The Good Fight
Mike Pesca on How the Media Got Polarized

Mike Pesca on How the Media Got Polarized

Yascha Mounk and Mike Pesca discuss what real balance ought to look like in reporting hotly contested issues.

Mike Pesca is a journalist and the host of "The Gist", the longest running daily news podcast in history. He spent a decade as a correspondent for NPR, guest hosting “All Things Considered” and “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.”

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Mike Pesca discuss why many news organizations have discarded objectivity in favor of “moral clarity” in recent years; the recent internal upheaval at NPR and the limits to giving every side equal coverage; and whether journalists, academics and other experts ought to consider themselves “defenders of democracy.”

The transcript and conversation have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: You were at National Public Radio for a long time, a really important institution in the United States; When you're publishing a book, for example, getting on the right NPR show is the thing that your publicist will worry about probably the most, even more than getting an excerpt in The New York Times

How has American journalism changed in the last 15 years? And how has NPR specifically changed? 

Mike Pesca: I think there was a conscious choice to change. NPR was always a liberal place—liberal in the best sense—but also that was its lean. I would seriously doubt that if you surveyed the people who worked at NPR and said, who'd you vote for since the time of their founding during the Watergate trials to the time I left, you'd get more than any Republican presidential candidate getting maybe 10%, maybe 15% of the vote. 

My longtime colleague and head of the New York bureau was a woman named Margot Adler. And Margot was a big Wiccan and, not to stereotype, she also had the politics that you would expect a Wiccan to have; she was into protesting and activism and she found it all delightful. But she reported and she played it straight in her reports. Part of that was she had editors who, if she would ever go over the line, would pull her back. And part of that was that she knew and appreciated that she was operating in this system. And I think she also appreciated the fact that the editors were there to buttress her credibility. She also was a great storyteller and someone who was really curious about all aspects of the human condition. I don't know who the equivalent or what the equivalent of Margot Adler would be today, but I do think that she, or that kind of person, would not have that kind of editorial oversight. And the message wouldn't be that you have to put on a radio broadcast that could very much appeal to people who disagree with you. That whole idea is out. And part of that is the people when I was there, in 2007, 2012, people who disagreed with you were, or who might be listening to NPR, were something like a Mitt Romney Republican or a professor at the university who was a professor of business and had Republican leanings but was a smart, curious person. Now, I think the conception is, and it's changed a bit, that the person who disagrees with you, if you are presenting progressive-coded content, is a crazy insurrectionist who owns a number of assault rifles, and you don't care at all about their opinion. And if that is the person that you're “trying to appeal to,” I understand jettisoning the idea or the ideal of, oh, let's say some things that a conspiracy theorist would like. 

This is one of the reasons why, say, local news has been hurt so much, and that the splintering of news and the siloing of news and the ideological silos hurt us, is that it used to be the case that if you were the Sacramento Bee and you put out your paper, even if you had a mostly liberal editorial slant, it was going to be read by everyone in the community. And if you said crazy things that offended the business owners, like if you had many articles valorizing the idea of defunding the police, you were going to upset your very reasonable members of the community. Now, I think that members of the community, the people who do the radio and do media, are mostly younger. They've ingested ideas of activism that I think go against traditional media. And I know you've talked about this. The older editors who were raised in a system where there was such an idea as—we don't have to call it objectivity—but there was a fairness and there was an ideal of, even the person who disagrees with you, are they going to recognize the truth in that? They've been cowed. Part of this was the tumult of Trump, a greater accelerant was the 2020 George Floyd protests, but it came to a situation where NPR really stopped caring about being believable to anyone outside (and this is not always true, but it is true in many cases). They stopped caring about being credible and believable to people who weren't very much ideologically captured by what we could say is a progressive ideology. 

But one more point, you can say the Democratic Party, there's another thesis about this: I used to always say Slate was always somewhere where the Democratic Party was, and as the Democratic Party got more left, let's say Slate got more left. The thing is there are elections and elections actually in some way insert the truth about where the public really is. So in 2020, the theory of the Democratic Party was everyone was positioning themselves to the left of everyone else. And there was one guy who didn't do it. It was Joe Biden. He got the nomination. He won the election. 

Mounk: My line about Joe Biden for a long time has been that he became the nominee of the Democratic Party and then president because he was too old to get with the program. The smart money of the Democratic Party was, you have to compete for votes on Twitter and outbid all the other competitors with how far left you are, and Joe Biden just didn't get the memo. So he was the last man standing in the more moderate center-left space. And boom, he became the nominee despite being scoffed at by the establishment of the party actually, and certainly the media establishment.

