Membership as a force multiplier for beat reporting

Just published a "concept paper" for an idea I have been trying to introduce for 11 years. It may take 11 more but I don't care. I think it's a good idea.

7 Mar 2018 9:21 am 1 Comment

Here’s the paper: Join the Beat, a force multiplier for beat reporting. It says we ought to push membership models in news down to the beat level, and describes some simple ways that could work.

The paper is written for beat reporters and their editors, but anyone can read it. (Fair warning: it’s 3,200 words.)

We’re also trying to recruit a handful of beat reporters (6 to 8) into a practical experiment. Different journalists with different kinds of beats coming from the different places on the public service dial all try the “networked beat” model at the same time. By working in parallel they form a small learning community. Membership Puzzle Project is adding a wrangler and helper for that community: Melanie Sill, former editor of the Sacramento Bee and Raleigh News & Observer, former vice president for content at Southern California Public Radio.

If you’re interested in joining the experiment, or know someone who should, contact Melanie <[email protected]> or leave a comment here.

A bit of background:

I actually did this project once before, in 2007.

Brad Wolverton, then a reporter at Chronicle of Higher Education, told me recently: “That experiment helped a lot of reporters think about their beats differently.”

I have been talking up the possibilities of a “networked beat” for a long time.

Here’s a piece from Poynter on what we’re up to with the Membership Puzzle Project.

Last year, I interviewed David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post about his use of a “networked” approach when he was on the Trump charitable giving beat. He won a Pulitzer for that, in part because of the way he incorporated readers and what they know.

Which is to say: we know this is not a new idea. Here and there it has been done. Now is the time to push forward with it.

That link to the concept paper again.

 

Show your work: The new terms for trust in journalism

The transparency movement has finally come of age. Power has shifted to the users. Their trust has to be earned in different ways now.

31 Dec 2017 3:57 pm 30 Comments

It has been eight years since the internet philosopher David Weinberger wrote, “Transparency is the new objectivity.” It’s been 16 years since Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel said, in their great book The Elements of Journalism, “The willingness of the journalist to be transparent about what he or she has done is at the heart of establishing that the journalist is concerned with the truth.”

So transparency is not a new idea in journalism. But we’re finally starting to see what it means to build a value proposition around it. For my final post in what has been a devastating — but also inspiring — year for the public service press, I will try to summarize what is involved when transparency becomes the primary means of trust production.

It means you show your work. And at least eleven other things:

1. Here’s where we’re coming from. This is the biggest shift, and the hardest for traditionalists to accept. It will probably take the longest to unfold. Drop the voice of the god, ditch the view from nowhere, and instead tell us where you’re coming from. Then we can apply whatever discount rate we want.

Check out this disclosure page written by tech journalist Rob Pegoraro. About halfway down he describes where he’s coming from in covering technology:

I hate abuse of power and control freakery, whether it’s Microsoft choking off browser competition in a prior decade, Apple dictating what gets into its App Store in this one or big entertainment companies’ ongoing insistence on customer-hostile usage restrictions on digital media. The computer is among the most amazing general-purpose tools ever invented; why would you artificially constrain its utility? If you’re curious about my politics, the preceding paragraph should make it clear that I worry about abuse of power by corporations, not just the government. I vote accordingly.

Now that I know this about Rob, I can read his work through that lens. I don’t have to accuse him of a bias toward anti-trust concerns in tech policy because he already told me he leans that way. That’s transparency.

2. What we know and don’t know. Simple and effective. Summarize what is known about a news event. Include what is unknown. Why is that transparency? Because it makes clear that the news system is imperfect, and the state of our knowledge is always evolving. That’s realer and more human. Easier to believe.

Example: London Terrorist Attack: What We Know and Don’t Know.

3. Here’s how we did this. Not just the story, but what went into it. This is transparency in the same way that a work of architecture that shows the skeleton of the building feels more open to a visitor’s gaze. ProPublica: How We Did Our Analysis of New York City Nuisance Abatement Cases. (This project won the Pulitzer Prize.) Here, Washington Post reporters Stephanie McCrummen and Beth Reinhard describe how they did their investigation of Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore.

Why do it? Because the work that went into a story doesn’t always show in the results. This is by ProPublica’s Illinois chapter:

One of the key figures in Mick Dumke’s story about gun trafficking in Chicago was a government informant we knew only by his first name: Yousef. Finding him so we could get his perspective — or at least let him know, in the interest of fairness, that we were writing about his case — involved scouring hundreds of pages of court records to find his full name. Then we went through online databases to try to find his contact information.

Unable to reach him by phone or email, we spent hours driving to several suburbs to knock on the doors at homes where he and family members may have lived. Ultimately, we found and spoke with his wife and got a call from his attorney. Yousef didn’t want to talk with us, but he appreciated our efforts to offer him the chance.

4. Don’t believe us? See for yourself. Even more than “show your work,” this phrase captures what’s different about the manufacture of trust by means of transparency. Instead of an assertion of authority (trust us, we’re pros at this) an invitation to inspect the evidence. Here’s how I described it in 2015:

A news organization renders a judgment, and then provides the users with the tools and information to “check” that judgment by conducting essentially the same operation themselves. If I summarize what Senator Rand Paul said on ‘Face the Nation’ this week, and then link to the transcript so you can assess for yourself whether my summary is fair and accurate, I’m not asking you to take my word for it. I’m allowing you to discover on your own how faithful my summary is to the original. If my paraphrase is tendentious, you have everything you need to find me out and dock me points for distorting what Senator Paul said. But if my description is confirmed by the transcript I showed you, that’s points for me.

