Did you catch the swan song broadcast of CNN’s Brian Stelter, the former New York Times newsman whose weekly show, Reliable Sources, had been a smart critic of right wing media and a chronicler of the Republican careen toward authoritarianism?
Alas, the new overlords at CNN, focused on resetting the network toward more “straight news reporting” and less seeming partisanship, jettisoned Stelter and his media criticism, not long after issuing an edict that on-air anchors refrain from using the term “Big Lie” when referring to the Trumpist 2020 election fraud fantasy. Stelter’s on-air farewell message was pointed in the face of such journalistic normalizing:
“It’s not partisan to stand up for decency and democracy and dialogue,” Stelter said. “It’s not partisan to stand up to demagogues. It’s required. It’s patriotic. We must make sure we don’t give platforms to those who are lying to our faces.”
Amen, brother. This is something MSNBC’s Ali Velshi and I touched on in our recent event. Yes, Trumpism has unleashed looney tune candidates across our land like former Eagle Herschel Walker (“Our good air decided to float over to China’s bad air so when China gets our good air, their bad air got to move.”) and Michigan’s John Gibbs, who has promoted the theory that Democrats conduct satanic rituals.
But behind their idiocy lies their extremism, their defiance in the face of facts, and their implicit, and sometimes explicit, rejection of shared values like free speech and pluralism. All of it makes the now-quaint notion of he said/she said reporting a co-conspirator in misinformation; the definition of “objectivity” needs to change in post-Trump America, from one of neutrality or balance to fierce truth-telling, no matter which side gets skewered.
Smart news consumers get this; they don’t abhor bias so much as the bullshit denial of it. So reporting — like Stelter’s — that uses reporting to arbitrate between competing sets of facts ought to be the order of the day, without fear or favor.
It’s tricky, though, in our current media maelstrom, because the default position from Left and Right is that precisely no one holds principled positions. Everyone is up to something, so actual give-and-take — the hallmark of a healthy democracy — is rendered meaningless. Which makes ideological transparency, rather than denial, so critical to restoring some semblance of trust between those who give us our news and those who consume it.
Here’s where it gets complicated
Before we get to this election season’s most dangerous candidate on this score — our own gubernatorial aspirant Doug Mastriano — here’s a bit of the transparency I call for. If you’re part of this Citizen community, you know by now the degree to which we eschew ideology and embrace practical, bipartisan problem-solving. I’m an independent thinker and voter who, in the past, has supported sane Republicans like John Kasich and, closer to home, Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick. I disagree with Liz Cheney on many issues, but count her as a patriot and maybe the last, best hope for American moral leadership.
Here’s where it gets complicated, though, for the reeling Fourth Estate: You can’t cover Doug Mastriano like you would a Kasich, Cheney or Fitzpatrick, because of the gulf of values between our Republican nominee for governor and the mainstream of American political thought. To do so would be to normalize Mastriano’s extremism. It’s been shocking to watch good Republicans in our commonwealth bite their tongue when it comes to Mastriano, begging the question: At what price party?
“The other side has the media in their pockets working for them,” Mastriano has said, justifying his campaign’s hostility toward press freedom.
Make no mistake about it: Mastriano’s candidacy has placed the values of The Enlightenment squarely on the ballot. Reason, tolerance, pluralism, free speech, constitutional government, and freedom of and from religion are now all up for grabs in our commonwealth — what a lovely name for it, by the way — thanks to the Army colonel turned one-term state senator. You know by now of his election denialism, his attendance on January 6, and perhaps you’ve heard about his foray into anti-semitism, in the form of his support for the white supremacist social media platform Gab and his trucking in false tropes on the stump about George Soros, a thinly-veiled attempt to call into question the loyalties of his Jewish opponent, Josh Shapiro.
But Mastriano’s hostility for the shared communal values that once defined the American project goes even further. Free speech and open debate? Mastriano has tried to ban reporters from his rallies, and often will only give interviews to far right or Christian Nationalist news sites. When local media does attend Mastriano events, he won’t answer their questions. Sure, going back as far as Spiro Agnew in the ‘70s, Republicans criticized the liberal media — often with merit. But they were working the refs, as coaches in the NBA like to say, shrewdly hoping to get the next call to break their way.
