We’ll reach new heights of moral panic

As I sit down to write my journalism predictions for 2023, BuzzFeed is laying off 12% of its workforce. Recently, CNN laid off “hundreds” of employees, The Washington Post announced the end of its stand-alone Sunday magazine and laid off the 10 staffers who ran it, and Gannett, just months removed from layoffs that affected 400 people at more than 70 outletscut another 200 positions. This doesn’t even take into account companies like NBCUniversal (NBC News, MSNBC) and Disney (ABC News), which both seem primed to make their own cuts early in the new year.

These layoffs are obviously horrible for the people directly affected by them. They also have a price we’ll all end up having to pay in the form of less local news, less original reporting, and an increase in the financial incentives to cater to society’s lowest common denominator. As an industry, the American press is in a very difficult position, though that’s been true for as long as I’ve been a part of it. My concern for 2023 has more to do with what will fill the increasingly large news vacuums and set the nation’s news agenda.

I worry that all of this will make the media ecosystem so weak that what’s left will be a mess of “pink slime” content, politically driven propaganda, and a reliance on curated material from outlets chasing new subscriptions and an ever-shrinking share of ad revenue, tied to the whims and business decisions of billionaire social media tycoons. And that’s where the moral panics come in.

Over the past few years, the right-wing media ecosystem and its preferred political candidates have relentlessly hammered away on so-called “culture war” issues. The more these media organizations, some of which operate at a financial loss but continue to publish thanks to outside funding (and because the purpose of these groups is often more about steering public attention toward their political goals than it is to operate as successful businesses), shine their spotlight on “controversial” issues of their choosing, the more that what remains of the mainstream American press will feel compelled to follow along lest they be called “liberal” — something they will absolutely be called no matter what they write, say, or produce — and that will have disastrous consequences for the subjects of these political campaigns.

In 2021, Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, ran for governor of Virginia and won. He did this by taking advantage of the right-wing panic over “critical race theory,” which was brought to the public’s attention by Chris Rufo, a conservative activist. Months earlier, Rufo had admitted that the goal of the “critical race theory” obsession had very little to do with the college-level study of how racial discrimination can be baked into laws and society, but was primarily being used as a catch-all term to turn anything vaguely liberal “toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that broad category.”

Fresh off of Youngkin’s victory, the right put renewed energy into attacking LGBTQ people and stoking a moral panic using decades-old rhetoric and tropes. Republican politicians put forward bills that would restrict the availability of health care for transgender people and began labeling books that mention LGBTQ people or themes as “pornographic” or “obscene” in efforts to get them banned from school and public libraries (and, in Youngkin’s Virginia, some Republicans even tried to make the sale of two books illegal), and called anyone who disagreed with them “groomers.” Even after the Republican underperformance in the midterms, it seems the laser focus on LGBTQ people will continue from the right.

My fear, which I certainly hope doesn’t come to pass, is that more hollowed-out and understaffed mainstream media outlets will find themselves either embracing right-wing moral panics about LGBTQ people or simply not having the energy or resources to fight back against them.

Parker Molloy writes The Present Age newsletter.

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