Answers to Craig’s Questions

Craig Newmark asked me: What did the press learn from 2016? Here are my replies.

24 Mar 2022 1:21 pm 8 Comments

I have known Craig Newmark for a long time. He’s the Craig from craigslist.org. Now he’s best defined as a philanthropist.

Craig supports a lot of journalism projects, including one named for him: The Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York (CUNY) to which he gave $20 million in 2018.

Occasionally he sends me questions about the state of journalism. I try to answer them— in a concise way, rather than going into all the details as I might with my academic colleagues.

Craig and I agreed to publish this latest exchange. It’s 800 words. His questions are in bold. 

What did the trustworthy press learn from the 2016 election?  

That its laws of gravity — predicting that Trump would crash — were not laws at all but social conventions.

Flimsier than was thought. Not great if your brand is understanding what is likely in politics.

Dan Balz, Washington Post, July 2015: “The question now is whether Candidate Trump is immune from the laws of political gravity or soon will be isolated and regarded as an object of scorn or curiosity rather than of presidential seriousness.”

A second lesson from 2016: Journalists conceded they were out of touch with large portions of the country — by which they typically meant Trump country. They said they were caught by surprise.

Dean Baquet, New York Times, looking back on the 2016 election in February of 2020: “More Americans than we understood at the time were rattled, and were looking for something dramatic… the country was a little more radically inclined than we thought.”

A third lesson. The press learned that it was vulnerable to a raging demagogue who drove audience metrics and triggered broad interest in politics.

Les Moonves, CEO of CBS, in Feb. 2016: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

Jeff Zucker in Oct. 2016: “If we made any mistake last year, it’s that we probably did put on too many of his campaign rallies in those early months and let them run.”

But Zucker also defended that choice. “You never knew what he would say, there was an attraction to put those on air.”

Craig Newmark: What’s in practice today?

When social scientists study newsrooms they look not at personalities but routines. Poduction routines, especially.

These include routines of the mind: the way journalists imagine, explain, defend and legitimate their work, another term for which is press think.

On the whole the picture today is not vastly different from where political journalism stood in, say, spring of 2015. Still, there have been some shifts.

By shifts I do not mean shifts completed, or well handled, or consistently applied. I mean only that the category of the acceptable has been revised somewhat.

Seen this way, changes in practice since Trump began winning the presidency include:

* Describing politicized lying as lying, and false claims as straight-up false, not only in dedicated fact-check sections later on, but while you are telling the story. That’s a shift in routine.

* Recognizing in the right wing’s media ecosystem not only a source of alternative views, but a competitor in the attention economy. Producer of an alternative reality that charges up the Republican party, and competes with the picture of reality produced by mainstream journalism, replacing it for a portion of the audience.

How large a portion? A fifth, a quarter, a third? Maybe more. This is the audience for Trump’s use of the press as a hate object.

* Internet movements, conspiracy theories, and media figures that once could have been dismissed as “extreme” now have to be reported on because they could turn into powerful actors or factors.

* About Trump specifically a general recognition that he is willing to wreck the place, a premise that did not obtain in 2015-16. As ABC’s Jonathan Karl said about the prospect that Trump could run in 2024: “You’re covering somebody running in a system that is trying to undermine that very system.”

There are other realizations from the Trump era that do not arrive with good solutions or changes in practice attached.

One example: Trump’s ability to do corrupt, scandalous and democracy-damaging things right out in the open, rather than hiding them, thus undoing the power to expose shocking truths, which does not apply to the already exposed. No one quite knows what to do about that. (See my thread.)

Craig Newmark: Is it trustworthy to amplify disinformation?

Far more care has to be taken by news organizations to avoid amplifying disinformation. We are just at the beginning of extending this practice throughout what Margaret Sullivan calls the “reality based press.”

However, it’s not as simple as “don’t amplify…” because there are occasions when the public needs to know that a political figure is fasifying reality, or that a consequential lie is gaining traction, as with Stop the Steal.

So we have to go forward with both: Avoid amplifying disinformation when you can, knowing there are times when you cannot.

One need is for sound practices — like the truth sandwich — when “ignore” is not a realistic option.

Craig Newmark: What might be next?

Well, the Washington Post has a new democracy desk, which recognizes some of these threats. So did CNN’s on-again, off-again 9 pm show, “Democracy in Peril.”

These are glimmers of what might yet become a stronger defense of American democracy by mainstream journalists, but that is all they are so far: flickers of light on a dark and cresting sea.

 

The savvy turn in political journalism

And why I continue to criticize it.

17 Jan 2022 6:32 pm 14 Comments

For 15 years I have been writing about what I call the savvy style in the American press. This post is about the moment when a journalist goes there. Or refuses to.

But first: what is the savvy style? This is from 2011:

In the United States, most of the people who report on politics aren’t trying to advance an ideology. But I think they have an ideology, a belief system that holds their world together and tells them what to report about. It’s not left, or right, or center, really. It’s trickier than that. The name I’ve given to the ideology of our political press is savviness.

In politics, our journalists believe, it is better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It’s better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere, thoughtful or humane. Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be. (And to be unsavvy is far worse than being wrong.)

Savviness is that quality of being shrewd, practical, hyper-informed, perceptive, ironic, “with it,” and unsentimental in all things political. And what is the truest mark of savviness? Winning, of course! Or knowing who the winners are.

In 1992, the Charlotte Observer, influenced by a similar project at the Wichita Eagle, decided to change the way they approached election coverage. Instead of savvy takes on the state of the race, they would try to connect the campaign, and the candidates, to what voters said they cared most about. They called this approach “the citizens agenda.” Its centerpiece was a simple question: What do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes?

By putting that question to as many people as possible — and by listening carefully to the answers — the Observer’s political team could synthesize a kind of agenda, or priority list for campaign coverage that originates with the voters, rather than operatives, candidates, donors, or editors.

