Bowman: the news has become a stream of ironies

Summary: RussiaGate has shown the major news media to be another American institution in rapid decay. Here James Bowman shows how the news now is best seen as journalists self-parody or inadvertent irony. We must look for other sources of information and analysis.

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Excerpt from “Irony of Ironies

By James Bowman at his website, 11 June 2019.

… It may be centuries before the radioactive intellectual desert that is today’s media will once again become hospitable to the growth of irony, or the self-awareness on which irony feeds.

You can tell as much from the media’s response to the Mueller report’s conclusion that, contrary to what they have been reporting with ever growing confidence for the past two years – confidence, that is, that theirtruth was the truth: that President Trump did not, after all, collude with Russia to steal the 2016 election from their preferred candidate, Hillary Clinton. Anyone who has been paying attention could have predicted that the media’s new breed of propagandists would be unfazed by such a balk. Their self-importance is now such that they are simply incapable of imagining that they could be wrong about anything in which they have invested so much of their time, energy and credibility as the Trump-Russia narrative.

Such self-certainty must also be what gives them, in their own view, a sort of divine right to be seen by others just as they see themselves, rather like Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota who, according to the New York Post, has asked God to forgive the president for mocking her – as if it could only have been by inadvertency that the Almighty neglected to include among the Ten Commandments the one forbidding any mockery of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn). Perhaps it was meant to go in place of the one about bearing false witness. The media regularly speak or write of Mr Trump’s criticisms of themselves as a threat to their constitutionally-guaranteed freedom, which they must therefore suppose includes freedom from criticism. Those who dare to criticize them are presumably wrong by definition and can be automatically disregarded, and even expelled from decent society, since it is not possible for the media’s idea of themselves as noble crusaders for the unbiased Truth to be mistaken.

Self-parody in such a case is inevitable. The top example, in my view, came (as it so often does), from The New York Times whose edition of March 26th ran an article by Astead W. Herndon and Richard Fausset whose headline read: “Disappointed Fans of Mueller Rethink the Pedestal They Built for Him.” In other words, Mr Mueller must have blundered, somehow, since it was obviously impossible that The New York Times and other “fans” of the Special Counsel could have done so. Someone on Twitter said that the headline sounded as if it had come from The Onion, but it’s actually funnier than the one that The Onion came up with on the same day: “Liberal Feels Like Idiot For Placing Entirety Of Hopes On Mueller Probe Instead Of New York Prosecutors’ Investigation” – or even the one from the previous day: “Man Who Spent Last 2 Years Drawing Pictures Of Trump And Putin Making Out Beginning To Realize Just How Wrong He’s Been.”

It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that, at The Onion, they find that funny because they think he’s not wrong – any more than they are – since the would-be parodists, in this case, are also self-parodists.

In this connection, see also the Times’s gripping post-Mueller podcast of “The Argument” (not an Argument, mind you, but the Argument) featuring three anti-Trumpers (Ross Douthat, Michele Goldberg and David Leonhardt) discussing “Who Botched the Mueller Report?” – “And Should We Abolish the Electoral College?” I somehow managed to skip it. Or what about the same paper’s report on the following day of how the “Mueller Report Exceeds 300 Pages, Raising Questions About Four-Page Summary.” That was also a popular talking point among congressional Democrats like Adam Schiff and Jerrold Nadler who clung with particular ferocity to the hope that, if the report’s bottom line was that there was no collusion, there might nevertheless be tucked away in some corner of its 300-plus pages a slender reed of evidence on which Collusion Mark II could be founded. In the old days, that would have been obviously comic self-delusion on their part, but neither Mr Schiff nor Mr Nadler looks like a man who feels in any danger of being laughed at.

And, indeed, the laughter must die on our lips, too, when we realize that, on the release of the full report, some such pretext for nullifying its conclusion is not just likely but absolutely certain to be found by those who are determined to find one, as these men and many of their supporters are – and that there will be few of the people they care about who are prepared to fault them for it, let alone laugh at them. After a couple of weeks of such shenanigans, I finally realized what the media’s desperate will to believe in Mr Mueller as vanquisher of the hated Trump reminded me of, which was a particularly virulent form of unrequited adolescent love – love that is more like worship than love, love that is blind, unthinking and undiscourageable, love that remains undiminished when all hope is gone and hope that is inextinguishable no matter how often disappointed.

Suicide of Young Werther
Suicide of Young Werther.

There is nothing more ridiculous to those who do not feel it themselves, than such puppy love; there is nothing more serious or more momentous for those who do feel it, which is why it can lead, in extreme cases, to suicide. Like the many followers of Goethe’s young Werther two hundred years ago, such lovers can only still the laughter of maturity at them and claim a share in reality for their phantasm of love by killing themselves. That will show them! And some similar thought must be what lies behind the intellectual suicide of the Trump-era media, for which I can think of no other explanation. As so often in the last two and a half years, it is instructive to go back to the original suicide note, written by Jim Rutenberg and published in The New York Times on August 8, 2016 …

“If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him? Because if you believe all of those things, you have to throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half-century, if not longer, and approach it in a way you’ve never approached anything in your career.”

