Bill Barr Has a Bernie Sanders Moment

By Jack Shafer

Everybody is a press critic these days, including Attorney General William P. Barr. In a speech given Wednesday to the National Religious Broadcasters Convention, Barr ripped into the Fourth Estate.

At one level this was predictable for the attorney general, who has emerged as an attack dog for a hard-line strain of the American right. He implied that the press is overpopulated with groupthink liberals—which it is. But what wasn’t predictable about his performance was the interpretive framework that powered his critique. Denouncing corporate control of the press, Barr hit high notes that sounded to my ears like a burn-it-all-down aria—something very similar to the press critiques we’ve heard from socialist notable Noam Chomsky or presidential frontrunner Bernie Sanders.

If you’ve read Messrs. Chomsky’s or Sanders‘ press criticism, you know that both regard the consolidation of media by major corporations as an unnecessary evil that must be reversed. Sanders has argued that we must “end a media system in which a handful of corporations determine for us what, in fact, is covered, what is considered important, and what is considered unworthy of attention.” Short form: Break them up. Chomsky concurs in his many expostulations on the topic, convicting the modern press of constraining public discourse to a limited palate of ideas dictated by their corporate overlords.

While I don’t expect Barr to start waving the red flag of socialism and storming the barricades anytime soon, his speech routinely marked territory previously wetted by Chomsky and Sanders. Big is bad when it comes to the press, says Barr.

Now, conservatives have long been against the press, but they rarely tilted after pure bigness or corporateness. But there goes Barr, insisting that the country was much better off in the 19th century when “the press was so fragmented that the power of any one organ was small” and a multiplicity of newspapers “cultivated a wide variety of views and localized opinion.” The whole Fourth Estate went to hell, Barr complains, when consolidation created a “corporate—or ‘mainstream’—press” that is “monolithic in viewpoint.” Compounding this alleged groupthink, Barr continues, is the fact that more and more journalists have come to consider themselves “agents of change” instead of “objective reporters.” Instead of contenting themselves with reporting the news, Barr says, journalists have acquired “an unprecedented ability to mobilize a broad segment of the public on a national scale and direct that opinion in a particular direction.”

The final consummation of Barr’s fusion with Chomsky and Sanders arrives when he warns that the press corps’ energizing of a political majority will become “mutually reinforcing” and “the mobilized majority” will become “more powerful and overweening with the press as its ally.” Then comes tyranny!

Did it not occur to Barr or his speechwriters as they were preparing his comments that the horror scenario of “mutual reinforcing” he predicts arrived some time ago, when the Trump administration melded its interests with Fox News’ ambitions? As copiously documented by Media Matters for America writer Matthew Gertz, Trump and Fox have fashioned a feedback loop through which the two amplify each other’s messages and propaganda. Although Trump and Fox have yet to construct a majority from their collaborations—he tweets something provocative, they report; they report something provocative, he tweets back an echo—it’s not from want of trying. Yes, the danger of the government growing too cozy with a press outlet exists, Mr. Attorney General, but the current threat is coming from inside the building.

Chomsky and Sanders aren’t the only hardcore lefties whose wallet Barr has pick-pocketed for ideas. His speech draws heavily on the grievance lexicon employed by minorities—especially ethnic and sexual ones—to protest perceived misbalances of power. The mainstream, which is what conservatives once said they represented, is now disparaged by Barr as a plaything of the progressives. Continuing on his grievance theme, Barr maintains that the remedy to the mainstream tyranny is a “greater diversity of voices in the media.” We need a media universe in which “all viewpoints must be treated fairly—not simply the viewpoints favored by our cultural elites.”

I must admit this last assertion confused me. Does this mean Barr never heard of Fox, the most popular cable news channel in the country, which is as anti-mainstream and unfair as you can get? Have the dark drapes of progressive tyranny dropped so low that he has never witnessed a single episode of Hannity or Tucker Carlson Tonight? One way to read his comments would be as a critique of Fox News, indicating that Barr wishes Fox would change course and treat all viewpoints fairly, but that can’t possibly be right. I withdraw the thought.

To be fair to Barr, he never actually advocates the breakup of media companies in the speech, although that would be futile anyway. Our existing newspaper chains are either being looted by private equity or are on the hook to their creditors. The giant mainstream press that Chomsky and Sanders wanted to be broken up is being torn apart by the market. Maybe in Barr’s next speech, he’ll call for CNN to be divided into three networks, each espousing a different political philosophy, and demand that the New York Times publish a conservative version. At this point, nothing that comes out of Barr’s mouth would surprise me.

Until then, Barr says he’ll place his trust in the religious broadcasters. “You are one of the last holdouts in the consolidation of organs and viewpoints of the press,” he told them. “It is, therefore, essential that you continue your work and continue to supply the people with diverse, divergent perspectives on the news of the day.”

“Diversity.” “Divergence.” “Consolidation.” “Tyranny.” “Monolithic in viewpoint.” “Cultural elites.” Somewhere in progressiveland, an intellectual property attorney is addressing a cease-and-desist order to Barr demanding that he stop exploiting his team’s language and devise his own.

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Here’s the New York Times coverage of the Barr speech and for “balance,” the Washington Examiner‘s. Send your grievance via email to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts tyrannize my Twitter feed. My RSS feed was crushed by the man.