This week’s BCC Interview is Mollie Hemingway of The Federalist and Fox News. I’ve been a fan of Hemingway’s work for several years, and think she’s one of the more unique voices in the media today.
We emailed this week about the media in the Trump Era, Twitter and groupthink, working your “tolerance” muscles and more. And then, with all BCC Interviews, I published it in full, below. Check out past BCC Interviews with Fox News’ Greg Gutfeld or Ben Smith of the New York Times, and subscribe to Fourth Watch here. Read the full interview below…
From: Steve Krakauer
To: Mollie Hemingway
Thanks for doing this! As we are in the conventions week, I want to start with the media in this political moment. As you look back on the past almost four years since the shock election of Donald Trump, has anything surprised you about the media coverage? And how do you assess the Trump presidency would be viewed if the media coverage had been some version of the way it was in the pre-Trump Era?
I also am curious about The Federalist. It’s one of the most prominent new media right-leaning brands, yet there seems an almost unique vitriol reserved for it from it’s critiques (on the left and on the right). I wonder if you can assess why that is. I have a theory – one of the reasons I really enjoy The Federalist is it’s full of unique opinions and commentary, and I don’t agree with all of it, but whether I agree with it or not, I often feel strongly about it. I either REALLY agree or REALLY don’t agree. That’s why I like it…but I wonder if that’s maybe why some in the media and on the left don’t like it for that reason. What do you think?
And feel free to throw any questions my way…
From: Mollie Hemingway
To: Steve Krakauer
I’ve been doing media criticism for nearly 20 years, so little should surprise me. But even I was shocked at how the political media responded to their failures in 2016. If they wanted to be taken seriously as journalists instead of activists, the response should have been major reforms in how the media covered politics. They should have first and foremost fully acknowledged their failures, both in terms of imagination and simply accurate reporting. They should have returned to fact-focused journalism and turned away from their obsession with pushing narratives and telling people what they’re supposed to think. And they should have recognized that their newsrooms were being crippled by a lack of ideological diversity. They should have aggressively hired non-leftists to balance out their leftist groupthink. They should have fired, rather than promoted, their biggest clowns.
As far as how the media would have covered a Trump presidency if the media coverage had been some version of the way it was in the pre-Trump era, it would only be a difference in degree as opposed to kind. Yes, corporate media have completely lost the plot in the Trump era, but it is not altogether that much different from how they covered previous Republicans. The Trump moment has curious effects on people, inside and outside of journalism. My husband always says the most effective and devastating way to cover Trump would be to treat him like any other politician. If the media did that, Trump would have much greater difficulties. As it is, President Trump will say something a bit out there, and then the media over-react so histrionically, they end up seeming far crazier than he ever could. And unlike him, they seem to lack any self-awareness.
By definition, I don’t agree with everything we run in the Federalist since one of the services we provide the public is to host debates on a wide range of issues. But whether you agree or don’t agree with a given argument in one of those debates, we want to provoke further discussions and deeper thinking. I’m glad we’ve been able to do that.
I’m not sure we spend that much time thinking about our reflexive critics, although we always love thoughtful criticism. Some media outlets hate us because we’re very good at what we do. We’re effective at covering stories they’re trying to disappear or manipulate — our stellar work on the Russia collusion hoax being a primary example. Many publications exist to tell its readership to speak power to truth and we do the opposite — we give voice to opinions that are a majority in America but with nearly zero representation in New York and DC newsrooms. The overwhelming majority of our writers are people who don’t work in politics professionally, don’t live in DC or New York, and have real jobs that produce things of value. It’s that constituency that has been ignored and minimized and mocked by those who control the media for way too long. I’m not surprised when those media outlets that used to be the gatekeepers who controlled what you could say and who could say it would be displeased with the publication that gives voice and power to those people.
From: Steve Krakauer
To: Mollie Hemingway
I think that point about being outside the NY and DC newsrooms is so important – it also brings a perspective to the current cultural landscape we’re in that doesn’t often get represented by our national legacy media outlets, on TV and in print. Being in Dallas now for 7 years, I’ve come across so many different kinds of people – gay married Trump supporters, hardcore Democrats who own lots of guns… people are a lot more complicated and nuanced then the media portrays.
You’re right about the way you all have covered the Russia story…and really many stories that the media would rather move on from. Which really raises a larger issue about media accountability. Do you think it’s possible to change the lack of accountability in the media? Is there a way to retroactively hold those to account who have been so woefully wrong so often? It’s not even about diagnosing why… just some introspection by all forces in the media seems like it would go a long way.