Again like the teenage lover, he cites the world-shaking importance of what he feels as too great to be judged by the ordinary rules of sober adult conduct. Dare you doubt it? He’s prepared to destroy his own and his paper’s reputation to prove it to you. Little wonder, then, that neither can admit to error, or even to recognize that error is possible for him.

Not that there weren’t some honest journalists who recognized the disaster to the media that the Mueller report represented. But for the most part they missed the bigger, more revealing story of how the media themselves remained oblivious to the fact. Sean Davis of “The Federalist,” writing in The Wall Street Journal editorial pages, of “A Catastrophic Media Failure” saw that “it wasn’t merely an error here or there” …

Cover of Time magazine, 18 May 2017
Cover of Time magazine, 18 May 2017.

“America’s blue-chip journalists botched the entire story, from its birth during the presidential campaign to its final breath Sunday – and they never stopped congratulating themselves for it. Last year the New York Times and Washington Post shared a Pulitzer Prize ‘for deeply sourced, relentlessly reported coverage in the public interest that dramatically furthered the nation’s understanding of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and its connections to the Trump campaign, the President-elect’s transition team and his eventual administration.’

“A 2017 Time magazine cover depicted the White House getting a ‘makeover’ to transform it into the Kremlin. All based on a theory – that the president of the United States was a Russian asset – produced by a retired foreign spy whose work was funded by the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign.”

Who us? We wuz just reporting the facts. That’s what some of them had the chutzpah to tell Amy Chozick when the after-tremors of their catastrophic failure were felt even in the newsroom of the New York Times. Ms Chozick had to acknowledge that some people – even some who were not in the White House or the right-wing media – thought there had been some media malfeasance, but she did so only in the context of a defense by supremely self-assured media blue-bloods of their own righteous and entirely justified behavior in the whole Collusion-gate saga.

“Jeff Zucker, president of CNN, said he was ‘entirely comfortable’ with the network’s coverage. ‘We are not investigators. We are journalists, and our role is to report the facts as we know them, which is exactly what we did,’ Mr. Zucker said in an email. ‘A sitting president’s own Justice Department investigated his campaign for collusion with a hostile nation. That’s not enormous because the media says so. That’s enormous because it’s unprecedented.’

“Bill Grueskin, a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism, said there seemed to be some confusion about the role of journalists. ‘Mueller and Barr need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt – do we file charges or don’t we?’ he said. ‘Journalists don’t have that standard.’ In other words, Pulitzer Prize-winning reports of alleged wrongdoing do not need to provide evidence of criminality in order to be factual, newsworthy and relevant to readers.

“Martin Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post, said ‘The special counsel investigation documented, as we reported, extensive Russian interference in the 2016 election and widespread deceit on the part of certain advisers to the president about Russian contacts and other matters. …Our job is to bring facts to light. Others make determinations about prosecutable criminal offenses.’

“Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The Times, echoed that sentiment. ‘We wrote a lot about Russia, and I have no regrets,’ he said. ‘It’s not our job to determine whether or not there was illegality.'”

The laugh-factor at such disingenuousness would be very high indeed in a cultural environment with any remaining tether to reality, and it is one measure of their own detachment from reality that the media are unembarrassed to print such drivel at all, let alone as a supposedly credible “defense” of their own behavior. Here was what Lee Smith of Tablet called “an extinction-level event” for the media, and there they were mouthing the same old platitudes about their factual and disinterested reporting while pretending that the presumption of the president’s guilt was not implicit in every line of these papers’ or networks’ coverage of the story for the past two years.

This was to show a contempt for their readers or watchers that only an even greater contempt for the president could mask. For in truth, it never was on the cards that the media’s progressive vanguard was going to admit to error except in the sort of scattered minor details that Ms Chozick cites, supposedly to show it capable of admitting fault. Sometimes. That the entire “collusion” narrative was misconceived, however, simply could not be true, in their view, since their entire political world-view was based upon it. They had managed to make an ideology out of the president’s evil purposes, which are axiomatic because they are so opposed in every respect to their own. And the great thing about any ideology for its adherents is, as Karl Popper pointed out long ago, that it is unfalsifiable. They say in criminal circles, I’m told, that if you don’t know who the patsy is, it’s you. In the same way, I think, if you can’t see the self-parody, you’ve probably become one.


Editor’s note

For another example of the rot Bowman describes, see this excerpt from Matt Taibbi’s new book, Hate Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another, coming out soon.

Bowman describes the decay of a vital American institution.
It is happening across our society.
For a broader explanation, see A new, dark picture of America’s future.

James Bowman

About James Bowman

Bowman is a Resident Scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

He has worked as a freelance journalist, serving as American editor of the Times Literary Supplement of London from 1991 to 2002, as movie critic of The American Spectator since 1990 and as media critic of The New Criterion since 1993. He has also been a weekly movie reviewer for The New York Sun since the newspaper’s re-foundation in 2002. He has also contributed to a wide range of other major papers.

Mr. Bowman is perhaps best known for his book, Honor: A History, and his essay “The Lost Sense of Honor” in The Public Interest.

