The Media Today

What is media criticism for?

September 5, 2023
Via Pixabay

Last week, Will Bunch, a columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer, published a piece under the headline, “Journalism fails miserably at explaining what is really happening to America.” He made the case that the US is facing a pivotal, dangerous moment—with the Republican Party in thrall to Donald Trump and veering toward fascism—and yet too many members of the media are covering the election through the prism of the horserace and other outdated norms of professional politics, with any deviation from these norms blamed not on Republican authoritarianism but on an amorphous “tribalism” plaguing both sides equally. “We need the media to see 2024 not as a traditional election, but as an effort to mobilize a mass movement that would undo democracy,” Bunch wrote. “We need to understand that if the next 15 months remain the worst-covered election in U.S. history, it might also be the last.”

Bunch’s column sparked a big reaction among other media critics and journalists, many of whom praised it to the rafters. Jennifer Rubin signal-boosted Bunch’s argument in the Washington Post; in Slate, Dahlia Lithwick did likewise, stretching it to apply to complacent coverage of the Supreme Court. On CNN, Jake Tapper raised Bunch’s column as he asked Chris Christie, Trump’s most vocal critic within the Republican primary field, whether his party has “an authoritarianism problem.” (Christie strongly denied this; his FiveThirtyEight polling average is currently below four percent while Trump’s remains above fifty.) Not that everyone agreed with Bunch. Writing on Substack, Michael A. Cohen (not that one) dissected parts of Bunch’s argument, and concluded that the press cannot be blamed for Trump’s durable support. “This is not a mainstream media problem—it’s a Donald Trump supporters’ problem,” Cohen wrote. “Stop blaming journalists for not convincing them to see the world as you do.”  

The core debate here—as to how the press should cover Trump and his movement, and the consequences of such coverage—is far from a new one. (My two cents on this latest iteration: Bunch’s call for coverage to dispense with horserace tropes in favor of, among other things, a richer historical understanding of authoritarianism needn’t change a single mind to be of value; it would simply lead to a more substantive journalism than lazy clichés about tribalism can offer.) But Bunch’s column also ignited a second debate, one that, to my mind, is less often raised, at least in such explicit terms—a debate about the practice and function of media criticism itself. 

Sharing Bunch’s column on Twitter, Paul Farhi, a media reporter at the Post, took aim at what he sees as the excessive negativity of much media criticism: “Just once, maybe a columnist could write, ‘The news media is doing a great job about informing Americans about the state of their country!’ But naw…” As the debate raged in his replies, Farhi insisted that he sees media criticism as valuable, but one-sided. “My point isn’t that Bunch’s column is right or wrong,” he wrote. “It’s that the news media is (almost) always portrayed as wrong, bad or corrupt in some way. Rare to read a column that isn’t that way.” He added, “Film criticism: Sometimes praiseworthy, sometimes not. Music criticism: Same. Theater criticism: Same. Book reviews: Same. Architecture, restaurants, sports, etc.: Same, same, same. Media criticism: Nope.”

Among media critics who agree with Bunch, Farhi’s initial critique invited a predictable rejoinder: that they will say that the news media is doing a great job informing Americans about the state of their country when it, erm, starts doing so. (Parker Molloy made a good version of this argument in The Present Age.) Others retorted that Farhi’s claims about the negativity of media critics don’t actually stack up. All the media critics that I follow (including myself; see here, here, and here) frequently shine a light on work they find impressive or urgent. If it’s fair to say that praise is not the principal mode of media criticism, it’s nowhere near as “rare” as Farhi posits.

There is also a problem, here, of overgeneralization, both in the headline on Bunch’s piece (“Journalism fails miserably at explaining what is really happening to America”) and Farhi’s suggested alternative (“The news media is doing a great job about informing Americans about the state of their country”). Journalism and the news media, while not necessarily interchangeable terms, are both extremely broad categories. In reality, not all journalists are failing miserably, but the news media as a whole is not doing a great job. Both things can be—and usually are—true. (The tendency to overgeneralize, it should be noted, is a charge commonly leveled at media critics. I myself have certainly been guilty of it in the past.)

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Of course, Bunch’s headline (which he likely didn’t write himself) was torqued to pique reader interest, and Farhi was making a point on Twitter—if anything, one complaining about over-generalization. Neither necessitates semantic over-analysis. And yet—to be a pedant for just a second longer—one difference in their wording actually unlocks an interesting dimension of this debate: Farhi spoke of journalists informing Americans, whereas Bunch’s headline spoke of explaining. To my mind, these are different things. Thanks in no small part to the news media, we arguably have access to more information about what’s going on in the world than at any other point in human history. And yet the news media’s job doesn’t end there: it also, inevitably, involves interpreting, prioritizing, and presenting that information. This distinction matters because media criticism grapples with both sides of it. We are concerned, yes, with access to information, but also with how it is framed—with whose stories get told, how, and by whom. 

