Back in 2008 I wrote The Church of MSM and the New Reformation, an examination of media bias and a book review of sorts of Professor Brian Anse Patrick’s The National Rifle Association and the Media: The Motivating Force of Negative Coverage. Professor Patrick examined a question very similar to one asked this year – how does the NRA thrive when it is so reviled by (what he terms) the “elite press” – in his case he examined nine publications: the New York Times, LA Times, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report.
This year the media asked itself the same question with regard to Donald Trump: “How is it he’s still so popular?” Or, as Hillary put it, “Why aren’t I fifty points ahead?”
“Bias” wasn’t the answer, Professor Patrick discovered:
It is not that liberal-conservative bias does not affect coverage at times. Or that other forms of bias do not exist. One would have to be naïve to the point of addle-headedness to believe otherwise. Elite journalists tend to identify themselves with politically liberal causes, and personal idealism cannot possibly be segregated from the interpretation of events. Doubtless, too, old fashioned economic concerns have killed many a news story. Many discern in the national media, some on the basis of good evidence a conservative bias supporting economic imperialism and mindless consumerism.
Additionally, the powerful forces of personal psychological projection interact with the amorphous nature of external events that media professionals must daily interpret, in ways that allow just about everyone to see what they need or want to see in the media. The Left sees bias for the Right; Right sees Left; schizophrenics and the devoutly religious see the Hand of God, devils, or aliens at work; we could also list racism, sexism, internationalism, and the exploitation of women and girls, men, animals, and classes. There are bugs and bugaboos in the media appropriate to nearly every orientation or fixation. So bias is often not just about what affects coverage, but also what affects perceptions of coverage.
That elite media may be biased for or against a particular issue or topic is interesting, and this knowledge may help an interest group rally indignation or manage its public relations; however it tells little about the overall functioning of media in society. This latter concern is the broader and more important idea, with larger implications. The overall ranking results provide such an explanation.
The larger concept that lies behind the consistent ranking is a broad cultural level phenomenon that I will label an administrative control bias. It has profound implications. Administrative control in this usage means rational, scientific, objective social management by elite, symbol-manipulating classes, and subclasses, i.e., professionalized administrators or bureaucratic functionaries. The thing administered is often democracy itself, or a version of it at least. Here and throughout this chapter terms such as “rational,” “objective,” “professional,” and “scientific” should be read in the sense of the belief systems that they represent, i.e. rationalism, objectivism, professionalism, and scientism. Scientism is not the same as being scientific; the first is a matter of faith and ritualistic observance, the other is difficult creative work. William James made a similar distinction between institutional religion and being religious, the first being a smug and thoughtless undertaking on the part of most people, the second, a difficult undertaking affecting every aspect of a life. The term scientistic administration would pertain here. Note that we move here well beyond the notion of mere gun control and into the realm of general social control, management and regulation.
In other words, journalists are statists. But beyond that, they see themselves as having a job in that state apparatus:
Previous to objective journalism, baldly partisan news media were the norm; under objectivity news became a scientific tool of social progress and management. The elite press continues also to serve this function, connecting administrators and managers not only to the world they seek to administrate but also to other managers with whom they must coordinate their efforts. So in this sense social movement-based critiques have been correct in identifying a sort of pseudo-pluralism operating in the public forum, a pluralism that is in reality no more than an exclusive conversation between elite class subcomponents – but this over-class is administrative in outlook and purpose.
Journalists acquire importance in the mass democratic system precisely because they gather, convey, and interpret the data that inform individual choices. Mere raw, inaccessible data transforms to political information that is piped to where it will do the most good. Objective, balanced coverage becomes essential, at least in pretense, lest this vital flow of information to be thought compromised, thus affecting not only the quality of rational individual decision-making, but also the legitimacy of the system.
Working from within the perspective of the mass democracy model for social action it is difficult to specify an ideal role model of journalistic coverage other than a “scientific objectivism” at work. An event (i.e., reality) causes coverage, or so the objective journalist would and often does say. Virtually all of the journalists that I have ever talked with regard coverage as mirroring reality.
The claim being advanced here, by assumption, is that journalists can truly convey or interpret the nature of reality as opposed to the various organizational versions of events in which journalists must daily traffic. The claim is incredible and amounts to a Gnostic pretension of being “in the know” about the nature or reality, or at least the reality that matters most politically.
An ecclesiastical model most appropriately describes this elite journalistic function under mass democracy. Information is the vital substance that makes the good democracy possible. It allows, as it were, for the existence of the good society, a democratic state of grace. Information is in this sense analogous to the concept of divine grace under the pre-Reformation Roman Catholic Church. Divine grace was essential for the good spiritual life, the life that mattered. The clergy dispensed divine grace to the masses in the form of sacraments. They were its intermediaries, who established over time a monopoly, becoming the exclusive legitimate channel of divine grace.
And here’s the kicker:
Recollect that the interposition of intermediaries, the clergy, along a vital spiritual-psychological supply route was the rub of the Reformation. The clergy cloaked themselves in the mantle of spiritual authority rather than acting as its facilitators. Many elite newspapers have apparently done much the same thing, speaking and interpreting authoritatively for democracy, warranting these actions on the basis of social responsibility. Of course, then and now, many people do not take the intermediaries seriously.
It is not accident, then, that the pluralistic model of social action largely discounts journalists as an important class. In the same way the decentralized religious pluralism generically known as Protestantism discounts the role of clergy. This should be expected. Pluralism and Protestantism share common historical origins. American pluralism particularly is deeply rooted in the Reformation’s reaction to interpretive monopoly.
Journalists, particularly elite journalists, occupy under mass democracy this ecclesiastical social role, a functional near-monopoly whose duty becomes disseminating and interpreting the administrative word and its symbols unto the public.
I told you that, so I could tell you this. Will Rahn is a political correspondent and managing director, politics, for CBS News Digital. He wrote an op-ed that published today entitled “The unbearable smugness of the press,” in which he says (in part):
Journalists love mocking Trump supporters. We insult their appearances. We dismiss them as racists and sexists. We emote on Twitter about how this or that comment or policy makes us feel one way or the other, and yet we reject their feelings as invalid.
It’s a profound failure of empathy in the service of endless posturing. There’s been some sympathy from the press, sure: the dispatches from “heroin country” that read like reports from colonial administrators checking in on the natives. But much of that starts from the assumption that Trump voters are backward, and that it’s our duty to catalogue and ultimately reverse that backwardness. What can we do to get these people to stop worshiping their false god and accept our gospel?
We diagnose them as racists in the way Dark Age clerics confused medical problems with demonic possession. Journalists, at our worst, see ourselves as a priestly caste. We believe we not only have access to the indisputable facts, but also a greater truth, a system of beliefs divined from an advanced understanding of justice.
(Bold emphasis mine.)
I have news for Mr. Rahn – it’s been apparent for quite a while that journalists act as a priestly class. I think, at their worst, some recognize it in themselves – and wallow in it.
Which explains, I think, why more and more Americans are abandoning the Church of the MSM.
Still, it’s nice to see self-confirmation of Professor Patrick’s hypothesis by a member of media.
UPDATE, 11/11: See also: At NYT, “Talented Reporters Scrambled to Match Stories with What Internally Was Often Called ‘The Narrative.’”