Speaking truth to audience power

Something happened yesterday that has never happened to me in 30 years of writing press criticism. I want to tell you about it.

3 Nov 2016 11:32 am 20 Comments

This week I published in The Guardian a column about a Florida newspaper that wrote an open letter to readers, apologizing to them for news coverage that was too critical of Trump. The editors were under fire from angry subscribers, many of them conservative, white retirees who live in the area.

My piece was critical. It concludes this way: “Unable to think it through clearly, the editors surrendered their right to speak truth to power and sold out their colleagues in the national press.”

The next day I sent the link to the Daily Commercial, using the public address for letters to the editor. I wanted them to know they had been written about. Quickly, I got a reply back. This is what it said:

I saw your column, Mr. Rosen. I’m the editor who wrote the open letter. Your column was a well-reasoned, measured and intellectually honest piece. I can’t disagree.
Tom McNiff
Daily Commercial
executive editor

With these words, the editor was acknowledging: yep, we surrendered our right to speak truth to power and sold out our colleagues in the national press. Normally a note like that would include the words “just between us…” or “please don’t run this.” Those words were absent.

The most likely interpretation is that the publisher made him write the open letter and he hated doing it. He understood it as a form of corruption: soul damage. (That’s my read, not what he said.)screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-11-05-47-amIn the original version I sent to The Guardian, the conclusion read like this. “The editors surrendered their right to speak truth to power (in this case audience power) and sold out their colleagues in the national press.” Meaning: Speaking truth to angry readers egged on by their candidate is just as important as standing up to the mayor or bank president.

I am publishing here the fuller version of the column I wrote for The Guardian. (Twice as long.) It’s not about one newspaper in Florida. It’s about how Trump has altered patterns in journalism that stood for decades, leaving no room to hide.

Seeking truth or seeking refuge? Pick one, journalists.

Did you hear about the Florida newspaper that apologized to its readers for running too much news that was critical of Donald Trump? It happened last week at the Daily Commercial, based in Leesburg, Florida, a conservative-leaning area of the state with a lot of affluent retirees. The editors published an open letter to readers in which they made the following claims:

* “An uncomfortably sizable number of our readers have been writing and calling to express their dissatisfaction with what they believe is the media’s bias toward Donald Trump.” (They meant against Trump.)

* The national news services “finally said the heck with it, Trump is a bad guy and we’re not going to dance around it any more… Trump’s every utterance, no matter how innocuous, is now parsed, analyzed and criticized.” This is unfair, they said.

* Yet those same national news services “turn out so few stories that fact check Clinton, who also has a strained relationship with the truth… Little has been written about some of Clinton’s questionable decisions as secretary of state, her emails and the fact that she and Bill have somehow amassed incredible wealth.”

* The mea culpa: “The Daily Commercial hasn’t done enough to mitigate the anti-Trump wave in the pages of this paper.”

* “This is not an endorsement of Trump, a candidate whose brutish, sometimes childish antics are responsible for his sizable deficit in the polls. Rather, it is a recognition that you, the voter, deserve better than we in the media have given you. You deserve a more balanced approach.”

Protecting against criticism.

An observation I have frequently made in my press criticism is that certain things mainstream journalists do they do not to serve readers, viewers or listeners, or to report the news and keep us informed, but to protect themselves against criticism, including the kind of criticism the Daily Commercial has been getting. That’s what “he said, she said” reporting, the “both sides do it” reflex, and “balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon” are all about.

Reporting the news and serving readers are first principles in journalism, bedrock for sound practice. But protecting against criticism is not like that at all. It has far less legitimacy, especially when the criticism itself has thin legitimacy. This is how the phrase “working the refs” got started. Political actors try to influence judgment calls by screeching about bias, whether the charge is warranted or not. To listen to feedback like that is to invite into news work what Jürgen Habermas, the world’s leading scholar of the public sphere, calls “systematically distorted communication.”

My favorite description of “protecting ourselves against criticism” comes from a former reporter for the Washington Post, Paul Taylor, in his 1990 book about election coverage: See How They Run. I have quoted it many times:

Sometimes I worry that my squeamishness about making sharp judgments, pro or con, makes me unfit for the slam-bang world of daily journalism. Other times I conclude that it makes me ideally suited for newspapering– certainly for the rigors and conventions of modern ‘objective’ journalism. For I can dispose of my dilemmas by writing stories straight down the middle. I can search for the halfway point between the best and the worst that might be said about someone (or some policy or idea) and write my story in that fair-minded place. By aiming for the golden mean, I probably land near the best approximation of truth more often than if I were guided by any other set of compasses– partisan, ideological, psychological, whatever… Yes, I am seeking truth. But I’m also seeking refuge. I’m taking a pass on the toughest calls I face.

