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Sometimes the Narratives Aren't Going to Tell You What You Want to Hear
A response to Sully.
Happy Monday my habibis. I just realized Thanksgiving is only about two minutes away, so as a heads up, while there will be a Jackal next week, I’m off the week after that, and then the Holidays will slow things down too. But let’s enjoy the time we have together this morning.
To give you a little insight into how the Jackal Soup™ is made, every Friday I round up all the stories and linkies I read throughout the week and organize them into a roughish draft. However, I also get Andrew Sullivan’s weekly Substack in my inbox every Friday, and because he touched on a lot of the big news stories floating around, I thought this would be better framed as an outright response to his piece.
A preliminary matter, I have to note that I am a long-time Sully fan. I read his blog all throughout college, and kept reading after he jumped from The Atlantic to the Daily Beast to his own independent venture. One time, an email of mine was featured on his website, which was - at the time - one of the big highlights of my 20s. I really admired his ability to fearlessly write about torture under the Bush Administration, and I mostly agreed with his takes about President Obama (whom he supported in 2008 and 2012). Sully is also a huge fan of Michael Oakeshott, who is my home court political philosopher, and that too probably stems from Sullivan introducing him to a huge chunk of the American audience.
I wrote that entire paragraph from memory, which should show you how much I admire the guy. That said, as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to realize that he is more than imperfect, and at times he is indefensible. This profile on Sullivan from Ben Smith is pretty essential reading, and I do mostly agree with his criticisms. Sullivan hasn’t really repented for his gross flirtations with “race and IQ” that he published at the New Republic (and likely never will). When that is coupled with his current obsession with Critical Race Theory, it makes me wince a little. But like Ben Smith, I can’t help but read him, because I do think he is brilliant. For instance, he warned us about the danger of Donald Trump in an incredible piece that I paid homage to in a previous Jackal. He voted for Joe Biden and still thinks the GOP is the biggest threat to American democracy. So, he ticks some of the right boxes. And, obviously, I subscribe to his newsletter, which is pay-walled, so it should go without saying that I have a deep admiration for him and his writing.
All that said/not saying, I think his latest piece is evidence that he is sucked into a conservative media narrative that is pretty crafty, because it (1) never has to address any of its wrongdoing and (2) gets to reflexively blame “THE MEDIA” for basically everything wrong with America. In reality, sometimes - in fact a lot of the time - conservative hatred of the media is based on an unfortunate truth: They are telling conservatives things they don’t want to hear.
Sully’s piece is pay-walled, but the crux of it is that while he admires American media, he has to add in this qualifier:
But when the sources of news keep getting things wrong, and all the errors lie in the exact same direction, and they are reluctant to acknowledge error, we have a problem. If you look back at the last few years, the record of errors, small and large, about major stories, is hard to deny. It’s as if the more Donald Trump accused the MSM of being “fake news” the more assiduously they tried to prove him right.
Off the bat, I want to say the final line is illuminating: Trump himself admitted that when he called the media “fake news,” it just meant they were writing something he didn’t like. It was never meant to say the story was “fake;” in most cases, it was a complaint that the story was true. It’s obviously not Sullivan’s main point, but we’re already off to a bad start.
He basically highlights a lot of stories that the media has gotten wrong:
The Rittenhouse trial.
The Steele Dossier.
The Covington kids.
Russian bounties on U.S. soldiers.
The lab leak theory of COVID-19.
It’s a lot to go through, and Jackals do have a word limit. I think it’s easier to start off with the places I agree with Sullivan: The media’s treatment of the Covington Kids (Catholic high school students who showed up in D.C.) was pretty inexcusable, to the point where some liberals still harbor ill will towards a teenager who had the good sense to call his attorney (Lin Wood) a weirdo.
I’m also going to do a longer piece on the Border next week, so let’s skip that (spoiler: I am going to be very mean to Uncle Joe). Instead, let’s go through his three most credible points - Rittenhouse, the Steele Dossier, and inflation - and then hopefully hit all the others in another Jackal.
Was the media wrong about Rittenhouse?
Sullivan begins his piece by linking to this New York Times write-up on Rittenhouse’s shooting literally the day after it happened. To begin with, this is a tactic 9/11 Truther tend to use: Early reports are often wrong because the information provided is gathered hastily, but even then, nothing in the Times’s story is malicious. Sullivan’s main complaint is the way the Times frames Rittenhouse:
Here’s the NYT on August 26, the morning after the killings: “The authorities were investigating whether the white teenager who was arrested … was part of a vigilante group. His social media accounts appeared to show an intense affinity for guns, law enforcement and President Trump.” Rittenhouse’s race is specified; the race of the men he killed and injured were not (they were also white). […] But notice how the narrative — embedded in a deeper one that the Blake shooting was just as clear-cut as the Floyd murder, that thousands of black men were being gunned down by cops every year, and that “white supremacy” was rampant in every cranny of America — effectively excluded the possibility that Rittenhouse was a naive, dangerous fool in the midst of indefensible mayhem, who, in the end, shot assailants in self-defense. And so when, this week, one of Rittenhouse’s pursuers, Gaige Grosskreutz, admitted on the stand that Rittenhouse shot him only after Grosskreutz pointed his pistol directly at Rittenhouse’s head a few feet away, it came as a shock (my emphasis).
