Identity Politics' Destructive Influence On The News
While a number of political and media critiques of late have focused on the close-minded, thin-skinned, woke, ideology-driven current nature of the cultural landscape and those who inhabit it, there may be another factor at play: Identity politics is really easy to do.
Life becomes much simpler when one must only deal with groups of people (or thoughts or attitudes or what have you) rather than individual and discrete concepts. There is a very reassuring clarity to the world when one can comfortably, smugly, knowingly ignore more than half of it.
One can simply look at someone or something or some idea and dismiss it because it came from the wrong group or person. And it becomes particularly unnecessary to see nuance or consider different interpretations when one is part of an ascendant group oneself.
In the world of politics, this process goes back to the beginning of time. Categorizing and organizing, favoring or tormenting, placating or ignoring this group or that is practically hard-wired into the pursuit of public power.
But recently this type of thinking has invaded the one part of society where it is most dangerous – the media.
Despite appearances, the process has not occurred overnight. The image of the grizzled, “first in the family to have a job out of the coal mine,” often drunk, iconoclastic, striving-for-justice reporter was always overplayed, but it had a certain core of truth. This journalist talked to power but did not become entangled with power (that was the publisher’s job). He tended to disdain fancy jargon and putting on airs while remaining rather jealous of those with the wherewithal to make their will manifest in the world.
And then, perhaps in part because of this underlying envy, reporters transmogrified into journalists. They were no longer craftsmen at the paragraph factory, but degreed professionals just like the people they covered. A chumminess with power began to appear, even to the point that journalists began marrying government workers and other people they covered and vice-versa, a practice that had previously been quite rightly shunned. The craft of reporting became more specialized and was consumed by the professional establishment, leading to a kind of industry capture (for example, the Department of Labor is run by and for the unions, the Department of Education is run by and for the teachers, etc.), leaving the public it once served out in the cold.
This putative professionalism has led not only to a widening gap between reporter and reader and an ever-tightening bond between journalists and the people they cover but also to their adopting the worldview of the rest of the professional class. Thus, they now subscribe to a view premised on group identity over individual action and the strict enforcement of societal otherness for those outside the group.
Combine this with an increased (cross-platform and nationwide) similarity of tone, style, and focus; the gutting of local news organizations; and a business model that is increasingly focused on coddling the pre-conceived notions of the individual paying customer rather than serving the diversity of the public and the result is that today’s media (and political) landscape is practically inevitable.
Being a reporter is difficult; being a journalist can be made very easy by embracing this new, sad reality.
It’s hard to start the day by going to a car accident, checking at the courthouse on a murder arraignment, and interviewing the nice little old lady who has managed to collect 387 porcelain frogs over the course of her life and then finishing the day by attending a three-hour zoning board meeting. Scanning through Twitter for the latest outrage to write about while sitting at your desk eating $18 avocado toast is easy.
Ignoring people who are part of a group that you and your friends have deemed unwashed is easy. Trying to understand and then translate different views for the public is hard.
Knowing deep down that you are always right because everyone around you agrees with you is not only easy but incredibly self-gratifying. Searching out differences, slogging through pages of documents trying to figure out if someone you personally despise is actually telling the truth this time, is hard.
Claiming that a worldview different from your own can put you in physical danger is oddly empowering for those with standard-issue social media narcissism. But being mean tweeted at is a far cry from “good old-fashioned” reporter threatening. (For example, after a story I wrote concerning a local businessman appeared, he left a message on my voicemail in which he, after disparaging my mother’s character and questioning her choice of personal associations, threatened to kill me. And he unquestionably had the temperament and means to do so. But I digress.)
If, instead of going to that zoning meeting or talking to the newly-widowed loved one of that traffic accident victim, you can simply get paid to sit and write things that you already agree with it almost makes sense. And identifying each and every thought, event, or person first and foremost by their group label – and regularly receiving from your own group reassuring confirmation that this is good “journalism” – makes the process even easier.
Trying to change that media culture will be difficult. It is very hard to convince people that dropping their comfortably self-assured pre-conceived notions is a good idea, especially when doing so would expose them to ridicule and social ostracism, and mean they would actually have to work for a living.
There was an editor I once had who would closely track where his reporters were throughout the day and would become irked if he saw them at their desks too often. “The typing is done in here,” he would say. “The news is done out there.”
Newsroom of the New York Times, 1944. Library of Congress. Public Domain.
Thomas Buckley is the former Mayor of Lake Elsinore and a former newspaper reporter. He is currently the operator of a small communications and planning consultancy and can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can read more of his work at https://thomas699.substack.com/
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