Psychologists define projection as “the defense mechanism by which unacceptable psychological impulses and traits in oneself are attributed to others.” Proust evoked it in lyrical fashion: “It is the tragedy of other people that they are merely showcases for the very perishable collections of one’s own mind.” We demonstrate the concept whenever we accuse someone of exhibiting shameful or unpleasant qualities that we possess ourselves or when we claim that someone is practicing the same dynamic on us. Projection has become such a familiar mental process that you would think professional journalists, well-versed in the devious byways traveled by the human mind, would, at least in the course of the editing process, recognize it when they see it.
Not at the New York Times, apparently. A recent headline in that newspaper declared that “For Republicans, ‘Crisis” is the Message as the Outrage Machine Ramps Up.” The article proceeds to list the various areas in which the Republican outrage machine is manipulating the appearance of crisis for political reasons: the “economic crisis” caused by what conservatives see as “overly generous employment benefits”; “a national security crisis, a border security crisis . . . [a] humanitarian crisis, and public health crisis; and a separate [whatever that means] energy crisis.”
This is not to mention the cultural front, where Republicans are, we are told, proclaiming one crisis after another, from transgender athletes in high school to the teaching of critical race theory in public schools, the second of which the Times dishonestly describes as the benign product of “a graduate school framework.”
Of course, a skeptic reading the New York Times during the Trump administration and then during the pandemic would not have been surprised to see a slightly altered headline appear more convincingly in another newspaper: “For Democrats, ‘Crisis’ is the Message as the Outrage Machine Ramps Up.” For every Tweet, every syllable, practically every breath that Donald Trump took as president served the media, and especially the Times, as the occasion for predictions of imminent catastrophe. The pandemic only intensified the calculated hysteria.
“The Great Depression is Coming,” “The Market Partied Like It Was 1932,” “Trump is Following in Herbert Hoover’s Footsteps,” “The New Great Depression is Coming,” “This Stimulus Bill Will Not Save the Economy From Collapse”—those were just a few of the many pieces in the New York Times during the pandemic that predicted an economic catastrophe that would last for years.
Reading the Times over the last four years, you could be forgiven at times for thinking that the paper’s longtime motto, “all the news that’s fit to print,” had been replaced by the Trotskyist slogan: “the worse, the better.” “If it bleeds, it leads” has been the guiding imperative for the news business since its inception, but the combination of fear of being outpaced by social media, sinking profits, and generational conflict in the newsroom taking the form of an ideological putsch transformed the Times from a genial, if sometimes comical Margaret Dumont, reliably huffing in outrage and indignation, into a shrieking Cassandra.
Trump was creating concentration camps at the border. Trump was making the country vulnerable to North Korea. Trump was emboldening right-wing revolutionaries. Democracy was in peril. The coronavirus would kill millions in the United States. The coronavirus would plague us forever. It would take years to develop a vaccine. Trump was rushing a vaccine that would murder us all. We have a vaccine, but we will never have enough. We have enough, but most Americans won’t want it. Most Americans want it, but America is too disorganized to get it to them. We’re getting it to them, but new mutations will render the vaccines useless. The vaccines work against the mutations, but the inability of developing countries to vaccinate their populations will make Covid an eternal threat. We’ve got Covid under control. But this fall, the flu will return!
For months, as infection rates plummeted in my New Jersey county, the Times declared on its home page that the risk of getting infected with Covid in my county was “extremely high.” It took the paper weeks to add that if you were vaccinated, your chance of getting infected was low. It took even longer to take out “extremely high.”
Within the space of a few weeks last spring, the Times ran an article claiming that New York hospitals were facing an “apocalyptic” surge, then a second article reporting that even as one hospital in Elmhurst, Queens faced “apocalyptic” conditions, “3,500 beds were free in other New York hospitals.” First, the paper told us, black students were being ruined by remote learning. Now we are told that many black parents prefer remote learning. In January, the Times cried, Proud Boys were poised to overthrow the government—a former Times employee told me that many younger people at the newspaper were refusing to return to work in the Times building because they were convinced that it was about to be assaulted by right-wing commandos. Now we are told by the same newspaper that internal strife is making the Proud Boys come apart.
Liberals scoffed when Trump used the term “American carnage,” but American carnage is what the New York Times has been projecting since Trump won the presidential election. Such unremitting gloom has the effect of both discrediting opposing views and making the atmosphere so dark that prognostications of doom acquire a moral authority all their own. How can you think of yourself as a moral person when you refuse to accept a vision of reality that threatens all humankind? You might call such an environment of negativity, one that blinds you to any alternative version of reality, “darkness visible”—Milton’s description of hell.
Last spring, I wrote an essay criticizing the liberal media’s fear-mongering with regard to the pandemic for the Columbia Journalism Review, which styles itself as the nonpartisan “voice of journalism.” The editor-in-chief told me that he couldn’t publish it because it contained statistics that were “all over conservative media.” Whether the statistics were in fact accurate—and they were—was not the point. In the same way, any conservative criticism of the Times—whether of the paper’s astonishing descent into agitprop, or its last-minute changes of embarrassing headlines, or its ideological harassment of its own employees—the paper shrugs off as just another ideologically motivated attack. No one will criticize the paper along similar lines from the left. The punishment is too swift and final. One wonders, anyway, what type of criticism of any element of the Democratic agenda would not be stigmatized as “fabricated.”
The layers of editing at a newspaper once served as contrasting personal viewpoints that functioned as checks and balances, the aggregation of which approached some kind of neutrality. But when everyone in the editing process becomes blind to his own fabrications and sees the fabrication of truth only as a pernicious activity engaged in by adversaries, then he surrenders the professional self-awareness that is not just at the heart of reporting the news but also an essential quality of culture itself.
The real crisis is not, as this recent Times article conveys with unwitting ironic absurdity, the Republican declarations of crisis. It is a once-great newspaper’s blindness to what it has become: a “defense mechanism by which unacceptable psychological impulses and traits in oneself are attributed to others.”