Those “laws of political gravity?” They were never really laws.
From a week ago on Twitter:
— Ben Smith (@BuzzFeedBen) November 23, 2015
Not quite, Ben.
I was not a fan of the way the political press used its gatekeeping powers when they were more robust. I felt that political journalism had lost its way. Still do. But I never called for, or looked forward to a system in which journalists and journalism ceased to matter. A public service press is one way we can hold power to account. It helps prevent lying from being raised to a universal principle in politics. That is important work. We need to figure out how it can continue.
Now to Ben Smith’s point — media gatekeepers don’t have that kind of muscle any more — add these observations:
There was almost always a line that wasn’t crossed in years past, a sort of even-partisans-can-agree-on-this standard. Now, in large part because of Donald Trump’s candidacy, that line has been smudged out of existence. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous quote that “you are entitled to your own opinion … but you are not entitled to your own facts” is no longer operative in this campaign.
The media refs are really savaging him after a couple of misstatements and missteps, even as they struggle to understand why he pays no penalty when they blow the whistle. What they don’t quite grasp is that their attacks only make him stronger. This is not to let him off the hook for mistakes, just to recognize that Trump has completely rewritten the rule book, infuriating those who thought they enforced the rules.
Until recently, the narrative of stories like this has been predictable. If a candidate said something nuts, or seemingly not true, an army of humorless journalists quickly dug up all the facts, and the candidate ultimately was either vindicated, apologized, or suffered terrible agonies… That dynamic has broken down this election season. Politicians are quickly learning that they can say just about anything and get away with it. Along with vindication, apology and suffering, there now exists a fourth way forward for the politician spewing whoppers: Blame the backlash on media bias and walk away a hero.
I spoke to a lot of his supporters who are waiting to come into this rally. And I asked them what they think of Donald Trump and whether or not they’re bothered by his inaccurate statements and whether they think they matter. And not a single one of them said that they thought it mattered. They said they like him because they think he’s going to be a strong leader, and they think he’s going to bring the change to Washington that they want. In fact, they blame the liberal media, as they say, on perpetrating lies against Donald Trump. They repeatedly asked, why don’t you ask this about Hillary Clinton, why don’t you ask this about President Obama? So there’s definitely a party line feeling among his supporters, that it is us-versus-them. And unfortunately, the media is very much the ‘them’ in this situation.
How should we interpret all this? Let me try my hand.
1. “The laws of political gravity” were never laws.
To an extent unrealized before this year, the role of the press in presidential campaigns relied on shared assumptions within the political class and election industry about what the rules were and what the penalty would be for violating them. This was the basis for familiar rituals like “the gaffe,” which in turn relied on assumptions about how a third party, the voters, would react once they found out about the violation. These assumptions were rarely tested because the risk seemed too high, and because risk-averse professionals — strategists, they’re called — were in charge of the campaigns.
The whole system rested on shared beliefs about what would happen if candidates went beyond the system as it stood cycle to cycle. Those beliefs have now collapsed because Trump “tested” and violated most of them— and he is still leading in the polls. (Rob Ford in Canada was there before Trump.) There has been a cascading effect as conventions that depended on one another give way. The political press is pretty stunned by these developments. It keeps asking: when will the “laws of political gravity” be restored? Or have they simply vanished?
“The question now is whether Candidate Trump is immune from the laws of political gravity or soon will be isolated and regarded as an object of scorn or curiosity rather than of presidential seriousness,” wrote the Washington Post’s Dan Balz back in July. (Other uses of that phrase here, here and here.) But what the press describes as “laws” were never really that. They were at best conventions among the political class, in which I include most Washington journalists— though they would not include themselves.
2. Isomorphism for the win!
“Institutional isomorphism,” a phrase only an academic could love, is the title of a famous paper in sociology (DiMaggio and Powell, 1983) that sought to explain why different institutions in the same field tend to resemble each other, even as they struggle to compete and to “win.” The authors observe that “organizations tend to model themselves after similar organizations that they perceive to be more legitimate or successful.” It’s not a coincidence. There are structural forces at work that appear again and again across vastly different industries and fields.
For example, if a firm is competing for talent it will want to offer the same kind of stage for talent to display itself. Meanwhile, the talent knows that if it cannot mesh well with competing firms it has no leverage over its current one. When Jeff Zeleny, a political reporter for ABC News, moved to CNN this year (to do the same thing he did at ABC) he did not have to assimilate a new view of politics or a different definition of the journalist’s role. Isomorphism had already taken care of that. No one thinks this the least bit remarkable.
Similarly, when in 2009 CNN created ‘State of the Union’ to compete with the likes of ‘Meet the Press’ and ‘Face the Nation,’ it simply copied those shows in almost every detail. Again, no one thinks that’s weird. It’s just what you do in TV news.
Highly structured organizational fields [presidential campaigns would qualify as one, but so would large news organizations] provide a context in which individual efforts to deal rationally with uncertainty and constraint often lead in the aggregate to homogeneity in structure, culture and output.
In other words, the more they try to compete at one level the more similar they become at all the others. (True for universities too.) But notice: Trump is not an institution. He is really his own campaign manager, spokesman and chief strategist, which means that the chief strategist of the Trump campaign — Trump — doesn’t care if he ever gets hired by another campaign. Poof! There goes one of the little structural forces that tend toward isomorphism. Multiply by 100 and you have pundits asking: have the laws of political gravity been repealed?
3. Weak sense of purpose.
DiMaggio and Powell note that isomorphism is especially likely in institutions with ambiguous or unclear goals. That describes the teams of reporters, editors and producers who create most of the campaign coverage we see.
