This week I published in The Guardian a column about a Florida newspaper that wrote an open letter to readers, apologizing to them for news coverage that was too critical of Trump. The editors were under fire from angry subscribers, many of them conservative, white retirees who live in the area.
My piece was critical. It concludes this way: “Unable to think it through clearly, the editors surrendered their right to speak truth to power and sold out their colleagues in the national press.”
The next day I sent the link to the Daily Commercial, using the public address for letters to the editor. I wanted them to know they had been written about. Quickly, I got a reply back. This is what it said:
I saw your column, Mr. Rosen. I’m the editor who wrote the open letter. Your column was a well-reasoned, measured and intellectually honest piece. I can’t disagree.
With these words, the editor was acknowledging: yep, we surrendered our right to speak truth to power and sold out our colleagues in the national press. Normally a note like that would include the words “just between us…” or “please don’t run this.” Those words were absent.
The most likely interpretation is that the publisher made him write the open letter and he hated doing it. He understood it as a form of corruption: soul damage. (That’s my read, not what he said.)In the original version I sent to The Guardian, the conclusion read like this. “The editors surrendered their right to speak truth to power (in this case audience power) and sold out their colleagues in the national press.” Meaning: Speaking truth to angry readers egged on by their candidate is just as important as standing up to the mayor or bank president.
I am publishing here the fuller version of the column I wrote for The Guardian. (Twice as long.) It’s not about one newspaper in Florida. It’s about how Trump has altered patterns in journalism that stood for decades, leaving no room to hide.
Seeking truth or seeking refuge? Pick one, journalists.
Did you hear about the Florida newspaper that apologized to its readers for running too much news that was critical of Donald Trump? It happened last week at the Daily Commercial, based in Leesburg, Florida, a conservative-leaning area of the state with a lot of affluent retirees. The editors published an open letter to readers in which they made the following claims:
* “An uncomfortably sizable number of our readers have been writing and calling to express their dissatisfaction with what they believe is the media’s bias toward Donald Trump.” (They meant against Trump.)
* The national news services “finally said the heck with it, Trump is a bad guy and we’re not going to dance around it any more… Trump’s every utterance, no matter how innocuous, is now parsed, analyzed and criticized.” This is unfair, they said.
* Yet those same national news services “turn out so few stories that fact check Clinton, who also has a strained relationship with the truth… Little has been written about some of Clinton’s questionable decisions as secretary of state, her emails and the fact that she and Bill have somehow amassed incredible wealth.”
* The mea culpa: “The Daily Commercial hasn’t done enough to mitigate the anti-Trump wave in the pages of this paper.”
* “This is not an endorsement of Trump, a candidate whose brutish, sometimes childish antics are responsible for his sizable deficit in the polls. Rather, it is a recognition that you, the voter, deserve better than we in the media have given you. You deserve a more balanced approach.”
Protecting against criticism.
An observation I have frequently made in my press criticism is that certain things mainstream journalists do they do not to serve readers, viewers or listeners, or to report the news and keep us informed, but to protect themselves against criticism, including the kind of criticism the Daily Commercial has been getting. That’s what “he said, she said” reporting, the “both sides do it” reflex, and “balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon” are all about.
Reporting the news and serving readers are first principles in journalism, bedrock for sound practice. But protecting against criticism is not like that at all. It has far less legitimacy, especially when the criticism itself has thin legitimacy. This is how the phrase “working the refs” got started. Political actors try to influence judgment calls by screeching about bias, whether the charge is warranted or not. To listen to feedback like that is to invite into news work what Jürgen Habermas, the world’s leading scholar of the public sphere, calls “systematically distorted communication.”
My favorite description of “protecting ourselves against criticism” comes from a former reporter for the Washington Post, Paul Taylor, in his 1990 book about election coverage: See How They Run. I have quoted it many times:
Sometimes I worry that my squeamishness about making sharp judgments, pro or con, makes me unfit for the slam-bang world of daily journalism. Other times I conclude that it makes me ideally suited for newspapering– certainly for the rigors and conventions of modern ‘objective’ journalism. For I can dispose of my dilemmas by writing stories straight down the middle. I can search for the halfway point between the best and the worst that might be said about someone (or some policy or idea) and write my story in that fair-minded place. By aiming for the golden mean, I probably land near the best approximation of truth more often than if I were guided by any other set of compasses– partisan, ideological, psychological, whatever… Yes, I am seeking truth. But I’m also seeking refuge. I’m taking a pass on the toughest calls I face.
