More On: Chris Cuomo
We appear to be approaching a new era of yellow journalism, in which ad hominem assaults and conspiracy theories take precedence above accuracy and truth.
As a young journalist, I was confident that if the people had more knowledge, the country would enter a golden age of better governance and more informed political debates. This was before the internet, cable news, and talk radio came into bloom—when newspaper and TV gatekeepers controlled what we'd read and hear.
Everything I'd wished for has materialized beyond my wildest dreams. Anyone in the United States may now read a diverse spectrum of viewpoints. In the past, it was nearly impossible to access underlying source documents. Anyone with a phone now has access to a wealth of laws, judicial decisions, research, and rulemakings. Hearings can be seen on YouTube.
We are entering a dark era of sensationalism and deception, rather than a golden age of reasoned public policy. Laugh at my naïveté, but I've finally learned that Americans prefer ad hominem attacks and conspiracy-mongering to reading municipal budgets and weighing arguments in amicus briefs. So much for the democratization of news.
Such trends have been obvious for years, but the situation may have reached its apogee in the past week. For instance, Fox News' Tucker Carlson, who hosts the nation's most-popular cable news show, praised right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones by calling him "one of the most popular journalists on the right."
"Yes, journalist," Carlson added. "Jones is often mocked for his flamboyance, but the truth is, he has been a far better guide to reality in recent years—in other words a far better journalist—than, say, NBC News national security correspondent Ken Dilanian or Margaret Brennan of CBS." Criticizing Jones for his flamboyance, by the way, is like chiding Hannibal Lecter for his unique culinary tastes.
Maybe Carlson was just trolling the media, but he has millions of devoted viewers—many of whom take his pronouncements seriously. Last month, a Connecticut court dismissed Jones' outstanding defamation lawsuits for his, eh, colorful representation of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting, which claimed the lives of 20 first-graders and six instructors.
"Jones for years spread bogus theories that the shooting…was part of government-led plot to confiscate Americans' firearms and that the victims' families were 'actors' in on the scheme," The New York Times reported. Some of Jones' followers "accosted the families on the streets." Ultimately, he admitted the shooting actually happened, but the damage was done.
Jones has also postulated a variety of theories on his show, including the idea that the federal government is putting chemicals in the water that turn frogs gay (evidence of the Pentagon's "gay bomb," as CNBC reported). His own attorney once described him as a "performance artist"—but I had always figured that free citizens with access to information could distinguish truth from a charade.
"There was a time…when Alex Jones would have been far too toxic and deranged a figure for any influential member of the right to embrace," wrote Peter Wehner in The Atlantic. Yet Carlson's praise of Jones "is the kind of tactic that propagandists…have employed so well: making claims that are so brazen, so outrageous, so untrue that they are disorienting, aimed at destroying critical thinking."
The week's other big media scandal involved TV anchor Chris Cuomo, who finally was dumped by CNN after, as The New York Times reported, "testimony and text messages released by the New York attorney general revealed a more intimate and engaged role in his brother's political affairs than the network said it had previously known."
During the COVID controversy, I had always found it tawdry seeing the TV "journalist" perform puff interviews with his older brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. However, the younger Cuomo broke a key journalistic rule by aggressively advising and criticizing Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo during the disgraced governor's sexual-harassment scandal.
CNN did the right thing, but the Cuomo issue distorts reality in a way that Carlson's promotion of a conspiracy theorist does not. Because of deep-seated bias—a "journalist" who was in the tank for the person he covered—the public never heard the truth in this case. Then again, Chris Cuomo's behind-the-scenes efforts arguably are less egregious than the shilling he did for his brother on the air.
Perhaps we're just seeing a return to the days of "yellow journalism." The term springs from a popular color cartoon (the Yellow Kid) published in The New York World in the late 1890s, but came to refer to a sensationalistic, profit-driven news approach. According to the federal Office of the Historian, such coverage had dire consequences by stoking pro-war sentiments after the sinking of the Maine.
You don't need me to describe the ill effects of a world where viewers can't distinguish Walter Cronkite from Alex Jones, but here we are. I admit that I didn't see it coming.