Dahlia Lithwick at Slate described this temptation in Supreme Court coverage to give disproportionate attention to salacious bits of news — because a lot of the day-to-day material is dry. So you end up writing about, like, “The 7 Biggest Slams from Antonin Scalia’s Obergefell Dissent.” And those stories occlude the more substantive coverage that help us understand what the court is actually doing.
Can I add, blah, blah, fucking blah? This is my 25th year in journalism. I like Dahlia Lithwick, I’m not going to rag on her, but certainly you hear that a lot from reporters, particularly beat reporters. “There’s so much meat out there, and we only cover the applesauce.” It’s like, Okay, but isn’t your job to explain clearly and in a compelling manner what’s important? It does seem like that’s inherent in the job description. So if you think meaningful news is boring, you should be doing something else. Or if you’re incapable of translating it into stories that people want to read, whose fault is that? That’s clearly why you get paid. This is the lecture I give to my reporters: Nobody has time to read. People barely can read. So you need to give them an overwhelming reason to read your piece. You need to grab them by the face and pull them in, and cover them in the hot stinky garlic breath of journalism until they fuckin’ wake up.
The real problem with journalism is, it’s groupthink. The problem is, the people who practice it are not impressive — especially now. I mean, look. My father was a journalist. He never graduated from high school. He joined the Marines as a 17-year-old and then went to work at the L.A. Times when he got out. It was not a profession; it was a trade, and you had a whole diverse field of people entering it. You had the classic Wasp scion, or Sean Flynn, who became a photographer in Vietnam, because he was rich and had wanderlust. And that’s great. And it was also something you did instead of getting a union card. So there was a lot broader spectrum of people entering it.
Now, for a bunch of reasons — and this is the problem with American society more broadly, in my view — it’s just a masturbatorium, filled with people who think exactly the same, who are from the same backgrounds, who have the same assumptions about everything. And you get a much less interesting product when you have that. And you also get a lot of fearful people. A lot of people who are too dumb to go into finance, so they went into journalism instead. And they get older and they realize, I’ve got tuitions, and this is actually a pretty shaky business model on which to build a career, and they just become unwilling to take any risk at all.
When was the last time you saw anybody in the press — except the fringe press — really write a piece that challenged the assumptions of their neighbors? That would actually make their friends in Brooklyn avert their gaze when they pulled into their driveways?
You mean in the framing of the news, not the news event itself?
In the framing! So not every piece about race is necessarily about white racism. It’s a much broader and more complex and multilayered topic than just Bull Connor and cross burning. You get the impression that it’s 1955 still. And it’s not because it is 1955; it’s because nobody has the balls to write a real story about it. So if you’re doing a story on police killings — and I’m totally in favor of covering the hell out of that; I’m a civil libertarian, I think the police have too much power; I’m actually very liberal on police stuff, for what it’s worth — on the other hand, you can’t write that story without doing a story on black crime, which is out of control. The Justice Department keeps really good numbers on this. Here’s what they are; I happen to know: From 1980 to 2008, that’s 28 years, 52 percent of homicides were committed by black perpetrators. The overwhelming majority of those were by black men. Now black men make up 6 percent of the population. So you have, over a 30-year period, 6 percent of the population committing the majority of all murders? Really? That’s not a story? And by the way, murder is the one sort of crime they’ve kind of nailed down. Mistakes are made, but in general, if you’re convicted of murder, there’s the highest likelihood of all crimes that you’re actually guilty of it. What the hell? So that’s part of the story. You will never find that anywhere. Why? Because it’s offensive or insensitive. If you’re a journalist, the last thing you want to be worried about is insensitivity. You ought to be worried about whether it’s true or not. That’s the first question. And increasingly, you see journalists, because they are dumb and afraid, refusing to push back against calls for them to shade the truth. Now before writing compelling copy, rule one, job one, is tell the truth. Find out what the actual truth is and tell us. And if you’re not doing that, you’re caving to pressure to not do that, then you’re corrupt by definition. You suck. Just to be clear, I’m not exactly sure I’m a conservative. I definitely have non-mainstream political views. But I’m not whining about liberal bias. It doesn’t bother me when reporters are liberal. It does bother me when they lie, and don’t tell the whole truth, because it’s unfashionable to do that.
And by the way, there are all these actual attacks on free speech going on right now. Real ones. Not just on college campuses. Not a day passes when you don’t read about somebody getting fired for saying something unfashionable. And nobody in the press — hardly anybody, none of my friends — ever say anything about it … Journalists should think, The only reason I exist is because of the First Amendment. I am to some extent its guardian. And if I’m not standing up for that, what is the point? That is the point where you realize it is about paying tuition, and it is about having some respectable sinecure where people are mildly impressed that you work at New York Magazine or the New York Times or whatever. It’s not about doing what you’re supposed to be doing. I’m just totally shocked by that.
