Your uncle thinks that most news is pretend. He’s mostly right. This is one of the most consequential political crises of our generation. Consider the following case in point:
In March of 2016, Steven Klett was hired for an entry-level position at a then-obscure alternative newspaper, The Epoch Times. He would find the experience was surreal.
In a profile for Atavist Magazine, Oscar Schwartz chronicled Epoch’s meteoric rise from an obscure alternative newspaper aimed at Chinese immigrants to a major player in influencing global politics. Only 20 years after launching, the newspaper “publishes editions in 36 countries and 22 languages,” with roughly “250,000 weekly print readers,” in the U.S. and “34 million monthly page views online.” Much of that success is attributable to the Epoch team’s prodigious marketing efforts.
Despite – or because of – their recent surge in popularity, the Epoch Times has become the object of intense scrutiny. Klett was told during his interview that The Epoch Times was “only interested in hiring reporters who would be able to cover the news in a fair and impartial way.” Once hired, however, he described his job in very different terms than those given by the recruiter: As a writer for the online edition of Epoch, Klett was directed to “sow discord in the name of activism.”
Most of those stories center on the relationship between the newspaper and “Falun Gong,” a persecuted religious sect from mainland China. Schwartz recounts that “The Epoch Times is a key player in the ongoing information war between China and Falun Gong,” and that “the newspaper is the cornerstone of a media empire that the spiritual movement has built over the past 25 years,” which also includes New Tang Dynasty Television, Taste of Life magazine and the Shen Yun dance company among others.
While each of the above “Epoch Times Exposed!” profiles drip with a certain xenophobic tenor – There’s an exotic(!) foreign(!!) religious group(!!!) coming to our country(!!!!) and influencing our political system(!!!!!) – not entirely unlike the onslaught of anti-Catholicism that haunted American culture throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the stories they unearth are nonetheless baffling.
It turns out that, using the vast array of media outlets at its disposal, Falun Gong has thrown itself into propping up right-wing political leaders both here and abroad. On Facebook, for example, Epoch “laid out $1.5 million for some 11,000 pro-Trump ads.” Similarly, Klett and other former employees allege that they were prevented from writing any stories that could potentially be unflattering to Donald Trump, then a candidate in the 2016 election. On other occasions, articles covering the Trump campaign were altered during the editing process to include fawning evaluations of the future president – “Trump seeks to revive American greatness with policies aimed at kick-starting economic growth” was one interpolation that particularly irked Klett. All of this is fair game, but none of it jives with Epoch’s stated intention to “cover the news in a fair and impartial way.”
By mid-way into the Trump presidency, the Epoch Times was functioning essentially as an arm of the Trump administration, carrying out a fairly predictable daily cycle: President Trump would deliver an incoherent rant on Twitter, or from the White House lawn, and within hours The Epoch Times had churned out a slick, professional-looking article reverse-engineering a reasonable-sounding explanation for why, yes, actually, the Dominion Machines may have been rigged by Hugo Chavez. Or, yes, actually, Antifa was secretly masterminding the Capitol Riot. Or, yes, actually, George Soros is secretly paying unemployed vagrants to Molotov cocktail downtown businesses to keep the George Floyd Riots running indefinitely. The list goes on.
The same is true abroad. Seth Hettena from the New Republic notes that in France:
“The [Epoch] Times gives an unfettered platform to Jean-Marie Le Pen, the patriarch of the French far right, and his daughter, Marine, who leads the nationalist party her father founded.”
A similar operation is at work on behalf of Germany’s “Alternative for Germany” (AfD) party:
“A 2017 study by the Institute of Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a London-based think tank that counters extremism, found the Times primarily runs “anti-West, anti-American and pro-Kremlin content,” a high proportion of which was based on unverified information. The site “disseminates antidemocratic false news and conspiracy theories, incites hatred against migrants and indirectly advertises for the AfD.”
It’s anyone’s guess precisely why the flagship newspaper of the Falun Gong media empire has chosen to align itself specifically with far-right political demagogues. Staffers at Klett’s branch claimed that they “didn’t necessarily believe everything they circulated in the office,” but wanted to provide “an alternative to the lies propagated by mainstream outlets” and highlight “ideas that the corrupt media elite would not,” but that hardly accounts for the consistency of Epoch’s bent towards the right.
