GUEST BLOG / By Jon Allsop, a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.
On Day Two, the president of Harvard resigned, and federal prosecutors charged a Democratic senator with acting on behalf of a(nother) foreign government.
On Day Three, a court began unsealing documents from a lawsuit involving a deceased sex trafficker amid rampant speculation as to which other famous people might be named in them; a federal official resigned in protest of the president’s handling of a war in the Middle East; and a hoax bomb threat was emailed to twenty-plus state capitol buildings.
On Day Four, more bomb threats were emailed to state officials; a congressional report outlined significant spending by foreign governments at properties belonging to the former president while he was still in office; an ally turned rival of the former president said he regretted his prior support; and a gunman killed a student and wounded seven other people at a school in Iowa.
On Day Five, the head of the National Rifle Association resigned ahead of a corruption trial; the defense secretary disclosed that he’d been hospitalized since Day One, without anyone knowing about it; the fuselage of a passenger plane blew out in midair (somehow, no one was hurt); the current president gave a speech calling the former president a threat to democracy; and the Supreme Court said it would decide whether the state of Colorado could stop the former president from running again on the grounds that he incited an insurrection the last time around.
On Day Six, the anniversary of the insurrection fell, and the former president said in a speech that those charged with participating in it were “hostages,” that they had acted “peacefully and patriotically” when they stormed the United States Capitol, that the “real” insurrection was happening right now at the Mexican border, that the Civil War could have been avoided through negotiation, and that the last election was stolen from him.
On Day Seven, a close ally of the former president—who was also instrumental in the events that led to the Harvard president’s resignation—said on a major Sunday show that charged insurrectionists were “hostages”; that Democrats were the real threat to democracy; that the current president, who she said sat atop a “crime family,” was the most corrupt in American history; that the federal government was being weaponized against conservatives; that the federal government was being weaponized against Catholics; and that she would only vote to certify the results of the next election if they were “constitutional,” unlike the last one.
More by Jon Allsop: I’ve long been a fan of sweeping works of American history that paint by dots, assembling a jumble of stories from different spheres—the political, the social, the cultural—that collectively indicate the national mood at a given moment. Future historians of our time will have an avalanche of dots to work with. But as the first week of 2024 unfolded, it struck me as particularly ripe for such treatment. It was a week of big news: some of it shocking, some of it much less so, almost all of it emphatically within the zeitgeist. It was a week sold as a pivot point—the start of a pivotal year. It was a week, too, of continuity; of deeper themes crystallizing.
Contemporary news reports are typically an important source for this sort of history. Looking back on the first week of 2024, a future historian might be struck by the manner in which we reported some of its stories, and how this was received. They might come across a newspaper front page that paired the Iowa school shooting with a story about a proposal to lower the age at which people can buy a rifle in Florida. (An editor at the paper called the juxtaposition “the first rough draft of history, indeed.”)
Our historian might find it curious that the shooting did not make the front page of the next day’s New York Times and only barely made that of the Washington Post. (Though they might find the notion of caring about newspaper front pages bizarre.) They might reference the online conspiracy theory that the shooting was a “false flag” to distract the media from the unsealed Jeffrey Epstein documents—or any number of fresh online conspiracy theories around Epstein. They might pause at the conspiracy theories of Elise Stefanik on Meet the Press, how blithely she spewed them, and how several of them went unchallenged by the moderator (not that challenging them all was even possible). They might be puzzled by an Associated Press headline appearing to equivocate between Joe Biden’s and Donald Trump’s accounts of the insurrection: “One attack, two interpretations.” They might laugh at critics’ parodies of the headline on X (assuming its archives survived the Reign of Musk).
One particularly useful artifact for our historian—at least when it comes to the media’s role in this moment—might be a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Christopher Rufo, a right-wing activist (also mentioned, perhaps, in a previous chapter on the conservative crusade against “critical race theory”) who, like Stefanik, contributed to the downfall of the Harvard president, Claudine Gay. (A congressional hearing during which Stefanik grilled Gay and other university presidents on campus anti-Semitism amid the war between Israel and Hamas put Gay under pressure; a series of plagiarism allegations that Rufo wrote about, followed by outlets from across the media landscape, pushed her over the edge.)
Our historian might find many of the particulars of the Gay story to be murky, but they will find Rufo’s account of his role crystal-clear: he narrated a real-time strategy to “squeeze” Gay by “smuggling” the plagiarism allegations into mainstream media, thus legitimizing them beyond right-wing circles.
Our historian might understand that this tactic was far from new but still be struck by its shameless elucidation, and by Rufo explicitly claiming the dual mantle of “activist” and “journalist.” Indeed, our future historian might view the media system exploited by Rufo—a mainstream press clinging to its strenuously unbiased self-conception, amid ever more forceful gusts from nakedly partisan right-wing media—as an anachronism.
If a turn-of-the-year prediction by Anthony Nadler for Nieman Lab bears out, our historian may see this as the moment at which traditional media elites stopped seeing partisan media as a fringe force, and at which it gathered strength not only on the right but on the left. They may even observe that the sky did not fall as a result. Then again, the perceived value of journalistic “objectivity”—or fairness, or balance, or whatever you want to call it—has persisted through many moments of American social and political tumult.
