Looking for a new approach to journalism’s conservative problem
Among journalists and people interested in how journalism is made, there are, broadly speaking, two popular philosophies about how to deal with the fact that many conservatives today regard “the media” as an enemy, and “journalist” as a bad word. The first philosophy, which might be called “Make Nice,” involves journalists disproving allegations of bad faith by resisting the liberal bias conservatives say has alienated them, and working to “get in touch” with perspectives conservatives say the media don’t understand. The second philosophy, which might be called “Screw Them,” understands conservative attacks as a ploy, and implores journalists to tell the truth, as they see it, to people who will listen. Unfortunately, neither is a very promising strategy for healing what ails popular American journalism.
The debate over how journalists should react to conservative criticism is about more than conservatives’ feelings of alienation, and about more, even, than the serious consequences of dubious information. Heading into the 2022 midterm elections, the American press is struggling to hold together the barest threads of a shared political reality—a product of its own crisis. Heated spats about how to handle conservative estrangement—as well as “bothsidesism,” insularity, and objectivity, all terms that have taken on a euphemistic quality—are also about whether, and how, journalists can establish wider credibility in changing circumstances.
In May 2020, with a wave of racial-justice protests swelling across the country, a twenty-seven-year-old reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette named Alexis Johnson tweeted four photographs of a parking lot covered in debris. She commented, “Horrifying scenes and aftermath from selfish LOOTERS who don’t care about this city!!!!! … oh wait sorry. No, these are pictures from a Kenny Chesney concert tailgate. Whoops.” In response, the Post-Gazette barred Johnson, who is Black and a Pittsburgh native, from covering the protests, in an attempt to, as the executive editor later put it, “eliminate bias.”
This has been a recent theme in legacy media. The Washington Post reportedly admonished reporter Wesley Lowery for tweeting that the Tea Party was “essentially a hysterical grassroots tantrum about the fact that a black guy was president.” (Lowery later left the paper.) The New York Times suspended its work with freelance editor Lauren Wolfe after she tweeted “I have chills” upon seeing Joe Biden’s plane land on Inauguration Day. In its social media guidelines, the Times reminds reporters to be “mindful of appearing to take sides on issues that The Times is seeking to cover objectively.” (A spokesperson at the Times contested that Wolfe’s relationship with the paper was ended due to the tweet.)
It is not a coincidence that, in each of these cases, the perceived threats to objectivity came from the left. The concept of objectivity refers to multiple practices and postures, but in certain contemporary contexts, “being objective” has come to mean “not appearing too liberal.” So, in addition to mainstream news outlets scrutinizing reporters’ tweets, you will see news organizations straining to avoid accusations of liberal bias through a number of moves, such as trying to warm up to Republican leaders through hiring former Trump officials as commentators in order to rein in liberal partisanship.
This Make Nice orientation sometimes goes beyond belabored even-handedness in its efforts to deal with conservative complaints. It starts with the premise—of varying accuracy, depending on context—that journalism is a profession populated mostly by liberals who inhabit a liberal milieu, use liberal jargon, and share liberal presumptions. Because they are “out of touch” with “the less affluent, less educated, rural parts of the country, where white voter rage galvanized into votes” for Donald Trump, as former New York Times editor Jill Abramson put it in 2019, journalists should work to get in touch.
This can mean trying to assure conservative audiences that they can be trusted, as the New York Times has appointed a special team to do. It might also mean attempting to understand conservative communities better for the benefit of existing audiences.
What holds these efforts together is the conviction that, to establish legitimacy, journalists must disprove the decades-old accusation that they are secret (or not-so-secret) liberal activists, through respectful treatment of conservative views.
Barton Gellman is a mainstream journalist. He has worked at the Miami Herald, Time, and the Washington Post. These days he publishes big stories in The Atlantic. He was discussing one such story last year, about Republican efforts to delegitimize elections, on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, when Gross asked him about practicing journalism: “Do you see your approach to journalism changing in an era where you’re facing lies that have accumulated a lot of strength?”
Gellman gave an answer that he would later say was “uncomfortable for me to talk about”:
You’re accustomed as a mainstream journalist to not taking sides in a political dispute. And not being for or against any political party. But what we’re for, as journalists, is truth, and what we’re for as journalists is democracy.… And so I am calling out the mainstream of the Republican Party for its lies and for its election subversion, in a way that tonally is different from what I could have imagined writing ten or twenty years ago.