The citizens agenda model called for journalists to pressure the candidates into engaging with the problems that voters said they wanted to hear more about. This sounds simple and obvious until you realize that it also means de-emphasizing controversy of the day coverage, and the latest turn in the horse race.

All that is background for a little story I want to tell you from thirty years ago.

The characters in it are Richard Oppel, then the editor of the Charlotte Observer, and Terry Sanford, then the incumbent Senator from North Carolina. (A Democrat, he ended up losing in November.) In their replies to “what do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes?” voters had brought up environmental issues a lot. The Observer wanted Sanford to respond to the voters’ concerns. Here’s how Rich Oppel recalled it:

Voters were intensely interested in the environment…. So our reporters went out to senatorial candidates and said, “here are the voters’ questions.” Terry Sanford, the incumbent senator, called me up from Washington and said, “Rich, I have these questions from your reporter and I’m not going to answer them because we are not going to talk about the environment until the general election.” This was the primary. I said, “Well, the voters want to know about the environment now, Terry.” He said, “Well, that’s not the way I have my campaign structured.” I said, “Fine, I will run the questions and leave a space under it for you to answer. If you choose not to, we will just say ‘would not respond’ or we will leave it blank.” We ended the conversation. In about ten days he sent the answers down.

For me the key moment in the story is when the sitting Senator says, “that’s not the way I have my campaign structured.” This was a signal for the savvy mindset to “click” into place. What’s the strategy there? There must be a reason Sanford doesn’t want to talk about the enviornment now. It’s the kind of thing a journalist wired into the campaign apparatus wants to know. And if you can’t know, you can speculate.

Maybe Sanford was wary of criticism from environmentalists during primary season, but confident that his record would contrast favorably with a Republican opponent. Uncovering the logic of these maneuvers is what savvy journalists do. Which is why I’ve characterized their style as, “you may not like it, but it’s smart politics.”

Rich Oppel did not go there. He rejected all that. His focus was not on the candidate’s maneuvers, but on getting answers to voters’ questions. Rather than use the Charlotte Observer’s pull to find out more about Sanford’s campaign tactics, he deployed the threat of a blank space to extract answers that would help readers cast a more informed vote. After all, what can your average voter do with “that’s not the way I have my campaign structured?”

At this point you may be wondering: why is Jay telling us this now?

One reason is that the citizens agenda model never died. A few days ago, this appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

We don’t change mayors very often in Milwaukee. But with Mayor Tom Barrett departing to be ambassador to Luxembourg, Milwaukee will have a new mayor after the April 5 election.

There is an opportunity for fresh thinking at City Hall — thinking that ought to be informed by city residents.

To learn what’s top of mind for voters, the Ideas Lab in collaboration with WUWM 89.7-FM, Milwaukee’s NPR, and Milwaukee PBS launched the Citizens Agenda Project.

We’re asking this question:

What do you want the candidates for mayor to be talking about as they compete for your vote?

Another reason I tell you this story from 30 years ago is that the savvy temptation still thrives in American journalism. It’s as strong as ever.

Greg Sargent, columnist for the Washington Post, points out how Republican opposition to protecting voting rights through Federal legislation has become a natural fact, part of the background of political life in Washington, rather than something journalists might probe and inquire about.

As Democrats once again debate whether to end the filibuster to pass protections for democracy, a deeply perverse dynamic has taken hold, one in which Republicans enjoy a hidden benefit from being entirely united against such protections.

Precisely because this GOP opposition is a foregone conclusion, Republicans are too rarely asked by reporters to justify it. This in turn causes that opposition to become accepted as a natural, unalterable, indelibly baked-in backstop condition of political life.

Realistically — which is a golden word in the savvy style — Senate Republicans will not consider any action that protects the right to vote or encourages more people to vote. So it’s up to the Democrats to pass such legislation, currently called the Freedom to Vote Act. That’s politics!

But realistically is not the same as justifiably. And as Sargent points out, “The bill would require states to allow no-excuse absentee voting. Despite claims otherwise, there is no evidence that mail voting advantages either party. It simply makes voting easier for everyone who chooses to take advantage of it.”

So the question for Republicans is: why not make voting easier for your voters and everyone else’s? What justifies the GOP’s opposition to no-excuse absentee voting? And do their explanations hold up under scrutiny? That’s politics too. It’s called reason-giving. Journalists ought to be pressing for those answers, but in the savvy style “realistically” is allowed to push “justifiably” out of the frame.

Which is why I continue to criticize it.

Eleven years ago I published at my site, PressThink, an FAQ about The View from Nowhere. There I tried to explain what I meant in adapting that phrase to press criticism. This post is a companion to that one. But it starts from an opposite end. Not the view from nowhere but the voice of someone— disclosing a point of view.

To explain what I mean by that, I will use the transparency section of tech journalist Casey Newton’s newsletter. Disclosure: I have been talking with Casey about viewpoint transparency for some time. He told me that some of what I said influenced him. (Read about Casey and his move to one-person journalism in this New York Times report.)

“Here are some things I’ve come to believe about social networks and democracy since I started covering the topic,” he writes at the About page for his newsletter, Platformer. That is not the view from nowhere; it’s the voice of someone. A journalist who says he is not viewless.

Here are some things I’ve come to believe about my beat. By leveling with readers in this way, a “here’s where I’m coming from” journalist makes a different bid for trust than a statement like “…and that’s the way it is,” which was Walter Cronkite’s famous sign off in the 1960s. (And a very effective one, too. Cronkite was a broadly trusted figure.)

Neutral professionalism says: you can trust our report because we keep ourselves out of it.

Casey Newton’s Platformer says: You can trust my report because I put myself into it… and here’s who I am.

These are different systems for generating confidence in the bearer of news reports.

Explaining how he sees the world — the world of the giant tech companies — Newton shares some conclusions he’s arrived at. The lessons of his experience. (Or as some would call it: his bias.) Here are three of the eleven he lists:

We ought to put at least as much pressure on the government to make change as we do on tech companies. But tech companies are more responsive, and so they face more pressure.

