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America is changing, and so is the media

The media has gone through painful periods of change before. But this time is different.

A copy of the December 23, 2018, edition of the New York Times shows a picture of President Trump.
A copy of the December 23, 2018, edition of the New York Times.
Robert Alexander/Getty Images

In January 1939, the Atlantic published an article titled “I Married a Jew.” In it, the author set out “to tell the world how it really is between a Jew and a Christian, since the world is evidently so intensely interested.”

She confesses that her husband, though lovely in many respects, “still has the Jewish hypersensitivity toward all criticism of his race.” She admits that she frequently tries “to see things from the Nazis’ point of view and to find excuses for the things they do,” only to be met by the “hurt confusion of my husband.” She argues that Jews “must make some practical and rational effort to adapt their ways more graciously to the Gentile pattern, since they prefer to live in Gentile lands.” She confesses that “our hottest argument concerns the question whether there exists such a thing as a Jewish problem.”

This piece makes its way around the internet every so often as a memento from an anti-Semitic time capsule. The appended comment is always along the lines of: Can you believe the Atlantic published that? The unstated, but obvious, corollary, is no reputable outlet — least of all the Atlantic — would publish any such piece today. An editor would read the words “It is only when Ben is surrounded by his family that he lapses into Jewish ways, and then, no doubt, because of his early Jewish training,” DM her colleagues in astonishment, and send the submission to the trash.

There have always been boundaries around acceptable discourse, and the media has always been involved, in a complex and often unacknowledged way, in both enforcing and contesting them. In 1986, the media historian Daniel Hallin argued that journalists treat ideas as belonging to three spheres, each of which is governed by different rules of coverage. There’s the “sphere of consensus,” in which agreement is assumed. There’s the “sphere of deviance,” in which a view is considered universally repugnant, and it need not be entertained. And then, in the middle, is the “sphere of legitimate controversy,” wherein journalists are expected to cover all sides, and op-ed pages to represent all points of view.

Those boundaries, thankfully, change over time. In 1939, the ideas in “I Married a Jew” were in the sphere of legitimate controversy. In 2020, they’re firmly in the sphere of deviance. Those boundaries are changing again now. The difference is that the change — and the conversation behind it — is playing out in public.

The media’s week of reckoning

Last week, the New York Times op-ed section solicited and published an article by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) arguing that the US military should be deployed to “restore order to our streets.” The piece set off an internal revolt at the Times, with staffers coordinating pushback across Twitter, and led to the resignation of James Bennet, the editor of the op-ed section, and the reassignment of Jim Dao, the deputy editor.

That same week, Stan Wischnowski, the top editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, resigned after publishing an article by the paper’s architecture critic titled “Buildings Matter, Too.” David Boardman, the chair of the board that owns the Inquirer, said Wischnowski had done “remarkable” work but “leaves behind some decades-old, deep-seated and vitally important issues around diversity, equity and inclusion, issues that were not of his creation but that will likely benefit from a fresh approach.”

One interpretation of these events, favored by frustrated conservatives, is that a generation of young, woke journalists want to see the media remade along activist lines, while an older generation believes it must cover the news without fear and favor, and reflect, at the very least, the full range of views held by those in power.

“The New York Times motto is ‘all the news that’s fit to print,’” wrote the Times’s Bari Weiss. “One group emphasizes the word ‘all.’ The other, the word ‘fit.’”

Another interpretation is that the range of acceptable views isn’t narrowing so much as it’s shifting. Two decades ago, an article like Cotton’s could easily be published, an essay arguing for abolishing prisons or police would languish in the submissions pile, and a slogan like “Black Lives Matter” would be controversial. Today, Black Lives Matter is in the sphere of consensus, abolishing prisons is in legitimate controversy, and there’s a fight to move Cotton’s proposal to deploy troops against US citizens into deviance. The idea space is just as large as it’s been in the past — perhaps larger — but it is in flux, and the fight to define its boundaries is more visible.

“Those are political decisions,” says Charles Whitaker, dean of the Medill School of Journalism. “They are absolutely governed by politics — either our desire to highlight certain political views or not highlight them, or to create this impression that we’re just a marketplace of ideas.”

The media is changing because the world is changing

I was a blogger in the early aughts, before I ever imagined becoming a journalist. That was, in retrospect, when the mainstream media began losing control over the conversation, though it was hard to imagine it at the time. In 2005, I was hired at the American Prospect. I went on to spend four years at the Washington Post and then co-found Vox in 2014. Over that time, the media has changed, dramatically, because the world has changed dramatically. Four trends in particular are converging to create the current moment.

First, business models built around secure local advertising monopolies collapsed into the all-against-all war for national, even global, attention that defines digital media. The New York Times, the LA Times, and the Washington Post might have competed for scoops in the ’80s, but they didn’t really compete for subscribers because they were rooted in different places. Now, they do — and they also compete with hundreds of other outlets. An audience that has more choices is an audience that has more power. Outlets are more sensitive to how they’re perceived because the threat of losing readers is very real.