Take a look at this 2014 feature by the Upshot: who will win the Senate? It’s a forecasting model. Not only does the New York Times show its work by linking to the code and data on Github, it also allows users to create their own forecast. Here, the Times is so confident in its calculations, it encourages readers to re-run those calculations and compare what they get to what the Times concluded. That’s transparency. That’s show your work.

This is why the journalists at ProPublica — the leaders in newsroom transparency — put their data sets online. If you don’t believe them, you can look for yourself.

5. These are our current priorities. What do newsrooms cover? The news! What is news? What journalists cover. I think you’ll agree: that is not very transparent. The alternative is to level with the public about reporting priorities. Explain what you are devoting scarce resources to. The best example I have seen: This Is What ProPublica Is Now Covering. It doubles as a plea for help:

Topher Sanders

“I’m covering voter suppression. I want those secret emails and documents. Hook me up. It will stay between me and you.”

Jessica Huseman

“In 2017, I’m covering voting rights and fair elections. Help me find places making it harder to vote.”

Different approach, same idea: The Citizens Agenda in Campaign Coverage, in which a news organization first synthesizes — then publishes — its priority list for election-year journalism. The agenda originates in an elaborate act of public listening. In every forum possible, voters are asked: what do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes this year? If through hard work you discover the answer to that, you not only have a ready blueprint for election coverage, but a way to persuade people that you are on their side. Of course, you have to be right. Your list has to be accurate.

Going public with your priorities makes it easier for the public to assess whether you have the right ones. That’s agenda transparency. We need more of it.

6. Help us investigate. These are the three of the most powerful words in journalism. Help us investigate campus sexual assault in Wisconsin. What’s transparent about that? Several things. You’re revealing a coverage priority. You’re acknowledging that you don’t know everything— or even where to go to look. You’re bringing people into the process, showing them how you work. You’re asking for help.

Here’s a fine example: Tell us what health care is costing you.

This is from The Guardian’s police-shootings project, The Counted.

The US government has no comprehensive record of the number of people killed by law enforcement.

So the Guardian has embarked on a special project – to work from an inaccurate standard toward a more perfect accounting, and tell the stories of people killed by police. But we need your help… Do you have information about an officer-involved death that the public deserves to know? This is the place to share the truth about police killings. Send us your tips, images, video and more – and if we verify it we’ll use it in our reporting.

“Help us investigate” says to the public: you have part of the puzzle, we have part. If we put our parts together we may get somewhere. (David Fahrenthold and I discussed this method at length in our podcast conversation.)

7. What it costs to do this work. The shifting terms for trust in journalism correspond to a shift in business model. More of the costs of news work are being paid by the readers of it, as digital advertising turns out to be a bust for most publishers (but not all.) If people are going to pay directly for their news and information, they need to know what they’re paying for. This is why I think newsrooms have to start being more transparent about what it costs to do their best work.

An outstanding example is This Is What’s Missing From Journalism Right Now by Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffrey of Mother Jones, who explained the frightening economics of an outstanding work of immersion journalism (“My four months as a private prison guard.”)

Shane’s prison project took more than 18 months. That included four months in the prison and more than a year of additional reporting, fact-checking, video production, and legal review, including work by more than a dozen other people on the MoJo staff. And that was the only way we could have gotten that story: By definition, incarceration is invisible to most people, and that’s doubly true for private prisons. Recordkeeping is spotty, public disclosure is limited, visits are difficult. The only people who can describe what really goes on inside are prisoners, guards, and officials, all of whom have a strong interest in spinning the story. To get at the truth, we had to take time, and go deep.

And we had to take considerable financial risk. Conservatively, counting just the biggest chunks of staff time that went into it, the prison story cost roughly $350,000. The banner ads that appeared on the article brought in $5,000, give or take. Had we been really in your face with ads, we could have doubled or tripled that figure—but it would have been a pain for you, and still only a drop in the bucket for us.

The stark difference between costs of $350,000 and ad revenue of $5,000 made the point for Mother Jones. “If you want us to play the long game, the most powerful thing you can do is to do the same. In other words, become a sustaining donor with a tax-deductible gift that renews every month.”

Transparency about costs is not normal yet, but I believe it is coming. So is, “here’s who funds us.”

8. What did we miss? This is a question you often see when journalists are making “best of” lists. (Examples here and here.) But I think it should become common practice in publishing complex stories. “What did we miss?” promotes transparency because it says no report is complete. It invites correction without rancor.

9. Attack our reporting? We will respond. Transparency involves humility because it dispenses with the sort of mystifications on which professional authority often rests. “What we don’t know.” “See for yourself.” “What did we miss?” These remove mystique. But transparency is also about being extra clear. It means leveling with readers. When a published report is subjected to unfair attack, the transparent thing to do is to not to ignore it, but to respond with chapter and verse.

Again, ProPublica leads the way: Red Cross Demands Corrections to Our ‘Misleading’ Coverage. Here’s Our Response. Why do I call this transparency? Because the traditional response, “We stand by our story…” is assertive, but opaque.

