Photo credit: Zendograph / Shutterstock.com
Members of the Washington press corps like to tell a story about the heroes of the Washington press corps “holding power to account.” This seems noble, and it can be, but more often than not, it’s not noble.
In practice, what “holding power to account” means is countering the dominance over the national discourse of the party in power with the values and views of the party out of power. When Donald Trump was president, the press corps elevated liberal voices, especially in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Now that Joe Biden is president, the press corps is elevating conservative voices. So far, not so bad.
The Trump years should have shown beyond a doubt to people claiming to hold themselves to the highest standards what those standards should be. They are not fairness, balance, and professionalism. They are morality and democracy.
Things get more complicated, though. The Democrats more or less stick to an appreciable and verifiable standard of truth and falsehood. The Republicans do no such thing. When the press corps elevated liberals voices during the Trump administration, it was elevating facts and reason, more or less. (I’m trying to avoid making Democrats and liberals seem pure of heart.) During the Biden administration, however, the press corps is elevating distortions, misrepresentations, and outright lies. That might be “balance,” but it’s a warped balance.
There’s another level of complication. The Democrats have their own media to advance the party’s preferred viewpoints, but nothing like what the Republicans have. The right-wing media apparatus is global in scale. It is also breathtakingly profitable, as it tells people who don’t want to know about the complexity of shared problems that they don’t need to know about the complexity of shared problems. It tells them all they need to know is “those people” are causing all the problems.
So when the press corps elevates liberal voices, it is elevating them more or less on its own (with some assistance from MSNBC). When the press corps elevates conservatives voices, however, the impact is different by orders of magnitude, because it is not elevating them on its own. It is elevating them along with Fox and Fox’s competitors as well as the Wall Street Journal (mostly its opinion pages) and a galaxy of right-wing print and digital media always already pushing the party line. And that’s not even mentioning the influence of Facebook!
Yet another level. The press corps is already disposed to defending the status quo as the very obscenely rich—which is to say, the people who own the lucrative news media—are disposed to defending a status quo that has made and continues to make them very obscenely rich. When the press corps elevates liberal voices, it is usually done in a half-hearted way, so as to avoid empowering too much the liberal voices who want to take power away from the very obscenely rich.
There are occasions, however, when the press corps must go farther than it would normally go, as when a candidate for president colludes with a foreign power to sabotage a Democratic rival, or as when a sitting president conspires with seditionists and traitors to sack and loot the seat of government. In cases like these, the press corps is free to appear like it’s taking the side of liberals. The very obscenely rich who own the lucrative news media can’t afford to seem unpatriotic.
While the Washington press corps did a pretty good job, in my view, of holding the line of facts and reason during four years of chaos and propaganda, it was nevertheless working against its essential nature. Now that things have “returned to normal,” so has the press corps. The result has been a near-drowning out of the party in power. Even though a Democrat is president, we have not seen story after story explaining why a Democrat is president. Instead, most of what we now hear is views from the Right. Reform politics was briefly in the national spotlight during the Trump years. It now seems nearly or totally gone.
Reform will return to the fore eventually. Still, I’m disappointed. Journalism, when done right, should change a person. Journalism, when done during a time wherein a transparently fascist president ruled the country, should absolutely change a person. It should show beyond a doubt to people claiming to hold themselves to the highest standards what those standards should be. They are not fairness, balance, and professionalism. They are morality and democracy.
The press corps isn’t monolithic. But it is like any other organized human activity. Participants tend to gravitate toward generally and internally acceptable codes of conduct for the practical purpose of doing, in an organized fashion, what the group sets out to do.
That’s not the problem. The problem is when codes of conduct, which are disposed to defend the status quo, align with a political party seeking to eliminate attempts to reform the status quo—even if those attempts take party actors into the breach of sedition and treason.
And the problem is when that alignment gets so loud that attempts to reform the government so it is of, by, and for the people can’t be heard above the din. Not three days after the US House of Representatives passed a $1 trillion infrastructure package to rebuild the United States, the Associated Press, which is dead-center of the press corps, wrote about how Biden is in trouble after losses in Virginia though his party passed a $1 trillion infrastructure package to rebuild the United States.
Again, that’s disappointing. The press corps seems to have learned no lesson at all from the Trump years. Or it learned the wrong lesson.
John Stoehr is a visiting assistant professor of public policy and liberal studies at Wesleyan University, and editor and publisher of the Editorial Board. This article is a reprint that can be seen here.