Tone poem for the “leave it there” press

Dec.
6
When journalists try to distance themselves from our hyper-polarized politics something has to be said. Here is my little attempt to say it.

This person — a political journalist: intelligent, informed — appears on my TV screen regularly during those roundtables where pundits try to dissect the news:

Over at the ‘Meet the Press’ site, where NBC’s Chuck Todd holds forth, this question was recently asked:

Why the selective political outrage?

It says something about our current polarized politics, as well as the sheer number of violent killings in this country, when the left and right are picking which mass shootings to exploit and fit into their own worldview. We saw it play out last week after a deranged man killed three people at a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado. And we saw it play out yesterday after we learned a Muslim married couple killed 14 in San Bernadino, CA — though we’re still learning more about their actual motive. But here’s our question: Shouldn’t our national and political outrage be the same, whether the shooter cried out “No more baby parts” or whether the shooters were Muslim with Arabic-sounding names?

It’s hard to know how seriously to take their bewilderment. These are people who live daily with “the partisan divide,” a cliché they helped make into a cliché. But on the chance that they’re being sincere let me be equally straight with them…

Every time you had to “leave it there” after ideologies clashed mindlessly, fruitlessly. Every dubious truth claim you had to let pass because challenging it might interrupt the flow or make you sound too partisan. Every time you defaulted to “will it work?” when the bigger question was “is it so?” Every dutiful effort you made to “get the other side” without asking if the number of sides was really two. Every time you asked each other “what’s the politics of this?” so you could escape the tedium and complexity of public problem-solving. Every time you smiled weakly to say, “depends on who you ask” before launching into a description of public actors who dwell in separate worlds of fact. Every time you described political polarization as symmetrical when it isn’t. Every time you denied that being in the middle was a position so you didn’t have to ask if it was a defensible one. Every time you excluded yourselves from a faltering political class. Every pox you put on both houses because it felt good to float above it all. Every eye you rolled at the humorless scolds who rage at the White House Correspondents dinner. Every time you jeered at the popularity of “partisan media” without reminding yourself “…there goes our audience.” Every time you laughed at the Daily Show’s treatment of you with no companion sense of dread. (They’re on to us.) Every time you said “the truth is probably somewhere in the middle” when you really had no clue. Every time you pointed with pride to the criticism you were getting from both sides, assuming it meant you were doing something right when you might have been doing everything wrong. Every operative you turned into an expert. Every unprincipled winner you admired for their savvy. Every time you thought it was not up to you to judge when it was on you — especially on you — to assess, weigh and, yes, judge.

All of it, every moment like that had the effect of implicating you in this mess.

Look: I am not saying journalists are the ones we should blame for American’s dysfunctional politics. So if that’s how you read me… well, you misread. But I do consider them active participants in the events that got us here. Instead of turning to us to ask, “why can’t you people get along with each other?” they should be trying to pinpoint it for themselves: Where did we go wrong?

* * *

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41 Comments

  1. bystander says:

    “Let me know what you think.”, you asked on twitter.

    Well, you’ve neatly summed up why I’ve completely abandoned the TV, and almost all newsprint subscriptions – save the hyper local, for a careful/critical read on the web. I don’t know if they’re saying anything useful any more, or could if they wanted to. “Abandoned” was a purposeful choice of word.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      I understand. Something I have heard a lot.

    • Rob Knight says:

      I agree. Television no longer feels like a venue for nuanced discussion of complex political topics. Reducing political discussion to little more than an emotional, fact-less foodfight means that the moderators of the discussion are steeped in the ideologies of the players on the field. Rather than being referees, they are now in the booth, simply describing what they see on the field.

      Sorry for using a sports metaphor.

      • Karov says:

        “…Television no longer feels like a venue for nuanced discussion..

        When did Television ever do things correctly?

        Which past TV political journalists had the proper tone and objective, agendaless professional practice?

