A current list of my top problems in pressthink, April 2019

Updated from time to time. Ranked by urgency.

7 Apr 2019 2:05 pm 12 Comments

1. Absent some kind of creative intervention, 2020 campaign coverage looks like it will be the same as it ever was. Who’s ahead? What’s it gonna take to win? The debacle in 2016 has not brought forth any dramatic shift in approach. The “savvy” style remains in place. Its practitioners are confident that they can prevail. They are probably right.

2. The Correspondent, with which I am publicly identified, met its crowd funding goals and now has to deliver on these principles. That will not be easy.

3. With his hate campaign against journalists, Trump has been successful in isolating about a third of the electorate in an information loop of its own. These are people beyond the reach of journalism, immune to its discoveries. Trump is their primary source of information about Trump. The existence of a group this size shows that de-legitimizing the news media works. The fact that it works means we will probably see more of it.

4. Fox News is merging with the Trump government in a combination unseen before. We don’t know what that combined thing is, or even how to talk about it. The common shorthand is “state media.” But that is only half the picture. It’s true that Fox is a propaganda machine. But it is also true that the Trump government is like a cable channel— with nukes.

5. Around the world, so called populist movements are incorporating media hate into their ideology— and replicating. No one knows how to stop or even slow this development.

6. Now in its 15th year, the business model crisis in journalism is still unsolved. (But at least we know that except in rare cases digital advertising is not going to be the answer, which counts as progress.)

7. Membership models in news need to be participatory to work, but we’re falling behind in our understanding of how to make that happen. With ad-supported media, we know what the social contract is. We know how it works with subscription, as well. For membership, we do not yet know what that contract is.

8. The harder I work on some these problems (1, 3, 4, and 5 especially…) the more cynical I get. The more cynical I get, the harder it is to believe that any of that work matters.

12 Comments

Jerry Adams says:

It matters and Thank you for doing it.

I truly value your opinions and am glad you hold your colleagues responsible.

Your #8 is shocking. I have faith that this, your work, really does matter.

#5. Overcoming cynicism begins with dreaming. This interview with Geert Lovink is particularly hopeful: http://networkcultures.org/geert/2019/04/06/todays-exhausting-distraction-interview-with-geert-lovink-by-teresa-numerico-for-il-manifesto/

I’d say the Conversation’s principles are very helpful, even if practicing them will be difficult. Having those values defined, applications for them can follow.

New stories must be written from within the morass. Consider the Freytag triangle as the framework to respond to.

Have you sorted your work by long-term and short-term? In the interview linked, Geert suggests that organised networks work on long-term issues, and are strengthened by participation in spontaneous movements (which are rarely in sync with the long-term).

The 2020 Presidential campaign is an interesting field for creative interventions. It’s timebound, and relatively short-term, but very predictable in time. That makes it especially ripe for disruptions. Trump in 2016 is I guess an example of that potential. But there was also Wikileaks with their randomized Podesta email leaks. There are extraordinary opportunities for media disruption, for experiments which change the narrative. I’d say you’re well placed with the Correspondent to make the most of those chances. But you will need to build your network, and to dream, and to dream with hope. I understand how that word provokes cynicism (Obama). Getting free from distraction helps. Nature helps. Playing with your kids helps.

Winston says:

I think you meant the Correspondent.

Dan, as I was reading this my early AM sense of hopelessness lifted – your energy and thoughtfulness are more than helpful. Then came thenword cynical and at least that came AFTER your ideas and concerns. Cynicism is more dangerous than depression or hopelessness – though the latter feelings are more painful for sure. Cynicism is a defense against having things matter too much.

Did you mean Dan or Jay?

