EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.
Dear Reader (and I mean that no matter how large a crowd you’d form on the National Mall),
I’m on a plane flying to Seattle — at least I hope that’s where this plane is heading. Unfortunately, I seemed to have packed the working part of my brain in my checked luggage. When I told the TSA guy that I needed to get my rational homunculus out of my checked bag, he looked at his melting watch face and said, “There’s no time because time is an illusion,” and then suddenly sank into a pool of water lilies.
Suffice it to say, it’s a discomfiting way to begin a flight, never mind a “news”letter or colonoscopy.
Fortunately, this state of affairs seems to perfectly suit the state of affairs we’re all in (come to think of it, Bill Clinton would make a great governor of the State of Affairs, but that’s a subject for another time).
Whether you are ecstatic with the first week of the Trump presidency or whether you keep looking out the window to see if the rivers have turned to blood, or even if you’re some aging slattern ranting about “blowing up” the White House (I checked several times: Madonna did in fact say “up” — I was surprised, too), it seems everyone can agree the new normal is pretty different than the old one.
Like a sack full of six plastic eggs of glow-in-the-dark silly putty, a half-eaten tuna-fish sandwich, 42 standard-issue playing cards, a six pack of Jolt Cola, $1,000 dollars in gold bullion, a mint condition Tito Puente basement tape, a modified Speak-and-Spell that can broadcast to outer space, and the head of Alfredo Garcia, Trump’s first week was something of a mixed bag. Some of the executive orders were fantastic, some were good, and pretty much all were defensible given that he campaigned on them.
Hypocrisy Über Alles
I don’t have much time for the charge of Republican hypocrisy for supporting these executive actions. Charlie Cooke laid out the why in detail, but you can think of the argument this way: If Trump exceeds his authority and suspends habeas corpus, it will not be hypocritical for opponents of the move to celebrate the next president revoking that executive order.
Then again, if hypocrisy were helium we’d all have funny voices and some folks would just float away.
I agree with pretty much all of the right-wing criticism of the mainstream media these days, or at least the intelligent stuff, of which there has been plenty. What the MSM still fails to appreciate is the degree to which they’ve spent the last 40 years — at least — presenting news as unbiased and objective when it was in fact coated with, saturated in, and bent by all manner of confirmation biases, self-serving narratives, assumptions, and ideological priorities that leaned left. No, it wasn’t all “fake news” (man, am I exhausted by the ridiculous misuse of that term), at least not most of the time [insert outrage over Duranty’s Pulitzer, Janet Cooke’s and Steve Glass’s fabulations, and of course that time Dan Rather climbed the jackass tree only to hurl himself down, hitting every branch].
Journalists live in a social milieu where the borders between the Democratic party, liberal activism, and liberal experts are very, very fuzzy.
I would even go so far as to argue that most of the time liberal bias isn’t even deliberate. Maybe because I’ve been reading so much public-choice theory and psychology stuff of late, I tend to credit conspiracy theories less and groupthink more for the wayward state of the mainstream media (though Mark Hemingway makes a good point about Plowshares’ sub rosa complicity in pushing the Iran deal). Still, the more you get to know elite “objective” journalists, the more you can appreciate that they are trying to do it right. But it also becomes all the more obvious that they live in a social milieu where the borders between the Democratic party, liberal activism, and liberal experts are very, very fuzzy.
For instance, last week I wrote about that ridiculous article in the Washington Post accusing David Gelernter of being “anti-intellectual.” Much of the Post’s “reporting” hinged on a lengthy, catty quote from a member of the Union of Concern Scientists. As I noted, the Union of Concerned Scientists has always been a political operation. It’s a classic example of an outfit that liberal journalists invest with non-partisan authority so they can pass off partisan views as “science” or some other objective expertise.
In 1985, the editors of National Review wrote:
The Union of Concerned Scientists, except for the publicity it commands, can be dismissed. It has been a scandal for years — a letterhead with a few distinguished names acting as shills for a membership of left-wing laymen (anyone can be a Concerned Scientist, just by paying the membership fee).
