The Populist Right Tears Down a Press It Can't Replace

Critics of the mainstream media were quick to charge that Harvey Weinstein’s misdeeds were an open secret, yet none of them were able to expose it.

Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

Last week, the New York Times and The New Yorker published multiple allegations of abhorrent sexual misconduct against the movie producer Harvey Weinstein, drawing on years of costly investigative reporting; risking legal retaliation that could cost millions to litigate; and forcing its subject from his powerful perch in Hollywood, where his ability to lure aspiring film starts into hotel rooms is all but gone.

The episode was a credit to the reporters, editors, and publishers who broke the story; an example of why it is vital to support an independent press that probes wrongdoing; and a spur to examine all the factors that delayed the truth outing for so long, including apparent failures by some journalists and news-gathering organizations.

Still, it was surreal to see pundits employed by populist news organizations that didn’t break the story characterizing it as a dark moment for the liberal mainstream media.

Take Sean Hannity, who works at the Fox News, which didn’t break the story, and beneath Rupert Murdoch, who owns all sorts of media properties that didn’t break the story. “Everybody in Hollywood knew. This wasn't a secret,” Hannity declared. “Everybody knew apparently in the news media too, and everybody in the political world.”

Did Brit Hume know? Did Bret Baier? Did Chris Wallace?

His guest, RNC spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany, called out NBC, which employed Ronan Farrow before he took his reporting to The New Yorker. “I just have to say Sean, this is sick,” she said. “This is the media elite covering for the Hollywood elite.” But she wouldn’t know the story save for liberal media elites in L.A. and New York City!

Nevertheless, the segment ended with this surreal exchange:

Hannity: Journalism is dead, Kayleigh, I've been telling people forever. Is this now the final nail in the coffin?

McEnany: It should be!

Tucker Carlson, another Fox News pundit, used his show to attack a long list of liberals for staying silent despite knowledge of abuse, among them magazine editor Tina Brown. She worked for Harvey Weinstein while running Talk magazine starting in 1998. “Brown conceded yesterday that there were whispers about Weinstein’s behavior,” Carlson said. “She admits she saw Weinstein give favorable treatment to beautiful women he was cultivating. She saw him quash negative articles about himself by leaking information about other stars. Yet despite all of that, Brown tells us, nobody really knew for sure. Oh, come on. I worked for Talk magazine at the time. Trust me. Tina Brown knew. She was Weinstein’s business partner for two years and a famously perceptive person. And yet until now she’s never mentioned any of it.”

The condemnation was intentionally vague. Tina Brown “knew” what, exactly? That Weinstein was a creep? That seems obvious. That multiple women had accused Weinstein of sexually assaulting them? That is rather different knowledge. Did she have it? If so, did she have proof those rumors were true? Because there are right-leaning media outlets that savage liberal women who alleged sexual misconduct without proof. And what if Brown had proof but the victim didn’t want to go public?

I don’t know what Brown knew, or when. Neither does Carlson. But I do know that Carlson is sanctimoniously scolding a woman for failing to call out Weinstein, despite all the legal and social risks that doing so would have entailed, even as Carlson explicitly holds himself to a very different standard on the same subject.

Here’s a relevant passage from a GQ profile of the Fox News host:

At Fox, he has a resolute policy of see no evil, hear no evil. “I have few rules, but ‘Don’t criticize the boss’ is one of them,” says Carlson. He offers platitudes of thanks to Roger Ailes, who, like O’Reilly, left the network following widespread accusations of sexual harassment. “He was an amazing guy,” says Carlson. “He was one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met, a really insightful, deep person and a great guy to talk to.”

For a smart man, Carlson can play dumb with the best of them—he is well informed, except when it doesn’t serve him. Call it Tucker Disassociation Syndrome. Ask where he sees Fox News going after a year of chaos and he chuckles. “I’ve been so busy with my show, I haven’t thought about it at all.” He professes to know little about Sean Hannity’s ludicrous charge that nefarious killers somehow connected to the Democratic Party had murdered Seth Rich, a low-level DNC staffer. I ask Carlson about his take on the Hannity-Rich fiasco. “If I attack Hannity for being a right-winger, I would be adding my voice to a chorus,” says Carlson. “I’d rather express opinions that aren’t being expressed elsewhere.”

