Dear Media, Embrace Your Elitism. Patriotically

Washington journalists tend to believe two things: they're patriotic but not elitist. Both are wrong.

Elizabeth Drew, dean of Washington politics, wrote an open letter to Donald Trump taking umbrage with the president’s accusation that all journalists are “elitists.”

Though we realize that this is part of your ongoing effort to delegitimize our efforts to report the truth of what’s going on in your presidency, citizens none the wiser may accept your nullification of what we do. It’s not even clear to us what you understand about who we are and how we function. This letter, should you read it, is an attempt, in the spirit of your current efforts to bring peace to the world, to sort you and your followers out about us.

Drew is right.

Journalists don’t inherit their jobs. Merit is paramount to professional success. Aside from a handful of television hosts, reporters are well-paid but not rich. Thanks to White House’s daily chaos, reporters work long hours and must sacrifice an ordinary life for one of constant deadlines and grinding pressure. In other words, Drew writes, reporters don’t go into journalism for the fame and glamour.

But Drew is wrong.

From a societal view, journalists are among the elites. As I noted in Monday’s newsletter, most people most of the time have something better to do than be politically informed. So they take short cuts. According to one classic study, they hear cues from elites (elected officials, interest groups, civic leaders and journalists) who don’t have better things to do. In other words, normal people like you and everyone you know depend on abnormal people like Drew (and me) to provide what they need to make good political choices. Usually, it works.

It didn’t work in 2016, because, as I said yesterday, elites failed to send the right signals to the electorate. This is true of the Republican Party and its fringe media comrades. They largely succumbed to Trump or sat on the fence. But this is especially true of a mainstream news establishment that believed, without evidence, as a genuine article of faith, that it was not possible for playboy billionaire Donald Trump to become president, and so spent time crafting a “narrative” about a former secretary of state mired in a scandal over emails and public distrust. The aggregate signal the media sent in 2016 was this—Clinton: untrustworthy; Trump: something new.

This is old hat, of course. My intent is not to rehash it. What’s new is Drew’s admirable reasoning for why reporters do what they do, though they can’t get rich, work around the clock, and sacrifice the trappings of ordinary life. She says it’s about patriotism.

Mr. P, I don’t know if you’ll understand this, but under the evident and sometimes faked cynicism, we’re patriotic: we want to see our democratic experiment—so far, the longest-lived one in the world—endure. We believe in a certain fairness in the treatment of the country’s citizens, though we may fiercely disagree on how to define that. You see, Mr. P, there is no such thing as a “Beltway media,” who all think the same thing. We get satisfaction from holding government officials to account; we enjoy trying to find out what happened and explaining it to our readers and viewers.

I wish it were true. It just ain’t so.

If it were true that reporters are patriots at heart, that they work hard and sacrifice not out of self-interest but out of love for country and freedom, Trump might not be president of the United States, and Elizabeth Drew wouldn’t be writing him a letter.

Indeed, given the media’s behavior during the 2016 election, the president is quite right in pegging the Washington press corps as craven, self-interested and self-important. The only thing he gets wrong and Drew gets right is the money part. Most reporters don’t get rich. They are compensated instead with proximity to power.

This is not to say reporters are identical. Dana Milbank, of the Washington Post, was among a minority of Jeremiahs before the election who blasted his media brethren for not being what Drew says they are: patriots at heart. Indeed, Milbank embraced what Drew appears to be unwilling to embrace. If condemning “a candidate’s reluctance to accept a bedrock principle of democracy” is elitist, then so be it.

There’s nothing “brilliant” about a campaign for the presidency that makes scapegoats of women, immigrants and racial and religious minorities. It’s not “impressive” to consort with white supremacists. It’s not “fair and even” to ignore that much of what Trump has done is a threat to democratic institutions. And it is absolutely appropriate to “take sides” in a contest between democracy and its alternative.

That alternative is fascism by the way. If reporters were the patriots Elizabeth Drew claims them to be, they would have dispensed with the pose of neutrality and said point-blank that Trump threatens democracy “by talking about banning an entire religion from entering the country; forcing Muslims in America to register with authorities; rewriting press laws and prosecuting his critics and political opponents; blacklisting news organizations he doesn’t like; ordering the military to do illegal things such as torture and targeting innocents; and much more.”

Instead, these hard-working self-sacrificing journalists held on to their precious neutrality and in the bargain, Milbank said, they “legitimized the illegitimate.”

If the Washington press corps had taken Milbank’s advice, normal Americans with better things to do than pay attention to politics might have heard the right signals coming from elites in order to make the right choice in the 2016 election.

But that would require two things that seem impossible even now: for the Washington journalists to be truly patriotic and for them to accept that they are, in fact, elites.


Believe it or not, I have great conversations with readers on Twitter. Join me there by clicking @johnastoehr. And don’t forget send this newsletter to your friends!