Television news has proven corrosive to democracy in ways that are likely as or more important than any created by social networks.

Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have grown large enough that the platforms are essentially beyond the control of their executives. The companies are under the control of their executives. But executives are often months or years late to understanding the unintended consequences of the platforms, and they don’t always respond effectively even after they do understand the consequences.

Here’s where I’m coming from, as your journalist keeping watch on the tech platforms. Casey’s purpose here is not to parade his opinions but to disclose a perspective. Read my work through this lens, says he.

Now let’s shift from an individual journalist to a newsroom with a team of reporters. The investigative non-profit ProPublica says it practices a particular kind of journalism, the point of which is “to expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business, and other institutions.”

If the powerful cannot be held accountable, democracy becomes a joke. Abuses of the public trust are a special category of wrongs to be righted. In journalism the point of investigating is not just to document wrongdoing but to get results. That — in my paraphrase — is where ProPublica is coming from: “Using the moral force of investigative journalism to spur reform through the sustained spotlighting of wrongdoing,” as they put it.

This is disclosure of intent. We don’t just publish the story. We keep the pressure on until something happens, “for as long as it takes to hold power to account,” as ProPublica says.

That’s different from saying: we report the news and keep you informed.

ProPublica doesn’t try to locate itself on the political map. It’s not with the reds or the blues. It doesn’t take positions on the issues of the day. But it is clearly anchored in the long history of progressive reform in the U.S., especially the chapter called Muckraking, of which investigative journalists Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, and the publisher S.S. McClure were early exemplars. From there — from that tradition, I mean — ProPublica is also coming.

When Casey Newton says, “Here are some things I’ve come to believe about social networks and democracy,” or when ProPublica talks of “using the power of investigative journalism to spur reform,” they are implicitly declining what I have long called the view from nowhere.

Their bid for trust is different. The most concise description of the difference is still David Weinberger’s crack, “Transparency is the new objectivity.” (2009.)

Instead of trying to persuade people that you are detached and viewless — but fair and informed! — you disclose what you think. Not everything you think, but the part that readers, viewers, and listeners should know about when they decide whether to trust your account of things.

Instead of “we have no agenda other than bringing you the news as fairly and accurately as possible…” which is one way to bid for the confidence of the news audience, you disclose your intent: To spur reform using the moral force of investigative journalism, for example. This is a kind of agenda. But it’s compatible with the principles of good journalism, and it tells people what to expect.

“Here’s where we’re coming from” statements will necessarily vary a lot. I don’t have a formula. The important thing is for journalists to make more of them, to get comfortable with the act, and to learn through experiment what forms of viewpoint disclosure will actually make a difference to users.

Here’s the Voice of San Diego, an investigative non-profit: “We pressure leaders to solve widely accepted problems and local challenges. To evaluate what those are, we offer this template of our values and concerns.” In other words: here’s where we’re coming from with our journalism. Voice of San Diego says it is for…

  • Government transparency, open meetings and accountability.
  • A well-informed, well-educated community ready to participate in civic affairs.
  • Government agencies that are just, efficient and excellent.
  • High quality education for all children.
  • Quality housing that is affordable to all residents.
  • World class infrastructure that supports free enterprise and job creation.
  • A robust and inclusive arts and culture scene.
  • A clean environment, healthy ecosystem
  • Preparations for the long-term challenges of drought, energy supply and climate change.

By itself, this kind of statement does not change anything in journalism. One could say it’s just rhetoric. Only when it’s part of a larger shift toward the transparency system does “here’s where we’re coming from” start to signify.

Key practices in the transparency system for generating confidence in the bearer of news reports.

* Commit to transparency about ownership, business model, and major sources of funding.

* Maintain high standards of verification throughout the enterprise of publishing news and comment.

* Speak clearly about your priorities in news coverage— and when they change speak clearly about that.

* Share your reasoning when you make policy decisions like what to cover, and whom to ignore.

* Quick action when you screw up and need to correct or ammend your reporting.

* Active listening to good faith criticism and genuine audience feedback.

* “Show your work.” Meaning: explain how you did that story and came to the conclusions you did.

* “Don’t believe us? See for yourself.” Here’s the data. Here’s the documents. Here’s the full interview.

* And of course… “here’s where we’re coming from.”

When you put them all together they give form, task and purpose to “transparency is the new objectivity.”

In the years ahead, bidding for trust by means of viewpoint and agenda disclosure will, I think, become more common, especially in newsletter, niche, investigative, climate, and point-of-view journalism. Taking a neutral stance and asking to be trusted because you’re uncommited to everything except getting the story right, accurately and fairly— that will continue to characterize the work of the big national newsrooms and public broadcasters. As I have said, these are different systems.

Here’s Casey in his transparency voice again:

How do you see the world?

Like many people, my views about technology were reshaped by the events of 2016. Revelations that foreign actors had manipulated Facebook, Twitter, and other sites caused me to reevaluate my old, blinkered assumption that social networks were only harmless fun. Before 2016, my primary concern about Facebook was that the News Feed would crush most digital media. After 2016, my concern shifted from a business concern to a more patriotic one: are social networks undermining democracy?

And here are the editors of The Dispatch: “We don’t apologize for our conservatism. Some of the best journalism is done when the author is honest with readers about where he or she is coming from, and some of the very worst journalism hides behind a pretense of objectivity and the stolen authority that pretense provides.”

Time to wrap this up. About our little experiment, Casey Newton told me:

“Writing a ‘where I’m coming from statement’ was enormously useful to me as I started my newsletter, It forced me to articulate an editorial mission, my values, and my editorial process. I send it out to everyone who subscribes when they sign up, and many readers have told me that they trust me more because of it. I strongly encourage more journalists to write one of their own. The benefits are real!

I’m with Casey in encouraging journalists to write their own “here’s where I’m coming from” statement. It’s not a bio, or a résumé, or a simple description of your beat. When you disclose where you’re coming from, you are giving readers, viewers, and listeners the tools they need to assess your work. They can apply any discount rate they want. And if any of them say to you, in that slightly threatening voice, “Oh, yeah? What’s your agenda?” now you have a ready answer. Just send them the link.

