Andrew Sullivan and the Narrative of the "MSM Narrative"

The narrative on MSM narratives is false.

Over the weekend Andrew Sullivan published a jeremiad against the “mainstream media” that tracks pretty closely with the Matt Taibbi-Glenn Greenwald-Bari Weiss view: that one of America’s most pressing concerns is woke activists at the New York Times.

You can read it here if you want. A flavor of his complaint:

Think of the other narratives the MSM pushed in recent years that have collapsed. They viciously defamed the Covington boys. They authoritatively told us that bounties had been placed on US soldiers in Afghanistan by Putin—and Trump’s denials only made them more certain. They told us that the lab-leak theory of Covid was a conspiracy theory with no evidence behind it at all. (The NYT actually had the story of the leak theory, by Donald McNeil, killed it, and then fired McNeil, their best Covid reporter, after some schoolgirls complained he wasn’t woke.) Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

The MSM took the ludicrous story of Jussie Smollett seriously because it fit their nutty “white supremacy” narrative. They told us that a woman was brutally gang-raped at UVA (invented), that the Pulse mass shooting was driven by homophobia (untrue) and that the Atlanta spa shooter was motivated by anti-Asian bias (no known evidence for that at all). For good measure, they followed up with story after story about white supremacists targeting Asian-Americans, in a new wave of “hate,” even as the assaults were disproportionately by African Americans and the mentally ill.

As Greenwald noted, the NYT “published an emotionally gut-wrenching but complete fiction that never had any evidence—that Officer Sicknick’s skull was savagely bashed in with a fire extinguisher by a pro-Trump mob until he died.” The media told us that an alleged transgender exposure in the Wi Spa in Los Angeles was an anti-trans hoax (also untrue). They told us that the emails recovered on Hunter Biden’s laptop were Russian disinformation. They did this just before an election and used that claim to stymie the story on social media. But they were not Russian disinformation. They were a valid if minor news story the media consciously kept from its audience for partisan purposes.

More recently, the MSM were telling us for months that inflation is a phantasm. We were told that the “2021 Inflation Scare is another in a series of false alarms going back several decades.” We were assured that “the numbers at least for now are on the side of those expecting the trend to subside and then stabilize at lower levels.” Any concern was “fearmongering politics.” And now we wake up to the highest inflation in 30 years, counter-balancing wage increases. Still, they tell us, all will be well.

We were told that vaccines would end the Covid pandemic. But they merely altered Covid to a manageable disease that you could still contract while vaccinated. We were told that the migrant surge at the border was just seasonal, and nothing out of the ordinary, even as 1.7 million migrants were illegally trying to get into the country in the last year. We were told that sending migrants back to their home countries was a wicked and unconscionable Trump tactic — even as the Biden administration swiftly copied it with Haitian immigrants — to much success. The cruelty is the point, eh?

This is nonsense. Let’s unpack all of it.


“We” and “They”

What and/or who is “the mainstream media”? Is it the New York Times and the Washington Post? The AP? NBC News and CNN? Ryan Lizza’s Twitter feed? The Los Angeles Times? BuzzFeed? Axios? NPR? Maggie Haberman’s book?

The “mainstream media”—I’m going to stop putting that in quotes, but keep imagining that I’m saying it sarcastically—is probably made up of several thousand individuals and then a three-figure number of institutions. At any given moment, on any given story, some number of these people and institutions will communicate facts that are eventually understood to be misleading or incorrect. Some of these people and institutions are better at their jobs than others.

The point is that the MSM universe is so large that you’re always going to be able to cherry-pick examples to support the notion that “they” are feeding “us” false narratives.

Let’s take a couple for-instances:

Sullivan claims that there is a mainstream media narrative calling inflation just a big nothingburger. In support of this he links to a column in Forbes and a piece on CNBC. (These outlets are also the MSM.)

Is that the dominant “media narrative?”

Here’s the New York Times with an A1 story in May 2021: “Widespread Commodity Shortages Raise Inflation Fears.”

Here’s a January 2021 piece (also from the NYT) explaining the four different types of danger that inflation represents.

Here’s the Wall Street Journal from last July: “Inflation Pushes Consumer-Goods Giant to Accelerate Price Increases.”

