Asymmetry between the major parties fries the circuits of the mainstream press

And five other ideas I use to interpret campaign coverage this year.

25 Sep 2016 7:59 pm 210 Comments

donald-trump-trolled-by-graphics-chyron-aalOn the eve of the first debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, I thought I would write down some of the precepts and maxims I have used to understand press behavior during this long and startling campaign season. If I have done this right, you should be able to test the usefulness of my list in the final six weeks of the U.S. election. (And during coverage of the debates!)

A word on how I came up with this list. I’ve been a close reader and critic of campaign coverage American-style since 1988. That’s eight “cycles,” as people in the industry say. After I started PressThink in 2003, I could write about the gatekeepers without their permission — hurray for blogging! — and so my pace increased during the 2004, 2008, and 2012 elections. This year I have done a little less at my blog (eight pieces since May 2015, plus one for the Washington Post) and put more into the real time conversation on Twitter, which includes most of the people doing campaign coverage, as well as the heaviest users of it.

Over that stretch I have tried to develop my own pressthink in reply to “theirs,” meaning the ideas most campaign journalists have about their work, and the explanations they tend to give when criticized for it. I tried to summarize the first 20 years of this tension in my 2011 lecture: Why Political Coverage is Broken. What I said there is still basic to how I do my criticism, but Donald Trump’s spectacular intervention has raised the stakes and altered the terms of the debate.

Trump is not a normal candidate and can’t be covered like one. Journalists have finally accepted that. Just the other day Dean Baquet, editor of the New York Times, said this about Trump

He’s been hugely challenging. I don’t think we’ve ever had somebody who in my time as a journalist so openly lies, and that was a word that we struggled to actually utter. We’re used to, I think as journalists, we’re used to philosophical debates, like one party thinks we should go to war on Iraq, makes its case—exaggerates its case, we now know. But there are warring philosophies. I’ve never quite seen anything like [Trump], and I think it’s a real challenge for us.

Elections were about warring philosophies. Journalists sat in the press box and brought you the action. Baquet admits: this organizing image no longer organizes much. But even his phrase “hugely challenging” understates it, I think. Here are the major propositions I have been using to understand this unique and perilous moment.

1. Political journalism rests on a picture of politics that journalists and politicos share.

As practiced by the “mainstream media” (the professionals who work at NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, PBS, NPR, the AP, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Reuters, Bloomberg, Politico, Time magazine) political journalism is constructed — it rests entirely — on a mental picture of the American system in which the two major parties are similar actors with, as Baquet put it, “warring philosophies.”

Elections are the big contests that distribute power between them. The day-to-day of politics is a series of minor battles for tactical advantage. The press is part of this picture because it distributes attention, but — in this view of things — it does not participate in politics itself. It reports on battles large and small, questions the power holders, tries to reveal machinations going on behind the scenes and generates public interest in the drama of politics. But it is unaligned with the major players and unaffected by the outcome of the contests it chronicles.

To report successfully on such a system you need sources who trust you inside both parties. You need people in both parties who will return your calls and have drinks with you at the Des Moines Marriott. The simplest way to guarantee that is to look at politics in the same way that people in the party establishments do. The political pros who staff the committees and run the campaigns and consult with the big players are the closest readers of political journalism and closest in outlook to the journalists who consider reporting on politics their profession.

I called this a mental picture, but it’s more than that. It’s a stable framework within which work can be done, coverage can be planned, knowledge can be refined, reputation can be won, careers can be built. The image of two similar parties with warring philosophies that compete for tactical advantage also positions the mainstream press in a comfortable way: between partisan players as chronicler, questioner and referee. Among those most comfortable with that position: media owners and managers hoping to alienate as few people as possible.

In other words: powerful forces keep the mental picture in place.

2. Asymmetry between the parties fries the circuits of the mainstream press.

Now imagine what happens when over time the base of one party, far more than the base of the other, begins to treat the press as a hostile actor, and its own establishment as part of the rot; when it not only opposes but denies the legitimacy — and loyalty to the state — of the other side’s leader; when it prefers conspiracy theory to party-friendly narratives that at least cope with verified fact; when it is scornful of the reality that in a divided system you never get everything you want.

This is the thesis that Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein developed in their 2012 book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. They are think tank scholars with PhDs and Washington insiders who were frequently called on by journalists to explain trends and furnish quotes. They had incentives the same as journalists to stay on conversant terms with politicos in both parties. Mann and Ornstein came to the conclusion that something had changed in the Republican Party. Their summary of it:

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.

Four years later, Dan Balz of the Washington Post, probably the most respected figure in the political press, admitted that Mann and Ornstein were onto something. “They were ahead of others in describing the underlying causes of polarization as asymmetrical,” he wrote. Why did it take four years? (In 2012 and 2014 Balz was noncommittal about the thesis.) Two answers: asymmetry fries the circuits of the mainstream press… and Trump.

Because journalists rely so heavily on that mental picture I described, they stick with it as the anomalies build up. Mann and Ornstein had tried to warn Balz and his colleagues about this:

We understand the values of mainstream journalists, including the effort to report both sides of a story. But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change anytime soon, at least we should change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.

This advice was ignored at the time. But now it cannot be. For Trump is that “insurgent outlier” described by Mann and Ornstein. In his nativism, xenophobia, “identity politics for white people,” and loose talk about nuclear weapons he is the ideologically extreme. Like the deformed party Mann and Ornstein wrote about, he is “scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science,” and dismissive of the legitimacy of his opposition. He makes things up and doesn’t care if they are fact-checked and found to be lies. He whips up hatred of the press almost to the point of encouraging violence.