In terms of how he relates to the right, Gellman is saying, he can’t afford to give nonjudgmental treatment to certain contemporary conservative views if he is going to satisfy his central imperatives of telling the truth and informing the public—however much he might like to maintain his nonpartisan identity.
At this point, Gellman is unique only in his reluctance. A subset of journalists has long since decided that the respect once granted conservatism by old-fashioned objectivity is unwarranted, and contrary to journalism’s purpose. (Last year, Ben Smith, then the New York Times’ media columnist, documented numerous defections from the church of objectivity among journalists and at top journalism schools.) The problem, as these journalists see it, is that dedicating ink or airtime to conservative views often means giving quarter to racism, antidemocratic values, or misinformation. How is climate change coverage improved by the inclusion of denialism? A quote from the HBO series The Wire sums up this perspective nicely: “A lie ain’t a side of the story. It’s just a lie.”
What journalists should do instead, wrote Lowery in a New York Times op-ed, is “abandon the appearance of objectivity as the aspirational journalistic standard, and…focus on being fair and telling the truth, as best as one can, based on the given context and available facts.” He characterized this approach as “moral clarity,” and contended that journalists who practiced it “would insist that politicians who traffic in racist stereotypes and tropes—however cleverly—be labeled such with clear language and unburied evidence.” The notion is that journalists should look at the evidence and make up their own minds. (Lowery further detailed his views on objectivity in a panel last month organized by CJR.)
Another important tenet of the Screw Them perspective is that pandering to conservatives isn’t going to work anyway. Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch, responding to the announcement of a New York Times initiative to (as Bunch puts it) “persuade media-bashing Right-wingers to like them,” argued that there is “little—nothing, really—the Times can do to gain the trust of such non-readers.”
“Trump voters don’t think the New York Times is an ‘enemy of the people’ because they don’t understand how the newsroom works,” Bunch wrote. “They hate the Times because they do understand exactly what they do—they just don’t like it.”
While the Screw Them perspective is a relative newcomer to major newsrooms, it is hardly fringe. Market incentives that once fueled pursuit of cross-partisan audiences now point toward niche products, and many journalistic endeavors have good economic reasons to abandon efforts to win or keep conservative audiences. Combine this with the momentum political polarization has put behind Screw Them, and the perspective has become quite mainstream.
The Screw Them people are correct about Make Nice: many conservative leaders today rely on talking points that can’t be treated with “neutrality” without violating the commitment to truth. What’s more, even if journalists were to Make Nice by finding and amplifying informed, fact-based conservative viewpoints, such efforts wouldn’t go far toward lessening conservative alienation. Local newspapers in purple parts of the country have worked hard to include conservative voices, focus on facts rather than interpretation, and scrutinize liberals, and yet regularly find themselves accused of being “fake news.” The assumption of anti-conservative bias is the starting point for many conservatives.
For decades, right-wing politicians and provocateurs have told anyone who would listen that journalists are arrogant elites with contempt for traditional Americans. Harping on this argument has many benefits for conservative leaders; among them, it makes for easy, engaging content (“look at this crazy thing the New York Times said!”) that encourages audience loyalty and provides an “out” when prominent conservatives get bad press. Acknowledging even-handed coverage has no such upside—and so, while it is true that many journalists lean liberal, the Ben Shapiros and Dan Bonginos of the world have never been trying to change the mainstream press. They benefit from keeping journalists in the role of Bad Guy. Among the conservative public, this view of journalists is, at this point, axiomatic—as obvious as the Earth being round, if not more so. Consequently, the tone of traditional objectivity rings false.
This doesn’t mean journalists should avoid looking in the mirror and interrogating their assumptions. But they should not do so with the expectation that resisting liberal bias will improve their reputation with conservatives. The Make Nice approach to appealing to cross-partisan audiences won’t work.
Unfortunately, the Screw Them approach is an inadequate replacement if journalists’ goals are to inform the public and enable democracy. You can’t enable democracy if you don’t inform a substantial portion of the public. What the Screw Them philosophy misses is that winning public trust has always been part of the journalist’s job description, and that doing so requires a deliberate strategy for legitimacy.
The need to win audience trust was a key reason the “objective” posture emerged in the first place. This happened in the early twentieth century, as newspapers fought to reestablish their credibility and legitimacy while the dominant nineteenth-century model of partisan journalism came undone. The new paradigm of objectivity meant no longer anchoring press authority to party loyalty. Instead, it entailed largely deferring to government officials and elites about what aspects of political life were most worthy of attention, and which opinions and perspectives were normal, acceptable, and inside what Daniel Hallin calls the “sphere of legitimate controversy.” Essentially, the dominant press’s legitimacy was tethered to the legitimacy of other elites.
