A few notes on unbuilding a key part of the presidency

The American President can blow up the world. A lot of work went into reassuring us that he won't. Now it's being undone.

19 Feb 2017 7:19 pm 97 Comments

Watching President Trump’s February 16th press conference, I felt stunned into silence. I could not think of how to comment on that performance. These notes are my attempt to figure out why.

1. Since the start of the Cold War 70 years ago, Americans have been aware of a crazy thing about the holder of the Presidency. That person could blow up the world. The possibility of nuclear annihilation changed the institution by introducing new psychological facts to the relationship between the American people and the occupant of the White House. And, we should add, between the publics of other nations and the American President. For this was a terrible power to invest in one man. (It has always been a man, which is part of the terror, so I will be using the masculine pronoun throughout.)

2. By giving the order, the American President could blow up the world — or at least Europe, North America, and Russia — and everyone at some level was aware of this. Which meant we had to have confidence that he wouldn’t do it, or we could never vote for him. There would be no time to go to Congress, or for any plebiscite. The power had to be entrusted to one man, and his reactions in the moment, as with Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis. We didn’t have to trust Theodore Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln in that way. But from the Cold War on Americans have been required to extend to their president an almost inhuman degree of trust: don’t blow up the world, Mister President… Please!

3. It’s not possible to have a normal relationship with a mortal who obtains that kind of power. And yet the American President has to present himself as a “normal” person who has a very, very important job. Through successive governments since Truman the presidency has been adjusted to meet these conditions. How do you make people comfortable with the fact that the President is able to blow up the world? Or: how do you make them forget that he has this power? Well, you project an image of inner strength, measured calm, unflappable temperament. But that is just a start. In fact, the whole model of the modern presidency is affected by this demand to quiet a completely rational anxiety surrounding the president’s awesome, god-like and mostly unearned powers. In a word, the American presidency has to do psychological work. It has to reassure.

4. So how is this work done? Through a series of propositions that are implied in the behavior we expect of presidents, in the daily rituals of the job, and in the way the executive branch organizes itself. Here are a few of those propositions. (There are many more.)

* The President has access to the best intelligence in the world.
* The President starts his day with a classified briefing on all possible threats.
* The President is kept constantly informed.
* The President is never, even for a moment, “off the grid.”
* The President is never alone.
* The President is surrounded by people who know what they are doing.
* The President is of sound and sober mind. He does not easily “fly off the handle.”
* The President does not free associate, speak carelessly, or grant roaming privileges to his id.
* The President does not make factual statements that are wholly insupportable.

I’m not saying that these features of the modern Presidency don’t serve other ends. They do. But one of them is to make us feel okay with a man who gets to play god with our civilization.

5. Part of the psychological work the American presidency had to do was done through the media. Rituals like the televised news conference were supposed to show that the president was in command of the facts, and could handle challenges without losing his cool. Command of television in a speech or interview is one way that presidents show us they’re in command of themselves. That’s reassuring. That’s acting “presidential.”

6. Trump does not participate in this regime. He may have access to the best intelligence in the world, but he is at war with the intelligence community. The apparatus exists to keep him constantly informed, but he prefers to watch cable news, so that he can rage at his unfair treatment. He flies off the handle constantly. He makes threats. He free associates, speaks carelessly, and grants roaming privileges to his world class id. He doesn’t care if what he’s saying is true. When a reporter at his February 16 press conference told him his facts were wrong, he shrugged and said, “I was given that information; I don’t know… I’ve seen that information around.” That is the opposite of reassuring.

7. Trump is thus revising the Presidency before our eyes. In his grip, it no longer attempts to muffle anxiety about the President and make people around the world feel okay about granting one person such enormous, unthinkable and inhuman powers. Instead, a new model is proposed: the president keeps everyone in a constant state of excitement and alarm. He moves fast and breaks things. He leads by causing commotion. As energy in the political system rises he makes no effort to project calm or establish an orderly White House. And if he keeps us safe it’s not by being himself a safe, steady, self-controlled figure, but by threatening opponents and remaining brash and unpredictable— maybe a touch crazy. This too is psychological work, but of a different kind.

8. Remember: the launch codes are with him at all times. We are supposed to not think about that. Since Truman, the Presidency has been styled to help us with the forgetting. Donald Trump is busy blowing that up. But how do we surface this story?


Steve Bannon’s styrofoam balls

It's not like reality gives up easily, and lets you roll over it. That's Distortion Field 101.

15 Feb 2017 1:27 pm 23 Comments

I will be brief because — like the news itself — I’m moving quickly today.

For a moment there I thought these guys were serious about treating the news media as “the opposition party” and trying to remove it as a check on power. That seemed to be the plan. They had the pieces in place. But when Michael Flynn was vanquished from the White House they revealed to us that for now at least they’re unable go through with it.

Here’s Greg Sargent:

Trump’s top adviser Stephen K. Bannon has offered up sublime bluster about how the news media has “no power,” arguing that its aggressive reporting on the Trump White House reflects nothing more than panicked media elite shrieking about the “new political order” that Trump is raising out of the ashes of the corrupt old order. As I’ve argued, the Trump White House has established — as an explicit, actionable doctrine — the goal of trying to obliterate the possibility of agreement on the news media’s legitimate institutional role in informing the citizenry, and even on facts and reality itself.

I agree: That’s what they’re trying to do. But if you’re going to do it, you have to really do it. It’s not like reality gives up easily, and lets you roll right over it. You can’t just say to the national press “you’re fake news” and “so biased no one believes you” like some once-in-a-generation tough guy and then when it gets really tough switch back to freaking out over what’s in the news.

The way they’re acting, you’d think these guys had never transcended reality or slipped the bonds of surly pundits before. Look at this report: should have a ‘pitiful if true’ sticker on it.

According to three people close to Mr. Trump, the president made the decision to cast aside Mr. Flynn in a flash, the catalyst being a news alert of a coming article about the matter.

“Yeah, it’s time,” Mr. Trump told one of his advisers.

