So I will try to explain why the Trump candidacy has been so confounding to our political press.

Those "laws of political gravity?" They were never really laws.

29 Nov 2015 8:05 pm 80 Comments

From a week ago on Twitter:

Not quite, Ben.

I was not a fan of the way the political press used its gatekeeping powers when they were more robust. I felt that political journalism had lost its way. Still do. But I never called for, or looked forward to a system in which journalists and journalism ceased to matter. A public service press is one way we can hold power to account. It helps prevent lying from being raised to a universal principle in politics. That is important work. We need to figure out how it can continue.

Now to Ben Smith’s point — media gatekeepers don’t have that kind of muscle any more — add these observations:

Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post:

There was almost always a line that wasn’t crossed in years past, a sort of even-partisans-can-agree-on-this standard. Now, in large part because of Donald Trump’s candidacy, that line has been smudged out of existence. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous quote that “you are entitled to your own opinion … but you are not entitled to your own facts” is no longer operative in this campaign.

Howard Kurtz, Fox News:

The media refs are really savaging him after a couple of misstatements and missteps, even as they struggle to understand why he pays no penalty when they blow the whistle. What they don’t quite grasp is that their attacks only make him stronger. This is not to let him off the hook for mistakes, just to recognize that Trump has completely rewritten the rule book, infuriating those who thought they enforced the rules.

Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone:

Until recently, the narrative of stories like this has been predictable. If a candidate said something nuts, or seemingly not true, an army of humorless journalists quickly dug up all the facts, and the candidate ultimately was either vindicated, apologized, or suffered terrible agonies… That dynamic has broken down this election season. Politicians are quickly learning that they can say just about anything and get away with it. Along with vindication, apology and suffering, there now exists a fourth way forward for the politician spewing whoppers: Blame the backlash on media bias and walk away a hero.

NBC reporter Katy Tur (Via Greg Sargent.)

I spoke to a lot of his supporters who are waiting to come into this rally. And I asked them what they think of Donald Trump and whether or not they’re bothered by his inaccurate statements and whether they think they matter. And not a single one of them said that they thought it mattered. They said they like him because they think he’s going to be a strong leader, and they think he’s going to bring the change to Washington that they want. In fact, they blame the liberal media, as they say, on perpetrating lies against Donald Trump. They repeatedly asked, why don’t you ask this about Hillary Clinton, why don’t you ask this about President Obama? So there’s definitely a party line feeling among his supporters, that it is us-versus-them. And unfortunately, the media is very much the ‘them’ in this situation.

How should we interpret all this? Let me try my hand.

1. “The laws of political gravity” were never laws.

To an extent unrealized before this year, the role of the press in presidential campaigns relied on shared assumptions within the political class and election industry about what the rules were and what the penalty would be for violating them. This was the basis for familiar rituals like “the gaffe,” which in turn relied on assumptions about how a third party, the voters, would react once they found out about the violation. These assumptions were rarely tested because the risk seemed too high, and because risk-averse professionals — strategists, they’re called — were in charge of the campaigns.

The whole system rested on shared beliefs about what would happen if candidates went beyond the system as it stood cycle to cycle. Those beliefs have now collapsed because Trump “tested” and violated most of them— and he is still leading in the polls. (Rob Ford in Canada was there before Trump.) There has been a cascading effect as conventions that depended on one another give way. The political press is pretty stunned by these developments. It keeps asking: when will the “laws of political gravity” be restored? Or have they simply vanished?

“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,” wrote the Washington Post’s Dan Balz back in July. (Other uses of that phrase here, here and here.) But what the press describes as “laws” were never really that. They were at best conventions among the political class, in which I include most Washington journalists— though they would not include themselves.

2. Isomorphism for the win!

“Institutional isomorphism,” a phrase only an academic could love, is the title of a famous paper in sociology (DiMaggio and Powell, 1983) that sought to explain why different institutions in the same field tend to resemble each other, even as they struggle to compete and to “win.” The authors observe that “organizations tend to model themselves after similar organizations that they perceive to be more legitimate or successful.” It’s not a coincidence. There are structural forces at work that appear again and again across vastly different industries and fields.

