Thinking About Things: With Mainstream Journalism Mostly Dead, Where Can One Find Real Journalists?
June 8, 2021
By John DeQ Briggs
I am not sure when journalism became more about collaborating with a predetermined narrative than about uncovering actual facts. I remember in the early days of Donald Trump thinking that his constant invocation of the words “fake news” was nothing more than a wildly exaggerated and misdirected appeal to his base and their obvious animosity to “media elites.” But I do know that being isolated and hunkered down for most of calendar year 2020 gave me a keen awareness that there were competing narratives on television that did not depend on the truth of any actual facts on the ground. This was not a sudden revelation, but a slow and iterative circumstance that developed into a crisis in much the same way that a frog can be put in water and the heat turned on. By the time the water is about to boil and kill the frog, the frog becomes aware of the change, but too late to prevent the conclusion: no escape from boiling to death. And so it was, for me at least, in being in the middle of the rising temperature of the heated news narratives.
At one extreme there was MSNBC and Rachel Maddow and at the other end of the spectrum was Fox News and Sean Hannity. Neither Maddow nor Hannity seemed influenced by facts, but rather had consistent narratives that became increasingly shrill, unhinged, and offensive to common sense. Elsewhere on the media spectrum we had media enterprises chasing ratings and revenue in a similar way: CNN increasingly tilted toward the MSNBC narrative; the New York Times, the Washington Post and their acolytes in other major cities, which tilted heavily against anything Trump, but in a more subtle way than MSNBC and CNN; The Wall Street Journal, which stood out as a defender of many Trump policies (and William Barr), although not President Trump personally; and interestingly we saw some unexpected elements of the tabloid press, which through old-fashioned investigative journalism uncovered some astounding facts (e.g., Hunter Biden’s laptop contents, the biggest non-scandal of the decade), but which 95% of the mainstream media chose completely to ignore.
Meanwhile, nothing outside the borders of the United States was particularly newsworthy unless there was some Russian angle that could be used to tar anyone connected with the Trump administration for one or two news cycles or unless certain countries had better statistics on Covid-19 infections that could be used to criticize the administration’s handling of the entire pandemic.
Living through all of these competing narratives, not to mention the monthly change of position of the administration, the CDC, Dr. Fauci, Governors Newsome, Cuomo and others with regard to the handling of Covid-19 brought forth at some point last year a painful awareness that it was necessary to find more reliable and unbiased sources of factual information; indeed it was necessary to find new sources of actual journalists whose stories were not filtered by editors and editorial boards committed to their narratives whatever the facts.
Happily, and not altogether coincidently, the opportunity presented itself in part because of the development within the media (and academia and even corporate America) of radical identitarian politics, which resulted in a number of excellent journalists being fired from newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and others. These tended to be young journalists who failed to adhere to the religion of antiracism in the wake of the New York Times publication of the Project 1619 essays and did not ignore the riots that spread through Seattle, Portland, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Washington, and other cities after police shootings.
The astonishing amount of violence that followed the murder of George Floyd and other police shootings was ignored by great swaths of the media, which described the riots as “mostly peaceful.” But the media did not ignore the matter of White Guilt writ large. For a few hours or so, Coca Cola ran an advertisement featuring polar bears building a snowman in a pure white arctic environment. The snowman is finished, whereupon a baby polar bear places a Ghanian Kente Cloth and a black BLM facemask on the snowman. At that moment up pops the tagline “Be Less White. Drink Coca-Cola.”
While cities were rioting, burning, and being looted, we had a national election that took place in the context of competing media narratives that did little to persuade new voters of anything, but did much to solidify the darkly and deeply opposing views of our two major political parties and their followers. This was followed by the events of January 6 and the second impeachment of Mr. Trump, who had by then left the presidency.
Those events have spawned their own wildly differing narratives: some comparing the events at the capital to the storming of the German Reichstag by Hitler’s brownshirts in 1933 and others comparing the events to the student takeover and trashing of various university administration buildings in 1968. Both of those narratives are persistent; neither is accepted by any majority, although the mainstream media tilt more towards the Reichstag metaphor. One thing that did not happen: the press did not engage in anything approaching a dispassionate look at the events, including the fact that the several Capitol police officers opened doors and escorted protesters into the building. The film clips of this show the officers saying they thought this was wrong, but they were following instructions. From whom those instructions came, we still do not know and the press is not inquiring.
