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The Seeds of Media Self-Sabotage

The Republican Party’s submission to Donald Trump, and his victory in last year’s election, have produced endless material for hypocrisy watchdogs to chew on. Hypocrisy has become the media’s watchword for the tactics and reversals conservatives have undertaken in response to the unexpected rise of a historically unscrupulous president.

For instance: In explaining last week why Sean Hannity had once called Julian Assange an enemy of the United States, but now—thanks to Assange’s in-kind support for Donald Trump—proposes a U.S. government-Wikileaks alliance, CNN’s Dana Bash called it “classic politics.”

“This is why Americans look at Washington, look at the media—Fox included—and say, ‘event or issue A is fine when the Republicans are in charge but not when the Democrats are in charge, and vice versa.’ Both parties do it, and Sean Hannity is in that lane of the Republican Party…. It is really too bad, but that is exactly why people who have any modicum of understanding of hypocrisy and contradiction should see that and say, ‘give me a break.’”

Rather than belabor false equivalence, I want to focus on the category error that makes this particular kind of false equivalence possible, because if it goes uncorrected, it will clear the path by which illiberal forces in America ultimately prevail. It isn’t that Sean Hannity and scores of other oily Trump apparatchiks aren’t daily engaged in brazen hypocrisy. They are. It’s that the concept of hypocrisy doesn’t really capture the conservative media’s driving ethic, in all its ugliness. Lumping the methods of Trump apologists into the same critical framework as “classic politics” creates a parity between agitprop and honest discourse that propagandists will exploit until most people can’t tell the difference. It will allow insidious disinformation to chew away at the institutions of journalism and academic expertise, until the enlightened foundations of an informed citizenry collapse.


Hypocrisy is the most heavily policed crime in American politics, because it is both ubiquitous, and inherently neutral as a subject of scrutiny. It is called the tribute that vice pays to virtue, because it’s through hypocrisy that we betray our awareness of the disparity between what we say and what we do, or what we do in public and what we do in private. It is a meta-sin, free of ideological valence, which makes it an appealing target for journalists.

When a politician takes both sides of an issue at different times, journalists can elide the substance of the positions by zeroing in on the apparent hypocrisy—was he for it before he was against it? When partisans set forth double standards, it is often easier to make them address their inconsistencies than to question the merits of the standards themselves. And since all politicians engage in hypocrisy at least occasionally, criticizing it carries no aroma of bias.

Until his untimely death almost a decade ago, Tim Russert used his perch as host of Meet the Press to surface all manner of political contradictions along these lines, and then confront his guests with their own hypocrisies. The value of his approach was its tendency to make politicians squirm and embarrass themselves. But its power stemmed from the assumption that even the most unctuous partisans feared getting caught. That at some level they understood and respected the importance of facts and consistency and reason and honesty.

The most influential figures in conservative media today cannot be shamed out of hypocrisy, because they are, at best, completely indifferent to those notions. In some cases, they’re outright hostile to them. When the assumption of deep-seated good faith doesn’t hold, the value of scrutinizing hypocrisy plummets.

Hannity and Tucker Carlson may be dull-witted, but they are surely self-aware enough to understand that they use their platforms on Fox News for purely instrumental ends. Trump’s enablers have taken an interest in the stomach-churning revelations about Harvey Weinstein not because they’re committed foes of workplace sexual misconduct or gender inequality, but because they want to neutralize one of Trump’s biggest liabilities (that he is an admitted sex offender) and undermine the credibility of the mainstream media in the process. 

And the latter is the ultimate prize.

Money and ratings are motives, as well, of course, and for some Trump apologists, the collateral damage to competing institutions is just an ancillary benefit of cashing in. But media figures more closely associated with the alt-right are fully conscious of and motivated by larger ideological goals.

As Bloomberg writer Joshua Green detailed in his campaign biography of Steve Bannon, the Breitbart chairman and Trump adviser is envious of the influence Nazi and Soviet propagandists had over their citizenries, and uses their tactics to mobilize white Americans. His lickspittle understudy, Matthew Boyle, has boasted openly of angling for “the full destruction and elimination of the entire mainstream media,” through the “weaponization of information.”

Faithful representations of observable reality are generally incompatible with the aim of whipping a segment of the public into a frenzy for political power. So they jettison the former.

Though many conservatives will protest otherwise, neither the mainstream nor the liberal media operate in this mercenary fashion. Mainstream and liberal journalism operate differently from one another, and conservatives deride both as “liberal” disingenuously. But to the extent that both are undergirded by enlightenment principles, the contradistinction between “conservative media” and other media is very real.

We would be better off as a political culture and a country if conservative media mirrored liberal media in its relative commitment to empiricism and fair-mindedness. But while we can’t control the way Trump’s enablers conduct themselves, we should recognize that they pocket unearned credibility when we collapse the moral distinction between partisan hypocrisy and concerted propaganda, treating their illiberal commitments as “classic politics.” Predictable if regrettable partisan behavior. The unseemly but typical behavior of ideologues

When Bannon addressed the turgid Aristocrats joke that is the annual Values Voters Summit this past weekend, he trashed Republican senator Bob Corker for speaking out about Trump’s unfitness for office, claiming risibly that Corker was the first senator in U.S. history to mock a sitting president while troops are serving abroad.

The hypocrisy hounds descended. CNN’s Jake Tapper rightly noted that Bannon’s own website routinely celebrated mockery of Barack Obama while he was president. But Tapper ended his corrective with the admonition that “feelings aren’t facts”—as if Bannon had simply gotten carried away. Not likely. It is useful to Bannon’s ambitions to convince Trump’s supporters that criticizing the president is tantamount to sedition, history and consistency and democratic values be damned. He knows exactly what he’s doing. To a greater or lesser extent, so do the rest of them. And the longer that takes to sink in—the longer it takes us to develop new norms for addressing demonstrable bad faith—the likelier it becomes that this tide of propaganda will swamp us.