Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer
the national interest

In Defense of Independent Opinion Journalism

The ‘hack gap’ between right and left has been closing.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer

A couple decades ago, liberals began to see the structural asymmetry in the news media as one of the major problems in American politics. The Republican Party had an unapologetically partisan media apparatus — anchored by Fox News, founded in 1996 — that it used to promote its message. Democrats lacked anything similar. Even worse, the mainstream media had become highly sensitive to charges of liberal bias and habitually treated Republican-promoted narratives, however superficial or farcical, as inherently newsworthy. The conservative media was slavishly partisan, and the “liberal” media was filled with stories about how Al Gore was seen as a pathological liar, or John Kerry an effete flip-flopper.

Two phrases came into circulation that expressed this frustration. One was working the refs, which was borrowed from the sports world to describe how Republicans pushed reporters and editors rightward with nonstop complaints of bias.

The second was hack gap, which described the imbalance in professional ethos between left and right. Liberal pundits tended to see themselves as journalists rather than activists. They were expected to advance original arguments rather than echo a common message, and the rewards of career advancement generally went to those willing to criticize Democrats and fellow progressives. Conservative pundits usually came out of the conservative movement, saw themselves as working toward an ideological project, and operated with the tight discipline of a movement. Democrats would face swift internal criticism if they fudged the truth or violated any ethical norm, while Republicans, as long as they remained faithful to conservative doctrine, could count on the support from their chorus no matter what they did.

Over time, these critiques have exerted a profound effect on the news media. The mainstream media has moved distinctly to the left, and its once-universal practice of covering every factual debate merely by alternating quotes from opposing parties while treating the truth as unknowable has become rarer.

Progressive opinion journalism has changed even more dramatically. Breaking from the pack to question a shared belief on the left is no longer a prized trait; it is now possible to build a career unswervingly affirming progressive movement stances. On the whole, the profession has changed for the better. The internet has opened up far more voices on the left, in every way. There are more writers from more perspectives and bringing more expertise, and more of them are not white men. The absurdity of the 1990s world in which the ideological spectrum of mainstream thought ended at the center left needed to die. My work as a liberal writer is far more interesting today than it was when I began. Liberalism as a whole benefits from a strong critique from the left as well as the right.

As a political matter, the conservative-messaging apparatus no longer operates without any parallel opposition. The asymmetric structure of the media 15 or 20 years ago, which shaped Republicans into a party free to violate norms while Democrats felt constrained to follow them, is giving way to a more balanced system. After years complaining why liberals lacked their own version of Fox News, we can now see something like it, cobbled together from websites and cable-news programming.

At the same time, the downsides of this new media world have become increasingly obvious. Along with their partisan messaging system, progressives are constructing a counterpart to the information bubble in which conservatives have long resided. Where it was once rare to encounter some pseudo-fact circulating among the left, it is now routine to find people believing Michael Brown was shot with his hands up, lab-leak is a debunked conspiracy theory, or that Republicans are routinely banning instruction about racism.

In 2010, libertarian writer Julian Sanchez described the sealed universe of conservative thinking as “epistemic closure” — any source that refuted conservative claims was automatically deemed untrustworthy. One can now discern on the left at least the embryonic formation of a similar alt-universe, in which any inconvenient challenge is reflexively dismissed as “bothsidesing,” “concern trolling,” some form of bigotry, or any other of an ever-expanding list of buzzwords used to delineate wrong-think.

All these buzzwords describe real evils. Yet they have also become talismans used to ward off any facts or beliefs that complicate the progressive narrative.

The hack gap is closing to the point where it seems necessary now to defend the existence of independent-opinion journalism. I am modifying a phrase used recently by New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger, who in a long Columbia Journalism Review essay last month defended his paper’s commitment to what he called “independent journalism.”

Sulzberger focused mainly on news reporting. But I think his concept can be borrowed and applied to opinion journalism in a fairly simple way. Independent-opinion journalism describes opinion writing that is designed to inform readers about the world through argument and analysis, rather than to directly encourage political outcomes.

Independence should be understood as a set of habits that can be practiced by writers from the breadth of the ideological spectrum. It does not mean having an “independent” identity in the partisan voting sense, or having a moderate personal politics. Independent-opinion journalism can be produced by writers occupying perspectives located between the two parties, outside of or orthogonal to them, or squarely within them.

Independence encourages (though hardly guarantees; we are all fallible) certain kinds of mental hygiene: Trying to imagine every situation if the partisan identities were reversed, conceding that people whose political commitments you generally oppose sometimes have correct or sympathetic points, testing your own arguments for logical and historical consistency. Would I oppose this tactic currently being used by the opposing party if my own party used it? Would I defend this tactic being used by my party if the opposing party used it?

