Skip to content

The Mismeasure of Media

It’s not where you live, it’s where you stand

Here we go again: It’s the umpteenth media jeremiad on the great text known as Election 2016, in which we are schooled on the fatal consequences of the incorrigible out-of-touchness of our political press. This time, though, the critique doesn’t hinge on the liberal ideological biases, or just plain fakeness, of the journalistic elite; no, it turns out that the media class’s professional myopia stems from their geographic gestalt. Taking a page from the great millennial city-seer Richard Florida, Politico scribes Jack Shafer and Tucker Doherty come bearing the news that the news industry’s failure to apprehend the true scale of the Donald Trump insurgency, and corresponding eagerness to call the presidential balloting for Hillary Clinton, is an outgrowth of the shifting economic geography of American journalism:

Concentrated heavily along the coasts, the [journalism] bubble is both geographic and political. If you’re a working journalist, odds aren’t just that you work in a pro-Clinton county—odds are that you reside in one of the nation’s most pro-Clinton counties.

What’s more, Shafer and Doherty argue, the bubble is getting more “extreme” (which means, I guess, that it’s one of those Super Wubble Bubbles?) due to the centripetal nature of new journalism job growth. As newspapers continue their sad Bataan Death March along the nation’s deindustrializing interior—shedding roughly half their workforce since 1990—net news startups have blossomed in the knowledge industry’s coastal preserves. 

Since January 2008, internet publishing has grown from 77,900 jobs to 206,700 in January 2017. In late 2015, during Barack Obama’s second term, these two trend lines—jobs in newspapers, and jobs in internet publishing—finally crossed. For the first time, the number of workers in internet publishing exceeded the number of their newspaper brethren. Internet publishers are now adding workers at nearly twice the rate newspaper publishers are losing them. 

And what does all this ominous job-shifting add up to? Citing a 2004 column by then-New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent, our Politico socio-geographers suggest that the new, growing cohort of pixel scribes clustered along the American coasts imbibe a certain lifestyle liberal ethos by virtue of the cosmopolitan air they breathe.

On such subjects as abortion, gay rights, gun control and environmental regulation, the Times’ news reporting is a pretty good reflection of its region’s dominant predisposition. And yes, a Times-ian ethos flourishes in all of internet publishing’s major cities—Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco and Washington. The Times thinks of itself as a centrist national newspaper, but it’s more accurate to say its politics are perfectly centered on the slices of America that look and think the most like Manhattan.

Fair enough, up to a point: young professional urban journalists, like young professional urbanites generally, do share a broadly tolerant, diversity-minded worldview. (And here I should duly acknowledge that Jack Shafer and I are fairly well acquainted within the elite confines of the D.C. media bubble, where we occasionally bandy bon mots about reproductive rights and transgressive public-funded art exhibitions over an amusing Pinot Noir.)

The socio-geographic determinism ascribed to our digital journalists is a function of moneyed privilege speaking to moneyed privilege.

But it’s also true that Manhattan is America’s money capital—together, that is, with Silicon Valley, where many web-publishing enterprises still boast crucial umbilical venture capital ties. It seems much more plausible to argue that proximity to money—and the prospect of still more cash, once your election listicle goes viral, or your online news shop goes public (or Premium!)—likely predisposes you to regard a prime exponent of finance-capital neoliberalism such as Hillary Clinton as the most natural prospect for the presidency. Much as was the case with Richard Florida’s heavy-breathing romance with the alleged creative capitals of the New Economy, the exotic socio-geographic determinism ascribed to our digital journalistic elite turns out on closer inspection to be a drearily predictable function of moneyed privilege speaking to moneyed privilege. (This would be the main reason, by the way, that Florida has recently walked back a good deal of his creative-class boosterism.)

Chapter and verse on how the class politics of professional political journalists have blinded them to reality comes not so much from the November 2016 title bout between Clinton and Trump, but rather from the Democratic primary undercard between Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Writing in Harper’s last November, Baffler Prime Mover Thomas Frank heroically surveyed the Democratic primary coverage of the Washington Post and concluded that Sanders was nothing less than an affront to the enlightened sensibilities of the professional managerial elite controlling the Post’s editorial page output (online and off). His summation of the paper’s anti-Sanders jihad is worth quoting at length: 

Affluent white-collar professionals are today the voting bloc that Democrats represent most faithfully, and they are the people whom Democrats see as the rightful winners in our economic order. Hillary Clinton, with her fantastic résumé and her life of striving and her much-commented-on qualifications, represents the aspirations of this class almost perfectly. An accomplished lawyer, she is also in with the foreign-policy in crowd; she has the respect of leading economists; she is a familiar face to sophisticated financiers. She knows how things work in the capital. To Washington Democrats, and possibly to many Republicans, she is not just a candidate but a colleague, the living embodiment of their professional worldview.

