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American Idealism: Media Edition 8 min read

American Idealism: Media Edition

The Atlantic's collection of writing during Trump presidency, Facebook's inability to police itself, paywalls and local news vacuums, new COVID-19 documentary, and more.

By Cary Littlejohn

It should come as no surprise that I write a lot about the media, seeing as how I undertook a radical change in my life just to be considered among its ranks. It’s a perfect time to think about the media as an election approaches, not because of its breathless coverage of the horse race that is the election, but because of how closely the media is connected to the success of America’s longstanding democracy.

I felt a convergence of interests after I watched Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 and read a New Republic review of an anthology of The Atlantic’s writing during the Trump presidency. They both had to do with idealism and democracy. I’ll try to connect the dots.

Netflix released Sorkin’s newest film to much fanfare, and not just from Sorkin disciples like me. It’s a star-studded cast telling a historical story that has cultural relevance to discussions we’re still having today; it is surefire Oscar bait. Without writing a thesis on Sorkin, it’s no real secret that his writing, and specifically his political writing, is rooted in idealism.

I was thinking about this as I listened to an episode of The Big Picture podcast, which recently reviewed Sorkin’s oeuvre, and I saw myself in Sorkin’s idealism. I'm not sure of the chicken and the egg of it all: I can’t tell if I feel the way because I was influenced by his shows, or if I came to his shows and love them so because I fundamentally agree with his worldview. But as the hosts of the podcasts picked apart his worldview as inspirational and therefore great fodder for fictional characters, they were quick to point out that it hasn’t aged well if one looks at the world and rightly conclude that Sorkin’s idealism would surely be crushed underfoot by the realpolitik and gamesmanship and cynicism.

I cannot argue with that assessment of reality; I consider myself a realist in many respects. But at my core, I’m a hopeless romantic, an idealist. His worldview perhaps is not and should not be a roadmap for navigating the current political, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting it to be. A friend of mine did not care for the Sorkin worldview in this film, and I responded as being essentially helpless, as I’d come of age with The West Wing.

Then came The New Republic’s assessment of The Atlantic’s new anthology of the Trump presidency. To review the book, the author takes great care to establish the editorial and institutional voice of The Atlantic, a magazine founded in 1857 by abolitionists and in print ever since, with this paragraph:

To be spoken to in the Atlantic tone, and to adopt the Atlantic view on America’s problems, must be luxuriously comforting. The Atlantic believes our country is flawed and complex, born in slavery but always aspiring to a more inclusive definition of freedom. It believes that Trump presents an unprecedented authoritarian threat to America’s democratic institutions, a threat that has pre-Trumpian roots but is also singular and, we can only hope, temporary. It believes America has always held within it the capacity for rebirth and renewal; that in spite of our diversity and divisions, we can and must seek unity; that partisan strife can be overcome; that lessons from history, which seem to appear about 20 percent of the way through any given article, can inspire us to embrace our better angels; that old-fashioned concepts like honor and duty and fairness have a place in twenty-first-century America; and that our many pressing problems—inequality, a broken public health system, online radicalization, right-wing conspiracy theories, structural and environmental racism, climate change, all of it—can be dispassionately diagnosed and addressed. The Atlantic believes that you are a well-meaning, Ivy-educated white-collar professional, a member of what contributor Matthew Stewart calls “the 9.9 percent” and “the new American aristocracy”; that you listen to NPR and shop at Trader Joe’s and are vaguely embarrassed not to know any Trump supporters; that you are trying your best to understand how America has gone astray; and that you can do so without ever making yourself too uncomfortable.

In its own way, this article describes The Atlantic as the magazine of Aaron Sorkin. They are cut from the same cloth, and they both speak to me in similar ways. That paragraph describes me in so many ways, even if I do not fit quite all of the characteristics (not Ivy-educated, no Trader Joe at which to shop, and certainly can’t say I don’t know Trump supporters), but there is a reason why I respond to the writing of both of this hugely influential sources of American commentary.

Ten worth your time

  1. The aforementioned New Republic review of The Atlantic’s new book.

  2. In a rash of reporting on The Atlantic, here’s Digiday looking into the recent success at The Atlantic, which won 60,000 new subscriptions last month alone.

  3. Talking about media now is, for better or worse, also a conversation about social media. The New Yorker’s Andrew Marantz looks into the biggest of them all – Facebook – and how its internal policies for combatting troubling content is woefully inadequate.

