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To Regain Credibility, The Media Needs To Do More Than Visit ‘Flyover Country’


Every so often the mainstream media establishment is shocked to find itself guilty of completely misunderstanding the American public, caught napping in an intellectual bubble of its own making. Usually these embarrassments prompt a short-lived round of hand-wringing and little else. After George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004, some editors assigned reporters to the “conservative beat.” When they misunderstood the rise of the Tea Party in 2010, they promised to get out more often into the hinterlands.

Now some admit they failed to grasp the level of populist rage at elites and especially the news media that led to Donald Trump’s election. One New York Times columnist observed that “it was clear that something was fundamentally broken in journalism.” Figuring out flyover country will take more than assigning a few reporters because “flyover country isn’t a place, it’s a state of mind.”

Aside from the fact that the phrase “flyover country” reflects the sort of deep condescension that angers so many conservatives in the first place, he is, as tiger/philosopher Hobbes might put it, stumbling toward the perimeter of wisdom.

It’s not just that so many mainstream journalists are out of touch, it’s that so many share foundational beliefs about the nature of God, humanity, and reality—in short, they share a worldview. That’s why sending their current staff into Arkansas once again to interview a couple of yokels and thereby plumb the depths of the red-state American soul just isn’t going to work.

If mainstream editors had some foresight, they would start finding and cultivating journalistic talent who can think outside their bubble. The point would not be to seek out conservatives merely to balance out liberal bias (even if they were prepared to admit bias, and most aren’t). They need journalists with the intellectual firepower—and the will—to recognize and respect the range of reasonable worldviews among their potential readers and viewers. They need reporters who can see society clearly and report on it in a fashion that doesn’t anger half their potential audience.

Outlets Have Done This Before

Ridiculous? Naïve? Maybe, but I wish mainstream editors would at least try this approach. It made The New York Times the most respected newspaper in the world for decades. When Tennessee publisher Adolph Ochs, desperate for cash at the time, bought a struggling little paper in 1896, in his first issue he wrote: “It will be my earnest aim that THE NEW-YORK TIMES give the news … impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved; to make the columns of THE NEW-YORK TIMES a forum for the consideration of all questions of public importance, and to that end to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.”

That Times never quite lived up to Ochs’ ideals, but he did provide a sensible alternative to the obnoxiously sensational “yellow press” or “new journalism” of William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. It took years before the Times became wildly successful (nothing the paper did was all that wild) but he found the journalists who could pull it off.

The Times set the standard for the modern American journalistic ideal of “objectivity” and outlasted papers that chased readers with what we’d today call click-bait. Twenty-five years later, an admiring editor at another paper wrote that eventually Ochs taught his yellow competitors that “decency meant dollars.”

Many of my conservative friends will regard me as nuts for suggesting a mainstream news revival might be a good idea. Many conservatives long ago dismissed the networks (outside Fox) and major papers as beyond redemption. Clearly, they seem unlikely to change. They have little incentive to accommodate people who seem to despise them, while years of harsh critiques have hardened them more than prompted serious self-reflection. The nation’s largest newsrooms have not merely blown off conservative criticism, many have doubled down on their liberal bias.

It was a mistake, because their business models depend on speaking to entire communities and even the nation. Once upon a time, so did their rhetoric.

Here’s How to Start

That’s why those newsroom hires need to be reporters, not columnists, talking heads, or occasional conservative contributors. That’s tokenism. Only with some determined hiring will editors ensure that their news coverage—their facts, the things on which opinions are supposed to be grounded, the things they provide to justify their expansive claims about their importance to democracy—serves society as it should.

Media with some foresight will look beyond the prestige j-schools like Columbia, Northwestern, and Mizzou for entry-level staff and be more open to applications from reporters like some of my former students: smart, dedicated, reliable, and competent. They’re able to recognize the role worldviews play in news production and respect the traditional conventions of the industry (balance, verifiable sources, neutral tone) while expanding their newsroom’s horizons.

Is this likely? Nah. So public disgust with the media this election cycle will probably erupt again, and again, and again with increasing ferocity. Meanwhile, major media companies will continue to bleed subscribers, ratings, and revenue.

Part of me doesn’t really care if large numbers of the mainstream media go down with a whimper. It serves them right for not recognizing what they’ve done to themselves. But conservatives ought not to take too much glee at this prospect. Journals of opinion are great, but are conservatives are low-balling the benefit of having at least a few news sources that reasonable people can trust, that provide an accurate, fair, and somewhat balanced portrayal of events? Only God can be truly “objective,” but we still need publications that both conservatives and liberals can read and not feel offended. Right now I can’t think of any.

Good Newspapers Are Good for America

In the 1830s Alexis de Toqueville pointed out in “Democracy in America” that (to paraphrase), newspapers “present themselves to you daily, speaking of the affairs common to all men without disturbing your own.” Citizens act in common only when they are persuaded that they can get what they want by uniting their efforts with others. Newspapers are necessary for this because they alone can “come to deposit the same thought in a thousand minds at the same moment.”

Therefore, he wrote, newspapers become more necessary for unified social action as men become “more equal and individualism more to be feared. It would diminish their importance to believe that [newspapers] serve only to guarantee freedom; they maintain civilization.”

That’s a bit of an overstatement, sure, and this is obviously a different media environment than 1830s America. Still, the major media’s failure to provide a foundation of facts and a shared understanding of reality makes impossible a consensus across political and cultural lines. We’re left with a society that’s not just divided but in which large minorities believe (wrongly, I think) that most people on the other side are evil.

A news media revival, by itself, can’t solve such problems, but at least they would make them worse more slowly. Citizens cannot “act in common” without a basis for a shared perception of the world. That was supposed to be the biggest part of the mainstream media’s job: providing facts. Is there nobody in this country who can run a publication that aspires to speak to everybody and can earn widespread respect? Is fair journalism really that hard? Is society that divided? Or do our journalistic institutions just lack vision?

If mainstream editors simply refuse to provide such a news source, I suspect that sooner or later some enterprising young hotshot will start up an organization that does “give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved,” and she’ll eat their lunch.