So, where can one turn to find unfiltered fact-based journalism? Well, it turns out that there is much of it, but it is no longer found in the usual places. A large contributor to the paradigm shift in journalism is Substack. The New York Times recently did a piece called Why we’re Freaking out About Substack, which highlights the reality that employers for journalists are shrinking and the media filtration system that governs writers has become suffocating. Also, some very high-profile journalists, and I am talking about people who follow facts to the bitter end and do not start with a narrative into which facts are shaped, have been simply cancelled by their employers because of editorial pressure, advertiser pressure, or other opinion-dominated pressure.
For such people, Substack is a neutral platform that offers writers and podcasters a way to connect (for a subscription price usually) directly with readers and listeners. Most of the content providers also have active and useful Twitter feeds so that readers can get access to much content simply by following their chosen journalists on Twitter. There are other outlets too and some of the most rational voices, Jonathan Turley for example, still come from older line but not mainstream media (e.g., Politico and The Hill).
So Dear Reader, here are some people you might want to try out. They tend to be young, politically unpredictable both left and right, but neither woke nor imbibers of the current flavors of Kool Aid that demand that all fact-based opinions serve the God of virtue signaling or the religion of antiracism. They are more likely to be cogent explainers of and objectors to Critical Race Theory than defenders of it. But in all cases, they are writers and thinkers who have worthy and interesting reactions to the current crisis of journalism not just in the United States but throughout the Western World.
Jonathan Turley is an increasingly prolific professor of constitutional law at the George Washington University Law school (full disclosure: I was a member of that faculty for almost a decade as an adjunct professor, several steps down the food chain from fully tenured professors such as Mr. Turley). His articles tend to be short, insightful, very much to the point, and increasingly influential. Most of his writings tend to run against the grain of the press herd, and to provide a deeper and more fact-based view of the events that is found in most elements of the mainstream media. He is no defender of the radical right, but he tilts conservative on many of the issues of the day, while tilting liberal but not Progressive on various social issues.
To me, Turley recalls a modern-day Walter Cronkite: he explains things simply and clearly with reference to verifiable facts and he does not push any obvious narrative in disregard of known facts. He was the first serious journalist/constitutional scholar to express amazement at the unanticipated uninterest of most of the media in the Hunter Biden laptop contents story, which seems to implicate several Biden family members in taking money from various foreign governments in expectation of favors. But his reportorial writing goes well beyond the simply political. He goes especially deeply into several recent Supreme Court cases, many of which have been decided 9-0, something that no reader or watcher of the mainstream media would likely know. His point being that, at least on the Supreme Court, and more often than not, there is a strong left/right consensus on a great many issues that reach the Supreme Court. If you follow him on Twitter you will get links to his articles more or less in real time and, unlike many of the people mentioned below, you do not have to pay for access to his blog, titled res ipsa loquitur.
A good selection of his recent articles can be found here.
Then there is Andrew Sullivan, one of the most interesting writers of the day. He is described thusly in his Wikipedia entry:
A British-American author, editor, and blogger Sullivan is a political commentator, a former editor of The New Republic and the author or editor of six books. He started a political blog, The Daily Dish, in 2000, and eventually moved his blog to platforms, including Time, The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, and finally an independent subscription-based format. His newsletter The Weekly Dish was launched in July 2020.
Sullivan says his conservatism is rooted in his Roman Catholic background and in the ideas of the British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott.
Born and raised in Britain, he has lived in the United States since 1984. He is openly gay and a practicing Roman Catholic.
In his most recent article from a few days ago (Our Politics and The English Language), Sullivan writes vividly and unforgettably about other people’s writings. For example, this about Ibram X Kendi, the current Godfather of Critical Race Theory:
I caught a glimpse of Ibram X. Kendi’s recent appearance at the Aspen Ideas Festival, the annual woke, oxygen-deprived hajj for the left-media elites. He was asked to define racism — something you’d think he’d have thought a bit about. This was his response: “Racism is a collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity that are substantiated by racist ideas.” He does this a lot. He repeats Yoda-stye formulae: “There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy … If discrimination is creating equity, then it is antiracist. If discrimination is creating inequity, then it is racist.” These maxims pepper his tomes like deep thoughts in a self-help book.
