from the this-is-why-we-can’t-have-nice-things dept
Mainstream political news outlets like Axios have long been accused of “both sides” or “view from nowhere” journalism where they bend over backward to frame everything through a lens of illusory objectivity as to not offend. This distortion is then routinely exploited by authoritarians and corporations keen on normalizing bigotry, rank corruption, or even the dismantling of democracy.
It’s been a rough decade of very ugly lessons on this front, yet there’s still zero indication of meaningful self-awareness of the editorial leadership of mainstream political news outlets like Axios, Semafor, or Politico.
Case in point: this week Axios fired local, respected Tampa reporter Ben Montgomery after he responded to a press release blast from the office of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis by calling it (quite accurately) propaganda. It began when the Florida Department of Education shared Montgomery’s reply publicly, apparently in a bid to make Montgomery seem radical:
The problem: the press release genuinely is propaganda. It’s not actually announcing anything meaningful, and is full of the usual anti-diversity screeds intended on making modest Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) efforts sound corrosively diabolical. It’s the same authoritarian gibberish we’ve seen parroted for years by anti-“woke” nanny state bullies intent on normalizing racism and dipshittery.
It’s bullshit, and Montgomery correctly identified it as such in a private reply:
“There was no, like, event to cover. It might have been a roundtable at some point, but there was no event that I had been alerted to. … This press release was just a series of quotes about DEI programs, and the ‘scam’ they are, and nothing else,” Montgomery said. “I was frustrated by this. I read the whole thing and my day is very busy.”
Correctly labeling propaganda as propaganda is a cardinal sin for outlets like Axios’, whose scoops, funding, and events generally rely on not making those in power (especially on the troll-happy right) upset. So Axios did what Axios often does: it buckled to authoritarian bullies. Montgomery very quickly got a call from Axios executive editor for local news, Jamie Stockwell, informing him he’d been fired:
“She started immediately by asking if I could confirm that I sent that email and I did immediately confirm it,” he continued. “She then sounded like she was reading from a script and she said … ‘Your reputation has been irreparably tarnished in the Tampa Bay area and, because of that, we have to terminate you.’”
On the call, Montgomery said he “objected with my full fucking throat on behalf of every hard-working journalist.” However, he said Stockwell “wasn’t answering any questions.” According to Montgomery, his laptop and access to company email were swiftly shut down.
It’s the latest in a long line of instances where DeSantis’ office has attempted to bully reporters and feckless media outlets into submission. And Axios just made it abundantly clear that when it comes to modern mainstream U.S. access journalism, it works. Not only does it work, but many mainstream shops still, a decade into Trumpism, don’t understand what’s actually happening. Or worse: know and don’t care.
That’s a problem for a country where violent, conspiracy and propaganda fueled authoritarianism is on the rise. U.S. journalism’s function is to convey something vaguely resembling the truth to your readership. But when your income depends heavily on strong relationships with right wing advertisers, sources, and event sponsors, the truth can be expensive.
So instead you get this sorry mush of “both sides” pseudo-journalism easily exploited by bullies and demagogues. Instead of “restoring trust in the press” (see Semafor’s recent launch missteps or the raging obtuseness of Politico’s new owner), the U.S. media sector has generally responded to surging authoritarianism by coddling bullshit artists, shifting coverage even further to the right, and penalizing reporters for speaking the truth.
If you’re not particularly keen on history, none of this ends well without some major, meaningful sea change. Or a massive funding infusion for independent media outlets with actual backbone. And there’s no real indication that either is coming anytime soon.
Filed Under: authoritarianism, ben montgomery, education, he said she said, journalism, media, propaganda, ron desantis, view from nowhere