February 12, 2024 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

To speak on your terms, free yourself from the press corps

What can you say about things that are morally distinct in a news media world in which moral distinctions don’t exist? 

Newsmax via screenshot.
Newsmax via screenshot.

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Last weekend was full of stories and broadcasts about the president’s advanced age shortly after a special counsel report concluded that, while Joe Biden did nothing illegal with his “mishandling” of government secrets, he was guilty of being “a well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”

In contrast, last weekend was not full of stories and broadcasts about the former president’s latest outrage: encouraging his ally, Vladimir Putin, to invade Europe. If they don’t pay their share of NATO dues, Donald Trump said, Russia should “do whatever the hell they want.” 

Whatever you think of Biden’s age, or about the special counsel’s report, one thing is certain: the above two things are not the same. You can say the president is too old. You can say the special counsel’s report was a hit job. You can have all kinds of opinions about all that. But regardless of what those are, they are not the same, morally, as the fact of Trump opening a new space for the start of a World War III. 

You may have felt despair at seeing Biden’s age get vastly more attention than Trump’s encouragement of Russia. But you may have felt silenced, too. 

What Trump said is vastly more important than what the special counsel’s report said. Yet what it said got vastly more attention. It got so much attention that it threatens to overwhelm things that should never be overwhelmed. A CNN panel actually debated whether Biden’s age is “a bigger problem than Trump’s indictments.” The Times asked: “Which Is Worse: Biden’s Age or Trump Handing NATO to Putin?”

This habit of making things the same that are not the same is a key feature of what I called the anti-moral press. Reporters not only refuse to make moral distinctions between things that are morally distinct, they can be hostile toward anyone who makes such distinctions.

The result of this habit can be maddening binaries that warp political reality. On the one hand is Trump. He’s an existential threat to democracy and the international order! On the other is Biden. He’s old! 

A normal person with a normal sense of morality can see that the issues are not the same. They can see that the candidates (Biden and Trump, presumably) are not the same. And they can see that attempts to make them the same – for instance, with ludicrous questions about whether Biden’s age is a bigger problem than Trump’s alleged crimes – are attempts to push out a normal sense of morality out of public life. 

This may be the most maddening feature of the anti-moral press corps. In the case of the special counsel’s smearing of the president, not only did reporters accept bad-faith intentions for the purpose of equalizing unequal things (Biden and Trump), but by accepting them, they established a vocabulary that, in effect, boxes the public out of debate.

If you do not accept that things that are, in fact, not the same are the same, you have nothing to say about an issue that the press corps is likely to see as neutral. You may have felt despair at seeing Biden’s age get vastly more attention than Trump’s encouragement of Russia. But you may have felt silenced, too. What can you say about morally distinct things in a world in which moral distinctions don’t exist? 

One answer is nothing. But another answer is everything. 

It depends. 

If you depend on the press corps to provide a vocabulary with which to talk about politics, you’re restricted to speaking within its anti-moral boundaries, in which there’s no role for your sense of morality. You’re left trying to use that vocabulary not only against Trump and the Republicans but against the press corps itself, none of which is going to change as long as people don’t speak according to their own terms.

But if you don’t, you’re free to speak according to your own sense of morality. You’re free, as Jason Sattler said, to push your own frames. “Ignore Republican accusations laundered through the press,” Jason wrote over the weekend. “Call out the con and stay focused on what matters. Trump is a corrupt loser who will only betray America again. Everything else is just a deflection from that undeniable fact.”

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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