In Defense of Independent Opinion Journalism

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A reminder that PG doesn’t always agree with items he posts and usually avoids pieces with strong political position-taking. On occasion, he breaks from his usual pattern.

PG will observe that, at least in the United States, there are periods of time that are characterized by those who hold differing political opinions or values speaking past each other, frequently utilizing straw men strategies.

PG does continue to urge commenters to be respectful of those with differing opinions even if those opinions seem wrong in some way. PG will also note that the large majority of those who choose to leave comments here are intelligent individuals and suggests that differing opinions that appear in the comments are made by intelligent adults, not idiots.

(PG just checked and found that there have been 328,174 comments left on TPV in discussions of the various posts PG has made over several years. The number of comments PG has deleted for going beyond the limits of respectful dissent can be counted on his hands plus a couple of toes.)

From New York Magazine:

A couple decades ago, liberals began to see the structural asymmetry in the news media as one of the major problems in American politics. The Republican Party had an unapologetically partisan media apparatus — anchored by Fox News, founded in 1996 — that it used to promote its message. Democrats lacked anything similar. Even worse, the mainstream media had become highly sensitive to charges of liberal bias and habitually treated Republican-promoted narratives, however superficial or farcical, as inherently newsworthy. The conservative media was slavishly partisan, and the “liberal” media was filled with stories about how Al Gore was seen as a pathological liar, or John Kerry an effete flip-flopper.

Two phrases came into circulation that expressed this frustration. One was working the refs, which was borrowed from the sports world to describe how Republicans pushed reporters and editors rightward with nonstop complaints of bias.

The second was hack gap, which described the imbalance in professional ethos between left and right. Liberal pundits tended to see themselves as journalists rather than activists. They were expected to advance original arguments rather than echo a common message, and the rewards of career advancement generally went to those willing to criticize Democrats and fellow progressives. Conservative pundits usually came out of the conservative movement, saw themselves as working toward an ideological project, and operated with the tight discipline of a movement. Democrats would face swift internal criticism if they fudged the truth or violated any ethical norm, while Republicans, as long as they remained faithful to conservative doctrine, could count on the support from their chorus no matter what they did.

Over time, these critiques have exerted a profound effect on the news media. The mainstream media has moved distinctly to the left, and its once-universal practice of covering every factual debate merely by alternating quotes from opposing parties while treating the truth as unknowable has become rarer.

Progressive opinion journalism has changed even more dramatically. Breaking from the pack to question a shared belief on the left is no longer a prized trait; it is now possible to build a career unswervingly affirming progressive movement stances. On the whole, the profession has changed for the better. The internet has opened up far more voices on the left, in every way. There are more writers from more perspectives and bringing more expertise, and more of them are not white men. The absurdity of the 1990s world in which the ideological spectrum of mainstream thought ended at the center left needed to die. My work as a liberal writer is far more interesting today than it was when I began. Liberalism as a whole benefits from a strong critique from the left as well as the right.

As a political matter, the conservative-messaging apparatus no longer operates without any parallel opposition. The asymmetric structure of the media 15 or 20 years ago, which shaped Republicans into a party free to violate norms while Democrats felt constrained to follow them, is giving way to a more balanced system. After years complaining why liberals lacked their own version of Fox News, we can now see something like it, cobbled together from websites and cable-news programming.

At the same time, the downsides of this new media world have become increasingly obvious. Along with their partisan messaging system, progressives are constructing a counterpart to the information bubble in which conservatives have long resided. Where it was once rare to encounter some pseudo-fact circulating among the left, it is now routine to find people believing Michael Brown was shot with his hands up, lab-leak is a debunked conspiracy theory, or that Republicans are routinely banning instruction about racism.

In 2010, libertarian writer Julian Sanchez described the sealed universe of conservative thinking as “epistemic closure” — any source that refuted conservative claims was automatically deemed untrustworthy. One can now discern on the left at least the embryonic formation of a similar alt-universe, in which any inconvenient challenge is reflexively dismissed as “bothsidesing,” “concern trolling,” some form of bigotry, or any other of an ever-expanding list of buzzwords used to delineate wrong-think.

. . . .

Independence should be understood as a set of habits that can be practiced by writers from the breadth of the ideological spectrum. It does not mean having an “independent” identity in the partisan voting sense, or having a moderate personal politics. Independent-opinion journalism can be produced by writers occupying perspectives located between the two parties, outside of or orthogonal to them, or squarely within them.

