Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s “Manufacturing Consent,” published in 1988, offered a bracing critique of the American mass media. Herman and Chomsky disputed the cherished self-image of the New York Times and other high-prestige media outlets. To them, these newspapers, magazines and television shows were not brave, independent truth tellers — they were propagandists for the powers that be, actively engaged in filtering out dissenting views, particularly from left-wing critics.

The authors wrote that the American media fostered debate only if it remained “faithfully within the system of presuppositions and principles that constitute an elite consensus, a system so powerful as to be internalized largely without awareness.”

This kind of media critique was once out-of-the-box thinking. Today it has become commonplace. Indeed, we seem to have entered a “golden age” of media criticism.

Both the left and right now devote an enormous amount of intellectual and psychic energy to identifying and ferreting out media bias. Nothing is more predictable than the Twitter (sorry, X) storm that inevitably follows any big news story that touches on race, transgender identity, policing or any of other hot-button issue.

Partisans on both sides will conduct a thorough frisking of the piece in question, looking for any possible sign of ideological bias. Who has been “platformed” in the story? What “tropes” were employed? Were there any “dog whistles”? And so on. 

This new breed of media scrutiny has had some salutary effects — not all complaints about coded language are misplaced, after all. And doubtless there are reporters who have been encouraged to be more thoughtful about their work and to dig deeper into the subjects at hand.

But it is increasingly difficult to argue that the explosion of media criticism has been good for our body politic. It certainly doesn’t seem to have improved journalism. When reporters are awash in media criticism, it encourages a damaging self-awareness. Instead of just reporting the facts, they are constantly self-conscious about the reception that their coverage might receive.

To be fair, Donald Trump’s shamelessness and his willingness to attack the media (“fake news,” “the enemy of the American people”) has presented a unique set of challenges to the fourth estate. Reviewing the aftermath of Trump’s unexpected victory in 2016, the high priests at the Columbia Journalism Review concluded that journalism was “an industry whose basic practices and rhythms have conspired, time and again, to downplay demagoguery, let Trump and his defenders off the hook, and drain resources and attention from crucial longer-term storylines.” 

Many reporters seem to have internalized the idea that Trump was not a “normal president” and thus the normal rules of journalistic engagement should no longer apply. But healthy journalistic self-reflection has too often tipped over into toxic overcorrection. This is why so many news articles these days have a hectoring tone: They are written not to present the facts and let the readers make up their own minds, but to ensure that no sentient human could come away without understanding that Trump is a liar and a scoundrel (or that racism hasn’t been vanquished yet or that vaccine mandates are justified, etc.) 

Core institutional values cannot be discarded without a cost. As many journalists have questioned or, in some cases, abandoned classical notions of objectivity, trust in media has continued its disturbing decline, with many Americans now saying that they believe news organizations are actively seeking to mislead them. 

Nor has journalism been the only industry that has been altered by the new pervasiveness of media criticism — there has been collateral damage in other fields as well. An increasing number of nonprofit organizations and activist groups are devoting their attention to what is known as “narrative change.”

For example, in 2016 the Ford Foundation and Atlantic Philanthropies launched the Narrative Initiative. “Sparked by the recognition that pervasive and systemic narratives permeate every aspect of our daily lives, animate our popular culture and influence our politics,” the Initiative is designed to “deploy the power of narrative to build fairer, more inclusive societies.”

How does one know if a narrative change effort has succeeded or not? According to the Stanford Social Innovation Review, measuring narrative change involves asking questions like, “Are the new language, stories, frames, and voices being heard, quoted, and repeated? … Can we see any shift in the way others are talking about the issue, and in the nature and amount of media content?”

In other words, rather than focusing on delivering services to needy individuals or proposing legislative remedies to the problems that ail us, narrative change organizations are spending their time worrying about how issues are framed and whose voices are represented in the media. They are not alone: Republican operatives are also engaged in a deliberate effort to “work the ref,” attempting to influence coverage by accusing the media of liberal bias.

How can we break out of this vicious cycle, where partisan attacks on the media provoke journalistic overreaction, which leads to declining public trust, which in turn sparks further attacks on the media?

It would certainly help if Donald Trump were to cease his relentless attacks on the media — or to be soundly defeated at the polls.

But as media consumers, we all have a role to play. We can start by calling off the hunt for dog whistles. Let’s all take a break from being amateur detectives, at least for a while. Let’s take most reporting at face value instead of constantly searching for hidden agendas. And let’s focus more energy on solving problems in the real world than on how these problems are depicted in our newspapers and websites.

Maybe then we can turn the golden age of media criticism into something more productive and meaningful: a golden age of social improvement.

Greg Berman is the distinguished fellow of practice at the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation and the co-editor of Vital City. He is the coauthor of “Gradual: The Case for Incremental Change in a Radical Age” (Oxford University Press).

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