The Sovietization of the American Press
The transformation from phony "objectivity" to open one-party orthodoxy hasn't been an improvement
I collect Soviet newspapers. Years ago, I used to travel to Moscow’s Izmailovsky flea market every few weeks, hooking up with a dealer who crisscrossed the country digging up front pages from the Cold War era. I have Izvestia’s celebration of Gagarin’s flight, a Pravda account of a 1938 show trial, even an ancient copy of Ogonyek with Trotsky on the cover that someone must have taken a risk to keep.
These relics, with dramatic block fonts and red highlights, are cool pieces of history. Not so cool: the writing! Soviet newspapers were wrought with such anvil shamelessness that it’s difficult to imagine anyone ever read them without laughing. A good Soviet could write almost any Pravda headline in advance. What else but “A Mighty Demonstration of the Union of the Party and the People” fit the day after Supreme Soviet elections? What news could come from the Spanish civil war but “Success of the Republican Fleet?” Who could earn an obit headline but a “Faithful Son of the Party”?
Reality in Soviet news was 100% binary, with all people either heroes or villains, and the villains all in league with one another (an SR was no better than a fascist or a “Right-Trotskyite Bandit,” a kind of proto-horseshoe theory). Other ideas were not represented, except to be attacked and deconstructed. Also, since anything good was all good, politicians were not described as people at all but paragons of limitless virtue — 95% of most issues of Pravda or Izvestia were just names of party leaders surrounded by lists of applause-words, like “glittering,” “full-hearted,” “wise,” “mighty,” “courageous,” “in complete moral-political union with the people,” etc.
Some of the headlines in the U.S. press lately sound suspiciously like this kind of work:
— Biden stimulus showers money on Americans, sharply cutting poverty
— Champion of the middle class comes to the aid of the poor
— Biden's historic victory for America
The most Soviet of the recent efforts didn’t have a classically Soviet headline. “Comedians are struggling to parody Biden. Let’s hope this doesn’t last,” read the Washington Post opinion piece by Richard Zoglin, arguing that Biden is the first president in generations who might be “impervious to impressionists.” Zoglin contended Biden is “impregnable” to parody, his voice being too “devoid of obvious quirks,” his manner too “muted and self-effacing” to offer comedians much to work with. He was talking about this person:
Forget that the “impregnable to parody” pol spent the last campaign year jamming fingers in the sternums of voters, challenging them to pushup contests, calling them “lying dog-faced pony soldiers,” and forgetting what state he was in. Biden, on the day Zoglin ran his piece, couldn’t remember the name of his Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and referred to the Department of Defense as “that outfit over there”:
It doesn’t take much looking to find comedians like James Adomian and Anthony Atamaniuk ab-libbing riffs on Biden with ease. He checks almost every box as a comic subject, saying inappropriate things, engaging in wacky Inspector Clouseau-style physical stunts (like biting his wife’s finger), and switching back and forth between outbursts of splenetic certainty and total cluelessness. The parody doesn’t even have to be mean — you could make it endearing cluelessness. But to say nothing’s there to work with is bananas.
The first 50 days of Biden’s administration have been a surprise on multiple fronts. The breadth of his stimulus suggests a real change from the Obama years, while hints that this administration wants to pick a unionization fight with Amazon go against every tendency of Clintonian politics. But it’s hard to know what much of it means, because coverage of Biden increasingly resembles official press releases, often featuring embarrassing, Soviet-style contortions.
When Biden decided not to punish Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi on the grounds that the “cost” of “breaching the relationship with one of America’s key Arab allies” was too high, the New York Times headline read: “Biden Won’t Penalize Saudi Crown Prince Over Khashoggi’s Killing, Fearing Relations Breach.” When Donald Trump made the same calculation, saying he couldn’t cut ties because “the world is a very dangerous place” and “our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” the paper joined most of the rest of the press corps in howling in outrage.
“In Extraordinary Statement, Trump Stands With Saudis Despite Khashoggi Killing.” was the Times headline, in a piece that said Trump’s decision was “a stark distillation of the Trump worldview: remorselessly transactional, heedless of the facts, determined to put America’s interests first, and founded on a theory of moral equivalence.” The paper noted, “Even Mr. Trump’s staunchest allies on Capitol Hill expressed revulsion.”
This week, in its “Crusader for the Poor” piece, the Times described Biden’s identical bin Salman decision as mere evidence that he remains “in the cautious middle” in his foreign policy. The paper previously had David Sanger dig up a quote from former Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross, who “applauded Mr. Biden for ‘trying to thread the needle here… This is the classic example of where you have to balance your values and your interests.’” It’s two opposite takes on exactly the same thing.
The old con of the Manufacturing Consent era of media was a phony show of bipartisanship. Legitimate opinion was depicted as a spectrum stretching all the way from “moderate” Democrats (often depicted as more correct on social issues) to “moderate” Republicans (whose views on the economy or war were often depicted as more realistic). That propaganda trick involved constantly narrowing the debate to a little slice of the Venn diagram between two established parties. Did we need to invade Iraq right away to stay safe, as Republicans contended, or should we wait until inspectors finished their work and then invade, as Democrats insisted?
