In theory, a journalist is supposed to bring a healthy dose of skepticism to everything they report. The questioning doubt nagging at them, the junkyard dog reluctance to trust anything until it proves itself worthy – that would be their skepticism at work if they had skepticism and if it was at work. Alas, in practice, the overwhelming majority of American journalists drive to work each day in a cynicism-mobile. They punch the clock having already delineated the game and all its players. They see everyone in terms of their labeling, but, ironically, they don’t actually differentiate between labels. A Republican spouting anti-democratic, authoritarian tripe is the same as a Democrat defending democracy. To the cynical journalist, both sides have their opinions. Both opinions carry equal weight, their opinions being based on equal things (even if those things are facts and feelings, two very unequal things). Cynicism tells a journalist that it doesn’t really matter what any politician says because “they’re just a politician” even if one is advocating for democracy and the other is advocating for democracy’s violent overthrow.
Cynicism lies at the broken heart of “Both Sides Do It” brand journalism. It takes an entirely corporate view of both its audience and the American public. The corporate view doesn’t really care about democracy, it cares about its bottom line. If some system other than democracy could guarantee it more profits? The corporate view would immediately think “Screw democracy! Profits ho!” That would be short-sighted of course but then, greed is always short sighted. Greed deals in headlines and never the deep dive because deep dives cost money and reduce profits – the only thing that matters to greed.
Cynicism assumes the worst of everyone. All motives are ulterior. All acts are political and self-serving. The commonweal is a myth or, worse, a collecting pool for suckers.
Democracy can’t live in such an environment where people who believe in democracy are considered suckers because they believe in democracy. Similarly, democracy can’t endure where one of the two parties charged with managing the democracy has decided to forcefully end that democracy. A cynical journalist looks at the GOP and thinks “Republicans behaving like authoritarians is normal; authoritarianism is their “opinion du jour”. They could just as easily change back to being “democratic” tomorrow. It doesn’t matter what their point is, it only matters that they have one; that fact alone validates their point.
A skeptical journalist on the other hand would look a little closer at those Republicans, curious about how they went from being democratic to being authoritarian. Skeptical journalists have one question that drives them eternally: WHY? Why do people REALLY do what they do or say what they say? Sure, sure – everyone has an explanation at the ready but those explanations aren’t always true. Take, say, a Republican restricting voting rights in the face of the most secure election in American history. The Republican will say with a straight face that they’re worried about “election security”. While a cynical journalist would nod along with this bullshit assertion – hey, that’s his opinion! – the skeptical journalist would bore in. “What do you mean you’re worried about election security? The last election WAS secure; the issue seems to be that YOU LOST THE ELECTION and THAT’S what all your actions clearly are meant to “fix”. When the Republican spewed their nonsensical answer, the skeptical journalist would refuse to accept it. And bore in even further, like a shark with the smell of blood in its nostrils.
Imagine for a second if our news media had refused to accept “Mexicans are rapists” and “pussy grabbing” as readily as they accepted “But her emails!” Imagine if our press had refused to move on from Trump announcing his presidential candidacy in such a racist way. But then, cynical journalists think racism is an opinion one can have or not have. That’s why they think you can ask a Donald Trump “are you a racist?” and then have faith that the answer – “I’m the least racist person you’ve ever met” – is true. See how that works? Our news media won’t violate their neutrality on the subject of “is Trump a racist” because HE (a racist) says he isn’t one.
A skeptical journalist would never ask a racist that question to begin with because they’d know before asking the question what the answer would be. Skeptical journalists understand that “who’s a racist?” is a question for the racist’s victims and no one else. Only a racist’s victim knows whether or not a racist is being racist. No one else has the proper perspective.
This is precisely why Joe Manchin presents a particular problem for American journalists.
Let’s add one more ingredient to the mix. Our news media reports the American political playing field as if it’s level. It’s not and never has been. It’s already tilted far to the right – not by the electorate but by the rule makers – most of whom have been white, Christian men up till now. Hey, the whole reason we’re facing this existential crisis is because those white, Christian men refuse to share political power with the rest of us. They even co-conspired with RUSSIA ffs in order to avoid sharing power with Black, brown, Asian, LGBTQ or female Americans.
Cynical journalism accepts corruption as a given. Skeptical journalism sees corruption as the problem that journalism itself is charged with revealing and eliminating. More importantly, skeptical journalism sees itself as a crusader against corruption. Whereas cynical journalists accept Joe Manchin’s corruption (his relationship with the coal business and Koch industries, his daughter’s relationship with the outrageous price of insulin in America), skeptical journalists would want to know more.
The cynical approach to telling the Joe Manchin story – the one we’re getting – has the press grilling Democrats about their Manchin (and Sinema) problems. Cynical journalists see that “D” next to Manchin’s name and that’s as far as their journalistic instincts go. Sure, Manchin’s a Democrat in a Trump-loving state, but Manchin has zero challengers. Go on – name a West Virginian who could run against Joe and win. Joe doesn’t exist in West Virginia the way normal Democrats do. And as much as Mitch McConnell would love to have Joe become a Republican, there is no reason for Joe to do such a thing. He’d go from being a powerful hold out to one of fifty-one intransigent assholes. He’d lose in the deal; he ain’t doing it.
Joe Manchin has power in this situation because he’s a Democrat. If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand any of the realpolitik at play here. Joe Manchin has made himself the power broker of American democracy. If you want to understand why that is, you’d have to ask Joe Manchin – and not any of the Democrats. You’d have to ask Joe himself who he’s “representing” when he stands in the way of things his actual constituents want: pretty much the entire BBB. Clearly it ain’t anyone who lives in West Virginia, one of the poorest places in America. When the entire Republican Party makes RESTRICTING THE VOTE its goal – and the intention of that goal is so crystal clear: permanent white political hegemony – then a rational person – a skeptical journalist – would have to ask “Why on earth would Joe Manchin stand with these people over his own constituents?”
Let’s reframe this slightly – away from the cynical lens. This crisis is not Democrats v Republicans. It’s democrats v authoritarians. Any other framing is dishonest. It’s corrupt and we have to ask WHY? At a moment like this, indifference equals complicity with evil. As blissful as ignorance is, it too is evil. The lights are on now. We can all see what’s what on the table. We can see the Republican Party for the fascist death cult it allowed itself to become. FFS, these idiots are now drinking urine just make some idiotic political point in their heads. Feelings are what lead lemmings over the fact of a cliff.
But, there’s cause for hope! There are journalistic voices in the mix that see – have seen from the get-go. For all the rabidly mediocre, journalistically-corrupt-to-their-mitochondria Chuck Todds and John Kings there’s a Niccole Wallace and a Rachel Maddow and a JoyAnn Reid and a Mehdi Hasan and an Ali Velshi bringing SKEPTICISM to a CYNICAL landscape. They all had to play the rich, white man’s game to get where they got, but they know in their bones it isn’t supposed to BE a “rich, white man’s game”. It’s supposed to be everyone’s game.
As in E Pluribus Unum.
So long as the majority of American journalists practice cynical journalism instead of skeptical journalism, American journalism will fail America – exactly as they’re doing right now.