To be clear, I don’t think it’s a shock to anyone who has been paying attention that Rittenhouse has a viable self-defense claim. That’s probably because media outlets were saying this pretty early on: Here’s a Washington Post headline about a week after the shootings:
The piece itself highlights how and why a self-defense claim could be successful:
Under Wisconsin law, someone is allowed to use deadly force when the person reasonably believes it is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to him or herself or others. A person using deadly force in Wisconsin doesn’t have the duty to retreat before deploying it as in some states, although a jury can weigh whether the person had the opportunity to escape.
It cites a Wisconsin defense attorney, who says:
Anthony Cotton, a Milwaukee criminal defense attorney and former president of the Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the facts of the case are still not fully known, but what he has seen so far provides some fodder for that contention.
“My initial reaction is that is a very strong self-defense case,” Cotton said.
Again, this is about 10 days after the shooting. The piece goes on to cite a professor who said that Rittenhouse did have a potential self-defense claim and that it would be up to a jury to determine his guilt. Is The Washington Post a part of the mainstream media or is this piece just an inconvenience to the greater point? Is the Chicago Tribune part of the mainstream media? Is Yahoo News a part of mainstream media? Is Bloomberg News part of the mainstream media? This all leaves aside the fact that the President of the United States raised the possibility that Rittenhouse was acting in self-defense, just a few days after his Campaign for reelection tried to distance itself from the shooter, showing how complicated the narrative was in 2020. But again, the most powerful politician in the world told the press a 17 year-old maybe acted in self-defense, they reported it, and somehow the media is at fault?
Even Sullivan’s criticism of the Times’s piece itself rings hollow, as he leaves out critical portions of it that demonstrate its neutrality:
The violence that broke out came as demonstrators scuffled with a group of men carrying long guns who said they were protecting the area from looting. The authorities were investigating whether the white teenager who was arrested on Wednesday, identified as Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, was part of a vigilante group. His social media accounts appeared to show an intense affinity for guns, law enforcement and President Trump. (The Trump campaign said Mr. Rittenhouse “had nothing to do” with the president’s re-election effort.)
Here is an actual thread from the Times’s Christian Tiebert the day after the attack and tell me if you can see any animus towards Rittenhouse:
Are they cruel to him in any way?
The thread - which describes video evidence Sullivan linked to - even caught hate from progressives because it was too favorable to Rittenhouse:
I really think Sullivan is taking a large part of the left-wing reaction to Rittenhouse and ascribing it to the media. The idea that Rittenhouse was a vigilante who went to Kenosha to shoot protestors wasn’t invented by CNN; it is a progressive fantasy, which is why so many of them are “shocked” by some of the details coming out in the trial. You can criticize the left for being having a bloodlust for Rittenhouse,but the criticism of the media is completely off-base.
Was the media wrong about the Steele Dossier?
This one is a lot more complicated, and it requires going into the depths of the Durham “investigation,” which we will maybe have time for over the Holidays when I’ve had too much Egg Nog. But a quick answer to the question is best summarized by all the times the media referred to the Steele Dossier as “salacious and unverified” throughout 2017-2019. And the answer is pretty simple: The media very rarely, if ever, reported on the Steele Dossier in 2017 without calling it “unverified.” Here is The New York Times the day after Buzzfeed published the Dossier:
Again, is The New York Times “mainstream media?” If you read Sullivan’s piece, he never gives specifics and instead only cites to the “mass” media, and occasionally Rachel Maddow. If he’s supposed to be accurate, shouldn’t he - I don’t know - link to something?
He also doesn’t apply the same criticism to himself: In the piece he cites to Glenn Greenwald, not only for his criticism of the Russian investigation - which he has been wrong about for roughly 5 years - but also other aspects of American media. But Sullivan leaves out that Greewald himself received stolen information from a Russian operative:
If “Guccifer 2.0” sounds familiar, it’s because Robert Mueller identified him as a front put up by Russia’s CIA:
I mean, given Greenwald’s history, I would at least provide some context there, but instead Sullivan echoes all of his points.
The reality about the Durham investigation is this: It exists almost solely to provide an alternative narrative to the reality conservatives have trouble dealing with: There really was collusion between the Trump Campaign and Russia.
Was the Media Wrong About Inflation?
This one is the craziest to me, mostly because I have been linked to various pieces that warned about inflation throughout the year. When I went back through old posts, a familiar name came up: Larry Summers. He got breathless coverage earlier this year as the Democrats were passing their (initial) massive spending bills. Here’s the dreaded CNN in April of this year!
It is flat-out false to say that the media didn’t warn about inflation earlier this year. It got a ton of attention early on and progressives complained. And even still, Summers (and others) turned out to be right mainly by accident: Inflation is up worldwide because of COVID’s effects on the supply chains, not U.S. spending.
I am realizing now I will have to write more about all of this in another Jackal, since I am officially over the email limit. But overall, what Sullivan seems to prove is that Trump won his war on the media.
That’s it for me habibis. I’ll be back next week.
I don’t think my personal feelings about Rittenhouse are particularly important, but here they are: While I do think he is an idiot who made the worst possible choices that night, I do not think a life sentence (!!!) is appropriate for him when it really does appear that he acted in self-defense. A lot of left-wing outlets have failed to mention that he was initially attacked and threatened by Rosenbaum (a convicted pedophile who was in and out of prison). I think if that event had not happened, it’s possible that Rittenhouse wouldn’t have shot anyone else. Does he deserve jail time for the lesser offenses? 100%, and I think those are more likely to result in conviction that conservatives are willing to admit. But a guilty verdict for homicide always seemed like a stretch, even if Rosenbaum being shot in the back is leaving a splinter in my brain. He’s no hero, and his actions overall are gross, but that does not immediately mean he’s guilty.