The sheer shock of a catastrophic defeat like last November’s can make it tempting to think that only a complete overhaul of the old way of doing things will succeed in the work of rebuilding. And obviously, there is some sense in this reaction: 2016 should prompt unsentimental reevaluations of leaders, core policy commitments, ideological direction, organization-building, electoral strategies, messaging, and more. Indeed, this effort goes beyond party politics: Anybody on the broad American left has to be asking themselves where to go from here. Mark Hertsgaard suggests, in a Columbia Journalism Review piece, that this moment requires “Creating a Fox News for the left.” That headline is somewhat confusing, for Hertsgaard is calling for something that already exists, is unlike Fox News, and is not really “for” the left.
What results, then, is a piece with lots of criticisms and complaints—many of them justified—but no clear prescription. Hertsgaard begins by casting “Fox and Friends”—his term for the TV channel along with the broader conservative “infrastructure of cable-TV outlets, talk-radio stations, websites, newspapers, magazines, and publishing houses”—as 2016’s “veritable kingmakers,” an “indispensable” reason for Donald Trump’s victory. Given the disastrous influence of these figures and institutions on American politics, it’s “past time to build a countervailing independent-media infrastructure…to bring professional, truth-telling journalism to large numbers of Americans, many of whom trust neither Fox and Friends nor the mainstream media to tell the truth.”
Here, Hertsgaard uses the language of a countervailing weight provided by high-quality, non-mainstream media outlets, but elsewhere (and not just in the headline), the essay confusingly slides between this oppositional idea and the mere promotion of a left-wing Fox. Hertsgaard credits Bill Moyers with realizing, as early as the mid-1990s, that “if progressives didn’t want to be left behind while Fox and Friends shaped the news and political agenda…they had to create their own equivalent to Fox.” But “equivalent to Fox” is a tricky phrase. Hertsgaard insists that the point is “not to mimic Fox and Friends’ delivery of propaganda disguised as news or to slavishly carry water for any political party or cause.” But if that’s the case, in what sense are these other outlets “equivalents”? Propaganda and slavish partisanship are the characteristics that make these conservative outlets what they are. Moyers’s own words don’t clarify the matter: In a quoted passage from another interview, Moyers actually calls not for a media effort modeled on Fox, but something “more in the mold of the BBC at its best.”
It might appear, then, that this is simply a case of bad headline writing and one or two poorly-chosen words. Yet Hertsgaard seems torn between wishing for a wider audience for well-done progressive journalism and a partisan juggernaut. He deems it “puzzling, to put it mildly, that progressives have not drawn the obvious lessons from the right-wing media’s enormous successes over the past quarter-century.” The “successes” referred to here are presumably of the electoral variety (where is Sean Hannity’s Pulitzer?)—an impression bolstered by the essay’s tendency to quote left-wing media figures whose complaints concern progressives’ lack of coordination and clout. This suggests that the important failures are political, not journalistic. Hertsgaard quotes one PR consultant who laments the left’s failure to adopt “unified” communications, develop its own lineup of daytime radio and primetime TV personalities, and spread its talking points via “enormous amounts of repetition.” This sounds less like power-skeptical muckraking and more like coordinated advocacy. Or, to pose a question closer to the heart of the piece’s fundamental ambiguity: Is this a call for more high-quality journalism, or for a unified editorial line behind progressive causes?
It is, after all, only an accident of our particular moment that these two imperatives seem to be in alignment. And even then, the alignment only holds on certain issues. The GOP’s climate denialism, for instance, has transformed a basic respect for scientific authority into a partisan issue. But not every problem presents such a straightforward correspondence between what is empirically true and what progressive ideology favors. For that reason, we should be more skeptical of arguments that posit some kind of direct link between expanded resources for professional journalists and political victories for the left. And in any case, to the extent that this link is explicitly promoted in the piece, it’s exaggerated: Hertsgaard quotes one progressive media figure who claims that “Mother Jones silenced Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign with the ‘47 percent’ video.” According to political scientists, that is a massive overstatement. But even if it were true, would that fit Hertsgaard’s thesis? If the conservative media were as powerful as he claims, the fact that most of them rushed to defend Romney’s remarks should have done more to negate the video’s impact.
I suspect that, as polarization deepens, these kinds of campaign moments will come to matter even less. But that’s fine, because the power of journalists to influence election outcomes is not the most compelling reason for expanding the reach and resources of well-run independent media outlets. Hertsgaard rightly argues that outlets “with a proven track record” should be given “the money they need to reach their full potential.” That’s certainly true, which is why it’s encouraging that an organization with the strong record of ProPublica just received a $1 million gift from the founder of Craigslist. But the Washington Post has a proven track record as well, and David Fahrenthold’s excellent reporting on Trump’s scandals are helping to grow its subscription base. That’s an encouraging development, whether Fahrenthold’s revelations of Trump-related scandals manage to move any votes or not: The news is out there, and it’s even appearing in outlets with a massive national audience. The conservative media ecosystem has made the GOP epistemically insular, hostile to facts, and ideologically extreme. It has arguably limited the party’s electoral appeal (it must be remembered that Trump lost the popular vote handily), and it has unquestionably hollowed out its basic governing competence. That is the record of Fox News and its allies, and any call for a “Fox News of the left” can only succeed by ignoring or redefining conservative media’s essential qualities. It may be that progressive causes would succeed more often if there were a left-wing infrastructure to match the right’s comprehensiveness and discipline, but there’s a reason why that kind of coordinated ideological infrastructure won’t (and shouldn’t) emerge from the kind of professional journalistic work that Hertsgaard is calling for. In this respect, his argument is clear and convincing: “The truth, compellingly told, is enough.”