Reading at least one Andrew Sullivan piece has become an essential part of my week.
Matt Taibbi has a fascinating background, having begun as a freelance reporter in the former Soviet Union, including the period of time in Uzbekistan, where he was deported for criticizing President Karimov. He later worked as a sports journalist for the Moscow Times and played professional baseball in Uzbekistan and Russia as well as professional basketball in Mongolia. He returned to the United States almost 20 years ago and founded a newspaper in Buffalo, but by 2004 he ended up covering politics for Rolling Stone and won a National Magazine Award for his work there. Two years ago, he launched the podcast Useful Idiots. He has written several books, detailed at the link above.
The more you know about and read Matt Taibbi the more you are likley to be captivated by his high level of common sense and grounding in facts – two qualities not normally associated with Progressives.
Glenn Greenwald started out in 1995 as a BigLaw lawyer at the most profitable firm in America (Wachtel Lipton) but migrated to journalism via his blogging on national security issues. He wrote for The Guardian and The Washington Post(where he won a Pulitzer Prize). Along with two others, he founded The Intercept in 2014 but resigned in 2020 and moved, as did many of those I mention, to Substack where his work is available to subscribers, and in part to non-subscribers. While he started out as a center left liberal, he has evolved into an independent thinker and a critic of the groupthink of the left in general.
A listing of his older articles is here. Recent articles from substack are here. He is not so much a contrarian as a truthteller when it comes to the development of facts.
I only “discovered” Sam Morris just recently via a nephew in Europe. He has a regular podcast (they are numbered 1 through 251) under the worthy title of Making Sense.” His current podcast #251 focuses on Corporate Cowardice. The first one I heard was # 217, The New Religion of Anti-Racism, and that is what motivated me to become a subscriber. Most are conversations of up to an hour, low key, and calm. The opposite of cable TV. Number 223, A Conversation with Andrew Sullivan is worth a listen. The introductory part of each episode can be heard for free, but beyond that, the paywall kicks in.
C.J. Hopkins is an American playwright, novelist, and political satirist who lives in and writes from Berlin. He began as a leftish thinker and writer but has evolved into something complex and independent. He publishes via Substack now. It is not possible to categorize his journalistic work, but it is somewhat edgy and hugely entertaining. He punctures bubbles and bloviation mercilessly. A link to links to several articles and essays is here. Topics on which he has been dwelling recently include: The New Normal Reality Police;The Criminalization of Dissent; The Covidian Cult; The Unvaccinated Question; Are You Ready for Total Ideological War.
A link to links to several of his interviews is here. Topics include: The Push Toward a Totalitarian New Normal; The Liberals’ New Pasion foe Snobbery and Censorship; The War on Populism. My favorite interview at the moment is what he did last month with Matt Taibbi (called Meet the Censored), found at the link above.
C.J Hopkins is an acquired taste, so a small amount of patience might be required to become acclimated to his sense of humor. Nothing gets him going though like the endless phenomenon of Progressives analogizing everything they hate to the Nazis. He has done scores of satirical tropes on this
Bari Weiss is an American opinion writer and editor. From 2013 until 2017, she was an op-ed and book review editor at The Wall Street Journal. From 2017 to 2020, she was an op-ed staff editor and writer about culture and politics at The New York Times. Since her heavily publicized, politically motivated, and high profile resignation from the Times, she has worked as a regular columnist for Die Welt. Her focus has been on Israel and the anti-Semitism of the left in the US and Europe, although it was her being on the wrong side of “wrongthink” that led to her controversial resignation from the Times a couple of months ago. It also led her colleagues to refer to her as a bigot and a Nazi (cue articles by C.J. Hopkins on this).
Noah Rothman is the online editor of Commentary magazine and a prolific writer. But what I especially like about him relates to the podcasts that he does, usually chaired by John Podhoretz and with Christine Rosen and Abe Greenwald. A selection of them may be found here, and also here. The became daily last year but are likely soon to return to twice weekly. They last in each case about 55 minutes or so and they are generally calm, thoughtful, and well-focused on a particular topic. And while Commentary Magazine is avowedly conservative, it is not annoyingly political. That is to say, neither the articles nor the podcasts present a consistent narrative into which facts have to be squeezed, twisted, or otherwise finagled to fit any particular narrative. Recent representative titles of Noah Rothman writings and podcasts include: Are Americans in the Mood for a Humiliating Defeat?The Abuse of Kamala Harris; The Spending is the Point; It’s Time for Anthony Fauci to Stop Talking; Wither New York City? The Democrats’ Scientific Racism; Progressivism’s Moral Atrocity in the Middle East, and others in a similar vein.
