Perhaps the most intriguing dynamic in this wretched election has been the centrality of the media. On one side, Sean Hannity bows to Donald Trump like a feudal vassal swearing fealty to his liege lord as he twists himself in the oddest of contortions to defend the Russian intelligence agency formerly known as WikiLeaks. On the other side, Trump and The New York Times have engaged in a veritable war of attrition: He claims it has rigged the election through its ostentatiously slanted coverage, and The Times reciprocates his vitriol.
Hannity has discredited himself, along with much of the rotten echo chamber called the “conservative media.” But The New York Times has yet to fall, and so we face the crucial question of how to proceed in an environment where the mainstream media, or “MSM,” derogatorily, is no longer a neutral pillar of our civic sphere. Perhaps The Times and the rest of the national press have real reasons for taking sides as they have — Trump would indeed abuse libel laws to restrict freedom of the press, and nothing cries so loudly as a press corps that feels besieged. But worryingly, journalists have taken the wrong lessons from this electoral cycle: In the insults thrown at them by crowds of Trumpkins, they have found license to throw off the shackles of objectivity.
Take, for instance, an essay recently published in the vaunted Columbia Journalism Review. The Age of Trump, the author claims, has created a situation in which “the parameters of what constitutes objectivity in journalism can now suddenly shift.” What does this mean, in practice? For one thing, The New York Times’ obscene decision to place an anti-gun editorial on the front page in 2015 was now perfectly fine, because it constituted “a report in the form of an opinion that became a fact.” In short, journalists in this paradigm must push their agenda because it is simple fact. Combine this with the partisan nature of today’s fact-checkers and you have a recipe for a one-sided media.
This is a dangerous model for the future of the American nation. There is an image I recall from Benedict Anderson’s “Imagined Communities,” a brilliant book on the nature of nationhood most social science majors have probably encountered. Anderson theorizes the nation as a sort of “imagined community” — not a tangibly existing set of social bonds, but a collection of imagined ones, rooted in a shared history, ethic and rituals. Referring to Hegel, he posits that one of the most important rituals in the modern Western nation is reading the newspaper each morning. Crunching our granola, we know — we can imagine — that each fellow citizen is doing much the same, perusing the pages of The Post or The Journal. (Presumably Anderson’s metaphor still applies for iPads.) The realist’s morning prayer, as Hegel put it.
Can this model of national unity persist in a world where journalists have decided to take sides, where all pretenses of objectivity have been dropped, where the boundaries between “fact,” “opinion” and “policy proposal” have become increasingly blurred? I doubt it. Instead, our media, that institution, which once stood atop American culture like the Colossus over the harbor of Rhodes, will soon become the tool of one ideological camp. The other side will find its own media, likely from the same craven talk show hosts who have done so much to give us Trump. This process began decades ago, with the rise of talk radio on the right. We are now witnessing the chaos that transformation has wreaked.
The events of the last year have diminished my faith in the future of the American nation and, in turn, the future of the American republic. Within our lifetimes, I believe, our country will no longer exist in its current form — not after a second Fort Sumter, but through a long, gradual process of coming apart, as the institutions that once held the nation together either take sides or just disintegrate into nothingness.
Our parties become regional ones, as they did in 1860, and the already-frayed bonds that once tied Texans to Vermonters eventually snap. The factionalization of the American media is the critical step in this process, for it breaks down the unity of information upon which a democratic system predicates itself. The two sides will no longer treat the same things as fact. If, in 40 years, this country has become a loose confederation of autonomous republics, we will know where this breakdown began.
Noah Daponte-Smith is a junior in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .