Political Discourse: Social Media Has Made It Freer -- and Worse


Our political discourse in 2020 is in important ways more free, more diverse, and more robust than it was in 2004. It is also in important ways worse.


  lot of us were feeling pretty good about the future of the media in late September of 2004.

Dan Rather and the CBS news division had just tried to derail George W. Bush’s reelection campaign with some genuine fake news — based on fake documents — and, in spite of the manful attempts of Democratic-allied media outlets such as the Boston Globe, which worked overtime to create just enough of a reasonable-doubt defense for CBS’s bulls*** story to float on until Election Day, CBS eventually was forced to acknowledge what everybody knew: The story was a political hit disguised as journalism, a fraud executed with malice aforethought. Dan Rather was chiseled off the Mount Rushmore of broadcast news and became the witless conspiracy kook we all know and pity today.

CBS executive Jonathan Klein had sneered about his citizen-journalist critics: “You couldn’t have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of checks and balances at 60 Minutes and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas.” Oops. That remark lives on in the name of PJ Media, now a division of Salem Media Group. (Full disclosure/self-serving plug: Salem owns Regnery Publishing, which will be bringing out my Big White Ghetto in October.) The age of the citizen-journalist — the partisan citizen-journalist, inevitably — was at hand, though back then we were still calling them “bloggers,” and social media hadn’t quite been invented. (“The Facebook,” which had come online at Harvard in February of that year, was a very limited thing.) Still, we understood that we were at the dawn of something new and exciting.

We just didn’t know how much it would suck.

What came before wasn’t a golden age. Television news has pretty much always been crap, produced by crappy companies on a crappy commodity basis, in order to accumulate an audience to which various producers of crappy consumer goods could advertise their crappy products. (Plus ça change . . .) The best kind of television news consisted mostly of an avuncular figure reading (generally without credit) the first three paragraphs of the morning’s New York Times front-page stories and the afternoon’s Associated Press briefs to an audience of millions without much in the way of choice or alternatives.

The giants of 20th-century television “journalism” had much more in common with actors than they did with reporters, though some of them had been real reporters in their youth. Like Dan Rather, they had partisan bias problems, and, like Dan Rather, more than a few of them were bonkers. I met Walter Cronkite once in the 1990s, and he, being a crackpot, explained that George W. Bush, then governor of Texas and getting ready to run for president, was planning to overthrow the Constitution and impose a kind of Christian Taliban arrangement on the United States. (He got crazier as he got older, and at one point insisted that Karl Rove and Osama bin Laden were working together on President Bush’s behalf.) They were better when they were just reading the Times or the Wall Street Journal — when the big three networks actually got off their asses and did something enterprising, they frequently got into trouble or got it wildly wrong: Cronkite and the Tet Offensive, Dateline rigging that GM pickup truck to explode, 60 Minutes and Alar, etc.

Print journalism was (and is) generally better, though it had and has similar problems of its own. In an earlier era, because of the nature of pre-Internet news media, the bias and other problems at the big newspapers and the Associated Press were communicated throughout the entire news ecosystem. A daily newspaper in a conservative small city — e.g., my hometown Lubbock Avalanche-Journal — might not suffer from a great deal of left-leaning bias in its own reporting and editing, but such newspapers relied on the AP and other sources for most of their national news coverage and practically all of their international coverage. And so their pages were full of the same biases that infect the big papers in New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago. In some areas where it really mattered — most notably, coverage of Washington — newspapers around the country caught bias the same way you catch a cold. And this was a particularly urgent problem in an age in which the daily news agenda was set by a group of men small enough to all be seated together at lunch around a single table at the 21 Club.

Conservatives were, for obvious reasons, not very sad to see all that go, beginning with the long-awaited defenestration of Dan Rather in 2005. The conservative effort to build alternative institutions had enjoyed some success — National Review and Firing Line prominent among them — but rarely had been able to assert themselves very effectively beyond the role of critic and corrective, “restricted to What Precisely and If and Perhaps and But.” We modern American conservatives always have been too easily ensorcelled by populism and self-deludingly convinced that “the People” are really on our side, only they haven’t realized it yet. The merry dismemberment of the old media cartel and its replacement by an army of citizen-journalists and activists liberated from the parochial smallness of the Harvard-Georgetown-Manhattan circuit seemed, at the time, like an obvious and unadulterated win.

The view from 2020 is a little more complicated.

