I grew up on NBC Nightly News. My mother was a big fan of Tom Brokaw, and she would not go without her news at 6:30 every evening. Her fandom continued under Brian Williams, a man that I also came to admire until his downfall. For most of my life, NBC was my primary source of news. In the recent era of digital online media, I fell off that viewing habit. Nonetheless, you could say I still have a special sentimentality for this daily program, and that is why their recent attack on Jordan Peterson was, in a way, hurtful to watch.
The whole segment stinks of a smear campaign. They start off by mislabeling him as a figure of the alt-right. The visual of Peterson at the thirty-second mark is grim and aggressive. It barely even resembles him. They give more time to a critic of his (John Semley) than they do to Peterson, who labels him as “dangerous,” and when asked if he and President Trump share ideological similarities, Semley says, “I would say fundamentally, yes: they both believe in this basic split of winners and losers, or hierarchies, of hierarchies as natural…”
When I watched it, I got the distinct impression that NBC Nightly News was intentionally trying to mislead viewers about Jordan Peterson. They would hardly be the first, but what does it mean that a major outlet like NBC would go on the offensive? Up to this point, much of the criticism of Peterson has been by lesser actors. I suspect his recent appearances on Fox News, another major outlet, have brought him under NBC’s radar. If, however, you watch these clips, there is nothing that Peterson says to suggest he is part of the alt-right. It is obvious why Tucker Carlson has invited him on his show: he is popular (always issue #1 for Fox), and he is critical of the far-left. As such, I would hesitate to say that the conservative news channel has noble, apolitical intentions, but Peterson, for his part, is not giving them more fake news to air.
To some people, the gall to appear on Fox News is a cardinal sin, but Peterson has shown that he is willing to appear wherever people invite him. He was also, as an example, a recent guest of liberal Bill Maher’s show Real Time with Bill Maher. He might also appear on MSNBC and CNN, if they would only invite him, and if they do invite him, it would probably benefit them not to go on the offensive. After all, the efforts to silence Peterson have only expanded his fame and his wealth.
The response to the clip from NBC is telling. Just over 100 people have liked that video on YouTube, but over 15,000 people have disliked it by now. As most of you familiar with YouTube should know, that is an unusually high level of hatred for a video to receive. Usually the more controversial videos seem to eke out a like ratio of about 60% in favor. Far from achieving their goals, NBC Nightly News appears to have provoked and angered people.
Nihil novum sub sole. It seems that left-leaning news sources (and the left in general) are going to continue this cycle of the backfire effect. The more they try to silence Peterson and mischaracterize him, the more people are going to take an interest in him, and many of them will come to realize that he is not as extreme as they were led to believe. This, in turn, will sour the reputations of major media outlets even further.
There are some similarities to this story and the election of Donald Trump. All the attempts by MSNBC and CNN to slam him only gave him a bigger audience. Make no mistake, Trump is someone worthy of unending criticism, but the kneejerk and often petty manner in which the media went against him only strengthened his candidacy. He did not have to spend nearly as much on advertising as other candidates. Part of me suspects that Trump intentionally said controversial things every day in order to dominate press coverage over his opponents. One cannot deny that, plan or no plan, it got him into the White House, and the millions of people who suffer as a result of his administration will have some thanks to give these channels.
Now that we see the left trying the same game with Peterson, what is the result of all of this? He is making at least $61,000 per month as of last October, before he decided to stop reporting his Patreon revenue, and since his number of patrons has risen significantly since that time, it would not be crazy to think that he is pulling in $100,000 per month now. His recent book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, is now a bestseller with hundreds of thousands of copies sold. He received his plaque from YouTube for gaining 1,000,000 subscribers just last week, showing an unusually meteoric rise for his channel. Far from banishing him to the pit, these attacks against him have turned Peterson into a millionaire.
In his appearance on the h3h3 Podcast, Peterson recalled a protester who was using a megaphone far too close to him and noted, “You deafen me at your peril.” Already on the rise at that point, this was a delicious double entendre. On the one hand, it is a plain statement: If you willingly try to damage my inner ear, I will harm you before you get the chance. On the other hand, it is a reflection of the failed attempts of the left to silence him.
Not that honest criticism is impossible — it is quite possible. What matters is that you actually commit to the standard of honesty. There are definitely areas where I question some of Peterson’s points. My first exposure to him was on Sam Harris’s podcast, in which Peterson presented one of the most confounding and functionally inapplicable views of the definition of truth. I also think he rather sloppily lumps Marxists, postmodernists, feminists and other far-left people into some kind of monolithic entity, even if many of his criticisms of the far-left are on point. I even have doubts as to whether his view that the nuclear family is the best or easiest environment for raising a child is valid. All of these things could be discussed and hashed out with nuance.
What we are not seeing, however, by the left is a fine-toothed refutation of the things that Peterson gets wrong. Instead, we are seeing a complete fabrication of what his views actually are. His interview with Cathy Newman on Channel 4 News is the quintessential case study of that, giving birth to the “So you’re saying” meme, as this snippet makes clear:
Peterson: [T]he reason that I write about lobsters is because there’s this idea that hierarchical structures are a sociological construct of the Western patriarchy. And that is so untrue that it’s almost unbelievable. And I use the lobster as an example, because we diverged from lobsters in evolutionary history about 350 million years ago, common ancestor. And lobsters exist in hierarchies, and they have a nervous system attuned to the hierarchy, and that nervous system runs on serotonin, just like our nervous systems do. And the nervous system of the lobster and the human being is so similar that anti-depressants work on lobsters. And it’s part of my attempt to demonstrate that the idea of hierarchy has absolutely nothing to do with sociocultural construction, which it doesn’t.
Newman: Let me just get this straight. You’re saying we should organize our societies along the lines of the lobsters?
Peterson: I’m saying that it’s inevitable that there will be continuity in the way that animals and human beings organize their structures.
Even Alex Wagner, one of the other guests during Peterson’s presence on Real Time, took part in this obvious fallacy:
Peterson: …if you’re a young parent, and you have many kids, then you kind of get outnumbered by your kids, and they aren’t gonna go and do their thing. And so, some of it’s demographic, and some of it’s attitudinal, and you know, maybe that’s a consequence of the pill and the fact that we —
Wagner: Yeah, let’s get rid of that!
Peterson: No, no, I didn’t say we should get rid of it, but it’s really thrown a — the fact that we have effective birth control means that families are much smaller…
These are not accurate or even remotely realistic criticisms. In fact, they are so hideously and willfully off the mark that one has to wonder how Newman or Wagner have been taken seriously enough to gain their careers as journalists. I am not saying that they should be fired, but when millions of people see figures like Newman or Wagner (or the good people of NBC) get paid handsome sums to tell blatant lies, it should leave little room for speculation whose side they are going to take. People have never liked phonies, not in days of Holden Caulfield and certainly not today.
Of course, it is never too late to beget goodwill with some goodwill of one’s own. The left still has plenty of valuable ideas and policy prescriptions, but for the superiority of their ideas to be made apparent, people like Peterson need to be given a fair shake. Openness and curiosity are the tools for interviewing anyone, especially figures like Peterson who have some points that may shock or surprise. Outlets like NBC need only to approach the people they interview with basic, journalistic integrity. Until NBC does that, they are not going to be able to defeat their ideological rivals, alt-right or otherwise. As our beloved professor from Toronto always says: Clean up your room first. Only then can you fix the world.