I am seeking truth. But I’m also seeking refuge. What if it’s not possible to do both?

This is what the editors of the Daily Commercial failed to ask themselves. And this is what the movement for Trump is forcing journalists everywhere in the U.S. to realize, even if word hasn’t reached Leesburg, Florida. It’s not true that the national news agencies have done little to fact check Hillary Clinton’s dicier statements. When the editors wrote that they violated their most sacred duty to readers, which is to leave them undeceived. (Examples here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and that’s just from the AP.) But it is true that Clinton’s opponent, Trump, manufactures and distributes untruths at a rate unprecedented for a major party candidate in the modern era.

Campaign coverage that fairly reflects this discrepancy invites criticism from angry Trump supporters who are taught by the candidate himself that the election is being rigged by the crooked media. Under these explosive conditions, truth-seeking and refuge-seeking become incompatible behaviors. There is no refuge. Instead there is the First Amendment, which guarantees that the cops can’t arrest the editors of the Daily Commercial for publishing a newspaper that is insufficiently pro-Trump. (Of course, here too Trump represents an “unprecedented threat.”) What there is instead of refuge is to be on the side of verification, asking again and again: Did that actually happen? Is that really true? Does that square with what we know?

“We didn’t know how to write that paragraph.”

A few weeks ago, Dean Baquet, editor of the New York Times, said Donald Trump had changed journalism.

I was either editor or managing editor of the L.A. Times during the Swift Boat incident. Newspapers did not know — we did not quite know how to do it. I remember struggling with the reporter, Jim Rainey, who covers the media now, trying to get him to write the paragraph that laid out why the Swift Boat allegation was false… We didn’t know how to write the paragraph that said, “This is just false…” We struggle with that. I think that Trump has ended that struggle.

Some of you may wonder: in 1990, in 2004, or in 2016 how could it be hard to say in a news report “this is false” when the reporter and the editor are both persuaded that it is false? I have an answer for you. Alongside the production of news, reporters and editors in the mainstream press have for a long time been engaged in another manufacture: persuading us of their own innocence, especially when it comes to a contested election.

Innocent! Meaning: you cannot reasonably convict them of being on one side or the other. They are on no one’s side except for truth’s. Also: the readers, the viewers, the listeners. Being on their side is almost as innocent as being on the side of truth. For its 2012 election coverage, CNN’s slogan was: The Only Side We Choose is Yours, which captures what I mean by the production of innocence. (And it is a production, a show.) This is how to make sense of Dean Baquet’s strange words: “We didn’t know how to write the paragraph that said, ‘This is just false.'” He means: we didn’t know how to say it without appearing to take sides. We didn’t know how to write it and also remain innocent to ourselves.

Speaking truth to audience

But as Dean Baquet declared: “Trump has ended that struggle.” (Also see this.) His point is not that it’s suddenly “okay” to take sides. That’s a lazy conclusion, and a crappy way of putting it. Trump has ended the struggle in this sense: By openly trashing the norms of American politics, by flooding the campaign with wave after wave of provable falsehood, by convincing his supporters to despise and mistrust the press, by encouraging them to believe in a rigged election — rigged in part by the people who are bringing them the news — Trump has made it a certainty that when honest journalism is done about him it also works against him. Because of the way he campaigns — because of who he is — when he’s in the news he’s typically losing ground.

For journalists this destroys the illusion of innocence: just by doing your job you are undoing Trump… UNLESS he can turn his portion of the electorate against you so decisively that the very possibility that you may be trying to do an honest job is rejected out of hand. And then the disaster is complete, for now by doing your job (applying scrutiny, checking facts) you are actually helping Trump, confirming among his most committed supporters the hateful image of a media elite trying to rig the election. Either way the production of innocence fails.

In this vexing situation the Daily Commercial of Leesburg, Florida published its open letter to readers. Unable to think it through clearly, the editors surrendered their right to speak truth to power (in this case audience power) and sold out their colleagues in the national press.

“Yes, I am seeking truth. But I’m also seeking refuge.” For journalists covering this election, and for the American press in the years after, the days of doing both are over. Pick one.


What the campaign press should not be neutral toward

Some things I think journalists are allowed to advocate for in covering an election.

23 Oct 2016 6:14 pm 43 Comments

I wrote a whole book called What Are Journalists For? So I don’t say this lightly: To me it is not proper — I don’t think it builds trust in a free press — for the people who produce news to be campaigning for a political party, or trying to win it for a favored candidate.