Hillary Clinton, for all her problems, including a tense and hostile relationship with the press, is a conventional politician running a conventional campaign that observes the norms of American politics.

That’s asymmetry. Asymmetry is in many ways the story of the 2016 campaign. But it fries the circuits of the mainstream press. Resistance to acknowledging this is strong because so much crumbles if symmetry crumbles. It’s not that it can’t be done. It can be:

All politicians bend the truth to fit their purposes, including Hillary Clinton. But Donald J. Trump has unleashed a blizzard of falsehoods, exaggerations and outright lies in the general election, peppering his speeches, interviews and Twitter posts with untruths so frequent that they can seem flighty or random — even compulsive.

But political journalism isn’t wired for this. It’s wired to safely reproduce the image of two comparable parties with different philosophies. As Ezra Klein noted, the fact that so many in the Republican establishment are appalled by their own nominee has made it easier for some journalists “to cover Trump as an alien, dangerous, and dishonest phenomenon.” But this is not a break with the mental picture I described. It’s a kind of permission from the insiders to go after the guy as threat to the system they share with journalists.

No one is more sold on symmetry than the people who produce political coverage at CNN, which sees itself as steering a middle course between Fox and MSNBC. This has led to a bizarre pattern in which CNN’s paid “contributors” like Corey Lewandowksi faithfully represent Trump by airing the same falsehoods the candidate has been using while freelancing some of their own. CNN hosts sometimes have to correct their own people on air and tell them to stop making stuff up— when it’s CNN who is paying them to play Trump in the first place! (See Bryan Curtis in The Ringer for examples.)

3. Campaign coverage had problems akin to the build up of “technical debt.”

This is an analogy I picked up from Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo. (Technical debt is Ward Cunningham’s concept.) Marshall explains it this way:

If we do a project in a rough and ready way, which is often what we can manage under the time and budget constraints we face, we will build up a “debt” we’ll eventually have to pay back. Basically, if we do it fast, we’ll later have to go back and rework or even replace the code to make it robust enough for the long haul, interoperate with other code that runs our site or simply be truly functional as opposed just barely doing what we need it to. There’s no right or wrong answer; it’s simply a management challenge to know when to lean one way or the other. But if you build up too much of this debt the problem can start to grow not in a linear but an exponential fashion, until the system begins to cave in on itself with internal decay, breakdowns of interoperability and emergent failures which grow from both.

Josh thought this had happened with the Republican Party. For example, “a large portion of the GOP is not satisfied with what can realistically be achieved by conventional political means.” trumpbillboardIt should have found a way to put this to its most demanding supporters, but there was always a reason to avoid that massive reckoning. This left it vulnerable to a huckster and fantasist like Trump. Or: “Can Marco ‘Establishment’ Rubio really get traction attacking Trump for having no specific plan to replace Obamacare when Republicans have spent the last five years repeatedly voting to repeal Obamacare without ever specifying a plan to replace it with?” Again: they never got around to it. This left them vulnerable to Trump.

I read Marshall’s analysis and thought: the same thing happened in a different way to political journalists. They should have found a way to deal with “a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality,” but they kept putting it off, even though they knew that something was happening to the Republican Party that wasn’t happening to the Democrats. They should have built asymmetric polarization into their mental model but it was a lot of work and “both sides do it” was too comforting, too attractive.

More debt: They should have done something about the uniformity of approach from cycle to cycle and newsroom to newsroom but it was too easy to keep doing it the way they had always done it. (Two exceptions: they added fact-checking; and influenced by Nate Silver, they got more sophisticated about polling.) They should have lessened their dependence on establishment voices and political professionals but the shared sensibility — which I have called the savvy outlook — was too hard to overcome. They should have admitted that they had become part of the political class, but it required them to retire too many illusions about themselves.

4. Trump’s campaign upends the assumptions required for traditional forms of election-year journalism even to make sense.

I made this argument in the Washington Post in July. Campaign coverage is a contraption that only works if the candidates behave in certain expected ways. Up to now, they always did. But Trump violates many of these expectations. For example:

Imagine a candidate who wants to increase public confusion about where he stands on things so that voters give up on trying to stay informed and instead vote with raw emotion. Under those conditions, does asking “Where do you stand, sir?” serve the goals of journalism, or does it enlist the interviewer in the candidate’s chaotic plan?

Here’s a more granular example. Up to now campaigns for major party nominees tried to make sure that what the campaign was saying (and the campaign manager, the running mate, the chair as titular head…) reflected what the candidate was saying. If the campaign put out a message contradicted by the candidate, that was a problem. Why? Because mixed messaging confuses the voters and makes the campaign look dumb. Therefore an interview with the campaign manager, the running mate, or some other surrogate was a window into the candidate’s thinking. It had journalistic value for that reason.

The Trump campaign breaks this practice. If Donald Trump calls NBC’s Lester Holt a Democrat (in fact he’s a registered Republican) and attacks him as part of an unfair system, Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, is later free to say that Holt is a “respected, brilliant newsman” who will do a great job as moderator of the first debate. An on-the-ball journalist can ask: hey, which is it? But that’s a practice with a premise. The premise is that a presidential campaign wants to put out a consistent message to avoid confusing people, and to deny journalists a “gotcha” moment. What if that premise is false? The rationale for interviewing the campaign manager, the running mate, or some other surrogate collapses. They say one thing, the candidate says something else and the confusion is not considered a problem. It may even be a plus.