10. If you’re coming in the middle of the movie… One of the problems with the news system as it stood before the internet was that it assumed a constant reader. News accounts gave the newest information. They came to us as a series of updates leading with the latest facts. That’s fine for those who have already internalized the architecture of a story. For everyone else a series of updates is a terrible way to learn. (I wrote about this problem back in 2008.)

There is a greater awareness now that most people are coming in the middle of the movie, meaning: by the time they realize something big is going on, a lot has already happened. A stream of updates won’t address that. Journalists have to offer us more help. This was one of the founding premises of Vox.com. Giving people the tools they need to understand an ongoing story is different than providing them with a steady flow of news about it. You can see the difference in this “background” section at Syria Deeply, which specializes in helping readers track the ongoing crisis there. (“From the lead up to the uprising to Russia’s military intervention, click here to understand the ins and outs of the last five years of violence.”)

This is transparency in the sense that it explains where news stories come from. It reveals their anatomy. Anything that helps readers see more clearly “into” the news makes it easier for them to trust it.

11. When you have nothing to add don’t try to add anything. At the 2017 Online News Association conference in Washington, I moderated a panel with Rob Wijnberg of De Correspondent, the Dutch platform that is the most successful member-funded news site in the world. (I am working with them to bring their approach to the US.) At ONA, Wijnberg told the following story:

In March 2016 Brussels was hit with a coordinated terror attack that killed 32 people and injured more than 300. Belgium is next door to The Netherlands; more than half the population speaks Dutch. Journalists at De Correspondent felt they needed to jump on the story. Editor-in-chief Rob Wijnberg was not so sure. His newsroom had no one on the ground in Belgium. Among his correspondents none specialized in international terrorism. The attacks were a huge story, but that didn’t mean De Correspondent could contribute to public understanding. Still, they couldn’t ignore what was happening, either.

Wijnberg decided to write an email to all members of De Correspondent. It took note of the events in Belgium. It directed readers to other news organizations that were doing solid coverage of the attacks. And it said, “we don’t have anything to add but we’ll be back in a few days.” And that day De Correspondent experienced its largest one-day gain in members up to that point in its three-year history. The lesson: Not publishing when you have nothing to add builds confidence in the product. It’s transparent because it says to readers: we don’t do everything. Or as Jeff Jarvis put it in 2007: do what you do best and link to the rest. (To listen to Rob Wijnberg tell the story go to 29:02 in this video.)

There’s more I could have covered in this review. “We heard you.” (After a flood of complaints.) “Here’s how journalism works.” (News literacy.) Open newsroom practices. (Inviting people in.) Coming clean when you’re the story. (Or when you make a major mistake.) Not just the problem, but what can be done about it. (Solutions journalism.) Transparency as deeper engagement. (Relationship-building.)

Here’s where we’re coming from… What we know, what we don’t know… Here’s how we did this story… Don’t believe us? Look for yourself… These are our current priorities— our agenda, if you will… Help us investigate… What it costs to do this work… What did we miss?… Attack our reporting? We will respond… If you’re coming in the middle of the movie… When you have nothing to add don’t try to add anything… And of course: show your work.

These are the new terms on which trust can be won in journalism. The reason they can’t be ignored involves a shift in power. A few weeks ago, Jonah Peretti, founder and CEO of Buzzfeed, put it this way.

In the past, consumers were loyal to brands — brands created distant, aspirational images and we strived for them. Increasingly, the balance of power has shifted and consumers have more control. Today, brands need to be loyal to consumers.

The users of journalism have more control now. Because they have more choices. Because they can compare news accounts. Because the media system is more two-way than it once was. Because they are paying more of the freight. Transparency is not a slogan, or a nice-to-have. It’s a recognition that the world has changed and journalists are in the fight of their lives.

Pricing access to the Trump White House: the strange case of the Times social media policy

"Any semblance of a political opinion must be squashed, with the appearance of neutrality and balance preserved at all costs."

12 Nov 2017 9:56 am 35 Comments

Follow these events with me. Then I will share my view of what is going on here.

On Sep. 17, Glenn Thrush, White House reporter for the New York Times, posted this on Twitter:

Here is what the leader of the free world was then re-tweeting: a crudely doctored video clip showing Donald Trump hitting a golf shot and the shot knocking over Hillary Clinton. Hashtag #CrookedHillary:

Thrush had an aggressive style on Twitter. He said what he thought. He was abrasive and entertaining. He fought with critics when he felt they were wrong. (Including me.) He liked to tell people he had come up through the world of the New York tabloids and retained that brawling spirit, in contrast to the more genteel style of his current employer, the New York Times.

The day after the acidity of his “classy retweet by the leader of the free world” comment, Thrush announced he was quitting Twitter:

He later decided not to delete his account, but he did sign off. His last post was Sep. 18.

Twenty-four days later, Dean Baquet, executive editor of the Times, was asked about Thrush quitting Twitter. He didn’t mourn the loss of voice. “I’ve spent full days policing our social media,” he complained.

Baquet said he wants it to be clear to the public that the paper’s motivation is “journalistically sound” and not part of “a vendetta” against the president. “I can’t do that if I have 100 people working for the New York Times sending inappropriate tweets,” he said. Baquet said the Times is “going to come up with a tougher policy.”

