The press is flawed, and people should say so. We in the fourth estate serve a vital role investigating the state and other institutions, and we must be subject to scrutiny in turn.
By this I don't mean the president's "enemy of the people" slander, his ugly musings about violence against journalists, or the institutional strictures on press freedom he would like to enact. Thoughtful media criticism can steer well clear of this territory.
But admonition of the media from other public figures, politicians included, isn't inherently valuable regardless of quality . When it's as shallow as some of the lectures coming from 2020 Democrats, it isn't valuable at all.
Take the argument of Symone Sanders, representing former Vice President Joe Biden's campaign, who claimed on CNN that only the media cares about her candidate's gaffes. "I want to be very clear — this is a press narrative, not a voter narrative," she claimed of coverage of Biden's "poor kids" comment. Journalists should "elevate the conversation" by ignoring this sort of thing, Sanders added, because "we cannot allow this election to devolve in a tit for tat over name-calling and 'gaffes,' something that does not matter. This is not something that's registering with the American people."
She's right, of course, that many gaffes don't matter. (Whether "poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids" belongs in that dismissible category is rather less obvious given Biden's record on race and criminal justice.) But she's dead wrong that the American people don't care.
Seriously, spare us the pretense that no one wants to hear about gaffes. We love gaffes. We are not better than this! Literally everyone but the gaffe-maker's supporters enjoys hearing about a gaffe. As we slog through another long and tedious election, it's only normal to seize the relief any moment of levity can offer, and gaffes are often good for levity, if only the astringent laugh of schadenfreude. The media doesn't highlight them because we have a unique fixation the public doesn't share. We highlight them because they actually are a "voter narrative." Maybe they shouldn't be — maybe we should all be far more high-minded and only engage with statements that raise real concerns about policy or character — but that's an argument more about human nature than the attention of the press.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was likewise misleading when he suggested at a town hall in New Hampshire on Monday that The Washington Post's coverage of him is negatively influenced by its owner, Amazon's Jeff Bezos, because of Sanders' argument that Amazon should pay more taxes. "See, I talk about that all of the time," Sanders said. "And then I wonder why The Washington Post — which is owned by Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon — doesn't write particularly good articles about me. I don't know why. But I guess maybe there's a connection."
When the senator walked back his remarks Tuesday, acknowledging Bezos isn't "on the phone, telling the editor of The Washington Post what to do," he went on to offer a more cogent critique. Major media outlets operate on "a framework," Sanders said, which doesn't lead reporters to ask him about his policy solutions for issues like income inequality and homelessness.
There he hit upon one of three aspects of how the media functions in America which together account for most, if not all, of the candidates' legitimate frustrations with the press. The attribute Sanders identified is a predilection for the status quo. This is less about ideology than efficiency: Journalists are almost always on deadline. When a reporter needs to finish a story quickly, turning to known sources helps — and status quo sources are by nature likelier to be familiar and accessible than anti-establishment voices.
Should journalists deliberately seek out a wider range of views and topics to include in their work? Yes — and that's why, as news consumers, we should express a preference for a more measured news cycle and in-depth reporting — but it's easy to understand why that doesn't always happen, and why it isn't a wilfull attempt to suppress heterodox perspectives.
The second aspect is that the press is primarily a business, giving its customers, the public, what they want (or are perceived to want). We touched on this already regarding gaffes: People want to hear about them. People also generally want to hear about things that are exciting or shocking; "if it bleeds, it leads," as the saying goes. More accurately, if it's interesting enough to make you listen or click or buy the magazine, it's more likely to get published. That's not the only consideration in the calculation of what is newsworthy, but it is one of them. The press needs to make money to exist, so if sensationalism is profitable, the recourse is to stop clicking and buying sensational content.
Lastly, any examination of the media should include a reconsideration of objectivity norms, which are too frequently misunderstood and an impediment to clear communication of the facts. As it stands, many news consumers have a sense that the press always should be objective — as in, sharing the pure, unfiltered truth without any addition of personal opinion. This can create a dangerous confusion when it means opinion content is mistaken for straight reporting or interpreted as an illicit attempt to package bias as fact.
Yet even without such confusion, the expectation of objectivity is damaging to our discourse. Journalists are people, not cameras. We cannot produce a perfect representation of reality, no matter how earnestly we try. Even the choice of what stories to cover is the product of a sort of bias, as in choosing one story we inevitably neglect another. This too is often not about ideology, nor is it the result of an intent to deceive. It's just that reporters have opinions and also a limited number of hours in the day.
So why act otherwise? The Washington Examiner's Tim Carney has defined a columnist as "a reporter who doesn't pretend to have no opinions." But shouldn't all reporters reject that pretense?
That's the use in naming our biases instead of suppressing them. Telling our audience what we think makes it easier for readers to sort fact from opinion. This suggestion is not the be-all and end-all of press criticism, but unlike whining about gaffes, it is a productive place to start.