Again and again with Trump, journalists find themselves in this position: persisting with familiar practices that don’t really make sense because the premise behind them has collapsed— collapsed for one candidate, but not the other. And remember: asymmetry fries the circuits of the mainstream press.

5. Hillary Clinton would like to avoid the press. Trump is trying to break it.

I will outsource the fact pattern to Erik Wemple, media columnist for the Washington Post, and the background on Clinton to Politico. But I would add that Trump’s threat to the press goes far deeper than his flagrant abuse of journalists and the threatening noises he has made about libel law.

When I say he’s trying to break the press, I mean the entire system that gives honest journalism a role in the republic. Trump is running against such basic notions as:

  • “we need a fact-based debate or there can’t be consent of the governed;”
  • “there’s a public record that cannot just be wiped away;”
  • “a candidate’s position on major issues should be made clear to the voters;”
  • “lying cannot become a universal principle in politics without major damage to our democracy.”

Not only is he running against such fundamentals, the continuity of which is assumed by all forms of campaign coverage, but journalists are the ones who understand best his assault on these basic principles. They’re living it every day. Of course, he’s running against them, too.

A political style that mocks the idea of a common world of facts — and gets traction with that view —  is an attack on the very possibility of honest journalism. Campaign journalists have to find a way to oppose this style without becoming election-season opponents of Trump himself, which is not, I think, their proper role. Nothing in their training or tradition would have prepared them for this moment.

6. A candidate the likes of which we have not seen requires a type of coverage we have never seen.

I agree with the Atlantic’s James Fallows about Trump. “No one like him has gotten this close to the presidency in modern times.” Which is not to say he came out of nowhere, or that there is no precedent for his political style. A long series of developments left the presidential nominating system and the Republican party vulnerable to Trump. A long series of developments, which I tried to summarize here and here, also left political journalism unprepared for the challenge of covering this campaign.

But now we’re here and novelty demands novelty. If journalists are to rise to the occasion in the final six weeks of this campaign, they will have to find a style of coverage as irregular as Trump’s political style. There are powerful forces working against this. But if they don’t try, they are likely to regret it for the rest of their careers.

 

Getting granular with NPR’s culture of timidity

NPR would not call it plagiarism when Melania Trump's speech to the Republican convention took passages from Michelle Obama. But there was a revealing moment when its people defended this policy online.

24 Jul 2016 8:03 pm 36 Comments

mt

Hey, readers! This will take some explanation but if you bear with me, I promise: by the time you get to point 9 it will be worth it.

1. On the morning after Melania Trump’s speech, Standards & Practices Editor Mark Memmott published this note about NPR’s policy. The message: we can’t call it plagiarism unless it’s intentional.

On The Definition Of Plagiarism

Because it’s in the news today, here’s a reminder about how we have defined the word “plagiarism”:

“Taking someone else’s work and intentionally presenting it as if it is your own.”

Note the word “intentionally.”

We can talk about phrases that are “word-for-word” or that “mirror each other.” It’s fine to say there’s a “plagiarism issue” or that the speech last night raised questions about whether some parts were plagiarized. But we don’t know at this time whether anything was done “intentionally.” So don’t declare that there’s been some plagiarism.

2. You can see the NPR policy at work in the many reports it prepared about the Melania Trump speech. They all avoided the word “plagiarized.”

“Melania Trump’s Monday Speech Mirrors Michelle Obama’s…” (Link.) “…language in Melania Trump’s Monday night convention speech that was near-identical to a similar speech Michelle Obama delivered in 2008.” (Link.) “Melania Trump Echoes Michelle Obama.” (Link.)

Even after Trump staffer Meredith McIver took responsibility for using Michelle Obama’s words without credit, NPR would not call it plagiarism. (Link) Why? Because she didn’t mean it.

3. I came across Memmott’s note because I was mentioned on Twitter by an NPR reporter, Sarah McCammon, as she was being taken to task by a user named Shoq, who often comments on media issues. Here is some of that exchange:

Screen Shot 2016-07-24 at 4.23.48 PM

4. This brought into the discussion my NYU colleague Clay Shirky. He had the following exchange with Sarah McCammon. (Link.)

Shirky: “Sarah, that’s wrong. When professors look for plagiarism, we look for copying without attribution, period.”

McCammon: “I’m aware. My husband is a professor. Different standards for different situations/fields.”

Shirky: “Are you are walking back your ‘technical’ excuse? And saying NPR’s standard is just not to use the word?”

McCammon: “Uh, not an excuse. Not walking anything back. Again, I refer you to our policy. NPR’s guidelines are different than many academic institutions, which understandably may have a lower threshold.”

Remember those words: “lower threshhold.”

5. Shirky’s point can be seen in this passage from NYU’s ethics handbook for journalism students:

Cardinal Sins

Plagiarism: Journalists earn their living with words, and plagiarism — using someone else’s words as if they were your own — is, simply stated, stealing.

Nothing about intent. This is from the Harvard College Writing Program:

In academic writing, it is considered plagiarism to draw any idea or any language from someone else without adequately crediting that source in your paper. It doesn’t matter whether the source is a published author, another student, a Web site without clear authorship, a Web site that sells academic papers, or any other person: Taking credit for anyone else’s work is stealing, and it is unacceptable in all academic situations, whether you do it intentionally or by accident.

My italics. This one is from Oxford University’s guide for students: (My italics.)