An activist’s job is to promote (or, in some cases, prevent) political change. This is a completely honorable profession. But the contours of this job of moving public opinion toward the position you desire involves shading some truths and omitting others. Both forms of argument can be persuasive and articulate, but one is designed for edification, and the other is designed to advance political ends.

Think of the difference between a professor analyzing a legal question and a lawyer advocating for a client. The former has a point of view but is using argument for the sake of promoting deeper understanding for their readers. The latter is using whatever facts are most helpful to their client.

If you consider the metaphor working the refs, the distinction between independent-opinion journalism and political activism becomes perfectly clear. The phrase describes the way many coaches berate referees, in the belief that they will force those officials to call the game in a more favorable way. The coach may be biased enough to genuinely believe everything he screams at the refs, and the fans of his team may see the refs the same way the coach does. But a coach who’s working the refs is not setting out to give fans a fair assessment of the officials. His goal is to win the game.

Many of the writers engaging in public critiques of the mainstream media, either from the left or from the right, are working the refs. To the extent you rely on ref-workers as sources of political information, you are putting your brain in the hands of people who aren’t principally interested in enlightening you. They may want you to be informed about stories that encourage you to support their political coalition. They don’t, however, want to inform you about stories that undermine it. They are working you.

This form of advocacy does not need to be consciously cynical. Its advocates often see themselves as idealists of the highest form. They are fighting a great crusade against liars. Their mental model is a kind of trench warfare in which the yielding of any ground to the adversary is defeat. National Review, in a fundraising appeal, tells potential donors it has dismissed every report of ethical misconduct by the Supreme Court as meritless. “No more. Not another inch. The architects of these smear campaigns must be stopped,” it insists, before soliciting donations.

The same metaphor, not another inch, popped up in a memo NBC’s Ben Collins submitted to judges of the 2023 Walter Cronkite Awards for Excellence in Television Political Journalism. Collins presented the struggle for truth in martial terms. “The people putting out the truth are under siege in the information war,” he wrote. The ingredients for victory in this war, he argued, are unity and willpower:

Triumphs of the truth are not accidents. They are times the American media — including and especially those outside of the disinformation beat — did not equivocate and did not give an inch to lies and the liars who tell them … But it takes unity, and not capitulation, in these moments. There is no meeting liars halfway, because the truth then becomes one-half lie. We must simply be louder, and clearer, with the truth.

The notion that there are times when a journalist’s job is to give an inch, because the other side has a point, did not receive even a nod from Collins in his memo. (That did not seem to bother the Cronkite Awards judges, who praised Collins for his “brilliant, brave work” that was “honest and necessary.”)

If you contemplate this information war from the perspective of one trench, and then the other, you don’t have to draw a precise equivalent between the two to understand that is not exactly conducive to introspection.

The tension between independent-opinion journalism and political advocacy is often most acute when there arises a matter that divides a political coalition. Advocates prefer to emphasize ideas and issues that unify their coalition, and deemphasize issues that divide it.

Here is a common phenomenon that often arises when a political coalition is accused of doing something controversial. One faction of writers within the coalition will defend the controversial thing. Another group will deny it is taking place at all. Revealingly, these two groups will not argue with each other, even though, on the surface, they have taken diametrical positions. The reason is that they are not concerned with what is true but are willing to support any political line that helps their movement. The logic of maintaining peace within the coalition overrides the journalistic logic of explicating a difference of belief.

During the Trump era, when the former president would make one of his regular illegal or violent threats, conservatives would reliably split. The more traditional conservative National Review types would ignore it or laugh it off as ineffectual bluster, while the hard-core MAGA-heads would gloat that their leader was finally taking the gloves off. The debate over left-wing illiberalism produced a similar kind of doublethink: Some progressives dismissed the whole idea that a new wave of restrictive social standards was sweeping through elite institutions as an imagined moral panic, while others defended the changes as overdue “accountability culture.”

There was no need on either side to straighten out the contradiction. The claims “X would be bad, but our side is not doing it” and “our side is doing X, and it is good” are logical antitheses that can, and often do, work hand in hand politically.

When I write something critical of progressives, the most common critique I encounter is that I should instead focus on criticizing the right, because the right poses the greater danger. Sometimes the complaint takes the form of asking, “Why are you writing about this instead of that?” — this being the failings of our side, that being the failings of the opposing side. Frequently this complaint materializes as an assertion that the important issue (usually described as “the problem” or “the real problem”) lies elsewhere.

