Whatever the issue, if you blame it on the media, you are guaranteed to go unchallenged. People on all sides have problems with the media. The complaint has two desirable traits: 1) it is uncontroversial and unifying and 2) it gives the appearance that, unlike all the suckers, you see through the lies, spin, and distractions.
Unfortunately, the popular ‘blame the media’ card is overly-simplistic, lazy, and dangerous. Not all media is the same quality. For some reason we do not allow that obvious fact to lead to nuanced thinking. There was plenty of garbage media during the election (poll overreactions, wall to wall primary Trump coverage, baseless email speculations). But we also saw some of the best reporting in the history of presidential politics. David Fahrenthold did vital work on Trump’s (lack of) charitable giving. Keith Olbermann was excellent. Jamelle Bouie, Andrew Sullivan, David Frum, and Josh Barro were all measured and insightful. Read them. Even John Oliver, Larry Wilmore, and Bill Maher were consistently on point. Watch them. The ‘grab them by the pussy’ video, Trump’s $1 billion loss, the ties to Russia, his support of the Iraq war, and so much more—we know about it thanks to the media.
Media is not a monolith. Don’t criticize ‘The Media’, some undifferentiated whole. Instead, criticize specific stories and specific aspects of stories. If you want to critique general tendencies or the structure of a media outlet, you need plentiful evidence to make your case. Complaining about ‘The Media’ is lazy and sloppy. We need to acknowledge the complexity and diversity of the media in our critiques, even if failing to do so can go unchecked in conversation.
All of this is significant for the simple reason that we are about to need the media like never before. Blanket statements undermine an immeasurably important institution. That is dangerous. We depend on the media for quite a bit: accurate descriptions of reality, timely information, expert analysis. To put it simply, we depend on them for knowledge. By being lazy in our critiques, we make it easy for people to deny reality and ignore information. People become ignorant and misinformed and, consequently, unjustifiably jaded and cynical. In other words, there is a lack of knowledge in society. But by challenging the facile ‘MSM’ critique, we force people to reevaluate their views and simultaneously reinforce the importance of an indispensable institution. It is difficult to understate how dark the trend of media hatred is. We have now witnessed one of its horrifying consequences: a national leader can peddle conspiracy theories that appear to be legitimate because, according to him, the ‘Media’ is dishonest. By denigrating the ‘Media’ we put everything on equal footing. Therefore, conspiracies become mainstream. And we sit and wonder where the concept of truth has gone.
We will desperately need a free, emboldened, and daring media in these coming years. So spend some time appreciating the good media we witnessed. Spend some time thinking about what makes bad media bad (start here). Prop up the good media with your money and attention. And next time someone picks the low-hanging fruit, call it out.