What causes the media’s anti-Jordan Peterson crusades?
There is one thing I have never understood about Jordan Peterson.
It is certainly not his appeal.The almost stoic ideas of 12 Rules for Life, delivered from a relatable and at times almost almost painfully human figure, resonate with a 21st Century post-religious population clearly in search of ethics and values. Combine that with his strange, almost cold wit and his ability to wryly deride opposition and it’s easy to see he was made to be successful on the more intellectual end of Youtube.
Bu what has never been clear about Peterson is the decision of the media to disparage him, rather than attempt to understand him. From the moment he first became famous in 2016, his career has been a catalogue of first derision, then vilification. There have been more hit jobs than Prohibition-era Chicago (including his interview with Cathy Newman, which is still painful to watch) and an almost gleeful publication of his personal struggles. But why are journalists so keen on playing this game?
The first reason is likely laziness. Never assign to malice what you can to laziness. His almost Kermit-like voice and odd metaphors about lobsters meant it was always easy to characterise him as a kooky oddball, especially when added to his authorship of a self-help book, which have always been the subject of sniffy derision. As for the more trenchant and sharp criticism, his initial prominence was as a result of opposition to identity politics — making him guilty by association and the ease of portraying him as a figurehead of a vague, undefined reactionary swelling was probably too hard to resist.
But there is another, more malevolent intent, which exhibits the media’s shifting role. In the ‘post truth world’ they are constantly bemoaning, journalists have largely shifted from reporting news to presenting opinion. Often as fact, always as axiomatic.
A recent RAND report found that ‘U.S.-based journalism has gradually shifted away from objective news and offers more opinion-based content that appeals to emotion and relies heavily on argumentation and advocacy’. That is to say — we have replaced fact-centred reporting with a style that is ‘a more subjective form of journalism’, ‘grounded in personal perspective.’ You may be wryly imagining articles on ‘Time to focus on World War Me’ when someone finally decides to use their nuclear missiles, but the truth is not far away.
Whilst the RAND report concerns itself solely with US news outlets, we can see this mirrored in Great Britain. Whilst the national broadsheets, the thinking man’s toilet paper, have been falling into the past longer form opinion-based magazines such as The Spectator have thrived and spawned offspring, first Standpoint and then The Critic. News channels, too, are now almost solely opinion, largely as a result of the success of the American precedent. They present a constant stream of talking heads, whose success is largely built on opposition, arguing their position and, since the emergence of coronavirus, performing deliberate and performative misunderstanding in order to generate content, clicks and a return invite. Whether the talking head is the CEO of a charity, a university professor or a member of the news organisation itself scarcely matters — the presentation of talking heads on news channels is noticeably uniform, although newspapers still make the distinction between their news and opinion pages. On news networks, the news is presented by the main host, who then move to the political talking heads for their interpretation, as they would to the head of a think tank or leader of a notable institution.
Not only are there similarities of presentation, but of performance too. Those defending their interests on the news argue overtly about the impact of this or that policy, framing their argument with the impact on their sector or industry. The talking heads of the news organisation present opinion in the same manner, but framed politically. They discuss the outcome of a policy not in terms of, say, economic cost, but of political cost. We learn what they think this or that policy may result in the loss of support from suburban housewives or the Red Wall seats, for example.
Not only has the presentation of information changed, but the targets have too. Journalism has always prided itself on an ability to take scalps — and rightly so. It is a testament to their power and influence, as well as the noble ideal that power should be held accountable. But the ideal that drove Watergate — securing the truth for citizens — has devolved into a notion of individual cancellation, and of policing the frontiers of the mind for infringements, perceived or real.
Glenn Greenwald writes that journalists now seem to seem to ‘have insufficient talent or skill, and even less desire, to take on real power centers: the military-industrial complex, the CIA and FBI, the clandestine security state, Wall Street, Silicon Valley monopolies’. It is hard to argue he is wrong. Whilst it is unfair to compare every journalist to the testament of their work that is Watergate — it is a little like comparing every commercial airline flight to Apollo 11 — it is interesting to see how bastardised the concept of holding power to account has become.