Plagiarism is presenting someone else’s work or ideas as your own, with or without their consent, by incorporating it into your work without full acknowledgement. All published and unpublished material, whether in manuscript, printed or electronic form, is covered under this definition. Plagiarism may be intentional or reckless, or unintentional. Under the regulations for examinations, intentional or reckless plagiarism is a disciplinary offence.

6. These were Sarah McCammon’s main points as she responded to the many people on Twitter who were puzzled by NPR’s refusal to call what Melania Trump did “plagiarism.”

* Our guidelines say it has to be intentional. I have to follow them. (Link.)
* I can’t see into Melania’s mind. I have no way to judge intent. (Link.)
* I present facts and trust listeners to make up their own minds. (Link.)
* What academics say isn’t relevant. My reference point is other journalists. (Link.)

7. Other journalists? Well, the Washington Post had no trouble calling it plagiarism: Why it became almost impossible for the Trumps to insist Melania’s plagiarism was coincidence. Do they have lower standards than NPR? (Another example.) And it wasn’t just headlines: (All bolding by me.)

Memo to all remaining 2016 convention speakers, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat: You are officially on notice. The words you say will be researched by reporters to determine whether they have ever been said before, in the same order in which you are saying them now.

This is the consequence of Melania Trump using plagiarized sections of Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention speech in an address to the Republican National Convention on Monday. Journalists now have a new game to play when speakers take the stage: “Spot the Source.”

Would the New York Times be one of the news organizations from which Sarah McCammon takes her cues? Nope.

“My name is Meredith McIver and I’m an in-house staff writer at the Trump Organization,” began an extraordinary statement she released Wednesday morning in which she took the blame for the disastrous plagiarism of Michelle Obama in Melania Trump’s prime-time speech Monday at the Republican National Convention.

CNN, maybe? Alas, no: “Donald Trump’s campaign finally moved Wednesday to shut down the distracting controversy over Melania Trump’s plagiarized speech by identifying the writer who worked on the speech.” Los Angles Times: same deal. “The Trump campaign released a statement Wednesday – ‘to whom it may concern’ – ascribing the plagiarized passages in Melania Trump’s convention speech to a scribe working for Donald Trump’s corporate operation.”

8. The point is: if NPR wanted to call a spade a spade it had a clear warrant for doing so— from academic sources, from journalism peers, or via a simple dictionary definition. But NPR doesn’t want to call a plagiarized convention speech a plagiarized convention speech. Why? Because there could be a controversy about it! As indeed there immediately was after Melania Trump’s plagiarized speech. Trump defender Chris Christie rejected that description. So did campaign chair Paul Manafort, who even blamed Hillary Clinton for the controversy.

NPR’s intention in these charged moments is not to describe the world vividly and accurately for listeners, but to escape from acts of judgment that could be criticized in the heat of a campaign. And even though it’s a fairly simple matter to assess what happened here and decide that, yep, the speech was plagiarized — and then report on whodunit — for NPR the relevant factor isn’t the ease of applying a standard definition of plagiarism but how simple it is to avoid getting dragged into a messy fight. And so the guidance went out: “It’s fine to say there’s a ‘plagiarism issue’ or that the speech last night raised questions about whether some parts were plagiarized…”

Alongside the production of news, NPR is worried about reproducing its own innocence in matters of controversy. The code for this is: people can make up their own minds. Which is really saying: NPR can’t think, but we invite you to!

9. Now we come to the most revealing moment in the exchanges I reproduced for you: when Sarah McCammon tells Clay Shirky: NPR’s guidelines are different than many academic institutions, which understandably may have a lower threshold. Fascinating! For it’s really the opposite. NYU, Harvard, Oxford all have a tougher standard than NPR. If you borrow someone’s words without attribution, that’s plagiarism and you have to face the consequences. Under the more relaxed standard that NPR favors, you not only have to borrow someone else’s words without attribution to be committing plagiarism, you also have to show malicious intent. And NPR has to have some reliable way of knowing your intent. This is a lower threshold. Because of it many more people will be able to commit plagiarism without being called out for it by NPR.

And yet reporter Sarah McCammon says NPR has a higher threshold. What does she mean? Well, she’s not an idiot. Her claim makes sense, but only if you understand the culture of timidity at NPR. What her bosses are worried about is making a judgment that could be contested. Before they’re willing to do that, they need a lot of evidence. What they have in mind is not “what’s the right thing to call this?” or “what’s the best descriptor for our listeners?” but “how can we make fewer calls that can be criticized by powerful actors?” and “how can we report on controversies without becoming part of them?”

When those are the starting points, a “lower” threshold means you are willing to make more calls that could be criticized. And academics can tell you: almost every student who plagiarizes says “it was not my intent!” If you’re going to be real about plagiarism, you are going to be criticized, not only by students but by their parents. If you have high standards, you take the heat. If you have low standards, you worry about how much heat you will get. Sarah McCammon had flipped this in her mind, and she was unaware of it. But she was right about one thing: it’s unproductive to rage at her, for she has no choice but to follow NPR guidelines.

10. If “academic institutions have a lower threshold” was the most telling thing she said, this was to me the most interesting:


In a way she’s right. If she calls it plagiarism on air that doesn’t change anything. But that’s because calling things by their right names should not be an issue we have to fight with journalists about. The fact that it is an issue, not only with plagiarism but with more serious descriptors like torture, is a sign of weakness in the culture of journalism, and this is especially so at NPR.

This makes a lot of its listeners sad.