Countless activists-in-experts-clothing organizations run on some variant of this model, from the Women’s Sports Foundation to the National Resources Defense Council.
Reporters routinely call experts they already agree with knowing that their “takes” will line up with what the reporter believes. Sometimes this is lazy or deadline-driven hackery. But more often, it’s not. And that shouldn’t surprise us. Smart liberal reporters are probably inclined to think that smart liberal experts are right when they say things the smart liberal reporters already agree with.
For these and similar reasons, liberal ideas and interpretations of the facts sail through while inconvenient facts and conservative interpretations send up ideological red flags. Think of editors like security guards at a military base. They tend to wave through the people they know and the folks with right ID badges. But when a stranger shows up, or if someone lacks the right credential, then the guards feel like they have to do their job. This is the basic modus operandi for places like Vox, which seek to explain not the facts or the news, but why liberals are right about the facts and the news.
For instance, The Atlantic, which I think is mostly a great magazine, recently ran a ridiculous article about abortion. The gist is that ultrasound technology has been used to “push” the false notion that fetuses are, you know, humans (apparently they’re Tonka Trucks).
The Atlantic had to issue a series of very embarrassing corrections to this very embarrassing article.
It is inconceivable to me that even if The Atlantic were willing to run a similar pro-life article, that it would have let anything like these errors through. The editorial guards would have brought out those giant dental-mirror things and studied the undercarriage of every sentence, for the simple reason that liberal journalists tend to discover their journalistic skepticism when they hear or see things that clash with their worldview, and they tend to leave their guard down when they hear or see stuff that confirms it.
And you know what, the same thing is true for conservative journalists, because it’s true of people (I’d offer the relevant quotes from Haidt or Daniel Kahneman, but my Kindle e-reader thing isn’t playing nice with the plane’s WiFi). The distinction is that there aren’t a great number of conservative journalists, certainly not in print, who don’t openly admit their biases to the reader. There are literally thousands of mainstream journalists, editors, and producers who insist that they are objective — and who actually believe it. And that leaves out the fact that liberalism is besotted with the idea that liberals aren’t ideological at all in the first place, which makes it even harder for them to recognize their ideological biases. And, then, when everyone they know, including all the right “experts,” are in a total bowel-stewing meltdown over the Trump presidency, it is very difficult for them to find perspective and balance. “Donald Trump puts salt on his French Fries just like Napoleon!”
So, I get why so many of my friends on the right are freaking out about the double standard being applied to Trump. It is an entirely legitimate complaint. But it is also incredibly insufficient and, at times, dangerous. Every day I see conservatives on Twitter and TV denouncing, say, the New York Times for calling Trump a liar because the Times didn’t say the same thing about Clinton or Obama. Fine! Great point. It’s a double standard. Who among us can contain our shock that the MSM is tougher on Republicans?
But it doesn’t mean it’s not true about Trump! The media’s double standard doesn’t absolve Trump of lying, does it? O.J. Simpson literally got away with murder. Is it unfair to other murderers if we don’t let them get away with it, too? Actually, I’m sure it would feel unfair to other murderers, but that’s not an argument for repealing laws against murder.
And that brings me to the danger here. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but our president has a persecution complex. He thinks any inconvenient but truthful coverage of him is an unfair criticism and any unfair criticism is a lie. What makes this complicated is that sometimes Trump is right. Some of the coverage has been ridiculous and desperate nonsense, as Mollie Hemingway ably chronicles. And some of the coverage has been merely accurate-but-hypocritical. Howard Kurtz ran through a list last night on Special Report. When Bill Clinton lied, it was called “misleading” or “less than candid” but when Trump lies, it’s a “Lie!” in the headline. (One can make the argument — as I have — that many of Trump’s lies are less offensive because he just glandularly blurts them out, while Bill Clinton lied like an artisan whittling a ballerina out of a block of wood, with loving, expert attention to every detail.)
Trump thinks any inconvenient but truthful coverage of him is an unfair criticism and any unfair criticism is a lie.
