Legacy Media’s Useless Mea Culpas
Does the New York Times’ executive editor Dean Baquet really expect us to believe that he didn’t realize white Trump supporters are racist?
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Stop the presses, everybody! The New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet—who is expected to retire as early as next month—has had a revelation. A stunning insight. A galaxy-brain bolt from the blue.
You’re gonna want to sit down for this one.
In an interview with the New Yorker, Baquet—by most accounts not a stupid dude—just confessed that he missed a really big story:
Donald Trump’s supporters are racist.
Shocking, right? But listen to this:
I don’t think that anybody had their arms wrapped around the mood of the country that allowed for the election of Donald Trump, including us. I don’t think people—including the New York Times—quite had a handle on the anger, the amount of racial animosity. I don’t think any of us thought that Donald Trump was going to be elected President. Anybody who says they did, I don’t buy it.
If I had to do that over again, oh, my God, I would do that very, very, very differently. I mean, we treated Trump seriously. We treated him as an investigative story. But I would have covered the country a lot differently in the months leading up to the election of Donald Trump.
NOW he tells us.
While Baquet’s reporters and pundits were casting support for Trump as “economic insecurity” and “populism,” all along those supporters were just racist as hell, he admits. He wants us to know that the endless “we’re not racist, but …” interviews with Trump voters were, in fact, masking “racial animosity.”
What an absolute crock of shit.
Does Baquet expect us to believe that a person in his position is this ignorant? Moreover, what even is the point of him telling us on the way out the door of the Times, after the nation has suffered a million Covid deaths and a violent insurrection? Is he asking us for absolution? Does he genuinely want people to pat him on the hand and say, “It’s okay, don’t blame yourself?”
Because, even acting on the assumption that he’s telling the truth, which is a dodgy proposition, he should blame himself. He should blame himself hard.
He should blame himself for telling the entire country for half a decade that white people supported Donald Trump because they were sad about jobs. He should blame himself for not listening to what Trump supporters themselves were telling him every day: that Trump’s support came from his racism, his sexism, his unrepentant bullying and his contempt for any American who didn’t back every racist, sexist, bullying thing he did.
Baquet’s attempt to deflect blame by acting like white America’s racism and sexism just recently occurred to him is only the latest in a series of media navel-gazes I’ve saved in a mental folder labeled “media men who want credit for apologizing without actually being sorry for anything.”
That folder is already stuffed with non-regretful statements from every third male pundit whose centrist-washing of the GOP’s enthusiastic dive into fascism made false equivalencies between Republican legislators overthrowing democracy and a Democrat or two using the word “fuck.”
“A lot of people are only happy when they’re unhappy now,” whined George Will, that elder statesman of the Washington Post. “It makes them feel alive to define themselves not in terms of positive affirmations, but of hostilities. And I don’t know what to do about it.”
It’s jammed to bursting with the likes of Rick Wilson, Steve Schmidt, David Frum, Marc Thiessen—right-wing relics of the Bush administration’s War on Terror—lamenting the bygone era in which Republicans kept their racism couched in acceptable phrases and soothing tones. These torture-enthusing smear merchants got to make money dividing America politically with “with us or against us” diatribes. Now they get to make money telling us how terrible it is to live in the world they built.
“I came of age inside the conservative movement of the 20th century,” Frum wrote in a 2020 book called Trumpocalypse. “In the 21st, that movement has delivered much more harm than good, from the Iraq war to the financial crisis to the Trump presidency.”
There’s an entire subfolder that’s just poor-me moaning from former right-wing talk-show host Charlie Sykes, well-known in the Midwest as Rush Limbaugh without the charm. Sykes made his bones turning Wisconsin red by pitting its sub- and exurbs against its two largest cities. Then, when Trump drove his clown car straight into the economy and the ad dollars for his show started drying up, Sykes put on a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger face and told everyone conservatism was over.
“In this political universe, voters accept that they must tolerate bizarre behavior, dishonesty, crudity, and cruelty, because the other side is always worse; the stakes are such that no qualms can get in the way of the greater cause,” Sykes lamented, to the adulation of media so starved of non-rabid Republicans that they scrambled to book the man who infected them in the first place.
The non-apology apology folder’s overflowing with the work of unrehabilitated sex pests whose enablers are still being platformed as if there were no non-rapists in media. Showtime’s deplorable political chatter show The Circus returns to cable audiences this month despite two of its progenitors relentlessly protecting a third, Mark Halperin, while he subjected women to the depressing sight of his peen.
Undeterred by one of its hosts being accused of violent sexual assault while helming deplorably sexist coverage of the first female Democratic presidential nominee, the show simply swapped out Halperin for other mainstream pundits and moved right along.
These people have no incentive to change either their lousy behavior or their nihilistic outlook that politics is just a big dumb fancy game with no real winners or losers beyond polling numbers. Not when they can mutter half-assed assessments of their behavior that amount to “Oh, well, how could we have known?” and have all their peers pat them on the back for their courage.
How could you have known? Well, for starters, it’s your entire whole-ass job. People at the highest levels of American journalism fellate themselves nonstop with the idea that their mere existence is an impenetrable bulwark of United States democracy and that without reporters’ staggering insight and monumental courage America would surely fail.
What’s truly maddening is that that’s true. We desperately need journalism that holds institutions of power to account and that can and should include corporate news organizations that are responsible for driving the narratives that shape elections and government policy.
In the past two years, many newsrooms, including the Times, have responded to calls for racial justice by reconsidering the coverage they provided of everything from the Civil War to civil rights. For the Philadelphia Inquirer, for example, independent journalist Wesley Lowery conducted a probe of the newspaper’s coverage of race beginning with its founding in 1829.
“Its story is that of the modern American newspaper: The last half-century began with begrudging efforts at racial integration of both staff and coverage sparked by public pressure and protests; the decades to follow saw expanded efforts to recruit minority journalists before the industry cratered and many of those non-white journalists were the first to be shown the door,” Lowery wrote, elaborating that “the Inquirer‘s coverage has helped maintain discriminatory status quos within the city’s other institutions.”
Self-assessments, however reluctantly newsrooms may undertake them, are a good start. Asking editors to answer for their coverage, as the New Yorker did with Baquet, is a useful way to make it clear journalists are responsible for the narratives they create.
But if there are no changes as a result of these mea culpas, if editors continue to platform fascists and fools under cover of “balance,” if repeated dishonesty and virulent bigotry still don’t disqualify the powerful from the editorial pages, what difference does “sorry, our bad” really make?
True atonement for the sins of the past would look like a refusal to give bad faith actors like Wilson and Sykes the attention and oxygen they so desperately, transparently crave. It would look like once and for all time deciding that political coverage is not “one Republican, one centrist, bang bang next case” and it would look like acknowledging that there is only one side for journalism to be on: that of American democracy, charges of bias be damned.
It would look like Baquet owning up to the fact that his newsroom didn’t want to dig past the surface complaints of Trump voters and expose the ugliness beneath.
If Baquet was really that staggered by his paper’s refusal to see Trump’s election coming, he’d do more than just give shruggy interviews about it and hire more right-wing staffers. He’d use his enormous power and reputation in media to promote the people who were right about Trump, about America’s racist underpinnings, about the complicity of the corporate press in creating the perception that the authoritarian transformation of the GOP was just more ordinary political maneuvering.
He’d just goddamn admit that he didn’t see what he didn’t want to see, instead of pretending it was invisible, and expecting us to give him a parade for it.
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