Despite the fact that the average American journalist is around 47 years old, members of the media tend to be remarkably concerned about what college students are doing. Our elders have long fretted about the destruction of their beloved norms at the hands of younger generations, but the 21st-century cranky old man-journalist (he's most always a man) gives his irascibility an intellectual façade. To openly complain about kids today and their iPhones might seem passé for most journalists outside of USA Today; this kind of petty generational warfare is generally considered the territory of letters-to-the-editor and conservative uncles you muted on Facebook. The urbane, respectable media grump, then, must sublimate his complaints with concerns about a so-called new, scary breed of campus activism, creating an irritating and dubious media narrative that refuses to die.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing results of Donald Trump’s election has been the increase in the frequency and severity of both student action and articles condemning student action. In February 2017, former Breitbart editor and pedophilia apologist Milo Yiannopoulos was prevented from giving a lecture at UC Berkeley by violent protesters. Despite reports that Yiannopoulos was planning to use his platform to target individual undocumented students, just as he had singled out and mocked the appearance of a transgender student during a talk at the University of Wisconsin a few months prior, the mainstream media was quick to defend him. In March, the infamous race scientist Charles Murray was shouted down from speaking at Middlebury College, a turn of events that prompted an outcry by from both the right and the left, including Peter Beinart in the Atlantic, Jill Filipovic in Cosmopolitan, and Andrew Sullivan in New York. Sullivan was particularly passionate, given that he considers Murray a personal friend, but also particularly incoherent, given that he gave himself a mental illness by blogging too much. Sullivan wrote: “We need facts independent of anyone’s ideology or political side, if we are to survive as a free and democratic society. Trump has surely shown us this.” The New York Times estimated that Trump received $2 billion in free media coverage during the election. If Trump’s victory proves anything, it’s the opposite of what Sullivan contends — the unfiltered airing of retrograde, racist views, even when given nominal critique afterward, only serves to empower the far right.
The same process played out last month when Ann Coulter withdrew from a speech at the University of California-Berkeley, reportedly because the university caved to demands by violent demonstrators and canceled the event. This was the version Coulter gave to the press, but the reality was more complicated. The student groups who invited Coulter, Young America’s Foundation and Berkeley College Republicans, never actually received permission from the school to hold the event. The groups told the administration that there was a “50 percent chance of Ann Coulter coming to speak in the last week of April” and later declared with less than a month’s notice that she would be coming to speak on the 27th. The students demanded a 500-person venue for Coulter, which proved difficult for the university given that their largest lecture hall was closed for renovation. The administration was able to fill the request, but only if pushed back five days to May 2. The students refused, and so the event was called off. Despite the facts, journalists again interpreted Coulter’s withdrawal as emblematic of a culture of illiberalism and a far-left takeover of the university system. Just as planned, Ann Coulter achieved a PR victory, and not through Breitbart or WorldNetDaily — through the mainstream media outlets — CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, the Atlantic — that covered her scheme at length.
In some cases, the obsession with inconsequential campus politics seems to be a way for journalists to relive their glory days. The campus — and particularly the Ivy League campus — is a sacrosanct place in the mind of the archetypal mainstream journalist: white, male, upper middle class, insecure, and (superficially) well-educated. Think Andy Bernard from The Office, the overqualified 30-something salesman who boasts of his Cornell degree at every opportunity. In one of the later episodes, he erupts in anger upon learning that the current members of his old a capella group is uninterested in letting him do a cameo performance, at which point he considers moving back to Ithaca in order to regain their respect.
For journalists, this interplay between nostalgia and jealous rage happens in full view of the public. The prime example of this phenomenon is found in the work of New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait. Two years ago, Chait began churning out extended rants about the dire threat PC culture poses to the modern university. The first of these, titled “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say,” appeared in January 2015. It begins with an Andy Bernard moment. A student at Chait’s alma mater, the University of Michigan, was fired from the school newspaper, the Michigan Daily, after writing an embarrassing satire of campus liberalism for its conservative counterpart the Michigan Review. The column, it deserves to be said, is terrible and unfunny, and comes across like something Ben Shapiro might have written after taking two Ambien. Why, then, would a liberal columnist with a national platform feel the need to go to bat for a misguided student? Chait answers that question — it’s because, 25 years ago, he was the self-styled provocateur marring the school newspaper with tepid op-eds. And as a well-heeled member of the milquetoast journalistic elite, Chait can never regain that sense of brash, youthful iconoclasm. His response is a frustrated attempt to live vicariously through a younger generation by badgering them into submission.