As private citizens with political lives they can do whatever they want. As makers of a common story, news of the election, they should not operate as party creatures. Even if they are open about their beliefs they should not be “on the team.”

But there are things they can advocate for in a contested election— and other things they can legitimately oppose. Here is my list:

Pro-participation: Democracy is not a spectator sport. The more people who participate in the system the stronger it is. Journalists can safely advocate that people go out and vote. They can, I think, legitimately oppose efforts to discourage people from voting.

Pro-verification. “Did that actually happen?” “Is there good evidence for it?” “Can it be squared with what we know?” Journalists should reward with focused attention truth claims that can be verified, and they should penalize (by publicly doubting them) other claims that do not meet that test.

Pro-deliberation. People need to know what’s going on (news.) But to cast an intelligent vote they also need to hear a range of views around a common set of facts. Journalists can thus be “for” a lively, inclusive and fact-based debate. They can work against attempts to undermine it.

Pro-accountability. Elections are a contest for power. They are also a means for holding the powerful accountable. Contenders should have to answer for their words and deeds. They should explain themselves and reveal their plans. Journalists are on firm ground when they insist upon this kind of accountability, and when they resist attempts to elude it.

Against opacity. If nothing makes sense, if words have no meaning, if a manufactured confusion reigns, if we cannot tell where the candidates stand or what they intend to do, if the public record is obscured or destroyed, then democracy is defeated before the votes are cast. Journalists should stand against anything that makes for a more opaque election.

Against demagoguery. The attempt to gain power through a charismatic appeal to fear, prejudice, ignorance and an animus toward the “other” contradicts everything that principled journalists stand for. In the degree that such appeals succeed, they render impotent the basic acts of reporting and verification. When journalists combat demagogic argument they are not exceeding their brief. They are meeting their mission.

I have phrased these items as permissions: they are allowed to… they are on firm ground when… But it would be just as correct to use a term like obligations. If in covering the campaign journalists cannot stand up for informed participation, rigorous verification, a fact-based debate, real accountability; if they can’t find a way to oppose opacity and demagoguery, then they will sell themselves short and encourage the rest of us to tune them out.

Now we come to the hard part. All these acts require the journalist to form judgments, which will be contestable. There is no way around that.

And now we come to the really hard part. When journalists press for the things I say they can press for; when they fight against what they ought to fight against, the results are unlikely to be “neutral.” They are going to wind up penalizing some candidacies more than others. If making stuff up to mobilize fear and prejudice is the political style to which a candidate has become attached, journalists will have to set themselves against that style. And they will have to call it by its proper names.

To committed supporters this will seem like joining the other team. It’s not that, but it will seem so. There is no easy solution, especially at a time when institutional trust is bottoming out. But to feign neutrality toward the causes of ruin would be far worse.

PressThink’s new design and third space

Today I debut a new look, and a new feature of my site, born in 2003.

10 Oct 2016 2:44 am 27 Comments

This is the third version of my site. The designer is Andy Rossback, recently of the Marshall Project, now at the New York Times. The programmer is Garrett Gardner, webmaster at NYU Journalism. My thanks to both of them. They did a great job.

I like having my own joint. My friend Dave Winer — who had a hand in the origination of blogging software, RSS and podcasting — has over many years of conversation gotten through to me that you should always have your own place on the open web. Doc Searls has also helped to persuade me of this.

Anyone who pays attention to online publishing knows that the trend is in an opposite direction, toward capitulation to the platforms: Facebook with its instant articles, Medium.com, Apple News. I fully understand why the platforms are winning, and I don’t resent them, but I also don’t feel compelled to join in.

“Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one,” said press critic A. J. Liebling in 1959. That was a profound remark— in fact, the most important thing anyone has said about press freedom since Thomas Jefferson drafted the bill of rights.

Having a space that’s mine on the web — pressthink.org — is for me indistinguishable from owning my own printing press and hosting my own discussion forum. I’m not ready to give those up those powers.

Instead, I wanted to give my writing home on the web a refresh — especially with mobile becoming the standard — and add to it something new. I’m calling the new feature “the board.” Another term for it would be cards, a slightly different space for me to unfold what I think.

In the way I imagine this working, the first card will always be the same: “problems in pressthink that most concern me now.” It’s a live list that is constantly in motion, although I won’t feel compelled to change it for change’s sake. The problems on it are placed in order of urgency. Since I spend most of my time in my head, I figured I would rank what goes on there 🙂

Following the “current problems in pressthink” card are little posts that are longer than Twitter updates and shorter than PressThink essays, a third space for composing, in between social updates and long form blogging. I have wanted this for some time. You can see the board here and the live list of current problems here. I still have to work out the kinks for making the cards fully shareable on social and snack-able (swipe-able) on mobile. But I hope you get the basic idea.

