Commentary Magazine


The Left’s Epistemological Closure

The Washington Examiner‘s Byron York has a fine piece on how journalists, including news anchors like CNN’s Soledad O’Brien and Don Lemon, have become fierce advocates for gun control.

In his column Mr. York quotes Frank Sesno, a former CNN reporter and Washington bureau chief who is now director of George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, who said there should be a “media agenda” on guns to push the issue until government action becomes a reality. “The media themselves have a huge opportunity and power and responsibility to channel this,” Sesno told CNN’s Howard Kurtz. And the Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg–an NRA critic who wrote an intelligent article on the case for more guns and more gun control–pointed out, ”Reporters on my Twitter feed seem to hate the NRA more than anything else, ever.”

A few thoughts on all this:

1. The elite media are more open in their advocacy than at any time I can recall. There are probably multiple reasons why, including the fact that Fox News has been so successful in breaking the previous liberal monopoly that existed in journalism. When there was no real counter-weight to ABC, NBC, CBS, NPR, PBS, the Washington Post, the New York Timeset cetera, journalists were content to advance their worldview in more subtle ways–for example, through their story selection rather than out-and-out hortatory. But the “New Media,” which has injected new voices and different points of view into the public debate, seems to have convinced many journalists that something more is necessary. And so increasingly we see supposedly dispassionate anchors on supposedly neutral networks like CNN toss aside any pretense of objectivity. They are as political and dogmatic in their advocacy as the NRA is in its advocacy. It’s just the NRA has been more honest about its goals than progressive journalists.

2. What seems to be the animating passion of gun control advocates isn’t a solution to violence and mass killings; it’s moral posturing. They want to take advantage of massacres like the one we saw in Newtown to push an agenda that makes them feel morally superior. They want to act for the sake of acting. It doesn’t really matter to them which laws are most (and least) effective. They have decided that more gun control laws are needed and the NRA is malevolent, and they are determined not to allow any contrary evidence or thoughts to upset their settled ways. 

An liberal academic sent me a note in response to a piece I wrote last week. Here is some of what he said:

you can cite all the studies you want until the cows come home, allowing people to have semi-automatic and automatic weapons is insane. What are you arguing for?? Even Joe Machin (sic) has suggested that we should hear from all sides on this and everything should be on the table. My God, those are our kids, your kids, my kids destroyed… slaughtered, wow, if we don’t count feelings on this it seem (sic) just plain strange. So, for now, no more of your rants on this… okay… right now, it feels offensive.

Set aside the obvious ignorance that characterizes this note (we don’t allow people to use automatic weapons, and from what I can tell my interlocutor doesn’t know what semi-automatic weapons are and do). Notice how this person dismisses out of hand serious studies by the Centers for Disease Control and the American Journal of Preventive Medicine which find that the evidence is insufficient to determine whether firearms laws are effective. My academic acquaintance is being overwhelmed by his emotions, including a deep hatred for the NRA and fury toward those who hold views different than his own. And anything that challenges his outlook “feels offensive.”

This outlook seems more and more pervasive among many journalists these days. Their “media agenda,” as Mr. Sesno says, is to “channel” the gun debate in a way that confirms their pre-existing biases. If they have to be anti-empirical in order to advance their cause, so be it. 

This attitude–moral posturing, the demonization of political opponents, the epistemological closure–is certainly not exclusive to the left. But it is increasingly characteristic of it. And it makes a serious and informed discussion of the issues all that much harder to have. Which is perhaps what their true intent is. Many modern-day liberals may feel that a reasonable, calm, fact-based conversation is the greatest threat to their agenda. Which is why they so often generate more heat than light.