Whatever happens in the election on Tuesday, I’m pretty sure about the course that journalism will follow for the next four years and beyond. The campaign by the media during the last four years to discredit and, so far as possible, to destroy President Trump will continue if he wins. It could only be derailed, sending the Fourth Estate back to their drawing boards, if he were to win by a landslide. If, on the other hand, the media successfully drags Joe Biden across the finish line, they will find that, as when a man marries his mistress, they have created a vacancy. So addicted are they now to moral outrage that some other crusade will doubtless take the place of their Trump-hatred. And you can be pretty sure it won’t be Biden-hatred.
In other words, as I predicted in The New Criterion four years ago, “the news” as we knew it BT (before Trump) — cool, rational, dispassionate and, if not always fair-minded (not even often fair-minded) at least aware of the value to the media’s credibility of upholding the appearance of fair-mindedness — is gone for good. A melancholy prospect, I think you’ll agree. And yet I think I’ve had a glimpse of the future which, to some extent, has upset my assumptions about it. This is because I never imagined that an organ of the legacy media, the establishment media, the so-called Mainstream Media, could ever embark on a crusade that I actually agreed with.
Until now. I hasten to add that the unbroken record of the American media in the advocacy of bad causes remains unsullied by any signs of heterodoxy. But cast your eyes with me across the Atlantic to the London Daily Telegraph and you will see a campaign as passionate and all-consuming as that of The New York Times or The Washington Post against President Trump against the feckless British government’s lockdown strategy for dealing with the coronavirus. This is all the more remarkable because that government is led by Boris Johnson, a Telegraph alumnus, an anthology of whose greatest works for that paper still appears every day on its website under the heading of “The Best of Boris.”
It is as if The New York Times were to embark on a crusade against Paul Krugman or The Washington Post against Bob Woodward. These guys are their respective papers’ proudest ornaments, as Boris is the Telegraph’s. True, that paper’s righteous wrath against the Tory government is mostly directed at the so-called SAGE or Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies which is advising it to persist with the lockdowns, albeit in a modified form, the Chief Medical Adviser, Dr Chris Whitty, or the hapless Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, who has the misfortune to be the government’s own front-man in implementing its measures against the virus.
It’s also true that the Telegraph crusade, in which its sister paper, the Sunday Telegraph has joined it, lacks some of the moral edge of the American media’s anti-Trumpery. As a rule there is as little questioning of the government’s good faith as there is much of its competence. But all this is likely to be of small consolation to Boris, who must be muttering, Et tu, Brute? every day over his morning muesli at Number 10. What’s most striking to an American observer is that, whereas Mr Trump is getting hammered every day because he is said to defy “the Science” — even when he reluctantly follows its advice — Boris’s fault appears to be his extreme unwillingness to do so. Some say that his own bout with the virus earlier this year put such a scare into him as to rob him of his formerly independent, not to say anarchic, spirit and of his natural skepticism about “the experts.”
Though a foreigner detached from the day-to-day political and journalistic battles of the UK, I have the same concerns about the virus and the general political and journalistic response to it as the Telegraph — which makes for an interesting experience as I read article after article by the papers’ seemingly inexhaustible supply of anti-lockdown columnists. I now know, or at least I think I know, what the Trump-hating readers of The New York Times or The Washington Post think as they read article after article by those papers’ seemingly inexhaustible supply of anti-Trump columnists. To be honest, I skip most of them for the same reason that I now mostly skip the op ed pages (not to mention the news pages) of the American papers: I already know what they’re going to say. It doesn’t matter whether I agree with them or disagree with them, only that I don’t expect to learn anything new by reading them. So I don’t bother to read them.
This might seem to bode ill for the future of the new advocacy journalism in the post-Trump era — and therefore to bode well for the national sanity and equanimity of temper. But I can’t help feeling that there should be a caveat about this. The American media’s anti-Trump campaign of the last four years has something of the pathological about it. Trump-hating readers appear to me to read not for information but for the emotional satisfaction of having their prejudices confirmed and intensified; predictability for them is — at least I suspect that it is — exactly what they’re looking for in an opinion column, which is why they are so outraged by any opinion which is even slightly at variance with the anti-Trump consensus, or any headline that might hint at the hated Orange Man’s being anything but the devil incarnate. I can’t help thinking that, because this has worked so well for them, they’ll just find another Emmanuel Goldstein to subject to their daily two-minute hate.