The trigger was a news report? That’s not how you do it. Leaks that are published in the fake news media (Trump’s term) are fake leaks! You have to call them that. And you have to act on that understanding. As soon as you let on that you’re using the news media the way other people do — to find out what’s happening, for real — you’re showing reality that it can roll you. I can’t believe I have to explain this to a Graduated Leninist like Steve Bannon, but I guess I do. Here are the steps:

1. “This isn’t happening.” Basic stuff! Anyone who says it is happening is off the team, outside the circle of power. These stories about Mike Flynn connecting with Russian officials, talking about sanctions on Russia, lying about it to the Vice President: that’s the biased media being the opposition party and spreading misinformation again. Like the news is fake, the sources are fake. If these “government officials” know so much, let them identify themselves. If there are recordings, where are they? Anyone can fake a transcript. Etc.

2. We are not the investigated, we investigate! You don’t fire your guy because journalists report he’s a liar and a cheat. That’s reality-based. You’re against all that, remember? You keep him in his post and start digging into who’s leaking and receiving the nation’s secrets. Every time the press asks about the Flynn mess you brag about how far-reaching your leak investigation is. They say Flynn’s calls were monitored? Well, we know how to monitor calls to find out who’s passing you this fake information. Drop the hint. This is Distortion Field 101, fellas.

3. No one in the press or the DC establishment will believe you; that’s the whole point! Incredulity is their gift to you. The opposition party is everyone who listens to the news and says: actually, this Flynn thing is happening. The more shocked and voluble they are, the better for you as our polarizers-in-chief. The wind of their insistence gives lift to your resistance. Didn’t your instructor in Wedge Tectonics go over any of this?

4. Supporters have to either a.) join in calling it fake news or b.) face spiritual collapse. You used to understand this. Back when you were on your game, like during the Sean Spicer debut. You let everyone on your side know the deal… Wanna be on the team? Then look at those pictures and see larger crowds for Trump. For that’s the price. Price too high? Then you can step off right now. Here, you want the worm of doubt to creep up a little— so it can be banished by core supporters. (And there’s frisson in that.) You gesture toward cognitive dissonance so extreme it would crush normal people, as in: the man who ‘tells it like it is’ lies constantly, about everything. You flash that fact, they flee it. Win for you.

If that’s winning, this is losing. Greg Sargent again:

This Flynn episode suggests that facts and reality do matter. The Trump White House is not invulnerable to them. A dogged and determined press corps can indeed ferret them out, notwithstanding the White House’s efforts to render them meaningless and irrelevant — or indeed to make them disappear.

He’s right. They got rolled by reality, as if reality had that kind of muscle! But what stands out for me is: Bannon, Trump, Miller, Conway, Spicer, the inner circle: they didn’t even try to show reality that it can be rolled. Let’s go over it again: You act as though this isn’t happening. You threaten to investigate those who document that it is. You remind the press that it has no power because it was humiliated in 2016. They remonstrate, you escalate. Use the pundit shows and briefing room to polarize. Cognitive dissonance takes care of your party and core supporters, but you have to show reality who’s boss.

Bannon is the one who surprises me. He pushed for Flynn’s firing? That’s standard eliminate-a-rival behavior, exactly what an establishment climber would do. He’s no Lenin. Turns out he has balls of styrofoam, and I think I know the reason. He reads the New York Times and Washington Post with fear in his heart. Like normal people in power do.

Send the interns

Put your most junior people in the White House briefing room. Recognize that the real story is elsewhere, and most likely hidden.

22 Jan 2017 7:26 pm 135 Comments

#sendtheinterns is a hashtag that stands for some advice I have given the Washington press corps about its dealings with the Trump White House.

After this weekend’s spectacular display by new Press Secretary Sean Spicer — mixing provable falsehoods with culture war attacks on the journalists assembled before him — the case for sending interns to the White House briefing room is stronger than ever. In this post I want to restate that argument in light of what just happened, and clarify what I am not saying.

A good place to begin in the analysis of Spicer’s performance is that we have no name for what this thing was. We can’t call it a press conference because, in a remarkable show of cowardice, Spicer walked out without taking questions. It wasn’t an announcement because there was no policy news external to press relations.

Spicer called it an “update on the president’s activities” but attacking journalists for being biased against you is in no sense an “update.” It wasn’t an informal discussion among people who have to work together because, as I said, there was no back and forth, and the setting was stiff, formal, heavy with significance as this was the first official briefing room event of a new presidency. Spicer looked tense. He was shouting at times as he read from a prepared script. Watch the clip: what would you call it? (It’s 5:32)

Trying not for elegance but for accuracy, I would call this event a “relationship message delivery vehicle,” operating on three levels.

First, it told staffers who work for Trump: this is what we expect. If The Leader is reeling from a narcissistic wound (crowd figures too small) you will be expected to sacrifice dignity and best practice to redress that wound. That’s what you bought into when you agreed to work for President Trump. This is a stark statement. No wonder Spicer sounded tense.

A second message was to the press. You will be turned into hate objects whenever we feel like it. We can do that to you without providing right of reply because… what are you going to do about it? Small mistakes quickly corrected will be treated as evidence of malicious wrong doing by the entire group. (And you deserve that.) We are not bound by what you call facts. We have our own, and we will proceed to put them out regardless of what the evidence says. 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!

Reaction from the press corps:

A third “relationship” message went to the listeners, in tripartite.

* To the core Trump constituency — and an audience primed for this over years of acrid ‘liberal media’ critique — two things were said. “We’re going to rough these people up.” (Because we know how long you have waited for that.) But also, and in return, you have to accept our “alternative facts” even if your own eyes tell you otherwise. This too is a stark message. The epistemological “price” for being a solider in Trump’s army is high. You have to swallow, repeat and defend things that simply don’t check out. Screen shot from the Washington Post’s fact check: * To the listeners who are hostile to Trump the message is: you don’t count. There is no common world of fact that connects us to you. Rage on, losers. We don’t have to acknowledge any part of your reality. We’re fine if you dispute ours. In fact, the hotter the better. Our aim is true: to maximize conflict between your core group and ours. So please: help us polarize!

* To the neither/nors, the people who are not part of the Trump constituency and not yet committed to opposing him either, the message is very different. I can summarize it in two words: Don’t bother. People are fighting over what is real— and what is a lie. They dwell in different worlds— different, but neither of them yours. Any modest effort to pay attention will collapse into futility. Truth is impossible to discern without a heroic — and expensive — act of crap detection. Mostly there is confusion. The only rational choice is to pass on the whole spectacle. This space isn’t for you. This is for “them,” the people obsessed with politics. You should just live your life.