I don’t think indy blogging is done for. No way. More likely it’s due for a re-birth. My own circumstances are fortunate. I don’t have to make money from my site, or generate big traffic. The PressThink archives are hugely important to me, even if they only draw a handful of users per week. I practice slow blogging: 20 to 30 posts a year. But each one has hundreds of hours of thought behind it. PressThink is not a commercial proposition. It’s the extreme opposite of click bait: an academic project and labor of love.

Ever since I began blogging, people have told me that they often find the comments better than the posts. They sometimes think this will hurt my feelings. No. It’s the opposite really.

What journalists say back when they are criticized for mishandling coverage of Trump

I've been keeping track of these replies. This is what I have heard.

2 Oct 2016 4:05 pm 39 Comments

First, let’s summarize the criticisms: These are the complaints journalists talk the most about. Not the only complaints that have been made — or the most apt — but the ones they tend to listen and respond to.

Campbell Brown, formerly of CNN, writing in Politico:

“I believe Trump’s candidacy is largely a creation of a TV media that wants him, or needs him, to be the central character in this year’s political drama. And it’s not just the network and cable executives driving it. The TV anchors and senior executives who don’t deliver are mercilessly ousted. The ones who do deliver are lavishly rewarded… It is not just the wall-to-wall coverage of Trump. It’s the openness with which some are reveling in his attention. It’s the effort, conscious or not, to domesticate and pretty him up, to make him appear less offensive than he really is, and to practice a false objectivity or equivalence in the coverage. Here, journalism across all platforms—corporate, as well as publicly funded—is guilty.”

Jeff Spross, The Week.

“The basic charge — leveled by plenty of people — is that the media lavished massively disproportionate coverage on Trump because he generates clicks, and this ‘free publicity’ helped fuel his rise. But I’m not buying it.” (See especially: $2 Billion Worth of Free Media for Donald Trump.)

Dean Baquet, New York Times:

“The backdrop of the debate is that it’s the press’ fault that Donald Trump has the Republican nomination and that it’s the press’ fault that Donald Trump is running neck and neck with Hillary Clinton. I don’t buy that for a minute.”

Chris Cillizza, Washington Post:

“[There’s a belief that] the media has failed in its responsibility to hold Trump accountable for the many and various misstatements and outright untruths he has peddled in this campaign. If the media was doing its job, the argument goes, then Trump would have never come so close to winning the Republican nomination, much less be within striking distance of Clinton at this late date.”

Rex Huppke, Chicago Tribune:

“Trump and his fervent followers refer to the media as scum and liars and traitors, and the candidate’s campaign routinely sends out fundraising emails that paint the election as a war with ‘the liberal media.’ Clinton supporters shout down any negative news about her — be it relating to her health, her private email server or her family’s charitable foundation — as unfair and a false equivalence, implying that anything bad that she has done is irrelevant because Trump has done bad things that are much worse.”

To the criticisms they are willing to hear journalists give these replies. I know because I listen to them talk about this a lot: on social media, on TV, in columns and blog posts, on panel discussions (I was at one this week with Molly Ball, Arianna Huffington and Marty Baron.) These are the responses I hear the most:

  • Sorry, your beef is with the voters. The viewers. The clickers.
  • Blame culture war. And partisan politics. And echo chambers.
  • We’re not the gatekeepers. We don’t have that kind of power anymore.
  • Yes, we gave him a lot of attention. Because his rise is an amazing story!
  • Voters have a very jaundiced view of Trump. Because we did our job.
  • Quit griping about “the media.” There really is no such thing.
  • Hey, Trump earned a lot of it. Most accessible candidate ever!
  • Stop whining about false balance. It’s not our job to win it for your side.
  • What bothers you is that all the negative coverage he’s gotten isn’t working.
  • Trump won massive mind share because he’s an innovator— and a media genius.

In a minute I will explain each one, with quotes to show you what I mean. But first I need to clarify two things about this post.

I am not trying to evaluate these responses from journalists. Rather, I am trying to be descriptive. I’m not saying I “buy” their replies. I’m not dumping on them, either. I’m trying to listen to The Criticized and tell you what they’re saying back. In other writings, I’ve been critical of election coverage. You can read some of it here and here, or check the “Recent Entries” section of my site. If you want to know what my politics are, go here.

