Yesterday was the big day, folks: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress who defeated an entrenched incumbent in the primary to get there, finally Arrived with an interview on the old people news program. Truly, nothing could be a greater honor.
Let me say some positive things about this interview first: Anderson Cooper, man born to a monumentally wealthy family, didn’t ask her about Rep. Rashida Tlaib calling Donald Trump a motherfucker. He didn’t ask her where she buys her clothes. There was no discussion of the viral dancing clip.
But the segment also revealed some of the biggest weaknesses of the American media: its superficiality, its Both Sides mentality, its centrist bias, and its inability to discuss policy on its merits.
Throughout the segment, Cooper attributes criticisms to “some” or “people” without always specifying who—a prevalent journalistic tick, variously attributable to laziness and dishonesty. By saying “some” voice criticisms without saying who they are, you conceal the biases or bad faith on the part of those critics and make it impossible for the reader or viewer to assess those biases. That doesn’t mean that every statement attributed to “people” in this segment or journalism at large is biased or wrong, but it does make it harder for the public to fully and critically engage with the issue.
The segment is also very thin on specifics to allow more time to raise the concerns of mostly unnamed Serious People. Cooper cites Ocasio-Cortez’ vote against the House rules package without saying what about the rules she objected to—the “pay-go” rules—in order to frame it as part of a fight with Pelosi. It’s a lot easier to make it about the disagreement itself than the substance of the disagreement if you don’t mention the substance at all.
This leads into the only policy-focused section of the AOCapalooza segment, a couple of minutes on the Green New Deal. The segment does at least provide a summary of what the Green New Deal is, but it’s focused again on the political feasibility of the plan rather than the merits—and doesn’t include any context about why such a plan is so urgent. It is impossible to talk about the measures we need to combat climate change without also noting that the world’s leading climate scientists believe we have just 12 years to keep global warming to manageable levels before catastrophic changes that will kill millions—and that we’re currently nowhere near attaining that goal. How can you discuss getting to zero emissions in 12 years—something that seems wildly outlandish at first glance—as if it’s a choice? The question should not be, ‘Why does Ocasio-Cortez say we need to do this,’ it should be, ‘What’s everyone else’s plan for making sure we don’t all die?’
Instead, Cooper focuses on—you guessed it—how we might pay for all this. “This would require, though, raising taxes,” he says, quite seriously, as if he just described a program to round up and murder every fifth puppy in America. In response to her describing her tax plan, Cooper says this is a “radical agenda compared to the way politics is done now.”
It’s not even that Cooper is implying that “radical” is bad, which he kind of is, but that’s not the point. It’s that the radical versus not radical framing—which persists throughout the interview, such as when he quotes Democratic Sen. Chris Coons’ concern trolling about offering things people actually want—is ultimately superficial, unhelpful to viewers, and exactly what Republicans want. It’s great to see her defend being radical, because radical policies are what’s needed right now. As she points out, it’s not “realistic” to have people pay $400 a month for health insurance that still has a $6,000 deductible, or to think that a border wall and keeping children in iceboxes will do anything to prevent people fleeing violence from arriving here. But by only assessing her policies on a radical vs. not radical framing, rather than whether they could be effective or humane or just—or whether the status quo is effective or humane or just—you don’t learn much at all about policy. You learn what Some Say about her. It’s about how the Sensible Men of Washington think policies within the bounds of Sensible Politics are the same thing as what the right thing that needs to be done to preserve our future.
Perhaps the worst part of the interview, though, is the part about Donald Trump’s racism. Cooper asks Ocasio-Cortez if she thinks Donald Trump is a racist; when she says yes, he responds “How can you say that?” Now, we know that Anderson Cooper is not shocked by the notion that Trump is a racist; Cooper himself described Trump’s “shithole” countries comment as racist. But Cooper’s response to Ocasio-Cortez isn’t “what makes you say that”—it’s a phrase that implies disbelief and disagreement. “How can you say that?” is what I would say to someone who said pineapple is a good pizza topping: It’s not just expressing disagreement but arguing that there is no clear way this could be true. Merriam-Webster says the phrase is “used to show that one thinks that someone has done or said something shocking or wrong.” This is not neutrality.
So why would someone who has himself said Trump is racist act as if it’s shocking or wrong to say that? Because this is how major media figures are trained to act. They have internalized the response conservatives have when the media criticizes them—how can you say this racist thing I said is racist, when saying something is racist is so mean?—and act in accordance. Conservatives have been working the refs for years, especially on racism—that’s how you end up with news outlets describing white supremacists as “racial provocateurs” or saying politicians are “stoking racial animosity” instead of just “being racist.”
Another major problem with this framing is that it focuses entirely on what’s in Donald Trump’s fat-coated heart, rather than the products of his policies. What’s implied by “how can you say that” is “how can you know what’s in this man’s beautiful soul?” This is another classic media problem: As Adam Serwer wrote last year, “The American discourse concerning racism remains largely about hurt feelings, rather than discriminatory policy,” and this discourse is “centered around a white audience more concerned with being called racist than facing racial discrimination.” It’s very important if the president is personally racist, but it’s also not a necessary condition for his policies being racist.
There’s nothing wrong with doing a tough interview with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; all politicians should receive that treatment. I want politicians to answer real questions on the merits of their policies—including specifics on things like the Green New Deal, which this didn’t really have—and there isn’t time for that if you have to spend most of your time talking about what other politicians think of you. Repeating the false assumptions and talking points of a politicians’ critics is not tough journalism; it’s a pointless exercise.
Conservatives say the media has a liberal bias, and liberals and leftists say it has a conservative bias. What the media primarily has is not a bias towards one ideology but an ideology of its own: A status quo centrism that treats policies that actually address the scale of the problems we’re facing as radical and therefore scary; a fiscal conservatism that treats spending on healthcare as wasteful but spending on the military as necessary; a Both Sides fixation that treats Republicans and moderate-to-conservative Democrats as the only two sides worth quoting, and that refuses to see centrism as an ideology instead of the only way to do politics.
This interview was not as bad as it could have been. But it revealed just how utterly superficial and weak the American media is, and how its commitment to displaying what conservatives perceive as objectivity has warped its approach to policy. I just hope that in 12 years, when millions are fleeing climate change and the people we needed to tax to prevent that end are living in laser-guarded compounds, Anderson Cooper feels good about this interview. He probably will, since he’ll be safe in the compound too.