The new, cleaved media landscape advances the same tiny intersection of elite opinion, except in the post-Trump era, that strip fits inside one party. Instead of appearing as props in a phony rendering of objectivity, Republicans in basically all non-Fox media have been moved off the legitimacy spectrum, and appear as foils only. Allowable opinion is now depicted stretching all the way from one brand of “moderate” Democrat to another.
An example is the Thursday New York Times story, “As Economy Is Poised to Soar, Some Fear a Surge in Inflation.” It’s essentially an interview with JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, who’s worried about the inflationary impact of the latest Covid-19 rescue (“The question is: Does [it] overheat everything?”), followed by quotes from Fed chair Jerome Powell insisting that no, everything is cool. This is the same Larry Summers vs. Janet Yellen debate that’s been going on for weeks, and it represents the sum total of allowable economic opinions about the current rescue, stretching all the way from “it’s awesome” to “it’s admirable but risky.”
This format isn’t all that different from the one we had before, except in one respect: without the superficial requirement to tend to a two-party balance, the hagiography in big media organizations flies out of control. These companies already tend to wash out people who are too contentious or anti-establishment in their leanings. Promoted instead, as even Noam Chomsky described a generation ago, are people with the digestive systems of jackals or monitor lizards, who can swallow even the most toxic piles of official nonsense without blinking. Still, those reporters once had to at least pretend to be something other than courtiers, as it was considered unseemly to openly gush about a party or a politician.
Now? Look at the Times feature story on Biden’s pandemic relief bill:
On Friday, “Scranton Joe” Biden, whose five-decade political identity has been largely shaped by his appeal to union workers and blue-collar tradesmen like those from his Pennsylvania hometown, will sign into law a $1.9 trillion spending plan that includes the biggest antipoverty effort in a generation…
The new role as a crusader for the poor represents an evolution for Mr. Biden, who spent much of his 36 years in Congress concentrating on foreign policy, judicial fights, gun control, and criminal justice issues… Aides say he has embraced his new role… [and] has also been moved by the inequities in pain and suffering that the pandemic has inflicted on the poorest Americans…
You’d never know from reading this that Biden’s actual record on criminal justice issues involved boasting about authoring an infamous crime bill (that did “everything but hang people for jaywalking”), or that he’s long been a voracious devourer of corporate and especially financial services industry cash, that his “Scranton Joe” rep has been belied by a decidedly mixed history on unions, and so on. Can he legitimately claim to be more pro-union than his predecessor? Sure, but a news story that paints the Biden experience as stretching from “hero to the middle class” to “hero to the poor,” is a Pravda-level stroke job.
We now know in advance that every Biden address will be reviewed as historic and exceptional. It was only a mild shock to see Chris Wallace say Biden’s was the "the best inaugural address I have ever heard.” More predictable was Politico saying of Thursday night’s address that “it is hard to imagine any other contemporary politician making the speech Biden did… channeling our collective sorrow and reminding us that there is life after grief.” (Really? Hard to imagine any contemporary politician doing that?).
This stuff is relatively harmless. Where it gets weird is that the move to turn the bulk of the corporate press in the “moral clarity” era into a single party organ has come accompanied by purges of the politically unfit. In the seemingly endless parade of in-house investigations of journalists, paper after paper has borrowed from the Soviet style of printing judgments and self-denunciations, without explaining the actual crimes.
The New York Times coverage of the recent staff revolt at Teen Vogue against editor Alexi McCammond noted “Staff Members Condemn Editor’s Decade-Old, Racist Tweets,” but declined to actually publish the offending texts, so readers might judge for themselves. The Daily Beast expose on Times reporter Donald McNeil did much the same thing. Even the ongoing (and in my mind, ridiculous) moral panic over Substack ties in. Aimed at people already banished from mainstream media, the obvious message is that anyone with even mildly heterodox opinions shouldn’t be publishing anywhere.
Those still clinging to mainstream jobs in a business that continues to lay people off at an extraordinary rate read the gist of all of these stories clearly: if you want to keep picking up a check, you’d better talk the right talk.
Thus you see bizarre transformations like that of David Brooks, who spent his career penning paeans to “personal responsibility” and the “culture of thrift,” but is now writing stories about how “Joe Biden is a transformational president” for casting aside fiscal restraints in the massive Covid-19 bill. When explaining that “both parties are adjusting to the new paradigm,” he’s really explaining his own transformation, in a piece that reads like a political confession. “I’m worried about a world in which we spend borrowed money with abandon,” he says, but “income inequality, widespread child poverty, and economic precarity are the problems of our time.”
Maybe Brooks is experiencing the same “evolution” Biden is being credited with of late. Or, he’s like a lot of people in the press who are searching out the safest places on the op-ed page, the middle of the newsroom middle, in desperate efforts to stay on the masthead. It’s been made clear that there’s no such thing as overdoing it in one direction, e.g. if you write as the Times did that Biden “has become a steady hand who chooses words with extraordinary restraint” (which even those who like and admire Biden must grasp is not remotely true of the legendary loose cannon). Meanwhile, how many open critics of the Party on the left, the right, or anywhere in between still have traditional media jobs?
All of this has created an atmosphere where even obvious observations that once would have interested blue-state voters, like that Biden’s pandemic relief bill “does not establish a single significant new social program,” can only be found in publications like the World Socialist Web Site. The bulk of the rest of the landscape has become homogenous and as predictably sycophantic as Fox in the “Mission Accomplished” years, maybe even worse. What is this all going to look like in four years?