If you ask most people, including most journalists, what the job of the press is, they will reasonably respond with a number of high-minded cliches: “report the news,” “hold the powerful accountable,” “inform the public,” etc.
That’s all well and good. But you almost never hear anyone say the job of the media is to edit the news. Indeed, to the extent you ever hear discussion of the press’ editorial function, it’s almost always negative. Media critics, both amateur and professional, spend much — perhaps most — of their time complaining about the way “the media” is more concerned with shaping or pushing narratives, framing debates or keeping ideologically inconvenient facts out of the news.
There’s a lot of merit to such criticisms. The New York Times and other outlets are still scrambling to explain, or apologize for, their instantaneous credulity over Hamas’ claim that Israel bombed a hospital in Gaza, killing over 500 Palestinians. The preponderance of the evidence indicates that the explosion was caused by a misfired rocket by Palestinian group Islamic Jihad that killed a fraction of that number (though reporting continues on that question).
For many Israel supporters, such too-good-to check distortions look like nothing more than anti-Israel narrative-formation. Of course, plenty of people unsympathetic to Israel have their own examples of what they see as bias in the other direction.
My point here isn’t to settle any of that. Rather, it’s to shine a light on the importance of editing, rightly understood.
What do good editors do? Beyond all of the meat-and-potatoes grammar and style stuff, editors slow the process down as a necessary part of quality control. They tell reporters that an unverified rumor is not printable without adequate verification. They tell opinion columnists that a histrionic argument that ignores contrary evidence needs to be shelved or reworked. They stand against the tide of momentary collective passion or the irrepressible ambition of individual journalists to maintain a higher standard for the institution as a whole.
In this light, the role of almost every important institution is editorial. Scientific organizations have rigorous systems for testing the validity of ideas. Criminal courts ignore mob passion to sift mere allegation from fact, and to edit out irrelevant facts.
Our whole constitutional order of checks and balances, is a kind of editorial process, set up to prevent momentary popular passion from turning into the tyranny of the mob. Because the House was closest to the people, it needed to be balanced by the Senate in James Madison’s words, as a “necessary fence” against the “fickleness and passion” of the lower body.
We just marked the first anniversary of Elon Musk’s $44-billion purchase of Twitter, now called X. A lot of the schadenfreude-filled coverage has focused on how badly it’s gone for Musk. That’s fine. But it’s also a side issue. The general trend is still for people to get their news and information from a global marketplace where bad ideas can spread like diseases and lies are often indistinguishable from facts. In this market, individual consumers can design their worldviews a la carte. When the public dismisses inconvenient facts as efforts by “elites” to shape the narrative, the incentive to provide what the customer wants on demand only intensifies.
In part because journalists have a well-established habit of obsessing over their own industry and status, this is usually framed as a journalism story. But if you step back, it’s a problem for every institution, including courts, universities, myriad scientific organizations and the government generally. Institutions, and the editors who run them, are supposed to be circuit-breakers that prevent the electricity of mob passion or groupthink from overwhelming the system.
There is a rich debate about whether — or how much — American institutions deserve the low esteem they are held in. But the question of blame gives short shrift to the need for trustworthy institutions. It’s the difference between saying “Dr. Smith is a quack” and “doctors can’t be trusted.” The former leads the reasonable patient to find a better doctor, the latter encourages the patient to search for the most appealing quack.
Right now, the quacks are winning.