The next day the new policy appeared, a published document. It called on Times journalists to “take extra care to avoid expressing partisan opinions or editorializing on issues that The Times is covering.” It said that social media “plays a vital role” in Times journalism, but also presents risks. “If our journalists are perceived as biased or if they engage in editorializing on social media, that can undercut the credibility of the entire newsroom.”

Under “key points” these warnings were found:

• In social media posts, our journalists must not express partisan opinions, promote political views, endorse candidates, make offensive comments or do anything else that undercuts The Times’s journalistic reputation.

• Our journalists should be especially mindful of appearing to take sides on issues that The Times is seeking to cover objectively.

• These guidelines apply to everyone in every department of the newsroom, including those not involved in coverage of government and politics.

Here the Guidelines swerved to include the voice of Peter Baker, senior White House correspondent for the Times who is not known for his dexterity on social platforms. (Thrush has three times as many followers on Twitter, Maggie Haberman 6X.) Baker spoke not about social media but his concern for what the White House thinks:

It’s important to remember that tweets about President Trump by our reporters and editors are taken as a statement from The New York Times as an institution, even if posted by those who do not cover him. The White House doesn’t make a distinction. In this charged environment, we all need to be in this together.

You not only had to watch what you say but what you linked to. To stay on the right side of the policy, you had to be aware of where your links were headed, and distribute the destinations around.

• If you are linking to other sources, aim to reflect a diverse collection of viewpoints. Sharing a range of news, opinions or satire from others is usually appropriate. But consistently linking to only one side of a debate can leave the impression that you, too, are taking sides.

“Ask yourself these questions,” the Times told its journalists.

1. Would you express similar views in an article on The Times’s platforms?

2. Would someone who reads your post have grounds for believing that you are biased on a particular issue?

3. If readers see your post and notice that you’re a Times journalist, would that affect their view of The Times’s news coverage as fair and impartial?

4. Could your post hamper your colleagues’ ability to effectively do their jobs?

5. If someone were to look at your entire social media feed, including links and retweets, would they have doubts about your ability to cover news events in a fair and impartial way?

The typical reaction of Times reporters to the new policy was supportive— and minimizing. No big deal. The guidelines were said to be “common sense” and a mere codification of what smart journalists already do. (Tech columnist Farhad Manjoo: “It’s mostly fine. It could have been worse?”)

Among journalists who do not work at the Times other points escaped. David Uberti, formerly of Columbia Journalism Review, wrote in Splinter:

Any semblance of a political opinion must be squashed, with the appearance of neutrality and balance preserved at all costs. The new policy reads less like a covenant with readers who view the paper as a trustworthy news source than a response to bad-faith critics who never will—providing a playbook for trolls to attack journalists at the Times and elsewhere. The policy, which was created by a team of reporters and editors in the newsroom, puts a high premium on the appearance of objectivity.

Here’s Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times, who, unlike Peter Baker, is a force on Twitter:

Nick Baumann, an editor at the Huffington Post, said: “NYT’s new social media rules, like many of its policies, start from the idea that it’s important to hide reporters’ true views from readers. As a loyal subscriber, I’d like to know more, not less, about the views + biases of the reporters I’m reading.”

Jump cut to last week. Dean Baquet is speaking at Temple University in Philadelphia. Joseph Lichterman of the Lenfest Institute is there and tweeting out nuggets from his talk, including this:

Mustn’t make things hard for Maggie. If the White House staff is complaining, ‘you don’t like us,’ then we’ve got a problem, folks!

Now let us pull our chairs closer to the fire so we can see what we’re saying. And let me add: these events can support different interpretations. I am pretty sure people at the Times will disagree with mine. (UPDATE: they do.) A week ago I posted this on Twitter:

I think all these things are connected. The Times is slipping behind its longtime rival, the Washington Post, because it is reacting more from fear of criticism than strength of insight. Responsibility has to return to Dean Baquet, the top editor, who is leading the charge, so to speak, toward caution and phony consensus.

I say “phony” because while almost everyone can agree that an entirely gratuitous opinion (snark) deserves to be edited out of the social feeds of Times reporters, there is no agreement at all on whether Glenn Thrush’s acerbic “classy retweet by the leader of the free world” is 1.) fair comment by a White House reporter objectively aware that no previous president would have endorsed such vulgar imagery, or 2.) a clear example of anti-Trump animus, likely to be seized on by the President’s supporters to show there’s a vendetta by Times reporters against their guy.

“Classy retweet by the leader of the free world” really means “no previous president would have done this, because it’s sophomoric and tarnishes the office.” This is a fact, a true statement, the very thing the Times is officially committed to upholding. But it’s a fact that reflects poorly on the current occupant of the White House, which means the White House is likely to push back on it. The newsroom of the New York Times is supposed to be constructed to resist such pressures.

But when it comes to social media, Dean Baquet has inexplicably chosen a different path. His view: The newsroom should be disciplined and guided, not by what’s true or verifiable as fact, not by what Times journalists believe in their bones, but by the things hostile critics might say upon discovery of a voicey tweet. This decision is a disaster, not because the right to commit snark is vital to preserve (it isn’t…) but because the Times, to be great, has to be great on all platforms, and there is no way that will happen if social media policy is grounded in impression management and conflict avoidance, rather than truthtelling, leveling with readers, and the flicker of magic in the human voice.

