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How US journalism lost its spine The media is petrified of showing even mild scepticism of woke orthodoxy

The New York Times headquarters. Credit: Mario Tama/Getty

The New York Times headquarters. Credit: Mario Tama/Getty


June 18, 2020   5 mins

Something unusual is happening in American media. Emboldened by the eruption of a nationwide mass protest movement over the past several weeks, a new cohort of journalists have leveraged the ensuing moral and political panic to assert dominance within their organisations. Inciting internal revolts, they are rapidly seizing control.

In perhaps the surest sign of their newfound primacy, they have been not just authorised, but encouraged to participate in the ongoing protest actions. To clarify: these journalists haven’t merely been given the green-light to attend the gatherings as sympathetic observers, or even to frame their coverage in a positive light. Rather, they have been offered explicit institutional support to actively participate as protesters. (Some of these authorisations have been made public, while others have not.)

This represents quite a revolution in the prevailing mindset of mainstream media culture. Though it has exploded recently, its origins can be traced to 2016, when the rise of Donald Trump caused much of the political and media class to abandon a whole slew of reporting “norms” which had previously guided their conduct. Angered and traumatised by Trump, they adopted a radically new set of principles that would have been completely unrecognisable across the profession just a few years earlier.

Whereas in the past, journalists who challenged the establishment media’s hoary allegiance to outmoded notions of “objectivity” were in the beleaguered minority, today they are fully in the mainstream, and conventional ideas about “objectivity” are being jettisoned Left and Right. This trend is especially pronounced among the rising generation of journalists in their twenties and thirties, although older colleagues are also increasingly susceptible.

This is not altogether a bad thing: pure “objectivity” was never a viable standard in the first place, often leading to skewed editorial choices, misplaced reporting priorities, phony “false equivalence”, and poor writing. However, since 2016 there has clearly been a dramatic overcorrection: what’s also being jettisoned is any remaining fidelity to what one might call impartiality. The lack of impartiality among journalists today helps explain why the media ecosystem they inhabit has been so integral in spawning the successive waves of moral panic that have engulfed US politics and culture over the past four years.

Just because something is a moral panic doesn’t mean its proximate causes are wholly fictitious. Take several instances that have arisen since the election of Trump, all with different features, and affecting different sectors of society, but all part of the same hysterical trajectory: #MeToo, “Nazi” alarmism and Russiagate. Sexual harassment and violence obviously exist, and sometimes go unreported; there really were a small band of “alt-right” instigators who gathered online and in person, inspired at least in part by Trump’s political success; and it is true that “Russian bots” probably do exist on social media to some negligible degree.

Even so, all three of these phenomena took on straightforward qualities of moral panic, namely: wildly exaggerated claims with little or no connection to the facts at hand, prophecies of terrifying apocalyptic threats, public shaming rituals, thinly-veiled political and interpersonal score-settling, relentless policing of private beliefs and attitudes, and an all-encompassing, irrational, accusatory frenzy.

Likewise, it’s certainly true that black Americans are often subject to overzealous law enforcement practices, and in some cases wrongfully killed by the police — with the George Floyd incident in Minneapolis being the latest egregious example. But the subsequent quest by hypermoralising journalists and activists to impose their will on media institutions, often by employing the tactics of what one might call “emotional terrorism”, has nothing to do with George Floyd. Rather, it has everything to do with their desire for power. It just so happens that invoking the rhetoric of racial and ideological grievance is an especially effective strategy for bludgeoning liberal-Left media institutions into submission.

With the concept of “journalism” having been expanded beyond recognition to include all forms of “content-producing” activity on the internet, the sentiments of younger “journalists” have fused almost totally with the sentiments of pop cultural and corporate activists in the same peer group. Among this cohort, there is widespread adherence to the principle expounded by the actor Rachel Zegler — who while herself not technically in “media,” might as well be, given her online content-production style: “RACISM ISN’T A DIFFERENCE OF OPINION PLEASE STOP SAYING THAT,” she recently proclaimed. (Needless to say, there are certainly “differences of opinion” around the definition of “racism”.)

