The media does many things other than “report on news.” These other things are often grouped under the heading of “opinion” or “analysis,” but they really have multiple purposes. Let’s come up with some names for some of them:
- Justify the Ways of God to Man: This is Vox’s more-or-less explicit purpose: explaining the accepted-and-acceptable understanding of anything that comes up, providing justification for the policies undertaken by the Right People. Everyone is already agreed that ________ is good.
- I’m not locked in here with you, you’re locked in here with me: Creating a sense of group identity among young people (Buzzfeed), young women (Jezebel), racial groups (TheRoot, etc), and upper middle class strivers (the NY Times) and aligning that group identity more strongly with political identity. Aren’t you just like ___________? Aren’t you glad you’re not _____________?
There’s a more developed looking-glass world here for conservatives than for the other types, though my sense is that conservative media has a harder time defining itself through a positive identity and tends just to focus all its energy on attacking representatives of liberal groups, which is ultimately self-defeating.
- Manning the Battlements: This tends to be the work of public intellectuals; identifying the potential intellectual threats as they approach, and providing rhetorical counter to them in advance. No need to worry about ___________, everyone smart knows it’s not important.
The most obvious and successful example of Manning the Battlements happened after the financial crisis, when everyone smart got on board with the idea that the housing bubble and subsequent collapse had little to do with government policy encouraging low-income people to borrow too much money or with irresponsible behavior by low-income households themselves. Other fairly successful examples of Manning the Battlements emerge every time someone puts out another study showing that reductions in marriage rates harm kids’ outcomes, or disputing that discrimination is the major driver of racial disparities, or arguing welfare reform was largely successful. Manning the Battlements is related to Justifying the Ways of God to Man but it is more critical, less positive; less closely connected to current policy and more connected to maintaining a coherent world-view without uncomfortable complications.
- Passing the Baton: As one group that was previously lionized outlasts its usefulness, they are suddenly revealed to be unscrupulous liars and cheats. See, Iraq War Hawks in the mid-2000s, Ed Reformers in the mid-2010s.
For a while in the mid to late 2000s, there was a real sense that big media had to up their game, because independent websites and semi-independent bloggers were making them look bad. Then Twitter helped everyone coordinate and decide who the cool kids in the cafeteria were, and a lot of those independent websites and bloggers became big media themselves, and I sense less worry and more desire to coordinate and cohere. (A silly example, but the within-film variance of Rotten Tomatoes ratings seems to keep getting lower and lower…) The very outre nature of would-be threats like the alt-right makes it all the easier for the rest of the media to cohere. The battlements rise ever higher, better guarded every year.
ARTHUR: Halt! Hallo! Hallo!
GUARD: ‘Allo! Who is zis?
ARTHUR: It is King Arthur, and these are the Knights of the Round
Table. Whose castle is this?
GUARD: This is the castle of mumble mumble
ARTHUR: Go and tell your master that we have been charged by God
with a sacred quest. If he will give us food and shelter for the night
he can join us in our quest for the Holy Grail.
GUARD: Well, I’ll ask him, but I don’t think he’ll be very keen…
Uh, he’s already got one, you see?
GALAHAD: He says they’ve already got one!
ARTHUR: Are you sure he’s got one?
GUARD: Oh, yes, it’s very nice-uh (I told him we already got one)
ARTHUR: Well, um, can we come up and have a look?
GUARD: Of course not! You are English types-uh!
ARTHUR: Well, what are you then?
GUARD: I’m French! Why do think I have this outrageous accent, you
GALAHAD: What are you doing in England?
GUARD: Mind your own business!
ARTHUR: If you will not show us the Grail, we shall take your castle
GUARD: You don’t frighten us, English pig-dogs! Go and boil your
bottoms, sons of a silly person. I blow my nose at you, so-called
Arthur-king, you and all your silly English kaniggets. Thppppt!
GALAHAD: What a strange person.
ARTHUR: Now look here, my good man!
GUARD: I don’t want to talk to you no more, you empty headed animal
food trough whopper! I fart in your general direction! You mother was
a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!