        • Chuck says:

          Objectivity isn’t the, uh, objective: we’ve never had an objective press, and shouldn’t expect to. It’s the bogus *pretense* of objectivity, the staking out of positions in the middle, or worse, being somehow objectively “above it all” (“Earth flat or round? The debate continues!”) that has become so corrosive. Not to say every media outlet should immediately revert to partisan yellow journalism on every topic, but they should at least have the temerity to state the obvious, and the courage to risk being wrong.

          • qiexia says:

            Given their longrunning overwhelming conservatism, they’ve always had the courage to be wrong. What takes real courage in the media is being right before it’s safe to be right. See Mann and Ornstein, or how the media finally told us the Benghazi hearings were partisan only after a republican said it out loud.

  2. Wesley Rolley says:

    I wonder if you are trying to make journalism into something that it has never been. Consider the jump on the bandwagon aspect of local media for any politically favored scheme that promises jobs and economic growth to community if only all of the nay-sayers would shut up, a term I have heard used recently by Gov. Jerry Brown for those who think his mega-tunnel water project is dumb.

  3. Tom says:

    Even the premise of their question is wrong, reeking of false equivalence.

    “Why the selective political outrage?”

    “It says something about our current polarized politics, as well as the sheer number of violent killings in this country, when the left and right are picking which mass shootings to exploit and fit into their own worldview.”

    Normal people, referred to as “the left” by the mindless mainstream media, are outraged at *both* events. Both needless tragedies, tragic loss of life, the mundane repetition of meaningless homilies in lieu of doing something, the helpless rage we feel about our national and local leaders in the grip and control of the firearms industry, and on and on. Terrified, in fact.

    The selective treatment given to the horrible crimes of two different sorts of extremists and terrorists — Muslim vs. Christian.

    Pretending they “don’t get it.” I ask THEM — why the selective outrage? But really, I know why.

    Yes, abandon. Good word. So did I.

  4. rapier says:

    It’s all about Master Narratives. Those journalists employed by large corporations thus anyone you are likely to see or read have internalized many master narratives. That in turn eliminates almost all questions that can be asked. Thus they and we are left dissecting the hot story of the moment.

    The real stories of the nation and the world involve the very nature of the financial/monetary system and the relentlessly expanding wars and conflicts being instituted and fought all over the globe without debate. The credibility of the press is as deeply in the tank as that of the politicians and the policy and wealthy elites which simply reflects the former’s adoption of the latter’s narratives.

    • Myers says:

      Exactly Rapier,

      As Chomsky would say it “manufacturing consent”

      It really is an insult to people like Ailes, who envisioned and called for a Network dedicated to Republican party partisan politics, back when he was working in the Nixon administration and Murdoch who financed the dream, that they never are given credit for their achievements.

    • Myers says:

      On the subject of Narratives:
      David Brooks as always, has been a very reliable barometer, distributor and avatar of the Republican elite narrative.
      I have enjoyed his weekly appearance on the News Hour, where he has been doubling down on the eminent Trump decline, since the day Trump threw his hat into the ring.
      Of course he has forgotten,that for years he has been a member of the chorus,singing the all government institutions are corrupt, as are the elite who run them.
      If he bothered to read through the comments section he would find his answer.Trump supporters “know” that people like Brooks are traitors to the “real” Republicans like themselves and Trump.
      Of course, hand ringing over Trump, allows them to avoid an equally obvious truth: that there isn’t an inch of difference between Trump and the rest of the field.

  5. Deke says:

    When respected and occasionally revered institutions start leaving their “A” game in the locker room for the sake of ratings, erosion and indifference results. The rise of individual outlets that peddle alternate realities and then slam those who dare challenge their proprietary views made it easy to convince yourself you weren’t delusional. Senator Daniel Moynihan put it best when he said “You’re entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts.” Once reality got co-opted and obfuscated, the cancerous sheep mentality took hold.

  6. Sam Gunsch says:

    ‘Every time you asked each other “what’s the politics of this?” so you could escape the tedium and complexity of public problem-solving. Every time you smiled weakly to say, “depends on who you ask” before launching into a description of public actors who dwell in separate worlds of fact. Every time you described political polarization as symmetrical when it isn’t. Every time you denied that being in the middle was a position so you didn’t have to ask if it was a defensible one.’