What Mastriano and the new breed of MAGA candidate represents is an ideological rejection of the importance to democracy of the town square itself. As David Freedlander made clear in New York Magazine last month, candidates like Mastriano are “actively courting the media’s scorn while avoiding anything that may be viewed as consorting with the enemy.”
Sure, some of it is strategic. The Times’ Jeremy Peters, author of Insurgency: How Republicans Lost Their Party and Got Everything They Ever Wanted, tells Freedlander, “There are a lot of Republicans who will privately tell you they are Trump skeptical, but they have to defend his election lies on the record, and it makes them uncomfortable.”
That is decidedly not the case when it comes to Mastriano, however. That’s because his anti-democratic leanings come not from the strategic reading of polls, but from a Christian Nationalist ideology that the media needs to cover as something beyond politics, something that assaults long-held shared values, something that is a threat to the social order.
That’s what The New Yorker’s brilliant Eliza Griswold did in her 2021 profile of Mastriano. It’s a devastating portrait that gets across just how out of the mainstream Mastriano really is. She documents his spreading of Islamophobic memes online, including a conspiracy theory that Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar once directed Muslims to throw a five-year-old over a balcony, and then broadens the scope of her indictment:
He soon began attending events held by a movement called the New Apostolic Reformation, a loosely linked network of charismatics and Pentecostals that, over the past decade, has played an influential role in conservative American circles. (Mastriano denied working directly with the group.) Many members believe that God speaks to them directly, and that they have been tasked with battling real-world demons who control global leaders. Prominent members in the group go by the title Apostle or Prophet to hark back to early Christianity. The N.A.R.’s overarching agenda—to return the United States to an idealized Christian past—is largely built upon the work of the pseudo-historian David Barton, who has advanced the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation. “Mastriano’s significance, alongside that of the N.A.R., is that he is attempting to create a theonomy—a system of enacting God’s law on earth,” Frederick Clarkson, a research analyst at Political Research Associates, told me…
“Christian nationalists take the view that because America is a ‘Christian nation,’ any party or leader who isn’t Christian in the ‘right’ way, or who fails to conform to their agenda, is illegitimate,” Katherine Stewart, the author of The Power Worshippers, told me. “Legitimacy derives not from elections or any democratic process but from representing an alleged fidelity to their version of the American past and what they believe is the will of God.” As a result, overthrowing an election, if it seems to have subverted God’s will, would be justified. “That kind of anti-democratic ideology made it very easy for these radicals to imagine they were being patriotic, even while they were attacking the most basic institutions of democracy: the U.S. Congress and the election process.”
Mastriano’s is a wholly anti-democratic, and anti-American, ideology, a type of fundamentalism scholars call White Christian Nationalism, because it lends itself to justifying the ostracization of “others” and can demonize those outside the (cherry-picked) faith.
Like all ideologies stemming from fear and ignorance, it’s a view that is well-practiced in sloughing off inconvenient truths like the fact that Thomas Jefferson, of all people, used a razor to edit out of his own Bible all references to the miraculous or supernatural; what was left was 86 pages of Christ’s practical — dare I say secular? — prescriptions for how to live. To the chagrin of Mastriano and other de facto members of what is increasingly looking like the American Taliban, the genius of the abiding American experiment is there for all to see on our currency: E pluribus unum, out of the many one. We haven’t always stayed true to the slogan, but we’ve never sought to so viciously vilify those who seek to embody it.
“The other side has the media in their pockets working for them,” Mastriano has said, justifying his campaign’s hostility toward press freedom.
It’s an odious position, but not without a germ of truth, as I’ve written about before. Newspapers and cable news have given fodder to Mastriano and his ilk by seeming to refuse defining diversity beyond race and gender. Diversity of thought, anyone?
Media needs to come clean
Now more than ever, the barons of the journalistic industrial complex need to come clean about just how ideologically liberal they are. A recent survey finds that only 7 percent of full-time journalists are Republicans. A poll during the 1992 presidential election of newspaper newsrooms found that something like 85 percent of journalists voted for Bill Clinton. One longtime journalist tells of a moment when, in an editorial meeting, he happened to mention that he’s a political conservative. “I had people coming up to me after, saying, Really? Geez, I’d love to talk to you about that some time,” he said. “They were looking at me like I was some exotic animal in the zoo.”
When the Inquirer jettisoned its editor in 2020 after its “Building Matters, Too” headline fallout, what was once denied was suddenly front and center, as when Inquirer columnist Jenice Armstrong wrote: “I was initially attracted to this industry because I thought journalists were more progressive than people in other industries.”
