The Media Today

What sort of media moment is this?

June 10, 2024

Ten days ago, Salem, a right-wing media company, apologized to a man who was falsely depicted voting illegally in the widely debunked 2020 election film 2000 Mules, which Salem coproduced, and said that it would no longer distribute the film. A week ago, prosecutors unsealed an indictment charging the chief financial officer of the Epoch Times—a media company tied to Falun Gong, the Chinese spiritual movement, which has in recent years backed Donald Trump and spread conspiracy theories online—with laundering tens of millions of dollars of stolen money through the publication’s accounts. (He has pleaded not guilty.) Five days ago, Steve Bannon, the Trump consigliere turned far-right media entrepreneur, was ordered to report to prison by July 1 to serve a sentence for bucking a subpoena in the congressional probe into January 6. Around the same time, the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones moved to liquidate his assets and begin paying the billion-plus dollars he owes in damages to families of the victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting, which Jones has often claimed was a hoax—setting in motion the loss of his Infowars empire, which could be ordered shuttered as soon as this week.

On her MSNBC show on Friday night, Alex Wagner opened with footage of Jones bursting (or pretending to burst) into tears at this prospect. Given the other stories noted above, she said that it had been “a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week for conspiracy theorists”—and a good one for reality.

As all this was going on, a series of stories involving established mainstream media outlets—often held up as the guarantors of reality—was keeping media critics busy and leading at least some of them to similar conclusions about a no good, very bad week. This was driven, in no small part, by events at the Washington Post, where Will Lewis, the publisher, was accused first of trying to tilt the paper to the political right (by replacing Sally Buzbee, the executive editor, with his former colleagues from the Wall Street Journal and the conservative British newspaper the Telegraph), then of seeking to kill stories, from his own paper and NPR’s David Folkenflik, about claims that he covered up evidence of illegal practices when he worked for Rupert Murdoch’s UK media business in the 2010s. (Lewis has denied the claims and that he pressured his own newsroom not to cover them; he accused Folkenflik of making “a story of a non-story” and blasted him as “an activist, not a journalist.”) 

Some observers see the Post’s trajectory under Lewis as a troubling abandonment of its motto, “Democracy Dies in Darkness”; Drew Magary, a columnist at SFGate, wrote that the Post has been “one of the few remaining legacy pubs that consistently seemed both willing and able to serve as a check on an increasingly deranged political system,” but now appears as if it is “about to embrace the darkness.” For now, one emissary of the darkness appears to be embracing the Post—Bannon told The Guardian that the incoming former Telegraph editor looks like “a great pick to make the fucking thing more relevant and readable.”

As I wrote last week, it’s fair to question what the changes at the Post augur for its political orientation; it’s certainly fair to question the revelations since then about Lewis’s heavy-handed reaction to stories concerning himself, conduct that, as the former Post media reporter Paul Farhi put it, at least appears to constitute “blatant self-dealing and the corrupt exercise of power.” As I wrote last week, there are also reasons to doubt that the Post is about to go off the deep end, including the former Telegraph editor’s reputation in the UK as a newshound more than a partisan hack—and, importantly, the Post’s existing staff, some of whom have already asked sharp questions of Lewis internally, and who don’t seem likely to just roll over.

Still, the situation at the paper—juxtaposed with the travails of the purveyors of right-wing conspiracy mentioned above—does offer an interesting window into the state of the wider media ecosystem halfway through this crucial year. If the conspirators have recently taken a welter of legal and financial hits, the Post is hardly in rude health itself—indeed, the precipitating cause of the recent turmoil was a significant restructuring (including a new “third newsroom” aimed at reaching nontraditional audiences on social media and elsewhere) that Lewis set in motion following steep declines in readership and revenue. (“Your audience is halved,” he told staff last week. “People are not reading your stuff. I can’t sugarcoat it anymore.”) And the Post is not alone in this. “Nearly every publisher has experienced similar precipitous declines in audience since 2020,” Michael Luo, the editor of The New Yorker’s website, noted. “COVID/election year was a peak traffic moment for almost everyone. Then came social platform algorithm changes; news fatigue; subscription fatigue; and rapidly changing reader habits.”