Look, then, at what Sean Spicer’s “relationship message delivery vehicle” accomplished on Day One. For Trump staffers: You gave up your dignity when you joined up with The Leader. Act accordingly. For journalists: You are hate objects. We are unbound from all evidence, all truth. For Trump supporters: We will put these press people down for you, but in return you have to lie to yourselves for us. For Trump’s opponents: go nuts, we love it! For the neither/nors: Don’t bother paying attention. You won’t be able to figure it out.

Listen to Ezra Klein explain why this is more than a sideshow:

The Trump administration is creating a baseline expectation among its loyalists that they can’t trust anything said by the media. The spat over crowd size is a low-stakes, semi-comic dispute, but the groundwork is being laid for much more consequential debates over what is, and isn’t, true. Delegitimizing the institutions that might report inconvenient or damaging facts about the president is strategic for an administration that has made a slew of impossible promises and takes office amid a cloud of ethics concerns and potential scandals.

And that is the business that was transacted in the White House briefing room… on Day One.

“Send the interns” means our major news organizations don’t have to cooperate with this. They don’t have to lend talent or prestige to it. They don’t have to be props. They need not televise the spectacle live (CNN didn’t carry Spicer’s rant) and they don’t have to send their top people.

They can “switch” systems: from inside-out, where access to the White House starts the story engines, to outside-in, where the action begins on the rim, in the agencies, around the committees, with the people who are supposed to obey Trump but have doubts. As I wrote on December 30:

During the Trump campaign who had better access: The reporters in the media pen, or those who got tickets and moved with the rest of the crowd? Were the news organizations on the blacklist really at a disadvantage? I can hear the reply. We need both: inside and outside. Fine, do both. My point is: outside-in can become the baseline method, and inside-out the occasionally useful variant. Switch it up. Send interns to the daily briefing when it becomes a newsless mess. Move the experienced people to the rim.

Sean Spicer has no power over the press but what they give to him. From a New York Times reporter whose beat is Congress:

When I say #sendtheinterns I mean it literally: take a bold decision to put your most junior people in the briefing room. Recognize that the real story is elsewhere, and most likely hidden. That’s why the experienced reporters need to be taken out of the White House, and put on other assignments.

Look: they can’t visit culture war upon you if they don’t know where you are. The press has to become less predictable. It has to stop functioning as a hate object. This means giving something up. The dream of the White House briefing room and the Presidential press conference is that accountability can be transacted in dramatic and televisable moments: the perfect question that puts the President or his designate on the spot, and lets the public see — as if in a flash — who they are led by. This was always an illusion. Crumbling for decades, it has become comically unsustainable under Trump.

Please note: I am not saying that as a beat the White House is unimportant, or that its pronouncements can be ignored. I’m not saying: devote less attention to Trump. Rather: change the terms of this relationship. Make yourself more elusive. In the theater of resentment where you play such a crucial part, relinquish that part.

The hard thing is not sending the interns, or tasking the experienced people with an outside-in beat into which they can dig. The hard thing is giving up on the dream of some exquisite confrontation that reveals all: accountability in a box.

Plagiarism charges against Monica Crowley put her publishing house on stage

These mettle tests are going to come more quickly than we thought, I guess. HarperCollins: you're up!

7 Jan 2017 6:56 pm 37 Comments

Today Andrew Kaczynski of CNN published this article. It says that author and TV figure Monica Crowley, recently appointed to the Trump administration as a national security aide, plagiarized many portions of her 2012 book “What The (Bleep) Just Happened.”

You can judge the clarity and severity of the case yourself by scrutinizing Kaczynski’s work. To me it shows that the author (or ghost writer) just didn’t care about avoiding the most common form of plagiarism: lifting passages from texts that informed your writing. One or two of these would be a minor violation of publishing standards. The pattern Kaczynski uncovered is a different matter entirely.

The part that most interested me is the statement from the Trump transition team:

Monica’s exceptional insight and thoughtful work on how to turn this country around is exactly why she will be serving in the Administration,” a statement from a transition spokesperson said. “HarperCollins — one of the largest and most respected publishers in the world — published her book which has become a national best-seller. Any attempt to discredit Monica is nothing more than a politically motivated attack that seeks to distract from the real issues facing this country.

Two things about this response stand out.

It goes from zero to 60 on the politicize-everything dial, signaling to Trump supporters that there is nothing here about authorship, publishing, standards, or trust, nothing that might transcend politics, just political combat in another form: a CNN investigation.

The statement draws HarperCollins and its accumulated reputation into the transaction, as if to say, “Look, the editors respected the author and her work enough to publish the book, so obviously these charges are a cheap ploy coming from political opponents because HarperCollins is one of the largest and most respected publishers in the world.”

Normal procedure would be something like this: The author apologizes, perhaps blaming the lapses on a wayward researcher or ghost writer. The publisher tries to fix the problems in future reprints, if there are any. If sales have slowed to a crawl the book is allowed to go out of print and that becomes the solution. In severe cases there might be a recall of books left on the shelves. (Unlikely this would qualify for that.) Also unlikely: the publishing company pretends like nothing happened and the author is allowed to skate.

Complication #1: HarperCollins is part of the Murdoch empire. Doesn’t mean that Rupert tells them what to do, but it is a fact.
Complication #2: CNN had a similar plagiarism case involving one of its own: Fareed Zakaria. The network was reluctant to acknowledge any problem. (You can imagine how that will play online.)

Here’s what I want you to watch for: Harper Collins is going to be asked about this. They refused to reply to Andrew Kaczynski, but when the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal call for comment it becomes harder to just… stonewall. If the normal sequence I just described unfolds — Crowley acknowledges the problem and apologizes, HarperCollins either fixes the reprint or lets the book drift out of print — then it’s a two-day story and everyone forgets about it.

But… The Trump transition team already went from zero to 60 on the politicize-everything dial. And Trump is known for backing his people when they get into scrapes. Monica Crowley may decide she did nothing wrong, or nothing “the other side” wouldn’t do. She may decide to tough it out, or even escalate this until it’s a full-blown controversy, complete with charges of fake news (Kaczynski’s report) and hypocrisy (CNN’s Zakaria problem.)

