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.)
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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.
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