Most of the best material is behind a pay wall, but that seems to be the way things are today. It seems now that we have to pay to find journalism that is not part of herdthink. It is worth the price.
Bill Maher is a comedian. One thinks of comedians these days as the most politically correct of people, rarely venturing into making fun of the sacred cows of the left. Bill Maher is not such a comedian, and he seems now almost the only one. It is no accident, one supposes, that his program is not on any mainstream network, but rather behind the paywall of HBO. Yet his comedy and his targets are serious and seriously important. A recent show included this diatribe declaring Americans to be “a silly” people.
“Real Time” Liberal host Bill Maher closed his show Friday night by sounding the alarm on China’s growing dominance over the United States.
“You’re not going to win the battle for the 21st century if you are a silly people. And Americans are a silly people,” Maher began the monologue, alluding to a “Lawrence of Arabia” quote.
Do you know who doesn’t care that there’s a stereotype of a Chinese man in a Dr Seuss book? China,” he said. “All 1.4 billion of them couldn’t give a crouching tiger flying f— because they’re not a silly people. If anything, they are as serious as a prison fight.”
Maher acknowledged that China does “bad stuff,” from the concentration camps of Uyghur Muslims to its treatment of Hong Kong.
But he stressed, “There’s got to be something between an authoritarian government that tells everyone what to do and a representative government that can’t do anything at all.” “In two generations, China has built 500 entire cities from scratch, moved the majority of their huge population from poverty to the middle class, and mostly cornered the market in 5G and pharmaceuticals. Oh, and they bought Africa,” Maher said, pointing to China’s global Silk Road infrastructure initiative.
He continued: “In China alone, they have 40,000 kilometres of high-speed rail. America has none. … We’ve been having Infrastructure Week every week since 2009 but we never do anything. Half the country is having a never-ending woke competition deciding whether Mr. Potato Head has a d— and the other half believes we have to stop the lizard people because they’re eating babies. We are a silly people.
“Nothing ever moves in this impacted colon of a country. We see a problem and we ignore it, lie about it, fight about it, endlessly litigate it, sunset clause it, kick it down the road, and then write a bill where a half-assed solution doesn’t kick in for 10 years,” Maher explained. “China sees a problem and they fix it. They build a dam. We debate what to rename it.”
The HBO star cited how it took “ten years” for a bus line in San Francisco to pass its environmental review and how it took “16 years” to build the Big Dig tunnel in Boston, comparing that to a 57-story skyscraper that China built in “19 days” and Beijing’s Sanyuan Bridge, which was demolished and rebuilt in “43 hours.”
“We binge-watch, they binge-build. When COVID hit Wuhan, the city built a quarantine centre with 4,000 rooms in 10 days and they barely had to use it because they quickly arrested the rest of the disease,” Maher said. “They were back to throwing raves in swimming pools while we were stuck at home surfing the dark web for black market Charmin. We’re not losing to China, we lost. The returns just haven’t all come in yet. They’ve made robots that check a kid’s temperature and got their asses back in school. Most of our kids are still pretending to take Zoom classes while they watch TikTok and their brain cells fully commit ritual suicide.”
Maher then blasted Democratic New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, accusing him of degrading school standards by eliminating merit and substituting a lottery system for admittance to schools for advanced learners.
“Do you think China’s doing that, letting political correctness get in the way of nurturing their best and brightest?” Maher continued. “Do you think Chinese colleges are offering courses in ‘The Philosophy of Star Trek’, ‘The Sociology of Seinfeld,’ and ‘Surviving the Coming Zombie Apocalypse’? Those are real and so is China. And they are eating our lunch. And believe me, in an hour, they’ll be hungry again.”
I recommend that you take a bit of time and try out these writers, perhaps following them on Twitter to see if they capture and keep your attention. You will probably feel much better (and likely be better informed) than watching anything on cable news or other news sources.