Then the focus will turn to HarperCollins. They would like to make this go away quietly so no one remembers which publisher it was, but for that they need the cooperation of a chastened author. What if Crowley refuses? What if Trump rage Tweets? Then if HarperCollins takes action on the book, it feeds the culture war controversy, and their quiet resolution is blown to bits. If they don’t comment and don’t take action then it becomes a clear case of intimidation in the climate created by Trump, which won’t sit well with editors on staff or writers under contract.

So keep your eye on this. We may get an early read on how corruptible our cultural institutions actually are.

UPDATE, Jan. 8: “HarperCollins spokeswoman Tina Andreadis says the publisher has no comment but is ‘looking into the matter.'” We have our first positive sign. According to the AP, HarperCollins is reviewing the charges of plagiarism. That’s good only because it’s 100 percent normal, what any professional publisher would do. Therefore HarperCollins passed the first test, refusing to suspend standard procedure.

The author of the CNN investigation:

UPDATE, Jan. 9: Trump Pick Monica Crowley Plagiarized Parts of Her Ph.D. Dissertation. “Monica Crowley, President-Elect Donald J. Trump’s pick for a top National Security Council job, plagiarized numerous passages in her Ph.D. dissertation, Politico Magazine has found…”

UPDATE, Jan. 10. CNN reports: “Publisher HarperCollins said Tuesday that it will stop selling a book by Monica Crowley that a CNN KFile investigation found to have more than 50 instances of plagiarism.” Let’s review. CNN found multiple passages lifted from other writers. HarperCollins, after failing to respond to the original investigation, said it was looking into it. Politico said it found portions of Crowley’s PhD dissertation were also plagiarized. Then HarperCollins announced: “The book, which has reached the end of its natural sales cycle, will no longer be offered for purchase until such time as the author has the opportunity to source and revise the material.” Meanwhile, the Trump team has denounced the investigation that led to this point, calling it a “politically motivated attack.” Ordinarily, an author whose book was withdrawn from marketplace would acknowledge the problem and apologize, but Monica Crowley has so far said nothing and done nothing. The HarperCollins statement did not indicate that she was cooperating, or that she intended to revise the book to fix the sourcing problems. Remaining questions: Will the Trump team react further? Will Crowley keep pretending that none of this is happening? Will Columbia University take some sort of action about accusations of plagiarism in her PhD?

Finally, the Trump team invoked the good name and professional reputation of HarperCollins when it defended Crowley. But now the professional judgment of that same HarperCollins is that the book should no longer be sold. If the publishing house agreed with the Trump team that this was nothing but an unscrupulous attack by enemies of the incoming administration it would not have taken the action it did. If the Trump team truly respected the judgment of HarperCollins — which it called “one of most respected publishers in the world” — then it would have to re-consider its initial reaction. So far there is no sign of that.

UPDATE, Jan. 16. Today Monica Crowley backed down. She won’t take the job. So far she has not addressed the plagiarism charges at all. My read on this event:

We learned something today. In this instance, at least, the Trump camp lacked the will, the skill or the foresight to play the “we make our own reality” hand and win with it. It tried to put down the press, but wound up raising its spirits. Granted, the underlying matter is small: one job on the national security team that will not go to Trump’s first pick. But let’s be clear about what happened.

Team Trump threw up a reality distortion field after CNN’s investigation broke: This is not journalism. This is not plagiarism. This is a politically motivated attack. Monica Crowley will be serving in the new Administration. That’s what they said. In other words: Your reality, CNN, is that you have found the sort of plagiarism that would normally sink candidates and appointees to public office because it’s just so blatant. Our reality is: This is culture war — liberalism — disguised as investigative reporting. And we are going to show you that your reality is weaker than ours. Now watch us… They then proceeded to behave as if the CNN investigation never happened. Crowley followed that line too: this isn’t happening. We’ll show them.

But Team Trump didn’t know how to play that game. The first sign of this was invoking the cultural authority of HarperCollins as support for Crowley. Anyone familiar with the book business could have told them that no normal publisher would back them up by agreeing to treat CNN’s findings as a non-event. Plagiarism is a problem. Within days Harper Collins said it would stop selling the book. Not: we don’t see any problem. Not: we have no comment because this isn’t happening. Not: Trump spoke to Rupert and the book stays. If you want to override the press, you need others to join your distortion field. If they won’t, then don’t invoke their good name. Come on! This is “we make our own reality 101.” But Team Trump mishandled it. They couldn’t execute.

Despite that little tactical mistake they could have struck a blow against investigative reporting by continuing with their silence (this isn’t really happening) and seating Crowley as intended on the National Security Council, even with her mushrooming plagiarism problem— or maybe because of it, if you want to get radical. For it’s one thing to be mean to reporters at a press conference. It’s a far greater demonstration of power to act as if damaging revelations with solid proof behind them never happened, and proceed with your plans. That would be demoralizing for the press. And that would be the Bannon way: show these people there’s a new reality that their coastal enclave had kept them from.

Instead: Investigative reporting was vindicated. The reality — plagiarism is a problem — could not be overridden. A norm held. Trump lost his pick for the position before she started. And the attempt to describe it all as culture war by coastal elites fell apart. The kicker: It was CNN that done it, after Trump had described them as “fake news.”

“We make our own reality,” Team Trump boasted. Actually, you don’t. Not this time. If you want to show how post-press corps you are — how their reality is not your reality — you don’t let Monica Crowley quit. On principle.

Prospects for the American press under Trump, part two

Winter is coming. But there are things that can be done. The second half of my post on the American press under threat. (Part one is here.)

30 Dec 2016 3:53 pm 82 Comments

pressdamnIn part one of this post, I described in 17 numbered paragraphs a bleak situation for the American press as a check on power, now that Donald Trump has been elected. My summary of it went like this:

Low trust all around, an emboldened and nationalist right wing that treats the press as natural enemy, the bill coming due for decades of coasting on a model in political reporting that worked well for “junkies” but failed to engage the rest of us, the strange and disorientating fact that reality itself seems to have become a weaker force in politics, the appeal of the “strong man” and his propaganda within an atmosphere of radical doubt, the difficulty of applying standard methods of journalism to a figure in power who is not trying to represent reality but to substitute himself for it as a show of strength, the unsuitability of prior routine as professionals in journalism try to confront these confusing conditions, a damaged economic base, weak institutional structure and newsroom mono-culture that hinders any creative response, and a dawning recognition that freedom of the press is a fragile state, not a constitutional certainty.