The New York Times and the Washington Post are known to keep a close watch on each other. Dean Baquet should be asking himself: why isn’t the Post choking and wheezing on its social media policy? Why is he spending entire days trying to discipline his troops? Is Marty Baron investing his time that way? I doubt it. Baron and the Post exude confidence— in their reporting and the voices that bring it to life on other platforms.

Meanwhile, the Times seems more concerned that Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman will lose access to… well, that’s the problem. Access to what? If it’s this kind of journalism — and stenography would be a fair and accurate term for this text — then something is very wrong in the hierarchy of the New York Times. And that again returns to Baquet, who is being outplayed by his rival, Marty Baron at the Post.

I keep coming back to these words: If our journalists are perceived as biased… that can undercut the credibility of the entire newsroom. Dean Baquet — who approved these words and made them law — doesn’t seem to realize that if the perception of critics can edit the actions of his staff then he has surrendered power to enemies of the Times, who will always perceive bias because it is basic to their interests to do so. This is part of a larger problem in mainstream journalism, which is unable to think politically because it is constantly accused of acting politically by hyper-partisan critics peddling fixed ideas.

Phrases like “be especially mindful of appearing to take sides” (emphasis on appearing) are paralyzing and stupid in an asymmetrically polarized climate where journalists are treated as a hate objects by the president of the United States and honest reporting is dismissed as fabrication by Trump and his supporters.

Finally, if how to kindle trust in the mainstream press is today a hard case, I have to question any theory of the case that seeks to center the reputation of the New York Times on the viewlessness of its reporters and the neutrality of their takes. I think it far more likely that trust will in the years ahead be earned through some creative combination of “here’s where we’re coming from,” very high standards of verification, “show your work,” and “what did we miss?”

Trust production along these lines would treat social media not as a threat to the appearance of neutrality, which is how Dean Baquet sees it, but as a vital skill that top journalists have to master in order to support the mother ship. Instead of lecturing the rest of the staff on how hard they are making it for Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman to gain access to a hostile White House, Baquet and his deputies should be figuring how to get Glenn Thrush back on Twitter so he can level with us about the Trump regime.

UPDATE, Jan. 2, 2018

There is a new publisher for the New York Times: Arthur Greg Sulzberger. In his inaugural note to readers he declares his allegiance to usual gods:

The Times will hold itself to the highest standards of independence, rigor and fairness — because we believe trust is the most precious asset we have. The Times will do all of this without fear or favor — because we believe truth should be pursued wherever it leads.

What he does not do in this short note is say anything like, “objectivity is our highest virtue,” or “we must prove to everyone how neutral we can be,” or “we must be especially mindful of appearing to take sides on issues that The Times is seeking to cover…” The whole question of how Times people appear to those in power does not come up— and for good reason. Because it is not fundamental. Independence, accuracy, fairness, courage: these are basic. “If our journalists are perceived as biased…” (that’s a problem) is not basic.

A remarkable but true fact. Current policy of the New York Times considers it a problem if people in the White House perceive bias in the social media postings of Times journalists who, say, review books or cover science, but it is not a problem if the social media staff trolls the core readership of the Times on Twitter.

Normalizing Trump: An incredibly brief explainer

A conflict in the journalist's code was created by a president wholly unfit for the job.

17 Sep 2017 1:12 am 107 Comments

Most every journalist who covers Trump knows of these things:

1. He isn’t good at anything a president has to do. From the simplest, like pretending to help out in flood relief, to the hardest: making the call when all alternatives are bad. (We’re told he can be charming one-on-one. So maybe that’s his one skill.)

2. He doesn’t know anything about the issues with which he must cope. Nor does this seem to bother him.

3. He doesn’t care to learn. It’s not like he’s getting better at the job, or scrambling to fill gaps in his knowledge.

4. He has no views about public policy. Just a few brute prejudices, like if Obama did it, it was dumb. I do not say he lacks beliefs — and white supremacy may be one — but he has no positions. His political sky is blank. No stars to steer by.

5. Nothing he says can be trusted.

6. His “model” of leadership is the humiliation of others— and threat of same. No analyst unfamiliar with narcissistic personality types can hope to make sense of his actions in office.

It’s not like items 1-6 have been kept secret. Journalists tell us about them all the time. Their code requires that. Simultaneously, however, they are called by their code to respect the voters’ choice, as well as the American presidency, of which they see themselves a vital part, as well as the beat, the job of White House reporting. The two parts of the code are in conflict.

If nothing the president says can be trusted, reporting what the president says becomes absurd. You can still do it, but it’s hard to respect what you are doing. If the president doesn’t know anything, the solemnity of the presidency becomes a joke. That’s painful. If they can, people flee that kind of pain. In political journalism there is enough room for interpretive maneuver to do just that.

This is “normalization.” This is what “tonight he became president” is about. This is why he’s called “transactional,” why a turn to bipartisanship is right now being test-marketed by headline writers. This is why “deal-making” is said to be afoot when there is barely any evidence of a deal.

What they have to report brings ruin to what they have to respect. So they occasionally revise it into something they can respect: at least a little.