    Thank you for this summary.

    And of course, the climate change disinformation campaign by Exxon and most of the fossil fuel industry, just like that of the tobacco industry, was enabled by all of those journalism failures.

    Thus, the failure of MSM on climate change coverage has enabled the fossil fuel vested interests to achieve more than two decades of delay in preventative action.

    Democratic control over the direction and choices of large corporate sectors is not possible without an informed citizenry.

    And journalism has failed to help democracy function on this one.

    • Abadman says:

      good people interested in the preservation of science like Freeman Dyson have spoken out about the corruption of global warming. free your mind

  7. RepubAnon says:

    For one brief part of our history, journalism became an idealistic reporting of the truth rather than simply repeating comfortable stereotypes. Now, we’re reverting back to historical norms, where some media outlets are unabashed partisan outlets and others try to stay within their readers’ perceived comfort zones. (William Randolph Hearst’s classic statement “you furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war” would fit nicely into the ethics and practices of today’s newsrooms.)

    Today’s media types like to think of themselves as fearless truth tellers rather than mere panderers to their advertisers, or as partisan propaganda outlets. But then, the corporations owning and funding today’s media wouldn’t want their staff to admit the truth publicly – so they won’t

    • Myers says:

      There was a time when the hosts of news programs were not millionaire celebrities, whose jobs were based on a for profit business model either.

  8. John says:

    Television is performance. Outrage, shock, detached superiority… Politicians pretend questions are challenging, and journalists pretend answers are informative. The creation of actual news on television happens only when someone makes a mistake. But, as Trump’s ‘gaffes’ demonstrate, even many of the mistakes are performed.

  9. Myers says:

    Norman Ornstein ,was once a frequently invited guest on the News Hour. Apparently his American Enterprise Institute credentials couldn’t overcome his apostasy, breaking the both sides do it equivalency taboo.

    http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2015-10-14/thomas-mann-and-norman-ornstein-on-republicans-gone-wild

  10. Mark J. McPherson says:

    Journalism has devolved into a kind of automated nullity, designed to achieve a perceived equipoise, even as meaning drains off as news is crafted to excite and moll the pampered margins. It simply isn’t a reliable resource for useful information. It’s been a triumph for the Right. By formalizing and then monetizing “Black is White” journalism, they have succeeded in normalizing delegitimized journalism. Defense of journalism is equated with partisan bias. Why is partisanship a greater sin than self-scuttling journalism?

    • Myers says:

      “automated nullity”
      Perfect description. Media figures avoid at all costs being labeled “liberal” by playing the “both sides do it” card, apparently unaware that if they don’t work for Murdoch they are by definition not only liberal but seditious,thus nullifying any perceived need to be “fair and balanced.”
      The WWF has more integrity than the corporate media. At least the WWF was required to call themselves entertainment and not a sport.
      Face it, they aren’t about to risk their jobs by reporting what millions already see for themselves.

  11. Myers says:

    “In our current Polarized America, is it possible for Americans to be unified on anything?”

    Amy,
    Wrong question. The question is, does it matter if people think they are unified when most of the things that they are unified on by our actions, go unrecognized?
    Wars for example. We have been at war for most of my 63 years on this planet. If we have ever stayed out of a conflict by choice it has escaped my attention.
    Cutting taxes will produce full employment and balanced budgets.
    Balanced budgets are important, until they are balanced, at which time they are no longer important until the next time they are important.
    Social Security must be reformed.
    Defense spending must never be cut.
    Free trade will create jobs.

  12. Theodora says:

    You may not blame the media for the dysfunctional state of our politics but I do. It was the media, particularly the NY Times, that pushed the completely bogus Whitewater scandal that was fed to its reporter, Jeff Gerth, by right wing operatives distracting our country from the serious issues facing us. (Read Gene Lyons’ well-documented “Fools for Scandal” to understand just how bad the reporting was.) This focus on “scandal” enabled right wingers like Newtie to gain much more power and set the stage for the Tea Party movement.

