Remember about 10,000 news cycles ago, back in ancient history, when Kevin Williamson was fired from The Atlantic in a fit of groupthinky pique? That was well before its editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg became a broken hulk of Trumptonite, looking to hang himself around the president’s neck and strip him of his superpowers.
I’ll note the emphasis here on broken, because so much of journalism has been broken between the Scylla and Charybdis of Trump and eternal outrage. I’ll come back to Williamson in a bit.
After I wrote about the chummy rapport between Jeff Zucker and Donald Trump, and how the media is yearning for more Trump like Christopher Walken’s “more cowbell” yesterday, I received an email from a reader. The email contained a good thought, so I’ll share it here:
What bothers me is how this masks a very serious issue. Our government really only works well if we have a responsible media holding it accountable. It’s an affront to the First Amendment for a sitting President to describe the press as “the enemy of the people.” The problem is that the media has completely destroyed whatever credibility it might have had by how it covers Trump. They should legitimately criticize the President and of course, the President shouldn’t be so fragile. But really all this just feeds the monster that is the media complex.
This is so true. The media can’t be “the enemy of the people” with America’s type of government, because the media serves as a check on the government on behalf of the people. When the media is consumed with political tribalism and activism, then it’s not doing its job, and government is free to tread on our liberties. The very thing the anti-Trump media mob accuses Trump of wanting, an authoritarian cult, is being enabled and encouraged by the media when they abandon their primary duty as impartial referee and put on a cheerleader’s outfit.
The conundrum we face is that the media is both a constitutional office–an outside party, the fourth estate–and a money-making business. Making all media work as non-profit by donation only wouldn’t solve the puzzle either, because then big donors would control content instead of shareholders. Ideally, the media should offer a balance between informing Americans and doing it in an insightful and entertaining way to attract ratings to make a profit.
This current president doesn’t allow any balance. He’s a wrecking ball to anything approaching balance, or nuance, or complexity, or intellectual rigor (unless it’s intellectual rigor mortis). So therefore, much of the media is locked in a deadly embrace with President Trump. They’re repelled by his offensive rudeness, cruelty and constant trolling; and at the same time, they’re attracted to him because he makes them metric craptons of money.
That tension, the Scylla and Charybdis analogy I used, breaks journalism, and breaks individual journalists. Too many reporters, editors and owners to count have fallen victim to Trump’s superpower: specifically, the ability to induce madness in people he doesn’t like.
But instead of breaking, some in media are shot out of the business like free neutrons in a nuclear reaction. This is a good thing, in my opinion. We need “free radicals” hanging around without fealty to one team or another. (Pardon my bad physics metaphors, or at least don’t judge me on them.)
The superheroes I am about to highlight are my own opinion. None of what I think is worth a hill of beans or a pot of gumbo, and certainly not the opinion of the website or Erick Erickson, the proprietor, at least unless we happen to agree. I mean, a broken clock is still right twice a day.
Kevin Williamson is one such person. He’d been writing for National Review for years, and moved “up” (?) to The Atlantic, as one of the lone conservatives in a decidedly left-leaning publication. It was a great opportunity for The Atlantic to show it’s capable of making the tent big enough to contain more than a single viewpoint, and a showcase for the excellent composition, impeccable grammar, immeasurable vocabulary and earthy prose of Williamson.
The Sturm und Drang was so violent at the thought of this man writing for a left-leaning (not leftist, mind you) magazine you’d have been forgiven if you thought Jeffrey Goldberg had hired Dracula to write about blood drives. And true to his profile in courage, as an anti-Trump editor bold enough to stand up to, um, Trump among thousands of cheering anti-Trump fans, Goldberg fired Williamson.
Now Williamson is back at National Review, but more like a college graduate living with friendly relatives after that first post-graduation job didn’t work out, than a dyed-in-the-wool NR staffer.
Among former NR people who are now doing something else is the ever-thought provoking Jonah Goldberg, along with David French. Those two, joining with Steve Hayes and others, started The Dispatch. The financial model here is membership, sort-of like a subscription, but more a la carte, and with more side dishes (like live webcasts).
The Dispatch is not by any interpretation or reading of tea leaves pro-Trump, but also it’s not anti-Trump to the degree of being activist cheerleaders against him. In other words, they are not broken. Based on email updates I’ve received (I did join), they are doing pretty well–much better than their business plan pro-forma suggested. But I don’t believe they’re in it for the money. Oh yes, don’t get me wrong: I am sure Hayes, French and Goldberg don’t plan on starving for integrity’s sake, but they’re not doing it to make money (by hook or by wall-building crook) like Steve Bannon does with Breitbart.
