Like many of us I’m annoyed by the media. The publications I follow seem to focus on the wrong story, elevate the banal, or fall for obvious traps set by trolls. The primary focus of my ire is the New York Times, a paper that I subscribe to and have read my entire life. While I have a deep appreciation for their journalism, in many ways they also remain rooted in the past, unable to pivot or adequately transform after a massive failure in reporting the 2016 elections. Nowhere is their crusty “bothsidesism[E1] ” more infuriating than on the Opinion page which intersperses expert analysis with the yammering of hacks, gossips, and contrarians who are clearly doing it for “the clicks.” Rather than bombard the paper with useless angry tweets I’ve decided to compose useless angry essays.
It takes me a while to process things, even outrage. I like to say that I’m a slow thinker, a scientifically categorized term for being more deliberative and acting with controlled wisdom. It’s also possible that I’m just slow. Either way, I try not to spit out acrid hot takes the minute I read something that offends me. It’s a practice that goes against the grain of social media culture but it also saves me a lot of grief. By the time I’ve formulated a reaction to something on the internet, the rest of the world has moved on to the next topic. Occasionally, however, something galls me enough that it sticks around, for a few days, then maybe a week, and eventually I realize that I have to respond or at least try to break it down to see if I can turn my disgust into something constructive.
Recently, my irritation was spurred by a column from David Brooks called The Age of Coddling is Over. I’ll save you the read: The column attributes the resilience of our medical workers during the pandemic with the difficulty and high standards of medical school[E2] . This is juxtaposed with the rest of America, which suffers from the imagined plight of “safetyism,” a belief that we make our children soft by over-rewarding them and shielding them from struggle with overprotective parenting.
Like most of Brooks’ columns there isn’t a lot of data here. He cites some unsourced statistics that the average GPA of English majors are higher than those of the average chemistry class and that 60% of med students don’t make it through their major. Becoming a doctor is tough, most people would agree. It’s a good jumping off point for plenty of worthwhile topics about how their lives have only become more difficult. There’s the emerging mental health crisis of frontline health workers, which has played out in heartbreaking fashion for workers that have been overwhelmed by the sick and dying and the uniqueness of a situation where they may eventually have to treat their co-workers or become a victim themselves. There’s the lack of equipment, PPE, and bed space in a healthcare system that is unequipped to deal with an emergency of this magnitude or remain funded without income from elective surgeries. But instead of addressing the issues that get at the health and welfare of medical workers Brooks uses their elevated visibility to point at the rest of America as underachievers due to an imagined societal trend.
At a glance, this feels like another unnecessary Brooks article about the erosion of American character. We are, after all, talking about the author of Flyover Man, a column where Brooks imagines a conversation with a Trump supporter that he invented. An editorial so ridiculous that The Times had to run a “letters to the editor” follow-up article, which of course has no word from the editors themselves, the sort of cowardly response to malfeasance that feels like a make-good but omits admission of guilt or wrongdoing.
Over the years, Brooks has churned out countless opinion pieces gushing over “real” American values from his residence in Washington DC. His entire schtick is imagining himself as the spokesman for a demographic he’s nowhere near and was never part of, considering his childhood upbringing in Toronto. A Canadian hasn’t made so much hay off of the American heartland since Neil Young.
Considering Brooks’ track record it’s easy to write off a column like “The Age of Coddling is Over” as conservative fluff, and it’s easy for the Times to publish it because Brooks doesn’t feel representative of the racist, conspiracy theory peddling Republican party as it stands today. Instead, he’s cosplaying as a Regan-era conservative that believes in old school values and small government, and if that happens to prop up systemic racism and vast wealth inequality its only because we don’t go to church enough. Unfortunately for Brooks, Trump’s Republican party ripped away the veneer of this folksy, conservative messaging. Now that we know it was all a put-on, there’s no going back. Brooks’ call to return to a bygone era of moral superiority and Trumps’ “build the wall” are one and the same.
A cursory glance at this opinion piece shows that “the quiet part” still leads to the same conclusions. Take for example the book from which Brooks pilfers his thesis: The Coddling of the American Mind, an attack on the anti-safe spaces movement and the perceived over-liberalization of college campuses. The book takes the bait from a particularly effective bit of conservative trolling that frames the liberal bent of academic institutions as oppressors of free speech and bubbles of utopian existence that soften their inhabitants. Forget that this is an argument drummed up by alt-right grifters who tried to stoke confrontations at college campuses as publicity stunts. Also, the book, written by social psychologists, ignores the economic factor of wealth inequality across college campuses that offers disproportionate difficulties for a student who enters college from a disadvantaged demographic.
Most importantly, consider the recent rise in hate crimes on college campuses from published FBI data. When the data look at what’s actually happening to students the argument over “safetyism” seems less important than an argument about actual safety. The ramblings from social scientists about safe spaces and over-protective parents is revealed to be empty rhetoric spouted by the privileged from afar. Sort of like David Brooks writing about the toughness of front-line workers from a townhouse in Washington DC.