His campaign to discredit the press is a permanent feature of Trump’s political style

It’s all they know. They aren’t prepared for anything else.

16 Jul 2017 10:26 pm 31 Comments

Donald Trump’s so-called “war with the media” is a good example of what philosophers mean by an over-determined effect: multiple causes, any one of which would be enough to support it.

Which is to say this “war” (terrible term, clumsy and lazy) will almost certainly continue, despite the periodic discovery by journalists that Trump loves to banter with reporters, and that he lives and dies by the very media coverage that he poisonously calls fake.

The campaign to discredit mainstream journalism is thus a permanent feature of Trump’s political style. Why? I have some ideas. But I probably missed a few. If you point them out in the comments (or by social media) I will add the best ones to this post, with credit.

1. Because it’s a base-only presidency with a niche, not a broadcasting strategy. I wrote about this two weeks ago:

We are used to candidates who, when they win the nomination, try to bring the party together by embracing those who supported the losers. We are used to nominees who, when they win the White House, try to bring the country together by speaking to voters who did not support them in November. This is normal behavior. This is what we expect from presidents of both parties. Trump rejects all that. His idea is to deepen the attachment between himself and his core supporters so that nothing can disturb that bond.

Attacking the national press corps makes good sense, what with the Republican base in a permanent state of rage at “cognitive elites.” It makes even better sense for a President with a base-only strategy, a decision reflected in the polling data. About a third of the country is with him: 2. Because this is what they have; they don’t have much else. The Trump presidency is a shambolic mess. As Charlie Warzel and Adrian Carrasquillo of Buzzfeed observed, hating on the media is its most consistent theme.

Trump has been clear on one issue: the untrustworthy “fake news” purveyors of the media. As he’s struggled to even put into motion the kind of sweeping legislation he promised on the campaign trail, Trump’s relentless focus on the media has been the only constant amid the disorganization. Six months in, it seems clear that Trump’s only real ideology — and the only true tenet of Trumpism — is to destroy what he believes is a deceitful mainstream media.

3. Because Trump is a creature of media— and its creation. Josh Marshall recently pointed this out: “For all the purported hatred of ‘the media’, the main Trumpers are almost all fundamentally media creatures. They think in media terms. They are media creations.” He’s right about that.

Trump himself is a self-creation of the 80s and 90s New York City tabloid culture. His comeback in the early part of this century was driven more than most people understand by the success of The Apprentice. Why else do you think people in the Philippines or Kazakhstan paid millions to license Trump’s name? It was the brand driver of the licensing empire which allowed Trump to become the 45th President.

Steve Bannon was a publisher. Before that he was a movie producer. Jared Kushner bought a newspaper and used it to fight his battles in the press. On down the list they are all media people. They don’t hate the media. Indeed, they can only understand most battles in media terms.

In a word, it’s all they know. They aren’t prepared for anything else.

4. Because people in the White House think “media” warring is governing.

When CNN fired three journalists and retracted a story about the Russia connection, White House staffers were said to be “elated.” By something CNN did. This is weird.

As he escalates his attacks on the “failing media,” Trump and his allies are increasingly convinced that recent evidence, including the retracted CNN piece on an aspect of the Russia investigations, will prove to skeptical voters that the mainstream media has a vendetta against the administration.

It’s one thing to strut about calling the news media the opposition party. That’s good theatre. It’s another to think you’ve banked a win when the press corrects itself. From the Washington Post:

Some White House advisers said they were frustrated that the Brzezinski feud — which continued to unfurl throughout the day Friday with accusations and counteraccusations — overtook the president’s fight with CNN, which seemed in their eyes to have clearer villains and heroes.

The Republican health care bill is in peril on Capital Hill. But inside the White House they’re frustrated that their preferred story line in a “war” with the media is getting eclipsed by another one the president himself introduced. Only tinker-toy strategists could be consumed by such things, but that is what we have at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW.

5. Because turning reporters into ritualized hate objects is easy to do, supporters love it, and it meets Trump’s need for public displays of dominance.

The press is not popular; we know that. Attacking journalists is a freebie: no price is paid. These things were true long before Trump announced. What he adds is a specific-to-Trump neuroses: his need to dominate others, which was visible in his only full-on press conference as President. Josh Marshall again:

We’ve collectively been living in Donald Trump’s house now for more than two years. We know him really well. We know that he sees everything through a prism of the dominating and the dominated. It’s a zero-sum economy of power and humiliation. For those in his orbit he demands and gets a slavish adoration. Even those who take on his yoke of indignity are fed a steady diet of mid-grade humiliations to drive home their status and satisfy Trump’s need not only for dominance but unending public displays of dominance. He is a dark, damaged person.

Warring with the news media over freedom and access caters to this need of his. As Josh writes:

Trump’s treatment of the press is really a version of the same game, a set of actions meant to produce the public spectacle of ‘Trump acts; reporters beg.’ ‘Reporters beg and Trump says no.’ Demanding, shaming all amount to trying to force actions which reporters have no ability to compel. That signals weakness. And that’s the point.

If part of this so-called “war” with the press is about the terms under which journalists will be allowed to report on the White House, there will never be peace. Because only by squeezing access can Trump produce the whining and pleading he requires to feel that temporary jolt of pleasure and mastery. Of course, it doesn’t fill the hole in his soul, which is why it must continue.