The flow of information and commentary in 2020 has been significantly, though by no means entirely, disintermediated compared to where things stood in 2004. We have many more competing institutions than we did in 2004: National Review has been joined by a number of newer right-leaning online media operations of varying degrees of quality and responsibility, the left-wing media ecosystem has seen a similar multiplication, and digital publications such as the Daily Beast and the Huffington Post have recreated in digital form many of the virtues and most of the defects of the 20th century’s newspapers and magazines. Thanks in no small part to Steve Jobs and the iPhone, the most important locus of news has moved from the desktop to the pocket, accompanied by more or less exactly the intellectual and emotional degradation one would expect from such a development. Thanks to the work of Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, et al., the proliferation of news sites has been swamped in turn by the almost completely disintermediated intellectual ecosystem of social media, a destructive antidiscourse almost completely dominated by disinformation, juvenile memery, and cultic phenomena such as QAnon and Black Lives Matter — part cult, part low-stakes activism, part role-playing game.

Our political discourse has, inevitably, adapted itself to the new disintermediated environment. And so we have, e.g., Ted Cruz of Princeton and Harvard trying his hand at sophomoric insult comedy and making soy-latte jokes on Twitter. Senator Cruz is a very intelligent man, maybe the smartest man in the Senate, and he isn’t doing this stuff thinking it doesn’t work. It does work. Politician-as-troll is not an obviously unpromising model: It made Donald J. Trump, a game-show host who spent half of his life in bankruptcy court after slamming his own testicles in the cash register more times than anybody can count, president of these United States. Disintermediation doesn’t mean that there are no gatekeepers — it means that instead of a Richard Salant or a Turner Catledge, the gatekeeper is the dumbest and most irresponsible slice of the general public in the form of a bunch of Twitter yahoos who think that algebra is racist or that Hillary Rodham Clinton is a reptilian shape-shifter. Lyndon Johnson worried that he had lost Walter Cronkite. Donald Trump has to worry about losing Twitter.

We traded the snobs for the mobs.

The upside of that trade is that it knocked down the gatekeepers a few pegs and subjected their biases and unspoken priors to more robust competition and critical evaluation. That is mostly to the good: As John Milton argued in Areopagitica, open exchange is the best available antidote for error. The downside of that trade is that those old gatekeepers had been a source of bias but also had been the main source of institutional responsibility and quality control in journalism, and no one in the new media environment is willing — or even able — to fill that role. The new disintermediated media did not replicate the virtues of the New York Times while liberating journalism from its biases; instead, newspapers such as the New York Times (especially its op-ed pages and its election coverage) have come to more closely resemble Twitter — irresponsible, tribal, and careless with the truth. Even the so-called fact-checking operations at Politifact and similar outlets regularly are engaged in outright intellectual dishonesty. This isn’t a technical problem or a market failure: It is a people problem. In a blind taste-test, nine out of ten American media consumers prefer bulls***.

Our political discourse in 2020 is in important ways more free, more diverse, and more robust than it was in 2004. It is also in important ways worse — less intelligent, less honest, less responsible — more full of it. We might have been better off with less but better total media output, meaning, necessarily, a conversation with fewer but better participants. The very suggestion rubs equality-minded Americans the wrong way, and enrages many of them, who will be heard from in the comments. We Americans believe very strongly in equality. But there are many kinds of equality: equality before the law, equality before God, equality of standing among different social or racial groups, etc. Those are matters of principle. But nobody who has ever logged into Twitter or attended a political rally can really believe in genuine equality as a matter of fact. Some people are morons. Some people are liars. We may be equal as a matter of law and as a matter of political standing, but it plainly is not the case that every citizen is equally wise or responsible, or that every voice contributes something of equal value to the national conversation.

American populism — in both its left-wing and right-wing expressions — is predicated on a belief that we suffer from insufficient equality, that We the People are being held back and frustrated by Them the Elites. But we suffer at least as much — in fact, much more — from insufficient hierarchy. We do not have the time or the ability to figure out everything for ourselves, but where do we go for authoritative answers when presidents, senators, and New York Times columnists increasingly are indistinguishable from Twitter trolls, when the most ridiculous and indefensible conspiracy theories are taken as articles of faith on both sides of the aisle, when the academic establishment is held hostage by its own cowardice and incompetence, when “fact-checkers” lie and expertise is perverted for political ends?

I do not know what the answer to that is, but I am pretty sure it is not amplifying the dumbest, angriest, and most dishonest voices in the conversation.

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