In his 1922 book, Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann argued that the complexities of democratic society required management of public opinion by experts and journalists through the “manufacture of consent.” The idea was popularized later in the century by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent, in which they argued that mass media pursue a “propaganda model” that protects the interests of the elite by refusing to report on information counter to the interests of America’s most powerful people.

Judging by a recent series of stories about Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, the media have moved beyond manufacturing consent and into the business of manufacturing reality.

In a story published in mid-May in the New York Times, reporter Jodi Kantor implied that Justice Alito had flown an upside-down American flag (typically a sign of distress) at his home in support of Donald Trump and those who participated in the events of January 6, and that this act posed serious ethical challenges to Alito’s ability to rule objectively in upcoming cases before the Court. There was a lot of tut-tutting about “the appearance of impartiality” from “experts” who claimed that the justice had crossed an ethical line, and plenty of innuendo throughout the story about Alito’s supposed motives.

Kantor followed up the initial story with several more; indeed, if you read the story online, a banner appears across the top of the website helpfully directing you to the many additional stories that now form what the Times is calling “Alito’s Flag Controversies,” including pieces with titles such as “Another Provocative Flag,” “A ‘Stop the Steal’ Symbol,” and (cue ominous background music) “Who Is Martha-Ann Alito?” Spoiler alert: wife.

The Times even sent Kantor and two additional reporters to the Alito beach house, where (gasp!) they discovered an “Appeal to Heaven” flag, which they described, incorrectly, as a banner that “fell into obscurity until recent years and is now a symbol of support for former President Donald J. Trump, for a religious strand of the ‘Stop the Steal’ campaign and for a push to remake American government in Christian terms.” So obscure is this flag that the Times’ intrepid reporters failed to discover that for the past 60 years it has also flown outside that well-known hotbed of fascism, San Francisco’s City Hall.

Not to be outdone, the Washington Post joined the effort, and like the Times, reported the events in question as if they were compelling breaking news. In fact, we learned, the Post had known about the upside-down flag situation three years earlier but had determined that it was part of a private dispute between Mrs. Alito and her neighbor and decided not to run a story about it. That was then (and before the Court overturned Roe v. Wade with its Dobbs decision, opinion by Alito). Suddenly, the Washington Post discovered an urgent need to publish multiple stories (more than six in one week alone) with provocative headlines such as “New Alito Flag Report Triggers Fresh Democratic Outrage.”

The outrage was Lippmann’s dream come true, manufactured as it has been by the media outlets generating the endless stories, especially considering the mundane facts behind the events themselves. As the Post already knew, the kerfuffle began as a confrontation between Mrs. Alito (not Justice Alito) and a neighbor in early 2021, which led to some intemperate exchanges and Mrs. Alito’s somewhat petty upside-down-flag remonstrance. As Justice Alito told the Times, “I had no involvement whatsoever in the flying of the flag,” adding, “It was briefly placed by Mrs. Alito in response to a neighbor’s use of objectionable and personally insulting language on yard signs.” As Justice Alito told the Times, the neighbor in question displayed “F—k Trump” yard signs near a school bus stop and called Mrs. Alito “the C-word.”

As Alito explained further, in a letter to Congress about the flag, “As soon as I saw it, I asked my wife to take it down, but for several days, she refused.” He added, “I was not aware of any connection between this flag and the ‘Stop the Steal Movement,’ and neither was my wife. She did not fly it to associate herself with that or any other group.” That should have been the end of it, and the story should have lived and died as a spicy post on Nextdoor. Why instead did it dominate coverage in two of the nation’s most powerful newspapers and on cable news for weeks?

The answer signals something deeply troubling about legacy-media institutions. Justice Alito’s entirely reasonable explanation for the events in question meant nothing in the face of reporters’ efforts to flood the zone with their own manufactured reality, which sought to portray a sitting Supreme Court justice as a quasi-fascist sympathizer who should recuse himself from ruling on important upcoming cases. As other media critics on the right have noted, this is part of a broader effort to delegitimize the Supreme Court and its conservative majority, particularly in the wake of the Dobbs decision.

This explains why so many other media outlets quickly fell into line to promote the new reality and their new shared political goal: forcing Justice Alito to sit out of upcoming cases involving former President Donald Trump and the events of January 6. An editor at the Denver Post posted on X, “Let it sink in for a moment that evidence strongly supports that Samuel Alito supported the Stop the Steal movement.” Politico described “the swirling controversy facing the high court” and highlighted a piece by reporter Ankush Khardori, who argued, “The Alito household’s display of those flags—no matter what prompted it or whose decision it was to fly them—means that Alito should recuse himself from the cases pending before the court concerning Trump’s alleged efforts to steal the election.” Khardori even claimed that Alito’s letter to Congress explaining the neighborhood dispute “runs afoul of the most basic judicial ethical norms: Judges are not supposed to signal their views on matters that are likely to come before the court.” He also scolded Democrats, adding, “The whole episode also shows the fecklessness of Democrats, who seem to be reluctant to try to hold the court to account—which may have only encouraged the conservative justices to feel like they have free rein to flout judicial norms.” 

The only fecklessness revealed is that of journalists who like to masquerade as ethics wardens while pursuing partisan campaigns against their ideological opponents. It should surprise no one that the standard these reporters apply to Alito is both novel and astonishingly rigorous compared with anything that has come before. These reporters had nothing to say about justices recusing themselves when the justice in question was Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who never recused herself when cases involving lawyers from her husband’s lucrative tax-law practice came before the Court, or after she made bla-tantly anti-Trump statements in public (for which she later apologized).

In the 20th century, concerns about establishment propaganda and the “manufacture of consent” came from outsiders on the left. That was then. Today, the factory manufacturing our new partisan reality is the establishment left and its many fellow travelers in mainstream media, who rely on their own manufactured controversies to justify the use of state power against their political opponents.

In a telling example of this new closed circle, Maryland Democratic Representative Jamie Raskin recently offered a tutorial for President Biden’s Department of Justice in the pages of the New York Times: “How to Force Justices Alito and Thomas to Recuse Themselves in the Jan. 6 Cases.” His main justification for threatening members of a co-equal branch of government constitutionally protected from congressional interference? The manufactured upside-down flag controversy first reported in the Times.

Photo: AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

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