6. Because it’s the one campaign promise he can definitely keep. He’s not going to build a wall and get Mexico to pay for it. He’s not going to bring back coal or revive American manufacturing. He’s not going to be the master negotiator before whom the leaders of sovereign nations cave. None of that will ever unfold.

But smack around the hand-raisers in the press corps? That he can do. It requires no finesse. There is no act of Congress involved. He doesn’t have to master the issue because there is no issue, only a despised “other.” In a sense this is what he came to Washington to do, and he’s going to keep doing it. Virtually the first act of his administration was this: Sean Spicer’s put-down of the press over crowd size at Trump’s inauguration. As I wrote the next day (“send the interns!”) the message was:

It’s not a problem for us if you stagger from the room in disbelief. We’re not trying to “win the news cycle,” or win you over. We’re trying to demonstrate independence from and power over you people. This room is not just for briefings, announcements and Q & A. It’s also a theater of resentment in which you play a crucial part. Our constituency hates your guts; this is the place where we commune with them around that fact. See you tomorrow, guys!

And every day they show up. Which is another reason the “war” will continue.

7. Because with the Federal government in Republican hands there is an “enemy gap.” Hillary Clinton has been vanquished. Obama is in sunglasses, shopping and playing golf. They don’t make plausible opponents any more. But CNN does.

Listen to Trump’s remarks at the Kennedy Center July 1.

“The fake media is trying to silence us, but we will not let them. The people know the truth. The fake media tried to stop us from going to the White House, but I’m president and they’re not.”

8. Because it binds him to the base, which has been tutored in this resentment since 1969.

The Washington Post:

For Trump and his legions of loyalists, the media has become a shared enemy. “They like him, they believe in him, they have not to any large degree been shaken from him, and the more the media attacks him, the more it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy on the side of the Trump supporters who fervently believe the media treat him unfairly,” said Tony Fabrizio, the chief pollster for Trump’s campaign. “It’s like, ‘Beat me with that sword some more!’ ”

9. Because they know a lot of bad news has yet to emerge. Especially about Russia. A more competent White House with a more normal president might try to get ahead of the investigation by releasing what is surely going to come out. This White House is incapable of that. Back-up plan: discredit the carriers of the most damaging reports before the reports are carried. Which amounts to an attack on truth via the expected tellers of it.

10. Because the sheer ugliness of the spectacle repels the uncommitted, persuading them that there’s no point in paying attention. The president lacks the political skills needed to both hold on to his most committed supporters and simultaneously make nice with those who are neither core Tump voters nor the resistance. He’s not dexterous enough to manage any of that. What he can do is “depress turnout” by making things as ugly and confusing as possible for the neither-nors— not just on election day but every day.

Continuous culture war with the media serves that end. It depresses daily turnout in the political public sphere. If the only ones who show up are hard core Trump supporters on one side and the committed resistance on the other, the White House will gladly accept that. Unending war with the media is thus a demobilization tactic. As I said, the sheer ugliness of the spectacle repels the uncommitted.

Is this a conscious strategy? Probably not. But it’s still part of the “logic.”

11. Because his fantasy claims during the campaign pre-ordained critical coverage if Trump won. For example: You will have great health care. We will take care of everybody at a fraction of the cost. He actually said this! Philip Bump:

“We’re going to have insurance for everybody,” Trump told The Washington Post’s Robert Costa and Amy Goldstein during an interview less than a week before his inauguration… The plan would have “lower numbers, much lower deductibles.” The “philosophy in some circles that if you can’t pay for it, you don’t get it”? Trump insisted that “that’s not going to happen with us” — implying that there would be universal coverage regardless of income. What’s more, people could “expect to have great health care” that would be “in a much simplified form. Much less expensive and much better.”

There was never a chance that any of that could happen. There was always the certainty that the press would point this failure out. Inherent in the fact-free fantasyland where Donald Trump dwells is conflict with the news media when “we will take care of everybody at a fraction of the cost…” meets the text of an actual bill before Congress. Any bill.

Trump doesn’t know he lives in a fact-free fantasyland; that’s one of the facts he is blissfully free from. No matter how much he enjoys bantering with reporters, no matter how desperate he is for positive coverage from “the fake news,” as he calls it, the irreality at the heart of his presidency guarantees that this conflict with journalists will go on and on.

Why the White House daily briefing is in such trouble.

"Wake up: Trump is not trying to win the support of anyone who is not naturally aligned with him."

30 Jun 2017 2:00 am 28 Comments

First, read this update that CNN’s Brian Stelter included in his nightly newsletter this week:

In the past 24 hours…

 — President Trump went after two of the nation’s biggest newspapers, The New York Times and the Washington Post, with “fake news” tweets.

— The White House told reporters they could cover Trump’s first re-election fundraiser, but then made an abrupt change, “closing the event to media in a break from past precedent.”

— The W.H. prohibited TV cameras at the daily press briefing again.

— The president posted James O’Keefe‘s anti-CNN videos on his official @realDonaldTrump Instagram page, promoting the videos to millions of followers.