A whole class of journalists and well-heeled shoe leather reporters have moved to the subscription model, using sites like Substack and Patreon to power their work. Some of them retain their day jobs (like Erick, who has an excellent daily subscription product, and if I were you I’d subscribe right now). Others have gone totally indie.
Two examples here are veteran reporter and editor Jay Caruso, who distributes a Monday column called “The Monday Notice,” and Matt Taibbi. Taibbi has journalism in his Red Sox tinted blood, being the son of a noted TV and Boston sports reporter Mike Taibbi.
The junior Taibbi was a senior reporter/editor at Rolling Stone, but has transitioned to a lonely life as a superhero, vilified by the left he, umm, left, and not quite accepted by the right. But Matt always does his homework, gets his story, and he always tells it straight.
Folks like this don’t clan up with the big media money farms. They aren’t selling themselves to Trumptastic versions of Pravda. They aren’t breaking on the razor sharp jagged rocks the president hurls from his Twitter mountaintop. And they’re not fully insane cheerleaders for Democrats like AOC and The Squad, who have crossed over from the right to the ever-greener lawn of the left, barely escaping the Trunami wave licking at their loafer heels.
Erickson, Williamson, French, Goldberg, Caruso, and Taibbi are not selling out for money. They are superheroes riding out the coming storm from the shelter they build with their own hands, using tools that seemingly came about just in time for them to use.
I’m not saying that everyone who stays at Fox News, or CNN, or MSNBC, or any of the major newspapers is hopelessly lost, subsumed under the puppetry-arts of their mirthless and money-hungry masters. But I do believe it’s increasingly hard for reporters who work among the Jacobins at the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post and others to maintain their journalistic integrity, their history, and their sanity while attempting to tell the whole truth.
When the options are to join the ranks of those driven insane by the siren song of Trump’s invective, or to be canceled by organizations that once worshiped your ability as the very incarnation of literary genius because you refuse to groupthink right, then reporters begin to weigh the cost to defect to a freeing, but less secure, life in the wild.
It’s a good thing this happened. It’s people like the ex-parrots of the major newspapers and media groups who will be the new superheroes when the dust clears and the zombified corpses of the dead media (killed by their own poison) wander through the burned out, mean and dusty streets.
I’m sure there are other superheroes out there (some of them toil away at sites like this one, like my colleagues here—believe me, Erick is correct that we don’t do it for the money). I’m also sure I missed some who I read regularly. I’m also certain there are some hacks and grifters who pose as superheroes too. May they be exposed as frauds. I don’t care which “side” or tribe or gang or political intersectional international movement the bought and broken reporters belong to. Broken journalists means broken journalism, and that harms America.
The true good journalism activists are ruthlessly honest with themselves and with the public. They don’t let sold out editors and big bosses spike important stories. They don’t let themselves be spoon fed talking points. They don’t call the same anonymous sources whose names float between newsrooms like medical waste on a Jersey beach to “confirm” “bombshell” stories. They don’t buy into the hyper partisan culture. They just report.
Some of them, like Salena Zito, operated in obscurity, honing methods that cracked the 2016 race into a meaningful message instead of the catastrophe or triumph the rest of the media was selling. (Buy Zito’s book to find out.) Zito’s solution to partisanship is simple: don’t vote in races she covers, and talk only to actual voters in places where they live and work.
In big media, there are some superheroes, and some of them are well known names who practice the same values shared by Zito. But it’s hard to be impactful as a talking head or panel leader. The producers at the news networks purposely pack these panels with either opposites to get sparks or stooges to get clips.
Tucker Carlson used to be a superhero. He still has the powers he honed building news sites like the Daily Caller. But he’s sunk into a prideful, prescriptive punditry, limiting his influence on actual reporting. Perhaps he and others like him at various networks will say “enough!” and put down their jousting lances.
The real superheroes are found not with expensive publicists, but in those who are willing to pledge themselves to factual, objective and well researched reporting. They are free from the chains of big media, and therefore you, dear reader, must find them and subscribe. Step outside your bubble and get informed. Don’t be a sheep to be shepherded by whatever agenda moves the money-powered political arms of big media.
The unbroken and unbought will rise again from a new place, and the sooner the better. They will save journalism, because God knows it must be saved.