Independence encourages (though hardly guarantees; we are all fallible) certain kinds of mental hygiene: Trying to imagine every situation if the partisan identities were reversed, conceding that people whose political commitments you generally oppose sometimes have correct or sympathetic points, testing your own arguments for logical and historical consistency. Would I oppose this tactic currently being used by the opposing party if my own party used it? Would I defend this tactic being used by my party if the opposing party used it?

An activist’s job is to promote (or, in some cases, prevent) political change. This is a completely honorable profession. But the contours of this job of moving public opinion toward the position you desire involves shading some truths and omitting others. Both forms of argument can be persuasive and articulate, but one is designed for edification, and the other is designed to advance political ends.

Think of the difference between a professor analyzing a legal question and a lawyer advocating for a client. The former has a point of view but is using argument for the sake of promoting deeper understanding for their readers. The latter is using whatever facts are most helpful to their client.

If you consider the metaphor working the refs, the distinction between independent-opinion journalism and political activism becomes perfectly clear. The phrase describes the way many coaches berate referees, in the belief that they will force those officials to call the game in a more favorable way. The coach may be biased enough to genuinely believe everything he screams at the refs, and the fans of his team may see the refs the same way the coach does. But a coach who’s working the refs is not setting out to give fans a fair assessment of the officials. His goal is to win the game.

Many of the writers engaging in public critiques of the mainstream media, either from the left or from the right, are working the refs. To the extent you rely on ref-workers as sources of political information, you are putting your brain in the hands of people who aren’t principally interested in enlightening you. They may want you to be informed about stories that encourage you to support their political coalition. They don’t, however, want to inform you about stories that undermine it. They are working you.

Link to the rest at New York Magazine

5 thoughts on “In Defense of Independent Opinion Journalism”

  1. In 1963, I recall the media outlets relentlessly telling us Kennedy was killed by right-wing John Birch types. He was actually killed by an avowed Communist who had lived and worked in the Soviet Union for three years, and had applied for Soviet citizenship. Thirty-two years before Fox News.

    Looks like some writers are trying to distance themselves from the rest by claiming to be independents and publishing on Substack rather than the Atlantic. But content shines through the venue.

  2. History begins when *they* say it did.
    Everything before gets swept under the carpet.

    Blaming everything on Fox News works…
    …if you ignore 25 years of liberal bias before that…
    Nixon as a crook (which he was, part-time), Ford a fumling idiot, Reagan a warmonger that was going to start WWIII, Bush Sr. out of touch, Sam Donaldson et al challenging Republicans at every turn…
    Media figures ditching the pretense of “impartial reporters” to being active participants in the DC political game.
    None of that happened.

    No. History started when Fox, for no reason whatsoever, decided to launch a news channel to prop up the minority party.

    Now, if you actually know what happened, you might consider that with CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, et al reporting in lockstep and no alternative video channel, the Murdocks simply decided to counterprogram the market. A standard TV tactic. If the other channels are running cop dramas all night, you run sitcoms at the same time to give people a choice. And it worked often enough.

    That’s all Fox News started as. An alternative to the lockstep NYC liberal group think of the corprate media. And it worked. In a roughly 50-50 country with 4 channels serving one market, counterprograming had a clear shot at 50% market share. What business doesn’t do that?

    When everybody zigs, you zag and hope somebody follows you.

    In this particular case, it worked.
    Enough that the competition copied the no-holds barred screaming heads model Fox imported from the UK and MSNBC dialed it up to 15. But with the politically obsessed sorted out berween Fox on one side and a horde on the other, Fox maintained its plurality. Rational fols shook their head and moved on.

    Lost in all the posturing by both sides is that for all the ideological ranting on screen, it’s all really about the money.
    It’s just business. Big business, sowing grievances for profit.

    Both sides are just dueling sideshow freaks playing for the peanut gallery.
    Neither camp is worth a second look. Or a first.

    • Perhaps a better starting point would be 1966 when William Buckley started the TV show Firing line. Buckley started Firing Line after the 1964 presidential defeat of conservative Barry Goldwater. That was a reaction to what he saw as the overwhelming liberal bias in news. Many conservatives would see that as the beginning of the modern conservative movement. The ideas had always existed, but the organized effort swing public opinion had not.

      Twenty-nine years before Fox News.

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