Second clarification: I am not trying to capture what committed Trump supporters and people in the conservative movement say about the treatment of Trump’s candidacy by mainstream journalists. For the most part committed Trump supporters and people in the conservative movement have one thing to say: There is no journalism, there are no journalists. There is only politics — Democratic party politics — going on. In this view, the people who call themselves journalists are not trying to find out what’s happening and tell the voters. They are not struggling to hold the candidates accountable while holding on to their audiences. They are Democrats trying to win the election for their side. That’s why no one with any sense trusts them— again, according to this view.

“Democratic operatives with bylines” (coined by Glenn Reynolds) is the phrase that best captures this sense, which has become pervasive on the right. I hear that sentiment all the time from drive-bys on Twitter and in the comment section of my site. It is rocket fuel for the Trump candidacy, and bedrock for the Breitbart view of the world, in which “the media” and “the left” are interchangeable terms. I’m not dismissing the importance of this view; on the contrary, I think it is one of the most consequential developments in American politics in the last 50 years. But to take it seriously is to recognize just how completely the militant right has eclipsed journalism from its world view and media critique. There is no real reporting, just endless bias. There is no profession there with a code of conduct and a public service mission. Just politics: party agents with press cards. Because it is a fraudulent actor, “the media” must be defeated, discredited, and replaced.

The people who think this way don’t have much to say about how to cover a phenomenon like Trump and remain true to a demanding code of public service. They have one thing to tell the press: you’re trying to get Hillary elected. There are elements on the left committed to a “propaganda model” of news coverage who evacuate journalism in a similar way. That is worrisome. But they have nowhere near the same influence on the rank and file, and they have never captured a candidacy the way Breitbart has captured Trump.

I realize that many readers will hotly dispute the three paragraphs above. So be it. On, then, to my description of the responses from journalists to criticisms commonly made of their coverage of Trump.

1. Sorry, your beef is with the voters. The viewers. The clickers. The audience who responded to Trump, the public that wanted more and more of him, the crowds that showed up at his events in huge numbers, the people who pulled the lever for Trump in the primaries, the ones who are telling pollsters they will vote for him. Far more than journalists, they’re the ones responsible.

Eugene Robinson, Washington Post:

“Any carnival barker can draw a crowd. Trump would have been sent home to his Fifth Avenue penthouse long ago if a substantial part of the Republican Party base didn’t agree with what he is saying. If there is any sort of collective media failure, it’s in paying not too much attention to Trump but instead too little to his message… Blaming ourselves for Trump’s rise is just another way to ignore the voters who have made him the favorite for the GOP nomination.”

Molly Ball, The Atlantic:

“The press is the effect here, not the cause: The media were noting—often to their collective surprise—that more and more Republican primary voters were becoming receptive to Trump’s message. Should they instead have ignored or downplayed this development? Journalists shouldn’t blindly follow polls, but we should—constantly!—attempt to understand what sentiments are percolating in the electorate.”

Callum Borchers, Washington Post:

“News organizations enjoy the ratings and readership delivered by Donald Trump — just ask CBS boss Les Moonves — but they haven’t made him the Republican presidential front-runner. Voters who ignore or even embrace his venomous brand of politics and the many negative stories about him have done that.”

Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone:

“An important news story or 10 will likely die on the vine while the country obsesses over Trump’s latest foot-in-mouth episode. That’s the paradox with this candidate. Even the people who wish he didn’t exist can’t take their eyes off him. No amount of ‘contextualizing’ or pointing out his flaws and deceptions can walk back his gravitational pull on audiences.”

Eric Levitz, New York magazine.

“The media lavished Trump with attention because the American people enjoy watching garbage fires burn. But only the GOP base wants to make a garbage fire our president. Thus, responsibility for Trump’s political fortunes rests with Republican voters — and the party that conditioned them to mistake flaming refuse for fearless leadership.”

2. Blame culture war. And partisan politics. And echo chambers. That phrase of Eric Levit’s, “the party that conditioned them to mistake flaming refuse for fearless leadership…” points to another reply I’ve heard journalists give when criticized for their coverage of Trump: culture war works.

Chris Cillizza, Washington Post:

“Trump’s ability to weather so many blatant falsehoods is far more complex than simply shouting at the media to ‘do its job!’ It’s about the increasing tribalism of our politics, the partisan siloing of our media and the result of years of committed efforts to discredit the neutral media referees.”

3. We’re not the gatekeepers. We don’t have that kind of power anymore. It has become more and more obvious to journalists in the mainstream press that politicians can go around them and voters’ information diet is not theirs to determine.

Michael Hirsch, Politico.

“It’s a critical moment for mainstream media that I think has been getting less and less relevant with each election season. We’ve seen recent presidents, starting at least with Clinton, trying to talk over the heads of the media, not always successfully. Trump has succeeded in talking over the heads of the media. And if he’s elected president, then that will underline just how irrelevant we’ve become.”