UPDATE, July 26: Steve Buttry wrote about this issue at his blog. He also got Mark Memmott, NPR’s editor for standards and practices, to comment. Here is what Memmott said by way of explanation:

When we wrote our Ethics Handbook in 2012 we included this definition of plagiarism: ‘Taking someone else’s work and intentionally presenting it as if it is your own.’ We realized that wasn’t a strict ‘dictionary definition.’ But we included the word ‘intentionally’ for a very specific reason: to allow us to apply some judgment.

We were thinking about how we would react if a journalist who had never stolen from someone else’s work inadvertently left a line or phrase from another file in his or her copy. Did that person make a serious mistake? Yes. Does that person deserve to be labeled a ‘plagiarist’ and be disciplined or even fired? We wanted some flexibility to make an intelligent decision.

On the morning when I reminded the staff about our definition, the story about Melania Trump’s speech was developing. I was thinking that we should not rush to hold her to a different standard than we would hold ourselves.

You and others have said that no one will ever admit they intended to plagiarize. You may be right. But I would say that a confession isn’t necessary to determine intent. It’s not hard to tell the difference between a slip by someone who’s never been accused or convicted of plagiarism and a story that’s got several “lifts” from different sources. And if someone slips and is later caught again, I think intent has been proven by his actions.

You wrote that we’re guilty of ‘comical gymnastics.’ That’s a good line. I would hope, though, that you would give us some credit for trying to think things through. Have we overthought it? Perhaps. But I would say our intentions are good.

One more thing. Sarah McCammon is a good journalist who was applying the guidance she was given by her editors. If there’s a problem, it’s because of her editors (most notably me), not her.

To have a prayer of meeting the interpretive challenge posed by the Trump candidacy…

Last week in the Washington Post I said that journalists covering the candidacy of Donald Trump may have to come up with novel responses. Here I elaborate by asking you examine this image:

21 Jul 2016 9:21 pm 20 Comments

Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 4.20.26 PM

That’s the line-up of interpreters presented by CNN on Tuesday of this week. They all fit under one of three categories: Journalists who cover politics for CNN (Gloria Borger, John King, Nia-Malika Henderson); political operatives who have worked for more traditional candidates (David Axelrod, Van Jones, Ana Navarro); and surrogates whose value to the conversation is that they reliably support Trump (Jeffery Lord, Andy Dean.)

But is that mix good enough? Can those three types — political journalists, operatives, surrogates — bring enough perspective to make sense of the Trump phenomenon?

My answer: No. Not even close.

The journalists are on screen mainly because these are the people CNN has at hand. They’re already being paid, so they have to be used. The operatives are there because, according to the producers, politics is a game and these are people who know how the game is played. The surrogates are there because in order to elude criticism — a massive and undeclared factor in political coverage — CNN needs to present itself as “balanced.” It’s hard to find anyone who from experience knows a lot about politics and also supports Donald Trump, so CNN has to pay people to even the scales.

Notice: all of these reasons are producer-centric. They aren’t responding to user demands, or the demands of the phenomenon itself. Jeffrey Lord is there because CNN needs him on air to feel fair and balanced. His job is to help CNN ward off criticism that it is one-sided or insufficiently Trumpish. This is the same reason Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, was hired by CNN. The decision has nothing to do with serving audiences, explaining politics, or telling voters the hard truth about their choices. It’s about avoiding criticism.

In order to have a prayer of meeting the interpretive challenge posed by the candidacy of Donald Trump an executive producer of election coverage at a major network would need to call on different categories than the three we commonly see: journalists, operatives, and surrogates. Here’s a partial list of the “slots” you would need to fill to even come close to a useful and rounded view…

Parody: In many ways, Trump’s is a joke candidacy, a parody of a presidential campaign. The wall that Mexico will pay for is much closer to a goof on the political class than it is to any serious policy proposal. One of the slots on our revised roundtable should therefore go to someone who is attuned to this dimension and can evaluate how well the candidate did in extending his parody to the most sacred rituals in American politics, like the acceptance speech.

Stay shocked. “Many forces will be at work in the coming weeks to normalize Trump,” wrote E.J. Dionne in May. “Please don’t mainstream [him].” Dionne’s plea deserves its own chair, a slot on the televised roundtable for someone whose only job it is to stay shocked, remain alert to the unprecedented, the hard-to-believe, the amazing, the chaotic. This person’s job is exactly what Dionne said: never normalize Trump. Remain awestruck.

‘Dominance politics’ and the imperative of humiliation. “A series of symbols and actions that mark the dominating from the dominated.” Here I am quoting Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo, who has pursued this interpretation for months. (Brilliantly, I should add.) There should be someone on the pundit’s roundtable who is paying close attention to the manner in which Trump tries to establish his dominance over all comers and humiliate anyone who would try to contest his superiority. Hearing that person opine on the latest speech, or press conference maneuver would be useful and illuminating.

Narcissism watch. Anyone aware of what “narcissism” really means would also be aware that Trump is a classic and illuminating case. Narcissists are distinguished not by self-love — that is a common misconception — but by a weak sense of identity that needs constant shoring up. It is hard for the narcissist to tell what is self and not self. A pundit alert to the paradoxes of this condition might be able deliver insights that would baffle a campaign operative.

Reality TV. No roundtable attempting to size up Trump is complete without someone who can view his events through the lens of Hollywood values, entertainment priorities, reality television imperatives, the demands of the script— worlds in which Trump has truly excelled. Van Jones cannot do that. Jeffrey Lord cannot do that.