Zegler’s attitude was distilled more crisply into a media context by E. Alex Jung, a senior writer at New York magazine, who declared: “The entire journalistic frame of ‘objectivity’ and political neutrality is structured around white supremacy.” Adhering to this mindset allows these journalists, and increasingly their employers, to deny that engaging in outright public protest activity is “political”, thus giving them licence to do essentially whatever they please without it being seen as an ethical breach.

As the panic rages, one media institution after another has capitulated to the demands of the more aggressive of these activists/journalists, who tend to be younger and inordinately effusive on social media. Indeed, a life suffused by social media — which incentivises elaborate public expressions of personal identity — is all they’ve ever known. (Many also seem to have gone stir-crazy from the still-ongoing lockdowns in the cities they tend to populate — such as New York, Washington, DC, and Los Angeles.)

We are now left with an ascendant class of media activists who earnestly espouse the view, for example, that newspaper op-eds constitute literal “violence” — putting them and their loved ones in “danger”. Even avowedly progressive media outlets are currently being accused of “institutional racism” — as though the editors are plantation owners and prison wardens, as opposed to extremely sensitive, accommodating (and, frankly, paranoid) Left-liberals.

If one delves into the background of this rising class of journalists, one frequently finds a CV replete with elite credentials and prestige. An instructive example is the Intercept journalist Akela Lacy, who attended the Baldwin School, one of the most prestigious private schools in the Philadelphia area, followed by an undergraduate tenure at the College of William and Mary, one of the most renowned higher education institutions in the entire country. But even with this impressive elite preparation, Lacy was reduced to sheer emotional exhaustion earlier this month after a disagreement with a colleague. “I’m so fucking tired,” she proclaimed in a dramatic Twitter tirade.

The reason Lacy was so very “tired” was because fellow Intercept staff member Lee Fang, one of the most accomplished journalists in online Left-wing media, had the audacity to interview some non-white people in communities afflicted by the recent riots, who offered observations that did not align with the prevailing liberal-Left activist media consensus on the subject. For this, Lacy condemned Fang as a “racist”.

Apart from their shared institutional affiliation, Lacy in practice has little to do with Fang; they work on opposite sides of the country. Yet a colleague propounding viewpoints and reportage that she finds disagreeable is apparently sufficient to affect her on such a visceral level that it would prompt a sensational online outburst. Compounding the pathetic nature of the incident, it was Fang who was ultimately coerced into apologising to Lacy, with his job hanging in the balance. And his Intercept colleagues, petrified of drawing “racism” accusations themselves, refused to come to his public defence.

Having travelled to several of the cities that were afflicted with riots, I can confirm that black Americans on the sidewalk or stoop commonly express roughly the same sentiments as those who were interviewed by Fang — opposition to rioting and qualified concerns about the logic of the protests. That Lacy emerged as the victor in the confrontation shows just how warped the dynamics of US media culture have become. The power of those who use such tactics is being is being entrenched, and they are displacing those who exhibit even the most mild scepticism of their identity-centric activist worldview. In all likelihood, there is no turning back.

The new class of emotionally unstable journalists will dictate the culture and direction of the institutions for which they work. Self-censorship will accelerate, as those who fear for their job security will simply opt to say nothing rather than incur the risk of deviating ever-so-slightly from this new ideological consensus.

Whether you like it or not (I, for one, do not) those who occupy prominent media positions comprise a significant portion of the taste-making class of the US. Their influence on culture and politics is substantial. Hence, this isn’t just a “media story” — it’s a story about the epistemological rupture in the US polity that was provoked by the events of 2016, and ever since has grown more extreme. In isolation, these moral panics and collective mental breakdowns can be difficult to make sense of. But when you see them through the prism of America’s current status as a rapidly declining hegemonic power, it all becomes much more intelligible.