Ben Smith, Buzzfeed:

“The press mostly just doesn’t have the gatekeeping power it once had.”

Eugene Robinson, Washington Post:

“Commentators should spend less time flattering themselves that the news media have the power to make such a thing happen — and more time trying to understand why Trump is succeeding.”

Callum Borchers, Washington Post:

“It’s convenient to blame the media for Trump’s rise, but the reality — made dishearteningly apparent this week — is that the press isn’t powerful enough to be responsible for his success or failure. It can’t even control the campaign narrative, never mind the outcome.”

Jeff Zucker, CNN:

“I only wish that CNN had that much power to be able to create a frontrunner on either side… The critics of Donald Trump are looking for people to blame for his rise. There are many people who are either surprised by his strength, or don’t like him, and want to blame someone to explain why he has been this popular.”

4. Yes, we gave him a lot of attention. Because his rise is an amazing story! This was beyond “man bites dog.” This was “the laws of the political universe have been repealed.” Huge news.

Sam Reisman, Mediaite.

“Like it or not, a political neophyte coming down his brass-plated escalator from out of nowhere, violating every rule of political gravity, and wreaking havoc in one of our two major political parties — that is a major, ongoing story. But it’s his often frightening message to which we should credit his success, not the frequency with which it is broadcast.

Chris Cillizza, Washington Post:

“Beginning as a punchline — and an asterisk in polling — Trump beat the most crowded (and one of the deepest and most accomplished) Republican fields in modern presidential history. trumptvtechA first-time candidate, he systematically dismantled Rick Perry, Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Marco Rubio — to name just a few. And, even amid the relentless media coverage of whether Trump had peaked or whether his moment had passed, he led the race virtually wire to wire. He won in the Midwest, the West, the South and the East. He won among very conservative voters and moderate voters. He won and won and won… It is, simply put, the single most amazing thing I have seen in my 18 years of covering politics.”

5. Voters have a very jaundiced view of Trump. Because we did our job. Yes, we gave him a lot of attention, but a lot of it was negative. We questioned him, we aired his outrageous claims and fact-checked them, we investigated him, we showed Americans who he is. And it shows in the polls.

Brendan O’Connor, Gawker.

“Given how unfavorable Trump is viewed more broadly, isn’t it possible that widespread coverage of Trump—his insults, his misogyny, his racism, his scams, his bluster—has ensured that general election voters are… informed? Hmmm.”

Molly Ball, the Atlantic:

“So much has Trump ‘benefited’ from media exposure… that he now is viewed negatively by 70 percent of voters.”

Eric Levitz, New York Magazine:

“Recent polls show 70 percent of the American public now holds an unfavorable view of the Republican nominee, as he falls further behind Hillary Clinton in general-election trial heats. This dip was not the product of cable networks suddenly turning their cameras away from Trump. Rather, the media’s steadfast attention to the mogul’s various obscenities did what it has been doing for the past 12 months: increase the number of American voters that see Donald Trump as unfit for high office.”

Jack Shafer, Politico:

“No one but a dimwit would accept that all the Trump publicity—critical stories about his flip-flops and skeevy business deals; countless rebukes from fact-checkers; pieces knocking his views on eminent domain, his dubious modeling agency, his backstory as a birther and so on—helped his candidacy. There’s just as good an argument that all this coverage will end up hurting Trump: Should he claim the nomination, he will be the least popular candidate to start the general campaign in modern times, with a 67 percent unfavorable rating.”

6. Quit griping about “the media,” there really is no such thing. Isn’t it time we dropped this fiction? It’s not helping.

Brendan O’Connor, Gawker.

“There is no ‘we in the media.’ Within platforms or across them: What NBC News does has nothing to do with what CNN does, and even less to do with what the Times does.”

Paul Farhi, Washington Post:

“There are hundreds of broadcast and cable TV networks, a thousand or so local TV stations, a few thousand magazines and newspapers, several thousand radio stations and roughly a gazillion websites, blogs, newsletters and podcasts. There’s also Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and who knows what new digital thing. All of these, collectively, now constitute the media. But this vast array of news and information sources — from the New York Times to Rubber and Plastics News — helps define what’s wrong with referring to ‘the media.’ With so many sources, one-size-fits-all reporting is impossible. Those who work in the media don’t gather in our huddle rooms each morning and light up the teleconference lines with plots to nettle and unsettle you. There is no media in the sense of a conspiracy to tilt perception.”

