Whether your friends are progressive, conservative, or anywhere in between, I bet they hate “the media.”
In the last week alone, I’ve had lefty friends blame “the media” for ignoring protests at a pipeline in North Dakota, right-wing friends blame “the media” for ignoring the emails that WikiLeaks obtained from the Russian despotic regime, and everyone blame “the media” for supposedly giving Donald Trump too much press — as if the spectacle of a white supremacist, serial liar, birther, know-nothing, sexual assaulter and tax dodger who has a shot at leading the free world is not, somehow, the central story of our times.
And then there’s Israel. For right-wing pro-Israel folks, The New York Times is practically an agent of Hamas; for lefties, it spouts Zionist propaganda. CNN either shows too many bombs dropping on Gaza, or not enough of the daily grind of occupation. Thank heavens for more objective sources, like Electronic Intifada, World Net Daily and email alerts from ideologues.
This needs to stop. It’s lazy, it’s false, it degrades our public discourse and it is seriously eroding our democracy. And if that weren’t enough, its anti-elitist bias contributes to anti-Semitism.
First, there is no “media.” I’m in “the media” — I write for the Forward and the Daily Beast, and I occasionally appear on television. But “the media” also includes Fox News, MSNBC and organizations large and small from across the political spectrum. Are we all in collusion together?
There isn’t even any such thing as the “Mainstream Media” (MSM in left-wing and right-wing speak; “lamestream” according to Sarah Palin). Fox News is mainstream. So are the major networks. And while there are built-in biases toward the kinds of stories people want to read or watch, whatever ideological biases exist are clearly balanced out by folks of competing ideological persuasions.
Second, blaming “the media” blames the wrong people. If your gripe is that “we aren’t talking about” issues like mass incarceration, police violence, climate change, fracking, the wealth gap, or the influence of big money on politics, then the people you should be attacking are Republicans, who believe that climate change is a myth, fracking is safe and inequality is an inevitable part of a free economic system.
And conversely, if you’re annoyed that “we aren’t talking about” Bill Clinton’s sex scandals, Palestinian anti-Israel educational materials, or the pernicious effect of environmental regulations on family farms, then blame Democrats and other liberals, who don’t agree that these issues are as crucial as you think they are.
If you want to know why “we” haven’t done anything about gun violence in America, the blame doesn’t lie with the media; it’s with Republicans who deny that gun control will do any good. Or, if you prefer, with Democrats who are so maniacally focused on gun control and mass shootings that they misattribute where gun violence is really overwhelmingly taking place (namely, in individual acts of violence, suicide and accidents). “We” strongly disagree about how to address this particular crisis, and if you want to change that, you ought to engage with the people on the other side of the issue, rather than alleging some sort of media collusion or conspiracy in not elevating your point of view.
At least notice that for everything “we” should be talking about, there is another “we” that disagrees with your take. Don’t blame “the media” for not being a left-wing or right-wing advocacy group.
This isn’t to say that advocacy journalism isn’t important (I do a ton of it) or that media outlets don’t often chase stories that are, in fact, distractions from more important topics. It’s just to deny that “the media” is some kind of big, biased monolith that toes a particular line.
Which is the biggest problem with the “blame the media” claim: It’s a lazy, disempowering, corrosive conspiracy theory that stokes rage and reduces the space for rational discourse.
Trump supporters saying that the media is biased toward Hillary Clinton are no different from Bernie Sanders supporters who said the same thing; they’re alleging a conspiracy, undermining the processes of journalism that distinguish careful, edited reporting from mere blogging and bloviating. (Indeed, one could easily argue that many mainstream media outlets are biased against Clinton, perpetuating the total non-scandals of Benghazi and the email server long after Clinton had been cleared by exhaustive investigations of them.)
This kind of conspiracy-mongering, wherever it comes from, is tearing not only at the “fourth estate” but also at our civil society in general, at precisely the moment when we ought to be reaffirming the values of civic engagement, fact-checking and responsible speech.
This, after all, is an election that has already been contested by one of the two major candidates — an extremely dangerous threat to our democracy that will likely lead to violence (on a small scale, one hopes) on the part of Trump’s most unhinged supporters. We have had a president called a liar during his State of the Union speech, a Supreme Court nominee stalled for purely ideological reasons, and a horrifying display of misogyny, racism and violence. For responsible people to contribute in any way to this erosion of our civic society is itself irresponsible.
This moment is also typified, of course, by an unprecedented eruption of anti-Semitism. And anti-elitist conspiracy theories feed into anti-Semitic logic. The notions that the world is controlled by some shadowy elite that manipulates world media, and that you cannot trust the overwhelming consensus surrounding basic facts of history (9/11, President Barack Obama’s religion, Clinton’s patriotism) — it is a very short leap from such conspiratorial ideas to the group that has long been associated with them: the Jews.
Of course, this is not to say that everyone who blames “the media” is anti-Semitic. But I do claim that anyone who blames “the media” is contributing to the resurgence of anti-Semitism by promoting conspiratorial thinking and undermining the basic trustworthiness of our society’s central institutions.
In theory, you can be a conspiracy-monger and not an anti-Semite. But there’s a reason 9/11 Truthers blame Israel, the fringe of Occupy blamed Jewish bankers, and Trump’s supporters blame not only the vague “international banks” of which their candidate speaks, but also the Jews in particular. Whenever you slide down the slippery slope of conspiratorial paranoia, anti-Semitism waits for you at the bottom.
So, disagree with individual columnists, reporters and news outlets. Raise the profile of issues you care about. Challenge complacency and consensus. But if you’re going to blame “the media,” you might as well blame the Jews.
Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward. Follow him on Twitter, @JayMichaelson