This is a crisis with many overlapping and deep-seated causes, not just a problem but what scholars call a wicked problem— a mess. You don’t “solve” messes, you approach them with humility and respect for their beastliness. Trying things you know won’t “fix” it can teach you more about the problem’s wickedness. That’s progress. Realizing that no one is an expert in the problem helps, because it means that good ideas can come from anywhere.

Being willing to start over is good, too. If I were running a big national desk in DC, I would try to zero-base the beat structure. Meaning: if you had no existing beats for covering national affairs in Donald Trump’s America, if you had to create them all from scratch, what would that system look like?

Is that going to fix what’s broken in political journalism? Nope. But trying it might reveal possibilities that were harder to see before. So let me be clear about this: I don’t have solutions to what I described in part one. And I’m not saying my suggestions are equal to the task. They are not. Rather, this is what I can think of. I have a series of small ideas that might be worth trying and a larger one to spell out.

I wish had better answers for you.

Measures worth taking (not “solutions.”)

27. Uncouple the news agenda from Trump’s Twitter feed. I don’t agree with those who say the press should ignore Trump’s tweets. Even calling them tweets is in a way an illusion. These are public statements from the president-elect. Bulletins from the top. Naming them for their means of delivery (Twitter) doesn’t help. They can’t be ignored any more than an announcement on whitehouse.gov can be disregarded.

But it is true that Trump uses his Twitter feed to deflect, distract, intimidate, monopolize and confuse. The press should find a way of handling — and fact-checking — these bulletins that shrinks them into a sidebar, or weaves them into a larger story originated by journalists rather than Trump’s Twitter finger. (One option: annotation.) Don’t let his feed set your agenda. And learn to be more careful with your headlines! That may be all he wants: your lazy headline.

28. Switch to an “outside in” (rather than inside out) pattern. Assume almost no access to Trump and the people around him who have power, or imagine that the access game becomes a net negative. Now what? You still have to find out what’s going on, but the “access” portal is closed. This seems to me a better starting point, even as you fight for real access, defend the daily briefing, and demand timely responses to Freedom of Information requests.

Outside-in means you start on the rim and work towards the center, rather than the reverse. Domestically, it involves mining sources in the agencies and civil service rather than the people perceived as “players.” (As is commonly done in investigative journalism.) With foreign policy it means more is likely to come from other governments than from the U.S.

During the Trump campaign who had better access: The reporters in the media pen, or those who got tickets and moved with the rest of the crowd? Were the news organizations on the blacklist really at a disadvantage? I can hear the reply. We need both: inside and outside. Fine, do both. My point is: outside-in can become the baseline method, and inside-out the occasionally useful variant. Switch it up. Send interns to the daily briefing when it becomes a newsless mess. Move the experienced people to the rim.

29. Less predictable, please. If Trump can break with established norms so can the journalists who cover him. When you’re not where he expects you to be, you’re winning. I’m not going to elaborate on this because that would defeat the point of listing it.

30. Drop the White House Correspondents Association Dinner.  Just stop. You know why.

31. Track closely Trump’s promises and boasts during the campaign so you can compare them to what he is doing. It’s already underway. More like this.

32. From a follower on Twitter: (Good ideas can come from anywhere.) Seek and accept offers to speak on the radio in areas of Trump’s greatest support. Audience development people: this is your gig. Perfect thing to talk about about on red state talk radio: comparing Trump’s campaign promises to what what he has actually done.

33. Make common cause with scholars who have been there. Especially experts in authoritarianism and countries when democratic conditions have been undermined, so you know what to watch for— and report on. (Creeping authoritarianism is a beat: who do you have on it?)

34. Keep an eye on the internationalization of these trends, and find spots to collaborate with journalists across borders.

35. Try threat modeling the loss of press freedom or the vanished capacity to hold government to account.

36. Find coverage patterns that cross the great divide. For example“Dave Weigel, who brought his distinct voice and broad knowledge of the far-right and far-left to our 2016 campaign coverage, will do the same on the Hill. He will track Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the Senate, and the Freedom Caucus in the House. He will look for new movements, new factions and new stars. And he will continue reporting on the so-called alt-right and the fake news industry, tracking its origins and spotlighting its authors in real time.”

37. Learn from Fahrenthold! Nothing I have said so far addresses the hardest problem in journalism right now: recovering trust while doing good work. But David Fahrenthold, the Washington Post reporter who uncovered the fiction of Donald Trump’s philanthropic giving, is single-handedly showing the way. It’s not just the great stories he’s digging up, or the way they hold power to account. It’s also the social turn his investigation took, and the lesson in transparency that he’s teaching the press.

Fahrenthold explains what he’s doing as he does it. He lets the ultimate readers of his work see how painstakingly it is put together. He lets those who might have knowledge help him. People who follow along can see how much goes into one of his stories, which means they are more likely to trust it. (And to mistrust Trump’s attacks on it… See how that works?) He’s also human, humble, approachable, and very, very determined. He never goes beyond the facts, but he calls bullshit when he has the facts. So impressive are the results that people tell me all the time that Fahrenthold by himself got them to subscribe.

He is not “solving,” but he’s certainly helping with the trust problem, the revenue problem, and the press-hater-in-chief problem (numbers 6, 1, 8 in part one of this post) all while pumping out Pulitzer-worthy stories that prove to Americans why we have a free press. That’s how a “mess” yields to patient effort. His methods are no mystery. They point the way to a trust restoration and learn-as-you-go project that needs to start tomorrow in journalism. Teams of people should be doing it the way he does it.

Learn from Fahrenthold! I can’t make it any clearer than that.

38. I’m not sure how to put this one, but here goes: Journalists need to think politically about journalism itself, which does not mean to politicize it. Like it or not, the press is a public actor, currently in the fight of its life against forces that want to bring it down. This is a political situation par excellence, but nothing in their training or temperament prepares journalists to fight the kind of battle they’re in. They think they would rather chase stories, publish what they find and let the politics take care of itself. But that won’t cut it anymore.