Michael Tracey is a journalist in Jersey City, NJ

mtracey

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Andrew Best
Andrew Best
4 years ago

And that is why your profession is not worth anything any more, you all wanted to be Woodward and Bernstein and stick it to the people in charge and then the world changed with the internet and suddenly you became…..
Political activists
Nearly every media outlet tv, radio, newspapers etc are infected with this rubbish and it is costing your profession a high price because you have limited your appeal to a small group of rabid social justice warriors and you are tiresome to everyone else.
Why would you think that people want to listen, read, watch this non stop one sided view of the world?
News flash, they don’t and so bit by bit you lose authority and objectivity until your trying to get people fired for interviewing non black people!
Journalists and journalism are a no longer a high calling your just political activists now

John Brown
John Brown
4 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Best

Some good points Andrew, but seems that you’re including the author in your attacks. I would think we need more of what seems to me to be independent reporting. (i.e. ethos of the ‘unherd’ )

andrea bertolini
andrea bertolini
4 years ago

I’m so tired, too, of all this BS. Best choice would be to ignore these pathetic woke people and start acting accordingly: stop reading their newspapers, stop watching their TV channels, boycott their corporate sponsors. Just arguing with them won’t accomplish anything, since they are convinced to have the truth in their pocket.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago

I have been doing most of that for many years now.

John Brown
John Brown
4 years ago

I can only imagine that the corporate masters (e.g.owners of Wopo, NY Times, cnbc, etc) are allowing this as it serves as a distraction from their otherwise ‘Masters-of-the-universe’ activities. Only when the madness approaches their own neighborhood will they come to their senses.

David Morley
David Morley
4 years ago

What is the legacy going to be for ordinary black people in these areas when all the rich kids go back to uni?

Smashed up shops, areas rendered unattractive to business, and presumably a police force which is slow to respond to calls from black areas. After all, the best way to avoid being killed on the street or in the chair is not to turn up.

robertbutterwick
robertbutterwick
4 years ago

It’s not just in the US

martin89
martin89
4 years ago

Heavens, no. The UK is just as bad.

Derek M
Derek M
4 years ago
Reply to  martin89

We’re certainly getting there, I have noticed this especially on the broadcast media, I probably noticed it more there because in the UK they are supposed to be more impartial unlike the print media. However the coverage on BBC, Sky, ITN and Ch 4 news is massively on-sided; that side being the leftist ‘woke’ side of course

William Gladstone
William Gladstone
4 years ago

I am so tired!! It just doesn’t make sense to say its the radical youngsters doing this, this is obviously being driven from the corporate level because its all about virtue signalling and not about redistributing their wealth.

Dianne Bean
Dianne Bean
4 years ago

High tech corporations are certainly are board with this but they have a different agenda- globalism. They want the world market and cheap labor. No loyalty to the country that made them rich and successful.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
4 years ago

As the 17th century poet and satirist Samuel Butler (1613-80) said,”Spare the rod and spoil the child”. How right he was.

Clive Mitchell
Clive Mitchell
4 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Proverbs 13:24, predates.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
4 years ago
Reply to  Clive Mitchell

Very close I agree, but in the King James Version not precisely the same as Butler. A bit pedantic but true.

Clive Mitchell
Clive Mitchell
4 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

We’re we can agree, inspired by!

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
4 years ago
Reply to  Clive Mitchell

Yes indeed.

linda
linda
4 years ago

I think that, increasingly, this is becoming an issue of radical youngsters ‘growing up’ to become leaders at the corporate level, many of them super affluent as a result of the wild success of their trendy youthful ventures. This IS becoming the norm and the desire for real journalism will fade away

martin89
martin89
4 years ago

Unfortunately (unless I blinked and missed it) the jury is still out on the culpability of the police as far as the death of Mr Floyd is concerned (has his PM even been made public yet)?

“…and in some cases wrongfully killed by the police ” with the George Floyd incident in Minneapolis being the latest egregious example.” Is a good example of biased reporting. Had one or more of the police officers who were restraining Mr Floyd been found guilty of causing his death been convicted of being responsible for his death then, fair enough. Incidentally, ‘murder’ is a most unlikely outcome as this would require proof of an intention to kill and as far as I am aware there is no evidence of this as yet).

A more accurate but less ‘news-worthy’ (ie sensational) phrase would be ‘… died whilst being restrained by police’ or even ‘died whilst in police custody’, a phrase usually used in the better UK media sources when covering such tragic incidences.

