Boehlert dies as U.S. needs his message

by Will Bunch

Early in the morning on April 4, Eric Boehlert — a veteran and unrelenting critic of the American news media — hit the button to publish the latest installment of his popular newsletter, Press Run. The piece — headlined “Why is the press rooting against Biden?” — stands out for two reasons.

The first is that Boehlert’s column really exemplified the difficult and often lonely mission he’d tackled with such ferocity since the did-Al-Gore-claim-to-invent-the-internet days of the late 1990s — yet another whack at the bad habits of the mainstream Beltway media. The piece asked pointed questions about why the press had ignored a flood of good news every month about the U.S. job market since President Joe Biden took office — to the point where a poll showed a plurality of Americans wrongly believe joblessness has actually worsened over the last 15 months.

“Is the press either hoping for a (Donald) Trump return to the White House, or at least committed to keeping Biden down so the 2024 rematch will be close and ‘entertaining’ for the press to cover?” Boehlert asked pointedly after reviewing headlines that downplayed the surge in monthly gains. He later added: “Biden is facing not just one organized opposition in the form of the GOP, but another in the form of the Beltway press corps.”

But the even more noteworthy thing about Boehlert’s April 4 column was this: It was his last.

That night, Boehlert put on his usual protective gear for an evening bike ride around the suburban community that he loved, Montclair, N.J. He never made it home. At about 9:40 p.m., he was struck and killed by a New Jersey Transit train near the Watchung Avenue station. Police and railroad officials are still investigating what happened. He was only 57.

I was friends with Eric in that way that friendships tend to be in the 21st century. We’d met once or twice in person, but mainly I knew him in cyberspace. Several times a week, we’d share our latest work and our dull surprise at the latest news media crime against nature.

The arc of Boehlert’s professional life was remarkable. He began covering rock music for publications such as Rolling Stone, but like other young cultural journalists I’ve known, saw that society’s ills needed not just idealistic lyrics but harder-hitting prose. Beginning at the pioneering online magazine Salon in the 1990s, Boehlert did what no one else was doing at the time — challenge the capitalized Conventional Wisdom of a cynical and “savvy” Washington media that preached “objectivity” yet ridiculed progressive ideas as hopelessly naïve. That worldview put Boehlert several years ahead of a pack that also failed to truly grasp the significance of Fox News and the rising poison of right-wing disinformation.

A well-funded right-wing attack on the credibility of the news media launched at the dawn of the 1970s — beginning with the diatribes of Spiro Agnew and the schemes of the now-notorious “Powell Memo” — had radically altered the playing field of journalism by the dawn of the new millennium. Thus, a handful of iconoclasts like Boehlert and a new breed of critics with a new format — blogs — weren’t only fighting the truth-twisting of the conservative media bubble of talk radio and Fox News that the Powell Memo had envisioned.

In addition, the constant gaming of the so-called refs of leading mainstream outlets by the political right often led to warped news coverage, as cowed journalists sought to prove they weren’t biased liberals, or — in Agnew’s unforgettable words — “impudent snobs.” The worst case — the traditional media’s whole-hog swallowing of government lies leading up to the Iraq War — inspired Boehlert’s other book, “Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush.”

Of course, the horrors of those George W. Bush years can nonetheless feel quaint in 2022, when the most-watched cable-TV news host in America, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, spouts language about “a great replacement theory” of immigration that echoes the worst of 1930s Europe, or can’t backtrack from his recent history of praising dictator Vladimir Putin on the eve of Russia’s criminal invasion of neighboring Ukraine.

In the weeks before his death, Boehlert wrote about the alarming similarities between Putin’s propaganda network and the right-wing media’s embrace of Trump’s “Big Lie” about the 2020 election, the normalization of extreme QAnon-type ideas used to smear the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, and the lack of coverage of treasonous texts by the wife of the high court’s Justice Clarence Thomas.

He understood that both the constant fact-bending from Fox and even more extreme outlets but also the failure of mainstream journalists to aggressively fight back had created a nation severely infected by disinformation. The media’s powerlessness in the face of widespread ignorance — not just the public’s bad info on the economy, but that 36% of all Americans (and 78% of Republicans) don’t even believe Biden’s 2020 election victory was legitimate — is sad but powerful validation of the importance of Boehlert’s life work.

But perhaps sadder still is the failure of the powerful people who could change this dynamic — who could agree that when the American experiment faces a life-or-death crisis, the promise of journalism isn’t to cover that cliff plunge with “objectivity” but to advocate like hell for democracy — who haven’t so far been listening.

The general attitude of newsroom leaders hasn’t been that journalism needs to reform to fight this asymmetrical warfare, but can just crank up the volume on the old inadequate ways.

If anything could possibly be more tragic than the abrupt loss of a vital media critic who could have given us so much more, it’s that Eric Boehlert died at the exact moment when American journalism most needed to hear what he had to say. A writer with his courage, persistence and clear vision, tempered with 25 years of experience in the trenches of the national conversation, is irreplaceable. And yet he must be replaced.

In fact, this country needs a small army of Eric Boehlerts — people who can prod journalism to see beyond the next Georgetown cocktail party to understand that we stand on the brink of an America where leaders won’t just call reporters “the enemy of the people” but will act aggressively on those authoritative impulses. Boehlert understood that democracy dies without the truth. It’s now left to all of us to finish his fight without him.

Will Bunch is national columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.