Us and Them and Decline Porn

In “Decline Porn,” Commentary’s Noah C. Rothman argues that “[i]n the nation’s elite political media, an initially well-meaning effort to understand the voters who handed the president the keys to the White House has morphed into something closely resembling exploitation.”

I hadn’t planned on writing about this, as I tend to think there is a large measure of truth in it.  But I found myself asking why I agreed with it.

At the outset, I probably agreed because I had written previously about why such coverage was likely doomed to fail.  The New York Times already had tried what Jonah Goldberg called “gorillas in the mist” coverage of conservatives in 2003-04, only to find themselves blindsided by 2016 (though stereotypical Trump voters are less conservative than many Republicans).  Iowahawk’s hilarious “Heart of Redness” skewers similar coverage from the Washington Post after Pres. Bush’s re-election.

Ironically, it’s the WaPo’s Alexandra Petri who provides the comedic version of Rothman’s argument in 2017, jabbing both the journalists sojourning into the Trumpian hinterlands and the people interviewed by them (whether she meant to jab her colleagues is debatable, but the effect is the same).

It’s not entirely fair, however, to portray the media as having become fascinated with the decline of rural American towns only after the election.  There were similar anthropological pieces before the election, because the media knew the path to any Trump victory would run through the Rust Belt.  This was discussed frequently.

Moreover, related stories, like the opioid epidemic that seems concentrated in Trump-friendly regions, received extensive coverage during the 2016 cycle.  This coverage was mostly sparked by Gov. Chris Christie’s moving speech on the issue — one that inspired candidates as far apart as Sen. Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton to weigh in.

That the media did not start this coverage recently, however, does not mean that it is not on some level exploitative.  Rothman posits that such coverage isn’t particularly useful absent statistical or empirical context, absent debate over how to fix the problems of such people.  Again, my impulse is to largely agree.

OTOH, when I read coverage of the problems of Chicago’s West and South sides so lavishly produced by elite outlets like the New York Times, I find I could offer a similar critique.  The media’s coverage of police shootings tends to be similarly lacking in context or solutions.  The media’s reliance on this arguably exploitative genre is more equal opportunity than it might seem at first blush.

The reason people — and conservatives in particular — may not immediately pick up on this may be that we subconsciously expect the left-leaning establishment media to be more exploitative of the problems of the non-white underclass, given their usual orientation toward Democrat-centric identity politics.

Conversely, there would be a tendency to reflexively impute suspect motives when left-leaning outlets turn to address the problems of the white underclass, particularly given how late they have been to this party (and often hostile to authors like Charles Murray who were earlier to the party).

So while I tend to agree with Rothman, I find myself doing so from the perspective that perhaps he’s drawing back the curtain a bit on some larger issues.

The unstated premise of this mode of coverage (regardless of sympathetic or exploitative intent) is that the mission of the so-called elite media inherently focuses on “national” political coverage.

An essentially progressive media will tend to assume that it has the expertise and skill necessary to provide the breadth of coverage necessary for a nation as vast as the United States.  Yet for all of the progressive fetishization of diversity, so-called elite journalists have a distinct knowledge problem here.  They generally aren’t well-equipped to understand Englewood or Fishtown.

As a result, these scribes generally can do little beyond bear witness, however imperfectly.  This is endemic to most journalism, tbqh.  We just notice it more when the subjects are sensitive and controversial.  And we tend to notice it through whatever personal and political lenses we bring to the viewing.

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Is Sean Hannity Bad For America?

Consider this a companion piece to Friday’s post about conservative news reporters.

The best part of Sean Hannity’s encounter with Ted Koppel may be that Hannity clearly did not think Koppel would actually say he was bad for America, which is why he spent days whining about it.  I don’t think the assessment moves the public dialog further, especially given that Koppel misdiagnoses Hannity as someone who “attracts people who are determined that ideology is more important than facts.”

As Noah C. Rothman observed last week, ideology really cannot be considered the driving force in the age of Trump.  Rothman identifies partisanship and the market pressure for news outlets to chase controversy as the culprits.  This is far closer to the mark, but this could be fleshed out more.

To be sure, the ESPNization of politics and political media reinforces both partisanship and sensationalism, though this can also be seen as a negative feedback loop.  Having written about that topic already, I’ll stick to the other half of Koppel’s critique.

Hannity’s defense is that people can tell the difference between a news show and an opinion show.  As just mentioned, the lines between the two have increasingly blurred over the past few decades.  But implicit in the defense is that an opinion show is held to a different standard than a news show, and not merely different, but a lesser standard when it comes to being based in fact.

Indeed, Hannity frequently defends himself by claiming that he is “not a journalist.”  In reality, he is an opinion journalist or an advocacy journalist and one trusted with rather large media platforms.

As such (or like anyone ostensibly debating a position), credibility matters, or should matter.  This can mean conceding a weak point in one’s argument, or pre-emptively addressing an opponent’s strong one.

But most of all, credibility ought to require some level of fidelity to facts.  If you read a columnist and notice (s)he frequently plays fast and loose with the facts, or omits crucial ones, eventually you will conclude the person is not credible and thus not persuasive.

Thus, when someone like Hannity flip-flops on immigration reform because the RNC favored it in 2013, but Donald Trump was the hot item in 2015, it should matter.  Indeed, Hannity knows it matters, which is why he squeals like a stuck pig and lashes out when people mention it.

Or when Hannity goes from fulminating that Pres. Obama should be doing more to imprison Russian stooge Julian Assange to vouching for Assange’s credibility himself, when the only thing that changed was Hannity’s perception that WikiLeaks was hurting the Democrats,  it should matter.