Notes and updates

1. My graduate students at NYU are collecting good examples of “coming from” statements, and exceptional transparency practices in journalism. Here’s their site. You can submit samples for them to consider here.

2. For an excellent book-length treatment of the problems discussed in this post see The View from Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity by the journalist Lewis Raven Wallace.

3. Trusting News, led by Joy Mayer, is a research project that works on these issues with news organizations. Thanks to Joy for her help with this post. Another key contributor in this topic area is The Trust Project, led by Sally Lehrman. Its mission is to strengthen public confidence in the news through accountability and transparency.

4. Since 2004 I have explained to readers where I am coming from in this FAQ: Questions and Answers About PressThink. The part where I disclose my politics is here.

5. I like to test my ideas under real world conditions. And so over the next few months, I will be working as a consultant to Courier Newsroom, a company with transparency problems in its past that has re-organized and committed itself to doing better. My brief is to help them improve their transparency practices, starting with more and better “coming from” statements. See this page, for starters, and this one.

Earlier this year Tara McGowan, the founder and publisher of Courier, contacted me about what I have called in this post “the transparency system for generating confidence in the bearer of news reports.” I agreed to work with her company because I think she’s serious about putting that system to the test.

Some journalists remain highly skeptical about Courier Newsroom and its leadership. I understand why that is. I doubt they will be changing their minds anytime soon. What interests me is the strides the editors can make in transparency practices. As Sara Fischer of Axios noted, “Courier Newsroom is a local news group with a progressive perspective.” Two of its funders are billionaires George Soros and Reid Hoffman. Therefore it is especially important to level with readers about priorities, funding, and point of view.

6. The Marshall Project says this about itself: “We are not advocates—we follow the facts and we do not pander to any audience—but we have a declared mission: to create and sustain a sense of urgency about the criminal justice system.” To create and sustain a sense of public urgency about the criminal justice system in the United States is, let’s be clear, a political goal. But declaring that goal does not mean the Marshall Project has to politicize its journalism. It’s simply choosing to say: “We cover the criminal justice system and here’s where we’re coming from on that…” This approach has won them two Pulitzer Prizes, so they are in no way out of the mainstream. They have a point of view, they do best-in-class investigative reporting and data journalism, and they want to correct for people wrongly excluded.

We intend to expand our sources and readers to make sure we are talking to people who often feel excluded or caricatured by the news media — while maintaining our commitment to fact-based reporting. Investigative, data and engagement journalism will be central to our model. We will also explore alternative ways of telling stories so we make sure our journalism reaches those who might face literacy challenges or who haven’t traditionally received their information from written news outlets

7. “Getting personal about climate change made me a better reporter” by Sammy Roth. (Link.)

I’ve been transparent with LA Times readers about where I’m coming from — that I find climate change very scary, and that I care about speeding up the clean energy transition. This hasn’t hurt my credibility, or my ability to tell these stories. On the contrary, it’s helped me do my job better… Anyone who reads my stories knows I’m biased toward climate solutions, and my reporting flows from that.

Sammy Roth is an energy correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, for whom he writes the weekly Boiling Point newsletter.

A current list of my top problems in pressthink, May 2021

The things I spend the most time puzzling about these days. Ranked by urgency. Updated from time to time.

6 May 2021 10:25 pm 16 Comments

1. We have a two-party system and one of the two is anti-democratic.

The Republican Party tried to overturn the results of a free and fair election. When that failed it did not purge the insurrectionists and begin to reform itself; rather, it continued the attack by other means, such as state laws making it harder to vote, or a continuation of the big lie that Trump actually won.

By “anti-democratic” I mean willing to destroy key institutions to prevail in the contest for power. This is true, not only of individual politicians, but of the party as a whole. As (Republican) and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson writes, “For the activist base of the Republican Party, affirming that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential contest has become a qualification for membership in good standing.” A qualification for membership.

Journalists had adapted to the old system by developing a “both sides” model of news coverage. It locates the duties of a non-partisan press in the middle between roughly similar parties with competing philosophies. That mental model still undergirds almost all activity in political journalism. But it is falling apart. As I wrote five years ago, asymmetry between the major parties fries the circuits of the mainstream press.

We are well beyond that point now. Now we live in a two-party world where one of the two is anti-democratic. Circuits fried, the press has to figure out what to do. I spend a majority of my puzzling time on that.

2. The GOP is both counter-majoritarian and counter-factual.

This is different way to come upon the problem stated in 1.) above. By “counter-majoritarian” I mean the Republicans see themselves as an embattled — and overwhelmingly white — minority who will lose any hope of holding power, and suffer a catastrophic loss of status, unless extraordinary measures are taken to defeat a sprawling threat to their way of life. This threat comes from almost all major institutions, with the exception of church and military.

It includes — they believe — an activist government opening the borders to immigrants, Black Lives Matter militants destroying property and intimidating police, a secretive deep state that undermines conservative candidacies, “woke” corporations practicing political correctness, big tech companies tilting the platform against them, a hostile education system with its alien-to-us universities, an entertainment culture at odds with traditional values, and the master villain in the scheme, the mainsteam media, holding it all together with its vastly unequal treatment of liberals and conservatives.

These are dark forces that cannot be overcome by running good candidates, turning out voters, and winning the battle of ideas. Which, again, is what I mean by counter-majoritarian. Something stronger is required. Like the attack on the Capitol, January 6, 2021. Stronger measures include making stuff up about election fraud, about responsibilty for the attack on the Capitol, about the safety of vaccines— to name just three.

A counter-majoritarian GOP thus implies and requires a counter-factual party discourse, committed to pushing conspiracy theories and other strategic falsehoods that portray the minority as justified in taking extreme measures.