What I mean by “think politically” involves basic questions: What do we stand for that others also believe in? Who is aligned against us? Where are we most vulnerable? What are our opponents’ strengths? How can we broaden our base? Who are our natural allies? What can we unite around, despite our internal differences? What are the overlapping interests that might permit us to make common cause with people who are not journalists?

There is a reason these (political) questions sound “off” to most people in journalism. A free press has to be independent, or it is useless to us. That remains true, even in the emergency journalists find themselves in today. But staying independent does not mean standing alone. They cannot win this fight alone.

Reacting to their perception of a national emergency, Americans who still have trust in the press are putting money down and signing up for the news sources they want to support. What is that but a form of civic action? It involves not a party or interest group competing for power, but a public good they want to exist: accountability journalism. Nothing else can explain the surge in subscriber revenue following the election of Trump.

From journalists is only one way Americans get news now. They get it directly from newsmakers, as with Trump’s Twitter feed. They get it from ideological cadres styled as news sources, like Breitbart. They get it from entertainers like Rush Limbaugh (an opponent of the press) or John Oliver (an ally of accountability journalism). They get it from friends and family members passing along a personalized mix of stuff. They get it from people interested in the same things who collect online and pool information. They get it from bad actors filling false reports that look like news, like Alex Jones or those Macedonian teenagers.

How to persuade more people to get news from journalism — when they have many other choices at hand — is what I mean by thinking politically, but the wrong way to win that fight would be to politicize the product. This is where the problem of trust in the news media meets problems of practice in journalism; the two things are really one: how to begin to practicing in a way that might begin to expand trust. That’s why I said learn from Fahrenthold. He’s got that part working.

39. Where troubles meet issues: listening better.

After the election we heard this a lot: journalists need to listen better to people outside their current orbit and pick up the signals they somehow missed in 2016. As Jeff Jarvis put it in a morning-after symposium:

The news industry is stuck in its mass-media worldview, trying to create one product for all. Its worldview is limited by its creators’ lack of diversity — ethnic, economic, geographic, political (and let’s finally admit that most media and journalists are liberal).

We must do a much better job of listening to more communities — African-American, Latino, LGBT, women, of course, and also the angry white men (and women) who bred Trumpism — so we can understand and empathize with their needs, serve those needs, gain their trust, and then reflect and inform their worldviews.

We must do a better job of listening… It sounds good: who is not in favor of that? But what does better mean in this context? Better than whom?

Here’s an abstract answer (sorry: it will only take a minute!) Journalists, I think, need to listen for people’s troubles, and find the points where they connect to public issues. And they have to be better at that than a broken political system is. From there they can start to rebuild trust.

The distinction between “troubles” and “issues” was struck by sociologist C. Wright Mills in the 1950s. He said troubles were the problems that concern people in their immediate experience. “An issue is a public matter: some value cherished by publics is felt to be threatened.” When the issues that get attention fail to connect to people’s troubles, or when common troubles don’t get surfaced and formulated as public issues… that is where journalism-as-listener can intervene, and earn back trust.

A vivid example is the movie “Spotlight.” Thousands of people were personally troubled by the legacy of child abuse in the Catholic Church. But their private suffering was not a public issue until the Boston Globe made it one— by listening to their stories, piecing them together and confronting the people in power. For the Globe, the gain in reputation from that act was incalculable: years of goodwill in the community, impossible to purchase any other way.

But “Spotlight” is a once-in-a-lifetime story. More Spotlights is not much of a suggestion, is it?

This call-out was published two weeks after the election by the non-profit public affairs news site, Texas Tribune: Help us hear more voices from more Texans. It’s asking people to support with their donations a new position:

Voices not previously heard by the political establishment are being heard now. It’s a good time for the press to hone its listening skills too. This is and always has been — or should have been — a two-way conversation.

That’s why we’re crowdfunding the Trib’s first-ever community reporter position. This reporter will go the extra mile, literally, to forge relationships with our readers all across this state, translating their feedback into stories produced by our awesome reporters. The new position will ensure that the voices of more Texans from more places inform our coverage. This reporter’s beat will be Texans.

The bread-and-butter of the Texas Tribune is government and public policy news. Here it wants to make sure that the issues it reports upon speak to the troubles Texans experience in their lives. The beat is “Texans” because that is one way to make sure the listening gets done. It’s a modest start (one person, one beat) but there’s a big idea beneath the bubbly pitch.

Journalism that tries to find its public through “inside” coverage of the political class is vulnerable to rejection by portions of the public that are busy rejecting that class. This is a hard problem, to which “listening” sounds like a soft, warm and fuzzy solution. It isn’t.

Andrew Haeg, CEO of the journalism start-up Groundsource, recently tried to sketch what a “listening” model looks like. I found inspiring his imaginary description of a two-person listening team:

Emboldened by election postmortems urging better listening, inspired by Spotlight, trained in new tools and techniques, and stoked to pioneer new forms of listening-first investigative journalism, the duo works deep into the night, tipped over Chinese takeout, bleary-eyed, adrenaline-fueled, writing as they go a new playbook comprised of equal parts data journalism, community outreach, crowdsourcing, and investigative journalism.

They print and post handmade signs in grocery stores and truck stops: “What should we know?” with a phone number to text or call. They FOIA 311 data, download 211 data from the United Way, use Splunk and IFTTT and other tools to trigger alerts when key community datasets are updated. They hold town hall forums, set open office hours at local coffee shops and diners, and form key partnerships with community organizations to invite underserved communities into the conversation. They build a community of hundreds who ask questions and vote on which ones get answered, get texts with updates on the newsgathering progress and ongoing opportunities to share their concerns and stories. The community feed that develops is rich, authentic, and often shockingly prescient.

Five years ago I published this post: The Citizens Agenda in Campaign Coverage. It went nowhere with the U.S. press. It describes a listening model for election journalism in which the central question put to voters is not: who are you going to vote for? Or why are you so angry? But: what do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes? (It’s based on a 1992 project at the Charlotte Observer that did exactly that.) A team of journalists who had supple and plural answers to that — because they did the work and got it right — would hold in their hands a template for election coverage that builds trust.