I could do this all day, but you get the idea. We have had a robust conversation about whether the inflation we’re seeing is transitory, or not. There are different signals pointing in different directions. Of the thousands of people who make up the MSM, some give more credence to one view, some to the other.1

The same is true for literally every other example Sullivan cherry-picks. Jussie Smollett was not an “MSM narrative.” It was a crime-blotter case that the media reported, and then continued reporting on, even as the subsequent reporting took Smollett’s story apart.

Here is one of the early MSM stories, which ran under the headline “‘Empire’ actor Jussie Smollett allegedly assaulted in possible hate crime, police say”:

Chicago police have opened a hate crime investigation after a cast member of the television show "Empire" alleged he was attacked by men who shouted racial and homophobic slurs at him and physically attacked him.

Police didn't name the victim but Fox Entertainment identified him as 36-year-old Jussie Smollett. The actor, who identifies as gay, told police he was attacked while walking downtown around 2 a.m. Tuesday. 

Police said the victim reported two people approached him and began shouting "racial and homophobic slurs" at him. The men allegedly struck the victim in the face, "poured an unknown chemical substance" on him, and wrapped a rope around his neck, according to a police statement. 

In a follow-up interview with police, Smollett said his attackers yelled "MAGA country" during the assault, Chicago police confirmed to CBS News. 

As of Tuesday evening, police said they had yet to find surveillance video that showed the crime. "Thus far, no video of the alleged assailants or a vehicle has been discovered but we are continuing to broaden our search," Chicago Police Department spokesperson Anthony Guglielmi said on Twitter

Is that pushing a media narrative? Or is it carefully worded reporting that conspicuously avoids any conclusions?

Both the New York Times and New York Post were highly skeptical and did reporting that suggested that Smollett had been lying to the police.

And within a couple of weeks, Smollett’s story fell apart entirely.

Surely some people in or around the MSM were more credulous than they should have been. Some people were skeptical from the start. There was no “narrative” except the one that exists in Andrew Sullivan’s head.

As I said, we could do this all day long.

And of the dozens of thousands of meta-stories the MSM has covered over the last five years, much of the reporting has added real value to our world, yes?

For instance, if you only relied on reporting from the MSM about COVID, you would have been much better informed than if you’d relied on, say, Facebook, or conservative media. Reporting on the 2020 election lawsuits and allegations of fraud in the MSM were, in the main, very helpful.

Sullivan also reaches for non-stories—unless you’re Very Online, I doubt you’ve heard of the Wi-Spa trans controversy—and then tries to use a big-time journalistic malpractice moment (Rolling Stone’s UVA rape hoax) as an indictment of the media. But the Rolling Stone case is actually a proof of concept for the media.

Remember: It wasn’t a faceless blob called “the media” that published the UVA story. It was Rolling Stone. And it was a collection of reporters at various “mainstream media outlets” who took the Rolling Stone story apart.


It Has Always Been Thus

Sullivan is outraged at how the Daily Beast and the New Republic ascribed anti-gay animus to the Pulse nightclub shooting. He thinks that maybe this is all Trump’s fault, that Trump broke the media’s collective brain:

We need facts and objectivity more than ever. Trump showed that. What we got in the MSM was an over-reaction, a reflexive overreach to make the news fit the broader political fight.

Man oh man, I hope no one tells Sully about 60 Minutes and the forged George W. Bush Texas Air National Guard documents.

Or Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

Or the NYT and Jayson Blair.

Or the media’s handling of Alger Hiss.

Or how the media covered for the Rosenbergs.

Or Walter Duranty.

I mention this history not to damn the mainstream media, but to show that what Sullivan laments isn’t new. There is no golden past. People in the media make mistakes. Sometimes big ones. Bigger, even, than the “narrative” on the Covington kids.

Sometimes, as in the case of Walter Duranty, it takes decades to fix those mistakes.

Other times, as in the case of the Covington kids, it takes a week or two.


What’s the Alternative?

Undergirding Sullivan’s essay is a notion that someone ought to do something.

Well, we tried that. “Conservative media” in its modern incarnation—the Washington Times, Fox News, the Federalist—was created as a corrective to the endemic flaws in the mainstream media.

How’s that working out for us?

The conservative broadcast ecosystem—Fox, OAN, Newsmax, talk radio—is so untethered from reality that their legal departments occasionally force them to air libel-remedy hostage videos condemning their own “reporting.” They air anti-vaccine nonsense and false-flag theories.

The Federalist publishes snuff fantasies and COVID death-cult nonsense.