The conflict with journalism and its imperative of verification is structural, meaning: what holds the party together requires a permanent state of war with the press, because what holds the party together can never pass a simple fact check. This is a stage beyond working the refs and calling out liberal bias.

Basic to what the Republican Party stands for is freedom from fact. For that to prevail, journalism must fail.

There is nothing in the playbook — or in Playbook — about that.

(See: Why Being ‘Anti-Media’ Is Now Part Of The GOP Identity.)

3. Sunlight disinfects. Sunlight also makes things grow. (Link.)

Familiar with this conversation?

Don’t give them a platform!

I hear you! But sometimes I have to tell people what’s going on!

You’re spreading their propaganda for them.

It’s already spread and having real world effects.

Well, it wouldn’t spread if you denied them a platform.

Gatekeepers don’t have that kind of power any more.

They might if they worked together!

That just drives it underground and it gets even worse!

Like others who have studied this problem, I have come to realize that there is no right answer here, only better and worse decisions. You can show good judgment, but you cannot solve it.

One thing is clear, however. “Newsworthiness” is a big fat dodge, or as Charlie Warzel put it, “a choice masquerading as an inevitability.” If you decide to give air time to a U.S. Senator sporting a strategic falsehood like “election integrity,” you need a far better reason than it’s an issue in the news. Almost every act of disinformation Donald Trump ever committed was in one way or another “newsworthy” by previous standards. Were all these acts worth amplifying? They were not. So what standard replaces the “newsworthy” standard? We don’t know.

If there’s no right answer — other than to drop the newsworthy dodge — then we can still find better ways to make these calls. Here’s scholar Nicole Hemmer trying to do just that:

Part of the solution has to be cutting the cord with Fox News and its fringier cousins. That doesn’t mean ignoring it all together — I’ve recently argued that we have to pay attention to people like Tucker Carlson, who uses his show to spread hate — but scaling back the overall coverage of right-wing stories. When outlets do tackle something like Carlson’s use of “great replacement theory,” they should do so in deeply contextualized ways, so the story is less about what Carlson said last night, and more about the ways unfounded xenophobic and racist talking points get woven into his prime-time show.

“Ignore the shiniest, least reality-based objects” she writes, “and deeply contextualize the rest.” It’s a start, but not a solution.

4. Diversify your pressthink.

This is from my post, Battleship Newspaper, published last year.

Many decades ago, the leadership class in big league journalism accepted the argument that racial integration had to come to their newsrooms, or the journalism would suffer. Or at least, this is what they said to themselves. But what they also said (without quite realizing it) is: We can have all that, a more diverse and multi-colored newsroom, and maintain the view from nowhere. They never faced up to the contradiction: minority journalists who are supposed to simultaneously supply a missing perspective and suppress that perspective in order to establish their objectivity

There is more pressure than ever to integrate the American newsroom. That you can do that and keep your pressthink the same is still commonly believed. That’s a problem.

If you’re worried that journalists have learned nothing from the Trump years.

This post is for you. But instead of confirming your impressions, I bring news of a contrary kind.

21 Mar 2021 6:47 pm 18 Comments

Even after all that has happened from the escalator to the insurrection, you’re worried that the American press has learned nothing from the Trump years. You’re seeing it fall into old patterns. Your frustration is rising, your patience thinning.

This post is for you. But instead of confirming these impressions — for which, I admit, there is ample evidence — I bring news of a contrary kind: Four or five developments that are… encouraging, in that they suggest that some journalists understand what has to be different: after the Trump presidency, after the Stop the Steal movement, after the riot at the U.S. Capitol, after the Republican Party committed to making it harder to vote.

We can lose this thing

Thirteen days after the 2020 election I published, “Two paths forward for the American press.” One path, I said, was “a restoration of order as a more normal president takes office.” This was (and it remains) the most likely course. The other possible path was to extend what I called “a democratic breakthrough in journalism.”

The breakthrough happened during the tense days after November 3, when an autocratic leader, Donald Trump, tried to reverse the results of a free and fair election. His attempt was defeated, in part by journalists who made it clear that he had no case. His claims of election fraud were themselves fraudulent.

In my view this was a shattering experience for the American press— shattering in a good way. No refuge in false equivalence, no retreat into “both sides” reasoning, no fantasies of remaining neutral in the fight could withstand the experience of reporting on Trump’s furious battle to retain power after losing the 2020 election. Journalists came face to face with an attempt to subvert democracy, led by the president of the United States. Instantly every bromide they had ever uttered about the role of a free press in a healthy democracy turned frighteningly real.

What lasting effects there will be on journalism’s political imaginary we do not yet know. But I know what they should be: We can lose this thing if we don’t learn how to defend it. That’s the attitude the press ought to have toward American democracy. Since the election, I have tried to keep watch for any sign that journalists understand this. Here and there I find them. And that’s what this post is about. Signs of a shift in thinking that could spread to more people in journalism. Ready to hear about them?

WITF says it will not forget those votes to overturn a free and fair election.

WITF.org is the public broadcaster in the Harrisburg region of central Pennsylvania. On January 28 the company explained its policy toward those in public office who spread the election fraud lie and encouraged the January 6 insurrection. WITF’s policy is not to forget these facts:

Eight Pennsylvania congressmen supported Trump’s lies about election fraud and irregularities as he attempted to illegally retain power. Those lies led many to believe the election was stolen from Trump. After the insurrection at the Capitol to try to overthrow the U.S. electoral system, those eight lawmakers voted to nullify Pennsylvania’s election results.

