In this week’s Crossroads podcast, host Todd Wilken and I discussed the good and bad of March for Life coverage. You can listen to it here. We revisited some of the themes we first looked at in these posts: “How to write a bland story about the March For Life,” “Foot-long subs vs. March For Life,” and “Savvy PR firm scores NYTimes coup against March For Life.”
One of the problems with the annual discontent over how the signal event of the pro-life movement is covered is that the two sides in the dispute (that is, the pro-lifers and the media) have a very difficult time getting the other side to understand each other.
So I wanted to highlight an interesting conversation on another thread from this week, headlined “We don’t have a free press. Discuss.” I don’t think we all came to agreement on anything, but there were some interesting comments. The occasion of the comments was Professor Anthony Esolen’s jeremiad against the media’s coverage of the abortion debate in general.
Journalist Jeffrey Weiss got the ball rolling with his suggestion that the March for Life isn’t big news, particularly after 40 years, and that the crowds aren’t that big of a deal when compared to a weekend of sporting events. Reader Martha wondered whether the 40 years’ commemoration itself doesn’t make it more newsworthy. She made a comment about how the media find it possible to cover annual sporting events. Jeffrey responded that it’s a “pep rally for the faithful. A large preaching-to-the-choir.” Reader Patrick pointed out that it’s a massive pep rally, if that’s the case, and one that even 40 years after the initial court decision represents a movement as large as the movement for same-sex marriage. And there were many more interesting comments, too, including Jeffrey’s latest, with wise words for all.
All the usual comments about media bias and the tired discussion of whether or not the March is news miss what I think is the most provocative part of Esolen’s essay: the suggestion that journalism on the whole makes us stupid (which in turn makes the abundance of stupid journalism rather unsurprising) and that a people who think in journalism (newspeak) will be a people who are ultimately incapable–and worse, uninterested–in thinking. I have my own theories about this, not to mention a few qualifiers, which I’ve trotted out here from time to time, and I wish he had done more to explain why this is so, but clearly he wanted to vent about coverage of the March. I can’t say that I blame him. Yet to me this essay is as much an indictment of the culture dominated by its superficial media as it is an indictment of the superficiality of the reportage. And this seems to me to be much the point of the article: that the two are made for (and by) each other.
The coverage of the March illustrates this. But having read the piece several times now, I think Esolen unnecessarily diverts attention from this point and so muddies the waters of his critique with the additional accusation of mendacity. And he seems to commit an unforced error in doing so, for instance when he says, “The March for Life is, year after year, the largest peaceful assembly of people in the nation. To know this, and to fail to report it, is to be a liar. Not to know this is to be a moron; no third possibility exists.” But mendacity and stupidity are not opposites, and so a third possibility does exist, namely, to be a lying moron. Just because a story may be misleading or untrue, even maliciously so, doesn’t mean it isn’t also stupid.
So one way to rephrase some of Mollie’s concluding questions from the perspective opened up by Esolen’s criticisms would be to ask, “Can we have a free press without an intelligent press? Can we have an intelligent press without having a press that is deeply interested in truth? Is ‘newspeak’ really an adequate form of rationality for apprehending, penetrating, and stating the truth? If the answer to any or all of these questions is no, then we are compelled to ask fundamental and critical questions not just of this or that journalistic product, but of journalism as a thought form and an institution, and we are compelled to conclude that the imposition and enforcement of mass stupidity is a great part of the social function of the contemporary media. That seems to me to be Esolen’s deeper point, and it obviously does not bode well for the future of civil society.
So we’re doomed! Enjoy your Superbowl Sunday!