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This all chimes with a broader sense, one I’ve had for a while, that this is a muddled media moment, especially compared with what preceded it. If a key media story of the Trump presidency was the surge of right-wing and conspiracy media (at least in terms of its political and cultural influence), another was a renewed sense of mission and purpose at major mainstream outlets, one marked by a “Trump bump” in reader interest and encapsulated by slogans like “Democracy Dies in Darkness” (even if Marty Baron, then the Post’s editor, has since said that the slogan had nothing to do with Trump). This mainstream media era is now often remembered as one of antagonistic excesses; there were some of those (shouty cable news panels for one), but as I’ve chronicled for CJR, there were many more instances in which mainstream reporters failed to cover Trump sharply enough. Still, this was, at least, a moment of energy.

The present media moment feels harder to categorize, perhaps because we’re still living it. Many right-wing outlets have themselves faced declining traffic—and, as noted above and elsewhere, occasional legal jeopardy—and yet their ideas feel ascendant again, or at least culturally implanted. In the mainstream press, some excellent accountability journalism—about Trump’s plans for a second term, his threats to democracy, and more—has persisted. But the overarching mood of the moment feels, to me, to be one of deep tiredness, as well as confusion as to how to handle the political turbulence all around us. Many mainstream media types doubtless thought that January 6 would prove a clear point of no return for those who stoked it—but it hasn’t, and attempts to reassert it in news coverage as a line in the sand have felt sporadic. As I wrote recently, Trump’s conviction in the New York hush money case was played up as a historic moment. But there also appeared to be a void at the center of the coverage, with reporters and pundits grasping unconvincingly as to what it actually meant.

Generalizing about media coverage is perilous, of course, but last week felt like something of a case in point. The fallout from Trump’s conviction continued to drive headlines, but not, I would argue, to an extent commensurate with the seismic media reaction in the immediate aftermath, perhaps because there was nothing new to actually say about it; instead, campaign journalism settled back into some well-worn groves: the horse race, Big Wins! for Trump in his other court cases, a debate about President Biden’s age and the coverage thereof (this time sparked by a bizarre story in the Wall Street Journal that said nothing much new on the topic and quoted some questionable interlocutors). Biden’s age is a legitimate story; the same is true of the legal troubles facing his son Hunter, who went on trial last week on charges that he bought a gun while on drugs and lied about it. But both last week got more column inches than they merited. (The Hunter story was even drafted into the controversy at the Post: the new editor hired from the Journal raised some eyebrows when he namechecked it as a top editorial priority for the paper, alongside Trump’s trials and the election.) Trying to pick what actually matters out of a news cycle is always an imprecise task. At the moment, it’ll leave you feeling seasick.

If the present media moment feels muddled, there are myriad possible reasons: reader fatigue, the same fatigue among some journalists, the unprecedented tenor of our modern politics, business-side pressures and the constant fear of layoffs, low newsroom morale, the stubborn persistence of old political media frames, some combination or all of the above. Some observers have tried to identify deeper trends. Semafor’s Ben Smith has recently questioned whether media proprietors—like Jeff Bezos, the uber-wealthy owner of the Post—have lost their appetite for confronting those in positions of power. Smith has also argued that the leaders of major outlets, facing declining readership, appear to be stepping away from “what now, in retrospect, looks like it was a marketing strategy of saying, we are these pro-democracy institutions”—and pivoting toward zippier, less self-serious journalism. (And hiring Brits to that end.)