For example, if a firm is competing for talent it will want to offer the same kind of stage for talent to display itself. Meanwhile, the talent knows that if it cannot mesh well with competing firms it has no leverage over its current one. When Jeff Zeleny, a political reporter for ABC News, moved to CNN this year (to do the same thing he did at ABC) he did not have to assimilate a new view of politics or a different definition of the journalist’s role. Isomorphism had already taken care of that. No one thinks this the least bit remarkable.

Similarly, when in 2009 CNN created ‘State of the Union’ to compete with the likes of ‘Meet the Press’ and ‘Face the Nation,’ it simply copied those shows in almost every detail. Again, no one thinks that’s weird. It’s just what you do in TV news.

Highly structured organizational fields [presidential campaigns would qualify as one, but so would large news organizations] provide a context in which individual efforts to deal rationally with uncertainty and constraint often lead in the aggregate to homogeneity in structure, culture and output.

In other words, the more they try to compete at one level the more similar they become at all the others. (True for universities too.) But notice: Trump is not an institution. trumpairHe is really his own campaign manager, spokesman and chief strategist, which means that the chief strategist of the Trump campaign — Trump — doesn’t care if he ever gets hired by another campaign. Poof! There goes one of the little structural forces that tend toward isomorphism. Multiply by 100 and you have pundits asking: have the laws of political gravity been repealed?

3. Weak sense of purpose.

DiMaggio and Powell note that isomorphism is especially likely in institutions with ambiguous or unclear goals. That describes the teams of reporters, editors and producers who create most of the campaign coverage we see.

In May of this year I attended a two-day conference in Chicago for journalists covering the 2016 campaign. Among the panelists were established stars like Chuck Todd of NBC and Mark Halperin of Bloomberg, along with the chairs and communications directors of the two major parties. In the audience were young journalists assigned to election coverage from news organizations around the country. One of the striking things about the event (for me) was the complete vacuum of discussion around the ultimate aims of campaign coverage. No one even thought to ask: what are we trying to accomplish here? What’s the goal of our coverage in 2016? Everyone already knew the answer: We’re here to cover the campaign! To find great stories that readers will love! To be savvy analysts of what’s likely to happen. There’s a circularity to these answers that doesn’t register among the people working inside the circle.

Why does this matter? First, because it leads to a homogeneity in coverage that isn’t chosen but automatic. Second, another way to ask about ultimate goals is to put the question in a more threatening form: what’s your agenda in covering the campaign? To that question the political journalists at NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, PBS, NPR, New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Politico, Time magazine would all return the same non-answer. No agenda, just solid coverage. “We report, you decide.” (Fox News.) “The Only Side We Choose is Yours.” (CNN.)

In founding FNC, Roger Ailes understood the isomorphic factor and decided to ape the conventions of TV news, while shifting the product to appeal to an under-served market and thereby become a force in Republican politics. One of the conventions he aped is to keep silent on questions of purpose. Into that vacuum flow accusations of bias, which is fine with Ailes. (“I’ll tell you what your agenda is!”) That flow has now become a raging torrent, eroding trust, coarsening dialogue, fortifying bad habits like false balance, and acting as a wedge issue in the media sphere.

4.) Strong sense of purpose.

For a good contrast with punting on questions of purpose I offer you Univision and its lead anchor Jorge Ramos, who knows what he’s for and which public he represents.

“The Republican Party has been complaining lately about how some Latino journalists, including me, only ask them about immigration,” he said. “That is correct, but what Republicans don’t understand is that for us, the immigration issue is the most pressing symbolically and emotionally, and the stance a politician takes on this defines whether he is with us or against us.”jorgeramos

Ramos, who is one of the most trusted public figures among American Latinos, according to polls, has been an outspoken supporter of federal legislation that would pave a path to citizenship for those living in the country illegally.

He has pressed candidates from both parties on the issue. In the 2012 campaign, he hammered President Obama, who had promised but failed to deliver an immigration bill during his first term. More recently, he has criticized Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, who as a senator from Florida helped write an immigration reform bill but dropped support for it after it drew conservative anger.