Pesca: In zoology, there's this idea of the Irish elk, that as it evolved its antlers grew so big that it could no longer lift its head and it died out. It's probably a folktale, but, as an analog, sometimes you can” evolve” so much that you write the tale of your destruction.

Mounk: Well, here's another analogy. There's a kind of slightly apocryphal story about the effect of the 2008 financial crisis on various types of banks: If you're Goldman, you're plugged in enough and smart enough to get rid of all of those subprime mortgages before the music stops, so you get through the crisis sort of okay, right? If you're a German bank, you're sort of plugged into the international financial system enough that you can fly over to New York and your colleagues from Goldman are going to give you a great time and, you know, take you out for a lovely dinner and possibly to a strip club. And then they'll sell you a bunch of goods that they say are amazing, but they're actually really not. And so some of those banks really ended up in trouble because they got stuck holding the bag.

Then there were the Italian banks, and they were so out of the loop, they didn't even know they could go to New York and have a good time and be sold the bad goods. And so they actually came out ahead in some ways. Perhaps Joe Biden is like an Italian bank.

Pesca: That's a good analogy. But unfortunately, both of our analogies, zoological and monetary, are perhaps a little apocryphal. But they do underline the point that all media has suffered to some extent. NPR lost 30% of its listenership. But If you compare radio to radio, Sean Hannity, who had the most popular radio show before 2019, still has the most popular radio show, and it's still around 16 million listeners, right? Others have fallen off. Dave Ramsey has done a little bit better. My point is drive time radio listenership overall has fallen, but it hasn't fallen by 30%. 

If you want to replace every 60-year-old with a 30-year-old, that makes good business sense. You're doing yourself a favor. But they didn't do that. There's no evidence that their getting younger was anything other than lopping off like cream from the top—the older listeners or the listeners who have been with it a long time.

Mounk: And one of the striking things which of course goes to the popular misconception about what I call the identity synthesis—the ideology that has led us into this trap—is that NPR wanted to diversify its audience and its listenership. And that makes sense, given the changing demographics of the United States, but they haven't actually succeeded in doing so, right? So they've managed to attract an audience that is less diverse in ideological terms because it skews much more towards the far left. But they haven't meaningfully managed to diversify the audience in ethnic terms. It's still overwhelmingly white.

if you're looking at different media outlets that go in a much more progressive direction, there's a normative point of view and a business point of view, right? From a normative point of view, I worry about The New York Times basically becoming the mouthpiece of the five million subscribers to The New York Times who are among the more progressive people in the country. I  worry about the way in which The New York Times could cease to be the newspaper of record and become more like a more successful version of The Guardian. Because I think that we need some newspaper of record, a fair arbiter that has some amount of respect in different realms of the United States, including among moderates and including among the center-right. And I worry that The New York Times is giving up on that very important historical role. 

But in a purely business sense, what The New York Times has done seems to be working very well. It has a lot of subscribers. It has managed to build a bigger newsroom, cover more things, add cooking and games and other kinds of things, which is part of its appeal. But it's thriving as a business. So you've got to give it to them in that sense. NPR is not thriving, right? It is losing audience. Why is that? 

Pesca: Well, first of all, on the monetary front or on the question of why has The New York Times, perhaps alone (The Wall Street Journal has also been a successful news organization), has had success, there's the idea of network effects and as other news organizations fail, one will rise and they're able to hire all the best people from the other news organizations who are out there because they're done. We also can't overlook the fact that everything we're talking about, audience capture and all these concepts, it might redound to just Wordle and some cooking apps. Those have been extremely successful for The New York Times, and the subscription model has supplanted the advertising model. 

The amount of breadth that a huge newspaper and the amount of articles that the Sunday New York Times can do, the length of the articles—I have friends who are a married couple and one was a radio reporter and one was a print reporter and they would both cover the same thing. The print reporter would file a 2,000 word piece, or maybe a 1,500 word piece, and be in bed by midnight. The radio reporter would work. for two days on that and it would come out to the equivalent of 500 words. It’s just less information, although the texture and maybe the human feel is different from a radio piece. But I think the biggest thing is that The New York Times specifically, after going through a lot of tumult at the same time that NPR and other news organizations did, The New York Times made a lot of mistakes and they fired James Bennet, but then they pulled back. And I think it was a business consideration. But you know, A.G. Sulzberger, the publisher, last year, wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review an article called “Journalism's Essential Value.” And he essentially embraced objectivity. He talked about the problems with objectivity, the history of objectivity, the word objectivity. He rebranded it, but they've essentially said, in order to work with the trust of the audience that we've always had, we have to get back to an idea very close to, perhaps in different clothing, but very close to objectivity. We have to do this for our audience, we have to do this for believability. They've changed the comportment and composure of the op-ed page to reflect that. So there was a reckoning, or you could call it a counter-reckoning, within The New York Times