Chait is by no means the only journalist with this fixation. Aside from the predictable hysteria in conservative rags like the National Review — which placed a hooded young anarchist on the cover of its latest issue — most liberal publications seem to have a resident scold set aside for the issue of student misbehavior. The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf covers the goings-on at various colleges with the dedication of a campus paper's opinion editor, despite the fact that he is 37 years old. Friedersdorf’s politics are similar to Chait’s — that is, libertarian-tinged centrism — but he does his readers a service by refraining from casting himself as the One True Liberal. His latest takedown of campus culture tackles an additional crotchety-old-man bugaboo: social media. How have Facebook and Twitter compounded the incredible danger students face while on an Ivy League campus, he asks. Friedersdorf requested student input, received dozens of emails, and chose to publish six. The results were underwhelming. One student was worried about being accused of cultural appropriation while throwing a “tequila-themed party.” No one actually accused her, but she was worried about it. A conservative student wrote: “It's rare that I open my mouth to put in my two cents. My views, if shared, would be labeled as racist, fascist, nationalist.” No one is actually suppressing this student’s speech, of course — he just fears that, hypothetically, his “racist, fascist” views might be loudly disagreed with. Really harrowing stuff. Friedersdorf made the exact opposite argument in his previous article, titled “What an NYU Administrator Got Wrong About Campus Speech.” In it, he responds to said administrator’s opinion piece in the New York Times, which argued against absolute free speech using Holocaust denial as an example. Friedersdorf wrote: “...even though robust free-speech protections permitted anyone to deny the Holocaust in America... Holocaust denial stayed a highly stigmatized, fringe belief. The descendants of Holocaust survivors are not marginal victims kept down by bygone free speech. So the culture of relatively absolute free speech worked.” In this confused view, the stigmatization of fringe, racist beliefs is both a sign of a vibrant free-speech culture and of a crushing authoritarian dystopia. It is here that Friedersdorf reveals his true vision of free speech: an infinitely malleable cudgel for beating back uppity teens.
The obsession with inconsequential campus politics seems to be a way for journalists to relive their glory days.
Journalists’ continuing obsession with the goings-on at colleges plays directly into the hands of right-wing activists. Student activists and the columnists who derive pleasure from scolding their protesting tactics are easy prey for publicity-hungry provocateurs. Right-wing campus organizations, which receive far more outside funding than their left-wing equivalents, are designed to create these controversies. Campus conservatives and figures like Yiannopoulos have mastered the art of encouraging a response from campus liberals at no real danger to themselves, casting themselves as victims and then crying “free speech” to the media. Last month, Mother Jones’ Josh Harkinson explained that these tactics have been repurposed from the left. “Supporters of Trump-boosting media provocateurs Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter have gleefully taken their cue from the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s,” Harkinson wrote. College Republicans and alt-right street brawlers alike have adopted the strategies laid out in Saul Alinsky’s 1971 book Rules for Radicals. Rule number 4: “Make opponents live up to their own book of rules.” And nothing, not racism, not sexism, not outright fascism, gets elite liberals as upset as a perceived violation of an unwritten rule.
The newly emboldened right is wholly unconcerned with living up to its own rules and revels in its own obvious hypocrisy. They do what they can get away with. By endlessly waging generational warfare against teenage radicals, the left divides itself between young and old at the right’s behest. There are two ways to repair this fault line. The first is to convince every Adderall-popping 18-year-old in America to silently tolerate right-wing campus pests whose existence is dedicated to riling them up. In this scenario, Ann Coulter would lose some much-desired publicity, sure, but what incentive do the students have to refrain from protesting? Even in the absence of property damage and cancelled speeches, does the scolding stop? No — America’s top newspapers just switch back to lambasting freshmen for not liking Bahn Mi Night at the dining hall. So then, method two: instead of repeatedly demanding that teenagers be reasonable, America’s middle-aged journalists stop making campus squabbles national news.