I’m wondering what it would look like for the press to report something like the homicide statistics as a news story in the way you’re suggesting: Like to say, Over a 30-year period, this outsize number of homicides have been committed by black people. It’s not exactly a piece of news if it’s —
Really? I think it’s news. I’ve never read that anywhere. If you’re trying to provide context — I haven’t written or assigned a banner, “News flash: Black people commit lots of crime.’ Of course not. And I’m also not calling for people to be pointlessly divisive. Because I believe in politeness, I actually do. I don’t think you should write pieces just to hoist the middle finger. I’d say, if you’re writing about interaction between police and black neighborhoods, it’s more than just a mistake to leave out the central fact, which is, cops, who are probably over-armed and probably undertrained and probably have bad attitudes — I’ll concede all of that — but they’re also scared shitless for a real reason. It’s not just bias. So the assumption behind the stories is, what we’re dealing with is black people bumping up against white racism. But actually the facts suggest a more complicated picture. And the refusal of the press to address that stems not from their stupidity, though they are dumb, but from their cowardice. They just don’t want to say that because it’s considered offensive by this or that pressure group …
Do you think that in the ’50s or ’60s, journalists would have been more likely to write stories that pissed off their neighbors?
No, probably not. Because it’s human nature to do that. I think it’s probably better now than it was, actually. I was a kid in the ’70s, and my father was a television anchor, and from what I remember, the news was kind of insipid then, too. I think truth is a defense, always. For us. That’s what makes us different. You can always say, I’m sorry, it’s true. We’re entering a moment where that’s not really a defense.
I’m wondering how you think the discourse now compares to the way it was in your Crossfire days, i.e., in the early 2000s.
That was before the internet, so things have obviously changed completely. All these changes reflect American society. So a small group of people is very informed — like a small group of people is very rich — and most people aren’t … In general, I think people who want to be informed are much better informed than they’ve ever been, because there are more sources of information. and the bulk of people are doing more productive things, probably.
And there’s obviously more polarized news on both sides. If you want an overtly conservative or liberal perspective, there’s more out there for you.
How do you feel about that overall? Do you think it’s beneficial?
I think it’s awful. I think it’s really depressing. What people forget is that up until pretty recently — I was born in 1969, not that long ago — it was a homogenous country. It just was. It was Japan; it was Sweden. And so the truth is, tribalism is what’s happening. Political, ethnic, religious tribalism has totally changed the country, and that’s because of the demographic change that’s taken place because of immigration. Now I’m not saying there’s no upside; I think there is an upside, for sure, to mass immigration. But the downside is you don’t have a country that’s cohesive in the way that it was. And that’s reflected in the news coverage. And because the analysis is just so shallow, you get the sense that it’s the news outlets that are driving the division. Well, they mirror it! They’re selling consumer products. The media that serves one country will look very different from the media that serves a different country. We have a very different country, so of course you’re going to see that.
It kind of mirrors the 19th century, early 20th century, which was the last time, by the way, that we had immigration on the scale that we have it now: from the Ellis Island period. [Ed note: Legal immigration to the United States was at an all-time high in 1991.] The reason that CBS was able to dominate television news was because most Americans shared the same culture, broadly speaking, and the same beliefs, broadly speaking. You know what I mean? How many states did Barry Goldwater win? One or two? That was only 50 years ago. So what does that tell you? It tells you the country had reached a kind of political consensus in 1964. So it shouldn’t be surprising that there wasn’t a whole panoply of different news sources, because why would there be? A fractured country is going to have fractured media.
How do you see your own website fitting into that? It obviously comes from a place of avowed conservatism. It’s not like the AP, which may not be objective, but at least doesn’t have a declared political point of view.
I don’t know I would characterize it. I mean, there is no conservatism, really, anymore. I mean, there’s no broadly agreed upon definition … The consensus just shattered this year on the right. So there’s no safe assumption about conservatives now at all. And actually, it was a really great thing for us, because here I am, attacking everyone else for becoming complacent, but that’s human nature, and you can get that way. Next thing you know, you’re like Jon Stewart, and you’re just sneering. So the good news about what happened with Trump is — and this has been brewing for a while — it forced the question, What does it mean to be conservative? It’s not enough just to dislike Obama. What does it mean? Does it mean you’re for smaller government? Does it mean you’re against pointless foreign wars? Does it mean you’re against gay marriage or abortion? I don’t know. Certainly you can’t write a piece and assume all your readers are going to agree with it. So for us, the solution was just to not take sides. I think we had probably the most objective primary coverage of anybody— not just on the right, anywhere. Because we were afraid not to be. We played it right down the middle.