See his collected articles at his website, including his film reviews going back to 1994.

For More Information

Ideas! For shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

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Honor: A History
Available at Amazon.

About Bowman’s great book

Honor: A History.

By James Bowman (2006).

I strongly recommend reading this book about a lost but vital element from our culture. A sense of honor was a strength of the West from its earliest days. Now we have lost it. From the publisher…

“The importance of honor is present in the earliest records of civilization. Today, while it may still be an essential concept in Islamic cultures, in the West, honor has been disparaged and dismissed as obsolete.

“In this lively and authoritative book, James Bowman traces the curious and fascinating history of this ideal, from the Middle Ages through the Enlightenment and to the killing fields of World War I and the despair of Vietnam. Bowman reminds us that the fate of honor and the fate of morality and even manners are deeply interrelated.”

6 thoughts on “Bowman: the news has become a stream of ironies”

  1. In extension of this trend, the new electronic media sites are actively banning or purging dissident voices, lest they trigger their more sensitive viewers.
    So self parody with blinders appears to be acceptable behavior
    Did not the Bible have some comment about the ‘blind leading the blind’?.

    1. etudiant,

      I think more apt or useful is the ancient adage, “in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”

      Complex times. We can’t clearly see through the kaleidoscope of media. Hence the value to looking to the past for examples, insights, and warnings. See today’s post for more about this.

  2. As someone who is usually well read and researched, this article brought to attention an interaction a few months ago on Reddit. This post (“Mueller Recommends Sentence of 19-24 Years for Paul Manafort“) presented a problem I have experienced over and over on the internet. It has many citations of mainstream sources critical of Trump and promoting the Russian collusion story. I dare say that the poster still believes every story to this day. I didn’t believe it at the time, who has the time to debunk each one by one – and who has the “reputation” to assert the sources are unreliable? In the end, it seems we are trapped in the echo chambers of the opposing camps.

    1. Citizen1,

      You nailed it. The RussiaGate story is too complex for anyone not working on it full-time to comprehend fully. Esp with its partisans exaggerating aspects of it, embellished with rumors.

      The bottom line: even Mueller, pretty clearly an anti-Trump partisan, admitted that there was no “collusion” (not a legal term), let alone “conspiracy” (a legal term) by Team Trump with Russia.

      All we have as evidence of Russian interference in the election are a trivia number of social media posts (less than a dot in the overall campaign news) – plus the bold but unsupported statements of a few intel officials (not all of them; Hillary lied). Given their history of lies, only a fool or true believer would accept this as strong evidence.

      “it seems we are trapped in the echo chambers of the opposing camps.”

      Not at all. The Democratic party, its Leftist supporters, and Deep State officials have won a great victory. They have crippled Trump’s term. RussiaGate has tarnished his reputation, plus consumed vast amounts of his time and political capital. And the perpetrators of this, starting with the manufacture of the Steele portfolio, have escaped without damage.

      This is lawfare, as I will discuss in a future post. Begun by the Democrats during the second Reagan administration, used by the GOP during the Clinton administration, and now the Democrats. Political combat has moved the shadows, with the public manipulated by information flows. This is a powerful tool by our elites to counter election results. Perhaps they will perfect lawfare and begin to overturn elections, putting the Republic on the steep part of the slippery slope to destruction.

  3. The Man Who Laughs

    I always enjoy Professor Bowman’s comments, and I think you for posting these. The more people invest in something, the more they need to believe in it, so they buy doggy stocks and ride them to the bottom, or they refuse to believe that the painting they bought is a forgery. The media invested just one hell of a lot in Russia, and a lot of people are in denial, but some of these people have known from day one that this was all a lie. I’ll name no names, but I’m generally suspicious of people who came to journalism by way of intelligence work. The line between spy and journalist has gotten a bit blurred lately, but that’s for another day.

    As a coup d’etat this was a failure, but it was successful as a way to sabotage Trump’s Presidency. which means we’ll see more of this unless examples are made. I’m not optimistic about that. And you’re right that keeping up with this stuff is practically a full time job. I visit Mark Wauck’s Meaning In History blog every day, and I don’t know how he does it and still find time to eat and sleep. It’s the best source of factual news about the Russia Hoax. Wauck served in the FBI and knows his stuff, but even though he does a good job of explaining all of this, it still taxes my ability to keep up at times.

    This has all come to remind me of the old Paul Newman movie Absence Of Malice, where a prosecutor (Bob Balaban) leaks to Sally Field that Newman is the subject of a murder investigation. Balaban is hoping to pressure Newman into becoming a government informant. Neither Balaban nor Field cares about whether or not Newman is actually guilty of murder, they simply want it reported that he is the subject of an investigation, and don’t care about the effects on Newman or the people around him. (Which end up being pretty horrible) And when a Justice Department official issues a statement publicly clearing Newman, that statement is simply regarded as grounds for further suspicion and investigations.

    Back then it was all just a movie. There’s a low quality clip of the newspaper’s attorney explaining the law to Sally FIeld on YouTube that’s worth a watch.

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