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Opinion Josh Hawley, senator-as-symptom of a broken news business

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) addresses attendees at the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit in Tampa on July 22. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)

Like an infant feeling ignored and seeking attention by banging his spoon on his highchair tray, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) last week cast the only vote against admitting Finland and Sweden to NATO. He said adding the two militarily proficient Russian neighbors to NATO would somehow weaken U.S. deterrence of China.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who is an adult and hence not invariably collegial, said: “It would be strange indeed for any senator who voted to allow Montenegro or North Macedonia into NATO to turn around and deny membership to Finland and Sweden.” That evening, Hawley appeared on Fox News to receive Tucker Carlson’s benediction.

This umpteenth episode of a senator using the Senate as a stepping stone to a cable television green room illustrates what Chris Stirewalt deplores in his new book, “Broken News.” He was washed out of Fox News by a tsunami of viewer rage because on election night 2020 he correctly said Donald Trump had lost Arizona. Now he says today’s journalism has a supply-side problem — that is, supplying synthetic controversies:

“What did Trump say? What did Nancy Pelosi say about what Trump said? What did Kevin McCarthy say about what Pelosi said about what Trump said? What did Sean Hannity say about what Rachel Maddow said about what McCarthy said about what Pelosi said about what Trump said?”

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But journalism also has a demand-side problem: Time was, journalists assumed that news consumers demanded “more information, faster and better.” Now, instantaneous communication via passive media — video and television — supplies what indolent consumers demand.

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More than half of Americans between ages 16 and 74 read below the sixth-grade level. Video, however, requires only eyes on screens. But such passive media cannot communicate a civilization defined by ideas. Our creedal nation, Stirewalt says, “requires written words and a common culture in which to understand them.”

In the 1830s, new printing methods radically reduced the cost of producing a culture of literate news readers. In the 1930s, however, radio — which was more transformative than what it paved the way for: television — became, Stirewalt says, a passively absorbed alternative to the comparative arduousness of literacy.

Technology — radio, television, the internet — turned journalism from reporting what had happened to reporting what was happening, and now to giving passive news consumers the emotional experience of having their political beliefs ratified. “By 1983,” Stirewalt reports, “the percentage of Americans who got their news from television alone pulled ahead of all newspaper use” by offering “a passive, more emotionally engaged product”: “Television news can be far more emotionally compelling than the written version, and does not come with the need for nearly as much cultural literacy or the challenge of … internalizing ideas.”

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Between 2004 and 2020, a quarter of U.S. newspapers disappeared. Today it is much easier to get national rather than local news; this encourages the belief that the national government is all-important. Into this context came, Stirewalt says, national journalists’ embrace of the moral imperative “to go to war” with a president: “Bigtime news dove in the mud with Trump, where he had home field advantage.”

The moment was ripe for Twitter. Stirewalt calls it a platform “that both depletes the value of journalism by dribbling out coverage in an endless gurgle but also enhances reporters’ sense of their own importance by creating a large echo chamber into which they can holler affirmations of self-worth.”

Technology has produced a melding of journalism and politics, to the degradation of both, as illustrated by the seamlessness of Hawley’s Senate floor grandstanding and his cable news self-congratulation. Small wonder, says Stirewalt, that “the news business treats politics like sports” — entertaining but with no meaning deeper than the score.

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The fans, consumers of emotional-impact journalism, wear, figuratively speaking, their teams’ colors — red shirts against blue shirts. This journalism’s constant attention to politics instead of government — to gaining power instead of its exercise — makes the players on the field, Stirewalt says, “want to show off to the fans in the stands instead of trying to win the game.”

Hence Hawley, the quintessential example of the politics that the new journalism encourages. And hence his absurd vote against NATO expansion — spoon clenched in infant fist, banging the highchair tray to say: “Pay attention to me!” Hawley, a.k.a. The Sprinter (savor the video of him fleeing through the Capitol, escaping the Jan. 6 mob he had exhorted), is the senator-as-symptom: Define news down, and this is the kind of newsmaker you get.

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