You read the Washington Post, and you read the New York Times, and you really feel like its political staff believe they have a moral obligation to defeat Trump. The subhead in every piece is “Trump proposes this — which is dangerous, immoral, and unconstitutional.” It’s like, Okay! I get it! You hate Trump!
Do you think the press has a tendency to pick conservatives who they find palatable and sort of decide by fiat that those are the ones conservatives should be supporting? Like Rubio for instance — they cover the race in a way that suggests he’s the rightful heir to the nomination?
Yeah, obviously that’s true, but I think in the case of Rubio — and I didn’t agree with Rubio and all, and I wouldn’t have voted for him — but I think Rubio is really smart and really talented and just a great politician. He fit the profile perfectly. I think any logical person who has watched the past seven presidential cycles would look at Rubio and go, “Yeah, that’s the guy.” Because, why wouldn’t you reach that conclusion? It would seem kind of obvious, and it just so happened that this year was an anomaly, and it didn’t happen. But I think that was a fair assumption.
But I do think there are a couple of issues on which you can’t go outside the lines, or you do pay a price. You can be conservative; I think the overwhelming majority of reporters are pretty liberal, and I think they give Paul Ryan a fair shot. I don’t think they’re cruel to Paul Ryan. If you came out as a hard-edged Evangelical, and made abortion your issue, you would not get a fair shake. People are for abortion. Like, flat out. That’s the cornerstone of human rights, in the view of reporters. I don’t really even know any who don’t feel that way.
I don’t feel that way; I think it’s killing, and I think it’s awful. I’m more pro-heroin than I am pro-abortion; at least heroin — there’s some upside.
So there are certain ways that you can sin against the liberal consensus …
Yeah. You can deviate on TPP. There’s lots of leeway for sure. But abortion is definitely one of the issues. Gays, for sure. 100 percent. You don’t even get a hearing on the gay thing. And I’m pretty pro-gay myself, but I’m just noticing this. I think if you’re gonna cover America, you should be broadly sympathetic, you should be broadly sympathetic, or at least open-minded, toward Americans — not just the ones you went to Princeton with. But other ones, too, who don’t live in Brooklyn. And this, by the way, is something I always tell my reporters: if you’re going to write about somebody, you can’t hate ’em. And the reason you can’t hate ’em is not because it’s wrong to hate — though it probably is — but it’s because you can’t see people clearly if you despise them. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything you do, but if you’re not sympathetic to them as people, you won’t see them clearly. You are blinded. You miss the point. You’ll be less interesting and less insightful if you can’t empathize with the person. That’s just true.
I mean, I covered Al Sharpton in 2004. There’s not a single thing he said that I agreed with. But I always liked him as a guy, and I always felt like he had a point. There was a person under there.
Increasingly, the political parties and the newsrooms in this country are out of touch with — and more important, wholly unsympathetic to — the people they govern and cover. And that’s a massive problem. It’s a problem on a moral level, it’s a problem on a practical level, it’s a problem on a business level. If I’m running Wal-Mart, and I lose sense of what my customers want to buy, I go out of business. They’ve lost sense of who lives here and what they want …
Circling back to that point about how newsrooms used to be full of people from different backgrounds and weren’t all milquetoast liberals: There’s truth in that, but obviously newsrooms were a lot whiter than, and were pretty male-dominated. So do you see much value in having a more ethnically diverse or gender-diverse newsroom? Or do you think that if everyone goes to the same colleges, it doesn’t matter?
It goes without saying that I’m opposed, strongly, to erecting irrational barriers to people to do anything: serve in the military, work in a job, go to college. We have a lot of those barriers now, with affirmative action, that penalize people based on their skin color. I’m against it now; I’m against it when it was practiced in the ’50s. I think it’s cruel and irrational. However, the beauty of the diversity regiment, as it’s now constituted, is that it gives moral cover to the ruling class to perpetuate their power.
So basically what you say is, “We believe in a diverse newsroom. It’s 11 percent black, it’s 15 percent Hispanic and 52 percent female.” But what you leave out is that everybody agrees with everyone else, and they’re all full-speed ahead on keeping the status quo in place — which they are, completely. So you don’t actually ave any diversity at all. Think back to the rationale behind diversity: that you’re going to get a richer environment, that you’re less likely to make dumb mistakes when you don’t have a national consensus, when people come at things with different points of view and assumptions and life experience. And if anything, I see a much more uniform set of life experiences than ever before … I always felt like, If you want real diversity, why not hire some Mormons once in a while? Why not?