The New York Times is leading a general race to the bottom. / James Cridland

No Left Turns

Media managers steer toward the breakdown lane

The New York Times is leading a general race to the bottom. / James Cridland
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So as our toddler-tyrant chief executive continues raging into the void, let’s briefly review the past month’s worth of canny ideological machinations in our elite liberal media. The com-symps at the helm of the New York Times rejiggered their op-ed lineup with the addition of former Wall Street Journal deputy opinion editor (and rainy-day Islamophobe/climate-change denier) Bret Stephens. MSNBC, the cable megaphone for the anti-Trump resistance, rejiggered its pundit lineup with the addition of noted Tory reactionary (and rainy-day climate-change denier) George Will, who’s already an op-ed fixture at the pinko Washington Post. Getting fully into the swing of things, James Bennet, the erstwhile Atlantic magazine caretaker now captaining the Gray Lady’s opinion franchise, sought to capitalize on the abortion debate roiling the activist wing of the Democratic party with a deranged sermonette from a right-to-life apparatchik deriding the economic case for reproductive rights as “dehumanizing,” “patronizing, and patently dishonest.” 

The Sinclair Broadcast Group—a hard-right local-news empire notorious for foisting vicious propaganda smears on its client stations as “must run” segments—is plunking down $3.9 billion for Tribune Media’s TV properties, which means that 70 percent of American homes will be imbibing Sinclair’s lovingly fashioned two-minutes hates. Meanwhile, a reporter evincing little interest in tacking witlessly to the right in the midst of our new millennial culture-wide coup, was actually arrested in West Virginia for his ill-mannered insistence on asking Health and Human Services Secretary Thomas Price about the demented language of the House-ratified American Health Care Act.

Our press is far less I.F. Stone than Derek Zoolander: It is congenitally incapable of making a left turn.

For all the breathless tail-chasing speculation about the national media’s bubble-fed coastal liberal Weltanschauung, the truth of the matter is that our press is far less I.F. Stone than Derek Zoolander: It is congenitally incapable of making a left turn. One would hope the manifest futility of pandering ceaselessly rightward would be abundantly plain at this dire turn in the republic’s history—what with CNN ritually abasing itself in its Renfield-like ardor to please its predatory master, and sundry other prestige media properties going on pointless binges of Trump-inflected soul searching. Once again, the putative Bible of coastal liberal newsgathering, the New York Times, is in the vanguard of this senseless race to the bottom, with Bennet’s op-ed shop choosing this of all weeks to urge its readers to cheerfully submit a roster of things they like about our golf-happy, access-shilling American Mussolini. (Oh wait, I know: He makes Richard Nixon look constitutionally prudent in retrospect!)

All this courting of mythic right-wing favor is, on the face of things, pathetically self-defeating; it’s simply the business model of the perennially on-the-make conservative movement to demonize the bad-faith liberal sensibilities of the press, and no amount of bowing and scraping before their dogmatic abusers will liberate media workers from this lucrative, base-motivating indictment. More to the point, though, the compulsive right feints of the sober managers of our national media properties are being executed in a near-complete intellectual and political vacuum. At least when Spiro Agnew launched the modern right’s media-baiting franchise, Nixon’s vice president could plausibly hazard a family resemblance between TV reportage and the antiwar left—and exploit that opportunistic social caricature on behalf of the great, white, and always aggrieved “silent majority.” The maximum leader of today’s conservative movement, very much by contrast, is the least respected president in our modern history—while democratic socialist Bernie Sanders is, conversely, the most popular political figure in the country. The alibi of first resort for cynical media moguls cleaning up on mass resentments used to be that they were simply “giving the people what they want.” So by what reasoning can today’s press lords rationalize their shameful sycophancy before Trump and his movement, when all available polling suggests that the American public is infatuated with robust wealth redistribution, climate protection, and single-payer health insurance—and has been for years on end

The present mood of the country justifies the hiring of an unapologetic socialist op-ed columnist, as opposed to a box-checking conservative.

Here’s a thought: It’s not our reporters, but our media managers and executives, who spend their waking lives confined within an impermeable ideological bubble. To these shrinking violets, there’s always—and indeed only—room to program right-leaning opinion, pseudo-reportage, and talking points. This would be why it would never occur to anyone sharing James Bennet’s class and intellectual pedigree that the present mood of the country amply justifies the hiring of an unapologetic socialist op-ed columnist, as opposed to a box-checking conservative who’d seem edgy because he’s not all that fond of Donald Trump. It would be why the Washington “Democracy Dies in Darkness” Post has turned its op-ed pages into a halfway house for former Bush speechwriters (and when opinion editor Fred Hiatt feels especially frisky, the occasional war criminal). It would also be why CNN president Jeff Zucker imagines himself to be a heroic populist by giving airtime, and generous salaries, to bottom-feeding Trump hacks like Jeffrey Lord and (until all-too-recently) Corey Lewandowski.

But never mind; it’s only a matter of time (tomorrow, say) before the president resumes whining about the Fake News media elite on his Twitter feed, and the ever-jittery and suggestible guardians of responsible opinion will start frantically thumbing through their virtual Rolodexes for some fresh new voice from the right. So we may as well just get used to hearing it now: Alex Jones, New York Times ideological diversity hire.

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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