I also want to ask you about a topic I’m fascinated by, and that’s Twitter. I feel like there are pros and cons to Twitter, of course, and it’s great for the media. I think you’re particularly skilled at it. But I wonder if you ever have reservation about sending a tweet. Or if you ever have regrets about engaging. Or, put the other way, has your mind every been changed thanks to a particularly convincing tweet you’ve come across?
From: Mollie Hemingway
To: Steve Krakauer
Do you have any ideas for how to hold the media accountable for some of their major mess-ups? It’s a very important question. It wasn’t that long ago that you saw some introspection by media figures, the self-criticism for how they handled the run-up to the Iraq War being a good example. But I’m not sure that was real introspection, as all their subsequent handling of similar situations showed very little difference. I really wish I had a good answer for how to hold the media accountable for getting stories wrong repeatedly. I do not. I worry that major corporate media are simply too far gone. They give awards to themselves for being extremely wrong! Although, as the situation gets worse, I think it’s clear that they can only be said to be getting things wrong if you misunderstand their goals. And if their goals are to advance particular political positions, everything is going as planned, more or less. Seen that way, the only good thing happening is that so many people are aware that they’re not to be trusted. I wish we had media that provided a valuable service to a cross-section of people and therefore had broad support. But in the absence of that, awareness of media’s many failures is not a bad thing.
People who go into media criticism do so, I presume, because they want the media to be better. What’s your vision for how to improve the situation?
OK, I have many thoughts on Twitter. It helped me get published when I was a freelance writer with young children at home. Editors would see a tweet of mine and ask me to flesh it out for a piece. Now, I use it to find new writers with fresh ideas who we can publish at The Federalist. I get excellent feedback and thoughtful criticism from readers and viewers that I treasure. People say the internet is a vile place but the vast majority of my interactions with people have been overwhelmingly positive. I should note that I block anyone who is unduly rude, whether to me or others, so that probably plays a large role in my pleasant Twitter experience.
I also can’t believe how much the reporters I cover use Twitter to reveal to the world their extreme bias, their loathing of political opponents, and sometimes shockingly juvenile behavior. It is so useful to see how groupthink forms in real time. I learned a valuable lesson against accepting Twitter groupthink in 2016. Everyone on Twitter had decided that the way to deal with Donald Trump’s candidacy was to ask other Republican candidates if they would renounce Trump if he won the nomination. The other GOP candidates were getting asked by reporters to renounce Trump and they were generally declining to do so. The Twitter mob couldn’t believe how stupid these other candidates were for not denouncing a potential Trump nomination. About this time, my husband Mark and I were in Michigan, serving a stint as journalism fellows at Hillsdale College, where I am now Senior Journalism Fellow. Michigan was having primaries for both parties so Mark and I were going around talking to voters. The first interesting thing was that we encountered a ton of Bernie Sanders support. He would later shock pollsters by winning that primary. We also talked to Republican voters about Twitter’s brilliant plan for stopping Trump. And to a man, each person we asked looked at us like we were idiots for thinking this made any sense whatsoever. “So you’re saying that Republicans should fight whomever Republican voters choose to be the Republican nominee?” And when normal people put it that way, it kind of broke Twitter’s spell. I realized my instinct should always be skepticism toward whatever the hive mind came up with, particularly at the outset of that groupthink forming. It has served me so very well over the last four years.
You asked, though, if I ever have reservations about sending a tweet. I do, for various reasons. Perhaps I haven’t phrased things properly. Sometimes I’m worried I’ve shared something too personal about my family. Or I worry about bringing attention to someone who is unwell. I try to remember that sometimes people lash out on social media because they are experiencing so much pain in their personal life. Perhaps their wife has cancer and they’re angry about it but don’t want to take it out on her. So I try to pray for everyone who is rude, in the knowledge that we all need prayer. But I definitely mess up. Also, my pastor follows me on Twitter and gently reproaches me if my language gets salty. I actually love that about him and that he cares for me enough to do that.
I work hard to keep an open mind about all sorts of things and while I can’t think of a particularly convincing tweet, I do think that the ongoing conversations I’ve had with various Twitter folks have shaped my thinking. Again going back to 2016, I was so tremendously confused by Trump’s ascendancy. I had been fairly positive toward his candidacy in the abstract in 2015, but when I realized he might actually win the GOP nomination, I was so confused and disoriented. Unlike many other journalists and pundits, I worked extremely hard to understand his appeal toward conservatives. Twitter helped with that. I also simply talked to people about it. Knowing Trump voters and just talking to them is extremely illuminating and I’m really surprised that other media folks don’t do that more.
