The media do not need swagger — they need humility and courage

In an era of layoffs, lost readers, and distrust, some journalists are calling for the media to gain back some of their “swagger.” They want the press to stop being timid about what they do: destroying lives and challenging the powerful.

But what the press really need to survive and gain back respect is humility and genuine courage, including the courage to question their own assumptions.

The idea that the media need swagger started with Max Tani, the media reporter for Semafor. In a recent column, Tani laid out the landscape: “A landscape of gleefully revelatory magazine exposés, aggressive newspaper investigations, feral online confrontations, and painstaking television investigations has been eroded by a confluence of factors — from rising risks of litigation and costs of insurance, which strapped media companies can hardly afford, to social media, which has given public figures growing leverage over the journalists who now increasingly carry their water. The result is a thousand stories you’ll never read, and a shrinking number of publications with the resources and guts to confront power.” 

Tani’s piece was noted by Jack Shafer at Politico: “Wounded and limping,” he wrote, “doubting its own future, American journalism seems to be losing a quality that carried it through a century and a half of trials: its swagger. Swagger is the conformity-killing practice of journalism, often done in defiance of authority and custom, to tell a true story in its completeness, no matter whom it might offend.”

Swagger? The media are afraid of talking to Republicans and challenging any leftist narrative. 

In 2022, I published a book, The Devil’s Triangle, that exposes a 2018 plot to destroy me and Brett Kavanaugh, who was at the time a nominee for the Supreme Court. The Devil’s Triangle is exactly the kind of “conformity-killing” journalism that is “done in defiance of authority and custom” in order to “tell a true story in its completeness, no matter whom it might offend” — the kind Shafer and Tani are calling for.

But Shafer, Politico, the Washington Post, and the New York Times refuse to review or mention my book. In fact, my book only appeared in the Washington Post when columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winner Kathleen Parker called out her colleagues for ignoring my story.

Swagger? These tough guys fear books.

One of the formative experiences of my career as a journalist came in 1986, when I met the great writer C.D.B. Bryan. Bryan was the author of Friendly Fire, a book about a family whose son was killed by friendly fire in Vietnam. The government then lied to the family of Michael Mullen about the cause of his death. 

Bryan was an example to my younger self about how to act as a journalist, about the importance of honesty, courage, and humility.

In 1976, the New York Review of Books ran a review of Friendly Fire by Diane Johnson. The piece criticized Bryan, claiming he was “patronizing” and “condescending” to the Mullens while praising military men such as Lt. Col. Norman Schwarzkopf, who had been in Vietnam and who was interviewed by Bryan. 

In a response printed in the letters section, Bryan punched back: 

“I love Peg and Gene Mullen, they have been as family to me these past five years, I think them heroic people. Ms. Johnson’s implication that I felt ‘patronizing’ or ‘condescending’ or ‘deprecated Peg’s courage’ is so patently wrong that I am ashamed such a suggestion might even appear in print. …

What I tried to show was that this lowa farm family’s anger, bitterness, paranoia, suspiciousness, and heartbreak were the understandable and inevitable result of the insensitive, arrogant, and bureaucratic treatment they had received — and not just from the military, the government, their community, and their priest but, to my horror, from myself as well. I was forced to face that ugly dwarf-soul in every writer who, when confronted by someone’s personal anguish, feels that flicker of detachment which tells him that he is also witnessing ‘good material.’ …

 To admit that does not mean one does not feel sympathy and love and understanding at the same time; it merely means that the writer recognizes that this moment of anguish provides a means of expressing that anguish to others.”

Bryan closed with this: “I do not accept Ms. Johnson’s implication that because Lt. Col. Schwarzkopf was a professional military officer that he could not also be a fine man. … Why is it so inconceivable to Ms. Johnson that Gene Mullen and Norm Schwarzkopf could not both be fine men?”

Humility, courage, fairness to all sides, and enough self-reflection to see one’s own part in exploring a story. This is what the media need — not swagger.

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Mark Judge is an award-winning journalist and the author of The Devil’s Triangle: Mark Judge vs. the New American StasiHe is also the author of God and Man at Georgetown Prep, Damn Senators, and A Tremor of Bliss.

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