Over at Hotair.com, conservative Jazz Shaw weighs in on the Flint poisoned-water debacle, denouncing liberals who put sole blame on Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. After all, Shaw writes, there is plenty of blame to be also shared with the Democratic mayor and the Democratic president’s EPA.
He’s right, but this sort of partisan finger-pointing is not exactly a new phenomenon. Shaw’s compatriots at National Review, for instance, rushed to affix the blame on the Democrats and linking the Flint water scandal to Democratic governance writ large. The same thing happened with Katrina — conservatives blamed the Democratic mayor and governor; liberals blamed the Republican president.
And just as with Katrina, the truth is glaringly obvious. On the question of whether it was the Democrats or the Republicans who failed, the answer is yes. Yes, they all failed. The incompetence and dereliction of duty ignored all lines of party and of jurisdiction. Snyder, Obama, and Flint mayor Karen Weaver all have much to answer for.
But Shaw also touches upon one of the more arrogant and dangerous trends in liberal media today. I say “liberal media” because the trend really does seem restricted to left-of-center media. Specifically, liberal media of a globalist bent, or what grubby populists like me call “neoliberal.” The Washington Post included these six deadly words in their report:
“Here’s what you need to know.”
This is also known as the official motto of the “explainer” piece. The piece that quite literally wants to control how you think about the news.
While explainer pieces, and entire explainer sites like Vox, are a new-media phenomenon, they do have their roots in the old dinosaurs such as the Post.
In traditional journalism, there are two main types of hard-news pieces: Reports, and editorials. Reports stick to the facts with as much objectivity and as little spin as possible. Reports can range from simple recitation of public knowledge, all the way to exhaustively researched investigative pieces. Editorials, giving the pundit’s or publication’s opinion on the news, are completely walled off in separate pages of the paper, generally in the last pages of the first section.
But in the 20th Century, there emerged a curious hybrid creature in the media: the analysis piece.
Unlike editorials, analysis pieces run in the regular news sections, often right alongside the actual hard-news reports. The problem with traditional who-what-when-where-why-how reports is that they can leave the reader confused as to what is really going on, or how this impacts their lives. So the Dow lost 500 points on Chinese currency fears, the report says, for instance. What exactly does this mean? Why is the Dow tanking a bad thing for a Joe Schmoe who doesn’t own any stock? What the hell is a “Dow,” anyway?
Enter the analysis piece. This goes beyond the report, to explain why the news item affects you, what the terms being bandied about really mean, and so forth. The analysis piece goes beyond simply regurgitating objective facts. It relies on the writer’s own, personal expertise on the matter to explain it to us schlubs. A Middle East expert will write the analysis if another Israeli/Palestinian intifada breaks out; a football writer will do the analysis of the playoff implications of a Texans win, and how their injuries compare to those of the Chiefs.
It isn’t an editorial. The writer isn’t trying to put a slant on it. Except: he or she does anyway. Analysis pieces are by their very nature subjective, and an analysis running in the Post may be very different from one running in the Wall Street Journal. This is particularly evident in sports journalism, where six different content providers running analyses on the upcoming Broncos-Patriots showdown might come up with eight different angles.
Lately, though, certain liberal-leaning content providers are wanting to go beyond this. They wish to move past analyzing just one specific story into analyzing the entire days’ news for you, delivered to your mailbox daily. They all wish to tell you what you need to know, sometimes using those exact words.
Ezra Klein’s Vox is the purest example of what I’m talking about. Vox was built from the ground up to explain the news, not to just report it. It goes beyond competitors such as Slate that mainly just deliver editorials and punditry, and it goes beyond old-school media such as abcnews.com or Reuters that mainly deliver hard news reports.
The proto-Vox was Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo. TPM started off just as Marshall’s personal blog with an ironic title; soon enough, though, the irony disappeared as the site became just what it says on the tin, delivering news analysis from a staff of writers who share Marshall’s liberal tilt. Similar sites soon appeared such as Huffington Post on the left, and the Daily Caller on the right.
But these sites never made the jump to wanting to be your primary, or even only, source of news. TPM, Daily Caller, HuffPost, Slate, Salon — these all are predicated on the notion that their readers have at least some sense of what’s on the old-fashioned mainstream news, turning to these sites instead for secondary analysis and editorials.
Not Vox. It wants to be your primary news platform, deciding what you need to know and what you don’t, when you should know it, and how you should interpret it. This piece on the upcoming possible Snowpocalypse 2.0 targeting the East Coast is a good example. Here’s a news event almost free of any partisan implications, other than some mild, rote tut-tutting about climate change from the usual sources. But instead of putting together a meteorology report along with remarks from Bill de Blasio or someone similar, as a typical news site does, Vox curated information from a variety of sites for their article. They quote generously from reports and tweets from Slate, Weather Underground, the government, Weather Channel, and, to bring this piece full circle, the Washington Post.
Such blatant ripping-off of other journalists’ work would be grounds for dismissal from the New York Times’ news desk. But Vox ain’t the New York Times, as Klein would be eager to, well, explain to you. As a sort of meta-news service, Klein wants Vox to be your one-stop shop for everything.
He wants all of your news to come through him.
Ezra Klein has always had a certain… shall we say, extremely high regard for himself and his peers as the JournoList debacle showed. And it takes, er, a very healthy self-esteem to come up with this concept. But it has been infectious in the news media.
Buzzfeed has adopted the Klein approach to news, going beyond merely dispensing listicles about being a ’90s kid to developing its own in-house news explainer site. Ben Smith’s operation mixes original reporting with Voxian plundering of Twitter and other media sites to deliver what you need to know to your inbox, daily. Slate will probably never endorse this model whole-hog, but it does maintain a miniature explainer service called “Slatest.” And ditto the aforementioned Washington Post, with its explain-tastic “5 Minute Fix” that drew the ire of Jazz Shaw.
I don’t really find anything like this in conservative media (let me know if I’m wrong), perhaps because their target demo is naturally suspicious of the media to begin with — even their own. And you know what? They’re damn right to be suspicious.
Beware anyone who would tell you “here’s what you need to know” about your world. This paternalism might start with the best of intentions, but it still starts with the assumption that the person or their media site really can, or should, decide what you need to know. It is a more pernicious — and effective — method of thought-control than direct editorializing or propaganda. It soon becomes little different than the state-owned media of a typical less-than-entirely-democratic state. Vladimir Putin would love to tell you with a straight face that Russia Today is simply delivering to its viewers what they need to know.
Now I’m not saying that Ezra Klein is as arrogant as Vladimir Putin. Except… yeah, I really kind of am. When it comes to the desire for information control, anyway.
Ditch the “explainer” sites. Find the news on your own, from multiple sites, all across the political spectrum. That’s the only way you can even begin to truly understand what’s going on. That is, unless you would rather be the thought puppet of the overprivileged, almost entirely white staff of some internet startup.