Democracy dies in the media
From The New Criterion.
February 28, 2021.
The top headline of the Washington Post’s “Today’s Headlines” newsletter on the Sunday after the Epiphany riot in the Capitol read as follows: “Republicans largely silent about consequences of deadly attack and Trump’s role in inciting it.” The big news in the DC swamp that day, it seems, was that there were unaccountably still people thereabout who could be suspected of not agreeing with The Washington Post about these things — both the prospective “consequences” and “Trump’s role in inciting” the riot, which were treated equally as simple matters of fact. Emboldened by its own firm possession of these unquestioned truths, the Post was hinting that, if indeed there were such people, they had better get their minds right p.d.q. or they might face a few consequences of their own.
Of course, one is used to such subtly intimidatory language from the media nowadays, but I can well imagine its chilling effect on any remaining “moderate” Republicans who hadn’t, at that point, spoken up with the sort of ritual denunciation of the President being demanded of them in the media. They might well wonder, however, whence came the media’s authority, either for its truth claims or for making such threats against those unwilling to believe them. This was ostensibly a news story, and therefore, presumably, partook of that tentativeness once implied when the reporters of the news were said to be writing “the first draft of history.” Now they are asking us to accept without question that it is also the final draft.
History is in the pockets of Post and its brethren in the media, both old and new, these days because they have succeeded in branding themselves as exclusive purveyors of “Truth” and enlightenment. “Democracy,” remember, “dies in darkness.” But when the truth of your reporting is proclaimed in advance of the news you report, the reporting tends to be more or less limited to confirmation of what you have claimed already to know. The shock headline in the next day’s Post was: “For anti-Trump Americans, calamity spurs a muted sense of vindication.” It can’t have been difficult to find a few anti-Trump Americans who, like the writers and editors of the Post, can now claim to have known of Mr Trump’s perfidy all along. They could therefore all afford to be modestly “muted” in their I-told-you-sos. Not that they really were.
Meanwhile, just outside this elite circle of precognition, there was some real muting going on, as the Twitter and Facebook accounts of President Trump were shut down and the Twitter rival Parler, whose brand is no censorship, was censored itself by Amazon and threatened with same by Google and Apple. No doubt the fortune-tellers at the Post saw all this coming as well, if not the riotous pretext by which it would ultimately be accomplished. It doesn’t take psychic powers to predict that the “consequences” mentioned in Sunday’s article will be continuing for some time to come. And that they will affect many more people than Mr Trump. Senator Josh Hawley, for one, whose forthcoming book — ironically on “The Tyranny of Big Tech” — was canceled by Simon and Schuster on account of his persistence in backing efforts to delay certification of the election pending an investigation into allegations of fraud.
The Post’s denial of such allegations out of hand, from the very moment they were first made, were thus of a piece with its more general self-certainty, which, in turn, is the twin of its invincible self-righteousness. We now take it for granted that both qualities are shared with the rest of the progressive American media that, on account of them and on present showing, will soon be all the media there are. Such absolute faith in their own rightness of opinion, which is what it means to report opinion as fact as often as they do, is characteristic of totalitarianism, as is the need to make any waverers, like those temporarily silent Republicans, profess their assent to the media-determined party line.
Accordingly, it should not surprise us if our public life seems to have made yet another quantum leap in the direction of totalitarianism in the first days of the new year. It would have taken no special foresight to observe from the beginning that this was always the direction in which we were being taken by the “Cancel Culture” — which has, as I write, now come for an elected President of the United States. His 75 million voters must now include a fair few who are wondering how much longer it can be before it comes for them. As an unusually perspicacious celebrity model named Emily Ratajkowski pointed out, “If [Mark Zuckerberg] can shut the president up/off, he can shut any of us up/off.” The more dissenters from the media consensus are shed by their on- and off-line thought police, the more power the media have to shed them — or to intimidate any remaining independent thinkers into falling into line.