In Bernie Sanders and his “political revolution,” on the other hand, I believe these same people saw something kind of horrifying: a throwback to the low-rent Democratic politics of many decades ago. Sanders may refer to himself as a progressive, but to the affluent white-collar class, what he represented was atavism, a regression to a time when demagogues in rumpled jackets pandered to vulgar public prejudices against banks and capitalists and foreign factory owners. Ugh.

This clear class animus also, naturally, informed elite journalistic coverage of the Trump campaign—and no doubt contributed to the failure of most commentators in the Shafer-Doherty sample to credit its leader with a genuine shot of winning the presidency. But without the broader class background furnished by the righteous collective crusade against Sandersism in the sanctums of respectable elite opinion, the miscalled general election comes off as a freakish Dewey-Defeats-Truman sample of clumsy and bias-driven self-filtering—as opposed to the continuous, monotonously intoned lullaby that the ruling class and its journalistic retainers were cooing into the ears of their electoral audience from the first days of Campaign 2016.

Without the broader class background furnished by the elite crusade against Sandersism, the miscalled general election comes off as freakish.

Shafer and Doherty come close to acknowledging as much in a quick disclaiming paragraph noting that “people in big media cities aren’t just more liberal, they’re richer”—but then segue, in non sequitur fashion, into a Steve Bannon broadside about the “corporatist, globalist media.” (Hot tip to interpreters of elite journalistic speech acts: when a sage pundit is quoting Steve Bannon in an outlet like Politico, it’s a symbolic acknowledgment that you, gentle and likely affluent reader, can safely dismiss the larger point being made.)

Perhaps that’s because Politico itself is a poster publication for the sort of tightly scripted boundary policing of acceptable discourse that Frank has anatomized in his critique of the Post’s Sanders coverage. Not only is Politico a tip sheet aimed squarely at the elite opinion-makers and thought leaders who greeted both the Sanders and Trump revolts with a collective “ugh”; it is, as Alex Pareene noted in his Baffler essay on the Politico shop, “a rich person’s attempt to buy influence.” The rich person in question was Robert Allbritton, a D.C. banking scion who, as national political journalism was undergoing its great digital makeover, craved higher-profile outlets for his mogul vanity—and, most especially outlets that would efficiently target the D.C. power elite among whom the first Allbritton millions were made. And while Politico cofounder Jim VandeHei and his longtime reporter-confrere Mike Allen have lighted out for still edgier premium pixelating at Axios, the old moneyed ethos of the enterprise remains magisterially intact. Just this week, in fact, Politico named area investment banker Patrick Steel its new CEO. This move is roughly equivalent to installing Carlos Slim as the new publisher of the New York Times, but in the capital-friendly world of D.C. political journalism, it scarcely raised an eyebrow. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal’s dispatch on the hire marveled that the choice of a finance executive as a media leader was just a natural outgrowth of Politico’s general cyber-moxie as a “digital-news pioneer that made its name disrupting Washington’s tradition-bound media scene.”

That’s one way of putting it. Another would be: Any news outlet that would put an investment banker in a position of maximum leadership isn’t going to come forward with the full truth about how social class systematically deforms the process of newsgathering. After all, in their envoi, Shafer and Doherty wishfully note that the baleful effects of the media’s coastal bubble syndrome may prove self-correcting:

Journalists respond to their failings best when their vanity is punctured with proof that they blew a story that was right in front of them. If the burning humiliation of missing the biggest political story in a generation won’t change newsrooms, nothing will. More than anything, journalists hate getting beat.

But of course, journalists have gotten horribly beat over the past decade-plus, from their craven coverage of the run-up to the illegal invasion of Iraq to their near-complete failure to see the remorseless advance of the 2008 financial meltdown—both instances in which the members of our respectable press not only bowed before the prerogatives of state and financial power, but tied themselves up in intellectual knots while doing so.

Next to these fiascos, the failure to call the election for Trump—who, after all, did not come close to winning the popular vote—is a comparative Bertie-Wooster style bloomer. (It’s also worth noting, in this same regard, that many right-leaning media types were also taken aback by the Trump victory.)

What’s more, by the reasoning of Shafer and Doherty, America’s competitive-minded journalists should have been amply wised up by the time Trump and Sanders turned up behind their respective primary podiums. No, there’s something that our sage journalistic-political interlocutors hate far worse than being beat, and that’s having their privilege challenged. And that’s why no one should much care what coast they’re on—or that newly installed Politico CEO Steel was a generous donor to the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign. “I skew moderate politically,” Steel told Wall Street Journal reporter Lukas I. Alpert. “At the end of the day, I am a businessman, and this administration has been very good for business.”