Let us now praise the most reviled group of people in America: so-called “elites.” How about a round of applause for the hated “mainstream media” as well.
If you listen to Donald Trump, or even if you paid attention to Bernie Sanders during the primary season, you might think all the nation’s problems can be blamed on two pointy-headed cabals. The “elites” who rigged the system to benefit themselves at the expense of everyone else; and the puppy-dog “mainstream media” or “MSM,” also known as the “corporate media,” who were complicit.
Even as the Trump campaign devolves into raving lunacy and most Sanders supporters line up behind Hillary Clinton, the idea lives on: “Regular” or “everyday” Americans have been failed by out-of-touch elites and the MSM who basically have screwed up the country.
Such thinking is no more sound than Trump’s conviction that all the nation’s ills should be blamed on Mexicans and Muslims.
First, the elites: Who are they, anyway? I’ve always tried to avoid using the term because it is so imprecise as to be virtually meaningless.
If it means those with exceptional wealth, power or influence, then surely a billionaire such as Trump and a U.S. senator such as Sanders would qualify as members. If you fly around in a private jet with your name on the side, or sit among just 535 men and women who get to write the nation’s laws, you’re obviously not what anyone would call ordinary. I suppose their supporters might see them as traitors to their class.
Often the word “elites” is used to mean “experts,” as in “foreign policy elites have made a tragic mess of the Middle East” or “economic policy elites have given away the store in lopsided free-trade agreements.”
Let’s assume that both these propositions are true. It is a matter of historical fact that the architects of the Iraq War — the single biggest U.S. foreign policy blunder in my lifetime — and the authors of NAFTA and other free-trade pacts were, indeed, recognized experts in their fields.
But what makes anyone think the Middle East would be less bloody, or the Islamic State less of a terrorist threat, if U.S. policy had been run by people who had no expertise — who knew nothing about the region’s history, religious schisms or ethnic divides? Or that a better Trans-Pacific Partnership pact could be negotiated by someone wholly unfamiliar with the arcane minutiae of international trade agreements?
Ignorance is not a virtue. Knowledge is not a vice. Pointy-heads who spend years gaining expertise in a given field may make mistakes, but the remedy is to replace them with pointy-heads who have different views — not with know-nothings who would try to navigate treacherous terrain on instinct alone. (See: Trump’s policy positions on, well, anything.)
As for the much-disparaged media, I get emails every day from people who demand to know why we in the “MSM” or “corporate media” are covering up some scandal. The emails then go on to describe said scandal at great length and in microscopic detail, often quoting stories from The Washington Post, The New York Times, NBC News or other leading media outlets.
I often write back that if we’re trying to cover up the outrage in question, we’re obviously doing a lousy job.
One of the glories of this country is that anybody with a website can be a journalist. One of the realities, however, is that only news organizations of a certain size have the resources and, yes, the expertise to unearth some stories.
There are exceptions, of course — bloggers who come to own a certain niche of subject matter, say, or scribes who know every nook and cranny of a given community. But day in and day out, it’s the MSM that delivers the goods.
Many who attack the media for being feckless or out of touch really have a different complaint: You should spend more column inches and air time reinforcing my view of the world.
Sorry, but that’s not what we’re here for.
When he bought The Washington Post in 1933, Eugene Meyer published a set of seven “principles,” which began with this one: “The first mission of a newspaper is to tell the truth as nearly as the truth may be ascertained.”
There is such a thing as the truth, just as there is such a thing as valuable expertise. Even if it’s “elite” and “mainstream” to say so.
Eugene Robinson is a a Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.