A much more likely explanation may be that, as victims of the Chinese Communist Party, the Falun Gong sees partnerships with anti-communist forces as its only viable pathway to survival. Perhaps as the Chinese Communist Party continues in aggressive expansionist campaigns, they have chosen to use their shockingly vast resources to prop up vocal anti-communist leaders whom they anticipate will be tough on China. At this particular moment, that means it inclines them toward the right.
Whatever the motivation, the result is that, once again, The Epoch Times isn’t even within hailing distance of “cover the news in a fair and impartial way.” The Epoch Times is a blatantly partisan publication, and it’s frankly dumbfounding that anyone would suggest otherwise.
“Gravitate away from sources that feign objectivity and instead develop a diet that includes multiple overtly partisan sources that are honest about their slant.”
None of this is controversial. It’s unlikely that anyone would dispute that Epoch is a propaganda outlet except, perhaps, for the leadership and readership of Epoch. At this point, it’s common knowledge. The Epoch Times is a partisan operation.
None of this should be surprising, though, because while the behind-the-scenes hijinks at the Epoch Times pretty much guarantee that a Fyre Festival style Netflix Documentary on the subject is inevitably waiting in the wings, the reality is that the Falun Gong mouthpiece isn’t fundamentally different from the prestige outlets who published the aforementioned hit pieces. As dysfunctional and scandalously politicized as the editorial process at Epoch is, it is – at worst – an extreme example of what many mainstream journalistic outlets were already doing. The Epoch Times is the New York Times, but with a rightward bent and cranked to eleven.
Take, for example, Charles Cooke’s recent piece at National Review. “It is no great overstatement to say that, in the 2020 presidential election, the media did not so much cover the Biden campaign as they were the Biden campaign,” writes Cooke. “During the last year, major outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, TheAtlantic, and NPR got into the habit of prominently featuring any news that could plausibly hurt President Trump while assiduously refusing to run stories that might have hurt Joe Biden.”
He continues, recounting a laundry list of examples:
“Thus it was that the story about Hunter Biden’s exploits in China was smothered without any good explanation other than that it might serve as a ‘distraction’ (well, yes) and that it could possibly be a plot, while a relatively inexplosive New York Times story about President Trump’s taxes was blasted out with abandon . . . In the Washington Post, Johns Hopkins’s Thomas Rid argued with a straight face that Americans ‘must treat the Hunter Biden leaks as if they were a foreign intelligence operation — even if they probably aren’t,’ even as critics of the Times’ story on Trump’s taxes were being treated to the cold assurance that the paper had ‘declined to provide the records’ to the campaign ‘in order to protect its sources.’”
At some points, the corporate media functioned almost as ad hoc press secretaries:
“As soon as it began to look as if Biden’s refusal to disavow Court-packing might hurt him with independents, reporters and pundits alike began to use DSCC-approved euphemisms such as ‘fix,’ ‘expand,’ and ‘depoliticize,’ and to suggest that the real villains were actually the Republicans.”
That’s just the tip of the iceberg:
“From the moment he won the nomination, talking heads on every channel except Fox made sure to pretend that they believed that Biden was a moderate and that his age was of no concern whatsoever. This lasted until the exact moment Biden clinched his general-election victory, at which point the same people began to talk openly about his ‘bold’ progressive agenda and the likelihood that he would soon die.”
Amidst all of this, the precise standards for what did and did not constitute publishable news seemed ever-shifting:
“Quite what the standards are was never made clear. Were anonymous sources acceptable (as in Bad Trump News), or were they a problem (as in Bad Biden News)? Was stolen information fine (as in Bad Trump News), or was it dastardly (as in Bad Biden News)? Was provocation the role of an opinion page (as in Bad Trump News), or was it a threat to the safety of staff (as in Bad Biden News)? One could certainly have been forgiven for thinking that the answer was that the standards are whatever they need to be.”
Even before the 2020 campaign began, a similar misbalance in coverage was visible. Several hundred newspapers locked arms “in a coordinated pushback against President Donald Trump,” recounts Lee Smith at Tablet Magazine. “It started when The Boston Globe sent a letter to papers across the country encouraging them to join in publishing editorials ‘on August 16 on the dangers of the administration’s assault on the press.’”
