In David Barstow’s terrific New York Times piece about the tea party movement, he included the following line: “It is a sprawling rebellion, but running through it is a narrative of impending tyranny.” Jay Rosen has a problem with this:
That sounds like the Tea Party movement I have observed, so the truth of the sentence is not in doubt. But what about the truth of the narrative? David Barstow is a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter for the New York Times. He ought to know whether the United States is on the verge of losing its democracy and succumbing to an authoritarian or despotic form of government…..Seriously: Why is this phrase, impending tyranny, just sitting there, as if Barstow had no way of knowing whether it was crazed and manipulated or verifiable and reasonable? If we credit the observation that a great many Americans drawn to the Tea Party live in fear that the United States is about to turn into a tyranny, with rigged elections, loss of civil liberties, no more free press, a police state… can we also credit the professional attitude that refuses to say whether this fear is reality-based? I don’t see how we can.
….No fair description of the current situation, nothing in what the Washington bureau and investigative staff of the New York Times has picked up from its reporting, would support a characterization like “impending tyranny.” In a word, the Times editors and Barstow know this narrative is nuts, but something stops them from saying so— despite the fact that they must have spent over $100,000 on this one story. And whatever that thing is, it’s not the reluctance to voice an opinion in the news columns, but a reluctance to report a fact in the news columns, the fact that the “narrative of impending tyranny” is ungrounded in any observable reality, even though the sense of grievance within the Tea Party movement is truly felt and politically consequential.
I think this is seriously misguided. Sure, Barstow probably wants to refrain from outright opinion mongering in a new story. But as Rosen says, that’s not really the issue here. The real issue is simpler: Barstow wants to treat his readers as adults.
Here’s a similar situation that I ran across a few years ago. In the LA Times, Barbara Demick (I think) was able to score a rare, long interview with a high-ranking official of the North Korean government. The resulting story basically provided the DPRK view of things, and as you might expect, that view was pretty divorced from reality. Conservatives were outraged. How could she report this stuff with a straight face? Why was she providing Kim Jong-il’s thuggish regime with this kind of cover?
But I found the story fascinating and I thought the conservative critique was as misguided as Rosen’s. Demick made it perfectly clear who she was dealing with, and I knew perfectly well that North Korea is a brutal dictatorship whose views can hardly be taken at face value. Everyone bright enough to read the LA Times in the first place knows that. She didn’t have to treat us like fourth graders and tell us explicitly.
Ditto for Barstow and his piece on the tea partiers. He’s not writing for fourth graders. He’s writing for literate adults who know perfectly well that a “narrative of impending tyranny” is nuts. If he wrote a piece about a cult that thinks the world is flat, would he really need to add a sentence telling us that, in fact, this is crazy because there’s a mountain of evidence telling us the world is round?
Reporters for the New York Times aren’t writing grade school primers. They don’t have to tell us at every turn that the Holocaust was evil, that the earth revolves around the sun, that North Korea is a horrible dictatorship, or that the United States is not about to fall into tyranny. Just as I didn’t explicitly say in this post that I didn’t quote Rosen’s entire argument above. You already know this, and you’d think I was treating you like idiots if I insisted on mentioning it in every blog post. Barstow’s only crime was not treating his readers like idiots. We should all be fine with that.
Via Conor Friedersdorf, who has actually talked to conservatives who use the “impending tyranny” trope and says that sometimes it’s nuts, but other times it’s just hyperbole.