“Identity politics for white people” is a phrase I first heard in this August 2015 essay by Ben Domenech. More recently it was the subject of this report by Nick Confessore: For Whites Sensing Decline, Donald Trump Unleashes Words of Resistance. “Everyone’s sticking together in their groups,” said one of his sources, “so white people have to, too.” Instead of turning to another political consultant with a savvy take on the game of politics, Anderson Cooper should be asking his expert on white resentment to weigh in.

Political correctness. A portion of Trump’s appeal has to do with his open defiance of what is often called “political correctness.” If I were an executive producer of campaign coverage trying to capture the Trump phenomenon, I would dump Gloria Borger (what does she add, really?) and insert a careful student of this form of backlash politics, in which rules about what you “can’t say” are broken and energy is thereby released.

Facebook backs off on the View from Nowhere

Today Facebook released a document it calls: News Feed Values. It's a start on beginning to define some editorial priorities.

29 Jun 2016 10:16 am 5 Comments

Even a start — and that’s all this is — is news, though. Because for a long time Facebook wouldn’t even say it had priorities. It would describe you as the editor of News Feed: you, rather than Facebook.

It would say things like: “It’s not that we control NewsFeed, you control NewsFeed by what you tell us that you’re interested in.” (2015) Or: “We try to explicitly view ourselves as not editors. We don’t want to have editorial judgment over the content that’s in your feed.” (2014)

Here’s what I said back to Facebook about this habit of theirs:

Facebook has to start recognizing that our questions are real— not error messages. We are not suggesting that it “edits” NewsFeed in the same way that a newspaper editor once edited the front page. It’s a very different way. That’s why we’re asking about it! We are not suggesting that algorithms work in the same way that elites deciding what’s news once operated. It’s a different way. That’s why we’re asking about it! No one is being simple-minded here and demanding that Facebook describe editorial criteria it clearly does not have— like reaching for a nice mix of foreign and domestic news. We get it…

But precisely because we do “get it” — at least at a basic level — we want to know: what are you optimizing for, along with user interest? How do you see your role within a news ecosystem where you are more and more the dominant player? In news, you have power now. It is growing. Help us understand how you intend to use it. What kind of filter will you be? What kind of player… playing for what?

The document released today is not a revelation, but it does say a few interesting things. Here is my summary of News Feed’s editorial philosophy:

Your social graph comes first, not the public world. Informing you is a higher priority than entertaining you. But we think “information” comes in many forms, not just serious news. A good recipe for beer can chicken is information to the person who is looking for it. We don’t exclude points of view we don’t like, or favor the sources we do like. We let the invisible hand of user choice make those decisions. Except: We do try to edit out what people find misleading, sensational, spammy— mere click bait. We do police nudity, hate speech, personal abuse, and violent or overly graphic content. Above all, we design News Feed to keep people on our platform because—

Actually the last part isn’t in there. I added that. To me it’s the obvious thing missing from this attempt to state the values that are built into News Feed. No one should expect Facebook to be a traffic distributor because that is not a priority the company has for its product. Again, this is obvious but as long as they’re trying to clarify what they stand for they should clarify that.

One more thing Facebook says in the value statement it released today: its committed to the personalization of News Feed as a kind of right that users have. “You control your experience.” I will be worth watching how this rights revolution in news display unfolds.

Now that they’re publicly committed to certain values the next thing Facebook needs is a public editor to synthesize complaints and get answers when the company falls short. It also needs to iterate on today’s statement as often as it revises the algorithm for News Feed.

“Depends on your point of view…” These are weasel words for political journalists.

I often comment on the absurdity of the relentlessly down-the-middle approach cultivated by CNN, PBS, NPR and other "mainstream" news organizations. I don't trust this style. I think it is practiced in bad faith.

18 Mar 2016 11:25 pm 41 Comments

Last night I came upon a new exhibit in my running critique. I will show it to you, and then try to interpret what it means. It happened on a program where he said, she said and “we’ll have to leave it there” are a kind of house style: The Newshour on PBS. (Link.) Let’s set the scene…

* A big story: the poisoning of Flint, Michigan’s water supply— a major public health disaster.
* Latest news: the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing at which Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, a Republican, and EPA Administrator Gina McCarth, an Obama appointee, both testified.
* Outcome: They were ritualistically denounced and told to resign by members of Congress in the opposing party. (Big surprise, right?)
* Cast of characters in the clip I’m about to show you: Judy Woodruff of the Newshour is host and interviewer. Judy_Woodruff_at_Spotlight_Health_Aspen_Ideas_Festival_2015David Shepardson is a Reuters reporter in the Washington bureau who has been covering the Flint disaster. (Formerly of the Detroit News and a Michigan native.) Marc Edwards is a civil and environmental engineer and professor at Virginia Tech. (“He’s widely credited with helping to expose the Flint water problems. He testified before the same House committee earlier this week.”)

Now watch what happens when Woodruff asks the Reuters reporter: who bears responsibility for the water crisis in Flint? Which individual or agency is most at fault here? (The part I’ve isolated is 2:22.)

Here is what I saw. What did you see? The comment thread is open.

The Reuters journalist defaults on the question he was asked. He cannot name a single agency or person who is responsible. The first thing and the last thing he says is “depends on your point of view.” These are weasel words. In between he manages to isolate the crucial moment — when the state of Michigan failed to add “corrosion control” to water drawn from the Flint River — but he cannot say which official or which part of government is responsible for that lapse. Although he’s on the program for his knowledge of a story he’s been reporting on for months, the question of where responsibility lies seems to flummox and decenter him. He implies that he can’t answer because there actually is no answer, just the clashing points of view.