But you know what? When I say Trump is lying about something, I’m not guilty of any double standard. I called Bill Clinton and Barack Obama liars all the time. You know why? Because they lied all the time. And yet every day, if I criticize Trump about anything, the cultists scream at me some version of “Oh yeah! Why weren’t you this critical of Obama?” or “What about Bill Clinton!?” It’s like they don’t know who they’re talking to. If Trump plays Baron-and-the-Milkmaid with an intern, I will make a big deal out of it and so will the New York Times. Their hypocrisy will not apply to me.
When conservatives — I’m not referring to Republican political hacks, that’s their job; I’m referring to actual conservative writers — go out and respond to the negative coverage solely by attacking the MSM messengers, they are in effect condoning — or at least providing cover for — Trump’s behavior and feeding the idea that he’s a victim whenever anyone does anything other than applaud. Steve Bannon wants to demonize and delegitimize the mainstream media. Given his record at Breitbart, that’s some odd casting for Champion of Journalistic Integrity, but whatever. That’s his fight, and shame on the mainstream media for making his job so easy.
But what should conservatives do? Exactly what most of us have been doing.
I keep hearing from Trumpistas that I’m biased and that my criticisms of Trump can therefore be dismissed. Oddly, they never say that when I praise him, often in the same television appearance or column. Meanwhile I keep hearing from Trump critics on the left and right, that I — or National Review (and the Weekly Standard et al) — must join the liberal freakout over Trump, as if “Never Trump” meant disregarding a legitimate election (Hint: It didn’t).
I think that’s all nonsense. Indeed, I think this is something of a golden opportunity for quality conservative journalism. Based on what has transpired so far, much of the mainstream media can’t be trusted to respond proportionately or accurately to Trump. And, based on what has transpired so far, neither can big swaths of the entertainment wing of the right-wing media. They will, Pravda-like, announce that each new Trumpian wheat harvest has exceeded all expectations, for quite a while it seems.
But if you actually watch the news side of Fox News, or read National Review, the Weekly Standard, Commentary (not to mention the more responsible conservative websites: The Federalist, Hot Air, etc.), you’ll find that we tend not to be swept up in the hysteria of the Left or the Right. There’s a diversity of writers and opinions to be sure, but on the whole we have praised some of what Trump has done and criticized other things. Fox reports inconvenient facts for the Democrats and inconvenient facts for the Trump administration. It’s not always easy to draw the lines — again, mixed bags and all — but so far I’m proud of the way most of my colleagues and peers have handled all of this weirdness.
What I would hate to see, however, is conservatives getting seduced into arguing that the standards we championed under Democratic presidents weren’t really our standards after all. That’s my problem with the right-wing obsession with MSM hypocrisy. By itself, it’s correct but inadequate — because it basically amounts to anti-anti-Trumpism and nothing more. There’s been way, way too much of that already in the era of Trump — and we’re only a week into his presidency.
Various & Sundry
Canine Update: Well, let’s see. Pippa successfully pinned the Dingo last night (never before recorded on video). I suspect that Zoë let her, given how she pulls her punches with the Spaniel. Still, Pippa’s self-esteem needed the boost.
On the advice of readers, we gave both stinky dogs a vigorous tomato-juice bath. The result: a reduction by 90 percent in stygian stinkiness! Unfortunately, I wasn’t home to take pictures, and as the Fair Jessica somewhat acerbically pointed out to me when I said she should have, she couldn’t get it on video because if she had let go of the Dingo for even a moment, Zoë would have escaped the tub — and a tomato-juice-saturated Dingo is not something you want to get out of the containment area.
All right I gotta go. I hope to see some of you at the Roanoke Conference this weekend.
ICYMI . . .
My reaction to Donald Trump’s Inaugural Address last week, written after the G-File came out.
My first (of probably many) attempted Kremlinologies of the Trump White House.
Mel Gibson, Trump vs. the media, Oscar reactions, and more in the latest Ricochet GLoP podcast.
And now, the weird stuff.