This past week, a sobering video has been making the rounds in response to media cycles that are providing ample fodder for the professional sensationalists who fancy themselves “objective” journalists.
The short clip is of the conservative intellectual William F. Buckley lamenting the state of American media. He spoke about how the media landscape was becoming too reliant on short sound bites and unproductive jousting between talking heads. A proponent of the long-form discussion, Buckley continued to explain how shorter segments made it impossible to communicate, and “robbed” stories of their “texture, complexities, and subtleties.”
William F. Buckley (1996) on the shrinking of the media space down to sound-bites so that all texture, complexity, and content is crushed out of its coverage, leaving just the show/entertainment of what passes for argument. pic.twitter.com/FVbU3TkHoW— Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) May 9, 2019
Unsurprising coming from Buckley, who enriched the public debate with his long-running TV show, Firing Line, on which he hosted both conservatives and liberals for long, rigorous discussions. He’s also exactly right since the decline has exacerbated over the last two decades.
American media has now become so polarized that people’s news consumption seems entirely driven by a desire to reinforce their predilections. This, unfortunately, replaces the need for a nuanced, analytical approach. The partisanship of the networks like the right-leaning Fox News and the left-leaning CNN renders news media a form of entertainment that people watch only for the churlish insults. Granted, it is entertaining, but it’s also undeniably damaging.
There is also the issue of the insularity that can affect some parts of the American mind. I don’t say this condescendingly. What I mean by this is, as much as I love the US, Americans have a tendency not to pay much attention to what goes on outside of the American media bubble. Because of this, they may assume by default that the media landscape in other places is identical to the one they’re forced to navigate.
The insularity manifested itself with Ben Shapiro’s gaffe of an interview with British conservative journalist Andrew Neil on BBC Friday.
Intended to discuss Shapiro’s best-selling book and the state of American politics, the interview quickly descended into mudslinging.
It was a logical consequence of the two not being familiar with the other’s work and Shapiro’s misinterpretation of Neil’s intentions.
Neil questioned Shapiro on the current state of the Republican Party, some of Shapiro’s “problematic” past statements, and if Shapiro himself had played a role in the abysmal state of American discourse. From what Neil said in the interview, these types of questions were to encourage Shapiro to rationalize his positions; or reflect on what he wrote in his book, which is about how Americans are dividing themselves in an unhealthy way and need to return to founding principles so they can work towards a more cohesive society.
Conditioned by the pugilistic environment in America, Shapiro acted on his combative instinct since he perceived Neil’s interrogative style as someone looking for an ideological fight. What provoked Shapiro’s initial ire is Neil’s claim that Republicans may lack popular ideas, and posed the question if pro-life policies were “extreme, hard policies” that would “take us back to the dark ages.” In response to Neil’s provocations, Shapiro questioned Neil’s credibility, asking him if he was an “objective or opinion journalist” and accused him of having a left-wing bias. Eventually, Shapiro decided to stop the interview. What did Shapiro in is that shortly before leaving, he berated Neil for “trying to make a quick buck” by having someone famous like him on while “nobody knows who Neil is.”
If Shapiro had done some research on Neil’s background, he would have realized that Neil is a well-known Thatcherite who has been the British left’s pariah for years. He also would have acquainted himself with Neil’s interview style. No matter the politics of the interviewee, Neil skillfully plays devil’s advocate. He’ll do this whether it’s soporific leftists like Owen Jones or principled conservatives like Douglas Murray. On Firing Line, Buckley was similarly inquisitive when it came to anti-American radicals like Noam Chomsky or people with whom he agreed like Ronald Reagan and Tom Wolfe.
This quality of discourse has mostly disappeared from the mainstream due to the ideological cloisters to which media figures have confined themselves. As a result, the focus is often on scoring points in 3-minute showdowns on live television. Commentators expect this and prepare themselves accordingly.
As Buckley wrote in 2005, “The rhetorical blur decalcifies straight thought.” Since Shapiro is inured to left-leaning journalists using the “rhetorical blur”—calling anything they don’t like racist or sexist — to characterize his positions, he responded in a way that might have been justifiable if he was speaking to dogmatists like CNN’s Angela Rye.
I understand Shapiro’s anger at abortion questions since I think the view of the pro-life position that it’s one of moral turpitude is unfair and doesn’t help address complex problems. I think Neil dedicated too much time to Shapiro’s past tweets since Shapiro has discussed them on numerous occasions. Even though Neil might have been using them to ask broader questions, he could have been more precise with his intent. However, Shapiro should have restrained his animosity, and understood some of the differences between British and American media. During the initial skirmish on abortion, Neil attempted to explain to Shapiro that he was asking the question from the opposite viewpoint to probe an explanation and wasn’t taking a position on it.
This fiasco has been a source of joy for Shapiro’s foes, but it’s a wasted opportunity.
British commentator Maajid Nawaz provided an intriguing analysis of the debacle, describing it as a reflection of the hostility between “old” and “new” media. Old media heads see new media heads as a subversive force attempting to uproot them, while new media (like YouTube and podcasts) heads like Shapiro see old media as “corrupt” and “self-regarding.” According to Nawaz, this might have informed Shapiro and Neil’s perception of each other from the get-go. This is most likely true, and both may share the blame.
The whole affair is sad since they could have had a good dialogue on the Anglosphere, political radicalism, and Western civilization. Both are capable of it and usually have enlightening exchanges with others.
But everyone makes mistakes when in the public eye. In a rare moment, Buckley lost his cool and called Gore Vidal a “queer” after Vidal called him a crypto-Nazi. Despite receiving flack for the rest of his career, he continued to be an influential figure in the marketplace of ideas. So any claims that Shapiro has irreparably destroyed his credibility are premature.
Shapiro has owned up to his error while Neil enjoys his victory, but they should make amends and try again. I think the public would benefit from these two valuable voices having challenging discussions on complicated issues.