Why Tom Cotton hates a moral press

Why Tom Cotton hates a moral press
Gage Skidmore

Brian Stelter is CNN’s chief media reporter. His Sunday program, “Reliable Sources,” is probably as close to convention wisdom among members of the Washington press corps as one can get. On Thursday, he tweeted a video clip from John Berman’s show in which reporter Miguel Marquez started crying after reporting scenes from a Texas hospital that was full to bursting with patients suffering from the new coronavirus.


Marquez’s report and Berman’s discussion afterward were of serious public interest. Republican Governor Greg Abbott rushed in May to “reopen” his state in the service of a GOP president desperate to campaign on the economy. For Donald Trump’s sake, Abbott straw-bossed Texas back to normal. He even barred big cities from mandating masks in public. He changed his mind yesterday after Covid-19 cases surged to new records. It was too little, too late, though. There are more sick Texans than hospital beds to heal them in. Marquez’s report put flesh on public-health statistics. More importantly, it took a side. It took the side of human beings suffering needlessly.

That was the experience of those watching CNN. For those like me following Brian Stelter on Twitter, the experience was quite different. What was important, according to what he decided was worthy of our attention, was not a public-health disaster resulting from negligent leadership putting partisan self-interest above the potential for and the devastating reality of human suffering. It was that a reporter got weepy. Stelter is a pro, but try as he might, he can’t quit TV biases, which are for novelty, conflict and emotion, especially crying. Tears are the crack cocaine of cable news.

Bias isn’t so bad as long as it’s yoked to something real, like human suffering, and as long as it illustrates who is doing what to whom—as long as it points to the whole truth. Television viewers got a sense of that. Stelter, however, directed his followers toward Marquez’s tears as if they were newsworthy on their own. The result was a kind of drama without context, emotion without causation. People are dying, but nobody did anything wrong. Justice is therefore pointless. I do not doubt that Stelter was acting in good faith, but an outcome of his conventional wisdom was the invention of a political fiction in which everything is as good or bad as everything else, and nothing matters.

Moral relativism and nihilism were less dangerous to the body politic (as well as to literal bodies) when presidents recognized the difference between the news media and the real world. The incumbent, however, sees no difference, because he is a product of a fictional, meaningless and morally relative world. Reality isn’t what it is. Reality is what Donald Trump says it is. If he says the economy is getting better in the face of a pandemic that has killed over 131,500 people and counting, then it’s getting better. Moreover, it’s unfair that the press corps is paying more attention to suffering in Texas, Florida and other states than to his super-duper “policies.” Trump must invent reality in order to survive. It harms him politically when the press corps ignores it.

He isn’t alone of course. His Republican confederates, especially from southern states that rushed to reopen for his benefit, are equally invested in creating a worldview in which nothing matters. Republican Tom Cotton, senator of Arkansas, whose state is reeling from sickness and death, found the time yesterday to dash off a tweet that managed to slander, lie, distort and malign in a mere 28 words. He appears obsessed with something he calls the “liberal mob.” I could not find one tweet—not one—expressing anything, not even sympathy, for those sick or dead from the coronavirus. Cotton doesn’t need to invent reality to survive. He doesn’t need to impugn the press corps for ignoring this made-up world. He’s doing both for the president’s sake.

I see Brian Stelter’s tweet as illustrative of a kind of transition taking place between the old way of doing things in journalism and the new. In the old way, one side said this and the other said that. They were presented as equal even if one was a fact and one was a lie, giving the impression that the truth is partisan and morality relative. In the old way, the press corps was complicit in the creation of a cynical, meaningless and made-up world immediately beneficial to the interests of the Republican Party.

The new way, as practiced by younger reporters, especially younger reporters of color, is morally responsible. It is therefore pissing the president off. It’s self-evidently bad when people get sick. It’s self-evidently bad when people die. It’s self-evidently bad when sickness and death could have been prevented by leaders who knew that what they were doing was self-evidently bad as they were doing it for reasons incompatible with human health. Yes, tears will be the result of disease, death and the dereliction of duty, but tears alone are not newsworthy. They are part of a context, part of a system of causality, one that responsible reporters duly report. The GOP hates that, of course.

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