Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the Senate judiciary and commerce committees on April 10, 2018 on Capitol Hill over social media data breach, in Washington, DC, USA. Photo by Olivier Douliery/Abaca/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images).

For most of its existence, the left “netroots” (or “blogosphere” or whatever you want to call it) has been focused on media criticism as much or more than partisan politics itself. From the earliest days of Eschaton, MyDD and DailyKos, as much as writers and activists took aim at Republicans and centrist Democrats, the primary objective was to shame more mainstream media sources and reporters into taking a “reality-based” approach to journalism.

This was a noble and necessary project. The world seems so broken that many younger and newer activists may not appreciate how much has changed for the better since the dark days of the mid-2000s. There was a day not long ago when Fox News was considered a legitimate journalistic organization like any others; when conservative complaints about deficit spending were treated with dead seriousness rather than as the pinnacle of hypocrisy; when CNN journalists excitedly embedded with the military in Iraq and treated anti-war opponents with barely veiled derision; when Rudy Giuliani was lauded as “America’s Mayor”; when marriage equality was seen as an extreme leftist position relegated to the unserious; when calling out the modern conservative movement as a stalking horse for racism and sexism was too gauche for polite society or respectable opinion pages; when climate change was covered as a matter of controversy and debate rather than as a brutal fact. And so on.

The project of media criticism hasn’t ended by any means, and there remains much bad faith and false objectivity masquerading as truth and seriousness. Jay Rosen at PressThink, for instance, continues to do necessary yeoman’s work on this front.

But there is also no question that the battlegrounds have shifted considerably since the mid-aughts. It is now commonplace to read blistering broadsides against unilateral Republican extremism in mainstream media sources like CNN. Today’s excellent piece by John Harwood is a good example. The New York Times and the Washington Post increasingly use unfiltered language about conservative mendacity and polarization, openly using the word “lies” and calling out anti-democracy legislative projects as racist assaults on democracy. Within left spaces, magazines like The NationThe New Republic and The American Prospect have taken on a more adversarial and rigorous approach than in the past under the leadership of editors like David Dayen–even as the Overton Window in the media has shifted to give voice to more radically leftist perspectives like those at The Intercept or at Jacobin that once had no visibility in the American landscape at all. Without too much organizational self-congratulation, I would argue that the Washington Monthly has also sharpened its coverage of politics in the last decade along with these trends, balancing a policy focus with effective media criticism.

But the same trends that have led the mainstream media to become more vocally honest about the state of the Republican Party and the conservative movement, have ironically reduced the importance of their doing so. Back in 2005, progressive activists would have been over the moon to see primetime anchors on CNN deliver a blistering broadside against Republican Party leadership and tactics. But now it has become almost a joke in and of itself, since no persuadable conservative even considers CNN or the New York Times a mainstream news source anymore. The media landscape itself has shifted so dramatically that conservatives are now enveloped in a fact-free bubble all their own, while the center, the center-left and the left all occupy a mixed bag of what used to be considered “mainstream” or left-leaning sources that rarely if ever penetrate the polarized conservative bubble.

In 2021, it does little good to quibble over the particular language the Washington Post uses to describe the dire reality of climate change or Mitch McConnell’s lies and breathtaking hypocrisies, when almost no one inclined to vote for Mitch McConnell’s climate-crisis-denying candidates is even reading the Washington Post in the first place.

Insofar as there remain giant problems in journalism itself, they are mostly a product of media ownership rather than journalistic culture: the growing presence of far-right ownership of local TV news outlets, the purchase of large newspaper chains by vulture capitalists, the ongoing struggle to establish a reliable revenue model, and so on.

The far greater problem now is social media. The relevance of traditional media sources is declining as increasing numbers of people in America and around the world get their “news” from viral posts on Facebook and other social media. These posts frequently make reference to specious “articles” from propaganda sites, or contain false personal anecdotes without any underlying article hook at all. QAnon conspiracy theories and false anti-vaccine beliefs are not the product of poor framing in traditional media sources, but of viral social media disinformation. Far-right authoritarian leaders around the globe taking power via WhatsApp and Facebook, not due to inadequately honest coverage by traditionally objective newspaper.

The focus of progressive activists and writers must shift accordingly. It’s still important to ensure that mainstream journalism prioritizes truth over false objectivity. But if democracy is to survive and progress to be made, the most important task ahead is to hold social media companies accountable for permitting the fact-free isolation of millions trapped in disinformation bubbles, and to alter the regulatory landscape around their behavior. Insofar as traditional media remains important, attention should shift to establishing consistent revenue models for quality original reporting and opinion journalism, and to preventing the conservative takeover of existing legacy media.

It’s difficult for anyone to retrain. But the left-leaning writers should take the win and accept that they have in many ways become victims of both their own success and the horrors of modern far-right populism. The time has now come to solve the problem in front of us, more so than the problem behind us.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.