The Hacklash

“The Ebola coverage is just the latest example of a familiar process,” Mark Hemingway writes in the Weekly Standard today:

It’s a common enough phenomenon that I suggested it needs a name, and a couple of smart friends suggested I call it “hacklash.” I’ll take a stab at fleshing out the problem: Again and again we see the media and political establishment, which frequently collude, trying to preempt calls for honesty and accountability by enforcing some elite consensus that’s dismissive of the need to address institutional failures. There’s a dismissal of legitimate concerns, right up until the facts finally overwhelm the preferred narrative and prompt some degree of public outrage. When the public inevitably gets wise, it’s often before the media catch up, but usually too late to have avoided some secondary consequence or disaster.  Each failure leaves the public more distrustful then they were before, and this necessitates even more aggressive attempts to ratchet up the elite consensus. Lather, rinse, repeat. This is basically the story of the Obama presidency, where nearly all of the staggering failures and crises–Ebola, ISIS, Obamacare, Benghazi, et al.–have played out in a similar fashion.

Anyway, I’m much less worried about contracting Ebola than I am about the dismissive reaction to it. Hacklash appears to be a cyclical problem, and as an indicator of the health of our Republic, I don’t see how this ends well.


Hemingway’s article dovetails well with Jonah Goldberg’s piece today in NRO on “The Enduring Power of Story: The clash of conflicting narratives about America is what’s tearing us apart:”

For much of the summer, large numbers of Americans insisted that the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., was one kind of story. It was a tale of institutional racism in which the police are the villains and young African-American men the innocent victims. This was the storyline many in the media wanted, and it was one they were determined to get.

Now, as a grand jury goes about prying fact from fiction, the story is falling apart as a matter of legal reality. But you can be sure the story will live on for decades to come. That’s in no small part because many decent Americans have locked themselves into the belief that the heroic chapter of the civil-rights movement can never end. The story must go on so they can continue to cast themselves as the heroes.

Last week, John Kerry suggested that the rise of the Islamic State was fueled by the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. One could call this an idea, of course, but that would be too generous given its stupidity. But it is perfectly consistent with a certain story people have been telling about Israel for decades. Millions, if not billions, of people are invested in that tale of unique Israeli villainy, and they will not let go of it regardless of the facts.

Modern-day environmentalism is full of talk about data and “settled science.” But science is never settled, because science is the craft of unsettling what we know at any given moment. If science could settle, man would never learn to fly or read by electric light. Meanwhile, inconvenient data is left on the cutting-room floor as an ancient story is retold in modern terms.


At some point post-Watergate (to tie this in with the death of supreme narrative shaper Ben Bradlee on Tuesday), old media decided that it wasn’t actually in the journalism business — just the facts, ma’am, as Jack Webb’s Joe Friday never actually said in any episode of Dragnet, but in the process of being Democrat operatives with bylines, who were going to use their medium to reform the great unwashed out there in the hinterlands.

At some point, the media might wake up and notice what ties together their readers’ backlash against:

  • Gamergate
  • The Washington Redskins’ venerable name
  • Environmental doomsday-ism
  • The endless cries of racism and sexism
  • Repeated attacks on the First and Second Amendment

All of these stories have received enormous amounts of pushback from consumers tired of having a huge heaping helping of leftwing social justice warfare along with their news. But as we’ve seen with the financial collapses over the years of Newsweek, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, the twin ratings disasters of CNN and MSNBC, and the self-destruction of Dan Rather and other kamikaze “journalists,” the media would rather go out swinging for their party than actually reporting the news.


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