  4. I work for a local paper. Times are tough for our newsroom, which went from producing a daily print edition for decades to printing physical papers just twice a week a few months before I was hired. Our website has a firm paywall; without a subscription, you won’t see more than the first few lines of an article, which is one reason I don’t share out any of my work. I’ll be the last to complain about a media outlet requiring payment to read its work; good work costs money, and those subscription dollars surely go to help pay my salary. I do my part by subscribing to a lot of publications, in hopes that my few dollars can help keep their operations afloat. But there are unintended consequences happening when local news outlets are forced, for financial sustainability reasons, to put all of their work behind a paywall. It creates a vacuum when people expect their news to be free. As it turns out, there are plenty who are willing to fill that vacuum with garbage, namely the creation of free websites that have nothing resembling journalistic values governing what they produce. In many instances, coverage is bought and paid for by politicians, and talking points and spin are pushed as local news. Read about it at The New York Times and The New Republic.

  5. Twitter timelines are as unique as the fingerprints of the user. If you love a certain sports team, you can fill your timeline with people who seem to speak only about your team. It’s understood when someone says “Film Twitter,” they mean the large number of film critics and film aficionados who tweet, follow each other and retweet each other, and the ecosystem within the larger Twitterverse that creates. Media Twitter is a popular term, namely because so many journalists use Twitter as their preferred social media platform, whether that’s because its format feels the most natural as an extension of their reporting, the knowledge that’s where their peers are spending time online, some other reasons or combinations of all the above. Harvard’s Nieman Lab recently profiled the man who’s largely credited with creating Media Twitter, which an real-time dishing of behind-the-scenes looks inside The New Yorker. Dan Baum passed away Oct. 8, 2020.

  6. Hamilton Nolan wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review on the diminishing power of The Washington Post, not in terms of its reporting or the resources it can throw at projects, but because people in power seem to find it more advantageous to forego speaking to outlets such as the Post. Nolan wrote:

    “Because journalism, particularly at the highest level, is about raw power. It is about bringing important people to heel, on behalf of the public. Politicians and officials and business leaders don’t want to talk to the press, subjecting themselves to the possibility of being made to look bad; they do it because they have always felt they had no choice. They felt that way because papers like the Post could offer the carrot of great exposure to those who needed it, but also, always, the stick of negative coverage to those who spurned it. There is nothing devious or ignoble about this; a powerful press, for all its flaws, is good for democracy, and tends to promote equality by holding the big shots in check. Anyone who has ever negotiated to land a contentious interview with a famous person knows that you only get those interviews when your subject fears what will happen if they don’t do the interview. Today, that fear is disappearing. We all need to figure out what to do about that.”

    Read the rest at the Columbia Journalism Review.

  7. The news moves fast, especially with developments on COVID-19. Recent days have seen our worst numbers of this pandemic yet; instead of “turning a corner,” as President Trump claims, things are getting worse in many states. If you have Hulu, you’d do well to spend two hours watching Alex Gibney’s newest documentary, Totally Under Control, which is a recap of the past 10 months and a solemn reminder that the U.S.’s reality right now with respect to COVID-19 was not inevitable. Choices led us here. Failures have a lot to do with why. It’s a damning document ahead of Election Day.

  8. I have to listen to a lot of chatter from community members here that my publication (and, by extension, all who work for it) are in the tank for some cause or another. My particular beat – education – earns me criticism not just from parents disgruntled that COVID-19 is upsetting the normalcy of a school year by necessitating their kids where masks but also from school officials who have no interest in talking about why they’ve chosen to keep the outbreaks at the various schools from the public even though numerous other school districts in the state and across the country are freely sharing that information in the interest of public health. My questions are presumed to come from a bias inherent to the media. New York magazine’s Johnathan Chait wrote about how the national media is employing a different standard for covering President Trump; it’s just not the one the naysayers on Fox News would have their audience believe it to be. If the title of the piece (“The News Media Isn’t Biased Against Trump. It’s Biased For Him.”) weren’t enough, consider this thesis statement:

    “It is true that Trump found many of the questions posed to him difficult to answer and that Biden answered his queries more easily. It is also true that mainstream news coverage, in general, has depicted Trump in a brutally harsh light. (This, of course, omits conservative media, which functions as a state-controlled message machine.)But it’s not the media’s fault that Trump continues to incriminate himself and is unable to answer simple questions. The problem is not that the media holds him to a difficult standard. He is held, by necessity, to a more forgiving standard than any modern president. But however low the bar is set, Trump continues to trip over it.”

  9. Between the continued fallout over The New York Times’ 1619 Project and its reporting on its hit podcast Caliphate, The Washington Post has had a lot of material to print about its biggest rival. This piece by Sarah Ellison recounts the 1619 Project’s original controversy and its most recent after the Times’ own opinion section took aim at the project.

  10. The podcast Caliphate getting re-reported is perhaps insider baseball, interesting mainly to journalists and close watchers of the media. But the story, which had been reported by outlets such as The Daily Beast and Washington Post, took on a new air of gravity when the Times’ own media columnist, Ben Smith, looked into the controversy for his weekly column.

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