In a previous essay, I wrote about “Why I Am Not a Populist.” I defined modern populism as political movements or attitudes that incorporate most (though not necessarily all) of the following: anti-establishment sentiment, anti-elite sentiment, anti-intellectualism, conspiratorial thinking, veneration of the common person’s wisdom, protest movements, and scapegoating. I argued why I think populism is counterproductive and corrosive, and why we should reject it. I don't believe that riling up the masses against various subsets of society is healthy.
As such, it had long been my attitude that while we should hold the media accountable when they make mistakes, our criticism should always be restrained — that hitting the press too hard was too populist-seeming for my taste, and that doing so would somehow be in aid of populism. Slam the press too broadly, too vehemently, and it brings to mind Donald Trump and his unprincipled post-truth cult, tirelessly warring with the “lamestream media” and “fake news”, unable or unwilling to differentiate valid criticism or inconvenient reporting from bias or falsehoods. People whose distrust of the press ran so deep that they refused to accept the results of an election, evidence be damned, and barged into the halls of Congress like a swinish rabble of pus-headed wack jobs.
What I've come to realize, however, is that the press is one of the drivers of populism in the United States. I was defending the media as though they were this final bulwark protecting society from the populist hordes, but that’s the wrong metaphor. The press are not the city walls keeping the barbarians at bay — too often, they are one of the grievances that motivated the mob to gather in the first place. No rational opposition to populism can be mounted without a full-throated excoriation of the press. How can we oppose something without vocal criticism of its root causes?
What Motivates Populism
Populism arises out of a void of trust — trust that the future has better things in store, that established systems can meet the challenges facing society, and that the information people get is reliable. When trust in information hits rock bottom, people are left in a dark wilderness where they have nothing to go on but their emotions, intuitions, and biases. Without a coherent epistemology (method of knowing what you know), people default to gastro-epistemology — going with your gut on everything. Populism will wane in direct proportion to how effectively trust is reestablished.
What causes trust to erode? There are economic factors, such as lack of meaningful opportunities, high levels of wealth inequality, and the cost of living increasing faster than wages and spending power. There are cultural factors, such as rapid demographic or societal shifts in relatively short periods, and a sense of powerlessness and being left behind. There are also institutional factors, such as the failures of elected leaders to solve the problems they ran on, and the shortcomings of experts and the press.
And the number of Americans who have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the media has fallen quite low. In the past two decades, trust in newspapers has dropped 16 points to 21 percent. Trust in internet news has dropped five points to 16 percent. And trust in TV news has dropped 21 points to 16 percent. 43 percent of Americans now have little to no trust in newspapers. 47 percent have little to no trust in internet news. And 53 percent have little to no trust in television news. What went wrong?
Problems With the Press
Before we get into this rundown, for clarity, this critique is of the national media, not local media. Local media is both comparatively more trusted, but also fast disappearing. That is part of the problem, but outside the scope of this essay.
Ideology. Virtually every press organization not expressly conservative or right-wing has been increasingly captured by woke ideology. The media has become hyper-partisan, obsessed with race and identity, language policing, denouncing heretics, once-esoteric jargon, and power structures (except their own, of course). The thing is, the ideology of far-left-activism is repugnant to most of the country, who are fed up with being lectured by pompous asses fraudulently posing as their moral superiors.
Pernicious Business Models. Sensationalism and clickbait have long been problems with media coverage, but with the struggles in recent years to maintain commercial viability in the frantic attention economy, it’s gotten more desperate and shameless. The media has discovered the most effective way to hook audiences — by monetizing division and hate. The media actively whips people up against each other — just like populism — because tribalism drives clicks, ratings, and subscriptions like few things can. News and commentary has become one part identity, one part overhyped the-sky-is-falling crises, and two parts “Those people are ruining everything!” The difference between a cable news producer and a populist leading an angry street protest exists only in your mind. They are virtually the same person: stoking division, resentment, and hatred of some other for gain. They need each other as much as they hate each other, because they are each other. The media has played as large a role as any in driving people apart and deepening divides, and yet they have paradoxically united society in one thing: disdain for the media.
“The Bombhole Era.” Coined by Matt Taibbi, bombholing is a recent media trend where outlets rush to publish the most incendiary, sensationalist “bombshell” stories, even if they rely upon questionable sources or flimsy reporting. Over the subsequent weeks, months, or even years, the wild claims made in the initial reporting — seen by orders of magnitude more people than will ever see the corrections or follow-ups — get quietly walked back, dismantled, stealth-edited, or just not covered anymore, with no publicized mea culpa.
