Media are not merely observers in the story of democracy’s demise; they are players. Media require coverage. Who will cover media? Not media. Then no one.
The New York Times and The Washington Post eliminated their ombudsmen long since. With the death of David Carr and the departure of his short-lived and inconsequential successors, with the retirement of Margaret Sullivan, and now with the cancellation of Brian Stelter’s Reliable Sources on CNN, there is no one covering media as a story for the public. Yes, there are pontificators aplenty — present company included — and there is inside-baseball coverage for media people from the likes of the Columbia Journalism Review. But who is holding media to account for its impact on the political process for the public? No one.
This is a shameful abrogation of responsibility by our field, journalism.
I have been shouting — even on MSNBC’s air — that we must cover the impact of Murdoch’s Fox News on public discourse. I begged MSNBC to create a feature: We watch Fox News so you don’t have to. I wrote an executive there a proposal, never answered. So I arranged funding of an alum of the Newmark J-School, Juliet Jeske, to start Decoding Fox News on Twitter and Substack. (Someone in media should hire her to continue this important work.)
Fox News is only part of the story. The impact The Times and The Post have on political discourse — hell, on political outcomes — deserves coverage, criticism, and accountability. The impact of polling, bisecting America into simplistic and combative binaries, requires research. The slow death of local news must be studied. The entrance of pink-slime and evangelical news needs to be watched.
Now more than ever, media are a story media should cover. But media — so eager to criticize everyone else — are frightened of criticism themselves.
Were I to summon the spirit of David Carr, I wonder whether he would nominate Stelter as his legitimate successor as media columnist of The Times. I wonder whether anyone would have the freedom Carr and Sullivan had there to question the ways of journalism. I wonder whether any editor or producer or network executive will ever again display the cajones to critique their own.
Media are not objective, impartial, neutral, distant observers on society. Media — as in any other circumstance, media otherwise would love to convince you — have impact. If only media gave themselves a fraction of the attention that they give to so-called social media these days. If only media listened to media scholars and their research. If only media were open to criticism.
But no, media use their power and privilege to to turn spotlight on others, no longer themselves. That is wrong.