Steve Krakauer is a journalist and he's here to help.
That sounds almost as terrifying as a government bureaucrat offering assistance, per Ronald Reagan's famous quip. Perhaps even more terrifying given that Americans these days are more likely to say they trust the federal government than say the same about the mainstream media.
Nevertheless, this particular journalist might be on to something. Krakauer's new book, Uncovered: How the Media Got Cozy with Power, Abandoned Its Principles, and Lost the People, is a thoughtful critique of an industry that deserves to be distrusted, and in some cases despised.
The author, whose résumé includes stints at NBC, Fox News, and CNN (during the Jeff Zucker era), is uniquely positioned to explain how the media squandered the public's trust, and what they might do to win it back. "I don't want to burn it all down," Krakauer writes. "I love the media. I want to help make it better." As always, the first step on the road to recovery is admitting you have a problem, recognizing your powerlessness over addiction or mental illness (or both).
Uncovered is drawn from more than two dozen on-the-record interviews with prominent journalists and media personalities including Piers Morgan, John Roberts, Amy Chozick, Bob Ley, and Tucker Carlson, who claims to have heard Joe Biden's family say "out loud that he had dementia." Like a concerned relative orchestrating an intervention, Krakauer outlines several problems fueling the public's distrust of the "Acela Media"—elite institutions based in Washington, D.C., and New York.
They are geographically (and culturally) isolated from the vast majority of Americans. They are highly credentialed, prone to "egotism and self-absorption," loath to admit mistakes and correct them. They're just as lazy and incompetent as the rest of us, increasingly susceptible to perverse financial incentives. They've been absorbed into The Establishment, grown too cozy and incestually involved with the powerful figures they're supposed to be scrutinizing, too aloof and even hostile toward the public they're supposed to serve.
Things so obviously true only a Twitter-addled psychopath would attempt to deny it. Alas, that describes most journalists these days—tweeting furiously among themselves in a "cesspool of narcissistic insular self-gratification," policing the bounds of acceptable thought, sorting out (with the help of their friends in Big Tech) what information the less-credentialed masses can be trusted to imbibe, what opinions are too "dangerous" to publish.
These problems existed long before 2016. For example, Krakauer reminds us that Katie Couric, the multi-millionaire celebrity journalist known for her condescending and sexist interview of Sarah Palin in 2008, was a guest at Donald Trump's wedding in 2005 (as were Bill and Hillary Clinton) and joined fellow network anchor (and former Clinton aide) George Stephanopoulos at a 2010 dinner party at Jeffrey Epstein's penthouse after the sex offender (and Clinton pal) served a sweetheart jail sentence for soliciting a child prostitute.
But it was Trump's shocking victory (over Hillary Clinton) that annihilated the brains of the Acela Media, exacerbating their worst tendencies and furthering their detachment from the general public. Krakauer recalls journalists who "began having trouble sleeping during the Trump presidency" and would "have to take pills to be able to fall asleep, or to help with depression, caused by their perceived existential fight with the man in the White House." Some would liken covering the Trump administration to storming Omaha Beach on D-Day. (Yes, seriously.)
As a result, many in the Acela Media have come to view their jobs as "no longer really about reporting the truth." Krakauer cites example after example of the media's indefensible behavior—Hunter Biden's laptop, the freakout over Tom Cotton's New York Times op-ed, the Cuomo brothers comedy hour on CNN, Joy Reid's "hacked" blog, NBC's refusal to upset Harvey Weinstein, the false narrative surrounding "Hands up, don't shoot!" in Ferguson, Mo., and basically everything related to COVID-19, especially the shameful treatment of the "lab leak" theory. Oh, and the time a CNN reporter described Mount Rushmore as "a monument of two slave owners and on land wrestled away from Native Americans."
Krakauer even manages to get some Acela Media types to acknowledge their industry's failures. New York Times writer-at-large Amy Chozick, for example, slams the media's bizarre refusal to even consider the possibility that COVID-19 leaked from a lab in Wuhan that studies coronaviruses. "To reflexively call things 'wrong' or 'misinformation' when we really don't know, and then to have zero, and I'm talking zero, self-reflection about the fact that we didn't know, I think it's really arrogant, and it's really contributing to the distrust of news," she says.
Later on in the book, Chozick exemplifies another problem Krakauer highlights—the Acela Media's fear of being canceled by the Twitter mob for promoting an "unacceptable" opinion. "There is a generation of young kids who believe that objectivity is akin to white supremacy," she says. "I'm not saying I disagree with them, or I agree with them. I'm saying there is a real debate here happening."
Perhaps inevitably, Krakauer's proposed solutions to restore public trust in mainstream media are not as compelling as his diagnosis. It would be great if the media conglomerates opened small bureaus beyond the Acela corridor, but first you'd have to persuade these aspiring journalists who believe "objectivity is akin to white supremacy" to live in places governed by Republicans. Good luck with that! Ditto his suggestion that journalists "stop sharing every thought they have on a public platform like Twitter" and embrace "humility."
It's not an easy problem to solve, to be fair. The rise of social media, among other factors, has broken our brains, eviscerated our attention spans, and imbued in us a viral culture of instant gratification. For many, Krakauer observes, politics has become a "prime cultural activity," and journalists are particularly susceptible. That's a terrible way to go through life, but it's a driving force behind the decline in public discourse.
If the first step on the road to recovery is admitting you have a problem and asking for help, the Acela Media might never recover the trust they deservedly lost. Krakauer notes toward the end of the book that a media executive he greatly respects declined to be interviewed "because he believed the focus of the book was completely misplaced and misguided. According to this executive, the big story of the media's decline was one outlet and one outlet only—Fox News."
Only one bona fide member of the Acela Media, Morning Joe host Willie Geist, contributed a blurb for Uncovered. After making sure to note that he doesn't "always agree" with Krakauer's criticism, he suggested his "friends in the media would be smart to read this book." Which is why they almost certainly won't.
Uncovered: How the Media Got Cozy with Power, Abandoned Its Principles, and Lost the People
by Steve Krakauer
Center Street, 304 pp., $29