Cheerleading censorship. Even though the profession of journalism depends crucially on freedom of expression, mainstream reporters have bizarrely come to be among society’s foremost cheerleaders of censorship, social media crackdowns, and the ousting of heterodox voices from media organizations. A disturbing development.
Lack of Diversity. The members of the media may be of every race, color, and ethnic group, and yet the press has largely become an intellectual monoculture. Overwhelmingly comprised of people from upper-middle or upper class backgrounds, with well-connected families, top-tier university degrees, and strikingly similar views, journalism has become a social caste unto itself. “It’s a big club,” as George Carlin once said, “and you ain’t in it.” Individual journalists — the way they speak, write, think, and react; their attitudes, biases, sensibilities, and personalities — reflect a narrow and deeply unrepresentative range of the diversity that exists in society. Does this mean the New York Times should hire toothless meth heads from a trailer park in the Ozarks, or that ABC News should give an open mic to avowed white supremacists? Only a monumental moron would interpret the call for more diversity as a call for no standards at all. Sadly, such simpletons abound.
The problems chronicled above are no trivial matter. If you distilled them into chemical form, you could call it populist growth hormone.
Information, Power, and Responsibility
The media has a sacred duty and responsibility: to inform society. The reckless arrogance of twisting that duty into the right to curate and shape the national conversation to suit their own sensibilities (or bank balances) is why trust in this institution is crumbling. And this lack of trust fuels populism.
It is sometimes said that journalism, in its most idealized essence, is speaking truth to power. What happens, however, when journalists themselves come to wield tremendous power? Who speaks truth to them? Information has become the most valuable resource in the world. Those who deal in it now rank among the foremost power brokers. The media is not a band of intrepid, conscientious everymen sticking it to “the Man” on behalf of the little guy. It never was. Many of the problems with the modern press have dogged journalism to one degree or another since its inception, but the stakes are far higher now. We can see behind the curtain, and we have the ability, if not to determine all the facts, to see the bullshit and hypocrisy. The media's shortcomings matter more today than they did decades or generations in the past, because as information becomes more powerful, its dissemination becomes a greater responsibility, and its abuses become more consequential.
As a journalist, you can expect to be fired for putting an unwanted hand on a colleague's knee. You can expect to be fired for using a slur merely to refer to the word. But you can systematically misinform and mislead the public with irresponsible reporting for your entire career with no consequences. Let that sink in for a moment.
The Media Won’t Fix Itself
The press needs to face outside pressure, criticism, and changes in its audience’s consumption habits if it’s going to improve. To date, these things have mostly come from only a few sections of society — populists and the political right — and have therefore been dismissed out of hand. In this fractured media landscape (fractured in part by the media themselves), the mainstream press has become the left-leaning press. Right-leaning or conservative people, as well as populists, are not their target audience, and so criticism from them means nothing. If change is going to happen, we need to reclaim the mantle of media criticism — real, substantive, pointed criticism — from populists or the right. Otherwise we give them the monopoly, which perpetuates the popular but erroneous association of blistering media criticism with populism. It’s time for us to stop overlooking the problems, stop downplaying them, stop what-abouting or deflecting. The state of the mainstream press is bad. Really bad.
Too many people have had enough of the gatekeepers, the kingmakers, and the select caste of socio-economically inbred aristocrats who would sooner steer the conversation to influence what we think rather than simply giving us a balanced sampling of the information and letting us decide for ourselves. As the press's failings have done real damage to society, so too have they set themselves on course for their eventual destruction. If legacy media has helped inflame populism, alternative media — YouTube, podcasts, newsletters, and social media — illustrates where populism leads, and why we must avoid it. A sprawling landscape awash in tsunamis of discordant information, where crackpots, adolescents, and bad actors can disseminate anything alongside real journalism and reporting, where it is unclear what is what and who is who, presents a vision of information by mob: where the loudest voice wins, where virality equals validity, and where reality is put to the vote.
Alternative media has its virtues, but it is not a sufficient substitute for journalism. Not even close. The fact that readers routinely tell me that my articles are better than those in mainstream outlets written by real journalists is not praise of my work as much as it is an indictment of theirs. The press incessantly whines about how their uncredentialled or renegade competitors are kicking their asses. But there is never a recognition that the rise of alternative media was only ever possible because the press failed to do their job, and to do so with integrity, professionalism, fairness, and rigor. Without a free press that takes their vital role in the maintenance of democracy to heart, we are doomed. We need gatekeepers and experts. But we need a less-corrupt, less-ideological, less-whorish, more diverse, and more accountable media. The status quo simply won't do anymore. It’s giving us populism.