Peter Boreham
Peter Boreham
4 years ago
Reply to  martin89

Have you seen the video? I think most people understand what the writer means without getting tied up in semantic knots…

Perdu En France
Perdu En France
4 years ago
Reply to  Peter Boreham

I’ve seen the video. What I haven’t seen what what occurred in the period leading up to the events shown in the video. Was Floyd violently resisting arrest? With what degree of violence? You ever had to deal with a violent person? What level of restraint is appropriate for someone who’s just tried to kill or seriously injure you?

Douglas McCabe
Douglas McCabe
3 years ago
Reply to  martin89

I read somewhere that Floyd’s autopsy concluded that he died of respiratory problems resulting from a large dose of a drug (forget which) in his system. I’d like to see that confirmed, but it would never appear in the media, because all the news organisations on both sides of the Atlantic have already declared him to be a secular saint, rather than the career criminal he actually was.

Bill Gaffney
Bill Gaffney
4 years ago

These people are not so-called “journalists”! They are agent provocateurs funded by “A Person” or Persons known who are attempting to weaken the US and other western nations. The little idiots being led by the rings in their noses are worse than the agitators. The agitators know their purpose. These “children” don’t have an original thought in their empty heads.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
4 years ago
Reply to  Bill Gaffney

One would hope that with modern face recognition and surveillance techniques, it would be possible to clearly identify these malcontents and chastise them accordingly, using the full force of the Law.

Michael Yeadon
Michael Yeadon
4 years ago

I disagree that the ultra woke journos are core taste makers. They’ve veered off any defendable path some time ago & have become unwatchable. So much for influence. I’ve no idea what they think about anything, as I don’t watch them anymore.

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
4 years ago

I’ve just read the Fang apology. It is absolutely nauseating in its cravenness. Real show trial stuff.

Giulia Khawaja
Giulia Khawaja
4 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Nash

Was he being quietly sarcastic?

Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
4 years ago
Reply to  Giulia Khawaja

It doesn’t matter. These so called ‘woke’ activists are weak, but no-one seems willing to stand up to them.

David Brown
David Brown
3 years ago
Reply to  Brian Dorsley

All too often they have the strength to get you fired from your job for disagreeing with them, and that’s a pretty intimidating power to wield.
If racism is judging people by the colour of their skins, it is not Fang but Lacy who was being racist, as she clearly considered that any black voice which disagreed with her was a voice not fit to be heard. And if, as we are told so often, “racism = prejudice + power”, we’ve already seen that she had the power to force Fang to apologise, “with his job hanging in the balance.”

Last edited 3 years ago by David Brown
mike otter
mike otter
4 years ago

Journalism has always had more of a problem with rigour and attempted objectivity than all other non-fiction output. Indeed a lot of fictional writing and drama is more testably objective than the mewling and puking of the overwhelmingly spoilt and privelaged brats that make up the journalists’ trade. I think Hunter S Thomson nailed it best with his “chimp in a cage” diatribe around 1972? Sometimes its because they need to follow the money “ace in the hole” style, othertimes the motivation is political, pathologically so. I see no difference in the Sun gloating over dead teenage conscript sailors in 1984 and US/UK woke press glee about violence, theft and destruction by people protesting for black rights. They must consider what happens to journalists in China, Myanmar, much of Latin America who cause too much trouble. I hope journalists fail in their attempts to dismantle free societies, and so become irrelevant. If they don’t there are always people willing to knock on their doors at 3AM to give them a dose of their own medicine.

Rob Dixon
Rob Dixon
4 years ago

Excellent article. The astonishing thing to me is how quickly the so-called establishment has rolled over and allowed this tsunami of woke to smother the fabric of our society. If Newton’s Third Law holds good we should now see a wave of common sense engulfing our planet. Please don’t hold your breath though…

Michael Weis
Michael Weis
4 years ago

The seeds were planted decades ago. A major poll in the ?80s/90s? showed that 85% “journalists” were self-describing themselves as Liberals or Democrats. Some years later, HuffPo looked at campaign contributions by those reporting their occupations as “journalism” and, again, 85%. In a country that is clearly split down the middle, and protected by the 1st amendment, what is happening today is merely the inevitable result of “journalism” by partisans

