There Is No Objective News Because There Is No Objective Truth
PART 2: What we believe to be "objective" is inherently subjective.
After watching the horrifying banality of Joe Biden’s inauguration, I finally understood why someone would think a cabal of Satanic pedophile elites is in cahoots to manipulate the public. Cable networks reached almost North Korea levels of supplicancy in echoing Democratic Party omerta. It was the unanimous consensus of cable news journos that Biden is a kind-hearted harbinger of unity who will usher in an era of unbridled progressive altruism. With a few years of hindsight and a complete disregard for how a renegade right-wing Supreme Court is rolling back social progress, there are slivers of truth to this assessment; Biden is certainly preferable to Trump, even if it’s in the same way a benign brain tumor is preferable to terminal rectal cancer.
The cloying and saccharine coverage of Joe Biden’s inauguration was manufacturing consent in real-time, and when stripped of its ornamental pomp, the backdrop was a hair-raising nightmare. The National Mall was surrounded by 25,000 National Guardsmen and a 12-foot steel barrier to fend off a potential sequel to the steak-headed Capitol Hall Putsch two weeks prior. A drooling, senile, octogenarian mummy was carted out to swear an oath and hopefully not wander off and accidentally grope Michelle Obama. There was no crowd because there was a rampaging pandemic killing about a 9/11’s worth of people a day. But the Beltway insiders assured everyone tuning in that this was an undeniable roaring triumph of American democracy.
Several years later, the legions of sycophants that surround the Brandon Administration—the Beltway crew of center-left media remoras and the blobs of soy who swarm far-flung Twitter threads to defend a president who is being talked about with insufficient deference—tend to fall back on how essential and irreplaceable Biden’s “New Deal” presidency is. While the Biden Administration has made some progress on monopoly busting and has presided over an increase in labor organizing, these comparisons scan as a dire category error. When political journos herald a $1 trillion infrastructure bill as a paradigm shift in macroeconomics, it is reductive to think of the New Deal as a series of stimulus packages, and this hyperfixation on a superficial similarity disregards the profound ways in which it transformed America’s social contract. If Joe Biden is a New Deal president because he wants to bolster domestic manufacturing, he is a New Deal president in the same way a TV is literally a refrigerator because they are both electronics.
For all their self-professed beliefs in facts and truth, many in the media have slipped into a deeply unattractive habit of substituting checklists on unquestioned assumptions for thought. In this blue bubble, Trump has become an anti-god of a faith that requires constant worship, and his limitless evil is an idea with such awesome gravitational pull that it makes nuanced discussion about almost anything impossible.
There was an identifiable rhythm to the Trump presidency, albeit one that was jittery, chaotic, and atonal. White House Press Conferences often created a queasy binary between non-questions and bloviating anti-answers, and Trump bumbled back and forth from bombastic improvisational tantrums to peevy spats. These journalistic cat fights Invited Controversy and Sparked Conversation without actually saying anything interesting or insightful or remotely revelatory. Reporters would try to get Trump to disavow or repudiate some blithely proffered conspiracy he plucked from the murky depths of Fox News fever swamps, then he would stand defiant in his damp ignorance, insisting he is both a master of the news and someone who is constantly being talked about. The series of drawn-out petty combats would puff up an already overinflated liberal sense of self-righteousness while any counter to MAGA truisms was interpreted as an existential threat to Western Civilization.
There is an acidic irony buried underneath the right’s endless fearmongering of a wildly metastatic Marxist postmodern scourge hellbent on destroying traditional American values. The Republican Party and its attendant media apparatus are incredibly savvy in their understanding of branding and how people make decisions: Truth is whatever affirms a person’s values and affectations.