There’s a lot to unpack in such arguments. (I’d start by noting that British editors are not a monolith and that zippier coverage isn’t incompatible with sharply holding power to account and defending democracy. Indeed, if British journalists are caricatured as less self-righteous than their US counterparts, they are also generally seen as less afraid to tear lying politicians a new one.) Most broadly, vigorous, well-proportioned accountability journalism is essential to society, whatever it looks like and whether or not people feel minded to pay for it (not that these are small questions). If the market isn’t funding it at requisite levels—and it’s not—the most pressing question for the news business is So how do we pay for it?, not So what do we do instead?

This is a longer-term question of civic health, one that we all must think through separately from the short-term obsessions of a given news cycle; if the latter moves quickly, the former is slow work. It’s perhaps worth noting that all of the recent setbacks for conspiracy-peddlers that I mentioned at the top of this newsletter happened on a very slow timetable; all of them involved legal processes that have been going on for a while, or that promise to. (As the Post’s Philip Bump wrote of Salem’s decision to stop distributing 2000 Mules, “Sometimes the truth not only takes two years to get its boots on, it only reaches for its boots once it receives a subpoena.”) Legal accountability for lies and the work of bolstering accountability journalism are very different, of course. But both are worth thinking about on long timelines. Reality will need more than a good week if it is to thrive. For now, from week to week, we need to try to focus.

Other notable stories:

  • For our new Election Issue, Josh Hersh explored the growing sense of political apathy this election year, and whether it is “a problem of circumstance—a uniquely disliked set of candidates, a rare presidential rerun—or if something more fundamental, and therefore worrisome, is going on.” In the meantime, Hersh writes, “we’re stuck with the set pieces that stand in for news during the modern election cycle.” Also for the issue, Susie Banikarim asks whether news networks, having gotten Trump wrong in 2016, can do a better job of covering him this time. “The networks are not all-in on Trump like they were in 2016, but they still give him a significant amount of unfettered airtime,” Banikarim writes. “It’s not particularly entertaining television, nor particularly good for ratings; what we get feels overcome by numbness and exhaustion.”
  • Following last week’s turmoil at the Post, Lewis sent a memo to staff in what appeared to be an attempt to mend fences; he acknowledged a need “to improve how well I listen and how well I communicate so that we all agree more clearly where urgent improvements are needed and why,” and that “trust has been lost because of scars from the past and the back-and-forth from this week,” before urging staffers to “leave those behind and start presuming the best of intent.” Meanwhile, according to the New York Times, Patty Stonesifer, a confidante of Bezos who preceded Lewis as interim CEO and helped appoint him to the job, visited the newsroom and “met with senior editors and other journalists to help quell the anxiety stemming from the week’s tumult.”
  • Last month, a court in Mississippi ordered Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news outlet, to hand over internal reporting documents linked to a Pulitzer Prize–winning investigation that the site published detailing the role of Phil Bryant, the former governor, in a state welfare scandal; Bryant has sued the publication over various characterizations of its reporting (but not over the reporting itself), leading to the court order. Last week, Mississippi Today appealed the order to the state supreme court, arguing that it is unconstitutional and that reporting documents are privileged material under the First Amendment. Adam Ganucheau, the editor in chief, has more on the appeal.
  • In recent days, citizens of the European Union have been voting in elections for the bloc’s parliament; centrist parties looked likely to retain their majority, but far-right parties made important gains in various places—not least in France, where candidates backed by Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National finished far ahead of those backed by President Emmanuel Macron. Last night, Macron shocked French journalists by announcing that he will dissolve the country’s legislature, plunging them into coverage of a snap election to begin later this month. (Macron will stay in office whatever happens.)
  • And Christophe Deloire, the director general of the international press-freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF), has died. He was fifty-three, and had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. “With boundless energy and a ready smile even when dishing out trenchant criticism, Deloire travelled constantly, to Ukraine, Turkey, Africa and beyond to lobby governments and defend journalists behind bars or under threat,” the AP reports. RSF said that “journalism was his life’s struggle.”

New from CJR: The Election Issue

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.