The Raft of the Medusa
The Washington Post proves that, no matter how hard you try, you can't cover some stories neutrally.
In 1819, the young French artist Théodore Géricault unveiled to the public his painting, The Raft of the Medusa. While Géricault intended to send a political message — against the incompetence of the current regime, against slavery, against colonialism — there was practically no way that any painting about the topic could have avoided politics.
The incident on which Géricault based his painting happened just three years earlier. In 1816, the incompetence of the captain of a French frigate, the Medusa, led to its entirely avoidable grounding on a sand bar near Mauretania. On board was a mélange of French colonial life: the new colonial governor of Senegal, his family, and other officials, who were protective of the covert slave trade in France’s colony; a group of abolitionists who wanted to upend the colonial order; common sailors and their officers; Europeans and Africans. Since there was not enough room on the lifeboats for everyone on the ship, the less privileged passengers tried to escape the ship on a makeshift raft, with very little food and water. For the next several days, the victims of this disaster endured starvation, dehydration, madness, suicide, and cannibalism. Out of 150 who boarded the raft, only 15 survived (largely by accident, since the frigate that found them was not looking for them).
Blame immediately fell on the incompetent captain, promoted to his position through a system of patronage that defined the post-Napoleonic government. While Géricault played up the racial elements of the disaster, placing a black man at the most conspicuous part of the painting, critics had already targeted that aspect of the scandal. The Medusa incident was already a raw wound, widening by the separations between defenders of the Bourbonist monarchy and its opponents, between colonialists and anti-colonialists, between defenders of privilege and defenders of people on the lowest rungs.
Even if Géricault had wanted to paint the scene less horrifically, his work would still be making a political statement. By leaning into the racism and horror, he put himself in one political camp. If, instead, he had whitewashed those elements, he would have put himself in the other camp. The choice of depicting this incident ensured that The Raft of the Medusa would be a political statement, no matter how Géricault painted it.
On Monday, The Washington Post found itself in the same position where neutrality was impossible, though at least one writer, and also the editors, certainly must have thought it was possible. On Monday, the Post published an article with the unintentionally hilarious title, “Was the notion of a competitive Republican primary just a mirage?” The author, Dan Balz, provided what seems like an anodyne “analysis” of the Republican race up to the point of Monday’s Iowa caucus, and at that point, the impending New Hampshire primary. Balz’s article was full of unremarkable statements like the following:
Was it all a mirage, this notion of a Republican Party open to abandoning Donald Trump in 2024? For all the vulnerabilities attributed to him at this time last year, and there were some, they quickly melted away. The Republican nomination was never to be a fair fight…
The Republican contest offered the possibility at least of competition. But that was because DeSantis had started on an upswing, thanks to his big reelection victory in 2022 and Trump’s stumbles in those same midterm elections. But almost every twist and turn in this Republican campaign has accrued to Trump’s benefit. Four indictments and 91 felony counts? Wouldn’t that make Republicans question whether Trump should be their nominee? The answer was resounding. The indictments consolidated his support rather than fracturing it. That was the biggest of the game changers…
Trump benefited in 2016 from a fractured field of candidates who declined to quit when it was clear they had no chance. Now the field has winnowed even earlier than might have been expected. On Tuesday, Haley will either prove or not that there is still significant hunger among enough Republican voters to select a nominee other than the former president. Then it could be decision time for her, as it was for DeSantis, Chris Christie, Tim Scott, Mike Pence, Asa Hutchinson, Doug Burgum and Vivek Ramaswamy.
One might question the need to write down observations this obvious, on par with noting that ghost peppers are hot, cars can go fast, and, reassuringly, while the sun disappears at night, it always returns in the morning. It is the worst sort of faux analysis, words stated emphatically, meant to sound meaningful, but ultimately empty and unnecessary.
Of course, Balz’s article did not appear ex nihilo. It came after weeks of the Washington Post, and other news outlets, following the Republican “race” as if it were a normal primary process. Let’s hear them debate, awaiting the typical scripted zingers and unscripted gaffes. Let’s follow them on the campaign trail, as they ingest beer and burgers like ordinary folk, and pose next to butter sculptures and corn mazes. Let’s expend air time and brain power on predicting who next will fall off one of the tiny ice floes of public opinion. Let’s festoon the public space with infographics, punditry, and all the other journalistic embellishments that are as much part of the normal democratic process as wreaths, multi-colored lights, and inflatable lawn Santas are to Christmas.
