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.
PS: Consider subscribing to WHRPT in the sidebar (the posts come straight to your inbox; no muss no fuss). And following WHRPT on Twitter. Thanks for reading!