    Going back a few years, the media has never bothered to correct the fantasy started by Reagan that tax cuts pay for themselves, allowing Republicans to keep using this seductive lie. The media could have easily reported on just how much debt Reagan’s tax cuts caused (he nearly tripled the national debt) as well as the debt caused by other such cuts like Dubya’s. Instead the media just keeps telling people that the public views Republicans as the fiscally responsible party without pointing out just how wrong that perception is and backing it up with facts. Of course that would require giving that hayseed Clinton credit for not only balancing the budget but also creating a significant surplus – that Bush then squandered with tax cuts.

    The media has not made sure the public understands that we face a very real threat from right wing, often radical Christian terrorists or that the Republicans have managed to intimidate DHS and decimate the unit that keeps track of that very real threat.
    http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/flashback-conservatives-shut-down-dhs-unit-combating-far-right-domestic-terrorism
    A well informed citizenry is an absolute necessity for a democracy to function and that can only happen with a media dedicated to doing that job, not chasing fame and ratings or trying to be in with the Kool Kids at DC High.our MSM is failing spectacularly at that job so, yes, I blame them for the fact that so many Americans are so badly misinformed.

    • Myers says:

      You left out the NYT Judith Miller’s stenography for the Office of Special Plans.
      You see we must invade Iraq: even the “liberal” NYT says so.
      That is it in a nut shell. The media elite like Obama continue to think that anything they do or say, will change the entrenched dynamic. Anything that doesn’t have the approval of the Murdoch brand is by default not only wrong but seditious.
      I suspect that in the polite circles and tribal customs of the political media elites, there is no immediate sense of concern.
      There are no real consequences for being 100% wrong, 100% of time as long as it serves the orthodox narrative.

  13. piratedan7 says:

    why so partisan Amy?

    How about the fact that we have 85% of folks (when polled) have indicated that they are in favor of greater gun control laws..

    the media… crickets

    There are places where there is consensus, the problem is, the media treats the folks who think that healing power of prayer solves medical/financial and racial problems and that we can simply bomb our opponents back into the stone age as viable stakeholders in a reasoned discussion about the issues of today

  14. Nonembedded says:

    Embedded journalists? Propagandists for a Military State.

    PS: The GOP is insane. Can you just have the yarbles to say that?

    • Myers says:

      Don’t forget the “liberal biased” NBC, having independent “experts” who were on the Pentagon payroll with out disclosing the fact.

      • Nonembedded says:

        Dude, the “liberal-biased” MSNBC pulled their top show, Donahue, off the air because he was (properly) anti-war on the Iraq debacle.

        There is no liberal corporate media.

        http://www.democracynow.org

        • Myers says:

          Yep.
          The list of such things should be obvious to anyone with a pulse.
          Corporate media shills are now doing their damnedest to portray Trump as an outlier when he is the logical progression.
          It is now reaching the level of cruel farce, as in:
          “Well I think this whole notion that somehow we need to say no more Muslims and just ban a whole religion goes against everything we stand for and believe in. I mean religious freedom’s been a very important part of our, our history.”

          — Dick Cheney, the former vice president, speaking to the conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt and referring to a proposal by Donald J. Trump to bar Muslims from entering the country.
          As the wag said: Let’s see, Dick…Pre-emptive wars go against everything we stand for. Outing CIA agents goes against everything we stand for. Torturing prisoners goes against everything we stand for. Marginalizing our allies goes against everything we stand for.

          • Nonembedded says:

            And think of all the war profiteers and necrophile generals who get access on the networks, cable tv, effete NPR, and fascist talk radio to pimp their wars and lies. They’ve invaded the “media” in sports arenas and cinema, too, with endless war porn.
            And don’t forget what prostitutes exist in the publishing field; book editors whom I know—many gay and ‘liberal’—give large advances to the very scum who’d wipe them off the planet. It resembles Chris Hedges’ ‘Death of the Liberal Class’ theory.

