Part 3—Can't think of many examples: Did the American public discourse ever make good sense?
We can't exactly tell you. But now, with most of the gatekeepers gone, it's our impression that our discourse makes much less sense than before.
In Sunday's profile of Candidate Trump, McKay Coppins described the way this breakdown has worked for folk on the right. In the passage shown below, he pretended to play it fair.
We'd be inclined to say that Coppins played it fair by the book. We think you know the rules on this. If it has happened on the right, the mainstream journalist is required to say that we liberals do it too.
In Sunday's Washington Post, Coppins bowed to this rule:
COPPINS (11/29/15): The American right has always contained a combative, nativist fringe, where radicals and kooks bend world events to fit their conspiracy theories. There were the John Birch Society newsletters of the 1970s and ’80s; the AM talk-radio shows of the ’90s; the world-government chat rooms and e-mail chain letters around the turn of the millennium; and the vibrant, frenzied blogosphere of amateur muckrakers of the mid-2000s. (Anyone wondering whether the phenomenon is ideologically exclusive need look no further than George W. Bush’s presidency, when the left-wing Web teemed with crazed speculation that the White House had orchestrated the 9/11 attacks.)Cracker, please! In that highlighted passage, Coppins checks the mandated "fairness" box. But he does so in an utterly silly way.
But in the Obama era, the reach and power of this segment has increased dramatically. The fringe has swelled with new Web sites, radio stations, confabs, causes, pressure groups, celebrities and profit-making businesses noisily pitching themselves to the tea party. An entire right-wing media ecosystem has sprung up, where journalist-warriors flood social media with rumors of sharia law coming to suburbia and hype a fast-approaching “race war” in America targeting whites. The Republican establishment—a loose coalition of party committees, moderate donors and business interests—once hoped to harness this tremendous new energy to recapture the White House.
Instead, the Fringe Establishment is the one doing the harnessing...
In our view, Coppins' portrait of events on the right is accurate and fair. It's true! In recent decades, "an entire right-wing media ecosystem has sprung up," in much the way Coppins describes. A sprawling "fringe" has come into existence, and this fringe has often spread crazy ideas.
Increasingly, the crazy ideas which get pimped by this fringe have come to dominate conservative thinking. In the face of this rapidly-growing topsy, "the Republican establishment" is no longer in control.
That portrait seems accurate and fair. But by the rules of mainstream journalism, Coppins was required to make the guild's most sacred claim.
By the rules of the game, he was required to say that Both Sides Do It. But because he doesn't really believe that, he fulfilled his sacred obligation in this silly-bill way:
"Anyone wondering whether the phenomenon is ideologically exclusive need look no further than George W. Bush’s presidency, when the left-wing Web teemed with crazed speculation that the White House had orchestrated the 9/11 attacks."
Is it true? Did the left-wing Web ever teem with that particular speculation? Presumably, it all depends on what the meaning of "left-wing Web" is! We'll assume that some sites somewhere on the Web may have teemed with that speculation. But it's silly to suggest that this was ever a significant belief on "the left."
Coppins fulfilled his obligation within the rules of the guild. When writing in the Washington Post, you're required to say that Both Sides Do It. But he satisfied his obligation with a silly pseudo-comparison. Trutherism has never been a big deal on the political left.
That said, to what extent has the liberal world behaved like Them Over There? The GOP has been overrun by a powerful "Fringe Establishment." To what extent has our own liberal discourse possibly stopped making sense?
We'd say Coppins may be a bit blind to the truth of this matter. Let's review a few more of the accurate claims he makes about Them on the right.
In our view, Coppins does a good job describing the ways Their discourse has stopped making sense. At the start of his piece, he describes an interview with Donald Trump in January 2014.
Coppins describes himself "trying desperately to get Donald Trump to stop telling me about his Barack Obama conspiracy theories...Our interview had started out fine, but now Trump kept veering off on long, excited tangents about forged birth certificates and presidential coverups."
According to Coppins, Trump was "connecting the dots for me like a crazy uncle who has cornered his nephew at Thanksgiving dinner." To state the obvious, there's little reason to doubt that this actually happened. If you owned a TV set in 2011 or 2012, you saw the current GOP front-runner playing this crazy uncle role right in your own living room.
Those crazy ideas and crazy claims now constitute a standard part of thought and belief on the right. As he continued along in his piece, Coppins does a fair and accurate job describing the way these fringe ideas have become so dominant Over There.
As noted above, Coppins describes the way those crazy ideas have been promulgated in recent years by the "new Web sites, radio stations, confabs, causes, pressure groups, celebrities and profit-making businesses" which have been "noisily pitching themselves to the tea party." Perfectly fairly, he attributes the rise of those crazy ideas to "this era of democratized media" with its many "niche media outlets."
He describes the way Trump has worked to gain standing with sites like Breitbart, "a crusading right-wing Web site that wields tremendous influence within a certain hyper-aggrieved class." Later, in a matter involving himself, he describes the way "Trump's fantastical perspective was being accepted as reality in the Fringe Establishment."
All that is perfectly fair. In our view, this is the problem:
We liberals have "new Web sites...and profit-making businesses" too. Liberals and progressives are now playing active roles in that new "democratized media" too.
We liberals have "niche media outlets" which are "wielding tremendous influence within a certain hyper-aggrieved class." Have our own cable shows and Web sites created a class of crazy ideas to match the crazy ideas Coppins describes on the right?
In our view, no, they have not. But in our view, we're catching up fast, and it's always hardest to see such factors at work when they involve your own tribe.
Is it true, what Coppins said? Is it true that Both Sides Do It? Is it true that both sides, to some extent, have stopped making sense?
In our view, actually yes, it is. We find it hard to believe that this state of affairs actually serves progressive interests.
Required to make the standard claim about the way We Do It Too, Coppins could only think of 9/11 truthers. We think our own failures go well beyond that. Tomorrow, a pair of brand-new examples from our own niche sites.
Rather plainly, we liberals are creating our own hyper-aggrieved class. Again and again, we've stopped making sense.
Is this sort of thing helpful?
Tomorrow: Is this sort of thing helpful?