Republicans in Congress scream at Obama’s EPA person: you failed! Democrats in Congress scream at a Republican governor: you failed! Our reporter on the scene shrugs, as if to say: take your pick, hapless citizens! His actual words: “Splitting up the blame depends on your point of view.”

This is a sentiment that Judy Woodruff, who is running the show, can readily understand. He’s talking her language when he says “depends on your point of view.” That is just the sort of the down-the-middle futility that PBS Newshour traffics in. Does she press him to do better? Does she say, “Our viewers want to know: how can such thing a happen in the United States? You’ve been immersed in the story, can you at least tell us where to look if we’re searching for accountability?” She does not. Instead, she sympathizes with David Shepardson. “It’s impossible to separate it from the politics.” But we’ll try!

For the try she has to turn to the academic on the panel, who then gives a little master class in how to answer the question: who is at fault here? Here are the points Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech makes:

* Governor Snyder failed to listen to the people of Flint when they complained about the water.
* Synder trusted too much in the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA.
* He has accepted some blame for these failures, calling the Flint water crisis his Katrina.
* EPA, by contrast, has been evading responsibility for its part in the scandal.
* EPA called the report by its own whistleblower “inconclusive” when it really wasn’t.
* The agency hesitated and doubted itself when it came to enforcing federal law. WTF?
* EPA said it had been “strong-armed” by the state officials as if they had more authority than the Federal government.

Who is responsible? That was the question on the PBS table. If we listen to the journalist on the panel we learn: “it depends on which team you’re on,” and “they’re all playing politics,” and “it’s impossible to separate truth from spin.”

Professor Marc Edwards, more confident in his ability to speak truth to power, cuts through all that crap: There are different levels of failure and layers of responsibility here, he says. Some people are further along than others in admitting fault. Yes, it’s complicated — as real life usually is — but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to assign responsibility. Nor does responsibility lie in one person’s lap or one agency’s hands. Multiple parties are involved. But when people who have some responsibility obfuscate, that’s outrageous. And it has to be called out.

Now I ask you: who’s in the ivory tower here? The journalist or the academic?

I know what you’re thinking, PBS Newshour people. Hey, we’re the ones who booked Marc Edwards on our show and let him run with it. That’s good craft in broadcast journalism! Fair point, Newshour people. All credit to you for having him on. Good move. Full stop.

What interests me here is the losing gambit and musty feel of formulaic, down-the-middle journalism. The misplaced confidence of the correspondent positioning himself between warring parties. The spectacle of a Reuters reporter, steeped in the particulars of the case, defaulting on the basic question of who is responsible. The forfeiture of Fourth Estate duties to other, adjacent professions. The union with gridlock and hopelessness represented in those weasel words: “depends on your point of view.” The failure of nerve when Judy Woodruff lets a professional peer dodge her question— a thing they chortle about and sneer at when politicians do it. The contribution that “not our job” journalists make to unaccountable government, and to public cynicism. The bloodlessness and lack of affect in the journalist commenting on the Flint crisis, in contrast to the academic who is quietly seething.

In December I wrote something on how journalists and their bad habits are implicated in our hyper-polarized politics. (“Tone poem for the ‘leave it there’ press.”) Please excuse me for quoting myself:

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.

This has to stop.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links

Big thanks to Max Larkin for technical assistance.

Ron Fournier of The Atlantic writes about the same moment and completely ignores the Reuters reporter, as if he wasn’t there. Also:


One of the reasons that journalists default to “depends on your point of view” when asked where responsibility lies is that they are wary of enlistment in partisan politics. And that is a valid concern. But it is false to equate holding people accountable with taking sides. That’s just lazy, formulaic thinking. Here’s a portion of the “About” page for ProPublica, an investigative newsroom in New York that does nothing but accountability journalism. Watch how in defining what they do they carefully distinguish it from joining up with the political circus:

In the best traditions of American journalism in the public service, we seek to stimulate positive change. We uncover unsavory practices in order to stimulate reform. We do this in an entirely non-partisan and non-ideological manner, adhering to the strictest standards of journalistic impartiality. We won’t lobby. We won’t ally with politicians or advocacy groups. We look hard at the critical functions of business and of government, the two biggest centers of power, in areas ranging from product safety to securities fraud, from flaws in our system of criminal justice to practices that undermine fair elections. But we also focus on such institutions as unions, universities, hospitals, foundations and on the media when they constitute the strong exploiting or oppressing the weak, or when they are abusing the public trust.

It’s possible to hold power to account journalistically without “taking sides” in a political dispute. But you have to actually think about the best way to do that for your newsroom. My objection to “depends on your point of view” is that it is thought-less in precisely this way.

This “reporters notebook” item by Lindsey Smith of Michigan Public Radio answers the where does responsibility lie? question very well. And it clearly shows that the journalists involved in reporting on the Flint water crisis had to deliberate — think hard about what they uncovered — to get there, because the answer is complicated. Lindsey Smith writes that in making a 50-minute documentary on “how did this happen?” they came to a conclusion:

By not requiring Flint to treat the river water in a way that would’ve helped keep lead out of the drinking water, MDEQ became the most important focus for the “accountability” portion of this documentary.

