How the Left Took Over the Media

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Editor’s note: The following excerpt is from Christopher Rufo’s new book, “America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything.”

Communist radical Herbert Marcuse believed that the university could serve as the “initial revolutionary institution” but was not, in and of itself, powerful enough to transform the broader society. The intellectuals could produce knowledge but, left alone, could not break through the one-dimensional universe of the Establishment.

“Under the rule of monopolistic media—themselves the mere instruments of economic and political power—a mentality is created for which right and wrong, true and false are predefined wherever they affect the vital interests of the society,” he said. “The meaning of words is rigidly stabilized. Rational persuasion, persuasion to the opposite, is all but precluded.”

The solution, then, was to extend the “long march through the institutions” to the media and to build a counternarrative apparatus with the power to subvert the Establishment narrative and replace it with the narrative of the critical theories. He implored the students to learn “how to use the mass media, how to organize production,” as part of a “concerted effort to build up counterinstitutions” and develop mastery over “the great chains of information and indoctrination.”

Over time, they did. The radicals waged a generational war for the prestige media, and the critical theories became the house style of establishment opinion.

The triumph of this “long march through the media” can be represented in miniature through the conquest of The New York Times, which has long been the top prize in American media.

Fifty years ago, The Timesridiculed Marcuse. One reviewer trashed “An Essay on Liberation” as a “rehash of discredited fantasies” that “reeked of totalitarianism.” Another published a snide criticism of “Counterrevolution and Revolt,” portraying the philosopher as a ridiculous, if slightly dangerous, figure who gave false legitimacy to violence and revolution.

When Marcuse died in 1979, the paper published an obituary dismissing the professor as a transitory historical artifact, noting that “as the social unrest of the 1960s dissipated, Dr. Marcuse faded from view just as suddenly as he had become a visible, if reluctant, folk hero.”

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But the Establishment voices at The Timesunderestimated Marcuse, whose ideas would outlast and eventually supplant the moderate position at the paper of record. Like one of the Weathermen’s time-controlled bombs, Marcuse’s philosophy would eventually explode—and consume the newsroom.

This conquest came late but progressed quickly. According to a veteran New York Times reporter, who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisals, the paper’s ideological shift began in the aftermath of the Great Recession, as executives laid off many veteran writers and began hiring hundreds of younger reporters who had been steeped in the critical theories at elite universities.

These new employees waged a “generational battle” against existing leadership at the paper and the writers’ union, eschewing traditional labor concerns in favor of agitating for the implementation of diversity programs and left-wing ideological priorities.

“I think what’s happening in the larger body of The Timesvery much mirrors what was happening in the union,” said the reporter, “and now we’re deeply immersed in DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] battles and battles over race [and] gender.”

It was, in the words of another writer, a “revolution.”

Following their takeover of the union, the faction of younger, ideologically driven employees—not just writers, but designers, coders, marketers, and other creatives—set a new tone for the newsroom and shifted the paper dramatically leftward. As the social scientist Zach Goldberg has meticulously documented, the vocabulary of the critical theories rapidly conquered the paper’s linguistic universe.

Between 2011 and 2019, the frequency of the word “racist(s)” and “racism” increased by 700% and 1,000%; between 2013 and 2019 the frequency of the phrase “white privilege” increased 1,200% and the frequency of the phrase “systemic racism” increased by 1,000%. This new sensibility quickly captured the op-ed page, as well as the hard news sections and the offices of management, human resources, and diversity programming.

Meanwhile, the spirit of Marcuse’s “liberating tolerance,” in which accusations of racism and sexism are wielded to silence dissent, has become the dominant internal culture. According to the veteran Timesreporter, there is a pervasive fear among many older managers and editors, who “feel which way the wind’s blowing” and disappear during moments of controversy, hoping to maintain their reputation and avoid public condemnation.

“There was a strain of left-liberal thinking on free speech that owes very much to Marcuse, and that’s probably true in our newsroom as well,” said the senior reporter, noting that the old stalwarts of free expression, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, have also succumbed to the logic of Marcuse’s philosophy. “It could be a real disaster,” the writer said. “You can’t just keep calling everything racist and think that that’s going to hold forever.”

The capture of The New York Times was a pivotal turn in the long march through the institutions. The New Left-inspired activists had already achieved hegemony over the academic journals, but these publications reached a limited, insular audience of professors and administrators. The Times, by contrast, penetrates the consciousness of 100 million readers, plus immense secondary audiences on television, radio, and social media.

If the university provided the theory of the revolution, the paper provided the mechanism for transmission, turning the fringe ideas formulated in “An Essay on Liberation” and at the Flint War Council [a series of Weather Underground meetings in 1969 where the group decided to engage in guerilla warfare against the U.S. government] into the new liberal consensus. As The Timeschanged, the other primary channels of left-leaning media followed suit: The Washington Post, NPR, MSNBC—even the wire services—all converged on the framing and language of the New Left.

After securing power, the activists in the new “countermedia” deployed the model of political change that had been developed in the universities: flooding the discourse with heavily loaded political concepts in order to shape the popular consciousness and precondition the public for left-wing political conclusions.

This process could be called “linguistic overload,” in which a key set of ideological phrases is repeated at mass scale and embedded into the public mind through the force of repetition. As Marcuse had counseled the young activists, “The sociological and political vocabulary must be radically reshaped: it must be stripped of its false neutrality; it must be methodically and provocatively ‘moralized’ in terms of the Refusal.”

When this is accomplished, the activists believed, the masses will interpret their experience through the language of revolution—say, “systemic racism” or “police brutality”—and arrive at the predetermined conclusions almost automatically.

From the book, “America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything.” Copyright © 2023 by Christopher F. Rufo. Reprinted by permission of Broadside Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

The Daily Signal publishes a variety of perspectives. Nothing written here is to be construed as representing the views of The Heritage Foundation. 

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