Check this out: Fox News host Sean Hannity is part of a media ecosystem that emphasizes analysis and “grandstanding” over traditional reporting. That’s the take of New York Times columnist Frank Bruni as expressed in a column that ran in the paper’s Sunday Review section over the weekend. “Grandstanding is booming as traditional news gathering struggles to survive: It’s more easily summoned, more cheaply produced,” writes Bruni.
So where did Hannity err? To hear Bruni tell it, the Fox News loudmouth latched onto the story of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, the fellow who was big in the news in April, when his fight with the federal government over grazing fees for his cattle was making headlines — thanks in large part to Hannity himself. “[O]n Fox News, Sean Hannity supersized the Nevada rancher into a principled frontiersman taking a last stand against federal overreach: John Wayne with livestock,” writes Bruni, adding that others tried to “repurpose” the rancher “as an example of racism among Republicans.”
Under the same tent of Brunian disapproval falls Ann Hornaday, the Washington Post critic who, following the Elliot Rodger rampage, wrote that the killer’s “delusions were inflated, if not created, by the entertainment industry he grew up in.”
Bruni scolded, saying that Hornaday had posited “a question too far, the tenuous graft of entertainment-industry shortcomings onto a tragedy irreducible to tidy explanations.”
While he was at it, the New York Times columnist took care of some New York Times institutional business. Bruni blasted Ken Auletta of the New Yorker for a breaking-news report accounting for the firing of former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson. Published just hours after this shocking news, Auletta’s account fronted the news that Abramson had complained of unequal pay, a story that led to her framing as “an icon for gender pay inequity, held up as such by Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader. She was a martyr, felled by sexism.” In subsequent dispatches, argues Bruni, Auletta was forced to revise his initial sounding.
So what pernicious thing draws all of these anecdotes together, Bruni? In his own words, it’s the “economy of contemporary journalism,” and Bruni, to his credit, acknowledges his own participation in it. But here’s the problem at its core:
News has always been paired with analysis, and a certain degree of assumption and conjecture rightly enters into the laudable attempt to make sense of things. What has changed over recent years are the platforms and the metabolism of the process. Twitter and other social media coax rapid-fire reactions from a broad audience, whose individual members stand out by readily divining something that nobody else has divined, by fleetly declaring something that nobody else has dared to, by bringing the most strident or sauciest attitude to bear.
If such laments about social media were logs, we journos could have a big bonfire right about now.
For each alleged journalistic infraction in his column, Bruni may well have a point. Hannity might have handled Bundy with more restraint, though that quality has never been in large supply on his show; Hornaday might have crafted her essay with greater precision; and Auletta might have presented his earth-shaking Abramson story with different emphases.
But nearly a decade-and-a-half after the dawn of blogging, the Erik Wemple Blog proposes a moratorium on the facile blaming of platforms and technologies for modern journalistic malaise and every little example that can be folded into it. Each of Bruni’s examples, after all, could be used to upend his argument. In the case of Hannity, for starters, social media and the Internet helped smack down his fondness for Bundy. Hornaday, too, received famous blowback on Twitter. And this blog took a close look at how Auletta handled Abramson.
Perhaps some day in the future, bad journalism will simply be laid at the feet of the culprits and not some evil-coaxing technology platform that accounts for everything. As Bruni might say, this is a problem “irreducible to tidy explanations.”