  15. Nancy says:

    My vote for the most namby-pamby phrase that journalists use is, “both sides do it.” By saying that, they think that they don’t need to identify the most egregious standpoints or delve any further into the subject. They never have to hold anyone accountable this way, never make enemies out of the politicians, never risk getting blacklisted by those very same politicians. So much craven cowardice.

    • Nonembedded says:

      Every semi-Liberal politician should use “the corporate media” or “the right-wing media” or “the fascists on talk radio” to correctly identify the problem.

  16. Myers says:

    Greenwald nails it:
    “All of this preexists Trump’s candidacy and is fueled by a wide array of groups with all sorts of cultural, religious, ideological, financial, and tribalistic motives for isolating and demonizing Muslims. Trump is not an outlier, and it’s dangerous to treat him as one.

    As for the American media, I hope nobody harbors any hope that they’re going to be some sort of backstop preventing the emergence of dangerous extremism. They simply do not see that as their role. For most of them, a posture of “neutrality” and “opinion-free” blankness are the highest values. Here, for instance, was CNN anchor and dynastic prince Chris Cuomo last night vehemently scorning the suggestion that the U.S. media has any role to play in sounding the alarm bells on Trump’s growing fascism:

    So the media should strike him down for making a suggestion that perhaps offends certain sensibilities? https://t.co/2AxRlKUOs7

    — Christopher C. Cuomo (@ChrisCuomo) December 8, 2015

    In Cuomo’s TV journalism-trained mind, Trump’s call for the complete exclusion of all Muslims from the U.S. is nothing more than “a suggestion that perhaps offends certain sensibilities,” and it’s not for him or other journalists to “strike him down.” When people objected, he said: “Characterize? Hmm. Test him on the implications, bring on other opinions and analyze the potential … that’s the job.” In response to an angry individual denouncing Trump’s extremism, Cuomo added (emphasis added): “Absolutely. That’s your role in voting. Accept and reject. Your role, not mine.”

    Here’s what Mark Halperin — whose little-watched Bloomberg TV show was just picked up by an increasingly desperate MSNBC — had to say about Trump’s announcement:

    Whatever happens, this is an historic day in the history of the @realDonaldTrump campaign.

    — Mark Halperin (@MarkHalperin) December 8, 2015

    No matter how extreme and menacing Trump becomes, that’s all one can expect from large sectors of the U.S. media: cowardly neutrality, feigned analytical objectivity (how will Trump’s fascism play with New Hampshire independents?) as an excuse for not taking any sort of stand. We are indeed a long, long way away from Edward R. Murrow’s sustained, continuous, unapologetic denunciations of Joseph McCarthy.”
    https://theintercept.com/2015/12/08/donald-trumps-ban-muslims-proposal-is-wildly-dangerous-but-not-far-outside-the-u-s-mainstream/

  17. DDD says:

    Yeah I get the frustration that is responsible for the post, but look at the bulk of your comment section.

    The commenters just want the media to tell off or make squirm the people they dislike. In this case the Republicans. If you had another audience it would be someone else.

    • Nonembedded says:

      Have you read the article, it’s context, and do you think “both side do it” is a valid mainstream defense of neo-fascism, neo-Confederate laws, and a new Gilded Age?

      • Abadman says:

        defense of borders is not fascism, shredding the 2nd and 5th amendment per the terrorist list on firearms, much more likely.

        I don’t like Trump. But god, give the hysterics a rest.

