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Bret Stephens:

A newspaper, after all, isn’t supposed to be a form of mental comfort food. We are not an advocacy group, a support network, a cheering section, or a church affirming a particular faith — except, that is, a faith in hard and relentless questioning. Our authority derives from our willingness to challenge authority, not only the authority of those in power, but also that of commonplace assumptions and conventional wisdom.

In other words, if we aren’t making our readers uncomfortable every day, we aren’t doing our job. There’s an old saying that the role of the journalist is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, but the saying is wrong. The role of the journalist is to afflict, period. News is new — new information, new challenges, new ideas — and it is meant to unsettle us.

Bret Stephens, earlier in the same column:

Yet that did not seem enough for some Times readers, who erupted with fury at the publication of the article. Nate Silver, the Times’s former polling guru, said the article did “more to normalize neo-Nazism than anything I’ve read in long time.” An editor at The Washington Post accused us of producing “long, glowing profiles of Nazis” when we should have focused on the “victims of their ideologies.”

The Times followed up with an explanatory, and somewhat apologetic, note from the national editor.

No doubt, there may have been ways to improve the profile. There always are. But there was something disproportionate, not to say dismaying, about the way that so many readers rained scorn on The Times’s good-faith effort to better understand just what it is that makes someone like Hovater tick.

Just what do these readers think a newspaper is supposed to do?

Note that none of the excuses that privileged snowflake journalists invoke when arguing for the necessity for safe spaces apply here. The criticisms of the Times’s Nazi puff piece, whether one agrees with them or not, were reasoned and civil. This is just the purest smarm, a one-way ratchet in which the role of the media is to make people uncomfortable, and the role of the audience is “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all” lest some poor columnist or reporter or editor be made to feel uncomfortable. That the fact that the media is itself a powerful force — indeed, according to Stephens, the keeper of liberal civilization — and hence the argument collapses on itself seems to escape him.

But leave aside the contradiction, and focus on Stephens’s definition of the role of the media. It’s not to “publish true and important stories, even if someone is afflicted.” It’s “to afflict, period.” Whether the stories afflict is more important than whether they’re true, or important. And it’s not “afflict the powerful,” because we need to maintain a double standard in which powerless college students need to TOUGHEN UP while prominent newspaper columnists need their safe spaces.

That, in a nutshell, is how the political media in general and the Times in particular massively screwed up its coverage in 2016. It explains the ludicrously disproportionate coverage of Hillary Clinton’s email server, a series of choices that it is overwhelmingly likely sent Donald Trump to the White House. And note that while the idea that this was the most important issue facing the country in 2016 is ludicrous on its face, the decision is also internally indefensible — if Dean Baquet was right that information security best practices are an issue of immense importance in 2016, he’s wrong to pay little attention to the issue before or since. It explains the Clinton Foundation stories in which the media (appropriately!) investigated the Clinton Foundation, found no wrongdoing whatsoever, and reported the stories as if they had. (And in the specific case of the Times, the two cases in which its reporters were sent on Clinton Foundation snipe hunts by right-wing Clinton conspiracy nuts, and completely accepted their framing despite the fact that their reporting absolutely did not support it.) They decided Clinton was the de facto president-elect, and hence whether stories “afflicted” mattered more than whether the stories are true or important.

Again, elections are literally matters of life or death. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the media’s job was to help Hillary Clinton (or, if that’s your view, Donald Trump) win. It does mean that the media’s job is to provide useful information about both the policy stances and the character of the candidates, and this coverage should be genuinely fair. It is emphatically not the media’s job to determine the winner of the presidential election ex ante and prove how tough they can be on the presumptive winner as an end in itself.

And even the affliction standard is applied rather selectively:

I’m not really clear who’s being MADE UNCOMFORTABLE when the Times uncritically passes on utterly false narratives from a particular faction of the FBI. But you can understand why Stephens thinks that reasoned criticism of the media is a bad thing in itself.

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