Today the ranks of the American elite are so divided, even discredited, that this strategy has grown stale, with its shortcomings (such as the exclusion of many perspectives) exposed. But it is crucial to recognize that there was a strategy for legitimacy. Journalists’ credibility is not a given.
Journalists can and should tell the truth as they see it, and for some audiences—particularly those whose worldviews generally align with journalists’ own—this will be enough to engender trust. But, while niche and partisan news outlets can contribute to democracy, civil society is stronger when it has media that help create a shared informational reality—both because media can help establish stabilizing facts around which communities can organize, and because partisan clashes are generally more productive, and less destructive, when moderated by trusted journalists.
There’s something of an irony in the Screw Them proponents’ critique that journalistic objectivity has served hegemonic ends. It is an accurate critique! “Objective” journalism has, wrongly, treated the perspectives of the powerful as neutral. But aspirations for journalism to offer moral clarity place journalists in an even more explicitly hegemonic role, by asking journalists to be arbiters of cultural norms and expecting audiences to accept their judgments. If journalists attempt to assume this role without an effective strategy for popular credibility, the likely result is what we are already seeing: many communities rejecting the press as arrogant, partisan, cloistered, and untrustworthy.
For journalists besieged by attacks from the right, then, neither Make Nice nor Screw Them is a promising path forward. What can the media do to rehabilitate their legitimacy if fight and flight both fail? We suggest looking for answers in an unlikely place.
‘We’re talking to YOU’
“Night after night, the host of the most watched show in prime-time cable news uses a simple narrative to instill fear in his viewers: ‘They’ want to control and then destroy ‘you,’” began a May 2022 New York Times slideshow about Tucker Carlson. The Times produced a great many examples of Carlson discussing what “they” want to do to “you.” “They,” the piece explained, “include Democratic (and some Republican) officials, members of the media, Big Tech executives, sports and Hollywood stars, and others.” Although the Times indicated Carlson was stoking the anxieties of white males, the paper was much less explicit about who constituted the “you” in this formulation.
The “they-you” framing Carlson employs so often is, as the Times observed, a tool “commonly used by populist or authoritarian leaders to create emotional connections with their followers.” But whether explicit or implicit, there is always a “you.” When the Times publishes an article with the headline “When the best available home is the one you already have,” it is speaking to readers with certain interests, assumptions, and concerns. (Even absent the second person, we can safely assume that when Teen Vogue highlights “20 pieces to embrace the sheer trend this summer,” they are not speaking to the authors of this piece.)
We think there is an opportunity for popular journalism to wriggle loose from the unhelpful Make Nice–or–Screw Them trap by thinking differently about who constitutes its “you.”
What conservative media are doing when they talk to “you” is building legitimacy by fostering a sense that they care about and represent their audiences. Media can represent a community by looking out for its interests; giving voice to its members by employing them and publishing their work; and telling stories of public life in which the community can see itself reflected, playing dignified roles.
Central to this effort is that community members identify with the images they see of themselves. Identification is about more than accuracy; it’s also about self-image as imagined, feared, or fantasized.
Conservative media do this exceedingly well. While it is undeniably true that there is fertile ground in American culture for race and gender revanchism, among other ugly impulses, the appeal of conservative media is about more than political ideas or reactionary impulses. Conservative media, first and foremost, approach their audiences with a claim that they care about them and want to fight for them while liberal elites see them as trash. Crucially, they often describe these liberal elites as having contempt for whole social groups and identities purportedly associated with conservatism—such as white rural residents, blue-collar workers, or religious soccer moms—and equate attacks on conservatism and conservative leaders with attacks on those groups.
This is a sleight of hand, through which a set of political views, talking points, candidates, and media figures is framed as being inherently tied to respect for entire demographics and communities. In reality, it is perfectly possible to respect, say, rural white people while accurately labeling some of Donald Trump’s statements as lies, or as xenophobic and racist. Conservative discourses work to make that seem incoherent. They reach out to their target communities and offer them champions who will praise their character and defend them from attacks, but conflate a sense of belonging to those communities with allegiance to conservative demagogues and their claims. Being part of their “you” comes at a cost.
Many Americans are willing to pay this cost, we think, for a few different reasons. One is that the sleight of hand often works, and people come to see allegiance to political conservatism as a natural aspect of membership in other groups. Another is that there is a long history of both eagerness to embrace and willingness to tolerate the uglier aspects of conservative demagoguery among the American public. But we think there’s one more factor at play: many of the communities that constitute conservative media’s audience are not being aggressively courted by other media suitors.