Conservative writers who attacked Donald Trump were met with a hail of angry declarations from Republicans that the real problem was Hillary Clinton’s perfidy or wokeness or what have you. Progressives who criticize their fellow coalition partners encounter the same response. (And this holds true of leftists who criticize liberals as well as vice versa.)

I can write a dozen columns in a row attacking the right, and the next column attacking the left will predictably draw the familiar complaints that I do it too much. In practice, the appropriate level of internal criticism demanded by many activists is zero.

Of course, decisions about what kinds of issues deserve opinion coverage, and in what quantity, are a perfectly reasonable thing to question. I can name several writers, almost entirely on the left, who I believe fixate too heavily on the flaws of their own side. But the correct amount of criticism of progressives or Democrats isn’t zero. Roughly over the last decade the ubiquity of the this-not-that complaint, and the sweeping form it often takes, suggests that there is more at work than a limited complaint about issue allocation. There is a general, widespread, and (from what I can tell) growing taboo against criticizing fellow progressives — unless, of course, the criticism is for their lack of ideological or political ardor.

The deeper confusion at work here is between the logic of political activism and independent-opinion journalism. Political action occurs within a two-party system that forces us to choose between flawed options. To allow your political decisions, like voting and advocacy, to be driven by a fixation with the flaws of the lesser evil would be perverse.

Opinion journalism does not need to observe these constraints. Voting is a binary choice, but thinking is not.

The critique from advocates demands, either explicitly or implicitly, that opinion journalists be judged by the standards of political advocates. The primary, or sometimes only, measure of a piece of writing is whether it helps the good guys win. That has been the dominant assumption within conservative-opinion journalism throughout my career. On the left it was once rare, but it has grown increasingly common. The hack gap, as we used to call it, is shrinking. Perhaps not coincidentally, the phrase has gone out of circulation.

I acknowledged near the outset that the shrinking of the hack gap has some salutary effects. A polity in which one party commands a messaging apparatus and the other has to rely on a skeptical independent press corps is perverse. But we should be cautious about the direction in which the field is heading.

The all-but-explicit strategy many progressives have is to build a mirror image of the conservative movement’s apparatus. Progressive-opinion journalism would play the same role in that ecosystem as conservative pundits in the right-wing world: hammering home orthodoxy, ignoring or minimizing inconvenient stories, and smoothing over intra-coalitional differences.

This objective may seem a laudable, or at least necessary, defense against a Republican Party that is evolving into authoritarianism. What liberals need to understand is that copying the right’s epistemological methods will eventually mean copying its political style. The Republican Party has become radicalized and authoritarian because it is trapped in a bubble, seeing its enemies as dangerous and its own leaders as weak, responding to this reality in aggressive ways that only deepen its anger and paranoia.

The Republicans’ ability to operate within a closed epistemology may seem to liberals an envious advantage, but it is also a source of weakness. Republicans have hobbled themselves with unpopular policies and corrupt leaders yet have instead directed their anger outward. Their party discipline disables internal criticism and creates a culture in which every failure is a betrayal, and the only response is to fight even harder. It is not a coincidence that Republicans have won the national popular vote just once since Fox News was established. (They have eked out two election wins while losing the national vote, but that is due to an advantage in the distribution of their voters that is not available to Democrats).

And when they have held power, Republicans have proven to be repeatedly inept in advancing even their own objectives. The Bush administration and the Trump administration were both largely debacles even on conservative terms. The worst failures of these presidencies — the Iraq War, the housing bubble, the failure to repeal Obamacare, Donald Trump’s COVID denial —revealed the weakness of a movement that was too ideologically rigid to maneuver. The practice of branding all skeptics as traitors has the nasty side effect of making you believe your own bullshit.

For all the peril it faces, American liberalism’s nimbleness is an underrated strength. That resilience requires at least some independent-opinion journalists who operate outside of the progressive-movement discipline.

None of the standards I have tried to outline here should be taken to suggest that my career is the perfect model of independent-opinion journalism, or that adhering to them is a guarantee of intellectual rigor. Of the large body of work I’ve produced since I started in the mid-1990s, some of it I regard with pride and some with regret. I would never hold myself out as a perfectly consistent practitioner of mental hygiene, and sometimes even following the best methods will fail to yield a good outcome. I don’t even believe the definition of independent-opinion journalism I’ve offered here should be taken as definitive — it is, rather, an attempt to open up a subject that has fallen into neglect.

The higher standards of rigor, consistency, and fairness found in liberal-opinion journalism used to be a source of pride. We need to rediscover, and sharpen, that ambition to be better. The only thing worse than having a hack gap may be not having one.

In Defense of Independent Opinion Journalism