Chill With The "Journalists Are Heroes" Thing

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Whoa now. Everyone take a deep breath.

Yes, it is true that we live in dangerous and uncertain times. It is true that our dear president hates the press—not a unique sentiment among presidents, certainly, but unique in its venomous stupidity. It is true that our White House is currently occupied by and allied with people who consider the press the “opposition party” and would not hesitate to threaten unfriendly media outlets with legal and extralegal persecution. Yes. Donald Trump and his cronies hate the press.

Journalists: don’t let it go to your... ah, fuck. Too late.

As someone who worked for years as a media reporter, I can say with authority that two things are true: 1) Journalists are fascinated by news about journalists, and 2) Nobody else is. Which makes perfect sense. The press is a trade, and media reporting is essentially trade reporting, which puts it in the same class as news about the restaurant industry or the shipping industry or the insurance industry—news that is interesting primarily to those in the industry, because who the fuck else cares, really? People are too busy to worry about the minutiae of every damn industry. The difference is that journalists also happen to control the media, meaning that news about journalists receives a prominence that is well out of line with its status as mere trade reporting. It’s just a quirk of human nature, which makes us all feel as if we are the stars of our own movies called “The Entire World.” You can rest assured that if the media was run by insurance agents, CNN and the New York Times would be full of features about the fascinating and inspiring men and women who compile actuarial tables. This is a useful comparison when thinking about how interesting journalists are to the general public.


The main drawback of a president hollering “Fake News!” at every true negative story and tweeting that the media is the “enemy of the American people” is that he threatens to undermine the very belief in a common set of facts that makes all rational public debate possible. This danger has been well covered. The secondary drawback of such a threat is that it seduces reporters into believing that they are heroes. It causes journalists to make the mistake of thinking that they, not the social institutions of a civil society, are the star of this show. It causes journalists and their cheerleaders to declare that “Washington Post and New York Times reporters are saving American democracy one story at a time” and set up GoFundMe pages to send pizzas to newsrooms full of upper middle class professionals. It causes the New York Times to change its website’s subscription button to one that reads “SUPPORT OUR MISSION.” And, god help us, it causes David Simon to tweet out that fucking self-righteous Thomas Jefferson quote about newspapers.


Reporters are not heroes. Firefighters are heroes. Reporters are more like mail carriers: performing one of the many perfectly honorable and necessary but unheroic tasks that keep society functioning smoothly. The extremely small percentage of reporters who do act heroically are those who risk their lives to cover forgotten wars, or bravely tell the truth about warlords or drug cartels or murderous dictators despite the very real prospect of violent retaliation. One thing that all of these heroic reporters have in common is that they are not in the DC press corps, where heroism most commonly manifests itself in the form of eating the last free pastry on the press conference breakfast tray without knowing how stale it might be.


My cursory viewing of CNN tells me that Jake Tapper has been consistently asking tough questions of lying White House functionaries who appear on his show. Does this make Jake Tapper a hero? No. It makes him a guy who is doing his job. (For which he is extremely well-compensated.) The national reporters at major news outlets have been turning out an admirable number of meaningful stories about the new administration’s mismanagement of the government. Again: this is literally their job description. I am glad that they are doing their jobs well, but it would be more remarkable if journalists were not able to produce good stories at a time of profound national crisis and routine public lying by top government officials. The level of heroism here is roughly the same as that displayed by a Subway™ sandwich artist who really nails the flavor on your turkey foot-long: give em Employee of the Month, sure, but let’s keep the Medal of Honor in reserve for now.

There is a transference happening in the public mind. The threat of Trump (which is real) becomes the perception of heroism in those who are telling us about that threat (who are for the most part media employees fulfilling their basic job duties, and if you stood next to them at a party you would be so bored). I was an employee of a media outlet that was purposely destroyed by a vindictive lawsuit bankrolled by a billionaire who is now one of Donald Trump’s most trusted advisors. Does that make me a hero? (Yes, maybe?) No. That makes me someone who is fortunate enough to have a career writing stories rather than digging ditches. Though I, like all of my colleagues in the media, secretly fancy myself a debonair hero of the republic whose work shall be worshiped for generations to come, I am forced to admit that 99.9% of us should just be grateful for our luck.


If reporters are heroes, what are paramedics? What are emergency room nurses, and social workers, and community organizers and activists who work for no pay to make the world a better place? What are the reporters’ sources, who often take great personal and professional risk to provide the information for all those stories? To my friends and enemies in the media, I beg you: let us not all jack each other off so readily. It’s a bad look.

The New York Times has a fucking gourmet cafeteria inside their building and at night they all eat at nicer restaurants than you. Send a pizza to a teacher.