No one in the news business wants to acknowledge this, but the media has become Sally Field in reverse: Much of the country hates you. I mean really, really hates you.
For the media, any problems with hostility from the 59% of Americans who say they don’t trust the media seem to begin and end with the present occupant of the White House. However, the media hatred that defines the Trump era came about the way that Ernest Hemingway famously described bankruptcy – gradually, then suddenly. Media bashing only works as a political strategy because it taps into decades of existing anger and frustration among voters who have long viewed the media as corrupt and incompetent.
And after last week, even Democrats might find it hard for the media to continue laboring under the delusion that dislike of the media is a Trumpian or partisan phenomenon. Even worse, prominent Democrats are warning that the party’s electoral prospects hinge on distancing itself from a media that is, well, unhinged.
First, there was the implosion of the Iowa caucus. That was followed by liberal pundits everywhere hitting the panic button upon realizing the field of Democratic presidential contenders is extraordinarily weak, after months of unearned boosterism for a doddering Joe Biden. Then there was failure of the impeachment, a risky political move that was more enthusiastically supported by MSNBC and CNN than actual Democratic leaders such as Nancy Pelosi. And as impeachment was inevitably cratering, Trump delivered a triumphal State of the Union address and hit his highest-ever approval ratings.
In response to all this, James Carville, who actually knows a thing or two about getting Democrats elected, gave an interview with Vox last week. To put this in terms the Ragin’ Cajun might appreciate, Carville’s comments on the media exploded onto the internet like four ferrets that had been stuffed into a shoebox:
I want to give you an example of the problem here. A few weeks ago Binyamin Appelbaum, an economics writer for the New York Times, posted a snarky tweet about how LSU cancelled classes for the National Championship game. And then he said, do the “Warren/Sanders free public college proposals include LSU, or would it only apply to actual schools?”
You know how [expletive] patronizing that is to people in the South or in the middle of the country? First, LSU has an unusually high graduation rate, but that’s not the point. It’s the [expletive] smugness. This is from a guy who lives in New York and serves on the Times editorial board and there’s not a single person he knows that doesn’t pat him on the back for that kind of tweet. He’s so [expletive] smart.
Appelbaum doesn’t speak for the Democratic party, but he does represent the urbanist mindset. We can’t win the Senate by looking down at people. The Democratic Party has to drive a narrative that doesn’t give off vapors that we’re smarter than everyone or culturally arrogant.
While Carville’s fury over media condescension is indeed righteous, Carville’s underlying message here is ultimately more revealing than he intended. It would be nice if his caveat — “Appelbaum doesn’t speak for the Democratic Party” — was true, but that hasn’t been the case for quite a while. Reporters and editors at the Times, along with the rest of the center-left major media, have long been skewing the political and cultural discussion far enough left so that Democrats can stay competitive in a country that’s often center-right on fundamental political and cultural questions.
The problem for Democrats with Heartland sensibilities such as James Carville is that the media are now galloping so far left that they aren’t in a position to help the party’s mainstream candidates. Lacking the credibility to advocate Democratic policies on the merits, they simply resort to gratuitously insulting ordinary wide swaths of America for no apparent reason.
So, what are the merits of the current Democratic Party’s proposals on higher education? From a political standpoint at least, James Carville, for one, doesn’t think there are any. “Here’s another stupid thing: Democrats talking about free college tuition or debt forgiveness. I’m not here to debate the idea. What I can tell you is that people all over this country worked their way through school, sent their kids to school, paid off student loans,” he told Vox. “They don’t want to hear this [expletive]. And you saw Warren confronted by an angry voter over this. It’s just not a winning message.”
There’s a larger dynamic here that sensible Democrats are clearly concerned about. Where the media and Democrats once had a symbiotic relationship, it’s now a negative feedback loop. For years, major outlets such as the Times sacrificed their credibility and slowly alienated their moderate and conservative readers by putting their thumb on the scales. Now much of the elite media expends way too much effort catering to an ideologically narrow audience that is at once unrepresentative of the country as a whole and fancies itself part of “the resistance.”
The result is media embraces and elevates far-left ideas, without bothering to debate them and test their appeal. Fringe ideas, such as the easily disproved notion that the Revolutionary War was fought to preserve slavery, are now injected into the bloodstream of the Democratic Party. The result is that the two institutions — the press and the party — are continually radicalizing each other, even as doing so runs the risk of alienating voters and readers neither institution can afford to lose.
The polling on free tuition and student loan forgiveness, for instance, is all over the place. Some polls are very bad and some have been much better, but there’s not much evidence the issue is a priority for voters. Even if you think these are winning issues for Democrats, the media can’t be bothered to offer even a modicum of critical scrutiny.
Bernie Sanders has long made student loan forgiveness central to his message – his stump speech in 2016 often included some version of this direct quote, “It makes no sense that students and their parents pay higher interest rates for college than they pay for car loans or housing mortgages.”
It makes no sense? Really? What does one thing have to do with the other?
Sanders got just over one-fourth of the vote in New Hampshire. Elizabeth Warren, another neighboring-state candidate who embraced many of Sanders’ giveaways, got less than 10%. So, it’s rank-and-file Democrats, not just James Carville, who realize they need to moderate their message. Even as Biden is collapsing, the strength of Pete Buttigieg in Iowa and New Hampshire, combined with the rise of Michael Bloomberg and Amy Klobuchar in the polls, suggests that the moderates are still fighting to take the reins of their party.
In the meantime, this week brought more examples of why the Fourth Estate has credibility problems. On Friday, Elizabeth Warren sent out an email to supporters saying she could no longer “count on the media to cover our campaign fairly” and provided a litany of complaints about coverage from specific outlets.
This complaint must have come as a surprise to the editorial board of The New York Times, on which Appelbaum sits, which co-endorsed Warren (and Klobuchar) for the Democratic presidential nomination. It’s one thing for Trump to attack the media – but if Warren and Trump both agree that media bashing is a winning political strategy, the media should probably admit they are alienating their own customers.