Before the riot, I had begun to write this column as an attempt to show how such leaders of that consensus as The Washington Post and The New York Times go about the manufacture of truth and what they have lately been pleased to call “reality” to their own specifications by what I called the suppressed conditional — as when Tom Nichols of The Atlantic wrote of Republican attempts to investigate electoral fraud before certifying the election of Joe Biden: “Worse Than Treason: No amount of rationalizing can change the fact that the majority of the Republican Party is advocating for the overthrow of an American election.”
In fact, it would have taken very little rationalizing indeed, assuming he were capable of it, for Mr Nichols to recognize that this putative advocacy of “the overthrow of an American election,” not to mention the unnamed crime said to be “worse than treason,” depended absolutely on an if-clause that he for obvious reasons chose to leave out and that might have read something like this: “if (and only if) those Republicans knew there to be no electoral fraud and were claiming that it existed anyway.” Like so many others in the hypercritical media, Tom Nichols could stake such extravagant claims of criminality on the assumption that his readers, all partisans like himself, would be willing to take for granted as true what was, in fact, in dispute.
That of course is why there was never any mention of the presidential and other Republican claims of fraud anywhere in the prestige media without the qualifiers “baseless” or “unfounded” being attached to them. No one must be allowed to suspect that fraud was even possible, lest the storm of abuse being heaped upon the heads of the President and his supporters should come to seem a trifle overdone. And this, remember, was before the renewed opportunity for such abuse afforded by the riot, which was said by one and all with equally positive certainty to have been incited by Mr Trump.
A rational person might have been less impressed by the riot itself than by the riot of self-righteousness and claptrap about democracy from people who have spent the last four years trying to thwart the democratic choice of 2016 and condoning the actions of those who seek to impose their will on the country by extra-democratic and intimidatory methods. Talk about incitement! It’s hard for me to see how Mr Trump’s appeal to his followers before some of them rioted was anywhere close to being as provocative as Nancy Pelosi and her fellow House Democrats who kneeled to the rioters in Washington D.C. last summer draped in kente cloth to show their support. Now, of course, the rioters were coming after them, which must have made a difference in their attitude. But back then — remember? — rioting was just fine and dismissed as “mostly peaceful protest” when it was Black Lives Matter and Antifa who were claiming to have a grievance and thought that people in power weren’t listening to them.
It will be observed, perhaps, that the public discourse (if you can call it that) as managed by the media now depends on a kind of induced amnesia, for which the media must owe a lot to the educational establishment’s help in producing a new generation of readers and watchers who know almost nothing about the past — or nothing but the media version of it as found, for example, in the New York Times’s “1619 Project.” The media’s own, self-induced amnesia, goes even further and requires that yesterday’s misreporting, as of the “Russian collusion” hoax, be utterly forgotten in order to clear the way for today’s. Talk about being “largely silent”! Who now remembers the wild goose chase of the Mueller report which for months was top-of-the-headlines news every day in the prestige media. The President’s “collusion” with Russia — no one was ever quite sure what criminal act, exactly, they were supposed to have colluded in — proved to be a truth that wasn’t true, but that didn’t mean that it was an error, let alone a falsehood. It was simply forgotten, dropped down Winston Smith’s memory hole.
And then there was the impeachment of last year, which you might have supposed would be somewhat fresher in the media’s memory. Yet the “consequences” referred to in the Washington Post headline first mentioned above included yet another effort by Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Democrats in Congress to impeach the President only days before the end of his term. To anyone whose memory stretches back even as far as one year, the message they were sending by such a pointless act could only have been: “Now we’ve finally found something we can really impeach him for.” It ought to be a pretty obvious point to be raised by the fair-minded that not only the previous attempt but the new one as well could hardly count impeachment as envisaged by the Founding Fathers, for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” It was clearly nothing but political vendetta.