The journalists at WITF further declared that they intended to contextualize future actions by these officals with reminders about their fateful moves in the period between the 2020 election and the inauguration of Joe Biden. They gave this example of what they had in mind:

“Sen. (name), who signed a letter asking members of Congress to delay certifying Pennsylvania’s electoral votes despite no evidence that would call those results into question, today introduced a bill…”

They didn’t use the phrase, “never forget!” but that is what their decision amounts to. In explaining it, they made these points:

  • They expressed their shock that “elected leaders, who took an oath to uphold the laws of the United States, would actively work to overturn an election that county, state and federal judges and public officials of both political parties, and election experts, concluded was free and fair.”
  • “The constant drumbeat of falsehoods that the election was stolen came to a head on Jan. 6 with a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol… The attack’s purpose was to ignore the will of the people, throw out their votes and allow former President Trump to remain in power. If it had succeeded, democracy would have failed.”
  • “All the false claims about Pennsylvania’s results were attacks on the truth. On democracy. On the work of dozens of journalists at WITF and across the state, who were doing on-the-ground reporting and talking with the county-level leaders who ran elections.”
  • “We understand this may be an unusual decision for a news organization to make. But, these are not normal times. As disinformation and misinformation take more and more of a foothold in our social media feeds and dinner-table discussions, it is important for our journalists to adapt, as transparently as possible, to bring you the facts and not memory-hole the damage done to our democracy in the last three months.”

Events like Stop the Steal and the January 6 insurrection were different, they said. Not normal politics, but an “unprecedented assault.”

Our approach is based in fact and provides the proper context to the decisions made by Republican elected officials in the commonwealth.

This wasn’t a policy disagreement over taxes, abortion, or government spending.

This wasn’t lawmakers spinning an issue in their favor.

This was either knowingly spreading disinformation or outright lying by elected officials to overturn an election in an attempt to keep former President Trump in office.

This was an unprecedented assault on the fabric of American democracy.

Confronted with a novel situation — a attempt to “overthrow the U.S. electoral system” — they decided to do what they could within the existing code of conduct for public service journalism, which includes holding elected officials accountable, contextualizing current events, insisting on the primacy of verifiable facts, and serving as one of the guardrails of democracy.

“Within the existing code” is important, because it means that any other newsroom sharing these values could make a similar call without rewriting the playbook. Their message: rather than new commitments, we need to intensify the ones we already have. (For more detail on WITF’s efforts at countering the Big Lie, see this second post I published today.)

The Cleveland Plain Dealer refuses to amplify a candidate’s baseless claims

On March 13, the Plain Dealer (and cleveland.com) published a letter from the editor that was headlined by a question: “When candidates make reckless statements just to get attention, should they get attention?”

Good question!

The occasion for asking that was a statement from Josh Mandel, a candidate for the United States Senate in Ohio who lost to incumbent Sherrod Brown in 2012. He plans to run again for retiring Senator Rob Portman’s seat in 2022. Citing no scientific evidence, and ignoring the advice of public health authorities, Mandel essentially declared the COVID-19 pandemic over, and demanded that Ohio Governor Mike DeWine lift all restrictions.

Chris Quinn, the editor of the Plain Dealer, explained to readers that Mandel “has a history of not telling the truth when he campaigns,” and a pattern of making “irresponsible and potentially dangerous statements on social media.”

The Plain Dealer could have done a “he said, she said” story with dueling quotes from Mandel and DeWine, said Quinn. It could have published another “analysis” piece explaining that Mandel’s motivation for making this reckless statement was simply to win the endorsement of Donald Trump. Both would have been normal journalism. Instead…

We ultimately decided not to write about Mandel’s call for DeWine to lift his coronavirus restrictions. Mandel is pretty much a nobody right now, a nobody begging for people to notice his Tweets a year ahead of the Senate primary. Just because he makes outrageous, dangerous statements doesn’t mean it is news.

So desperate for media attention is Josh Mandel that he actually challenged a columnist for the Plain Dealer to a debate about COVID restrictions. The columnist was willing, but Quinn said no. “We do not knowingly publish ridiculous and idiotic claims. Mandel did not want to have a debate with our columnist as much as he wanted to use our platform to get attention with demonstrably false claims about the virus.”

You can’t use our platform to get attention for your lurid falsehoods. Just because you said it doesn’t make it news. We don’t knowingly publish ridiculous claims. A history of floating misleading and outrageous charges should — and will — count against you.

Imagine if these principles became normal behavior in the press. That would be real progress. Which may be why Quinn’s letter to readers made news in the Washington Post. The headline, “A newspaper has a novel strategy for covering one politician’s falsehoods: Don’t.”

But why this should this be novel?

ProPublica carves out a democracy beat while VoteBeat tries to educate the press.

“Democracy Reporter” reads the headline on this job posting from ProPublica.org. To me that’s a sign of… We can lose this thing if we don’t learn how to defend it.

The stated mission of ProPublica, a non-profit newsroom supported by grants and donations, is “to expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business, and other institutions, using the moral force of investigative journalism to spur reform through the sustained spotlighting of wrongdoing.” Thus:

ProPublica is hiring a reporter to investigate efforts to undermine the power of the ballot and American democracy itself. Such threats can come in many forms, including gerrymandering, limits on voting, and violence. We’re looking for a reporter to help anchor our work producing revelatory journalism that equals the critical importance of the issue.

The “threats to democracy” beat will be busy terrain in 2021 and 2022, especially as the Republican Party tries to make it harder to vote— an agenda that is itself an undisguised threat to democracy.

Instead of waiting for the next mid-term elections to heat up, a new non-profit, Votebeat.org, is trying to build capacity within the American press to face this agenda head-on. It raises money for, and shares expertise with, other non-profit newsrooms so that they can add reporters dedicated exclusively to the voting beat.

I asked Jessica Huseman, Votebeat’s editorial director, to describe how this kind of beat-based, capacity-building project operates:

Votebeat strives to make all of elections coverage better— whether that’s through placing reporters in states to report on poorly covered issues, helping fund staff positions in existing newsrooms so they can expand their coverage, or sharing free tools and data with local papers, radio programs and TV news… Voting is a difficult thing to cover that requires lots of time and expertise, so if we can shoulder some of that burden we believe we can really make an impact. There are literally hundreds of voting bills being considered across the country, and redistricting is about to begin in haste. Other collaborative projects won’t start until 2022, when the midterms will get started, but they’ll miss this crucial year of planning and decision making. We don’t think we can wait.

