Too Important To Be Neutral

It’s far short of a backlash to the legitimization of advocacy journalism, but at least some are beginning to question whether it’s a good idea for media that purports to be neutral to be flagrantly partisan. That people have lost faith in media may have something to do with it, although those people aren’t the people media cares about. They’re not their kind of people.

At Slate Star Codex, Scott Alexander takes a long and prolix scalpel to Vox’s David Robert’s post, Donald Trump and the rise of tribal epistemology. Don’t blame me, I didn’t write the headline. But the subtitle says more:

Journalism cannot be neutral toward a threat to the conditions that make it possible.

When you start out with sophistry like that, where can you possibly go?

I don’t want to overdo my criticism. “Right-wing authoritarianism” is a powerful idea with a good academic reputation, and the decision to focus solely on child-rearing was a principled choice to avoid including politics itself in the construct. And failed replications should be an opportunity for reflection rather than a cause to instantly dismiss a finding.

Yet it’s still good practice to mention their existence. And I still feel like somewhere there might be a conservative who reads this sort of thing and feels like Vox is not quite the perfectly-neutral mutually-beneficial gatekeeper institution of their dreams.

And whenever I mention this sort of thing, people protest “But Fox and Breitbart are worse!” And so they are. But I feel like Vox has aspirations to be something more than just a mirror image of Fox with a left-wing slant and a voiced fricative. It’s trying to be a neutral gatekeeper institution. If some weird conservative echo chamber is biased, well, what did you expect? If a neutral gatekeeper institution is biased, now we have a problem.

Alexander betrays his admitted liberal bias and, beyond inexplicably using the word “fricative,” indulges a logical fallacy. Whether Fox and Breitbart are “worse” isn’t relevant to the independent question of whether Vox is biased. If the question is whether a media outlet is a “neutral gatekeeper,” then it either is or isn’t, regardless of whether any other outlet is biased or the really good reasons presented to justify its bias.

And this is where both the Vox and Slate Star Codex, to a slightly lesser degree, rationalization for their claims to neutrality is exposed:

Roberts writes that “the right has not sought greater fairness in mainstream institutions; it has defected to create its own”. This is a bizarre claim, given the existence of groups like Accuracy In Media, Media Research Center, Newsbusters, Foundation For Individual Rights In Education, Heterodox Academy, et cetera which are all about the right seeking greater fairness in mainstream institutions, some of which are almost fifty years old. Really “it’s too bad conservatives never complained about liberal bias in academia or the mainstream media” seems kind of like the opposite of how I remember the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

To partisans, whether right or left, the world is divided into friends and enemies. truth and fiction, right and wrong. And if ideas aren’t right, they’re wrong. Even Alexander characterizes The FIRE and Heterodox Academy as “all about the right,” when what they are is not all about the left. Too subtle a distinction? Perhaps, but a distinction nonetheless.

Unwittingly or not, the New York Times thrust itself into this discussion in its taking on Bret Stephens. The reaction of its readers was swift and merciless, giving rise to the Public Editor, Liz Spayd, responding to the outrage and threats of subscription cancellation.

The bottom line: Few readers question the notion of having a conservative on the Op-Ed pages, with some caveats. But they thought it was a pugnacious move on Stephens’s part to choose climate change as his first target, a subject as flammable to many younger readers as the Middle East has long been to older ones.

If this smells a bit like the racist’s response of “some of my best friends are black,” it is.

For Stephens to win over new readers he’ll need to make a strategic pivot, from preaching to a choir of Journal conservatives to winning over a Times audience of suspicious liberals. Being steadfastly anti-Trump, as Stephens is, might count for something, but whatever trust was built up among Journal readers may be back on empty here. Showing some patience and respect for the new audience could start filling the tank.

