The Media Today

Q&A: Frank Bruni on journalism in The Age of Grievance

April 26, 2024
Frank Bruni. Courtesy photo; credit: the New York Times.

Frank Bruni has covered many beats in his thirty-five-year career. He was a movie critic in Detroit, a war correspondent in the Persian Gulf, a White House correspondent at the New York Times, and the paper’s bureau chief in Rome, where he covered the Vatican. On returning from Italy, he became the chief food critic and reviewed New York City restaurants (including one four-star review years ago that very much aided my career in hospitality) before turning to a weekly column in the Times’ opinion pages. “I was always, at heart, a generalist,” Bruni told me recently. And, “to be honest, a dilettante.”

Bruni’s broad background lent him credibility as he wrote his column, “Reflections on the mess (and magic) of politics and life,” for over a decade. In 2021, as he stepped back from writing columns full-time, he apologized for unloading, six years prior, on Ted Cruz, the Republican senator who had been running for president at the time. Though addressed to Cruz, the column was intended as a parting apology, of sorts, to his readers for contributing to “the toxic tenor of American discourse, the furious pitch of American politics, the volume and vitriol of it all.” The column was an argument for leaning into ambivalence and ambiguity at the expense of clicks. (Bruni is now a journalism professor at Duke; he still writes regularly for the Times.)

Bruni was certainly not an outlier in letting grievance drive his work. And his concerns from three years ago are relevant today—grievance remains a significant influence on the tenor and rhetoric of American politics, culture, and media. In a new book, The Age of Grievance, due out next week, Bruni makes the case that while grievance has led to some of the greatest social reforms in US history, its current iteration has infected American ideology in a way that “exiles nuance” and “turbocharges conflict.” While grievance is a well-established tool of the MAGA movement and its media, Bruni argues that liberal media are guilty of indulging it, too. “On both the right and the left, grievance seems to be its own burgeoning economy,” he writes. “To sell your wares as widely as possible, package them in grievance.” 

Bruni tells his students at Duke that, more than anything else, they will hear him say “it’s complicated”—a phrase, he writes, that serves as a “bulwark against arrogance, absolutism, purity, zeal.” He believes the humility that phrase suggests offers an “antidote for grievance.” Last week, I spoke with Bruni about how the press can avoid perpetuating grievance culture, how it can model the importance of ambiguity, and the necessity of holding up mirrors when they are most needed. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

KL: How do you define “grievance”?

FB: For the purpose of my book, I define grievance as a complaint that has become overwrought; a complaint that exists because someone is determined to complain; that demands a solution disproportionate to the problem; that exists in this context of so many people trying to establish their identities and seek advantage through how they’ve been wronged and the demands they have. If you look at where the word has popped up more frequently over the last decade, you’ll find it used in a negative context. There is grievance that can be wonderful, essential—we’re seldom calling that “grievance” anymore. The word grievance appears in the First Amendment. In that context, grievance is a righteous thing. We use it as a synonym for ire, agitation, pique. 

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The people fighting for civil rights had a grievance, and thank God they did. The problem is that even using the word “grievance” undercuts it—the word has become so synonymous with a spontaneous, overblown, ill-tempered complaint that it’s almost hard to go back and say, This was a good grievance, because it feels like the vocabulary no longer fits. But there are many causes that are essential—that have been essential throughout history—that could be described as grievances, before the word took on its pejorative connotations. Most of the social progress in this country wasn’t the product of happenstance. Most of the important social progress in this country happened because somebody had a deeply felt and profoundly legitimate complaint; because they pressed that in the public square in a constructive and productive way, we made progress and the world improved. Much of what I see around me today, though, is people complaining about things, in voices louder and with demands more expansive than necessary. 

Why this book? And why now? 

Since Trump’s presidential run and all the things that reflected and abetted it, I found myself thinking about how surprisingly and scarily angry so many Americans were. We’re talking about Americans on the right, but that deep anger—that feeling of victimization, that sense of having been crazily wronged and deserving recompense, that need to name and vilify the people responsible—that kind of thing exists across the political spectrum. There’s no equivalence here—it’s doing crazier things, more damage, and posing greater threats when we look at it on the right. But some of the same dynamics absolutely exist on the left, too. This is a moment in which we are compelled to hold a very unforgiving mirror to the country. I wanted to hold up that mirror. 

It feels straightforward to call out the grievances that MAGA Republicans use for political gain—and you do not pull any of those punches—but they’re not alone in using grievance in their political arsenal. How can journalists who are not part of the right-wing media avoid falling into the trap of perpetuating grievance? 

