Putting the Public Back in Public Opinion

A great number of commentators have drawn attention to the New York Times’ coverage of the sexual assault allegations against Joe Biden, the presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential nominee. In particular, they have contrasted the media treatment of this corroborated allegation against the former vice president with their treatment of the entirely uncorroborated allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

While the #BelieveAllWomen rhetoric served to justify the Times’ high-profile, eager, and incessant coverage of Kavanaugh’s alleged offenses, the paper was finally forced to grudgingly acknowledge the mere existence of the Biden accusation after three weeks of keeping its head in the sand.

Nothing is unusual about this inconsistency: it is the default mode of most mainstream media coverage today, which oscillates between two systems of “journalistic” “ethics,” depending on which of the two systems will best advantage the Left’s cultural agenda. By now, everyone knows the score.

Classical rhetorical theory holds that there are three offices of rhetoric: to inform, to entertain, and to persuade. In the modern era, the American press had understood its role primarily as informative—it saw itself as a facilitator for wise political decision-making among citizens of democracy.

The coverage of Watergate, however, began a shift towards postmodern journalism: its covert function came to be public persuasion. Behind the scenes, newspapers worked to manipulate public opinion to ensure the advancement of leftist policy preferences. But the media concealed this through public uses of rhetoric that claimed fidelity to its old informative role. You know. Democracy Dies in Darkness and everything.

By the time of Dan Rather’s long-deserved fall in 2006, it was clear to educated viewers on the Right and the Left that the mainstream media essentially was a propaganda arm of the Democratic Party. In some ways, Trump’s election embodied a public no-confidence vote in the legacy outlets that had tried desperately to sink his campaign.

The media turmoil that we have observed over the past four years is the thrashing of the snake after its decapitation—it’s a lot harder to manipulate public opinion when everyone knows you’re trying to manipulate public opinion.

Since the New York Times published their first serious inquiry into the allegations that Biden grabbed Tara Reade by the . . . well, you know . . .  we’ve been seeing the typical thrashing of the snake. Editor Dean Baquet claims that the paper is not applying a different journalistic standard to Biden than it did to Kavanaugh. It’s been exposed that the paper stealth-edited the article in ways that erased the credibility of previous accusations against Biden regarding inappropriate touching and may have added to Reade’s accusation.

Forced to address this stealth-editing, the paper admitted the change was made to accommodate a request from the Biden campaign. That should be shocking, but sadly, in 2020, it is entirely predictable and passé. Of course the New York Times is colluding with the campaign of the Democratic nominee.

But while many commentators have remarked on the apparent irrelevance of the final three paragraphs of New York Times’ main article on the Reade affair (which antiseptically catalogs the various sexual allegations against the president without any explicit connection to Biden), few writers have been able to explain why those paragraphs are there. And the reason they are there should be heartening to those opposed to media malpractice.

Here’s what those paragraphs say:

President Trump has been accused of sexual assault and misconduct by more than a dozen women, who have described a pattern of behavior that went far beyond the accusations against Mr. Biden. The president also directed illegal payments, including $130,000 to a pornographic film actress, Stormy Daniels, before the 2016 election to silence women about alleged affairs with Mr. Trump, according to federal prosecutors.

Mr. Trump has even boasted about his mistreatment of women; in a 2005 recording, he described pushing himself on women and said he would ‘grab them by the pussy,’ bragging that he could get away with ‘anything’ because of his celebrity.

Even so, Mr. Trump has at times attacked opponents over their treatment of women. The president has not mentioned Ms. Reade’s allegation, which has circulated on social media and in liberal and conservative news outlets.

These paragraphs are a clear expression of resentment, and an implicit explanation to conservatives of why the Times is refusing to cover Reade’s allegations.

In short, the Times intends for those paragraphs to convey is the following: “President Trump has been accused of similar things. We tried to tell you they were disqualifying, but you went and elected him anyway. Given that you clearly don’t place much importance on these kinds of allegations, we’re not going to report on them. Until they help us to take down a conservative again.”

This little outburst of their resentment toward their conservative readership is hilarious. But what is the source of this resentment? It stems from the Times’ recognition that they are increasingly unable to manipulate public opinion.

Those three paragraphs are an acknowledgment that the paper is aware that regular Americans outside of New York City know that the media’s aim is persuasive rather than informative. Further, the paper is aware that more and more people are rejecting their authority to steer public opinion—and by extension, policymaking in the United States.

This is a great boon for American democracy.

Under the old model, media outlets informed the public, and public deliberation—the ongoing conversation among regular Americans—shaped public opinion. The corrosion of American democracy over the last 40 years, in large part, is due to the fact that the tail was trying, and usually successfully, to wag the dog. The Times’ petty swipe at conservatives (disguised as a swipe at Trump) in an article about Biden’s alleged indiscretions is proof that the corporate media has less and less ability to dictate public opinion.

And they hate it.

Ultimately, this is a sign that American democracy is being revitalized. Americans will no longer have public opinion dictated by a politically motivated cadre of ideologues masquerading as public servants. Take heart. We’re winning again.

About Adam Ellwanger

Adam Ellwanger is an associate professor of English at the University of Houston – Downtown where he directs the M.A. program in rhetoric and composition. His new book, Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, will be released from Penn State University Press in 2020. You can follow him on Twitter at @DoctorEllwanger

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