But either there are few fair-minded people or many amnesiacs these days, the latter having fallen along with the media, into the mere habit of outrage, like children throwing a temper tantrum every time they don’t get their own way — each outburst in utter forgetfulness of the one before so as to be full of fresh indignation. Impeachment should thus appear to those who have not lost their memories, or their minds, like the prosecution of General Flynn, or the attempt by prosecutors in the southern district of New York to get hold of Mr Trump’s tax records, not to mention the two-year Mueller investigation. In other words, it was and always has been a (hopeful) conviction in search of a crime. Is that how American justice, or any justice, was supposed by the molders and shapers of our legal sytem to work?
Who can remember that far back? Or, perhaps the better question is who wants to remember that far back when the media have the power to threaten “consequences” for anybody who does. No doubt that is the reason why there are so few voices being raised in protest against the reduction of democratic politics to raw power-struggle outside — or few voices outside of the right wing media ghetto, now more ghettoized than ever on the same pretext which is being used to check off everything else on the political wish-list of the Democrats and the media. Do ordinary, more or less apolitical Americans then approve of the way the law and the deep state have been used to hound the President since even before he took office? The election results would seem to suggest that they do, but then some people continue to think that the election results are still in doubt, in spite of all the media’s urgings.
I think we have to confess that if ordinary voters seem confused it is at least partly the fault of both parties. I always thought that the Republican impeachment of President Clinton in 1998 was a mistake. I understood that it was meant as payback for the attempted “high tech lynching” of Clarence Thomas seven years earlier (presided over by one Joseph R. Biden), but the Republicans were politically interested parties who could not honorably or impartially sit in judgement of the President. They should have left his punishment for the Monica affair, if any, to the Democrats and thus, ultimately, to the voters. But when I suggested this to one or two prominent Republicans at the time, I was slapped down as naive. This was, like it or not, what hard-ball politics now looked like in America.
Well, we sowed the wind, along with Mr Biden, and we (if not he) have now reaped the whirlwind. Neither Republicans nor Democrats should be too surprised if all the pious cant about the holy shrine of democracy’s defilement by Trump supporters on January 6th falls on deaf ears among the public at large. The naked and unseemly power-struggle that has gone on in that building for the last 30 years (at least) cannot have looked to many of those outside it like the sacred rites of democratic self-government. Few politicians today appear even to know what the word “democracy” means, since so many of the ironically-named Democrats have spent four years trying to nullify an election in its name — and now seek to prevent Mr Trump from seeking office again on the paradoxical grounds that any future election he won would be as much of a “threat to democracy” as the last one.
But even that is a mere trifle compared to the political degrading of the very idea of truth. Now, with every “false or misleading statement” of President Trump catalogued by the Washington Post’s indefatigable “fact checkers,” and every repetition of the a priori claim that his allegations of election fraud were “unfounded” or “baseless,” we are reminded that truth and falsehood have become entirely a matter which side of the politcal divide they are coming from. One side’s truth is the other’s falsehood and vice versa. Who doesn’t know that now, whatever the media say? And what are ordinary people supposed to make of it, apart from concluding that they’re both lying and that truth — true truth — is now inaccessible to anyone not himself engaged as a partisan.
There used to be an unwritten rule in the advertising business about “no knocking copy.” If Coke started claiming that Pepsi would make you sick, Pepsi would naturally retaliate by claiming that Coke would kill you, and ordinary everyday people would begin to think it safer to leave both of them alone and drink Dr Pepper. Something like that seems to have happened in our political life, largely because of the media’s post-Watergate faith in the power of scandal and threats of scandal to manipulate politicians into advancing their own agenda. The Democrats have been happy to take advantage of this because the media’s agenda is so largely their own, but if they had any aspiration beyond the sheer exercise of power they might now be thinking twice about this devil’s bargain, now that they’re being asked both to condone riotous assemblies and to impeach a President for (allegedly) doing the same. That kind of thing, too, was not anyone’s idea of democracy up until the day before yesterday. Now it appears we’ll have to get used to it. What was it again that democracy was said to die in?