It’s difficult to deny that former President Trump agitated against the free press more than any other president in recent years, barring maybe Richard Nixon (who was considerably more successful at actually stifling them), but Smith notes the bizarre asymmetry of this particular outcry at this particular moment given that “the same journalists were unable or unwilling to raise their voices in unison when the Obama administration put their colleagues under surveillance, and used the Espionage Act to prosecute sources.” President Trump repeatedly threatened to go after journalists who embarrassed him. President Obama actually did it.
The phenomenon has not been limited to Trump. In an unusually candid think piece from 2018, Evan Siegfried of MSNBC picks up where Cooke left off, noting that “one can draw a straight line from the fawning Clinton coverage in the 1990s to the deeply suspicious manner with which George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were portrayed in the aughts to the media hyperventilation about Romney’s ‘binders full of women’ all the way to Trump’s post-fact world. Each and every instance where the media engages in bias helped to chip away at the trust they once held.”
“Regularly tune into sources from multiple viewpoints, especially those that lay outside the stereotypical right/left divide.”
Beyond Cooke and Siegfried’s articles, personal anecdotes abound. NPR ran a plethora of stories seemingly curated to provide legitimacy to the presidential candidate Joe Biden’s claim that closing the U.S. border to travelers due to the threat of COVID-19 was both “xenophobic” and “unnecessary,” with one reporter asking leading questions to various specialists. One such interview question: “Donald Trump wants to close the border to travelers because of Coronavirus, but experts at the World Health Organization – and candidate Joe Biden – are saying that that might actually make things worse, right?” This was February 2020.
The painfully counterintuitive notion that closing the borders would make Covid worse spread from one mainstream outlet to another until it became almost ubiquitous.
Then, about 6 months later, a New York Times investigation determined that the aforementioned narrative was “never based on science, but instead on politics and economics.” Still, the article manages to make former president Trump the villain of the story: Although “President Trump has called his travel restrictions ‘the biggest decision we made so far’ and attacked the W.H.O.’s early advice on borders as ‘disastrous,’ nevertheless ‘it is too soon to know, based on data and hard science, how much travel restrictions help, and if they do, which restrictions help most,’” and that “The restrictions have humbled powerful nations like the United States, whose citizens are no longer welcome across most of the world.”
Thus, Cooke’s conclusion should be uncontroversial. “Structurally, we have returned to the era of a partisan press,” he says. “This time, however, only one side will admit it.”
All of this is to say that what is wrong with The Epoch Times is what is wrong with journalism more broadly: It isn’t journalism. It’s partisan tennis.
In this sense, our situation is not unlike the one sketched out by William Jennings Bryan, the renowned evangelist and Congressman from Nebraska who transformed the Democratic Party into a bastion of progressivism. “The journalist is both a news gatherer and a molder of thought,” Bryan declared in a 1909 address delivered at the Northwestern Law School Banquet in Chicago. “Public opinion is the controlling force in a republic, and the newspaper gives to the journalist, beyond everyone else, the opportunity to affect public opinion.”
With this in mind, Bryan points to a particularly problematic reality:
“Year by year the disclosures are bringing to light the fact that the predatory interests are using the newspapers and even some magazines for the defense of commercial iniquity and for the purpose of attacking those who lift their voices against favoritism and privilege. A financial magnate interested in the exploitation of the public secures control of a paper; he employs business managers, managing editors, and a reportorial staff. He does not act openly or in the daylight but through a group of employees who are the visible but not the real directors. The reporters are instructed to bring in the kind of news which will advance the enterprises owned by the man who stands back of the paper, and if the news brought in is not entirely satisfactory it is doctored in the office.”
In other words, Journalists are rarely impartial servants of the truth, and media outlets are not neutral forces dutifully chronicling the major events of the day. Instead, Bryan says:
“Whenever any movement is on foot for the securing of legislation desired by the predatory interests, or when restraining legislation is threatened, news bureaus are established at Washington, and these news bureaus furnish to such papers, as will use them, free reports, daily or weekly as the case may be, from the national capitol—reports which purport to give general news, but which in fact contain arguments in support of the schemes which the bureaus are organized to advance. This ingenious method of misleading the public is only a part of the general plan which favor-holding and favor-seeking corporations pursue.”