Except, of course, we’re not having a normal democratic process. Someone canceled Christmas, and we all know who it was. Except, this time, the Grinch has 30% of the Whos down in Whoville enthusiastically supporting the cancellation, and others afraid to say anything about it. Sure, some of the other Whos get a brief moment to parade as if this Yuletide were normal, but none of them have the courage to criticize the Grinch. Eventually, they will all fall in line, suffering a great Grinchian humiliation, bending the knee in the hopes that maybe, if the Grinch suffers a stroke, they might seize his ice-cold throne.
Any other story that the media might tell is, frankly, ridiculous. The pretense that you can cover this anti-democratic, fascistic take-over of the Republican Party, as if it hadn’t happened, is as absurdly self-deluded as the Sneetches. There is no way to neutrally cover the Republic “race,” which barely extended into the first primaries, just as there was no way for Géricault to make The Raft of the Medusa politically neutral. The Post’s faux analysis is the equivalent of someone in 1819 trying to depict the Medusa disaster in such agency-free, conflict-avoidant language as, “It’s just God’s will, it’s horrible what happened to those poor wretches, but it’s just the way of the world.”
If you think I’m being too hard on The Washington Post because of one article, consider the hundreds of articles it published since the “children’s table” Republican non-primary started. When is DeSantis going to implode? How annoying will Ramaswamy be in the next debate? Will Haley stop vomiting up her verbal equivalent of warmed-over potato salad? How many verbal broadsides will Christie deliver before his candidacy sinks? All of this is news, in the most minor way possible, at a time when far more important events are happening, but get less attention from the Post.
The electronic front page of The Washington Post presents the same elevation of the trivial. At a time when there are two high-stakes wars raging (and expanding), a significant part of the electorate wants to elect a strongman, that strongman has openly sworn to jackhammer the foundations of American democracy and governance, we are facing not one but multiple constitutional crises, authoritarianism is on the march, the international order is in flux, and we face countless other serious problems, the front page of the Post puts many of these issues behind a wall of triviality. For example, looking at the app today, the front page featured these pressing issues of our perilous times:
- My first Sundance: Stars recall tales of couch surfing, bidding wars
- The McDonald’s Double Big Mac is too much of a good (bad) thing
- How to choose a protein powder that’s better for the planet
- Work Advice: I exposed a friend who cut corners, and now I feel lousy
- Salt in tea? US chemistry professor’s recipe brews controversy in UK
- Carolyn Hax: Force a teen into hobbies besides watching YouTube all day?
- Why reviving a 2,600-year-old spiritual practice made my life better
- Cooking chat: What should I serve to guests while watching football?
To be fair, the front page did contain some more substantive stories about the Middle East, drought in the American West, and the impact of abortion on this year’s election. However, the more meaningful news is merely sprinkled into the stew of less meaningful stories. The stories about the Sundance film festival (very close to the top), the Double Big Mac (not far below), and protein powder (appearing twice in roughly the same area), trumped, in vertical positioning, the latest updates from Israel and Gaza, the first nitrogen gas execution, and a ban on gender-affirming care for minors. Other substantive stories appeared not at all in the front-page gallery of what should be worth our attention.
As the famous Marshall McLuhan maxim states, the medium is the message. In the case of the Washington Post’s coverage of the Republican non-primary, and the positioning of news in general, the message is, we live in a comfortable time when we can afford to be concerned primarily about the McDonald’s menu, the superiority of wired headphones over AirPods, or what programming is worth watching during “Whodunit January.” Nothing to see here, normal primaries will continue happening, the Republican Party is not a fascist cult of personality, and there aren’t daily efforts to undermine the norms and institutions that keep this country intact and functional. (A recent example: the governor of Texas wants America to re-consider the concept of nullification.)
Changing the motto of a newspaper to “Democracy Dies In Darkness” is a very small gesture, not something that changes the way that a major outlet presents the news. Shining a light in the darkness is not nearly enough, if you focus on a minor tussle among bear cubs near your flimsy tent, while the mother grizzly is still at large.