What is the news for?

I’ve always loved newspapers. Growing up, my grandparents had a subscription to the Flint Journal. Though my initial attraction was the Sunday comics, I browsed all the sections and was following favorite columnists — like Flint-area fixture Andrew Heller — from a weirdly young age. When Flint got a Borders, I eagerly dove into the out-of-town newspapers and “serious” magazines like the New Yorker or Harper’s. I’ve been a print magazine subscriber basically continuously since high school, and My Esteemed Partner and I take the Sunday New York Times as our Hegelian weekend liturgy. More recently, I’ve begun to get the daily Financial Times as a way of lessening my reliance on social media.

Since I had an extisting NYT subscription, I also considered simply adding daily delivery. But the first Sunday I read the A-section with that in mind, I realized that having their political coverage as my primary diet would drive me insane. The endless contortions to have “both sides” look equally bad, the “news analysis” articles that serve as little more than glorified op-eds, the hundreds of column-inches wasted on empty speculation about election outcomes — their political coverage is voluminous yet vapid. By contrast, the Financial Times is concise, factual, and to-the-point. Fifteen minutes reading their thin daily paper leaves me feeling more thoroughly informed than an hour poring over the NYT. In fact, this sensation of satisfaction actually makes me less likely to hover over Twitter, waiting for every little micro-nugget of news — I’m confident I’ll get the highlights tomorrow morning in the paper.

It’s long been a leftist commonplace that the business press is the only reliable source of information. Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein have both said as much, and Marx himself frequently cites the Economist in Capital. It’s obvious why this would be the case: the capitalist class needs accurate information if it’s to continue effectively exploiting and controlling us. More than that, writing for an audience of business leaders (or aspiring leaders) means that you don’t have to do any ideological work. Everyone is already on the same page — the entire world exists as fodder for the accumulation of capital — and everyone is, at least in principle, making continual decisions about how best to achieve that lofty goal in the context of an ever-changing world.

By contrast, the mainstream media very much does need to do ideological work. Their ostensible goal of political neutrality effectively means that they serve to legitimize the existing political order. That’s where the both-sides reporting comes in, for instance. A big part of the existing American politial order is the idea that the two major political parties monopolize the range of acceptable political options. For this system to work, both parties must be recognized as legitimate, which means that, on the one hand, anything either party does is by definition legitimate and, on the other hand, neither can be seen as permanently preferable or disqualified. Hence all the efforts to “normalize” Trump — broken only by the January 6 attacks, when the media had the approval of Republican and corporate leaders to tell the truth about Trump. Now that the initial shock has faded and Republicans have fallen back in line behind Trump, he once again is presented as a legitimate option.

It is far from clear what the average citizen is supposed to do with the information they gain from mainstream political coverage. The information is often presented in an actively misleading way, all the moreso as Republicans grow more and more anti-democratic and unhinged. Yet even if it were fully clear and accurate, political reporting is weirdly unsuited to prepare citizens for their primary political responsibility of voting — a binary choice that is only presented to us once a year or so. On the one hand, we surely do not need so much information to make a fundamentally binary, biannual choice about our federal representation. On the other hand, the most accessible media give us effectively no information about the large number of state and local elections we are expected to weigh in on.

One is forced to conclude that political coverage is not meant to inform us about how to vote. What, then, is it for? I have said that the business press is meant for people who are making daily ongoing decisions in pursuit of a clear goal, so what is the equivalent for the mainstream press? I would suggest that such coverage exists primarily to encourage us, each and every day, to make the decision to care less. The very disproportion between the information we are provided and our miniscule ability to influence events encourages us into habits of passivity and apathy, and “both-sides” framing sends the message that it makes no ultimate difference who is in charge. The effect is similar to the familiar dynamic of decision fatigue, except instead of standing paralyzed between dozens of brands of toothpaste, we stand transfixed by the spectacle of a political world that does and can have nothing to do with us.

What would it look like, then, to provide something like the business press for the rest of us? One Twitter interlocutor noted that Consumer Reports seems to have the same level of detail and trustworthiness, and that makes sense because it exists to guide us in an activity that we have to do on an ongoing basis: namely, buying stuff. A media source that was truly proportionate to our task of voting, by contrast, would surely serve to illustrate how inadequate voting is as a tool to shape our shared life. A news source that actually informed us as well as the business press informs the investor class would have to correspond to a truly self-governing citizenry, who would make daily ongoing decisions in the same way investors do. Until we can embrace this aspiration to self-government, a media that exists to do anything other than beat us into submission will remain literally unimaginable.