        Hitler reference, you lose

  18. SeanCA says:

    Hi Jay – Two great posts, thanks. I think you’ve got about 90% of it; here’s the thing I think you’re missing. Trump is a narcissist almost without parallel. What he’s realized is that the media is full of narcissists just like him, and he’s playing that narcissism (and the coupled insecurity, both personal and professional) to absolute perfection. Each time he ratchets up his rhetoric, he knows the lefty punditocracy (Taibbi, Chait, Roberts, the Voxxers) will have to respond, and because of the crowded, overlapping landscape and need for performative signaling, each incremental response will be harsher and more condemnatory, but will eventually circle back to the smug, self-congratulory assertion that Trump is just a manifestation of the racist Republican base. (always gotta have that one little shot of Progressive brand-building!). But Trump’s never had a base; he’s always been a weird little orange island. And here the media are handing him one, telling everyone who reads you that he’s the driving force in the Republican party, while telling the party (for the trillionth time) that they’re all a bunch of dumb, white racists juts like Trump, thus animating their interest. And it’s basically a never-ending loop, as you’ll never be able to stop your performance; it’s your brand – and in this increasingly desperate media landscape, it’s all you have.

    In addition, your continually strengthening the unity of the Republican base by tarring them all as racists and idiots. We’ve had seven years of what I call the Joan Walsh Strategy – anyone who questions anything about the Obama administration is immediately labeled a racist. All white men are privileged dauphins and potential rapists. Question Hillary’s qualifications and you’re a misogynist. The lefty media can’t stop because it feels great – a huge dopamine rush – and it builds their brand, heightening their profile (again, their only real currency). No one stops to think if there are any consequences.

    But unfortunately, it’s now clear that there are enormous, potentially terrifying consequences, as Trump’s momentum is growing and the base you’ve gifted him is activated unlike almost any time in the post-War era. You’ve got a huge mass of 40-65 year-old white folks, who consider themselves normal, decent, neighborly people but who’ve been told for seven years running how inhuman and terrible and racist and sexist and hetero-normative they are. They’re normal, working people – doctors, dentists, accountants, lawyers. But they’re monsters, all of them, in progressive eyes. I think it was Roberts or Taibbi who referred to them as a Frankenstein. And sure, some parts of that Frankenstein may have been there all along, but the left – with their preening self-love and smug certainty – has animated it and continues unaware that they are making it stronger and stronger. Let’s hope it doesn’t destroy everything.

    I’m not a Trump supporter. I do spend a lot of time around right-leaning and middle of the road folks. Most of them thought Trump was a joke when the campaign started, that he would last a few weeks and then fade away. Today, to a person, they a fervent supporters, scarily fervent. I think very little of that has to do with Trump the man. The bulk of it is a reaction to seven years on non-stop media demonization.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      I don’t know. You seem to be suggesting that the Republican base — which is predominately religious white Americans in rural areas, in Texas, the mountain states of the west or the deep south — reads Jonathan Chait in New York magazine, Ezra Klein at Vox, the columnists at the New York Times and feels condescended to. That’s a little hard for me to believe.

      It seems more likely that educated cosmopolitans who identify as conservatives read Jonathan Chait and Ezra Klein and, in the name of the Republican base, take offense.

      • Abadman says:

        You miss the point. No one cares about Klein, or Vox, or Chait. It may make you feel good to think there is some cosmopolitan portion of the right is taking offense while the rest of the knuckle draggers revel in their ignorance.

        Good people, as good and as caring as you, are sick of being told they are bad people.

        Look at the comments here, no fire swamp, by any means, but this talk directed at any other category of people would classify as hate speech.

        I an a good person and I disagree with you on public policy. I should not lose my job or livelihood. Too many on your side feel i should

        I an sick and tired of people on the coasts talking about how they are cosmopolitan. You are very provinicial in your cosmopolitanism. You don’t know or understand weapons. most have never spent any time in the heartland. If you cannot effectively verbalize your opponents position, without snark, you really are in no position to comment on it.

        Trump is a big F you to the costal elite. In return to a big F you on daily basis form the costal elite.

        Just because your religious, white and rural, doesn’t mean your are stupid which seems to be the implication of your comment. Nor does a college diploma, even from Harvard Law, mean you can’t have your head up your ass.

      • Abadman says:

        to be more clear. they went wrong when they thought they were better or smarter than the people they are suppose to serve. Again, Cosmopolitan, just smacks of i am better than you.