“Both parties now view him with trepidation,” said the New York Times in January. The example of Ramos shows that knowing what you’re for doesn’t have to mean joining the team or taking a party line. It’s possible to maintain your independence, win trust with your audience, and gain a clear sense of purpose when you’re out on the campaign trail. But you have to break with the pack.

And as I have written before there is a difference — a crucial difference — between doing politics and doing journalism:

If your job is to make the case, win the negotiations, decide what the community should do, or maintain morale, that is one kind of work. If your job is to tell people what’s going on, and equip them to participate without illusions, that is a very different kind of work. To put it a little more sharply, power-seeking and truth-seeking are different behaviors, and this is what creates the distinction between politics and journalism. The work of the journalist cannot be done without a commitment to the act of reporting, which means gathering information, talking to people who know, trying to verify and clarify what actually happened and to portray the range of views as they emerge from events.

A primary commitment to reporting therefore distinguishes the work of the journalist. Declining to express a view does not. Refusing to vote does not. Pretending to be ideology-free or “objective” on everything does not. Getting attacked from both sides? Nope.

Of course, everyone can’t be Jorge Ramos or take up the Latinos-in-America cause. That works for Univision and its English-language brand, Fusion. What would work for the mainstream media, as it is still called in the U.S.? Well, I don’t know. I tried to answer that question in 2010, and I think there may be some value in the approach I described there.

Probably the best thing that the major news organizations could do at this point is differentiate: that is, go right at the isomorphism. Try different approaches to untangling the mobius strip of Trump coverage, in which he attacks the news media, dominates its coverage, withstands its “checking” powers, astonishes its pundits, and feeds off the furor that all this creates. One thing I know. Tossing around terms like “post-truth” and then moving briskly on to other news — such as you see here — is not the sign of a serious press.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links

Photo credit: Donald Trump Boeing 727 by Andrew Cohen. Creative Commons license.

Disclosure: As reported by the Huffington Post, in 2016 my students and I will be collaborating with on different ways to do election journalism.

“Will Trump eventually cross a line — or do the lines no longer exist?” (Karen Tumulty, Washington Post, Nov. 25) That is another way to put the “laws of political gravity” question.

Outstanding treatment of this whole problem from David Roberts at Vox, reacting in part to this post.

What’s happened from (roughly) Gingrich forward is that the right has used coordinated institutional power and the explosion of new communications technology to sap the media’s power to do damage. This has been done in two ways. First is the unceasing attack on “liberal media bias,” which has left journalists terrified of passing judgment on any matter of controversy. And second is the development of a parallel intellectual infrastructure, a network of partisan think tanks, advocacy organizations, and media outlets that provide a kind of full-spectrum alternative to the mainstream.

Good point: “It’s difficult for journalists to successfully call politicians on their incorrect or misleading claims in the absence of political opponents who are doing the same.” Political scientist David A. Hopkins responds to this post.

Sharp analysis from New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait about what would happen to journalists in the so-called “mainstream” media if Trump wins the nomination. Currently, Chait writes, Trump “is the subject of withering attacks from many conservative commentators. This, in turn, frees up the mainstream media to assess Trump’s lies in fairly blunt terms. Rigorously down-the-middle reporters can call Trump a liar without fear of jeopardizing their nonpartisan credibility because they are echoing arguments made by many Republicans.” But if Trump becomes the nominee:

Conservatives who insisted during the primary they could never support him would see in their nominee a different, more sober and thoughtful figure than the demagogue they had lambasted months before. And because Republicans would now be rallying around him, Trump would enjoy far more latitude for his wild claims. Fear of partisan bias would then dissuade the media from labeling Trump’s lies as lies.

This is such an important point, from Maggie Haberman and Patrick Healy of the New York Times, who analyzed everything Trump said for a week:

Trump uses rhetoric to erode people’s trust in facts, numbers, nuance, government and the news media, according to specialists in political rhetoric. “Nobody knows,” he likes to declare, where illegal immigrants are coming from or the rate of increase of health care premiums under the Affordable Care Act, even though government agencies collect and publish this information. He insists that Mr. Obama wants to accept 250,000 Syrian migrants, even though no such plan exists…

Right. Trump’s rhetoric erodes people’s trust in the news media and in facts themselves, which is one reason his ubiquity in the news media is so perplexing.

