When media critic Eric Alterman first invoked the term "working the refs" back in 2003, the concept described something very real.
Journalists would investigate and write a story that supposedly made the right look bad, or the left look good, and conservative media outlets and personalities would pounce, barraging the newspaper, magazine, or television network with abuse, hurling accusation of liberal bias, lack of objectivity, and flagrant unfairness. In response, reporters, editors, and, most importantly, corporate owners — the so-called referees — would make sure to back off in their future coverage.
That's how the right "worked the refs" — by targeting those in positions of power in media organizations, using their own journalistic standards as a cudgel to repress any harsh coverage of the right, and threatening them with a torrent of bad publicity for their alleged hypocrisy and bad faith if they failed to exercise caution and restraint.
Interestingly, I was recently accused on Twitter of doing precisely this — because I wrote critically about the "1619 Project" at The New York Times. Apparently I was "working the refs" by questioning the overarching aim of project — which is to place slavery and its legacy "at the very center" of the American story — pointing to analytical weaknesses in specific essays, and criticizing the Times for surrendering to the sensibility of left-wing political activists. This would supposedly make it harder for the Times and other news outlets to do this kind of hard-hitting work in the future, because powerful people would hesitate to allow journalists at the paper to open themselves up to the kinds of criticisms I raised in my column.
I find that unpersuasive — and not just because I'm hardly that influential. It's unpersuasive because, whatever its accuracy during the early years of the Bush administration, the concept of "working the refs," at least as it was originally deployed, no longer accurately describes the media landscape. Reporters, editors, and corporate overlords don't worry about abuse hurled their way by Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and other rabble-rousers on the right. They cower in fear before online mobs of leftists. They are the ones "working the refs" today.
We've all seen it happen in the past few years: A media company makes a hire or publishes a "hot take" that antagonizes the left, thousands of angry wasps emerge from the kicked nest, the venomous swarm surrounds the newspaper, magazine, website, or cable news network and its employees on Twitter, and the organization either yields or undergoes an internal convulsion of soul-searching and recrimination for having made a terrible mistake. The firings are part of the public record, and sometimes so are the internal struggle sessions, thanks to leaked transcripts in which members of senior management abjectly apologize and squirm in the face of outraged accusations on the part of more junior staffers. The bosses invariably promise to "do better next time" by taking the feelings of the online activists, claiming to speak for voiceless victims of injustice in the public at large, far more seriously in the future.
This shift is quite remarkable. The right-wing ref-workers of the past accomplished their goals by appealing (often, though not always, in bad faith) to journalistic ideals of objectivity and fairness. This led to the production of news that was frequently bland, marked by a vacuously bipartisan neutrality, and filled with unearned false equivalences between Democrats and Republicans.
By contrast, today's online outrage mobs (and those staffers who either agree with them or merely tremble before them) have succeeded in turning this tendency on its head. Left-wing activists on social media abide by very different and much more stridently political standards than traditional journalists. They are firmly convinced they know precisely what the truth is and exactly what justice requires, and they demand that media companies and the content they disseminate conform to it with unwavering consistency and rigor. It matters little whether this represents the abandonment of objectivity and fairness as ideals or the collapse of the distinction between political activism and those ideals. Either way, the outcome is the same: The digital mob works the refs, and the refs capitulate.
The inversion of long-standing principles and convictions in the face of politicized moral denunciation resembles nothing so much as the way university administrators and many members of college faculties responded to the student protest movement's shift toward violent confrontation during the late 1960s. Through the immediate postwar decades, professors and senior staff at universities were proud, confident pillars of the country's centrist-liberal establishment. But confronted by impassioned protests that culminated in students brandishing weapons and occupying buildings at Columbia, Cornell, and elsewhere, they either surrendered or sought to atone for their sins by becoming latter-day converts to countercultural causes.
Today, aside from antifa street protests, which seem to be rare everywhere but Portland, Oregon, the violence practiced by the left is purely verbal. Yet the online strong-arming is remarkably effective. Yes, journalists tend to skew left, especially on social issues. Yes, young people today, very much including young staffers at media companies, tend to lean quite a bit further left than their elders. And yes, having Donald Trump in the White House is an incredibly powerful catalyst for repelling all but the staunchest conservatives from the right.
Still, are the people in charge of decision-making at leading newsgathering organizations, from NPR to The Washington Post, really uniformly left-wing on immigration, as one would conclude by following their coverage of the issue? At the Times, were the powers that be really convinced that placing slavery "at the very center … of who we are as a country" was a good idea? Do the refs really think all of this and more is compatible with and even follows from their journalistic missions? Or have they merely been "worked" into passivity and submission by online bullies?
It's hard to say which option would be worse. Though it's even more difficult to imagine what other explanation could be possible.