In May of this year I attended a two-day conference in Chicago for journalists covering the 2016 campaign. Among the panelists were established stars like Chuck Todd of NBC and Mark Halperin of Bloomberg, along with the chairs and communications directors of the two major parties. In the audience were young journalists assigned to election coverage from news organizations around the country. One of the striking things about the event (for me) was the complete vacuum of discussion around the ultimate aims of campaign coverage. No one even thought to ask: what are we trying to accomplish here? What’s the goal of our coverage in 2016? Everyone already knew the answer: We’re here to cover the campaign! To find great stories that readers will love! To be savvy analysts of what’s likely to happen. There’s a circularity to these answers that doesn’t register among the people working inside the circle.
Why does this matter? First, because it leads to a homogeneity in coverage that isn’t chosen but automatic. Second, another way to ask about ultimate goals is to put the question in a more threatening form: what’s your agenda in covering the campaign? To that question the political journalists at NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, PBS, NPR, New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Politico, Time magazine would all return the same non-answer. No agenda, just solid coverage. “We report, you decide.” (Fox News.) “The Only Side We Choose is Yours.” (CNN.)
In founding FNC, Roger Ailes understood the isomorphic factor and decided to ape the conventions of TV news, while shifting the product to appeal to an under-served market and thereby become a force in Republican politics. One of the conventions he aped is to keep silent on questions of purpose. Into that vacuum flow accusations of bias, which is fine with Ailes. (“I’ll tell you what your agenda is!”) That flow has now become a raging torrent, eroding trust, coarsening dialogue, re-inforcing bad habits like false balance, and acting as a wedge issue in the media sphere.
4.) Strong sense of purpose.
For a good contrast with punting on questions of purpose I offer you Univision and its lead anchor Jorge Ramos, who knows what he’s for and which public he represents.
“The Republican Party has been complaining lately about how some Latino journalists, including me, only ask them about immigration,” he said. “That is correct, but what Republicans don’t understand is that for us, the immigration issue is the most pressing symbolically and emotionally, and the stance a politician takes on this defines whether he is with us or against us.”
Ramos, who is one of the most trusted public figures among American Latinos, according to polls, has been an outspoken supporter of federal legislation that would pave a path to citizenship for those living in the country illegally.
He has pressed candidates from both parties on the issue. In the 2012 campaign, he hammered President Obama, who had promised but failed to deliver an immigration bill during his first term. More recently, he has criticized Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, who as a senator from Florida helped write an immigration reform bill but dropped support for it after it drew conservative anger
“Both parties now view him with trepidation,” said the New York Times in January. The example of Ramos shows that knowing what you’re for doesn’t have to mean joining the team or taking a party line. It’s possible to maintain your independence, win trust with your audience, and gain a clear sense of purpose when you’re out on the campaign trail. But you have to break with the pack.
And as I have written before there is a difference — a crucial difference — between doing politics and doing journalism:
If your job is to make the case, win the negotiations, decide what the community should do, or maintain morale, that is one kind of work. If your job is to tell people what’s going on, and equip them to participate without illusions, that is a very different kind of work. To put it a little more sharply, power-seeking and truth-seeking are different behaviors, and this is what creates the distinction between politics and journalism. The work of the journalist cannot be done without a commitment to the act of reporting, which means gathering information, talking to people who know, trying to verify and clarify what actually happened and to portray the range of views as they emerge from events.
A primary commitment to reporting therefore distinguishes the work of the journalist. Declining to express a view does not. Refusing to vote does not. Pretending to be ideology-free or “objective” on everything does not. Getting attacked from both sides? Nope.
Of course, everyone can’t be Jorge Ramos or take up the Latinos-in-America cause. That works for Univision and its English-language brand, Fusion. What would work for the mainstream media, as it is still called in the U.S.? Well, I don’t know. I tried to answer that question in 2010, and I think there may be some value in the approach I described there.
Probably the best thing that the major news organizations could do at this point is differentiate: that is, go right at the isomorphism. Try different approaches to untangling the mobius strip of Trump coverage, in which he attacks the news media, dominates its coverage, withstands its “checking” powers, astonishes its pundits, and feeds off the furor that all this creates. One thing I know. Tossing around terms like “post-truth” and then moving briskly on to other news — such as you see here — is not the sign of a serious press.
After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links
Disclosure: As reported by the Huffington Post, in 2016 my students and I will be collaborating with Fusion.net on different ways to do election journalism.
“It’s difficult for journalists to successfully call politicians on their incorrect or misleading claims in the absence of political opponents who are doing the same.” Political scientist David A. Hopkins responds to this post.
From Jonathan Stray, It’s not you: political journalism really is broken:
“Think for a minute what you could do about ____ that isn’t reading political news, then think if the political news you are reading helps you do that.”
Donald Trump May Not Be a Fascist, But He is Leading Us Merrily Down That Path by David Neiwert is a careful and detailed examination by a writer who knows what he’s talking about.
Ben Smith (now editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed, formerly a political reporter) responds:
@jayrosen_nyu will this all still be true if Trump washes out and we get the usual nominee? Or contingent on him doing well?
— Ben Smith (@BuzzFeedBen) November 30, 2015
I’m not sure what I said in this post that is contingent on Trump doing well, Ben.
PressThink, four years ago:
The lines are usually attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “You’re entitled to your own opinions. You’re not entitled to your own facts.”
But suppose there arose on the political scene a practical caucus for the opposite view. We are entitled to our own facts, and we will show you what we think of your attempt to “check” us. If that happened, would the press know what to do?
“Here’s what those of us trapped inside the gilded New York-Washington brain cage miss: Trump may not be telling the truth, but he’s sure as hell telling their truth. This allows him to shatter most conventions of presidential campaigning, especially the notion that you have to run a positive campaign (or at least outsource your vitriol to surrogates) in order to win.” —Glenn Thrush, Politico. (My italics.)