In my five or so years writing media criticism, I’ve thought a lot about its function, including vis-à-vis other forms of criticism, and so I was intrigued to see Farhi raise these (in his point about the comparative positivity of book and movie reviews, and so on). While media criticism might seem very different to these other enterprises, I’ve increasingly come to see comparing them as valid. All are concerned with framing (or some variation on that concept); all are concerned with meaning, and how we see and reflect the world around us. Books and movies (usually) tell stories. So, in a more abstract sense, can a beautiful building or plate of food.   

And yet, media criticism has its own particularities: our job is ultimately to interrogate the basic ways in which people find out about things that impact their lives, and the mechanisms of power—yes, real power—that shape that dynamic. Again, this isn’t to say that forms of cultural or artistic criticism can’t have comparable stakes. But if, say, a film critic’s job can be as simple as going to see Barbie because it’s on, entering with an open mind, then reviewing it on its merits, the media critic’s job is never to open the day’s New York Times and rate every article inside. (For starters, this would be very boring.) This is clearly not to say that we should never praise a good piece of journalism. But when we do, we should clear a higher bar than merely saying that a journalist went to work today and did the job that society should expect of them. And if that merits praise, we should state what that says about the job everyone else is doing.

As I see it, the media critic’s task—as messy and vulnerable to generalization as it may be—is to say something about how the press, as a vital institution of political and social power, is communicating information in the aggregate. This is inevitably subjective (as I wrote in 2021, in response to another much-discussed column that—unconvincingly, in my view—sought to quantify its criticism of coverage of Trump and Biden). Ultimately, I see much more evidence for Bunch’s headline proposition than Farhi’s—as I’ve written often in this newsletter, high-level political journalism, in particular, is clearly awash in gamified triviality while real problems, including the state of democracy, get brushed aside. Even if you don’t share this view, though, you presumably see other flaws in American journalism. A media critic’s job is to point those out.

The word criticism can have two meanings: it can mean a negative appraisal of something, but it can also refer to the act of appraisal, whatever the conclusion. Responding to Bunch, Farhi insisted that he wasn’t digging at him personally but expressing a broader frustration about attitudes toward the media: that “We’re *everyone’s* favorite punching bag. We exist to be trashed.” In many cases—principally within Trump’s authoritarian movement—the punching bag metaphor is apt. But criticism, in the first sense of the term, can be motivated by an honest desire to help the media do better, in addition to being weaponized to destroy us. And we should want *everyone* to be a media critic, in the second sense of the term. Thinking critically about whose stories get told, how, and by whom isn’t a threat to democracy. It’s the stuff of it.

Other notable stories:

  • With the old age of America’s politicians dominating the news cycle, Lucy Schiller went to a home for the elderly in Pittsburgh, canvassed residents’ views on the coverage and the media more broadly, and wrote about the experience for CJR in a feature that went online this morning. The residents expressed “far less interest in the subject of aging—or even the way that candidates approach politics and policies around old age—than in how the news has changed in their lifetimes, LGBTQ rights, and immigration,” Schiller reports. “Perhaps it is no surprise that the topic of oldness, which bears a recognition of death, is not what they care to focus on, even as they repeatedly return, transfixed, to a constant stream of news coverage that is gerontologically obsessed.” 
  • Fallout continues from the recent police raid at the Marion County Record, a local paper in Kansas. The police’s conduct drew widespread condemnation as a flagrant violation of press freedom, but David Mayfield, the mayor of Marion, told the Wichita Eagle that he’s not “sure exactly what they did wrong”; Mayfield—himself a former police chief, who has clashed with the Record—said that the officers in the case only did what a judge authorized them to do, and regretted that “everybody’s looking at Marion like we’re a bunch of hicks now.” Mayfield will soon step down as mayor. The Kansas City Star spoke with Michael Powers, a retired judge who is running unopposed to succeed him.
  • For National Geographic, Rachel Jones profiled the “10 Million Names Project,” an initiative that aims to recover and record the names of the approximately ten million people of African descent who were enslaved in what is today the United States, starting in the sixteenth century. Among other tools, the project is making use of artificial intelligence to identify and comb through records. It is also drawing on a collection of oral histories from formerly enslaved people that were gathered under the auspices of the New Deal-era Federal Writers’ Project. (I wrote about that effort back in 2020.)
  • Russia’s crackdown on independent journalism continues: late last week, the authorities tagged Dmitry Muratov—the Nobel Peace Prize-winning editor of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which has repeatedly been targeted since Russia invaded Ukraine—as a “foreign agent,” a designation that carries with it both stigma and onerous regulatory requirements. Novaya Gazeta said that Muratov plans to challenge the label in court and will step down as editor while he does so, to ease the burden on the paper.
  • And Bill Richardson, a former UN ambassador and governor of New Mexico, has died. He was perhaps best known for his freelance diplomacy on behalf of Americans jailed in hostile countries, including the journalists Paul Salopek in Sudan and Danny Fenster in Myanmar. Diane Foley—the mother of James, a journalist who was abducted and then killed by ISIS in Syria—said, of Richardson, “we have truly lost a hero.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.