Donald Trump May Not Be a Fascist, But He is Leading Us Merrily Down That Path by David Neiwert is a careful and detailed examination by a writer who knows what he’s talking about.

From Jonathan Stray, It’s not you: political journalism really is broken:

“Think for a minute what you could do about ____ that isn’t reading political news, then think if the political news you are reading helps you do that.”

Ben Smith (now editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed, formerly a political reporter) responds:

Well, I’m not sure what I said in this post that is contingent on Trump doing well, Ben.

Dec. 8: Ben Smith sends a note to Buzzfeed staff:

Trump is operating far outside the political campaigns to which [our] guidelines usually apply.

It is, for instance, entirely fair to call him a mendacious racist, as the politics team and others here have reported clearly and aggressively: He’s out there saying things that are false, and running an overtly anti-Muslim campaign. Buzzfeed News’s reporting is rooted in facts, not opinion; these are facts.

PressThink, four years ago:

The lines are usually attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “You’re entitled to your own opinions. You’re not entitled to your own facts.”

But suppose there arose on the political scene a practical caucus for the opposite view. We are entitled to our own facts, and we will show you what we think of your attempt to “check” us. If that happened, would the press know what to do?

“Here’s what those of us trapped inside the gilded New York-Washington brain cage miss: Trump may not be telling the truth, but he’s sure as hell telling their truth. This allows him to shatter most conventions of presidential campaigning, especially the notion that you have to run a positive campaign (or at least outsource your vitriol to surrogates) in order to win.” —Glenn Thrush, Politico. (My italics.)

Responding to this post, Dan Kennedy says we should all calm down:

Trump is not winning, and he’s not going to win. Members of the political press may wring their hands over their inability to convince Trump’s supporters that his lies, his outrageous statements, and even his flirtation with fascism should disqualify him from the presidency. But the overwhelming majority of the public wants nothing to do with Trump.

I think it’s helpful to see Trump as akin to an independent supplier of programming to the big media companies. His candidacy for president is like a hit show, also called “Trump,” that performs better than the product made by the media company’s own people. That’s why he has barely has to spend anything on ads. That’s why he gets to call in to 4 out of 5 Sunday shows. Now add in the fact that in horse race journalism — or “who’s ahead?” coverage — the instructions start with: first establish a frontrunner…. The polls say that must be Trump. Put the two together: hit show, horse race, frontrunner. It’s doubtful the political press can think its way out of that box.

In a lighter vein, the way Jake Tapper says “Seriously?” to a Trump spokesperson in this clip is one of the highlights of the 2016 campaign. Click the clip; it won’t take long.

Interesting observation from Nate Silver.


Important and much-needed analysis here by Jay Rosen.

Richard Aubrey says:

Somebody decided that an issue with the plural of a vegetable should forever epitomize Dan Quayle.

Somebody decided that Gerry Ford, a star football player for U-Mich when the starters played both ways, and a carrier pilot, not to mention a grad of a good law school, was a clumsy oaf after one stumble.

If the powers who did that sort of thing no longer have the power, that’s a good thing.

Gerald Ford was a Naval officer in World War II, serving on a ship in the Pacific, but was never a pilot. You may be confusing his background with that of President George H. W. Bush, who was a Navy carrier pilot and who was shot down by the Japanese during the war.

Because being in the Navy and star football player equate to being good as a prominent public figure? As an officer in the Navy, I have met several like this who wouldn’t last a day in office. You sound suspiciously like a Trump supporter.

Richard Aubrey says:

Rich M. You make my point. By missing it. Ford was made out to be a clumsy oaf–on the physical side–due to one stumble. He played golf until very late in life, tennis later than most guys, and was still an oaf. The point is not that you dislike the guy and so that kind of unfair and dishonest treatment is dan and finedy. It’s that some—institution or something—had the power to make that happen and make it stick. And, since that power has evaporated, that’s a good thing.

I recall Ford was cited for leading damage control parties after his ship was struck, but I had also read he was a pilot.
“suspiciously like a Trump supporter” Not saying one way or another, but what was the point of saying that? Perhaps like saying “Fox” or “Rush” when somebody mentions a fact you find inconvenient?

