Deconstructing the ‘liberal, alt-left, radical mainstream media’

The other day, I discovered the most delightful phrase. I was watching interviews with White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who’s become known for his aggressive attitude towards the press. When Melissa McCarthy satirized him as spraying a water gun at a reporter, it was an exaggeration—but only just. The interview I watched was of Sean Hannity talking to Spicer during his first week on the job. Hannity introduced the segment with startling language: “The Trump Administration continues to push back against attacks from the liberal, alt-left, radical mainstream media.”

“Liberal, alt-left, radical mainstream media.”

What does that even mean?

One pull and the phrase unravels. Media cannot be both radical and mainstream; radical is defined in opposition to that which is mainstream. “Alt-left” is interesting, a spinoff of “alt-right” designed, presumably, to tar the other side with the alt-right’s negative connotations. A bold strategy, but not a very effective re-branding, I would say. The alt-right conjures images of skinheads and men in hoods, while the alt-left just sounds made up. I’ll admit I don’t watch Hannity’s show, so I’ve never heard him introduce the term or explain what it means. Based on my first impression, however, it’s not a persuasive turn of phrase.

There’s also the problem of lumping “liberal” together with “alt-left.” The point of being “alt-” something is to distance a group from the original movement. From what I understand, the alt-right wants little to do with conservatism, and conservative figures have repeatedly washed their hands of the alt-right. For Sean Hannity to link “liberal” with “alt-left” would seem to undercut conservatism’s defense with regards to the alt-right being a separate movement—by analogy if by nothing else.

The phrase is campy, goofy. It sounds like the creation of the Colbert Report more than by a legitimate conservative commentator. And the interesting thing is that Hannity does have a point. Journalists who write for mainstream publications such as CNN or the Washington Post disproportionately describe themselves as liberal. In the interview with Spicer, Hannity claims that 96 percent of campaign contributions from journalists went to Hillary Clinton. We can quibble over the causes of this discrepancy—maybe journalism students are themselves disproportionately liberal, or maybe those who were in the thick of the campaign were turned off by Trump’s many controversies in a way the general population, removed from the daily news cycle, was not—but the fact remains, mainstream journalists tend to lean disproportionately to the left. The idea of “liberal media,” then, has some basis in fact.

But by framing it in such hyperbolic terms, Hannity alienates anyone who does not already agree. He loses credibility and allows his political rivals to dismiss his concerns as nonsensical, as conspiracy theories. Obviously this hasn’t prevented him from success, as his show is hugely popular, but I wonder if he wouldn’t be more persuasive if his phrases were not self-refuting.

Hannity is not alone in using language that’s counterproductive to his ends. This weekend I watched a clip of Bill Maher expressing his views regarding Trump. Maher was saying that Trump was literally Hitler, almost in the same breath as he suggested Trump was colluding with Russia and being controlled by Steve Bannon. These are familiar claims, but they’re not compatible. Trump can’t be both an evil dictator and an empty suit controlled by another person. He can’t be both a Russian spy and a clown who doesn’t know what he’s doing.

Maher’s imagined bogeyman of Trump is like Hannity’s characterization of the “liberal, alt-left, radical mainstream media”: it is self-refuting. Both descriptions collapse when their implications are given room to breathe. Many media outlets may lean left, but to characterize them as “radical” flies in the face of their mainstream status. Trump may not be your favorite person, but he cannot physically be the bogeyman many believe him to be; the amalgam of characteristics contains too many contradictions.

When we hold farcical opinions of the other side, even if we believe them wholeheartedly, we lose the ability to communicate. The loss goes both ways. People might hear Hannity’s phrasing and subsequently laugh off the issue of journalistic bias, having heard it presented in a non-credible form. Hannity, in turn, might attribute more to liberal bias than is warranted. If he has an image in his mind of radical alt-left journalists intent on destroying America, it’s unlikely he would want to hear what they have to say. Caricatures of the other side are not conducive to productive debate. It is thus helpful to recognize when the words used to describe one’s caricature of the other side—such as “liberal, alt-left, radical mainstream media”—contradict each other, shedding light on where lies the gap between perception and reality.

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