The opposite, I think, has taken place at NPR. I don't have extreme visibility, but they have mostly talked about diversity being their North Star. If you said the word or phrase North Star in NPR, everyone would know, ah, that's our diversity initiative. And they've been successful at that—good for them, I say. As far as objectivity, they just reject the premise, from what I could tell. They've done many, many segments over the years questioning the idea of objectivity. It's kind of a straw man at its worst to say, well, no human being can be objective, therefore we have to get rid of the idea that we're going to do our journalism with the idea of impartiality or fairness or all these other fought-over phrases in mind.

Mounk: There was always an idea of trying to describe the world in academia and journalism “as it is.” The slogan of The New York Times, “All the news that's fit to print,” has a kind of whiff of that, I think. Now, this standard of objectivity was held very high in American newsrooms in particular. But it came under attack in two kinds of ways. The first is that the imperative to objectivity could lead to a slightly silly kind of two-sides reporting that didn't really help the reader understand debates. So if we had a conversation about climate change, you would just find two people on two sides of the issue, somebody who says climate change is real and somebody who says climate change is not real. It doesn't matter whether the position that says climate change is not real is scientifically serious or not. The way you approach it is simply to have one voice in one direction and one voice in the other direction. There's obviously something formulaic about this. It often, I think, makes for not very good journalism. So that was one line of attack. And then the second line of attack came particularly after the election of Donald Trump, where objectivity was contrasted with a call for moral clarity. And the idea here was that journalists should fight for the right moral causes and let that moral clarity inflect everything they're doing. 

Now, of course, the concerns with that are twofold. First, what does moral clarity actually mean? We want to be factual, and being factual doesn't always mean having equal representation of two sides. It means actually helping readers understand the lay of the land. Moral clarity means I have my values and I'm going to impose them on the reader. And a lot of the time, the reader's values will be different from that of a journalist. So that starts to feel very lecturing and clawing. The second problem is that I think it often makes people mistrust what journalists do. I think a lot of journalists have gotten into the habit of framing every piece about Donald Trump, for example, or about an upcoming election or about some other issue of genuine political concern, with the thought of, “How do I get the reader to take the right conclusion from that?” And I think that's often self-undermining. In 2016 and 2017, I was very worried about the rise of populism and the election of Donald Trump, and I continue to be very worried about those things. And I certainly wanted newspapers to pay attention to that topic. 

I didn't think then, I certainly don't think now, that news reporters thinking to themselves every time they cover a Trump press conference, “how can I make sure that the way I cover this event is going to make people not vote for Donald Trump so we save our democracy,” is in purely instrumental terms (leave alone the normative element of it for a moment) not a good way of ensuring that people don't vote for Donald Trump. Because what people actually do is to recognize, hey, you're not talking about certain things because you worry it's going to lead me to the wrong conclusion. You're framing things in a very heavy-handed way in such a way that I come to the right conclusion. And actually all that leads up to is me concluding that you're trying to manipulate me.

I worry that many journalists, most famously in the case of the Washington Post adopting the slogan “Democracy dies in darkness,” are sort of coming to think of their own goal as saving democracy has actually undermined the cause for democracy. And it's not because I disagree with them about the urgency of protecting democracy or the nobility of trying to save democracy; I just think that we have a division of labor in society, and the job of reporters—the best way they can serve democracy—is to tell it straight, is to actually analyze what's going on, is to help readers to understand what's going on, not to frame exactly how they should perceive things. 

Pesca: The caricature of objectivity, I think, does a lot of work in battling and arguing against the benefits of objectivity. The word objectivity is fraught. Many listeners of this conversation will say, come on, there is no objectivity—So call it fairness, call it non-predetermined conclusions. There are many synonyms that would convey the idea that the journalist's job is not to have one conclusion that they've decided beforehand and that they can't get knocked off their conclusion. You have to be curious and be able to give up your premises as you do your reporting. There is a problem, I think, in that there is a disconnect between the public and the press. And I don't think the public is totally right on this. When Pew asked journalists, 55 to 44% they said that every side does not always deserve equal coverage. And that would be my answer, because I would think of exactly the climate change example that you're talking about. But 76% of US adults say journalists should always strive to give every side equal coverage, because I think people are not thinking of every exception to the rule of equal coverage. They want a story that says, hey, Joe Biden did this. Here are the political reasons. Here are the beneficiaries. But also here's the argument that it might not pass muster. That's the kind of article they want. 