For if you know what different groups of voters want the candidates to discuss (and you’re right!) you can push the candidates to address those things, whether they want to or not. You also have a blueprint for your own news agenda that is independent of the candidates, but expressive of the voters. I don’t know that this model would have prevented the debacle we saw in 2016, but I do know that horse race journalism has failed the people who practice it.

Whenever troubles don’t match up with issues, there is trust to be won for journalists able to listen better than systems that are failing people. Somehow this insight will have to be combined with more traditional virtues in journalism, if the press is going to withstand the attacks that are coming and thrive in a far more dangerous world.

Cover image by Matt Wuerker, Politico. Used by permission. For part one of this post, go here.

Winter is coming: prospects for the American press under Trump

How bad is it? Bad. I will explain why. Any bright signs? A few. This is part one. Part two is about what can be done.

28 Dec 2016 9:55 pm 182 Comments

This started as a thread on Twitter about “things to look for” in the next six to eight months. Readers asked what could be done in response. I will try to meet that request in part two. (And here it is.) First we have to understand how deep and interconnected the problems are.

How bad is it? Pretty bad.

For a free press as a check on power this is the darkest time in American history since World War I, when there was massive censorship and suppression of dissent. I say this because so many things are happening at once to disarm and disable serious journalism, or to push it out of the frame. Most of these are well known, but it helps to put them all together. Here is my list:

1. An economic crisis in (most) news companies, leaving the occupation of journalism in a weakened state, especially at the state and local level, where newsrooms have been decimated by the decline of the newspaper business. The digital money is going to Google and Facebook, but they do not have newsrooms.

2. A low-trust environment for most institutions and their leaders, the same ones who are regularly featured in the news.

3. A broken and outdated model in political journalism, which tries to connect to the public through “inside” or access reporting about a class whose legitimacy is itself eroding. And since almost everyone got the result wrong in 2016, responsibility for this massive error is evenly distributed across the press, which means that no one is responsible for fixing what is broken.

4. An organized movement on the political right to discredit mainstream journalism, which stretches from Steve Bannon in the White House to Trump’s army of online trolls, with Breitbart, Drudge Report, talk radio and Fox opinion hosts mediating between the two, while the “alt reality” fringe feels newly emboldened. Its latest tactic is to shout down as “fake news” any work of reporting that conflicts with its worldview, leaving the term useless as a fraud alert. “Over the years, we’ve effectively brainwashed the core of our audience to distrust anything that they disagree with,” said John Ziegler, a conservative radio host, to a New York Times reporter. “Because the gatekeepers have lost all credibility in the minds of consumers, I don’t see how you reverse it.” In fact, no one knows how to fix this.

5. The rapid escalation of this drive-to-discredit as Trump gained traction with the electorate. Since 1970 it has grown from questioning the motives of people covering a Republican president in the speeches of Spiro Agnew, to countering liberal spin with the personalities at Fox News, to mistrusting all of the mainstream (or “drive-by”) media with Rush Limbaugh, and now to a place beyond that. Sean Hannity — who is probably closer to Trump than any other media figure — recently said on air: “Until members of the media come clean about colluding with the Clinton campaign and admit that they knowingly broke every ethical standard they are supposed to uphold, they should not have the privilege, they should not have the responsibility of covering the president on behalf of you, the American people.” In other words, the mainstream press should not be allowed to cover Trump. A few years ago that was a bridge too far. Now it’s a plausible test of poisoned waters.

6. After the debacle of 2016, trust in the news media as an institution feels lower than ever in living memory, while popular anger reaches an all-time high. The resentment is coming from the left, the right and what remains of the center. Pew Research Center: “Only about two-in-ten Americans (22%) trust the information they get from local news organizations a lot, whether online or offline, and 18% say the same of national organizations.” Gallup in September of this year: “Republicans who say they have trust in the media has plummeted to 14% from 32% a year ago. This is easily the lowest confidence among Republicans in 20 years.”

7. A homogeneity and coastal concentration in American newsrooms that can be described in many ways — lack of diversity is the most common, with disagreements on what kind of diversity is most desired — leaving the press ill-prepared to take creative action across a cultural divide. The situation was summed up in the most quotable line written by a journalist about Trump’s candidacy: “The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” (Salena Zito in The Atlantic.)

8. A figure in power who got there in part by whipping up hatred against the press, and who shows no signs of ending that abusive practice… coupled with a disturbing pattern in which Trump broadcasts through his Twitter feed outrageously false statements, the press reacts by trying to “check” them, and the resulting furor works to his advantage by casting journalists in the role of petty but hateful antagonist, with Trump as the man who takes the heat and “tells it like it is.”

9. The emergence of an authoritarian political style in which trashing the norms of American democracy (as when he cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election, or suggested prosecution of his opponent) works to Trump’s advantage with a huge portion of his supporters, while failing to alarm the rest. This is especially troublesome because norms of democracy are what give the press its place in public life and representative government; if these can be broken without penalty that means the press can be shoved aside and not much will happen.

10. The increasingly dim prospect that there will be a fact-based debate to which journalists can usefully contribute when the leader of the free world feels free to broadcast transparently false or ignorant claims… coupled with the full flowering of the “we make our own reality” attitude (circa 2004) into a kind of performance art that simultaneously kicks up hatred of anyone trying to be evidence-based and liberates the speech of powerful actors from even the most minimal factual constraints.

11. An advanced stage of culture war, political polarization and asymmetrical mistrust of the press in which, instead of leading to greater public awareness and a gradual movement toward reform, sensational revelations, hard-hitting investigations and exposés of corruption are consumed as fuel in an accelerating political divide. In other words, Watergate-style journalism increasingly enflames and polarizes, rather than informing and alerting the public. The more damning and irrefutable the findings are, the more likely is this furious reaction, especially when Trump launches attacks on the journalists and news organizations doing the digging.

12. The success of “verification in reverse,” a method on the march, in which a knowing political actor takes facts that have been nailed down, and introduces doubt about them, which then releases energy (controversy, resistance, ready-to-hate news coverage) which in turn helps power a movement among those who wanted the established facts repealed, as it were. This is how Trump launched his political career. He became a birther. Wherever it succeeds, verification-in-reverse is a triumph over the craft of journalism, which has to be pro-verification or it may as well exit the stage.