As is often the case, Bryan’s language is melodramatic, but the phenomenon he describes is real: the most famous example being notorious tycoon William Randolph Hearst purchasing a slew of newspapers – The New York Journal in New York,The Examiner in San Francisco, followed by The Herald-Examiner, which went through several further iterations before being “absorbed by the Chicago Tribune” in the present day.
The now-iconic story of how Hearst – described by those who knew him as aggressively irreligious – launched evangelist Billy Graham into national stardom by instructing the army of editors on his payroll to turn him into a household name provides a glimpse into how media often works: Albeit in varying degrees from one outlet to another, the ones bankrolling the operation influence the narratives that they weave. A relatively small pool of influential figures govern the bulk of what passes for journalism today, nearly all of whom seem determined to wield the journalistic outlets in their grasp to accomplish particular partisan goals. Every article or news segment, no matter how mundane, becomes a backdoor stump speech for one’s own team. That principle applies equally to The Epoch Times, which is bankrolled largely by the Falun Gong purse and sometimes delivered to news stands by bicycle-riding Falun Gong devotees, as it does to more mainstream outlets like NPR or CNN.
Thus the celebrated British journalist G.K. Chesterton pointed out as much during his infamous visit to America in 1921. He writes:
“The evil of journalism is not in the journalists. It is not in the poor men on the lower level of the profession, but in the rich men at the top of the profession; or rather in the rich men who are too much on top of the profession even to belong to it. The trouble with newspapers is the Newspaper Trust, as the trouble might be with a Wheat Trust, without involving a vilification of all the people who grow wheat. It is the American plutocracy and not the American press.”
What neither Chesterton nor Bryan could possibly have predicted, however, is the way that journalism has further been taken captive by an additional level of plutocracy – which, for those of us who don’t regularly throw around words that end with “-ocracy,” refers to rich folks who pour obscene amounts of money into exerting control over institutions they haven’t actually been elected to govern.
Chesterton laments the “Newspaper Trust,” and Bryan warns of “predatory interests” who assign reporters to “bring in the kind of news which will advance the enterprises owned by the man who stands back of the newspaper” – the Rupert Murdochs of the world or the oil companies who literally monied PragerU and other comparable enterprises into existence for the sole purpose of churning out glossy web content meant to turn your mostly apolitical aunt into a bona fide right-winger. Still, neither foresaw the way that ultra-modern tech platforms have placed even the Murdochs and the Pragers at the mercy of a handful of Silicon Valley giants like Facebook, Google and Amazon.
“There’s no one big solution. There are a thousand small solutions, each of which can move the dial modestly in a healthier direction.”
Continuing his account of contemporary journalism’s gradual self-destruction, Smith writes that “With the rise of the internet, the hope was that digital advertising would eventually make up for the calamitous decline in print advertising. The result was that media companies, spearheaded by the industry-leading Times, devalued their product—information.”
Prestige media outlets bet on ad revenue rather than subscription fees. They bet wrong. The results have been disastrous, as established media sources transformed – almost overnight – into de facto content providers for social media sites. Smith continues:
“Newcomers like Facebook and Google had a huge advantage over the prestige press. Not only did they not have to pay their content providers, they were also exempt from press liabilities and responsibilities . . . [Thus] digital giants like Google, Facebook and Twitter gutted their business, and turned them into providers of free content for social media platforms owned by tech oligarchs.”
This is obviously bad news for longstanding outlets like the New York Times and good news for more adaptable outlets like The Epoch Times, but it should be an issue of concern to everyone, regardless of your political bent. Because as innovative tech platforms have swallowed up the old media, journalism in general has changed.
Returning to Klett, he recounts his time at Epoch’s New York office:
“Clicks would be the metric by which his performance was assessed. He would be paid $2,500 per month, with the expectation that he’d get 100,000 hits per week. Anything over that would earn him a bonus . . . Their work was like that of any number of millennials paid to generate content to feed the insatiable appetite of social media. Each team member sat in a small cubicle and churned out content, trying to reach 100,000 clicks per week.”
When social media is the primary avenue by which your publication can make money, and your ad revenue is based on click traffic, two things inevitably result.