The war—many partisans will want to know why the aid convoy was hit in Israel, what mistakes Israel made. Some newsreaders will not want both sides of that. They will not either want to hear that Israel made a mistake or they will not want to hear that Israel was acting legitimately at all. I think it's the duty of the real news reporter to do in that side both sides or all sides. And it's not both sides-ism. Both sides-ism has been, I think, politically weaponized to make it seem like If you articulate a view of someone who, for instance, thinks that there really was no great evidence that Donald Trump was marching to the Kremlin's orders when it comes to election interference, give that person airtime. It's not as if there's absolutely nothing to that point of view. I think especially in that case, a little bit with the Wuhan virus, there have been a lot of high profile stories where the idea of, well, we don't have to engage in both sidesism because we know the truth. And then you're exposed as, oh, we got the “truth” a little wrong. It seems like the public is more correct than journalists when they want more both sides or all sides or a better rounded-out story. 

Like I said, I would side with the majority of US journalists and say every side doesn't always deserve equal coverage. That's true. But in general, your default setting as a journalist should be to be humble, to know that the narrative or the agreed-upon frame isn't necessarily correct. You also have to do a lot of work to not air things that seem to have absolutely no basis to them. 

Pesca: You talked about the political ramifications of the media and Democrats disgusting the people who are maybe swing voters or don't share those particular cultural concerns and it creates the opening for Donald Trump and you talked about the Anton essay and your analysis was this gives a fertile ground for people who might be voting against Democrats. Would you say that in an irony, the luxury or the leeway to have the beliefs to vote, to have your vote, to use your vote to give the middle finger to the culturalism of the left is because of the successes of Joe Biden's or the Democrats' policies, materially speaking? In other words, Donald Trump was voted out of office when the economy seemed horrible, when the pandemic was raging, when it seemed as if his leadership was not directing the country in a way that Americans could live with. 

Now that things have been stabilized and that Biden or let's just say the Democrats (even the Democrats who operated within the filibuster to pass the Infrastructure Act)—now that they have calmed things down and wages are up and unemployment is down, provided all those good things, that's where the cultural play can affect people's votes and they could give the middle finger with their vote instead of using the vote just to get the benefits of democracy.

Mounk: That's a really interesting theory. I mean, certainly there's a question about, more broadly, why is it that economic questions were at the forefront of politics in the post-war era, while cultural questions seem to be at the forefront of politics in the last decade or two, at least, and perhaps longer than that? One point that I often make is that if you were allowed to ask a voter one policy question and had to guess which political party they vote for—not just the United States, but the most Western European democracies—in the 1970s or ‘80s, you would have asked an economic question, right? You would have, broadly speaking, asked something like, would you rather have higher taxes and a bigger welfare state or lower taxes and a smaller welfare state? And that would have told you if somebody's voting Democrat or Republican, or for the Social Democratic Party of Germany or the Christian Democrats. Nowadays, I think the best way of guessing if somebody is going to vote for Democrats or Republicans would be a cultural question or to what extent should we crack down on the southern border of the United States?, or what do you think about trans people in sports?, or any number of other kinds of cultural questions like that. And I think that is partially because we are a lot more affluent than we used to be actually. And despite the serious material concerns that many people have, they are less at the foreground of what everybody is thinking about.

Because actually people are doing, and I know often on Twitter it doesn't sound like that, and people are catastrophizing about how badly off the younger generation is and so on, and there's some genuine challenges with housing prices and other things, but people are a lot more affluent than they were 50 years ago. And that's just very, very clear from every statistic. And by the way, at this point, people in their 30s have more wealth and have higher levels of property ownership than their parents' generation did at the same age.

So that might be kind of one background reason for that shift. Whether that shift is also true in the shorter run, I don't know. 2020 was a weird election because we're in the middle of a pandemic and there's not a lot of historical evidence on how people vote during the pandemic. So that certainly was at the forefront in certain ways. But the best theory I have heard for how Joe Biden will win the election came from a friend I spoke to recently who said, look, basically what the White House has decided is that, if the election is about Joe Biden, they probably lose, and if the election is about Donald Trump, they probably win. So the Democrats are going to do what they can to make the election about Donald Trump, which has the advantage of giving them a strategic imperative for a tactical necessity, which is for Joe Biden to not sit in his basement, as he did in 2020, but sit in the Rose Garden, as he might do in 2024, and not run around the country too much, which clearly he has trouble doing. And Donald Trump is incapable of talking about anything other than himself. And so Donald Trump is going to make the election about Donald Trump.