It isn’t surprising that the column is based on the pilfered ideas of right wing talking heads and the bro-sphere of fascist-adjacent self-help gurus. Repetition is common with this type of viral armchair social psychology, which relies on a bunch of pundits citing each other until they build a latticework of bullshit that looks like data but is really a bunch of white dudes cross-linking the same empty argument. The book David Brooks cites started as a viral article posted to The Atlantic… and so the cycle continues.
What’s despicable in this instance is that Brooks uses the pandemic as click bait. He tries to backdoor an idea about safetyism with a “support the heroes” message that has nothing to do with academic coddling. What’s more despicable is that on the day this column was published, New York lost 630 lives to Covid-19. I couldn’t help but wonder what essential information could have taken its place? A list of the deceased? Instructions on how to apply for unemployment? A guide to charities that do the most good for the sick and the hungry? A list of business hiring to meet the surge of new demands during quarantine? A simple “thank you” to the heroes of the medical field untethered to a right wing think piece?
As this column wasted time and space our sources of reputable information continue to dwindle. The federal government has failed on every level. Our doddering president has surrounded himself with con men, liars, and idiots who haven’t just crumpled in the face of adversity, they are actively making things worse. Pre-pandemic, the phrase “making things worse” might have been dismissed as an ambiguous claim referring to an erosion of our national discourse, even if you ignored the Nazi rallies and the rise in hate crime, it was difficult for some to draw a line from Republican talking points to human casualty. The pandemic has brought things into sharper focus. Now the President’s words are easily tied to death and disorder on a daily basis, from the suggestion to drink bleach, to encouraging militant clowns to protest armed 12, to amplifying dangerous non-cures for the disease.
For four years The Republican Party’s main play has been to “flood the zone with shit,” and now any information coming from official government channels is suspect. Meanwhile, good government information is counterprogrammed by a steady stream of lies being amplified and monetized by the social media companies we depend on to communicate in isolation. As social network traffic soars we are now all more susceptible to the greed and incompetence of corporations that refuse to moderate their content. The pre and post-pandemic comparisons are just as damning for these companies.
Think of the last big news stories before the pandemic. The last essay I started to write about the media pre-Covid was about Trump sharing a doctored video of Nancy Pelosi on Twitter. Facebook and Twitter refused to ban the content, stating that fake content should not be regulated, even as deep fake technology has made lying more convincing and viral. When Pelosi’s chief of staff called out the social media platforms for their inaction on Twitter, a Facebook spokesperson justified keeping it up because elements of the doctored video “actually happened,” which was within the company’s terms of service. That exchange is posted below.
Now that misinformation is killing people, it’s worth revisiting this issue. Way back in February the Pelosi story cast Stone’s tweet as a typical attempt to hide behind a terms of service that is malleable enough to justify any behavior. Facebook wants the content, engagement, and ad revenue, but not the responsibility to moderate it. Unfortunately, in post-pandemic terms, this position makes the newsfeed and its curators agents of death.
Take the “Plandemic” conspiracy video that went viral across all social networks. By pre-pandemic standards it would have been ignored by the moderators at YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter under the guise of promoting a range of ideas, free speech, and open dialogue. Among other dangerous elements of misinformation the video advocates not wearing a facemask in public. Eventually, the networks decided this was unacceptable content, but it was too late and the video went viral anyway. We now know why social media platforms refuse to take responsibility for their content, because even when they want to, they are unable.
Where does that leave us? The government spouts nonsense, social media amplifies and monetizes lies, and our news institutions continue to elevate the half-baked think pieces by talking heads. Now, more than ever, we need the free press to supplement the institutions that have already failed us. The tech industry and the government have washed their hands of social responsibility, putting us under more pressure to consider what takes up space in our news.
So I agree, it’s time for the coddling to stop. If there’s a lesson to be learned here it’s that we should stop coddling pundits with no expertise who string words together for profit. We should stop using broken algorithms that optimize profit over facts. We should stop tolerating the “very serious” stuffed shirts on broadcast TV who incite outrage instead of inform, the” thought leaders” hocking merchandise on their podcast, and the failed comedians with verbal diarrhea. It’s time to check credentials, to elevate the experts and the scientists, and it’s time to listen to them directly.
The conservative point of view has been hijacked by so many clowns, charlatans, scam artists, and white supremacists that it’s easy to overlook bad actors at the institutions we still respect. The greedy social media networks push so much propaganda and disinformation into our feeds that it’s exhausting to remain critical of news outlets that we trust. But this is not the time to relax our expectations. It’s time to reexamine who gets a platform. If the age of coddling is over we should prosecute Fox news employees for public harm in spreading disinformation about Covid19. We should fine and break up the social media networks for their inability to monitor their content while cannibalizing real journalism. We should stop pretending there’s two sides to scientific consensus so we can prioritize information that saves lives instead of platforming worthless punditry. If the age of coddling is over we should fire David Brooks.