Mark J. McPherson says:

On # 4, I don’t know that “merger” is the right term. Suppose the unthinkable happens and Trump is not re-elected, it’s not as if Fox will then pivot it propoganda to support Kamela Harris or Elizabethe Warren or (President-Elect to be named later). If Trump loses, there will be a mad scramble among Republicans and it would difficult for the Murdochs to pick from among those claiming to be the “new Trump” or from those claiming to be the once and future moderate Republican. And Trump has a long history of making those who deal with him regret it. It’s not a novel thought, but Trump’s amoral, transactionalist impulses might make the “merger” more a series of microtransactions when viewed from a longer perspective. The Murdochs may simply be exploiting the collapse of standards and accountability of this moment, offset by their Lachland-vs-James hedging, depending what comes next.

That Trump harbours ugly, totalitarian leanings is hardly news by now, but what is increasingly worrying in the ways in which his “New Low” Presidency reveals the characters of his supporters and the indifference and tolerances of others, for transgressions. Certainly the Murdochs and those disturbingly high numbers within the Republican party who are wobbly on the whole democracy thing, are furiously taking notes.

Does MSNBC’s merger with the Democratic party apparatus not merit equal concern with Fox/Trump? I mean strictly in terms of its effect on the press.

No, because it is not equal and not comparable. There’s two way traffic between MSNBC and Democratic Party operatives (they appear on air a lot) and there is alignment of POV between the party and the prime-time and weekend shows. That in my view is not remotely comparable to the way conspiracy and wild-ass claims move from the online right to Fox News and then to Trump’s rhetoric, or Lou Dobbs being patched into policy meetings to give advice, or Trump’s nightly debrief with Hannity, or the president of Fox News becoming a deputy chief of staff. The comparison is superficial and in my view foolish.

Rick Bohan says:

Listened to you on “With Friends Like These” today and enjoyed the conversation. I like the whole take on “savvy” journalism and agree wholeheartedly with your analysis. There was one part of the conversation that got under my skin…the part where you and Anna Marie admitted to deep cynicism about the current state of our nation. Here’s the think…only we privileged white folk get to be cynical. That is to say, cynicism is an attribute of white privilege. Thurgood Marshall didn’t get to be “cynical” when he was defending young black men who had been tortured to get confessions. Hank Aaron didn’t get to be cynical when white folk yelled epithets from the stands when he was in the Southern League nor when he got death threats when he beat Babe Ruth’s HR record. Harriet Tubman didn’t get to be cynical as she helped her black brothers and sisters to freedom.

Do we get to be disappointed, chagrined, pissed off, saddened, down-hearted and even, at times, down-right depressed. But…fuck “cynical”. Neither you nor I get to be “cynical”. Babies in cages don’t give a damn about our cynicism.

Hi Professor —

I know that you sometimes entertain a metaphor from theology to illuminate matters of Pressthink. So I was struck when Anne Marie Cox ended her interview with you on her podcast by introducing a concept from Christian theology — the concept of Hope.

In Christian theology, the guarantee that makes Hope possible, even when things look their bleakest, is the knowledge that we humans are not alone, that even when it appears not to exist, the Love of God is always with us.

Its inverse — when we are convinced that the situation is hopeless, when the Love of God feels non-existent — makes itself manifest in a set of three emotions.

Despair. Apathy. Cynicism.

By analogy, for the field of journalism, Hope means that even when things look their bleakest, the Body Politic always exists, the Body Politic being the organism that allows journalism to be not only produced and consumed, but also have a useful societal function.

This Hope that derives from confidence in the Body Politic means that journalism can proceed — confident in the expectation that members of society can indeed function as emancipated subjects, acting in good faith, equipped with the information and arguments that journalism provides.

As you pointed out, Jay, in your discussion with Anne Marie, neither despair nor apathy is an option for journalism, since they render engagement meaningless. So it is no surprise that the tone adopted by journalism, when it happens to be most malignant to the Body Politic, is cynicism.

I was impressed by the feeling of delight that you and Anne Marie shared during your discussion when you hit upon the realization that the Savvy style was not cynical after all, since it naively rests on the hopeful assumption that nothing terminal is at stake for the Body Politic in adopting such a malignant style. The Body Politic is surely strong enough to withstand it.

It was a moment of delight of the darkest kind. Black humor indeed.

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