January 12, 2018 / 10:53 PM / 8 months ago

COLUMN-Commentary: Steve Bannon, Toby Young and the politics of provocation

(John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. The opinions expressed here are his own.)

By John Lloyd

Jan 12 (Reuters) - Two men of the right were pulled from pedestals this past week: one, American, for being a source; the other, British, for having been a columnist. Their rationalizations and attempts at exculpation raise the question: does journalism operate in a space increasingly divorced from sober fact and judgment? Is most of it being enfolded, ever more completely, into entertainment or political intolerance?

The larger fall from the pomp of power has been that of Steve Bannon, a journalist of the hard-edged right, who at the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency had been chief strategist, and briefly a member of the National Security Council. Bit by bit distanced from the Oval Office he had once entered at will, he was allowed to resign in August – after an interview with the American Prospect put him at odds with the president on North Korea.

It was another interview that forced Bannon to descend to a deeper circle of the Hell of Being Out of It. He spoke to Michael Wolff, author of “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” which will be a hard act to beat as book of the year 2018, so momentous has been its effect. Bannon said that Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, who plays an important role in his administration as an adviser, is “dumb as a brick” and that a meeting between Trump campaign officials – including the president’s son, Donald Jr. – and Russian lobbyists in Trump Tower was “treasonous.”

The president, Bannon’s erstwhile friend and employer, retorted that the former strategist had “lost his mind” after he left the White House, adding that “I don’t talk to him” – the ultimate insult. Bannon’s descent continued beyond his fall from Trump’s graces. On Tuesday he resigned as executive chairman of the right-wing Breitbart News after its main funder, Rebekah Mercer, lost confidence in him.

Battered on all sides, Bannon – who has not directly disputed his quotes in the book – issued a statement calling the president’s son “a patriot and a good man,” describing the reporting about Don Jr. as “inaccurate.”(Wolff is not renowned for his accuracy, even if much of this book rings true.) Bannon says his support for the president was “unwavering.” He expressed regret for his delay in clarifying his comments, which he said had “diverted attention from the president’s historical accomplishments.”

The British victim is Toby Young, a former journalist who became an education entrepreneur, setting up “free schools” – institutions that are funded by the state but, much like their American equivalent, charter schools, allowed more flexibility with regard to curriculum and admissions. He was proposed as a board member for a new Office for Students, designed to make universities more accountable to government, but this week he resigned, saying that the furor over remarks he had made in the past would be too much of a “distraction” for him to continue.

In columns, he had claimed that he found working-class students at Oxford University – where he studied – to be “small, deformed… with acne and anoraks.” He commented often on the size of women’s breasts, wrote that wheelchair ramps at schools were one of the negative effects of “inclusivity,” and advocated that embryos treated with genetically-engineered intelligence be made available to parents on low incomes with below-average IQs.

In a resignation statement, Young wrote that he was a passionate supporter of inclusivity and “helping the most disadvantaged,” but that comments in articles “when I was a journalistic provocateur” were ill-judged or wrong – “and I unreservedly apologize.”

Bannon’s regrets (he doesn’t believe in saying sorry) and Young’s unreserved apologies point to two large dilemmas in contemporary journalism. That is, how to judge what is written as serious, or, to use Young’s word, as merely the posture of a “provocateur” – and how far news on partisan websites can be trusted.

Intriguingly, the Collins dictionary defines “provocateur” differently in American and British usages, and in both cases, each of the differing definitions fits both men well. In American English, it is a “writer, artist, political activist, etc. whose works, ideas, or activities are regarded as a threat to accepted values or practices.” In British English, it is “a person who deliberately behaves controversially in order to provoke argument or other strong reactions.” Bannon wished to be “a threat to accepted values and practices;” those of the Democrats of course, and in some ways even more to those closer to him – the Republican establishment. The Breitbart site, which Bannon took over when its creator, Andrew Breitbart, died in 2012, puts out news which is conditioned by its political agenda. The main story in its January 10 edition is headlined “Report: 485 scientific papers published in 2017 undermine supposed ‘consensus” on climate change” – a meaningless figure, unless the total number of climate papers is given, which it is not.

Breitbart is, of course, not alone. Fox News continues to dominate the field in ideologically-driven news from the right. On the left, the less-watched MSNBC takes a steadily liberal line, while CNN, Trump’s particular TV channel hate, also tends to liberalism. This trend is exacerbating the polarization of America.

The dilemma which Young dramatizes is less obvious, but perhaps more insidious. It is that, by – in the dictionary definition – “behaving controversially in order to provoke argument or other strong reactions,” he puts journalistic commentary and opinion in a particular place. That is, largely divorced from observable reality or fairness, produced very largely to attract attention – even if (sometimes especially if) that attention is hostile. It may be amusing; it isn’t, it seems, serious. Young’s apology consigns it to the status of a provocation; the day of the sober commentary of fact and balance is now for upmarket sites only, reviled by the new journalism as tedious.

Both men, however, have been wounded by the clash of contemporary opinion journalism and the public sphere. In the latter, some account beyond that of the market has sooner or later to be made. By apologizing (even in a Bannon-style non-apology) they attempt to slough off their comments, reported or written, as matters of no consequence. Bannon now says that one he called a traitor is in fact a patriot. Young describes his journalism as only that of one anxious for the attention which provocation can bring. In neither case, according to these men, should it be taken seriously.

It’s their right, in a free press, to do so. But, deliberately, it fires up political enmity and prejudice. (Reporting by John Lloyd)

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