Reporting in a “Hyper-Partisan America”

By Ryan McNeely


Yesterday, I attended an excellent panel at the Campus Progress National Conference on “Reporting in a Hyper-Partisan America.” The discussion was interesting, but I found it a bit jarring that ThinkProgress’ Amanda Terkel was the only panelist to strongly defend the importance of responding to (rather than simply ignore) the more ridiculous arguments and lies coming from the right-wing. Chris Hayes of The Nation said explicitly that he didn’t want to fall into the trap of the “liberal intelligentsia thinking that they’re somehow above responding” to outright smears, but he and his fellow panelists proceeded to do exactly that, saying that they didn’t find that type of journalism personally satisfying (though a couple conceded they were happy that “other people” do), and speaking about such work with a generally dismissive attitude.

Terkel’s response defending this type of journalism got brief spontaneous applause from the audience, because many conference attendees (myself included) believe that the conservative movement — to put it bluntly — has basically bullied their way to victories that they did not deserve. Young progressives in particular have a very short political memory, basically coming of age in an era of impeachment, Bush v. Gore, and swift-boating. I don’t think it’s outrageous to suggest that the 2000 presidential election might have gone the other way if progressive political and media elites had stood up and responded to Republican pressure-tactics instead of hewing to self-imposed conventions of some weird just-world morality play and/or pretending that such tactics would automatically backfire. They didn’t, and they won’t in the future.

Now, journalists should always be honest and as Ned Resnikoff points out, there are problems when journalists view themselves not as analysts but as “part of a team.” Epistemic closure among conservative commentators is a legitimate problem that I wouldn’t want to see replicated on the left. But I definitely got the sense that these representatives of progressive media had not internalized the fact that we have the political discourse we have, not the political discourse we might want or wish to have.

In this sense, I think blogs like ThinkProgress are absolutely invaluable to advancing the progressive agenda, by taking on the right-wing without apology or embarrassment, blunting what Josh Marshall once called Republican “bitch-slaps,” and dealing with the reality of our often ugly contemporary political discourse. “Hyper-partisan” progressive journalism of this sort – in addition to rallying the troops – can serve a meta-purpose of convincing otherwise apathetic or skeptical voters that progressives are confident in the wisdom of their own proposals, and that those who disagree are wrong. A more nuanced perspective or approach is certainly valuable. But if progressive journalists secretly pine to always stay high-minded, they’ll find that the price in terms of practical political outcomes is very high.