That followed the blow-up at The New York Times, when an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton, calling for the use of troops in American cities in response to protests and looting infuriated the newsroom and led to the ouster of a White male editor.
“The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy – the one that’s absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes,” said the brilliant Christopher Hitchens. “And the origins of that are theocratic, obviously.”
Not long after the murder of George Floyd, an Inquirer AP story on the tearing down of statues actually carried this subhead: “Among the targets was a bust in San Francisco of Civil War Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, an enslaver.” Seriously? Ulysses S. Grant was no enslaver; as chronicled in Ron Chernow’s brilliant biography, he was the General who won the Civil War, and the president who extended voting rights to former slaves, deployed the U.S. military to dismantle the Ku Klux Klan, and created the Justice Department to enforce new civil rights laws. He was raised in a rabidly abolitionist family; his wife’s family did own a slave, who Grant set free before the War.
That Grant’s CV can result in that know-nothing subhead in 2020 gives aid and comfort to Mastriano and his ilk, who would have you believe that mainstream news is indistinguishable from Leni Riefenstahl-like left wing propaganda. It becomes harder to argue with Mastriano when, at any given moment, you’re liable to see examples of breathless Trump Derangement Syndrome coverage on 24 hour cable news channels. (The open speculation on TV that the former president was hoarding classified material in order to sell it to Putin was, if not implausible, certainly irresponsible.)
The single biggest challenge for anyone in journalism is to rebuild trust in the institution. It has cratered, and that’s not just due to Donald Trump’s six years of haranguing. The latest Gallup survey finds that just 5 percent of Republicans and merely 35 percent of Democrats report having “a great deal or quite a lot of confidence” in newspapers; only 8 percent of Republicans and 20 percent of Democrats say the same about TV news. Most ominously for Democrats, independent voters skew closer to the levels of Republican disdain for mainstream media.
It’s time for journalists to have an open and explicit conversation about the moral values that undergird news coverage, because a study last year by the American Press Institute finds that only 11 percent of Americans fully support the commonly accepted five values of journalism: Oversight; Transparency; Factualism; Giving Voice to the Less Powerful; and Social Criticism. It’s time for a little humility, my fellow brethren in the Fourth Estate, ‘cause what we’re putting out there ain’t selling.
Remember Christopher Hitchens’ warning
But that doesn’t mean we should shy away from the moral principles journalism once stood for and promulgated — just apply them more evenly, without regard to party or predisposition. Drop the team colors. Here, again, one of my heroes is instructive. I still think back fondly to that drunken night before, during and after a 2007 Free Library event with the irascible author and provocateur Christopher Hitchens, who got more eloquent with every downing of his trademark Johnnie Walker Black with a splash of Perrier, no ice.
Just before his death in 2011, in a conversation with fellow atheist Richard Dawkins, Hitch made the case that resonates especially today, that there is an ongoing struggle in free societies between egalitarianism and totalitarianism, and the victor is inevitable only in retrospect. We’d all do well to remember Hitchens’ warning to us, citizen and journalist alike, and inculcate his moral clarity into our work. Let’s close with this excerpt, and you tell me if it doesn’t feel like Hitch is still among us and speaking directly to our gubernatorial nominee and those who would abjectly follow him:
Dawkins: It’s astonishing how much traction the left-right continuum [has] . . . If you know what someone thinks about the death penalty or abortion, then you generally know what they think about everything else. But you clearly break that rule.
Hitchens: I have one consistency, which is [being] against the totalitarian – on the left and on the right. The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy – the one that’s absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes. And the origins of that are theocratic, obviously. The beginning of that is the idea that there is a supreme leader, or infallible pope, or a chief rabbi, or whatever, who can ventriloquize the divine and tell us what to do. That has secular forms with gurus and dictators, of course, but it’s essentially the same. There have been some thinkers – Orwell is pre-eminent – who understood that, unfortunately, there is innate in humans a strong tendency to worship, to become abject. So we’re not just fighting the dictators. We’re criticizing our fellow humans for trying to short-cut, to make their lives simpler, by surrendering and saying, ‘[If] you offer me bliss, of course I’m going to give up some of my mental freedom for that.’ We say it’s a false bargain: you’ll get nothing. You’re a fool.
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