Anything could be made debatable if a realistic enough narrative is stitched together with some relevant facts. It’s like the ice cream scene in Thank You For Smoking where Nick Taylor tells his son, “If you argue right, you are never wrong.” Conservative media has featured craven liars and loathsome hate-merchants spending decades serving fervid-but-vague conspiracies and goofy-vile beliefs mostly to keep viewers pliable and on the hook through the commercial breaks. Now it has curdled into a weirdly superior, gleefully expansive, relentlessly aggrieved incoherence. As a lifestyle, though, MAGA is pretty straightforward. It is a rejection not just of conventional wisdom but of consensus reality, done with relentless signifying intensity. Despite this, liberals are stuck in this fantasy cloud about fact-checking the problems of democracy away, that people cling to “bad” political beliefs because they’ve been force-fed targeted misinformation. Therefore, it is the duty of more responsible mediators of true and false to erect a Phil Spector Wall of Sound for facts.
This obsession with fact-checking stems from the idea of Objective Reporting, and in turn, Objective Truth. Objectivity has only existed as a journalistic standard since the 1920s, and that began as a gambit to broaden various newspapers’ readerships so they could successfully advertise to housewives. The idea of journalistic objectivity rests on the presumption that a news piece cannot be biased if its prose isn’t blatantly editorialized. Any piece of reporting runs through a series of subjective editorial decisions: How a headline is written, the angle of a piece, the sources interviewed, what facts and figures are presented, the reasons why those facts and figures are presented, and the conclusions drawn from them (RE: The New York Times coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict). I’m not dropping any particular truth bombs by stating that people make decisions based on conscious and unconscious biases. It is confounding to me why a profession as research and analytically intensive as journalism is expected to be somehow exempt from this reality.
In 2016, Jim Rutenberg wrote in the New York Times that “Trump is testing the norms of objectivity in journalism.” The context in which Trump was allowed to lie was facilitated by a media ecosystem that gave his ratings-bonanza spectacle nearly $2 billion in free coverage without any concern for our democracy or the targets of his sneering and racist rhetoric.
One reason why there’s such a widespread distrust of the press comes from mainstream outlets like the New York Times or Washington Post or CNN posturing as objective when they have a clear ideological slant designed to capture specific demographics for profit. However, their bias isn’t “liberal” as much as they reflect the elitist corporate centrism that has come to dominate the Democratic Party. To the extent that the media has a radical left slant, it mostly manifests through viscerally offputting culture war riffraff in this weird, hypereducated, postmodern Protestantism that rants about America’s Original Sin and bodies in spaces. There is an edifice of a rebel media alternative, like the “Intellectual Dark Web,” comprised of self-branded independent and idiosyncratic truth-tellers beholden to neither side who then reliably regurgitate all the opinions their viewers already hold. For all their flame-throwing and gurgling about how they defy the conventions and conformity of the establishment press, their commentary perfectly mirrors the ideology of Republican party leadership, suspenders-clad Wall Street conservatives, and professional racists. This shibboleth of free inquiry isn’t so much about seeking devastating truths as is it a greasy gambit designed to exploit the mutually parasitic equilibrium between the liberal media and its antagonists.
For decades, American news created a rage-filled, hyper-stimulating firehose that blasted piping-hot sensationalist bullshit 24 hours a day. Clickbait headlines, cartoonish alarmism, false equivalencies, scary criminals at home, menacing terrorists abroad — it all decimated attention spans and rewarded hot-takes. It created a generation of loony and vapid outrage addicts who can barely read past a paragraph. The average news consumer is credulous, manic, and glued to stories that appeal to their sense of superiority and victimhood. News execs like Rupert Murdoch, Les Moonves, and Jeff Zucker have done more to annihilate our shared reality than any Kremlin-backed troll farm could dream of. There’s only so much we can blame on Russia.
Americans have been spun and manipulated and propagandized in every way imaginable — in military-glorifying Hollywood films, in commercials, in NFL halftime shows, and in the selling of presidencies as brands. The development of neoliberalism coincided with ceaseless campaigns to distort discourse and information, caused by industries built on targeted messaging and massaging public opinion. When Walter Lippman published his most famous work, Public Opinion, in 1922, he examined the inherent limitations of democracy and the ways in which subjective perception can be manipulated to nefarious ends. When Edward Bernays wrote Crystallizing Public Opinion, he subtly inverted some of Lipmann’s critiques, arguing that public relations must combat the masses’ susceptibility toward tyranny by entrusting a great deal of civic-didactic power to the thought leaders of a white-collar class, who would, of course, shoulder the psychic burden of gently coaxing or kindly suggesting prescriptions aimed at advancing what they understand to be the public’s best interest. Propaganda is ubiquitous in news and in public relations, and both are narrative-shaping campaigns driven far more by deceptive aspirational branding than by overt falsehood.