What impresses me about Votebeat is how it takes a live threat to American democracy — laws and restrictions making it harder to vote — and tries to improve the journalism that exposes that threat, not in one place but for many sites simultaneously. That’s a sign that we’re getting smarter about capacity-building in journalism. With Votebeat, intellectual capital and financial subsidy merge into one. This too is progress.

Mehdi Hasan: “I plan to use my platforms on Peacock and MSNBC to highlight the attacks on democracy.”

“Journalists should have a bias. A bias towards democracy.” That’s what Mehdi Hasan said recently on his show that airs nightly on Peacock, NBC’s new streaming network.

That journalists should have a bias is not something you hear very often from people who have their own shows on American news networks. So I asked Mehdi Hasan to elaborate on that idea. Here is our exchange:

What does a “bias toward democracy” mean to you? What sorts of things are involved in that? Beyond “three cheers for democracy!” and “democracy is great!” what does it require of you?

A “bias towards democracy” for me means: 1.) acknowledging and documenting how American democracy is under attack and not pretending there is anything normal or unremarkable about our current predicament, and 2.) recognizing that journalists are not bystanders in all this. We are not neutral chroniclers of this descent into authoritarianism.

A “bias towards democracy” has to trump the old “view from nowhere” theory of journalism. We are very much *somewhere*— ensconced within a constitutional democracy, operating with the protection of the First Amendment. So we have skin in the game. For journalism to survive, democracy must survive – the two need each other.

You said, “As voter suppression laws proliferate, here’s my ‘mission statement’…” As you know, attempts to make it harder to vote are moving through state legislatures now. What will be the mission of your show on this subject? Are you simply saying, “we’re going to cover it and keep covering it,” or are you saying something a bit more than that?

I am saying we are going to cover it and keep covering it, for a start. And I would not be dismissive of such a starting point, given that lawyer Marc Elias has rightly referred to it as an “under reported story right now” that “the media is unequipped to cover this in clear moral terms.” I plan to use my platforms on Peacock and MSNBC to highlight the attacks on democracy and voting rights at a federal, state, and local level. But it is not enough to only “cover” the voter suppression story. I want us as a media to prioritize it, in terms of our resources, guesting, news agendas, and to also help our viewers, listeners, and readers to join the dots (racism! authoritarianism! minority rule!).

Journalists should have a bias toward democracy, you said. I agree with you on that. Toward what other things should journalists have a bias?

Above all else, a bias towards reality, without which democracy cannot endure. There are not two sides to climate change, or Covid, or election results. As one of our two major political parties continues to retreat from reality, it is the job of journalists to cling to reality, not some imaginary mid-point between the two parties.

Conclusion:

WITF says it will not forget who backed the Big Lie, or those votes to overturn a free and fair election. The Cleveland Plain Dealer refuses to amplify a candidate’s baseless charges. (“We don’t knowingly publish ridiculous claims.”) ProPublica carves out a democracy beat. VoteBeat tries to make the press as a whole smarter about voter suppression. Meanwhile, Mehdi Hasan says on air: “Journalists should have a bias. A bias towards democracy.”

My point in highlighting these small signs is not to suggest that a wave of reform has suddenly struck American journalism. It has not. But make a note of this: No wave of protest forced the journalists at WITF to back down. (“The public reaction has been overwhelmingly positive,” they told me.) Chris Quinn of the Plain Dealer didn’t hear from his corporate bosses that he really ought to be fairer to the demagogue Josh Mandel. Mehdi Hasan is on TV every night, even after proclaiming his pro-democracy bias.

They have learned from the Trump years. Others could start to follow them. No, I’m not predicting it. But I’m not ready to say it could never happen, either.

For by committing to the Big Lie — and its derivative, making it harder to vote — the Republican Party has, in effect, withdrawn from the unspoken deal it had with mainstream journalism in the United States. The deal said: just don’t embarrass us and we’ll both sides everything. With Stop the Steal, the Big Lie about voter fraud, and, now, a national campaign to make voting harder, the GOP has broken faith with a form that gave it huge advantages: both sides journalism.

The consequences of that act are unpredictable.

Tim Lambert and Scott Blanchard of WITF.org explain why they decided to repeatedly connect local lawmakers to their election-fraud actions

"What was being said by the president, his supporters and his media backers did not square with what our own journalists were seeing on the ground."

21 Mar 2021 6:13 pm Comments Off on Tim Lambert and Scott Blanchard of WITF.org explain why they decided to repeatedly connect local lawmakers to their election-fraud actions

WITF.org is the public broadcaster in the Harrisburg region of central Pennsylvania. On January 28 the newsroom explained a new policy toward those in public office who spread the election fraud lie and encouraged the January 6 insurrection. The journalists at WITF declared that they intended to contextualize future actions by these officals with reminders about their fateful moves in the period between the 2020 election and the inauguration of Joe Biden.

I wrote about the bold actions of WITF in a post that described similar efforts by other newsrooms. See: If you’re worried that journalists have learned nothing from the Trump years. But I couldn’t include in that post everything of note in WITF’s decision-making, so I asked the authors of the January 28 piece a series of questions about the logic of their decision, and what has happened since. Here are their answers. Tim Lambert is the news director and “Morning Edition” host at WITF. Scott Blanchard is an editor in the WITF newsroom. They work closely together.

What we did:

Scott: We created language to use in stories on air and online that would make note of Pa. elected officials who took one of four actions: Signed on to the Texas lawsuit seeking to invalidate Pa.’s presidential vote; signed a letter to Pa. congressional reps asking them to vote against certifying Pa.’s electoral votes; signed a letter asking those reps to delay certifying the state’s electoral votes; and/or voted against certifying the electoral votes on Jan. 6 (actually early morning Jan. 7).

Tim: This builds off our approach ahead of the election reminding our listeners/readers that the vote totals on election night will not be the final results. We tried to be proactive ahead of the election. We simply did not expect the disinformation/misinformation about fraud to spread as widely as it did.