— Trump allies in the media continued to attack. O’Keefe’s videos were a top story again on Fox News, with Tucker Carlson at 8pm, “The Five” at 9pm, and Sean Hannity at 10pm all leading with it

— The W.H. confirmed that Trump and South Korean president Moon Jae-in aren’t planning to hold a joint news conference when Moon is here on Friday. Joint pressers are customary when heads of state are visiting. But the W.H. didn’t schedule one when Indian prime minister Narendra Modi visited on Monday, either.

The Pentagon gave a non-answer when asked why Secretary of Defense James Mattis decided to travel this week without the usual contingent of TV journalists.

— Journalists were told to leave a Justice Department event marking Pride month, which was taking place in an area normally open to press.

Now add to Stelter’s list these items…

* The damaging retraction by CNN of a wayward report about the Russia investigation that led to the resignation of three top journalists at the network. We still don’t know what was wrong with it; we just know that it did not pass through CNN’s checks and balances.

* Politico’s report that “Donald Trump and his allies believe he’s gained a tactical advantage in his war with the media… Some Trump allies suggested that the recent misstep at CNN is enough to justify drastic changes to how the White House deals with the press, including moving reporters out of the West Wing entirely.”

* Trump’s spectacularly hateful and misogynist tweets about MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski, “the latest of a string of escalating attacks by the president on the national news media.”

* The recommendation by Mike Allen of Axios.com — the most insidery of all Washington journalists — to “stop going to the White House press briefings.”

* Josh Marshall’s analysis that, though the press has shown courage and enterprise in standing up to Trump, “trying to shame the President or demand he change his behavior” is a futile game. Marshall points to “Trump’s need not only for dominance but unending public displays of dominance.”

Trump’s treatment of the press is really a version of the same game, a set of actions meant to produce the public spectacle of ‘Trump acts; reporters beg.’ ‘Reporters beg and Trump says no.’ Demanding, shaming all amount to trying to force actions which reporters have no ability to compel. That signals weakness. And that’s the point.

With all that as provocation, I want to pull the camera back a bit, and offer these thoughts: Why is this happening?

We are used to candidates who, when they win the nomination, try to bring the party together by embracing those who supported the losers. We are used to nominees who, when they win the White House, try to bring the country together by speaking to voters who did not support them in November. This is normal behavior. This is what we expect from presidents of both parties.

Trump rejects all that. His idea is to deepen the attachment between himself and his core supporters so that nothing can disturb that bond. The substitution of depth (of attachment) for breadth (of appeal) is confusing and disorienting to those who believe in consensus politics. This includes many of our most prominent journalists. They are stunned and confused by this exchange.

Among the consequences is that persuasion drops out of the calculus of success, meaning: Trump is not trying to win the support of anyone who is not naturally allied with him. This is abnormal behavior in an American president. Common expectations for the occupant of the White House simply assume that a case will be made for why the country as a whole should support the person in power. Sitting on high, the press is accustomed to judging how strong or weak that case for support is. Opinion polls provide the proof, especially the president’s approval rating. But if strength of attachment matters more than breadth of appeal, then approval ratings are a misleading metric.

But it’s worse than that. Once you remove persuasion from the equation many things tumble out of place. Plausibility itself becomes superfluous. Adjusting the claims of the White House to any common measure of reality breaks down as a discipline. What matters is the strength of the bond with core supporters, not the ability of the Administration to answer questions, parry doubts, or mount a convincing case for its program. This is one reason that lying has become a White House routine.

And this is why the daily briefing is in such trouble. The whole premise of that event is that the White House ought to make a credible show before reporters because reporters are a rough proxy for the unconvinced. But what if the people in power don’t care to convince the unconvinced? And what if reporters are seen, not as any sort of proxy for the voting public, but as avatars of an elite that has already been put down by the prior year’s election returns?

The field of possibilities widens. Once persuasion drops out of the calculus, journalists seem less threatening as judges and more useful as foils. Peering out over the assembled press corps, the White House briefer has a choice of convenient hate objects. Shall it be Glenn Thrush or Jon Karl today… April Ryan or Hallie Jackson? Those called upon may think themselves empowered to put tough questions to the people in charge, but if the people in charge care only about the reactions of core supporters their task is all too simple: put down the liberal media. An easy win. And the one campaign promise the president seems able to keep.

The whole premise of the daily briefing is that the White House has to grapple with tough questions. That is the test. But what if the White House cares not if it fails this test? More access, more toughness, and more on-camera briefings are no answer to that. This is where we stand today. The Trump government isn’t trying to persuade its doubters. There is no form of toughness that can redress this fact. Forget the briefing. It is already gone. A dead form, killed by the president’s approach to politics. It doesn’t even go out to the country in the way a normal White House communique would. It runs through the press to the president’s core supporters in a kind of closed loop.

Time to start planning for unforeseen events. When all forms of access and all avenues for questioning are choked off, journalism can still thrive. But it needs to become smarter. This is why I have been saying since January: send the interns. Redirect your most experienced people to outside-in reporting. They cannot visit culture war upon you if they don’t know where you are. The press has to become less predictable. And it has to stop volunteering as a hate object.

UPDATE July 1: A reporter in the current White House briefing room responds to what I wrote here, saying he respects the argument but disagrees. He defends the briefing and the importance of being there in the White House. Read what Hunter Walker of Yahoo News has to say. Bonus: The CBC in Canada covers this post.