Our historian may see this one as just another turn of the cycle. They may see in the stories of January 2024—and the months before and after—the output of a debate forever unresolved. They may see the coverage of Trump—who will, surely, be a central character, the master key to the zeitgeist—as a gallant yet ultimately failed attempt to bend old journalistic codes to a man and a movement determined to exploit them, but also to exploit any perceived departure from them. They may see it as a trivial and complacent prelude to the return of a demagogue. They may see it as hot air—excessive blather en route to a Biden landslide.
How they see the coverage will depend, of course, on who they are, which coverage they look back on, and what happens next, among other factors. In the present, all of this is unknowable, and (largely) out of our control. History and the news serve different functions. The former can cool the heat of the latter by bringing the depth of perspective, and interrogate our blind spots. It can also forget, misremember, editorialize, and mistake hinge moments for inevitabilities—again, it depends on who’s writing it.
At the top of this column, I painted a history of the first week of 2024 to tell a certain story about this moment; someone else may have chosen totally different dots. If the news is the “first draft of history,” it’s because our judgment is rough. It’s also because we deal in things that might not make the later drafts, but which do absolutely matter in the present.
Still, as this pivotal year unfolds, I think it’s worth sparing an occasional thought for how history—or, given the magnitude of that concept, at least the future historians in ourselves—might one day judge how we covered it.
--Will we look back on stories that we played up because they were important in their own right, or because we were force-fed them?
--Where importance and force-feeding collide, will we have made the force-feeding part of the story?
--Will we have allowed fatigue to blind us to atrocities and lies whose ubiquity makes them no less atrocious or mendacious?
--Will we have told the truth as we judged it, or the truth that we perceived transient political elites wanted to hear?
--Will we have recognized—as Rufo made clear for us, if it wasn’t already—that we are the first painters of the dots of history and as such important actors, not just passive chroniclers watching the torrent of the river from the serenity of the banks?
Among my favorite writers of this type of history is Rick Perlstein, a prolific chronicler of twentieth-century American conservatism. I’ve interviewed him twice for CJR; on the first occasion, ahead of the momentous 2020 election, he had recently reached what he described as an “unusual conclusion” for a historian: that “it was time to stop talking about history,” because “it was only taking us further from understanding the present.” Indeed, Perlstein has written insightfully about the present, too, and its journalistic codes.
Last week (on Day Three) he published an essay in the American Prospect in which he indicted “agenda-setting elite political journalists” for selling the fantasy that America—at any given moment—would be a happy and united polity but for manufactured political discord that both major parties are responsible for contriving.
“Generations of this incumbent, consensus-besotted journalism have produced the very conceptual tools, metaphors, habits, and technologies that we understand as political journalism,” Perlstein wrote. “But these tools are thoroughly inadequate to understanding what politics now is.”
This historic year will require a different brush.
Other notable MEDIA MEMOS:
Yesterday, the journalists Hamza al-Dahdouh and Mustafa Thuraya were killed in an Israeli air strike while traveling in a car in Gaza; al-Dahdouh, who worked for Al Jazeera, was the son of Wael al-Dahdouh, that network’s Gaza bureau chief, who already lost several family members and was himself injured in separate Israeli strikes last year. (Al Jazeera said that the journalists had been “assassinated”; Israel said they had been traveling with a “terrorist.”)
Elsewhere, The Observer spoke with Israeli journalists who have criticized their country’s media for failing to cover suffering in Gaza. And CJR’s Ayodeji Rotinwa examined how the war in Gaza has “changed the rules” for US newsrooms. While the racial-justice protests of 2020 challenged news organizations, “nothing in recent memory has riven newsrooms the way this war has,” Rotinwa writes.
Fallout continues from the revelation, late on Friday, that Lloyd Austin, the defense secretary, had been hospitalized since Monday without the public—or, apparently, officials up to and including President Biden—being informed. In a written statement, Austin has since taken “full responsibility” for the lack of disclosure, and acknowledged that he “could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed.”
Late last year, MSNBC moved to cancel the weekly show of Mehdi Hasan, as well as his program on the NBC streaming service Peacock. Initially, the network announced that Hasan would stay on as an analyst and fill-in host, but last night, during his show’s final broadcast, he revealed that he will leave MSNBC altogether, and seek “a new challenge.” (ICYMI, I profiled Hasan, whose star was then rising at MSNBC, in 2021.)
Recently, an arbitrator ordered WHYY, an NPR member station in Philadelphia, to reinstate Jad Sleiman, a reporter who was fired after bosses discovered clips of his work as a stand-up comic online and deemed them offensive.
The arbitrator “performed an in-depth analysis” of the clips, Vice reports, and found that many of them were funny or an “astute critique” of power—though they also ruled that Sleiman must delete the clips.
And Joseph Lelyveld, who served as executive editor of the New York Times from 1994 to 2001, has died. He was eighty-six. Under Lelyveld, the paper “climbed to record levels of revenue and profits, expanded its national and international readerships, introduced color photographs to the front page, created new sections, and ushered in the digital age with a Times website and round-the-clock news operations,” the Times wrote.