Note that Spayd calls Stephens’ questioning liberal orthodoxy “preaching to a choir,” and shifts the burden to Stephens to win over his new audience. It doesn’t appear that she realizes that she’s making a confession, that the New York Times’ audience is liberal, because the Times is liberal and caters to partisan sensibilities. All of this is fine, provided you don’t claim to be a neutral gatekeeper. Not as bad as Breitbart? Small comfort.

Readers, on the other hand, face the serious test of whether they can show tolerance for views they don’t like, even those they fear are dangerous. Stephens questioned the models of climate science, but isn’t it possible to take him at face value — to accept that he thinks global warming is at least partially man-made — and see where he takes his argument over time? He may not change opinions in the end, but at the very least he might concede that his stereotype of the contemptuous liberal is overly broad. (Emphasis added.)

And there’s the rub. It’s not that people can’t stand ideas that don’t conform to their notion of right and wrong, but when those ideas tread into the realm of danger, they go too far. Climate change? Too far. Gun control? Too far. Racism, sexism, transmisogyny? Too far. Hate speech? Too far. Whether chocolate is a better flavor than vanilla? Well, okay, we can disagree.

There are four basic reactions to partisan contentions:

  1. Blindly accept anything that confirms your beliefs
  2. Reluctantly consider arguments that challenge your beliefs
  3. Fairly consider arguments that contradict your beliefs
  4. Challenge flawed arguments that confirm your beliefs

The most dangerous of these is the last, as it has nothing to do with what you believe, but with the integrity of your beliefs. If someone lies, but it supports what you believe, do you knowingly acquiesce because it’s more important that the right answer be supported than that it be supported with accurate and legitimate arguments? But if you question them, then you must be the enemy, because if you’re not for what’s right, you’re for what’s wrong.

And when it’s too dangerous to be wrong, then the neutral gatekeeper can take comfort in the knowledge that it may be totally partisan, but it does so for the sake of saving society from the enemy. Some things are too important to be wrong about, and when they are, even those who believe themselves to be the neutral gatekeepers have a duty to be just as bad as Fox and Breitbart. But it’s totally different when they do it because they’re right.


20 thoughts on “Too Important To Be Neutral

  1. Dan T.

    Chocolate is obviously a better flavor than vanilla. How dare you question that and commit epistemic violence against chocolate-lovers?

    1. SHG Post author

      I don’t mind a hint of chocolate on top of my pistachio sundae, but any more than that and its literally Hitler.

  2. Thomas

    Maybe he should have just stopped at the subtitle with “Journalism cannot be neutral….”

  3. Black Bellamy

    > The reaction of its readers was swift and meriless.

    I suspect the missing letter is a “c” but I read it as if a “t” was the missing letter.

    1. SHG Post author

      My tradition of not posting typo comments is suspended as I’m now in a quandary as to whether to correct it with a “c” or “t.”

  4. Quinn Martindale

    Interesting to see the link to slatestarcodex. I would not have guessed you read that site.

      1. Dan T.

        It’s two “Kevin Bacon”-esque degrees of separation from you; you blogroll Popehat, which blogrolls SSC.

        1. SHG Post author

          That’s just because Ken is a ubiquitous force on the internets. Otherwise, it could be three Kevin Bacons away.

  5. B. McLeod

    After throwing out neutrality and converting every story to partisan spin in an attempt to stop Trump, they don’t have to worry about Trump destroying journalism. They have destroyed journalism. They have destroyed the village in order to save the village.

    1. SHG Post author

      But that’s only because Trump is so horrifying, because it he wasn’t, then they wouldn’t have had to, so they win.

      1. B. McLeod

        Well of course. Almost goes without saying that they wouldn’t have destroyed it unless they “had to.” In order to save it, right? That’s the root of the moral imperative here, after all. It just seems to me that something is getting lost in the equation. I can’t quite put my finger on it.

  6. D-Poll

    It’s deeply important to me that you understand that the “fricative” comment was a hilarious joke about the similarity of the words “Vox” and “Fox”; the sounds of ‘V’ and ‘F’ are called labiodental fricatives, and ‘V’ is the voiced version.

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