Witness the treatment of Sir Roger Scruton by The New Statesman. Whilst Sir Roger Scruton was a notable public figure, he was only serving as Chairman of the government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful commission. That a notable right-wing intellectual had been appointed to a government commission was hardly sex, lies or murder at the heart of Westminster. The immediate condemnation of the appointment (even before Eaton’s article) from the left was tiresomely predictable. But what happened next — that a journalist would largely and deliberately fabricate a controversial interview designed to engineer outrage and Scruton’s resignation — was not. Scruton’s case was of interest because the resignation — as demonstrated by Eaton’s distasteful Instagram post after it was announced — was its own reward. It demonstrated that in the eyes of the new, opinion-based media, you can claim a scalp for nothing more than their possession of illegal conservative views. Since then, we have seen journalists perform ‘personal cancellations’ — a grimly Stasi term if there ever was one — with the hungry enthusiasm of a puppy in a butcher’s shop. The practice has even spread to their own halls.
That the practice has spread to almost encompass it’s own journalistic beat is little wonder. The shift in media practice noted by the RAND report occurs around the same time as the mass adoption of the internet — the media were no longer the arbiters of information, as we suddenly lived in an ecosystem of hyper informational access. Journalism’s mission purpose of delivering news and facts to people was outmoded within a few short years. With that shift, like Oedipus, they had lost the power they once had. As with most institutions that outlive their initial purpose, once they are no longer necessary to the key function of people’s lives, their purpose must change in order to justify the continuation of existence.
Handily, journalism had another mission purpose to adapt to the hyper information ecosystem — that of holding power in account, which has become their raison d’être. This has been further fuelled by the rise and gall of cancel culture, a practice that is distinct, but so closely related it is easy to see how the two have hybridised. The progress of journalists from gatekeepers of truth to a clerical class of the kind that Joel Kotkin identifies is easy to detect. But clerisy must have their religion. If journalists are holding people to account for transgressions, by what standards are these actions judged? The standard is, inevitably, decided by the cultural groupthink of their mileu — that is, 21st century progressivism. I detest the term woke, its insuperable omnipresence, its jejune application and its overuse by casuists, but it is a shamefully useful catch-all term.
The tilt towards opinion-based journalism has led, inexorably, to the promulgation of personal and cultural values — that is true on both left and right. But the overwhelming weight of opinion in journalism is balanced on the left. Local reporting outlets were the first against the wall when the internet became a staple of people’s lives. Since then, these local journalists have been replaced by a new generation of journalists — urbanite, well-educated elites, or what Thomas Piketty has identified as ‘the Brahmin left’. A recent NCTJ report into journalism in the UK reveals much of this demographic shift. Journalism is concentrated, predictably, predominantly, in London. The outposts scattered across the rest of the nation stick to the familiar territory of major urban centres. As well as geographical limitations, there are significant socio-economic limitations too. The private-schooled tend to dominate, graduate degrees have become a necessity for entry and, as a result of the need for financial assistance when studying, ‘relatively few new entrants have parents or carers from lower occupational groups.’ The trend is similar in the US, and the results stark — in 2018, barely 7 percent of U.S. reporters identified as Republicans, and some 97 percent of all political donations from journalists went to Democrats.
The shift in the cultural makeup of journalists made it inevitable that journalism would be combined with the moral certainty that accompanies progressivism and the aggressive tactics that accompany ‘Wokeism’. All these elements have been on display in their treatment of Peterson. Part of the reason that the Channel 4 interview is so seat-squirmingly unwatchable is that Newman is clearly out of road. She is finding that the well-honed offensive weapon of choice, a blunt misrepresentation of views, is dulled. Watch videos of Peterson’s interviews with Vice, or note his recent interview in the Sunday Times. They are as subtle as a brick through a window. You are not invited to learn or to discover, to unveil some new truth. You are invited to ridicule, to deride and to sneer. They have decided that Peterson’s arguments are self-evidently wrong, and proceeded accordingly. Peterson’s perceived guilt is not only that he questions the hyper-liberal orthodoxy, but presents a reactionary alternative. A conservative remedy to progressive problems was never likely to engender him any friends. In an age of clerics, he has committed heresy.