13. Amusing ourselves to death, as Neil Postman’s 1985 book put it, in which the logic of entertainment overtakes adjacent but nominally distinct spheres that are supposed to be governed by their own logic, as when newsworthiness and the requirements of political debate are subordinated to entertainment values by media companies obeying commercial imperatives, while claiming a public service mantle. For journalists, this is the import of Jeff Zucker’s reign at CNN, and one of the lessons of Trump’s career as a “reality TV” star.

14. A shift in the power-to-inform toward a single platform and attention-economy colossus: Facebook, a creature of the tech industry that feels no native commitment to journalism… that wants to avoid responsibility for editing because editing does not scale… that easily surfaces demand for false stories about real events… and that is slowly taking charge of the day-to-day relationship with users of the news system, especially on mobile devices, which is where the growth is.

15. A proven model — proven, that is, by billionaire Peter Thiel — for bankrupting news companies and driving them out of business by using the court system and jury trials, which can leverage public disgust for The Media  (see no. 6 above) into jury awards that defendants cannot possibly pay. As yet there is no known counter to this strategy. The fact that it worked once has an intimidating effect.

16. A crisis of representation around covering Trump in which it is not clear that anyone can reliably tell us what his positions are, or explain his reasons for holding them, because he feels free to contradict advisers, spokespeople, surrogates, and previous statements he made. As Esquire’s Charles Pierce put it to me: “Nobody speaks for the prez-elect, not even himself.” I list this because the press is not good at abandoning rituals and routines when they cease to make sense. Every interview with Kellyanne Conway or Reince Priebus is premised on a claim to represent the man in power. This claim may be false. But journalists need people to interview! So they will continue to do it, even though they may be misinforming the public. They may even realize this and be unable to shift course. What I’m trying to point out is that existing methods for “holding power to account” rest on assumptions about how it will behave. A man in power untroubled by contradictions and comfortable in the confusion he creates cannot be held accountable by normal means.

17. Weak leadership and a thin institutional structure in the American press, which is not accustomed to organizing itself to fight back or act assertively in any coordinated way, as with the White House Correspondents Association, currently failing even to get a meeting with the Trump transition team, but still planning to yuck it up with him at the WHCA dinner in the spring of 2017. In many ways the press resembles a “herd of independent minds,” with no one responsible for the beast as a whole, and no easy way to fix broken practices, or re-direct effort. Collaboration is on the rise in journalism, and that’s a good a thing. But while it’s easy to act against the press, it’s almost impossible for the press as a whole to deliberate and act in reply. And even if it could miraculously discover the will to do so, this would probably give new ammunition to political enemies of the press. Remaining a “herd of independent minds,” politically weak, is thus the safest course. Which is not to say it will work.

So that is what I mean by “winter is coming.” All those things 1-17 are happening at once, and strengthening one another. The combined effect is chilling.

The common elements: Low trust all around, an emboldened and nationalist right wing that treats the press as natural enemy, the bill coming due for decades of coasting on a model in political reporting that worked well for “junkies” but failed to engage the rest of us, the strange and disorientating fact that reality itself seems to have become a weaker force in politics, the appeal of the “strong man” and his propaganda within an atmosphere of radical doubt, the difficulty of applying standard methods of journalism to a figure in power who is not trying to represent reality but to substitute himself for it as a show of strength, the unsuitability of prior routine as professionals in journalism try to confront these confusing conditions, a damaged economic base, weak institutional structure and newsroom mono-culture that hinders any creative response, and a dawning recognition that freedom of the press is a fragile state, not a constitutional certainty.

Are there any bright signs? Yes, a few.

18. When you ask about specific news brands (as against The Media) the trust picture looks better.

19. I quote New York Times columnist Jim Rutenberg: “In the weeks since the election, magazines like The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Vanity Fair; newspapers including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post; and nonprofits like NPR and ProPublica have been reporting big boosts in subscription rates or donations.” The Guardian and Mother Jones are benefitting, too.

20. According to news industry analyst Ken Doctor, the Washington Post will add more than 60 journalists in the coming year. The Post is making money again. And its leadership believes that “investigative and deeper enterprise stories are good for the brand and the business”— not an expense that has to be subsidized by lighter fare, but a means to sustainability in themselves. That’s significant.

21. As the scope of the emergency dawns, it is possible that journalists in the U.S. will be inspired to do a better job and change what needs changing. Talent (and tips) could flood in as a slumbering public for serious news awakens.

22. Facing the same kind of hostility in multiple countries where similar conditions are found, journalists may discover a new level of international cooperation that helps them cope with the threat to their occupation. There’s already a global movement for fact-checking in journalism. Maybe another one will emerge around the realization that fact-checking is not enough.

23. In the U.S., the Constitution remains firmly in place, hard to alter. First Amendment protections are real and among the strongest in the world. There are no signs that prior restraint or overt government censorship are on the horizon— though self-censorship is another matter.

What not to do…

24. Don’t recruit Trump loyalists into the news and opinion space (Jeffrey Lord of CNN is the model) as a gaudy show of balance. This will not save you. Conservative, red state, working class and rural American voices may deserve special recruitment, but if they have integrity these people are just as likely to be critical of Trump. 

25. Don’t settle for accusation-driven over evidence-based reporting, just to avoid drawing flak from Trump’s press-hating supporters or demonstrate how even-handed you are.

26. Don’t make it all about access to the President and his aides, or preserving the routines of White House reporting, as the press corps is currently doing— mostly out of habit. A Trump presidency is likely to be constructed on a propaganda model in which fomenting confusion is not a drag on the Administration’s agenda but a sign that it’s working. Access to such a machinery could wind up enlisting the press in a misinformation campaign.  Here, I am getting ahead of the story because we don’t really know what a Trump White House will be like. And I am not saying that access to the president and his top advisors is unimportant or a dirty word. Rather, it should not be the organizing principle for journalists who are preparing to cover Trump.

In part two of this post, coming tomorrow, I will discuss “measures worth taking,” given what I have said in part one. I have several small ideas, and one larger one. It involves listening better than the political system does to what’s troubling Americans, and fashioning a proper news agenda out of that. This is not a new notion, but it is newly relevant now that winter is here for the public service press.

Part two of this post — on things that can be done — is here. Photo credit Renee McGurk, Creative Commons License.