Of all the epithets Donald Trump has delivered over the last 24 months (“Mexican immigrant thieves and rapists,” “shithole countries,” the “Mueller Witch Hunt,” etc.), none has provoked greater outrage on the part of liberals than his characterization of the media as “enemies of the people”—the media themselves included. But just as Trump never characterized all immigrants from Mexico as rapists and thieves—he said only that such people account for a significant percentage of Mexican immigration, legal and illegal, to the United States—so, too, he did not aver that all journalists as a class, always and everywhere, are enemies of society, whether in this country or elsewhere. He has only alluded to the simple and obvious truth that the American mainstream media have spent nearly two years trying to reverse the results of a popular election in which American voters fairly elected a president by an electoral process that adhered to constitutionally specified rules, including the stipulation that the official and final vote should be taken in the Electoral College; an institution created by the Constitutional Convention of 1787 as necessary and proper to a country composed not just of individuals, nor of states, but of culturally distinct regions as well. Now, on the verge of another national election, they continue to do their damnedest to confound the vox populi as it spoke two years ago. If that isn’t the behavior of an enemy of the people, I can’t think what would be. John Brennan, otherwise minded, might even dare call it treason. This leaves two further questions still open, though. First: Have the American media (known before the advent of radio in the 1920’s as “the press”) historically been the people’s enemy? And second: If not, when did they become that?
Beside me as I write is a history of American journalism, Covering America, by Christopher B. Daly, now in a revised and expanded edition that brings the story down to the election of 2016. Professor Daly, a former journalist himself and for the past 20 years a professor at Boston University, divides this history into five periods. The first, from 1704 when the first successful American newspaper was founded until the 1830’s, is distinguished by what Daly calls “the politicization of the news” as the colonial editors who had begun as printers, pressured by their readers and advertisers, abandoned their early policy of cautious political neutrality in favor of partisanship and even polarization (“Whigs read Whig papers, Tories read Tory papers”) as they became a prominent presence within the new party system. In the second period, from the 1830’s through the end of the century, the news became commercialized, beginning with the penny press in the days when sales of the biggest daily papers numbered in the thousands and ending in the 1890’s, when the lavish modern journals produced by the industrial presses were read by more than a million readers each. At the start of the 20th century, as journalists were compelled (Daly says) “to find new ways to reconcile the culture of news with the business of news,” journalism became a “corporate-professional enterprise.” This development was augmented and updated by technological innovation (the wire service, the feature syndicate, and so on) that facilitated the formation of newspaper chains; all of this followed shortly by the advent of radio and television, which transformed “the press” into “the media.” Also during this period the creation of the “corporate-professional model” encouraged journalism to aspire to the status of a profession with a commitment to “objectivity”—the journalistic equivalent of scientific neutrality. It was not long before “economic logic” replaced the corporate form with huge business conglomerates, publicly traded, that caused the near extinction of independently owned news companies and led to the invention of “infotainment” and another innovation: the “advertorial,” described by Daly as part of the “rediscovery of the power of partisanship,” a strategy for reconciling spectacular profits with the professional’s “duty” to report the news accurately and fairly. The final stage in the development of American journalism (each stage replicated in due course by journalists around the world) is, of course, digitalization, which destroyed the previous business model based on scarcity, monopoly, and huge profits. “Thanks to digital technology,” Daly claims, “the lines between media have dissolved, the notion of monopoly has become nearly irrelevant, and a new competition for news now pits each against all” (my italics). He concludes in summary that “The long arc of journalism suggests that the practice of journalism—as distinct from the institutions of journalism—is alive, if not always as well as we might wish.” This statement may be true, or it may not be. So far as it relates to President Trump’s sweeping charge against the media today, however, it is entirely irrelevant.
Viewed from another perspective, Daly’s “long arc” traces the evolution of journalism from a highly diverse and dispersed institution existing and operating at the local level in response to the wishes and needs of localities and reflecting their interests, convictions, and beliefs, including conflicting ones within those localities, to national and international ones that, so far from reflecting local concerns and opinions, pull all communities and regions into their sphere of gravity with the lure of “infotainment” and by force of sheer economic power and the advantage it gives them in crushing their competitors while putting themselves in the presence of hundreds of millions of people. From the days of the yellow press down to the era of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the major news networks, the media have shown little interest in reflecting public opinion, whether at the local, regional, national, or international level. Instead, motivated by economic and political considerations, they have sought to shape it to a national and international standard that reflects the consensus of modern liberal democratic-industrial capitalism—that is, of the owners and operators of liberal-democratic capitalism. To this end they have deployed the resources of technology, corporatism, high finance, and what used to be called “high” politics—the politics of the ruling establishments—and they have done it very well. So well, indeed, that until quite recently the majority of their “consumers”—the “masses”—did not realize what was happening. Now, owing to the arrogant hubris of the Establishment and the Establishment media, and to the Internet, they see the situation all too clearly for the Establishment’s comfort and the security of its future.
Journalism, here, everywhere, and always, has never been “objective,” nor has its audience really wished it to be—nor, finally, is “objectivity” actually possible. Journalists have always written from rooted pre-assumptions, exaggerated the facts, and lied on behalf of their interests, point of view, and political affiliations, and they always will. What has happened between the relatively recent past and the present is that the media have become intellectually and politically monolithic, from the big-city newspaper taken by millions each day to the small-town broadsheet, the latter typically owned and edited and written by small-town people aping the opinions of their more prestigious and influential colleagues in New York, Washington, Boston, Chicago, Denver, and Los Angeles—or else republishing the AP wire and syndicated liberal columnists. Virtually all of them take for granted that there is no politically, intellectually, or morally acceptable alternative to their liberal opinions and convictions.
Before the 1960’s, most elements of the media—the press especially—recognized that they spoke for certain points of view, and against others; that their supporters were matched, more or less equally, by their detractors. (In this sense, William Buckley was ahead of his time when he wrote, in the late 1950’s or early 60’s, that liberals believe in the right of nonliberal opinions to be heard, though they are always surprised to learn that there are any.) In those long-ago days, the left recognized that its existence was logically and otherwise predicated upon the presence of a right to define and oppose it. That was because, up to that fatal decade, the educated class, though inclining to the liberal left, was still relatively diverse, philosophically, culturally, and politically. Today, it is so no longer. Moreover, journalism, which until the 1920’s or so had been viewed by cultivated people as a grubby trade practiced by unlettered ignoramuses and hacks, has over the last few decades become accepted as an honorable profession for the college and university graduates who today make up the new aristocracy that includes not just writers but also media showmen and celebrities. This aristocracy, which includes academics and is assumed to represent highbrow culture, brooks no dissent, especially when it comes from what it regards as “below”—uneducated persons who persist in clinging to “wrong” thought and “wrong” opinions.
The enemy of the people is not “the media” as such, but the almost monolithic cultural and political Establishment that owns or directs nearly all of its most powerful and influential organs, which from ideological zeal have made advocacy journalism, formally one of several branches of the journalistic trade, the dominant one. Donald Trump is correct in recognizing in the media the enemy of the American people in their great majority. But they are the secondary enemy, not the primary one; that is postmodern liberalism itself. “Journalists serve society best,” Professor Daly avers, when they are “independent—of political parties, of sponsors, of advertisers, even (sometimes) of [their] audience.” (Could he have in mind here people who watch FOX News?) He should have added to his list Marxist (liberal) ideology, and the ideologists who personify it.