New York Times

When the phrase "syndicated columnist" is uttered, a few images come to mind, largely based on the listener's preconceived notions about the opinion journalism profession and media in general.

Some will picture a knowledgeable chronicler of their time, masterfully illuminating readers with honesty and insightful reflection on the day's issues. Others imagine overpaid chatterboxes, who, having neither the talent for fiction nor the patience for journalism, decide instead to luxuriate on their sofas, waiting for a half-baked idea to plop from their mind onto the page. 

Regardless of one's opinion, the public has set a standard for column writers and expects its maintenance. If someone feels the need to write an op-ed, the editorial should be filled with critical analysis, impactful prose, or at least a little flair and wit, if not the former. 

Yet, despite the op-ed section being viewed as a hotbed of discourse championing diversity of thought, what constitutes a "diverse" range of opinion is debatable and often skews toward fairly fringe views of those in power.

There is no better example of this narrowness than in the media's response to President Biden's choice to withdraw from Afghanistan. Critiques can certainly be made of the Biden administration's decision-making, with the abandonment of interpreters, the slaughter of ten civilians in Kabul and refusal to acknowledge strategic blunders being worthy targets.

However, none were of principal concern to the press club set. Suddenly, after decades of ignoring the twenty-year occupation that took thousands of American and Afghani lives, wasting trillions in taxpayer money, and lining defense contractor's pockets, everyone with reserved seats for the White House Correspondents Dinner was frightfully concerned about the plight of Afghans.

Self-righteous hand-wringing about human rights and liberal values abounded, as the New York Times editorial board called the pullout "tragic," destroying the American dream of "being the 'indispensable nation' in shaping a world where the values of civil rights, women's empowerment and religious tolerance." The Los Angeles Times lamented America's "noble hopes" of building a "multiparty democracy."

Others chastised Biden for ignoring national security advice, suggesting such an act was as good as declaring oneself unfit for office. The National Review wrote of the withdrawal's "gut wrenching" consequences, stemming from Biden having "rejected the advice of his military and intelligence officials."

Nevermind any irony in insisting the president listen to men who had been misleading the public about the war since its inception in 2001. To the people writing these columns, "respectable" institutions are beyond reproach. The narratives they present are the only correct lens through which to view the world, regardless of how different these proclamations are from reality. 

Coverage of dual infrastructure bills is another example of this phenomenon. Last Friday night, the House of Representatives voted to pass Biden's one trillion dollar bipartisan infrastructure bill, sending the deal to President Biden's desk for signing and implementation.

Politico lathered Biden and Democratic leadership with excessive praise. In a piece given the dry heave-inducing title of "How Biden and Pelosi Saved BIF," authors Eugene Daniels and Ryan Lizza spoke of the "twice humiliated" Pelosi and Biden coming together to reach a "compromise" with progressives.

Of course, this legislation, repeatedly called historic by pundits, includes only $550 billion dollars in new federal investment, leaves out numerous climate change provisions and prioritizes funding these projects with public-private ownership, a proposal supported under the Trump administration.

Even worse, Joe Manchin – a Senator whose vote is needed to pass the larger, $1.75 trillion Build Back Better Act – has not confirmed he will vote for the $1.75 trillion dollar package. Manchin admitted in negotiations he'd be fine with "nothing," leaving the bulk of Biden's economic agenda still uncertain. Nevertheless, these political realities were left by the wayside, replaced with headlines calling it "historic" and a "major win."

All previous examples of thoughtless consensus are merely the result of what happens when a media apparatus becomes overly linked to the powerful. When news outlets grow in prominence and reputation, they become elite institutions, cultivating a string of sources throughout all important organizations of note.

Soon enough, the line between media publications and the political and economic elite begins to blur. Journalists start to share the worldviews of those they report on, no longer considering themselves adversaries of authority, but tacit members of the club.

Continued access becomes essential, and when framing arguments, the news media only allows opinions deemed "acceptable" to take center stage, maintaining their privileged positions while putting on a grotesque parody of "healthy discourse."

Since they are approved by the newspaper or magazine of record, readers assume that these voices must have some inherent worth. Nothing could be further from the truth. Conversations can only be beneficial when they include various arguments, especially those that challenge established narratives. Democratizing the fourth estate and once again making it a working person's profession, not solely a field populated by scions of wealth or politically connected dynasties, will in turn generate a more robust, tenacious, and bold op-ed industry. Until then, it's just insiders parroting insiders, gaslighting the world.