That is the only time I've been optimistic about the outcome of this election in the last months. I think it's the smartest theory about how Democrats might somehow squeak through. But that does go against the counter-currents that people continue to be upset about the economy (for reasons we can debate).

Pesca: Negative polarization is the single most potent force in American politics. Will the next four elections be mostly determined by who do voters hate more? I think they probably will be—maybe the next ten. Also, we've seen evidence that Joe Biden, or his people, know this is the strategy. I mentioned the debt relief program, this is a big program that could help a lot of people. You'd think he'd be clamoring about it. But of course, he announces it during the eclipse when everyone is paying attention to something else. Even his policies that could appeal to people, he knows that just not talking about him or being quiet or whispering those policies so the 30 million Americans who could benefit from them hear about it but no one else does, he knows that plays into his favor. You're also right, Donald Trump can't help it, but he's a chaos agent. He gets all the attention and Americans will probably vote against him. 

It was legitimate for people to be upset about inflation and to blame Democrats for at least, you know, 2 or 3% of that inflation. But now, as things actually change, acknowledging that it sticks in people's heads and people aren't entirely rational actors or maybe they just don't like the fact that corn flakes cost $2 more than they did in 2021. But in 2020, people were voting on crime, inflation, and maybe abortion. Well, crime has come down a lot. It's less of an issue. Inflation has come down. I don't know how much it's affecting people's voting, or that a more virile, capable, energetic Joe Biden could be louder and help himself. The Joe Biden of 2014 could, in fact, articulate some policies that maybe people would give him credit for. But given the hand you're dealt, his advisors are, I think, there's all the evidence of their playbook: Be quiet, let people vote against Donald Trump, that's how we'll win.

Mounk: So you've turned around much of this conversation to ask me questions, but I do want to close with a question for you, which is that we've criticized the media a lot and we're both trying to do something more constructive, which is to build platforms where we are able to criticize some of the new orthodoxy in institutions like NPR and report on the world and inform our readers or listeners about the world in a way that doesn't fall into those same traps, but without becoming reactionaries, without running over way in the other direction where all you do is to criticize those things and you come to agree with anybody who disagrees with that ideology and find yourself in very weird company. 

How do you do that? And how, in particular in the form of a daily podcast, do you cultivate that conversation? How do you challenge your audience in ways that avoid the temptation of falling into groupthink? Tell us a little bit how you've been so successful at this.

Pesca: First of all, some of it is easy for me because my predilection is towards debate and free inquiry and the exchange of ideas. And most arguments about platforming, I know they're out there, but I don't buy them. It doesn't occur to me that if you talk to a bad person, badness will spread throughout the world, especially if you give them good questions, which isn't to say I would book anyone on the show, but I'd book almost anyone, and they'd come on knowing that they might face tough-to-withering questions.

So some of it is just how I am and it is just how I order the world. There are other things that I have to really be strategic about. So a while ago I was actually listening to an interview with Hannah Gadsby, the comedian, with Mike Birbiglia. And I don't particularly love Hannah Gadsby's material. They did make a point though that stuck with me, which is that there is the theme of a work and the text of a work, but there's also the spirit of a work. So the text of the work we all understand. The theme of the work can be very much informed by the text. You could imagine a situation where I had some bad experience with Slate, I used to work at NPR, we're veering off-course media-wise and so much of my content is informed by that as the theme. You can't listen to the show without knowing, yeah, Mike hits upon these themes again and again—I consciously don't want to do that show. I want the spirit of that to inform the show. But you could go two or three shows (it's a daily show) without even knowing what my stance is on trans girls in sports. And by the way, I think I know what my stance is, but it might surprise you, it might surprise my listeners. I'll tell you what it is. I think in high school, generally, you should let people play, and when scholarships are at stake, it's a different consideration. Fine. 

So the spirit of the show should be the media that I loved, where all the best questions anticipating the audience's questions are asked. There are no shibboleths. The ideology that would mostly appeal to me as a liberal person does get questioned even harder than the ideology of people I disagree with who we just love to beat up on. So that's another major factor.

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The Good Fight
The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.