I am seeking truth. But I’m also seeking refuge. What if it’s not possible to do both?
This is what the editors of the Daily Commercial failed to ask themselves. And this is what the movement for Trump is forcing journalists everywhere in the U.S. to realize, even if word hasn’t reached Leesburg, Florida. It’s not true that the national news agencies have done little to fact check Hillary Clinton’s dicier statements. When the editors wrote that they violated their most sacred duty to readers, which is to leave them undeceived. (Examples here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and that’s just from the AP.) But it is true that Clinton’s opponent, Trump, manufactures and distributes untruths at a rate unprecedented for a major party candidate in the modern era.
Campaign coverage that fairly reflects this discrepancy invites criticism from angry Trump supporters who are taught by the candidate himself that the election is being rigged by the crooked media. Under these explosive conditions, truth-seeking and refuge-seeking become incompatible behaviors. There is no refuge. Instead there is the First Amendment, which guarantees that the cops can’t arrest the editors of the Daily Commercial for publishing a newspaper that is insufficiently pro-Trump. (Of course, here too Trump represents an “unprecedented threat.”) What there is instead of refuge is to be on the side of verification, asking again and again: Did that actually happen? Is that really true? Does that square with what we know?
“We didn’t know how to write that paragraph.”
A few weeks ago, Dean Baquet, editor of the New York Times, said Donald Trump had changed journalism.
I was either editor or managing editor of the L.A. Times during the Swift Boat incident. Newspapers did not know — we did not quite know how to do it. I remember struggling with the reporter, Jim Rainey, who covers the media now, trying to get him to write the paragraph that laid out why the Swift Boat allegation was false… We didn’t know how to write the paragraph that said, “This is just false…” We struggle with that. I think that Trump has ended that struggle.
Some of you may wonder: in 1990, in 2004, or in 2016 how could it be hard to say in a news report “this is false” when the reporter and the editor are both persuaded that it is false? I have an answer for you. Alongside the production of news, reporters and editors in the mainstream press have for a long time been engaged in another manufacture: persuading us of their own innocence, especially when it comes to a contested election.
Innocent! Meaning: you cannot reasonably convict them of being on one side or the other. They are on no one’s side except for truth’s. Also: the readers, the viewers, the listeners. Being on their side is almost as innocent as being on the side of truth. For its 2012 election coverage, CNN’s slogan was: The Only Side We Choose is Yours, which captures what I mean by the production of innocence. (And it is a production, a show.) This is how to make sense of Dean Baquet’s strange words: “We didn’t know how to write the paragraph that said, ‘This is just false.'” He means: we didn’t know how to say it without appearing to take sides. We didn’t know how to write it and also remain innocent to ourselves.
Speaking truth to audience
But as Dean Baquet declared: “Trump has ended that struggle.” (Also see this.) His point is not that it’s suddenly “okay” to take sides. That’s a lazy conclusion, and a crappy way of putting it. Trump has ended the struggle in this sense: By openly trashing the norms of American politics, by flooding the campaign with wave after wave of provable falsehood, by convincing his supporters to despise and mistrust the press, by encouraging them to believe in a rigged election — rigged in part by the people who are bringing them the news — Trump has made it a certainty that when honest journalism is done about him it also works against him. Because of the way he campaigns — because of who he is — when he’s in the news he’s typically losing ground.
For journalists this destroys the illusion of innocence: just by doing your job you are undoing Trump… UNLESS he can turn his portion of the electorate against you so decisively that the very possibility that you may be trying to do an honest job is rejected out of hand. And then the disaster is complete, for now by doing your job (applying scrutiny, checking facts) you are actually helping Trump, confirming among his most committed supporters the hateful image of a media elite trying to rig the election. Either way the production of innocence fails.
In this vexing situation the Daily Commercial of Leesburg, Florida published its open letter to readers. Unable to think it through clearly, the editors surrendered their right to speak truth to power (in this case audience power) and sold out their colleagues in the national press.
“Yes, I am seeking truth. But I’m also seeking refuge.” For journalists covering this election, and for the American press in the years after, the days of doing both are over. Pick one.