When the Washington Post responded to Trump’s election by unveiling its grandiose mantra, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” it was as much a tagline as it was a journalistic ambition. There wasn’t much distance, in broadcast time or pure blank weirdness, in Trump comically rocking the establishment psyche and the mainstream media’s stilted recitation of their commitment to rigorous journalism and their self-appointed role as democracy’s watchdog. Within a culture that’s addicted to spectacle and inured to dishonesty, the most well-known brands are immune to fundamental transformation, and the dictates of good branding are antithetical to the dictates of good journalism, let alone trustworthy political analysis.
These media companies are selective and self-serving and elephantine in how they go about maintaining their image, but it is always singular. Every mania of our broader moment, from those grandiose delusions to the million points of cheesy graft, is reflected in their exercise of discipline and repetition, their pundits and commentators and political and cultural writers know exactly where their analysis is headed all the time—which is essentially a concentric field of familiar gripes and grievances and the same circular arguments. When it comes to honking overdetermined proxies for The Truth, it was inevitable that legacy media would come into conflict with social media, and countless journos were doubled and partitioned into their Brand Selves versus their real selves. So there is diligent analysis and there is performative reaction, and at the baroque phase on what appears to be the back end of digitized entropy, we can see a funhouse distortion of what should and shouldn’t be trusted. Which opinions are real and which are for show? What doesn’t get said or should, because it’s off-brand?
The sudden glut of ultra-shitty takes and tired culture war arguments poses an obvious and inescapable challenge to the solemn covenant-pageantry of the mainstream media; it’s hard to civically sanctify an inherently corny and cynical product. Their roles of truth-telling rest on a tacit commitment to following one’s research wherever it leads, and trusted analysts have to be willing to be changed by what they discover. For a trusted brand, the duty is the opposite: to keep embodying your brand identity—your “promise”—no matter what the world throws at you. As the internet has centralized on Twitter and Facebookstagram, these social media ecosystems have become massive online fandoms to current events—filled up with screengrabs of tweets from AOC or Donald Trump or some other blue-check influencer who purports to dish out Epic Owns and Hard Truths, driven by fluctuating levels of irony and literality, something that distorts the idea of an Objective Truth by being confusingly tautological. Politics has fused with culture to become a lifestyle brand of signifiers and brand campaigns and ideological conflict, creating an information-as-consumption news diet that has individually curated our realities and conception of objectivity. As Sam Kriss has noted, “People want to read one of two things: simple, clear, informative writing that contains facts they already know, or simple, clear, polemical writing that expresses opinions they already hold.”
The ouroboros of 24/7 news and social media has trapped us all in a decaying nightmare Skinner box. We are plugged in and unconsciously manipulated by a cacophony of chattering mouths, all barking at the same time, overlapping idiocies at a pitch and modulation that endlessly deform our brains into a gush of goo as our intracranial fluid leaks down our necks.
People want to consume cherry-picked facts to reassure themselves that they already have a good grasp on things and that the world doesn’t contain any potentially frightening secrets. They want to read opinions they already hold because while they keep frothing about them, they have no actual grounds for those opinions, so they need constant reinforcement to keep their opinions in place, or else what’s left of their brains will just dribble onto the floor and wobble down the path of least resistance until they reach the sea. A lot of people sincerely believe they support objective truth and a free exchange of ideas. But what they really crave is watching grass-eating mental ungulates skewer whatever they don’t care to understand, so they can swiftly dismiss people and beliefs before the bad ideas contaminate what they hold dear. The degradation of truth is so pronounced that billions of frenzied news junkies get their information from tweets talking about tweets talking about an article that they didn’t bother to read. Facts and analyses and reporting are convenient tools, a political nailgun. What we consider to be objective truth is a stalking horse for our ordinary opinions.