Commentary Magazine

Ideology Isn’t the Problem, Ted Koppel

Screen shot/CBS "This Morning"

Critics of Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity are swaggering a little more smugly than usual today. The source of their vindication is the decision by former evening broadcast news anchor Ted Koppel to criticize the Fox host to his face during a CBS “This Morning” interview. Few of Hannity’s haughty critics seem to have listened to all that Koppel said in the interview they are celebrating. If they had, they would temper their enthusiasm.

Amid a stream of polite but cutting critiques of not just Fox News Channel’s programming but the political opinion and analysis industry, Koppel unhesitatingly agreed when Hannity asked if he thought he was “bad for America.” If the Fox host’s critics had internalized everything Koppel said following this scolding, the shallowness of this newsman’s criticisms might have left them uneasy. This attack on Hannity’s career missed its mark.

“Because you’re very good at what you do,” Koppel explained after declaring Hannity a threat to the very country. “And you have attracted people who are determined that ideology is more important than facts.” This is a misdiagnosis. Ideology is not the problem that Koppel is identifying; it’s cultism. Moreover, the opinion media environment Koppel is implicitly criticizing has become less attached to “facts” as a response to market incentives.  Koppel’s own network, CBS, is part of this changed environment.

Only hours after CBS broadcast Koppel’s criticism of Hannity, “60 Minutes” anchor Scott Pelley interviewed conspiratorial author and Trump-supporting blogger Michael Cernovich. Pelley’s effort to pin Cernovich against a wall over his baseless claim that Hillary Clinton has a confirmed case of Parkinson’s disease suggests the network wanted to elevate the conspiratorial blogger only to undermine him. As some noted, though, the program succeeded in building Cernovich up much more than it did tearing him down.

A news-magazine show that jealously guarded its credibility would not have given this purveyor of misinformation a platform. Cernovich has contended that “date rape does not exist,” has called concepts like “duty and morality” mere “slave terminology,” and was one of the loudest voices on the “alt-right” contending that Democrats are covering up a child prostitution ring operated out of the basement of a D.C. pizza parlor (e.g. “#PizzaGate). This conspiracy theory is so vile that even Alex Jones apologized for promoting it–surely, at the urging advice of counsel, considering it led an armed man to “investigate” the establishment and endanger the lives of its patrons.

Cernovich enjoys some cachet today because the barriers to entry into the media world have all but disappeared. There are no more gatekeepers, no more filters through which ill-fit commentators cannot pass. The ubiquity and popularity of alternative media outlets is only partly responsible for this condition—one which has had mixed effects on the national discourse. In a bygone age, no responsible news outlet would reward irresponsible provocateurs like Cernovich a microphone even if it were solely to debunk them. They would not have merited the attention and associated credibility.

If Koppel’s complaint is that people like Cernovich who are resistant to objective truths now have access to media megaphones, it is an odd instinct to link that frustrating condition to ideology. That is especially true when it comes to Donald Trump and his supporters. Theirs is a movement that is explicitly resistant to ideology.

Donald Trump ran for the White House as the anti-ideologue. “Mr. Trump would be the greatest pragmatist and deal maker Washington has ever seen,” said Trump booster Carl Icahn prior to inauguration day. “Donald Trump is post-ideological,” declared campaign pollster Tony Fabrizio. “His movement transcends ideology in a lot of respects.” He campaigned as a pragmatic businessman who would work to overcome the paralysis in Washington and “get things done,” as though the “what” and “how” of that premise were simply immaterial.

Koppel and Trump, in fact, share the point of view that ideology is the problem in Washington. Yet it was pragmatism, not ideology, which led Donald Trump into just about every cul-de-sac of his nascent presidency.

Trump endorsed a problematic ObamaCare repeal bill. When House conservatives objected to some provisions and won concessions, moderates balked. When the bill failed, the president declared his intention to simply walk away, or even deal exclusively with Democrats on health-care reform. For Trump, getting the policy right is secondary. All that matters to him is the “win.”

There are no discernable economic or security benefits that outweigh the political costs of Donald Trump’s heavy-handed executive order banning travel from some Muslim nations. In fact, the order’s latest iteration was stripped of any ideological coherence—objectionable as that ideology may be—solely in order to withstand the scrutiny of the courts.

Trump’s preference for intervention in the affairs of private business and his antipathy toward free trade could hardly be considered conservative policy initiatives. Nor are they particularly helpful to the American economy. They can only be described as efforts to secure Trump’s personal political position. Conservatives are obliged to suspend their ideological commitments in that effort, not to reinforce them.

Only someone with the vaguest understanding of conservative ideological inclinations could accuse President Trump or his staunchest defenders of being blinkered ideologues.

Koppel’s frustration, while not entirely invalid, is shaded by nostalgia. His lamentation confuses ideology with partisanship. Ideology isn’t the problem. There is nothing more pragmatic and utilitarian than the coercive power of government. Only a theoretical framework renders the compelling logic of force unpersuasive. Koppel’s gripe about media generally ignores the pressures on the press to make news, not to simply report it. That market-driven force leads even ivy-covered institutions like “60 Minutes” to credential someone who does not deserve it; whose ideology begins and ends with himself.

This veteran journalist’s frustrations lie with the modern world, not on Sean Hannity’s shoulders.

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