When, in the desire to later claim that WikiLeaks did not hurt the Democrats in 2016, Hannity embraces a conspiracy theory to blame the CIA for WikiLeaks, it should matter.

Hannity’s ideology is big ratings and as such is not fueled by partisanship so much as constrained by it — though not as much as he would be constrained by political principles or a fidelity to the facts.

And I don’t begrudge the man making a fortune from it, though I suppose I am not laissez-faire enough to think there shouldn’t also be truth in advertising.  So to the extent he built that fortune as a True Conservative, he wasn’t being honest with his audience.  And to the extent that his partisan position is more important to him than facts or principles in the pursuit of ratings, he isn’t being honest with his audience.

Accordingly, where Koppel is probably correct is in his assertion that Hannity attracts the people who don’t care any more than he does.  The people who care tune him out.

One last thing:  Since I’m riding the high horse on this subject today, I note that an astute reader of Friday’s post contacted me over the weekend to remind me that the reporters who recently left the IJR aren’t conservatives.  I let my desire for a quasi-happy ending cause me to make the common error of lumping those who work for a particular outlet in with the outlet’s editorial outlook, and welcome the correction.

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The Conservative Movement: What Happened?

The “Milo Yiannapolous disinvited from CPAC” story may be dead, But Commentary’s Noah C. Rothman and the Daily Beast’s Mark K. Lewis got good columns out of it by using the incident as a signpost on the road to decline the conservative movement seems to have traveled over the years.

It is in part a tale recalling Eric Hoffer’s observation: “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”

This is the part of the tale they tell.  Rothman blames the state of the movement on “[t]he right’s entertainment class,”  while Lewis argues that “Yiannopoulos’s invitation was, perhaps, the logical denouement for a cause that prioritizes provocateurs over polemicists and entertainment over substance.”

This is all true as far as it goes.  It is certainly true of CPAC.  But it is not the whole story and misses important pieces that will be necessary to any sort of conservative regrouping.

One of the main things Rothman gets right is that for many who consider themselves conservative, “their introduction to conservatism came not from reading the philosophy of John Locke and Edmund Burke but from a casual exposure to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.”  But the primary problem with this is not necessarily that the latter have been provocateurs (Limbaugh’s peak audience and influence occurred while he was at his least provocative).

Rather, the issue is that the understanding people get of conservatism from talk radio (or cable news as talk radio with pictures) is and almost inherently will be shallow.  There is an old adage (of uncertain origin) that “great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; [and] small minds discuss people.”  Programming aimed at entertaining a mass audience will tend to reflect this dynamic, regardless of how provocative it is or how valid any particular provocation may be.

A conservative movement that is broad but shallow will be more likely to claim it embraces constitutional conservatism but ignore constitutional and prudential political constraints when they become frustrated, for example, that a GOP Congress seemed so ineffective in advancing a conservative agenda.  This is part of the reason many conservatives wrongly discount some of the achievements of the GOP to which Rothman correctly refers.

Conversely, however, the shallowness of many ostensible conservatives also partially explains why the GOP could be as politically successful as it is today.  The ascension of Pres. Trump is, if nothing else, a wake-up call to how little influence the conservative movement has had within the GOP, contra Rothman’s claim that the current “Congress is also one of the most conservative in the country’s history.”

This is a claim which is, imho, deeply ahistorical.  The postwar period has been one where the overarching trend has been to cultural and political progressivism.  What seems like stolid conservatism these days mostly represents fairly modest attempts to regain ground lost over the course of decades of cultural and political losses.

Moreover, conservatives across the spectrum disagree over what to make of this central dynamic.  Peggy Noonan, not exactly a fire-breather, was nonetheless able to recognize the frustration conservatives have over the fact that the GOP, even when controlling the government as they did for six years under George W. Bush, still seemed to negotiate and grow the government as if they were the minority party.  David Brooks looked at the same frustrated conservatives as engaged in identity politics.

Perhaps both Noonan and Brooks had a point, and the inability of the GOP establishment to successfully manage True Conservatives (both actual conservatives and shallower people who imagine themselves to be) and more intelligently address their concerns eventually boiled over into frustrated people comparing the 2016 election to Flight 93.

The other problem with a conservative movement that can be both shallow and aggressive is alluded to, but not fully explored, by Lewis.

As Lewis notes, “[t]rue conservatism has been replaced by a fetish for fighting political correctness.”  It is perhaps a coincidence that Limbaugh went national at approximately the same time that Jesse Jackson was leading college kids in chants of, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ. has got to go,” but maybe it wasn’t a total coincidence.

The confluence here is remarkable.  Political correctness is in large part about making America’s intellectual discourse more shallow and less conservative.  The revolt against political correctness — at least the mass (dare I say populist) revolt against it — often has the same characteristics.

The demands of mass media that inexorably drive the discussion more to people and events than ideas will also tend to shape the debate into one about who people are against, rather than the underlying ideological conflict.  This is particularly true of conservatism, which is a default for people seeking to protect what’s good about the status quo; the focus moves toward the attackers and the attack, not on the advancement of the virtues of what we seek to conserve.

Lastly, Rothman and Lewis largely avoid addressing that the most recent iteration of this battle is marked by an even more totalitarian Left than the spasm that played out in the late 80s and early 90s.  The New New Left, in an almost Newtonian fashion, will push more people into the camp that opposes the politicization of all aspects of American life.

What it does not ensure is that the marginal increases in the opposition to totalitarianism will be conservative, or even much care about conservatism on any philosophical questions.  Rather, they are the “Not Left,” people simply looking for a champion to repel the barbarians at the gates.  And when the GOP establishment fails at constructively addressing deep or shallow conservatives, it should be no surprise that some — certainly the latter –will look to the provocateurs raising the banner highest against the immediate threat.

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