William Barr and the “monolithic” news media

A few days ago, I noticed a New York Times article that concerned me a lot — “Barr Calls News Media ‘Monolithic In Viewpoint'”.

I was more than concerned, actually. I was…WHAT????????

Barr just pushed himself into my purview. Because my book, How I Learned The Facts of Life, directly contests his absurd statement.

Barr was speaking at the annual convention of the National Religious Broadcaster and was standing up there to say, “religious news publications and broadcasters were essential checks on a mainstream news media that has consolidated far too much power.”

Quickly, I’ll point out the nonsense in claiming that mainstream news media are ‘monolithic.’ They’re not. And Christian news media have to step up to offer…what? A non-monolithic point of view? Christianity is now catholic? To make a pun.

Boy, this is so obvious I am reluctant to type it but…There is nothing more monolithic than a monotheistic religious organization. But Barr managed to twist the argument out of rationality and into loonyness. Here’s what he said: “…an increasing number of journalists see themselves less as objective reporters of the facts and more as agents of change.”

That, Mr. Barr, is the opposite of the facts. If several major news media report on one story similarly, it isn’t because they’ve conspired to be “monolithic.” It’s because they’re reporting the facts of the story and facts tend to have a sameness, no matter where they are reported.

As I learned in a great high school political science course, where we learned how to read newspapers, each news medium might seem to display some attitude, but facts themselves do not.

It’s the strength of great news writing to thrill, move or anger us with stories well told. Yes, a journalist’s personal impressions of an event are conveyed by choice of words, but no matter how sympathetic or unsympathetic the language, the facts in those stories are just…facts.

What I’m finding additionally troublesome, though, is that the attacks on news media are coming from all sides. William Barr doesn’t like what he’s dishonorably determined is subjective reporting. And Jay Rosen, for one, who teaches journalism at NYU, strongly thinks the general news media reporting on Trump aren’t critical, i.e., subjective, enough.

Yesterday he tweeted an article by Dan Froomkin appearing in the journal Press Watch, which quoted extensively from Trump’s press conference, purportedly on the coronavirus. 

His striking point was that Trump’s statements were incoherent, irrational, abnormal. No one calling himself a president should be spewing such crazy garbage in a potential health crisis. Or at any time, actually.

Trump should not be anywhere near our daily awareness, he should not have any position at all in our lives. No question.

Froomkin and Rosen are absolutely right. If you didn’t listen to the conference (I’ve already said I can’t listen to Trump but I can read transcripts), take a look at some of Trump’s statements as Froomkin quoted them.

But the overarching point of Froomkin’s article is in the title: “Big media is covering up Trump’s terrifying incoherence in a time of emergency.”

And to that point I have objections (the minor one of which is that “media” are plural).

First, by televising and writing about Trump’s delivery, news media are doing the opposite of covering up Trump’s incoherence: they are laying it out, word for word, horrifying moment by moment so that we can see it and hear it for ourselves.

I can’t be the only news media consumer who sees Trump reportage as a constant reminder of his constant craziness. I can’t be the only news media consumer paying attention to this nightmare who does NOT find herself lulled into thinking, “Oh, OK, he’s doing it again, this is what passes for normal nowadays.”

Nor can I imagine non-Trump voters reading major media’s coverage of Trump and suddenly joining the cult.

I’m going to make a big sweeping claim here — the kind I loathe doing because I don’t have the numbers to prove it: I bet millions and millions of Americans wake up every day into the living nightmare that is Trump.

We have not relaxed. We do not think this is normal. We are not, cannot be lulled into passivity or acceptance.

Lately I’ve been thinking that all these terrific and terrifically intelligent people who are professionals at analyzing and criticizing Trump and the news are being pretty condescending to worry that we ordinary news consumers have become convinced everything is OK.

We haven’t.

But I’m also questioning what exactly Rosen and Froomkin, et many many others think that news media can do other than report on Trump. Sure, it’d be like a vacation from reality if newspapers ignored Trump, if he and his bizarre doings did not appear in my newspaper for, say, a week. Or, say, forever. I’d love it if Trump disappeared. And yes, if the major news media ignored him it would probably drive him crazy.

But how could the Times, Washington Post and other major newspapers do that? Their mandate is to report the news– no matter how repulsive it is; give us the facts — no matter how awful they make us feel; relate current events no matter how nauseated they make us. Indeed there are days I wonder whether reporters who cover Trump are getting supplemental hazard pay in addition to their salaries. I wonder if they’re offered group therapy sessions to deal with what must be a continuing traumatic situation for them. Can you imagine having as your assignment being around Trump 12 hours a day every day?

I’m not sure what Rosen, et al are tacitly suggesting in their outspoken criticism. Do they think the Times should become more like the Nation? That its online presence should take inspiration from the Intercept?

They are criticizing the Times for failing within an article on Trump to state openly what he lies about, when he’s obviously ignorant, when he’s incoherent. But I can’t see precisely how that would work. And as far as misstatements and lies go, I don’t see how a newspaper can — even as, say, a sidebar to its main article — review a Trump statement for falsehoods and stupidity immediately. The Times online will begin to report an incident perhaps 10 minutes after it occurs. How would a reporter — or an associate assigned to the single purpose of researching and labeling fact and fakery within a report — do it simultaneously with publishing the article itself, beyond what the Times reporters already do by using phrases like “claimed without evidence.”

The Times, for one, does do regular fact-check columns on a lot of political speechmaking and certainly has columnists who regularly tear into Trumpspeak. Beyond that, though, I don’t think it’s a newspaper’s job to be openly critical and subjective within a news article.

I read the Times to learn what important things have occurred around the world. I read the Times to get the facts.

After I’ve gotten the facts — and have personally reacted to them (see above, re not getting complacent about Trump nor failing to notice how insane it is that this creature is occupying the Oval Office) — I read the columns, I go into Twitter and read what people like Jay Rosen think about Trump’s statements, I look at online news media (one of which is Press Watch, on which I found the linked story), and I retweet loud critiques of how sucky it is to be living with this omnipresent human cancerous growth.

And then I come here to write stuff like how “sucky it is to be…” and calling Trump an “omnipresent human cancerous growth.” Et cetera.

I’m never complacent about the gift that is our First Amendment, the gift that allows me and Jay Rosen and Dan Froomkin to express our horror at Donald Trump and his destructive henchmen, embodied by William Barr. And I’m never complacent about how extraordinary the New York Times is for giving me the facts about them all.

Two realities that can nestle within one short paragraph.




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