John McFadyen
John McFadyen
4 years ago

“The lack of impartiality among journalists today helps explain why the media ecosystem they inhabit has been so integral in spawning the successive waves of moral panic that have engulfed US politics and culture over the past four years.” This says it all. Here in the UK it is a fact affecting most media outlets and at the front of the charge the parochial BBC. I have witnessed such media bias from the Scottish Independence vote to Covid-19 and many things in-between. I watched BBC Breakfast this morning discussing the statue of Cecil Rhodes and they interviewed two people in favour of removal and both people of colour. How many people of colour have benefitted from Rhodes scholarships [A postgraduate award supporting exceptional students from around the world]? How many have attended Oriel College and furthered themselves? Shaista Aziz made some sweeping statements about the legacy of empire and suggested people in the UK don’t want to know the history of their colonial legacy and that the movement for racial justice was not going away. She was also encouraged by one of the interviewers to make party political points about what a Labour government would do about it. She made reference to thousands of people on the streets of Oxford supporting the BLM cause and the fall of the statue of Rhodes, when we are talking a few hundred and bemused onlookers and press. David Olusoga tried cleverly to argue that this issue was not about history but about men with money and power with influence over the elete. Both put forward arguments built on sand with many contradictions. The only thing driving these arguments is the populist tsunami that is a mix of race, left wing politics and ‘simple’ anarchists, piggy backing the needless death of a man called George Floyd at the hands of a rogue police officer. In the USA 1000 people a year are killed by police with 25% of those being black. If equality really was the issue then the stand should be about every individual killed in circumstances in which the police overstepped the mark. It should also be about opportunity for all as there are more non black people in America and here in the UK in poverty and for whom opportunities are far from fair. But, unfortunately, even in communist regimes, there is no such thing as true equality. As soon as two human organisms occupy the same space there will be inequality. That is nature, that is humankind Amen!

Gerry Fruin
Gerry Fruin
4 years ago

‘Gotcha’ Oh! Dear. Yet another laughingly called journalist. For decades I can safely say this ‘profession’ has sunk lower and lower in almost if not all aspects of it’s intended purpose. People everywhere must dream of a time when for example ‘News’ will mean a factual report by an impartial source. Fat chance. I guess many people do not object to opinion pieces written poorly by dodgy unemployable nobodies. It might be worth a laugh or some may grit their teeth and say fair point.
But the arrogant ill informed aggressive style that pervade the industry is best switched off. Ultimately journalists may beat themselves up and disappear back down their own sewer.
So how do we get factual news? Sorry no idea. So why am I here? Because the comments on Unheard are far superior than most of the articles.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago

Well, yes, but we have observed and known all this for some years. It is the reason why most of us have simply given up on the MSM, both here and in the US. We might glance at it, but we will not fund it. (I threw out the TV 20 years ago and I have not purchased a newspaper on British soil since 2003, or abroad since 2009). BBC radio is usually switched off about 10 seconds after being switched on, such is its biased inanity. I have also stopped buying or reading the New Yorker and Atlantic, two magazines I once loved. Even the New York Review of Books has become largely insufferable.

Fortunately, there are countless alternative news and analysis sources available on YouTube and Bitchute etc. all much more intelligent than anything that is now to be found in the MSM, and often attracting a larger viewership.

angersbeagle
angersbeagle
4 years ago

An article I have been waiting to read.
Iam incredulous that anyone could make a public statement ; ” The entire journalistic frame of ‘objectivity’ and political neutrality is structured around white supremacy.”
When I was at university many years ago, we would be encouraged to explore both sides of a debate. This exercised our minds and helped us to think for ourselves, as opposed to simply repeating what others have said.
The journalist who made this comment seems to be implying that non-Whites cannot understand concepts such as objectivity or political neutrality and therefore they are going to outlaw it. This is a highly patronising form of racism
These “journalists” seem to think that we, the unwashed, should now get used to being told what to think or suffer the consequences…..Josef Stalin would be proud.

linda
linda
4 years ago
Reply to  angersbeagle

“…a highly patronizing form of racism.” This seems to be demonstrated in one way or another daily but, by my observation, almost always emits from highly affluent sources who have privilege above ALL people, not just people of color. I hear so many comments like “How brave of you to stand up for yourself (person of color)” that imply the person has to muster some previously undiscovered intellect or strength to function anywhere close to their level. Those of us who grew up distinctly unprivileged have far less privilege guilt and thus less sympathy for the whole movement.