In News for the Rich, White, and Blue, Nikki Usher shows market forces are driving divestment in journalism from most communities that are not wealthy, white, and liberal. Along with the death (or near death) of many local outlets, financial pressures push surviving publications to “serve elite, educated audiences who can and will pay for news.” The unwillingness of many to pay is driven in part by the distrust of journalism cultivated by right-wing leaders. But the result is still a lack of journalistic outlets competing for the audiences Fox News serves.
We’re not calling for more conservative-branded media. Rather, journalists need to connect with demographics being courted primarily by conservative media through other aspects of their identities. We need cable news channels that say “you” and mean, for example, non-college-educated senior citizens, or rural residents. We need tabloid-style websites that share the tastes, language, and priorities of urban and suburban trade and service workers. We need YouTube channels that bring news of interest to people in the military, or Christians. In short, we need media outlets that offer people the option to see themselves and their communities as a targeted, understood, respected “you” without having to move into conservative media’s tent. Such outlets, we hope, might help break the spell of conservatism as a “global” identity that encompasses all others and requires distrust of journalism.
It will take a lot of experimentation to figure out how to achieve this in practice. The good news is that journalists won’t have to start from scratch: there are sources from which to take inspiration. Tabloid journalism, of course, has a long history of speaking to working-class audiences across the political spectrum without applying antiseptic objectivity. Some individual outlets today endeavor to speak to identity groups that cut across the partisan divide. Consider Coffee or Die magazine, targeted at military veterans. In a profile, Coffee or Die senior editor Ethan Rocke spoke of trying to build trust to pierce through a perceived binary between “bro vets” and “woke vets.” Other creators already produce news or commentary that scramble the typical segmentation of left and right audiences, such as YouTubers like Natalie Wynn of Contrapoints, or Beau of Fifth Column.
Journalism entrepreneurs—and the philanthropists who fund them—need not imitate these efforts precisely so much as examine how they can help reimagine the relationship between journalist and audience. The underlying issue is that the method of building trust that journalists developed for the mass audiences of the twentieth century no longer applies. But just because the days when journalists imagined themselves speaking to an undifferentiated mass audience are gone does not mean that journalists should give up trying to assemble diverse audiences that cross partisan lines. Cross-partisan trust might be established by winning the loyalties of niche audiences by speaking directly to and for them. These efforts should include groups alienated from journalism that aren’t currently drawn to conservative media, as well as those that are.
We understand that some will be skeptical of taking this approach to conservative audiences, especially because of the issues of race the Times highlighted in Tucker Carlson’s “you.” Carlson’s message, as the Times summarizes it, is that “the ruling class’s ‘obsession with race’ and ‘equality’ creates a world that favors the rights of people of color and discriminates against you, the viewer.” We think it is important to remember that the communities we are talking about here—the non-college-educated, rural residents, seniors, military, Christians—are neither racially uniform nor congenitally predisposed to racism.
What we are calling for differs from the Make Nice approach because it seeks to connect with conservative audiences without giving undeserved credence to the myths of the contemporary right. It differs from Screw Them by refusing to write off this substantial portion of the public who have become alienated from journalism. It aims, instead, to establish legitimacy with those audiences by respectfully, persuasively making a bid to speak to and for them.
We have no illusion this will be easy to do. It will take time, money, a willingness to swim against the economic currents pushing news outlets to cater to politically homogeneous audiences, a readiness to suffer the condemnation of peers who believe that either making nice or saying screw them to conservatives is an ethical imperative, and an ability to develop new aesthetic sensibilities about how to tell compelling news stories.
But we think this is a much more feasible path toward a healthy, credible press than the other available ideas for how to deal with conservative alienation. Rather than trying to make nice to appease conservative critics, or throwing up their hands, saying “Screw them,” and accepting that demographic segmentation will be the price of establishing a moral voice, we suggest some journalists directly address alienated audiences drawn to conservative media, and make the case that this news is for you.Doron Taussig and Anthony Nadler are the authors. Taussig teaches journalism and politics at Ursinus College, and is a fellow at Columbia University's Tow Center for Digital Journalism. He is the author of What We Mean by the American Dream: Stories We Tell about Meritocracy. Nadler teaches at Ursinus College and is a fellow at Columbia University's Tow Center for Digital Journalism. He is the author of Making the News Popular: Mobilizing U.S. News Audiences and co-editor of News on the Right: Studying Conservative News Cultures.