They Know How Journalism Works! They’re Just Against It!
They want someone to knock on your door, too. Not to put you in the newspaper, though.
On Tuesday, Washington Post reporter Taylor Lorenz published a story about a repulsive creep who uses her large online following to, essentially, subject random LGBTQ people (and especially trans people) to harassment, and worse. The piece is meant to help explain who is behind the right’s furious anti-trans moral panic, how the right’s propaganda machine finds the “main characters” that help stoke that moral panic, and how this creep used that propaganda machine to grow the following that now helps provide her with new people to feed into the meat grinder.
So, naturally, much of the Twitter debate about the story was about Media Ethics, because Lorenz knocked on the creep’s door.
It remains a sadly common belief among many journalists that “regular people” have misconceptions about journalism and the news gathering process that can be cleared up with greater transparency and better media literacy education. I think most people have essentially no opinion on the news gathering process. I imagine they think of journalists, when they think of journalists at all, as the people yelling questions at mayors, shouting over the din of exploding flash bulbs, while the mayors sort of wave their hands and say they have “total faith” in their police departments to, say, apprehend The Penguin, or investigate themselves for shooting an unarmed teenager.
Or people in big coats standing on the sides of rain-slicked highways gesturing broadly at ten-car pile ups. You know, news.
A related belief people in the news business sometimes express is that, because the profession has done such a poor job explaining its methods, its ethical codes, and its bright lines, sometimes people become alarmed or upset when they witness what are actually common reporting practices, especially around tracking down and identifying sources, subjects, victims, and wrongdoers. This one is closer to the mark. Journalism can be exploitative and invasive and grubby. There’s this whole book about it.
In this case, though, the thing that happened was that information was gathered in basically the simplest way possible, deemed newsworthy, and put in a newspaper. This is what many, many people, so many people, tried to explain, over and over again, to everyone who was mad about it.
Ben Collins, a smart reporter and by all appearances a conscientious one, did one of the better versions of this sort of careful explanation of the reporting process that led to this story. If you want an explanation that you can send to a decent person, send them his thread.
But throughout the day, for some reason, people kept trying to make their own versions of this argument, only geared at convincing non-decent people. Everyone was basically standing in the mouth of a pipe, on top of a dam, facing Tommy Lee Jones, growling “my colleague didn’t violate journalistic ethics,” only Tommy Lee Jones was Sartre’s Anti-Semite.
If you are attempting to persuade this creep's defenders, specifically, and not a general audience, that what Lorenz did was ethical, and that the creep's identity is newsworthy, you have made a category error. These people on this ascendant right don't just have different ideas about the role and function of journalism; they don't just believe journalists are biased liberals; they don't just believe the media is too hostile to conservatives; they are hostile to the concept of journalism itself. As in, uncovering things dutifully and carefully and attempting to convey your findings to the public honestly. They don’t want that and don’t like it and are endeavoring to end it as a common practice. You are debating logic and facts with frothing bigots with a bone-deep opposition to your entire project.1
This new right fundamentally doesn’t want "newsgathering" to happen. They want a chaotic information stream of unverifiable bullshit and context collapse and propaganda. Their backers, the people behind the whole project, are philosophically and materially opposed to the idea that true things should be uncovered and verified and disseminated publicly about, well, them, and their projects. This may have started as a politically opportunistic war against particular outlets and stories, but it has quickly blossomed into a worldview. It’s an ideologically coherent opposition to the liberal precepts of verifiability and transparency, and the holders of those precepts are too invested in them to understand what their enemy is doing. The creep’s account, everyone in the press should understand, is the model for what they will be replaced with.
It’s not even that the right needs people to lose “trust” in traditional news organizations to win elections or start wars. That already happened and they won. It’s more like they need people to just randomly trust whatever bullshit feels right, to get them to fall for scams and believe propaganda. In the grandest dreams of the pathetic people doing most of the unpaid work, the end game is the eradication of “deviance” from public life. And that is a real threat that the people opposing this should take more seriously. Upstairs from them are the people whose job it is to make sure old people set up recurring payments. Upstairs from them, the goal is that no one finds the boss’s shell companies or offshore accounts. The mission is mainly to prevent, stigmatize, and delegitimize the discovery and confirmation and dissemination of information about how a few people got their money, where they keep it, and what they do with it—like spending it on subsidizing bigotry about trans people and getting gay teachers fired.
But that is all very “political” and thus our most distinguished journalists will be very allergic to hearing it. All I would like my unbiased, objective, nonpartisan reporter friends to understand is that they are debating with people that consider them the enemy not just in a partisan sense but in an existential one. The only correct posture to take in response is to make yourself an existential threat to their movement.
We could call this "preaching to the people that want the choir sent to camps" until someone coins a catchier term that will lose all meaning from reuse and misuse in approximately a month, surviving on as a zombie expression, generally preceding the least enticing thread emoji you've ever seen.