Opinion

November 4th and the Fourth Estate

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Posted: May 17, 2020 12:01 AM
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November 4th and the Fourth Estate

Source: AP Photo by/NBC, William B. Plowman

America has missed its opportunity to have a level-headed discussion about how where we are as a country will impact the peaceful transfer of power. We’re now too close to the election to have that discussion in a level-headed manner, and as articles come out on the topic, with most appropriately seeing risk, they inevitably devolve into a condemnation of specific politicians or political movements. That’s natural given where we stand five months or so from the election and with the rhythms of the political season set to overwhelm and color most other events.

So if it’s too late to have that discussion in an even-handed manner, to avoid the temptation to cast blame, how can we best prepare to handle an election that our national fault lines put at some considerable risk? One valuable way might be to anticipate how the critical ten weeks between election night and the inauguration will go, particularly if we wake up Wednesday morning the 4th with an unclear winner; and how different institutions, not specific politicians, will respond. One exceptionally powerful institution is our media. Now media criticism is easy, especially when using a monolithic term like “the media,” and we should remind ourselves that the first draft of history is just that, a first draft.

But if we look back at the past few weeks and the almost shocking display of viewpoint deficiency and misdeed from the Biden/Kavanaugh double standard, to the Chuck Todd deceptive edit, to the Jimmy Kimmel setup, it’s clear to what and who I’m referring: the network and newsroom-led political class of media. It’s these people, this media class, that we’re about to take into a historic and risk-laden election. Uh-oh.

Far too much time and schadenfreude were spent by my fellow conservative commentators on the Biden/Kavanaugh double standard. Some were gleeful in pointing it out as confirmation of what they’ve long argued, but others were more serious, appealing to an intrinsic sense of justice, even a shared sense of fairness almost implicit in our minds and marked by the urge to appeal to a referee-like authority or common institutional bond. Many specifically marked the episode as supporting evidence of not just the loss of institutional trust in the media but why that loss of trust in the media is so fully deserved.

What that commentary misses is that those referee-like institutions, and that shared sense of justice, no longer exist. The fourth estate has failed, and it carries now in its fallen state serious deficiencies that we are all worse off for. They aren’t heroic advocates for truth, nor even stoic Murrow-like figures calmly reporting the facts in the midst of a hysteria; they have chosen sides on a sinking ship and are going down swinging with it.

But the media needn’t be condemned for their failure. Nor is it necessary to paint their failure in grandiose moral terms; it’s simpler. It just means they are of the times. They are not up to the challenge; they are from and of this moment. The media elite possess no special wisdom, no special immunity to the passions of our time. A fractured society has a fractured media.

When the New York Times changes headlines in response to customer outrage, the important takeaway isn’t just that she ain’t what she used to be, but more importantly that their subscription base demands validation. When a late-night personality edits footage to make the vice president look bad and refuses to apologize, there is a perpetuating overlap between his open zealotry and the reward he’ll get from his audience. When a national Sunday show staff watches the attorney general’s recent interview and decides to cut it specifically to set up a condemnation-by-panel, it’s clear that they are partisans whose affiliations outweighed their professional ethics and standards. But also, that the alienation we malign them for being unaware of isn’t relevant anymore.  

As a divided nation heads into potential tumult, it’s got the press it deserves.