Exaggerating the Daily Northwestern’s mistakes is part of conservative media’s strategy

Fox News host Tucker Carlson in 2018. Photo via Flickr.

Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

College newspapers have made national headlines this week after an incident at Northwestern University. Reporters from Northwestern’s student newspaper, the Daily Northwestern, took pictures of protesters at a campus event featuring former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and attempted to contact students using their campus directory. After receiving complaints on social media from some protesters, the newspaper’s editors issued an apology and retracted the photos and the name of a protester.

Professional reporters decried the paper’s apology with the full force of their journalistic prowess. Byron Tau, reporter for The Wall Street Journal, tweeted that it demonstrated “appalling ignorance of the basics of news-gathering.” New York Times journalist Maggie Haberman called it “incredibly troubling.”

In this case, the criticism was bipartisan. But this kind of controversy is perfectly in line with the narrative of conservative pundits, who have been railing against college “snowflakes” and the decay of American values on university campuses for years. Critics of the Daily Northwestern are right — issuing the apology and retraction was a mistake. Still, I don’t find it particularly troubling a college newspaper momentarily faltered in its editorial standards.

What’s more interesting, however, is the obsessive contempt right-wing media has for academia, illuminated once again by this backlash. While journalists and pundits from all over the media landscape joined in on this commotion, it was just another installment in a long-running theme on Fox News and other right-wing outlets of condemning college students and culture. 

So why does that theme come up time and time again?

First, it’s important to get a sense of just how frequently this disdain for academia appears in conservative media. It’s everywhere. On Fox News, the use of trigger warnings in college classes is somehow an incredibly hot topic. The network airs an entire segment colorfully entitled “CAMPUS CRAZINESS” — in one installment, Tucker Carlson counts down the top 10 “worst colleges for free speech”; in another, Brit Hume frames a Vanderbilt University initiative to get students to ask each other about their preferred pronouns as lunacy. Conservative stars Dennis Prager and Adam Carolla made an entire documentary about the peril of “safe spaces” in college.    

Carlson, for one, is an interestingly transparent example. The controversy surrounding Northwestern predictably prompted a monologue on his show, where he again argued that college liberals are trying to end free speech. Carlson pretends to be a populist more than most conservative pundits, and his style offers some glimpses into right-wing media strategies.

In this monologue, as he often does, Carlson appeals to ordinary people and invokes the injustice of a political and economic system that favors elites. As he says, “our meritocracy is essentially fraudulent, and our system is completely rigged for the benefit of a few.” This is true, but a strange point to bring up when talking about a student newspaper issuing an apology.

The endless stream of criticism of academia serves Carlson and right-wing media’s agenda of projecting genuine anti-elite sentiment onto issues that don’t threaten the interests of actual elites such as Fox News hosts. Carlson is correct in saying that meritocracy doesn’t exist and that the system is rigged against ordinary people. But rather than focusing on, say, strengthening labor laws to empower working people, he always comes back to issues that are completely irrelevant. Higher education is a perfect target.

Academia is a logical place to start for right-wingers, as college students and professors are disproportionately liberals or leftists compared to the rest of the population. “Safe spaces” and student protests ordinarily should have no place garnering the unrelenting attention they receive from Fox and other conservative outlets. But while viewers stew over social justice-oriented students, they pay no attention to the actual defenders of the status quo and elite interests: people like Tucker Carlson and the Republican establishment that he supports. 

Blowing up over the actions of a student newspaper is never advisable, but it’s also crucial to understand how that overreaction plays into the strategy of conservative media. While more mainstream journalists will hopefully move on from the mistakes of the Daily Northwestern soon, right-wing media will continue making college one of the centerpieces of its cultural commentary — to the benefit of the “few” that Carlson pretends to denounce.

Zachary Jablow, opinion editor, is a junior economics and government and politics major. He can be reached at zachjablow@gmail.com.

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