Paul Farhi, Washington Post:

“As I understand your use of this term, ‘the media’ is essentially shorthand for anything you read, saw or heard today that you disagreed with or didn’t like. At any given moment, ‘the media’ is biased against your candidate, your issue, your very way of life. But, you know, the media isn’t really doing that. Some article, some news report, some guy spouting off on a CNN panel or at CrankyCrackpot.com might be. But none of those things singularly are really the media.”

7. Hey, Trump earned a lot of it. Most accessible candidate ever! Maybe the other candidates should have put themselves on the line like that.

Frank Rich, New York Magazine:

“He gets a lion’s share of television time and other so-called ‘earned media’ because he earns it: Unlike Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz, he never limited his exposure to the press but seized virtually every invitation handed him to go on the air and mouth off unscripted.”

Doyle McManus, Los Angeles Times.

“At least he’s been accessible. He’s given far more time to interviewers – both broadcast and print – than Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee. Clinton’s last full-scale news conference was more than six months ago. Trump has held perhaps a dozen news conferences since then. According to USA Today, Clinton has appeared on Sunday morning interview shows 25 times since the campaign began; Trump has appeared 75 times during the same period.”

Eddie Scarry, Washington Examiner:

“On Tuesday, Trump made one of his many call-ins to the program for a 10-minute interview. At the end, co-host Mika Brzezinski addressed any critics who might be watching. ‘I should just point out, for all the eye rolling that I hear happening, that if Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz would like to call into the show, we would take their call at any time,’ she said. Brzezinski said Trump ‘has proved himself to be the most accessible candidate, like it or not. But don’t blame us if the other candidates are not as accessible.'”

Howard Kurtz, Fox News:

“Trump has seized much of the ‘free’ air time by doing many, many more interviews than his rivals, and by driving the campaign dialogue—which all candidates try to do but are usually too cautious or dull to pull off.”

Jack Shafer, Politico:

“He’s disarmed the media by acknowledging that he’s a greedy man full of self-contradiction, and he has inspired voters with his positive and entertaining campaign. Trump also makes himself readily available to journalists for interviews, even when no camera is running. Remember, this is a man who got blanket publicity in 2007 when he announced he was going into the frozen meat business with Trump Steaks. Publicity ain’t free if you’re working for it! Maybe the other candidates should have worked as hard as Trump did.”

8. Stop whining about false balance. It’s not our job to win it for your side. And it’s not ‘false balance’ to hold both sides accountable, so we’re going to keep doing that. We’re not on the team. Quit asking us to be.

Liz Spayd, New York Times:

“I can’t help wondering about the ideological motives of those crying false balance, given that they are using the argument mostly in support of liberal causes and candidates.”

Molly Ball, The Atlantic:

“Journalists don’t write their stories to advance or hinder the candidacies of particular politicians.”

Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone:

“The people complaining about ‘false balance’ usually seem confident in having discovered the truth of things for themselves, despite the media’s supposed incompetence. They’re quite sure of whom to vote for and why. Their complaints are really about the impact that ‘false balance’ coverage might have on other, lesser humans, with weaker minds than theirs.”

Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept:

“Aggressive investigative journalism against Trump is not enough for Democratic partisans whose voice is dominant in U.S. media discourse. They also want a cessation of any news coverage that reflects negatively on Hillary Clinton.”

9. What bothers you is that all the negative coverage he’s gotten isn’t working. It’s not that we have been insufficiently tough. It’s that people still support him because he’s “tapped into” (that’s a key phrase) something real. Deal with it.

Chris Cillizza, Washington Post:

“So, what is really going on here? What are Democrats trying to say when they continue to claim — facts be damned! — that the media isn’t doing its job fact-checking Trump? I think I know. What I believe people are saying is ‘Why doesn’t the fact that independent fact-checkers keep finding Trump lying not change people’s opinions of him?’ Or, put another way: How can someone who isn’t telling the truth two-thirds of the time possibly be in contention to be president of the United States?”

Dean Baquet, New York Times:

“I think that carries with it the belief that many people had that somehow if people really knew about his finances and all this other stuff, they couldn’t possibly vote for him. Guess what: They do know. There’s a tremendous amount known about this guy, and the press gets credit for that. I think Donald Trump has been investigated a whole lot by a lot of institutions, and I think it’s misunderstanding this moment, this moment in the history of the country and even in the history of media, to say he’s the front-runner because people don’t know a lot about him.”

Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone:

“Anyone who tries to argue that there’s insufficiently vast documentation of Trump’s insanity is either being willfully obtuse or not paying real attention to the news. Just follow this latest birther faceplant. The outrage is all out there, in huge quantities. It’s just not having the predicted effect.”