Scott: We did it because we wanted to connect the dots between Trump’s election-fraud lie that began during the summer, actions in support of that lie, and the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The lie and its connection to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol has been documented by national reporting, by evidence presented during the impeachment trial, and by multiple public statements from public officials of both political parties (most recently by ex-DOD head Chris Miller); and that information is being corroborated by allegations contained in charging documents against some of the Capitol attackers.

Tim: What was being said by the president, his supporters and his media backers did not square with what our own journalists (who live in these communities) were seeing on the ground in terms of alleged fraud. It just wasn’t there. We read the lawsuits and the language didn’t square with our reporting.

Scott: We wanted to do what we could to amplify the connection, hoping knowledge can sap the power of that lie — still believed, even now, by so many. We also believe it’s important to publicly underscore how different this was from standard political spin or messaging or debate. We saw an attempt to keep a defeated president in power by physical violence. The roots of that effort grew from the “rigged election” claim, which was cultivated for months. This was not the same thing as a policy debate over immigration, for example.

Tim: There is no comparison in recent political history on such a massive disinformation campaign and how it was embraced not only by the base of his supporters, but by elected and appointed leaders at all levels of government – who used social media platforms to reinforce the lie on a daily, if not hourly basis.

Scott: As part of the transparency plank of this effort (see below re: Trusting News), we tried to lay all that out in the two stories that posted Jan. 28.

Reactions, threats, other developments:

Scott: The public reaction has been overwhelmingly positive on social media in particular. People have thanked us for standing up for the facts, and some have said they wish other news orgs would do something like this too. People have said they’re proud of us. That’s heartening.

Tim: Some said they made an extra donation as a result. We have received national mentions as well.

Scott: We’ve had a few negative responses. The biggest is that we are showing our bias, by choosing sides. Most cite Fox News talking points and continually moved the goal posts: Nancy Pelosi’s haircut, for example, or the “Russia hoax,” or, ‘”Why didn’t you do this when Democrats objected to Trump’s certification?” (The latter was anticipated & answered here.) Some have criticized us as much for saying we were doing it as for doing it. But we’ve been involved with the Trusting News effort for several years, and transparency is a big part of that. It would have been unnatural for us to just start dropping this language into stories without explaining to people what we were doing and why, and inviting them to talk to us about it.

Tim: Some say they will never donate to WITF (We checked… they never have).

Scott: One man, a two-time Trump voter who described himself as “not a kraken believer or a Trump worshiper,” wrote that by taking a stand like this, we were “maintaining the same narrative that we heard before and after the election. It needs to change or you will never reach us.” Tim and I set up a call and talked with him for 45 minutes to an hour. We mostly listened. And we talked about the facts that led us to make the decision we made.

We hope and plan to continue that type of effort. For example, we’ll be participating in a Trusting News effort to find out more about what political conservatives think about local news (as opposed to ‘the media.’) We’re also connected with America Talks.

Tim: We haven’t experienced any threats – except some people said they’d fight to cut off our national/state/individual funding.

Scott: The most significant developments are probably a couple things about the actual use of the language:

* We initially envisioned working the language into the bodies of stories, even stories that did not have anything to do with the election, election law, etc. For example, “State Sen. XX, who signed a letter asking members of Congress to delay certifying Pennsylvania’s electoral votes despite no evidence that would call those results into question, questioned the health department’s request for a budget increase.” But shortly after we debuted the language, as we discussed it with reporters, we realized that wasn’t the best way to present it. So, for air, we moved the language out of the story and into a host tag, read after the story ends; for digital, we developed text boxes that now run with each story in which a lawmaker is mentioned. (Example of what it looks like.)

* We used the language in one story about a proposed sex abuse survivors’ rights amendment. One of the lawmakers quoted was a victim of sexual abuse; he was also one of the politicians who contributed to the election-fraud lie. We used the language. He objected, saying that it was triggering for him to see that language in a story related to trauma he had survived. We strive to be a trauma-aware newsroom, so we decided to take out the language and explain we wouldn’t use it in this very specific circumstance. Sam Dunklau, our state Capitol reporter, connected with the lawmaker later about this.

* That lawmaker is the only one who has responded to our use of the language, that we are aware of. But Sam did pursue a story about GOP legislators’ post-election actions, and talked to two for this story. You can see how we modified the language based on the two different responses from the lawmakers.

What internal discussions preceded the Jan. 28 post?

* Tim and I discussed this frequently with each other and with our boss, Cara Williams Fry, WITF’s senior VP & chief content officer, as well as a small group of managers who meet regularly to discuss and challenge protocols — the way we’ve always done things. We vetted the draft of our work with Trusting News’ Lynn Walsh, who was very insightful and helpful in what we produced and how we rolled it out, and with NPR’s public editor Kelly McBride. Tim bounced it off some of his colleagues from other media organizations as well. We had a meeting with news staff and Lynn; we had distributed the draft before the meeting and asked people to come with questions, thoughts, etc. The staff was supportive, appreciative and welcoming of the effort, and helped us fine-tune what you saw online in January. It’s important to note that this didn’t come out of the blue here. We have regular discussions around fact-checking and truth-telling, and this effort evolved out of that culture.

* One of the key things in those discussions was something Tim and I thought of & talked about a lot: By doing this, can we no longer say we’re independent journalists — a point of pride for everyone at WITF? Are we taking a political side? I’ve been active in ethics and credibility issues during my career, and this is certainly unlike anything I’ve ever been involved in. But we kept coming back to connecting the dots and to the ultimate result of the election-fraud lie: An attack on the legitimacy of U.S. elections and the government itself. There is nothing comparable. Political party is irrelevant. The actions and facts are what mattered. This was a concerted effort to convince a significant portion of America that the election was stolen. We believe we’re doing the right thing.

Editor’s note: here’s an example of a text box WITF used online to explain to readers and listeners why they are contining to connect local office-holders to their actions during the insurrection. The original is here.