Compare how Brown talks about Weinstein now that the allegations against him are public with how Carlson talks about Roger Ailes now that the allegations against him are public; one wonders how the Fox host can be such a sanctimonious demagogue on air without losing all respect for himself when the lights dim. The liberal Brown turns out to be superior by the Swamp-dwelling pundit’s own standards. And that’s to say nothing of how he and his network have treated multiple, credible accusations of sexual misconduct against the president of the United States.

A similar dearth of self-awareness played out at Breitbart. Its namesake founder, Andrew Breitbart, created a “Big Hollywood” vertical way back in 2009 with the explicit mission of taking down an industry he regarded as deeply corrupt and filled with bad people. It is hard to imagine a scoop that would’ve been more beloved to the Los Angeles-based company than taking down a huge producer and major Democratic donor.

Yet the publication didn’t have a clue as to the truth about Harvey Weinstein. (Its focus was … elsewhere.)

Nevertheless, here’s John Nolte, who has been around Breitbart since almost the beginning:

Hollywood knew.

The national media knew.

The entertainment knew.

And for decades they have protected, enabled, and openly celebrated evil.

Which makes them evil.

Nolte would be unable to make those undifferentiated condemnations of “the national media” if not for the reporting, editing, and lawyering of national, mainstream media organizations. He signals moral superiority with the best of them when attacking the liberal media; yet the alternatives he allies with are parasitic on it.

Breitbart’s overarching posture toward the mainstream media is as shortsighted as it is idiotic. My colleague McKay Coppins captured it in his recent Columbia Journalism Review article “What If the Right-Wing Media Wins?” Its most memorable quotes come from the Breitbart News Washington editor Matt Boyle. “Journalistic integrity is dead,” he said. “There is no such thing anymore. So everything is about weaponization of information.” It’s a position one might come to if surrounded by the sort of people who disproportionately staff Breitbart, or if trying to rationalize a dearth of integrity in the media product one helps produce; but it cannot account for the New York Times’ and the New Yorker’s work on Harvey Weinstein.

“We envision a day when CNN is no longer in business,” Boyle declared. “We envision a day when The New York Times closes its doors. I think that day is possible.”

If Matthew Boyle had gotten his way last year, Harvey Weinstein would still be a powerful Hollywood producer able to summon aspiring teen actresses to his hotel suites.

If he ever gets his way, the beneficiaries will be corrupt, powerful actors in Hollywood, Washington, D.C., Silicon Valley, and elsewhere—corrupt actors on the left and on the right—because like a petulant child throwing a tantrum with lit matches in a dry forrest, Boyle and his ilk will have destroyed that which they lack the talent to recreate.

Why didn’t NBC provide better backing for Ronan Farrow after assigning him the story?

I’d like to know.

I’m glad that the New York Times is delving into the matter, as it possesses the professional talent to find an answer. As yet, The Daily Beast has offered more information than the entire conservative media. I’m glad to know Jake Tapper of CNN is on the case too; that the Columbia Journalism Review is doing press autopsies of the coverage; and that various mainstream media organizations are probing the ways that the press could have performed better, as is routine in this industry of ombudsmen, press critics, and journalism reviews. If the right-wing media were a fraction as self-critical about their tribe’s shortcomings they’d have more to offer.

They could begin here: A Weinstein groping incident “made tabloid headlines in April 2015, and the New York Daily News even reported at the time that Weinstein’s denial might be contradicted by an NYPD sting tape, which hadn’t surfaced until Farrow’s piece,” Politico reports. “The same day, entertainment gossip site Defamer—once part of the Gawker Media empire—asked readers for information about Weinstein’s ‘open secret’ and optimistically predicted that ‘accusations that once existed only as loud whispers were finally being dragged into the light.’”

So much for a liberal conspiracy of silence.

Meanwhile, the victim of that incident, Battilana Gutierrez “was smeared in the gossip pages as a gold digger.” Smeared in which gossip pages? Among others, The New York Post, a Rupert Murdoch owned tabloid and one of the only papers to endorse Donald Trump. The Huffington Post published this screenshot of the Post’s 2015 coverage:

Even now, right-wing populists will not investigate how this happened.

Right-wing press critics like Sean Hannity and John Nolte are not invested in truth enough to tackle angles that reflect badly on their tribe, even when its behavior is worse on a story they purport to care about. They work for organizations that advanced the Weinstein story much less than even NBC, yet still dedicate all their energy to attacking the left, evincing not an ounce of curiosity about how their tribe might produce journalism that better serves the public. It’s as if, without admitting it to themselves, they see their tribe as incapable of reporting even scoops they believe everyone knows. God save America if they ever reduce the Fourth Estate to their level.