News generation happens quickly. Often, it is easy or instinctual for news organizations to take out the same old playbook they’ve used a thousand times. We should think about how we approach political coverage. We approach political candidate A and we evaluate them by going through a list: Let’s see what candidate A’s policies and personalities say about his or her potential impact on this marginalized community, or this interest group. Now let’s do a story about what this other marginalized group or interest group thinks about this politician, and what we think his or her policies and messaging might mean for them. There’s a logic to doing that. But it sends the message that every group has discrete rather than overlapping interests. It emphasizes issues peculiar to certain groups. It sends the message that those issues are the most important to that group. I think some of the most important issues transcend all groups. Dicing and slicing political coverage sends this message that we’re in different camps that maybe compete against one another, rather than that we’re all Americans, ultimately in the same boat. 

When we come out of the gate with predetermined assumptions and we start throwing around the terms of the day, we reduce it to these labels. We end up oversimplifying the world, in a way that affirms and amplifies the message that there are various interest groups in this country that are set up in conflict with one another. That obviously is a grievance multiplier. All too often, if a set of events on the surface has a political moral that we like, or seems to be telling a story that is our preferred story, we don’t muster or apply scrutiny. A journalist’s first response should always be skepticism and scrutiny. And if you want to maintain credibility and continue to have a constructive effect on society, you have to be careful that you’re not traveling far away from the truth.

What do you think is the solution for our collective grievances?  

The final chapter of the book is about humility—it’s titled “The Antidote.” When I reflected on what I’d written in the book, I realized that almost everything I looked at, from a certain angle, was a crisis of humility. Are political leaders who traffic in extremism, anger, and tension—saying I alone can fix it—being humble? Somebody said that; you may recall whom. They’re not being humble. They’re not respecting the diversity of opinion that exists in any population. They’re not respecting the diversity of opinion that exists among politicians themselves. They’re not respecting our need to live in community. When people are policing the culture, and when they’re canceling people—or whatever verb you want to put out there; that emphatic, unforgiving response to human error and human foible—that is really unhumble, because you’re not recognizing or remembering that you, too, have probably done some things that you might be ashamed of. You, too, are probably—on your worst day or in your worst moments, before you knew, were more learned, or became more illuminated—were probably guilty of statements or actions that you were lucky you weren’t condemned for. That’s a crisis of humility. 

You take pretty serious umbrage with the perspective that prioritizes grievance, which might sound like a grievance itself. Did that cross your mind at all while you were writing?

Am I aggrieved by grievance culture? I like to think not. When we talk about grievance today, with its pejorative connotations, we’re talking about anger that won’t be sated—that so enjoys itself, feeds on itself, and becomes a self-identity that it’s hard to see the far side of it. I’m not mad at anyone in particular. All of us across the political spectrum, to significantly varying degrees—in different professions, all walks of life, all regions of the country—are to various extents indulging this habit of seeing the world in terms of who’s been slighted, how they’ve been slighted, what to do about that slight. I’m not doing one of the fundamentals of grievance today, which is to say, Here are the villains, here’s what they have coming to them, here’s what they owe the rest of us. I’m asking all of us to look together at our aggregate flaws.

As regards the media’s relationship with the idea of grievance, is there anything else that you would add? 

There is much in this life, and in this society, that is objectively right or objectively wrong. There is much in this life, and much in this society, that must be condemned or must be applauded. There are also many, many shades of gray. When we’re talking about a politician, or a person, or a voter—when we’re talking about a given issue, and how it should be addressed and what the best solutions are—there are so many question marks, there are so many guesses. I would like to see the media get more comfortable with that, because that could be a model and a green light for other people to see in shades of gray when that is appropriate, to admit things like ambiguity and ambivalence, which are not shortcomings. They’re virtues of a sort. I think the media could take the lead in modeling that.

Other notable stories:

  • In yesterday’s newsletter, we linked to a story, by Politico’s Eli Stokols, diving into the tense relationship between the Biden White House and the Times. After we published, one nugget from the story—the claim, by an unidentified Times journalist, that A.G. Sulzberger, the publisher, has encouraged tough reporting on Biden’s age because he is “pissed” that the president won’t do a sit-down interview with the paper—got tongues wagging online. Several Times journalists pushed back, however, as did the Times itself; in a statement to Semafor, the paper blasted Biden for dodging interviews but also refuted allegations of retaliatory coverage as “outrageous and untrue.” 
  • And, following months of speculation, G/O Media finally sold The Onion, its satirical news site. The details of the sale, to a new company called Global Tetrahedron, may have seemed murky, especially in light of other recent deals involving G/O—but the name “Global Tetrahedron” is actually an in-joke, borrowed from a satirical firm invented by The Onion. Jeff Lawson, a tech executive, will now own The Onion, while Ben Collins, formerly a disinformation reporter at NBC News, will be CEO. They are promising to keep the site in Chicago, retain its staff, and “let them do whatever they want.”

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Kevin Lind is a CJR fellow.