Through months of research and lengthy, recorded interviews, my editors and I came to the conclusion that, had the water experts (specifically officials at MDEQ and the engineering firm Flint’s emergency manager hired), done a better job, then who made the decision to go to the Flint River shouldn’t have mattered. If they would’ve required corrosion control treatment, treatment any normal large city in America uses, treatment that the federal government has now made completely clear is absolutely required, the lead problems Flint has faced may not have ever happened.

That’s not to say all the responsibility lies there. Rather: accountability begins there. And that does not depend on your point of view. It flows from actual reporting. (Hat tip, Dustin Dwyer.)

A few things to keep in mind when you’re angry, frustrated, or bored with campaign coverage.

This began as an email I was going to send to a reporter who asked me for comment on the complaints of Bernie Sanders supporters about unfair treatment. I decided to post it. I do realize it will satisfy no one.

10 Mar 2016 3:51 pm 20 Comments

Campaign coverage as usual lacks any higher or deeper purpose beyond chronicling the race and figuring out who is likely to win. This purposelessness is the originating problem, in my view. The alternatives that are typically put forward — captured in two over-used abstractions, “issues” and “policy” — do not stir the juices among campaign journalists or inspire creative effort within their organizations.

Who wants to spend their time chronicling the policy proposals of a candidate who is not going to win anyway? No one. And if the candidate is likely to win, the story of how they did it (and what it takes…) is always more exciting to journalists than policy prescriptions that are unlikely to be adopted because they were crafted to gain votes in a presidential election, to sound right to the right groups of people, not to pass Congress after the election.

As long as the available alternatives are posed this way: chronicling the ups and downs of the race and figuring out who’s likely to win — also known as horse race journalism — on one hand, vs. “issues” and “policy” coverage (dutiful business…) on the other, nothing will really change. We will continue to be stuck in these fruitless debates wherein supporters of the candidates who are not winning in the estimation of journalists cry foul because they get less attention, which then makes it harder for them to win.

Bernie Sanders supporters are currently trapped in this catch-22; it enrages them, but it is not unique to their candidate. These complaints will continue to fall on deaf ears (sorry for the cliché) because journalists receiving them actually believe: “If you wanted your candidate to receive more coverage, you should have backed someone who was more likely to win!” But journalists who think that way won’t say it that way because a.) it sounds mean, uncharitable in the extreme, and b.) somewhere they have a bad conscience about surrendering to their own horse race tendencies.

In one breath they think: Who are these people claiming we should give their candidate more coverage? They should have thought of that before they backed an obvious loser! But in the next breath they think: issues, policy, public problem-solving, material differences among the candidates in what they would do if elected… that’s what the election is supposed to be about. We should cover that.

Reflecting for any length of time on this conflict is too painful for intelligent and self-aware journalists. Cognitive dissonance is the most likely result. Who’s gonna win? is of immediate import to the nation and more interesting to the audience, they believe. But what these candidates would do if elected is more valid journalistically, symbolized by a strange word they use for this part of the problem, “substance.” (As against “process.”) Picking between the two — substance vs. process — is hard. They say they do both, but when it comes to determining the portion of coverage that various candidates “deserve” there are no points for being the most substantial. There could be, maybe there should be, but there isn’t in the system as it stands.

Overlaid on this are, of course, the obvious commercial pressures that vastly favor Trump in this election (the handy term for which is “ratings”) and the ancient tests of newsworthiness: the different, the new, the unexpected, the man that bites dog, the spectacular, the OMG, the bizarre. These also favor Trump, hugely. And he’s winning the Republican primary, so he has the trifecta: ratings, OMG and horse race. Good luck moving the press off that!

Purposelessness is the deeper problem, I have said. But the people who produce campaign coverage don’t agree with me. They think this criticism is weird, tone deaf. They know they pay a lot of attention to the horse race, but they don’t apologize for it, because they truly believe: this is what readers, viewers and listeners prefer. The race is exciting! People want to know who’s likely to win. They don’t want to waste their votes on a loser. They want to be brought inside the process, the circus, the show. The high-minded complain, but consumers love the product. No contest.

What I mean by purposelessness is that the producers and authors of campaign coverage would find it hard to answer this question: what are we trying to accomplish here? What’s the ultimate goal of our coverage in 2016? It’s not to elect a particular candidate. (As Jack Shafer said to his colleagues today: “Your job is neither to stop Trump nor advance him.”) It’s not to make the case for the D’s or the R’s. (That’s the job of the parties.) It’s not to win the ratings or the battle for clicks. (Corporate bosses love that, but it’s not what gets political journalists jazzed.)

They could say, and some of them would say, “to equip people to cast an intelligent vote,” but if that were the purpose then it would be no contest in the other direction: “substance” would win over “process” with regularity. (Again those are not my terms, they are native to the campaign press.) Another possible answer would be: to vet these candidates and make sure they and their proposals meet the presidential test. A worthy goal but it has little to do with “who’s gonna win and how are they doing it?” which is a majority of the coverage.

When you put it all together you realize the purposelessness is intentional, or at least functional, it works just enough for everyone to keep the system as it is. Not to be too cute, but it has a purpose. For another way of saying weak on questions of purpose is “strong on advancing no agenda” and in mainstream journalism that’s good… right?

I guess what I’m saying is this: Campaign journalists have a system for determining who gets the most coverage. They have no system for determining who deserves the most coverage.

The justness of campaign journalism will change only when the people who produce it have enough confidence to declare an agenda that is not ideological or political, that does not tilt the field for this candidate or that party but rather instructs the press in where the spotlight belongs. (Example of what I mean.) Until that day, these abstractions will float around — issues, policy, substance, process — and people will continue to get mad.