But faced with the opportunity to uphold a principle, today’s press reliably reverts to mere grotesquerie. Hence the perfect gloss on the Labott affair comes not from some latter-day Edward R. Murrow, but from Fox News rent-a-hack—er, excuse me, “media correspondent”—Howard Kurtz. Kurtz, of course, had been the host of CNN’s unwatchable “Reliable Sources” and the network’s self-appointed media conscience for the better part of two decades, until he abruptly resigned in the wake of his dismissal from The Daily Beast for pontificating about NBA player Jason Collins’s Sports Illustrated article coming out as a gay athlete in a fashion that made it painfully clear that this media critic hadn’t even bothered to read the piece in question. Preening for social media attention as only a self-dealing and lying princeling of the corrupt and conflict-ridden Beltway media scene can, Kurtz announced he was “stunned” that Labott would dare hold forth on the lamentable House vote. That’s the sort of idiot malpractice on the part of a bought-and-paid-for press watchdog that should make a goddamn statue weep.