Is Thinking Now Forbidden in the Media?

Journalism has developed a serious allergy to critical thinking. Why reflect on anything when facts with no evidence to back them up become the media’s shared orthodoxy?

Woman hand writing journal on small notebook at outdoor area in cafe with morning scene and vintage filer effect © Silatip / shutterstock.com

October 27, 2022 13:42 EDT

A Daily Devil’s Dictionary entry from June 2018 proposed its revised definition of one of the most common verbs in the English language: think. Because many observers have noticed a growing deficit of thinking in the legacy media, it may be time to revisit that definition. A second look tells us that the definition of four years ago still stands today. It has perhaps acquired supplementary meaning. Why? Because the act of thinking appears not only to have disappeared from most forms of public discourse, in the world of journalism it has become anathema.

Here is our definition proposed in 2018:


What people say they are doing when they have no means of knowing but are asked to speak their mind

Contextual note

After Covid-19, the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Ukraine war, how many of us remember those halcyon days of 2018? It was a highly entertaining 24/7 hyperreality show presented by President Donald Trump. The president’s every utterance spawned ironic commentaries on traditional and social media alike. Late night comics relaxed as the White House provided them with the bulk of their material already in comic form. Trump talked, bragged, blustered, opined, disparaged, mocked, repeated himself endlessly and dutifully mangled anything intended to sound logical. His followers applauded. His opponents relished the opportunity to either despise him or laugh at him, usually both at the same time.

Trump taught the world of journalism a lesson they have since taken to heart. It doesn’t matter what you say, so long as it makes no attempt to take the form of coherent thought. Provoke, slander, upset, undermine, cancel and complain. It is no longer “say what you think,” but rather “demonstrate clearly that you don’t need to think.” The easiest way to do that is to endlessly repeat your group’s talking points and fill your discourse with the same clichés over and over again.

How does this work? This past Sunday on Meet the Press Liz Cheney and journalist Chuck Todd gave a full demonstration. Cheney accused House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of being “the leader of the pro-Putin wing of my party.” She complained he was sending the message that “America no longer stands for freedom.” McCarthy’s sin? Daring to question the Biden administration’s policy of unlimited military aid to Ukraine. Cheney’s interviewer, Chuck Todd, immediately agreed. No need to debate the issue. It’s all about freedom.

Cheney’s “standing for freedom” trope has been used to justify every brutal war and act of subterfuge conducted by the US military and its intelligence services over the past century, at least ever since President Woodrow Wilson launched his slogan, “Make the world safe for democracy.” Actually, Wilson didn’t invent the slogan. He paid the father of public relations, Edward Bernays, to think up the cliché for him.

Since Trump’s replacement by Joe Biden, a politician who generally prefers plagiarism to original thought, Trump’s template for public discourse has prevailed. The noble act known as “speaking one’s mind” has literally become mindless, devoid of thinking. That has obviously become the norm for social media, where most discourse takes the form of either provocative assertions or assertive provocations.

Joe Biden’s Inaugural History Lessons


The culture of social media has now infected popular journalism. Facts are routinely dislocated from their context and turned into slogans. A convenient suspicion or accusation, however unfounded, when endlessly repeated becomes a fact. In democracies, consumers of the news traditionally expected journalists not just to report facts but to offer a modicum of thinking. No fact makes sense outside of the context that spawns it. Facts without context easily become shared lies.

The video creator Matt Orfalea put together a compelling compilation that demonstrates how quickly the refusal to put facts in perspective leads to misinformation. His video brings together countless examples of reporting on the mystery of who sabotaged the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea in September. Though some admit that they have reached their conclusions “with no evidence,” the thesis they unanimously assert — that Russia did it — is most likely false. The preponderance of evidence points in a different direction. That’s what happens when journalists refuse to ask questions but eagerly provide pre-crafted answers. No thinking required.

It isn’t difficult to understand why. Journalists are attached to two things far more important than thought itself: a career and a boss. Their boss almost always has a boss, who goes by the name of either sponsor or corporate master (the owner of the media company). He who pays the piper calls the tune. Careers in journalism are hard to come by. Once you have one, your basic duty — to yourself and your family — is to hold onto it.

Historical note

This is a moment of history unlike any other. The closest comparison may be with the outbreak of World War I. In 1914 a series of ambiguous alliances turned a local incident in Sarajevo into a four-year global conflagration that shattered the comfortable ideals of civilization and progress elaborated by Europeans in the 19th century.

Wars spawn propaganda. Global wars spread it further. That is why Woodrow Wilson appealed to Bernays, the future author of the book, Propaganda, to devise his all-purpose slogan designed to implant the belief that the unique goal of US foreign policy is the promotion of democracy.

When Will We Know the Bleeding Truth?


The Ukraine war has spawned a pandemic of propaganda. The profoundly ambiguous situation of a complex nation is presented as a showdown between democracy and authoritarianism. Almost all “respectable’” journalism has bought into that simplistic contrast. One article in The Street, by Luc Olinga, bearing the title, “Elon Musk Takes a Stand on a Leadership Change in Russia.” takes the exercise to particularly absurd lengths.

Although the title invites the reader to expect some kind of serious debate involving Musk, the first fourteen paragraphs serve up a potted history of the Ukraine conflict before even mentioning Elon’s name. Those paragraphs accumulate all the standard banalities and brainless clichés of today’s unthinking journalistic culture. “Western democracies,” one paragraph begins, “portray it as a fight for freedom against authoritarianism. Ukraine represents democracy and Russia represents tyranny.” If he were alive to read it, Edward Bernays would recognize that the fruit of his labors a century ago is still ripening on the vine.

The article includes other banalities that are technically false, such as this: “The Russian president Vladimir Putin had promised to the Russians a rapid war which would result in a quick victory.” Putin made no promises. But the idea that he had “promised” a quick victory is now part of the litany of “truths” shared by  Western media.

A little later we read, “the recapture of certain towns from the Russians has galvanized the morale of the [Ukrainian] troops.” Has it? Or has it simply galvanized journalists working 7,000 miles away from the battlefield? And so it goes on. Nothing new, nothing examined critically, nothing but repeated ideas.

When Olinga finally gets to Elon Musk, he attempts to explain away the heretical position the world’s wealthiest man seems to be taking. Musk dared to suggest that a negotiated settlement of the war might be a reasonable course of action, in the interest of avoiding a nuclear holocaust. Blasphemy, the Ukraine government and its allies cried as soon as Musk tweeted his idea. 

At this point, the journalist doesn’t know where to turn. As thinking is no longer a feature of his job profile, Olinga focuses on Musk’s contention that it would be illusory to believe that eliminating Putin would solve the problem. Musk jokes that “the Kremlin is not the Nice Guy Olympics.”

Olinga then absurdly concludes the article by pointing out that the Olympic Games serve as an opportunity for marketing a nation’s brand. After all, The Street is focused on markets, so what better way to conclude than register Musk’s comments on marketing? But that isn’t what Musk is saying. Musk’s point is that there are no nice guys you can count on in the Kremlin. Putin may be one of the nicer ones. In other words, “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.”

That’s the kind of mistake that can occur when a journalist has been programmed not to think but to repeat accepted banalities.

[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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