Media Elites Struggle To Build Walls Around The Public Square
How The Chicago Thinker's student journalist exposed their fragility
Yesterday while on with Howard Kurtz, in the context of discussing the degree to which we inhabit a period of decided non-reflection by most major media outlets as to their coverage of major political stories, I raised the example of a recent incident at the University of Chicago’s Disinformation conference which attracted a good deal of attention online. A joint project of David Axelrod’s Institute of Politics and The Atlantic, the conference on “Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy” featured no less an authority than Barack Obama musing that:
The loss of local journalism, the nationalization of grievance and anger-based journalism, the growth of social media and technology whose product design monetizes anger and resentment—all this undermines our democracy and, if combined with ethno-nationalism, misogyny or racism, can be fatal.
Okay. Now which of those prevented media from reporting on Hunter Biden’s laptop?
The student journalists at The Chicago Thinker — including Daniel Schmidt, Evita Duffy, and Christopher Phillips — decided to be confrontational instead of timid, asking serious questions based on the writings and statements of the guests.
Anne Applebaum — whose inability to take any criticism and respond to it fairly is by now well established — dismissed the Hunter Biden laptop information as “totally irrelevant” in response to Schmidt.
My problem with Hunter Biden’s laptop is, I think, totally irrelevant. I mean, it’s not whether it’s disinformation. I mean, I didn’t think Hunter Biden’s business relationships have anything to do with who should be president of the United States. So, I don’t find it to be interesting. I mean, that would be my problem with that as a major news story.
But that was hardly the only incident. Sen. Amy Klobuchar totally dodged a question from Duffy on whether she would favor banning online speech about two sexes as health misinformation. And Brian Stelter, when confronted by Phillips with a litany of stories CNN covered as reality which turned out to be untrue, from Nick Sandmann to Jussie Smollett, made the rather on the nose excuse of needing to break for lunch.
(Stelter, by the way, had Applebaum on “Reliable Sources” and did not ask a followup.)
These three incidents taken together serve as a reminder of the fragility of this regime. The elite focus on insulating themselves from troublesome questions leaves them woefully unprepared when they run into a handful of college journalists with nothing to lose and easy access to their records and claims.
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Much of the failure of trust in media is earned. But there are still people who frame it as exemplified by bias or animated by mere social differences. This may have been true in the past, but it is no longer true in the present. The structure of our media conglomerates and their corporate ties to major international firms — Big Tech the most dangerous among them — have empowered their ability to an unprecedented degree to, with rare exceptions, determine the acceptable bounds of debate in the public square. They create barriers constantly around what is permissible to discuss not just in polite society but in virtually every space, particularly online. Within media and politics, this has always been known. The pandemic was just the first time that most normal people became aware of this.
A postscript to this: The recent decision by Elon Musk to become Twitter’s largest shareholder, and to first entertain then reject a board seat at the company, could have massive ramifications for the capability of the media regime to raise walls around the public square in the short term. A duly elected president of the United States and many of his supporters are still banned from the major social media platforms used by most Americans. We will see if that changes before 2024.
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