Second, the nationalization of news has changed the nature of the audience. The local business model was predicated on dominating coverage of a certain place; the national business model is about securing the loyalties of a certain kind of person. This has been a particular challenge for the Times, which wants to be the paper of record for everyone but is a particularly central institution for liberals and is often caught in conflict with President Trump and his allies. But it goes far beyond the Times. All publishers are now in a tighter feedback loop with their audience’s interests and perspectives, chasing a more segmented audience, in ways that put more pressure on their own coverage decisions. I’ve written about this transformation at length, and I don’t think its importance can be overstated.

Third, America is in a moment of rapid demographic and generational change. Millennials are now the largest generation, and they are far more diverse and liberal than the generations that preceded them. The oldest millennials are now 40, the youngest 26 — which means they increasingly dominate workplaces, and they are a customer base any healthy business needs. In newsrooms, specifically, they are now numerous enough, senior enough, and powerful enough to make their views heard. And their views on which ideas go into which spheres are different from the generation that preceded them. Their emphasis on a diverse and inclusive workplace is different from the generations that preceded them. That isn’t to deny the existence of leftist boomers or alt-right millennials, but the center of generational gravity is changing, and institutions are changing in response.

“Organizations that have embraced the mantra that they need to diversify have not as quickly realized that diversifying means they have to be a fundamentally different place,” says Jelani Cobb, the Ira A. Lipman professor at the Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer at the New Yorker. “If you want to bring in different perspectives, you’ll have a different culture and different environment that will lead you to make different decisions.”

Fourth, the rise of social media empowered not just the audience but, crucially, individual journalists, who now have the capacity to question their employer publicly, and alchemize staff and public discontent into a public crisis that publishers can’t ignore. Almost as important is the existence of internal communication channels like Slack that create spaces where staffers can easily communicate and coordinate.

“Reporters aren’t shut down by their bosses who say, ‘These are our standards, this is how it’ll be done,’” says Whitaker. “They have a whole other platform on which to continue that discussion, rally troops. That’s throwing everyone for a loop.”

It’s also forcing conversations and debates that would have once remained private into the public. There’s nothing new about generational and technological upheaval transforming the news — Matt Pressman’s On Press: The Liberal Values That Shaped the News is an excellent account of this dynamic in a past generation — but it used to be a quieter process, with debate contained inside newsrooms and change happening through retirement and recruitment. Now it happens, at least in moments of rupture, in public.

The media prefers to change in private. Now it’s changing in public.

The news media likes to pretend that it simply holds up a mirror to America as it is. We don’t want to be seen as actors crafting the political debate, agents who make decisions that shape the boundaries of the national discourse. We are, of course. We always have been.

“When you think in terms of these three spheres — sphere of consensus, of legitimate debate, and of deviancy — a new way of describing the role for journalism emerges, which is: They police what goes in which sphere,” says Jay Rosen, who teaches journalism at NYU. “That’s an ideological action they never took responsibility for, never really admitted they did, never had a language for talking about.”

It’s interesting to imagine what would’ve happened if the Times had simply never solicited Cotton’s op-ed, or if he had submitted it and they had passed. The answer, quite clearly, is nothing. That would have been perfectly normal. It’s because the op-ed was reclassified as deviant after its publication, through a semi-public process, that it’s become such a flashpoint. It made visible a process that is often invisible, and it turns out that process is messy and contested.

Trump has sharpened the contradictions here. He and his allies operate in ways that are fundamentally opposed to the basic values that animate newsrooms. This has long caused newsrooms trouble — consider the endless effort to find euphemisms for the word “lying” when describing the president’s comments in headlines. With Cotton’s op-ed, the decision that ultimately got made pushed the views held by the president of the United States and most of his supporters into a sphere of deviance — or maybe a more modern term would be “deplorability.” That is not the kind of choice news outlets are comfortable making.

One of the central instabilities of the era is that media and cultural power runs 10 years ahead of demography, and political power 10 years behind. Donald Trump and the Republican Party hold power because our system of government empowers an older, whiter, more reactionary minority to wield majority political power through the structure of the Electoral College, the design of the Senate, and the lifetime appointments of the Supreme Court. But they feel locked out of cultural and media power, which is disproportionately urban, diverse, and focused on serving the rising generation of consumers and tastemakers.

You see that collision here. Both sides feel the other is illegitimate, that they’re misusing their power and betraying the values of the institutions they control. In truth, they’re fighting over those values, over the boundaries of the debate, and the differences have become sharp enough to force institutions to pick a side. That’s new, particularly for the institutions that used to be able to straddle, and even define, the divides. But it reflects changes that have been reshaping the country for decades.

“The Times used to be the ecosystem,” says Cobb, “and now the Times is in an ecosystem, and it’s vulnerable to what happens there.”

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