Media Hubris and the Fall of the Center

Mitch Daniels, the former governor of Indiana, went from estimable presidential candidate to nondescript university president in the political timeframe of a nanosecond. Back in 2011, Daniels was on many a short list of potential Republican presidential candidates. A stalwart fiscal hawk, a tempered social conservative, a former Reagan advisor, a cost-cutting budget wonk, and a seasoned politician, the White House nod might have been his, had he picked the path.

But, alas, as Caesar opined to Brutus, he eschewed the stars and opted not to run. The reason was good: Daniels’s wife, Cheri, left him for a doctor in 1994. They later patched things up, but a dredging up of the past is a prerequisite of presidential campaigns, and Daniels, honorable man he is, chose family over calling.

We live with our choices, and Daniels lived with his. Today, he heads Purdue University. And while he’s out of public office, he still sounds off on political issues in the pages of The Washington Post.

His latest offering, just in time for Advent season, hits on the greatest trouble of our time. As the new year approaches, the country is mired in epistemological crisis. Political polarization is at its highest point since the Civil War. Ideological purity tears at the middle that once formed our national consensus. There’s a sense that one’s political party is now his tribe, and elections are bloody brawls like the kind between the Dead Rabbits and the Natives in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York.

Daniels pinpoints the source of our intransigence: an inability to admit fault. In “Is Anyone Ever Wrong Anymore?” the man once dubbed “The Blade” laments the loss of the biblical virtue called humility. A combination of forces has made us intellectually comfortable, reassured in our convictions.

Prior-enforcing news curation; homogenous university curriculum; consequence-free internet argumentation -- Daniels cites these and more as contributing to our know-nothingness. This confirmation bias, he writes, “has mutated from a hazard of academic research to a menacing political and social phenomenon.”

Daniels’s model for modesty is historian Stephen Ambrose, who, at the end of his life, admitted error in casting many judgements as a young chronicler of America’s past. From the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the records of Richard Nixon and Theodore Roosevelt, Ambrose refined his thinking on events and individuals who shaped American life. He was brave enough to utter what Daniels calls “those three magical little words”: I was wrong.

Now that’s a phrase you rarely hear anymore. Truth, that concept held so dear by Greek philosophers, is passé. What matters is winning the argument. Logic, facts, and evidence be damned.

This closing of the American mind, to borrow Allan Bloom’s great phrase, doesn’t just make civil discourse impossible. It corrupts the mind, expelling reason, filling it with a dangerous hubris. The recent spate of spurious news stories -- what our president calls “fake news” -- is reflective of the inflated egos of our journalist class.

The arrogance of the press was on full display last week. The media, in its furious quest to find a connection between President Trump and the Russian regime, botched three major stories. First, Brian Ross of ABC misreported that former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was going to testify that Trump, as a candidate, ordered him to contact the Russians. Trump had actually made the order as president-elect–a completely sensible request for an incoming head of state.

Then, Reuters reported that Special Counsel Robert Mueller, as part of his ongoing probe of Russian influence on the election, had subpoenaed Trump’s personal financial records from Deutsche Bank. That was wrong -- the request was not tied to Trump directly but rather associates of the President.

Friday brought the biggest fumble yet. CNN reporters Manu Raju and Jeremy Herb broke an exclusive story about the Trump campaign receiving an email containing an encryption key that was supposed to unlock stolen Wikileaks documents. The date of the email was significant: It was sent during the campaign on a day Donald Trump, Jr., happened to tweet about Wikileaks.

The Raju/Herb report was immediately seen as a smoking gun. Here, finally, was confirmation the Trump campaign had access to damning information about Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party. That information was allegedly filched by the Russian government. At last, irrefutable proof Trump worked with Putin to steal the election!

Cue sad trombone. The email in question was sent one day after the documents went public. The wished-for collusion remains elusive.

In each of these incidents, the respective news organizations issued retractions, but only after another party pointed out the mistake. Had the claims gone unquestioned, they’d be treated as facts today. With ABC’s flub, network president James Goldston tore into his own staff, emphasizing the “need to get it right” and “not first.” The contrition was commendable. Not everyone was apologetic about the lapses, though.

The Atlantic Senior Editor David Frum remained unashamed.  Appearing on CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” he told host Brian Stelter, “mistakes are precisely the reason the people should trust the media.” He then explained, without a hint of self-reflection, that the “worst mistakes that press organizations have made in their coverage of Trump has precisely occurred in their overzealous effort to be fair to the president.”

These are the words of a man who upholds truth by obfuscating it as much as possible. By any measure, the major media outlets screwed the pooch in their desperate need to traduce of the President. They’ve grudgingly acknowledged their blunders. But it’s the righteous belief in their own probity that creates the opportunity for error in the first place.

“In a well-documented fashion, steady doses of viewpoint reinforcement lead not only to a resistance to alternative positions but also to a more entrenched and passionate way in which thoughts are held and expressed,” Daniels writes. Even with a string of oversights, the media is adamant about proving collusion between Trump and Russia.

It’s not enough for journalists to admit they’re wrong anymore. Guilt without penance isn’t guilt. Unless reporting practices change, I’ll question whether the press really thinks it made a mistake, or merely missed the mark on proving a narrative set firmly in their heads.

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