For one, every story has to be a bombshell. Journalism becomes a race to wring the next Watergate out of every conceivable event. In the print age, we had occasional media “feeding frenzies” (The McCarthy trials! The assassination of JFK!). With the advent of the 24 hour news cycle, feeding frenzies became more frequent, and more prolonged (Monica Lewinsky! The contested 2000 election! Saddam Hussein’s WMDs! Barack Obama’s birth certificate!). Here in the internet age, though, when most people get most of their news by scrolling through social media, there’s a new feeding frenzy nearly every day.
Part of that traces back to Trump, the first candidate ever to run successfully for “President of Twitter,” but most of it is simply baked into the structure of social media as a de facto news outlet for something like 8 in 10 Americans.
More than that, though, social media’s stranglehold on journalism results in what Smith refers to as “the very real specter of information monopolies controlled by a combination of tech executives and unelected bureaucrats, who can shape public opinion and censor unwelcome thought through all-embracing algorithms.”
That is to say that the social media giants – like Google, Facebook and Twitter – have become functionally indispensable for most Americans, and have become unofficial information gatekeepers. To quote Joanna Stern from the Wall Street Journal, “Social media algorithms rule how we see the world. Good luck trying to stop them.” Of course, social media giants can’t stop anyone from going out and buying a print edition of an article they’ve removed from their search engine, but the very act of removing it from their search engine automatically prevents most folks from ever seeing it.
That means that high profile conservatives complaining about “Big Tech Censorship” have a reasonable point to make, albeit one significantly less dramatic. Because what is at stake is not that Mark Zuckerberg is on some sort of death march to silence all opposing viewpoints, but that the sheer fact that all journalistic outlets are now at the mercy of some Big Tech content moderator’s discretion means, in Smith’s words, that “Those who were once journalists are poised to vie for the favor of the social media giants, political operatives, and intelligence and defense bureaucrats whose decisions will shape our polity.”
In other words, as journalistic outlets continue to optimize themselves to win in the social-media driven attention economy, the stories that they produce are increasingly tailor-made not only to draw clicks from agitated Facebook users but also to conform to the narrow, atomized, and aggressive partisan narratives that social media algorithms reward. Left outlets are moving further left, and are getting angrier. Right outlets are moving further right, and are becoming more unashamedly conspiratorial. It’s a cycle, and it will end in tears – between the torched police station in Minneapolis last summer and the 140 officers injured during the January 6th Capitol Riot, the hyper-partisan agitations of the American Plutocracy have literally amassed a body count.
The journalism crisis is an urgent political problem without an obvious political solution. Given that the dysfunctions chronicled above are rooted in the vicious partisan slugfests of the American (and international) plutocracy, one solution might simply be to deprive plutocrats of their capacity to dominate journalistic discourse. Conceivably, laws could be passed limiting the number of journalism-adjacent institutions that any given corporate donor can own or financially support, but a solution of this sort may run into Citizens United-style free speech roadblocks. Alternatively, perhaps a resurrection of the “Fairness Doctrine” may limit the degree to which elite partisans can hijack the information economy even if they own most major outlets.
More than anything, though, curbing the influence of partisan plutocrats will require us to alter our consumption habits on a grand scale. Consume less national news. Subscribe to the scrappy local paper that caters to your county. Gravitate away from sources that feign objectivity and instead develop a diet that includes multiple overtly partisan sources that are honest about their slant. Regularly tune into sources from multiple viewpoints, especially those that lay outside the stereotypical right/left divide. There’s no one big solution. There are a thousand small solutions, each of which can move the dial modestly in a healthier direction.
In the middle of his address at the banquet in Chicago, Bryan paused for a moment and reflected on his one-time profession as an editor at the Omaha World-Herald. “The journalist occupies the position of a watchman upon a tower,” he said. “He is often able to see dangers which are not observed by the general public, and because he can see these dangers he is in a position of greater responsibility.”
Bryan’s words are still true, even as present circumstances seem to render that vocation nearly impossible to fulfill.
Ryan Ellington is a pastor in rural North Carolina. He is the cofounder of Grindhouse Theology and The American Commons. He has a B.A. in Religion from Oklahoma Baptist University and a M.A. in Ethics, Theology, and Culture from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is distantly related to Johnny Cash, but not in a cool way.