Clive Mitchell
Clive Mitchell
4 years ago

Read a CNN article written by Tara John (with a name like Tara you can gues what’s coming):

“But critics say that instead of tackling the crisis head-on — perhaps with a reshuffle of his ministerial team; a shakeup of government policy; or the announcement of an inquiry — Prime Minister Boris Johnson has engaged in a tactic of an altogether more Trumpian style. He has launched a culture war.”

The evidence for this? Seemingly he’s announced that legally changing your gender is going to be marginally harder than posting the appropriate form and that in response to the toppling of the Colston statue he condemned the lawlessness!!!

Apart from being extraordinarily irritating, this article did at least throw a light on how stupid the woke element of the press is.

Boris hasn’t started a culture war, those demander that gender can be changed on a whim have. Those who are attacking our history, our culture and our values have. He has simply responded and most would say with the minimum level possible.

They are trying to create a Looking Glass world, where wrong is right, where vandalism is creative, where violence is peace and peace is violence. Where the colour of your skin determines whether you are a racist, not your actions. Or where the colour of your skin determines if you are a victim and not your life history.

These people are liars. The question I want the answer to is this, do they know that they are lying?

Pete Kreff
Pete Kreff
4 years ago

pure “objectivity” was never a viable standard in the first place

Of course nobody can be purely objective, but it is surely the standard a journalist should aspire to and strive for.

Most people still think that a journalist’s job is to report what happened. When I read reports about an event, say the BLM protests, I do not want a journalist to brush any looting or violence under the carpet or to overplay it – the journalist’s job is not to make the BLM movement look good or bad. (The same applies, of course, to the “far-right” “defend our statues” protests in London.)

Comment and opinion are different from journalism and should be kept separate.

Lacy was reduced to sheer emotional exhaustion earlier this month after a disagreement with a colleague. “I’m so f*****g tired,” she proclaimed in a dramatic Twitter tirade.

Lacy sounds like Titania McGrath made flesh.

One thing seems certain: this trend of activist journalism will merely cause traditional media’s audiences to shrink even more. Can’t these people see that their actions are counterproductive?

Russ Littler
Russ Littler
4 years ago

If we had journalists who had integrity and actually told “the truth”, none of this evil could exist. The media have aided and abetted the criminals.

Perdu En France
Perdu En France
4 years ago

You’re getting too excited about this. Media is just a product. Like soap powder. Its production has to be paid for. Either directly by purchase by the consumer or by advertising. A media targeted only at the wokerati won’t be consumed by the non-woke. The more woke current media becomes the bigger the hole in the market for non-woke competition. It’ll sideline itself out of existence. Best thing to do is cheer them on from the sidelines, to hasten the process.

Juilan Bonmottier
Juilan Bonmottier
4 years ago

When Donald Trump first referred to ‘fake’ news I used to raise my eyebrows and think ‘well, he would say that wouldn’t he’. Now, after years of exposure to the sort of crud being served up as journalism by the vast majority in that ‘profession’ (journalism no longer has any of the requisite parts to be cast as a profession) I find myself thinking, God, the man was right all along.

The BBC, for example, has moved blithely and with increasing self righteousness, way beyond bias, or even partisan reporting, to quite unashamed false reporting and propagandising. Independent media outlets can of course report as they like -irresponsible, immoral and reckless as this may be – but the BBC is paid for by taxpayers and yet has allowed itself to be so totally overrun by woke progressives -so that nothing in its entire output, sport, comedy, documentary, is not nastily contaminated by this preachy, sanctimonious, ‘betterment’ teaching.

It is nothing short of a national scandal, but the fact that no one in the current administration challenges its output shows what a spineless bunch of ‘leaders’ we currently have in this country. -wholly unfit to lead.

I think this is what happens when you have a former columnist as prime minister. It’s as if government policy; direction, belief and purpose – is also now just a journalistic game of drumming up disposable, ephemeral, opinions -for no other purpose than entertainment or to meet a deadline; forever flapping about in the wind of blah like tomorrow’s chip papers. Johnson and his cabinet really need to pull themselves together, find a collective backbone and deliver something of substance.