And conservative media criticism is so nakedly partisan that on occasions when conservative media makes a mistake—for instance, the Washington Examiner’s Muslim prayer-rugs-at-the-border story—the response from erstwhile “conservative media critics” was . . . [crickets].

In conservative media, there is no self-corrective outside of the legal system.2


Any Club at Hand

Ask yourself this: If Glenn Greenwald is so concerned about accuracy, then why does he go on Fox News to complain about the media when Fox formally testifies that it traffics in “exaggeration” and “non-literal commentary”?

It’s almost like Glenn Greenwald is doing his Scourge of the Media shtick for some other reason.

I suspect that the same is true of Sullivan, only his reason is more honorable.

Andrew Sullivan has always been a man of passions.

Sometimes those passions ran to defending Charles Murray.

Sometimes those passions were for the creation of a legal regime for gay marriage.

Sometimes those passions led him to attack people skeptical of the Iraq War as the “Hate-America-First crowd.”

Sometimes those passions caused him to insist that Barack Obama would put an end to America’s culture wars. (And also probably conflict in the Middle East.)3

Once upon a time, those passions even led Sullivan down a rabbit hole to suggesting—for months on end—that Sarah Palin had faked a pregnancy and that “the media” was complicit in this coverup.

Why has Sullivan recently become so exercised about the dangers of MSM narratives? I suspect because we often write what we know.

In recent years Andrew Sullivan has been othered by parts of the MSM for sins against current political orthodoxy. To him, these recent developments feel like a big, all-consuming story. Because for him, personally, they have been.

And I’ll be honest: I get that.4 I get that a lot.

But someone has to defend the honor of the dreaded mainstream media. Because here is the very boring truth about “MSM narratives”:

The media is a vast space where actors and institutions are interconnected, but operate semi-independently, according to a variety of incentives. Sometimes independent actors make good-faith mistakes. Sometimes they make bad-faith mistakes. But in most cases—in nearly every case, actually—the marketplace of ideas eventually wins and the truth outs.

The MSM is like a giant peer-review system, but where the peer-reviewing takes place after publication. Jonathan Rauch talks about this at length in The Constitution of Knowledge—that the scientific enterprise and the journalistic enterprise have similar modes of operation. Is the journalistic mode great? No. Like democracy, it is the worst system there is—except for all the others.

By its diffuse nature, the media can’t be optimized. There will always be flaws and inefficiencies.5

But pace Sullivan, I’d argue that the mainstream media’s continued openness to self-correction over the last few years is evidence of its overall reliability and health—even in the face of our democracy having hit a real-deal constitutional crisis.

Actually I’d go even further: We are on the cusp of a media crisis that no one is talking about.

As we move toward 2024, the big concern should be how the media would cover an openly anti-democratic presidential candidate. Would they treat said candidate as a danger to America? Or would they attempt to remain neutral and pretend that he was just another generic politician doing normal political things?

If this scenario comes to pass, that would be something entirely new in media.

And it’s not clear to me that anyone is really gaming this problem out yet.


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1

I’ve been warning about inflation danger all damn year. I guess this means I’m not part of the MSM narrative.

2

A couple weeks ago American Greatness published a story alleging Kristi Noem had an affair with Corey Lewandowski. It’s a story in the same zip code as the Rolling Stone UVA rape hoax. And yet it just . . . sits there. 

3

This is an actual quote from Sullivan’s Atlantic cover story on the wonders of Barack Obama:

What does he offer? First and foremost: his face. Think of it as the most effective potential re-branding of the United States since Reagan. Such a re-branding is not trivial—it’s central to an effective war strategy. The war on Islamist terror, after all, is two-pronged: a function of both hard power and soft power. We have seen the potential of hard power in removing the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. We have also seen its inherent weaknesses in Iraq, and its profound limitations in winning a long war against radical Islam. The next president has to create a sophisticated and supple blend of soft and hard power to isolate the enemy, to fight where necessary, but also to create an ideological template that works to the West’s advantage over the long haul. There is simply no other candidate with the potential of Obama to do this. Which is where his face comes in.

Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.

4

The analog being: “JVL’s professional life was upended by Trump, so of course he thinks Trumpism is a unique danger to America.” But my personal crisis really is a national crisis, I insist self-servingly.

5

Also: Cable news is terrible. But the problems with cable news are more about the form, broadcast media, than “the media” in general.