You can learn everything you need to know about our peculiar moment in history by looking at The New York Times’s non-fiction best-seller list. What is it that educated Americans wish to further educate themselves about? The list, like the Pythia in Delphi, divines what it is that we wish to know as we march into an uncertain future: The mildly adversarial childhood of our reality TV stars; the wit and wisdom of retired public servants; the war against the British, seemingly still ongoing; and the charitable reflections of the preposterously wealthy. Atop this heap of soft aspirations, however, for the third week in a row, sits an unremitting book, Mark Levin’s Unfreedom of the Press.
If you don’t know Levin from his stratospheric career as a conservative radio and TV host, you can learn much of what you need to know about him from the first three words of the review of his book published last month on the National Public Radio’s website. It begins thusly: “Long considered fringe…” That this allegedly peripheral crackpot—the review goes on to compare Levin to “a man experiencing road rage or shouting at a customer service representative”—should find his way to the top of the Times’ publishing Olympus seems curious; fringe figures hardly ever move tens of thousands of books, eclipsing far more celebrated figures like Howard Stern. What, then, is going on?
Levin’s latest book offers an explanation. Or, rather, explanations: A thorough, forcefully argued, and exhaustively documented work, it begins with the early Patriot press and its struggles to secure the freedom of speech and follows the American media’s dogged rise and precipitous fall, a transformation that saw journalists transformed, broadly speaking, from rumpled revealers of inconvenient truths to well-coiffed purveyors of political propaganda, mostly of the leftist variety.
For a man singled out by a pair of Harvard University political scientists as one of the media personalities who most “helped to legitimate the use of uncivil discourse,” Levin of Unfreedom of the Press is both civil and exhaustively discursive, drawing on examples of news coverage, interviews, academic studies, and historical research to prove his point. One almost wishes for a rant against Beto or some sharp insult hurled at Bernie Sanders; instead, Levin delivers the sort of introductory course you wish you got your freshman year of college, in which the facts are digested and arranged in the service of a thesis designed to trouble your worldview. You may not walk away agreeing with everything the professor says, but you’ll never read another news story uncritically again.
Like this beauty, about Hezbollah staging a Christmas party for American journalists in Lebanon. Right beside a photograph of the Ayatollah Khomeini “stood a twinkling Christmas tree, a gold star gilding its top. Angel ornaments and miniature Santa hats nestled among its branches. Fake snow dusted fake pine needles.” This bit of dross disguised as human interest appeared as a news story in the Times, concluded with unnamed analysts arguing that the terror organization committed to murdering Israelis, Jews, and Americans is actually all about “inclusivity as a major political and military force in Lebanese society” interested in striking fruitful, ecumenical coalitions with its Christian neighbors. All of which, of course, is drivel, and none of which, of course, is seriously challenged in most respectable corners of the press.
When the press behaves this way, abdicating its duties and covertly cheering on political actors, disasters ensue. The book’s most unsettling chapter makes this case by documenting the Times’s failure to report on what its editors fully realized was the unprecedented genocide of Europe’s Jews in the 1940s, a policy that the paper’s own Executive Editor, Max Frankel, called “surely the century’s biggest journalistic failure.” Writing in the Times, Frankel went on to assure his readers that the Paper of Record had learned its lesson and would never again fail to dutifully and seriously record Jew-hatred as it unfurls. Levin, like anyone who pays any serious attention to the Gray Lady, knows that this mission remains far from accomplished.
All of which brings Levin to our present moment. It is unlikely, given the emotional charge associated with our current commander in chief, that anyone reading the book’s account of Trump’s press coverage would be able to do so in a reasonably dispassionate fashion. Levin, like anyone on the right dismissed as too unpalatable for polite company, knows this, which is why he gives the last word in the book to none other than Ted Koppel. Speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the kind of venue where our intellectual and political betters feel at home, this is what the former lion of Nightline had to say:
We have things appearing on the front page of the New York Times right now that never would have appeared fifty years ago. Analysis, commentary on the front page… So [President Trump’s] perception that the establishment press is out to get him—doesn’t mean that great journalism is not being done. It is. But the notion that most of us look upon Donald Trump as an absolute fiasco… He’s not mistaken in that perception, and he’s not mistaken when so many of the liberal media, for example, describe themselves as belonging to the Resistance. What does that mean? That’s not said by people who consider themselves reporters, objective reporters… We are not the reservoir of objectivity I think we were.
Amen to that, and praise to Unfreedom of the Press for so patiently documenting this dizzying downfall of the Fourth Estate. Like its author, the book would likely be ignored or dismissed as just another unpleasant emanation from the far right reaches. Americans, bless them, know better, and as the book so convincingly argues, they deserve a press that more responsibly and truthfully tells their stories.