10.Trump won massive mind share because he’s an innovator— and a media genius. Give the man his due. He created a new way to run for president.

Jack Shafer, Politico:

“Whether Trump wins or loses the nomination, he has done something new, creating an example that future candidates will be eager to follow. We can already envision these candidates, without organization, without advisers, without anything but a big running mouth. Existing outside the usual boundaries of what’s generally been allowed, the Trump style has three identifying markers: not exactly entertainment, but entertaining just the same. Not really populist, but popular. Not politics, but very political. Even people who can’t stand Trump have found themselves watching him and reading about him, breathing heavily until the next outrage. It’s his movie, and he’s the auteur.”

Robert Draper, New York Times:

“Trump was a TV star for more than a decade before he became a politician; he watches TV news incessantly and understands the medium intimately. He knows the optimal time slots on the morning shows. He stage-manages the on-set lighting. He is not only on speaking terms with every network chief executive but also knows their booking agents. He monitors the opinions of hosts and regular guests more avidly than most media critics do and works them obsessively, often directly.”

Bonus! There are some criticisms that journalists will sign on to. These are the ones I hear most frequently.

They didn’t take Trump seriously at first.

David Folkenflik, NPR: “For all of their obsession with horse-race coverage, much of the political press treated Trump’s campaign as pure spectacle, which it undoubtedly was, instead of something that could also draw support from real voters. As readers and viewers, we heard much more about what political insiders were telling us the voters thought than about the voters themselves.”

Hadas Gold, Politico: “From the most serious magazine journalists, writing with the voice of history, to most street-savvy, ear-to-the-ground bloggers: Trump had a polling ceiling; the Republican establishment would coalesce to bring him down; he didn’t have a sufficient ground game; one giant gaffe would inevitably bring him down; and on and on.”

Michael Hirsch, Politico: “We certainly, as I said, could have tried to do a better job challenging him, perhaps taking him seriously earlier rather than treating him as nothing more than a clown, and of course there was the spectacle of months and months going by where people in the media kept delivering judgments of ‘peak Trump,’ where we’ve now hit peak Trump and the inevitable decline will start, and it never happens, so just a massive misreading. If nothing else, you could say conclusively — and I think very few people in the media would disagree — that this was just a massive misreading of the political environment in this season.”

Maybe they did let Trump set the news agenda (and phone it in.)

Sabrina Siddiqui, The Guardian: “At what point do you need to say, ‘Okay, this is a fact, that he knows exactly how to dominate the news cycle. It’s a ploy.’ At what point do you need to say, ‘He is effectively calling the shots and managing exactly when he’s covered and how he’s covered’? And essentially — any day that Trump felt like he was losing traction, he would say something, and lo and behold, he dominated the day and the week again.

David Folkenflik, NPR: “Those favored by the great man were graced with sit-downs on camera. Others had to settle for Trump’s calls, always the least desirable option. Producers contorted themselves to accommodate him, accepting not just phone interviews but cellphone interviews. That held even for programs with major audiences such as NBC’s Today show and ABC’s This Week. At one point, BuzzFeed counted 69 televised phone interviews with Trump in 69 days. Media analysts of all stripes and ideologies assessed the coverage not just as disproportionate but wildly so. Even negative stories or controversies involving Trump pushed his rivals from news coverage.”

They developed a symbiosis or mutual dependence with Trump.

Jim Rutenberg, New York Times: “As the people have made clear, they want Trump. [Thus the] disturbing symbiosis between Mr. Trump and the news media. There is always a mutually beneficial relationship between candidates and news organizations during presidential years. But in my lifetime it’s never seemed so singularly focused on a single candidacy. And the financial stakes have never been so intertwined with the journalistic and political stakes.”

They had lost touch with Trump’s constituency

Dean Baquet, New York Times: “I do think we probably didn’t quite have a handle on how much the country was sort of torn apart by the financial crisis and other stuff, too. I think that I can make the case, if I’m being really reflective and self-critical, that there are parts of the country we probably were not quite in touch with. I want everybody to read the New York Times. I don’t think we understood that part of the country well enough. I think there was a bigger part of the country than we knew that’s really frustrated. I think we missed that story.”

David Brooks, New York Times: “Trump voters are a coalition of the dispossessed. They have suffered lost jobs, lost wages, lost dreams. The American system is not working for them, so naturally they are looking for something else. Moreover, many in the media, especially me, did not understand how they would express their alienation. We expected Trump to fizzle because we were not socially intermingled with his supporters and did not listen carefully enough. For me, it’s a lesson that I have to change the way I do my job if I’m going to report accurately on this country.”

* * *
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore.

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


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.