Denigrating media a political mainstay

by Llewellyn King

In the 1990s, someone wrote in The Weekly Standard — it may well have been Matt Labash — that for conservatives to triumph, they had to attack the messenger rather than the message. His advice was to go after the media, not the news.

Attacking the messenger was all well and good for the neoconservatives. Still, their less-thoughtful successors, MAGA supporters, are killing the messenger.

The press — always identified as the “liberal media” — is now often seen, due to relentless denigration, as a force for evil, a malicious contestant on the other side.

No matter that there is no liberal media beyond what has been fabricated from political ectoplasm. Traditionally, most proprietors have been conservative, and many, but not most reporters, have been liberal.

It surprises people to learn that when you work in a large newsroom, you don’t know the political opinions of most of your colleagues. I have worked in many newsrooms over the decades and tended to know more about my colleagues’ love lives than their voting preferences.

This philosophy of “kill the messenger” might work briefly, but down the road, the problem is no messenger, no news, no facts. The next stop is anarchy and chaos — you might say, politics circa 2024.

Add to that social media and its capacity to spread innuendo, half-truth, fabrication and common ignorance.

There is someone who writes to me almost weekly about media’s failures — and I assume, ergo, my failure — and he won’t be mollified. To him, that irregular army of individuals who make a living reporting are members of a pernicious cult. To him, there is a shadow world of the media.

I have stopped remonstrating with him on that point. On other issues, he is lucid and has views worth knowing on the Middle East and Ukraine.

That poses the question: How come he knows about these things? The answer, of course, is that he read about them, saw the news on television or heard it on radio.

Reporters in Gaza and Ukraine risk their lives, and sometimes lose them, to tell the world what is going on in these and other very dangerous places. No one accuses them of being left or right of center.

But send the same journalists to cover the White House, and they are assumed to be unreliable propagandists, devoid of judgment, integrity or common decency, so enslaved to liberalism that they will twist everything to suit a propaganda purpose.

That thought is displayed every time Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., is interviewed on TV. Stefanik attacks the interviewer and the institution. Her aim is to silence the messenger and leave the impression that she isn’t to be trifled with by the media, shades of Margaret Thatcher. But I interviewed “The Iron Lady,” and I can say she answered questions, hostile or otherwise.

Stefanik’s recent grandstanding on TV hid her flip-flop on the events on Jan. 6, 2021, and failed to tell us what she would do if she were to win the high office she clearly covets.

I have been in the journalist’s trade too long to pretend that we are all heroes, all out to get the truth. But I have observed that journalists tell the story pretty well, to the best of their varied abilities.

We make mistakes. We live in terror of that. An individual here and there may fabricate — as Boris Johnson, a former British prime minister, did when he was a correspondent in Brussels. Some may indeed have political agendas; the reader or listener will soon twig that.

The political turmoil we are going through is partly a result of media denigration. People believe what they want to believe; they can seize any spurious supposition and hold it close as a revealed truth.

You can, for example, believe that ending natural gas development in the United States will lead to carbon reduction worldwide, or you can believe that the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection with loss of life and the trashing of the nation’s great Capitol Building was an act of free speech.

One of the more dangerous ideas dancing around is that social media and citizen journalists can replace professional journalists. No, no, a thousand times no! We need the press with the resources to hire excellent journalists to cover local and national news, and to send, or station, staff around the world.

Have you seen anyone covering the news from Ukraine or Gaza on social media? There is commentary and more commentary on social media sites, all based on the reporting of those in danger and on the spot.

This is a trade of imperfect operators but an essential one. For better or for worse, we are the messengers.

Llewellyn King is the executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS.