Following the first day of the Wisconsin State GOP Convention last month, conservative talk radio host Charlie Sykes, two colleagues and I sat down casually at a bar for drinks.
Moments into what seemed like a non-event in all of our lives, a reporter from the New Republic sat down to introduce himself and join us. His name was Alec MacGillis, and while none of us knew anything about him, he was friendly and said he was working on a story related to “talk radio in Milwaukee” – a broad and uniquely chosen topic – but one that Sykes certainly was an authority on, which led to a conversation that, again, seemed like a non-event for most of us.
Fast forward to Sunday night, and the New Republic publishes its June cover story, which very briefly mentions the aforementioned encounter, but with an alarmingly conspicuous headline: “The Unelectable Whiteness of Scott Walker.” The product of MacGillis’ short visit to Milwaukee in May and his witnessing of the “mostly male and nearly all white” Wisconsin GOP Convention was a lazy, guilt-by-association narrative that some sort of racism is responsible for Gov. Walker’s success. He does not indict the governor of any direct acts of racism, but rather cites real demographic changes in Milwaukee and racial divisions between the city and its nearby suburbs. How does this relate back to Walker? It doesn’t, but that’s the convenient thing about lazy journalism – you can make up your own connections.
It’s almost surprising that even the left-leaning editors at the New Republic, a publication possibly best known for accidently publishing several fake stories, let this one through. MacGillis’ article is a laughably over-the-top hit piece, and in being so absurd, makes him look like a race-baiter rather than a muckraker exposing, as he says, Walker’s “toxic racial politics.” He also condemns talk radio, specifically Sykes and fellow conservative host Mark Belling, as contributing to the “poisonous, racially divided world” that propelled Walker to stardom without, again, proving a direct link. In his own response Monday, Sykes summarized MacGillis’ article as “Walker supporters are raaaaacists. Suburban raaaaacists. Talk radio-listening raaaaaacists. Sunday morning TV show watching raaaaacists.”
That’s not far off from the full version of the article.
MacGillis went into this story with preconceived notions, and found just enough in his reporting to develop click-baiting, race-baiting drivel about a prospective 2016 presidential candidate. “Just enough” proved to be close to nothing seeing as how there was no racist revelation in the article, or how Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Christian Schneider brilliantly put it Monday, “In monster movies, directors have to make a decision as to when to finally reveal the monster… But in MacGillis’ article, though the trees rustle and the water ripples, the monster never appears.”
The problem with MacGillis’ piece is not just his liberal bias, though he is clearly drowning in it. The problem with this and other articles like it is the bias toward laziness and sensationalism. Racism in the Republican Party is an easy narrative to want to take on – one devoid of critical thought – and MacGillis tries so hard for more than 7,000 words to prove it without any evidence.
It’s similar to the kind of treatment other prospective 2016 presidential candidates, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, receive on occasion. Ryan has been lambasted in the past for comments on improving inner cities or for the way his budget proposals could affect the poor. Never mind having a real discussion about entitlement spending and the welfare state.
For Paul, whether it’s MSNBC’s primetime lineup telling all 12 of its viewers he is a racist for his views on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, or it’s headlines like “Rand Paul’s shocking racial blind spot,” such discussions are also absent of any real intellectual effort. Never mind that Paul consistently speaks out against mandatory minimum sentencing he says disproportionately affects the black community, or that he makes a constant effort to reach out to minority groups to grow the GOP. It’s much easier to run with the racist narrative than to analyze policy decisions and try to understand differing perspectives.
A lack of intellectual diversity in newsrooms forces these narratives to become the status quo to pursue. The results are then grandiose stories like MacGillis’, or a 2013 New Republic cover story headlined “Original Sin: Why Republicans Are the Party of White People.” These are stories that add little to the conversation and further conservatives’ distrust of the media, which is a relationship that could be repaired with a little more intellectual diversity and a little less lazy journalism.
For MacGillis’ story in particular, he clearly put in the physical effort in traveling to Milwaukee and inserting himself in our conversation that day last month, as any good, aggressive journalist should (to his credit, he even paid for our drinks). But he, like many others, did not put in the mental effort in trying to think outside the lazy, narcissistic box his environment created.