And I follow a wide variety of folks on left and right, and tons of non-political accounts. I absolutely love seeing a range of opinion and I work to freshen my lists and find new and interesting thinkers all the time. All this takes time, but I find it pays off.
I do wonder how you follow all the media you do. You clearly have a lot of knowledge of cable news, magazines, newspapers, Twitter, etc. How do you track it all?
From: Steve Krakauer
To: Mollie Hemingway
That’s hilarious and amazing that your pastor follows you on Twitter. I wonder how all tweeting would change if we knew we were being personally watched over by our faith leaders…
On your question about media accountability, I think the first and most important element to this is that there needs to be a personal will to admit errors, to approach coverage, particularly after the fact, with humility and introspection, and to then report back the mistakes to the viewers and readers. Without that, it will never really be very effective, because the mechanism the media has put in place, from both sides frankly, is to have a clear distrust (not unwarranted!) of the other media side. So if you or me call out MSNBC for the way they incorrectly covered something, but MSNBC never addresses it, MSNBC viewers are not going to be a) learn about it and b) if they learn about it they will often be dismissive of it.
And, sadly, I guess this brings us to Twitter, I think the media is incentivized to not admit when they get a story wrong, where the admission of that fact could in any way feel like a boost to President Trump. Twitter won’t allow it – if a reporter even says something objectively true but not outright Resistance-signaling about Trump or his administration, they are pilloried by the very loud (but very small) group on Twitter. I think we saw this with the Israel-UAE deal. When you have nothing bad to say, just say nothing… I guess. I don’t think this changes until Trump is out of office, because the incentive structure won’t change. What do you think?
You ask how I track everything, and I think it’s a lot of what you say you do – I’ve worked hard to carefully cultivate my own Twitter feed, my own Apple podcasts, so that I’m listening and reading a variety of points of view that are interesting and different. I really want to be challenged and uncomfortable intellectually. I’ve been on this kick for about 5 years now, since I wrote this that literally no one read…
The other thing that helps is I’m really lucky to have several individuals who share my general philosophy who are readers of the newsletter and mostly work inside media organizations I cover, that constantly send me links and other ideas. It’s super helpful and I’m really thankful for them.
Let me end with this, because people can get down on the state of the media, or even the state of the country. What’s something positive about the media, something that makes you hopeful? I personally love seeing people like Andrew Sullivan and Matt Taibbi go off on their own and start successful mini-media companies, or even people like Joe Rogan have such huge success outside the mainstream. What gives you hope – and maybe, WHO gives you hope?
Thanks so much for doing this…
From: Mollie Hemingway
To: Steve Krakauer
I love your essay about how getting offended isn’t the worst thing in the world, and certainly not worth killing over. Sometimes when my children are offended by something they see out in public, I remind them that it’s a free country and people are free to think and believe differently than we do! I love my friends and very few of them have even remotely similar politics to me. We wouldn’t really think about wasting too much time in a state of being offended. How boring. I do agree that you have to work those muscles, though. You have to work at being tolerant and, oddly enough, having strong and well-considered views is usually a good starting point. You don’t tolerate things you agree with — you just agree with them. Tolerance implies disagreement and an understanding of one’s own views. Also, I have no idea how old you are but you have the spirit of a Gen-Xer in that essay.
Anywho, you wrote that the incentive structure that prohibits self-introspection and improvement in the media won’t change “until Trump is out of office.” I don’t agree with the idea that Trump is some unique element whose presence or absence dictates our behavior. I think that he definitely exacerbates impulses in people, but doesn’t really change them. And so if a journalist is unable to admit error for fear of helping Trump, that’s not really about Trump but the journalist. And I would wager a guess that the journalist will not only continue in that behavior post-Trump, he might even say that the new GOP official (or some other bogeyman) is even worse than Trump.
And that is a very sad segue into your last question about what gives me hope in the media landscape. I just have to be honest that in 15 years of media criticism, I have never been as pessimistic about the media as I am at this moment. Obviously I’m elated with what we’ve done at The Federalist. Our success is in some part due to technological innovations in the media sector as well as the failures of other media companies. I’m proud of the stable of writers we’ve put together, of how many female voices we feature, of how many outside-the-beltway and outside-New York voices we feature. But I’m not thrilled with the journalistic decline of large corporate media or of how much division they’ve helped sow. I guess my one glimmer of hope is that so many people, according to polls and other metrics, have woken up to the realization that our media are terrible. If our media are not going to improve, that’s about the best you can hope for.
But you should continue being your very positive self. Your newsletter is the best media newsletter out there, by far. Your attitude is great — constructive and pleasant but still with a righteous edge.
I hope you have a great week.