Yeah, but where did you read he was a pilot?

Ford was an instructor at the Naval Preflight School where he taught several different subjects. A person seeing that may have assumed he was a flight instructor but he was not. Easily explained. And for people who say “well where did you read that?” Google, Bing, Yahoo or your library can help you with your laziness.

I have been building stairs for 45 years. There are of course codes now, but anyone familure with old buildings might well know of suicide stairs to maid/butler quarters, old New England cottage loft stairs and such.

Roll up aircraft steps rarely meet code. The step rise is too high or drop down is too much. Furthermore the step tread/landing is too narrow. With a longer step down you tend to step further out, except the tread is shorter.

Not to mention the edge of the steps are metal and slippery to smooth leather office shoes.

Lastly Ford was mentally transitioning from the steps to the audience. 90% of stairs accidents happen at either end.

I don’t know about Ford’s knees, or being able to move after a long sedentary flight.

Can you imagine the accident rate if we still left aircraft by steps?

Anyway they are bad, dangerous steps.

Nothing in Ford’s history shows but a man well athletic into late life.

He played real college ball, for a big program school in a era when college was way, way bigger then pro ball, yet was made to be unathletic. He was anything but. Yet the never compeated in any sport Kennedy’s, who crashed, smashed and sunk were portrayed as athletic. It is as old Hollywood Joe Kennedy said of the press, my pocket people.

jayackroyd says:

Odd to choose Ford–the clumsiness meme was the work of a comedian, Chevy Chase, not the press.

More relevant would be the depiction of Gore as a serial liar. That mostly false depiction really was the work of the press–and contrasts interestingly with the difficulty the press is having with Trump’s lies and faked videos.

jjdynomite says:

As a Torontonian, the analogy of Trump and Ford is apt. Their unifying feature — which Rosen is kind of obfuscating — is saying FU to the entrenched elite, which obviously enjoyed on an emotional level by their non-linear supporters. The ironic fact that both Trump and Ford came from financially and politically elite families is irrelevant as long as they keep bringing the FU. And yes, mainstream — predominately Left-leaning and Left elite-protecting — media is the entrenched elite.

Another Torontonian chiming in here. While I agree that the “elite” Ford challenged included both politicians and the media, it is an oversimplification to call the elite left-wing. Ford was also a challenge to the moneyed, cultured upper crust represented by people like John Tory, although they are ideologically indistinguishable. There are more complicated dynamics of class and geography at play, and I think the same thing is true of Trump.

Bruce Bartlett says:

Your preferred journalistic model appears to be sports journalism, which is expected to be accurate but nevertheless biased in favor of the home team. The question for the media is, who or what is the home team?

Sean Roche says:

An easy analogue to Ramos’s commitment to immigration: climate change. If just one major network stopped treating it as an issue of reasonable dispute and pressed both parties’ candidates on their plans, we’d have a different dynamic.

I would love to see this happen. Now would be a good time for it, as well, it would be seen almost as natural with the Paris talks and the coverage those could generate.

Holdfast says:

Right, because it’s not like NBC (and it’s ugly stepchildren, MSNBC and CNBC) aren’t pushing “Earth Week” every couple of months or anything! And when they bring on someone to speak for the “Denialist” side, it’s some ignoramus hack politico, not one of the many well-spoken skeptical scientists.

Just because the MFM won’t give your side the 110$ validation you think it deserves does not make it objective.

William Berkson says:

A key problem, in my view, is the signal failure of the TV news, which has the greatest emotional impact, to try to say what is true. Instead they just report what people say. What I am talking about goes beyond “fact checking,” which usually relates to specific claims. As Lawrence O’Donnell pointed out, it is impossible to report the truth on Donald Trump saying that he is lying about seeing video of Muslims in NJ rejoicing publicly on 9-11. For that is what is going on. And the NYT editorial picked up the point. But you don’t see this on NBC CBS ABC or CNN, even on the Sunday morning shows. The need to be ‘polite’ is in conflict with the need to report the truth, and they are going for polite and against truth.

Procopius says:

This is kind of what I was thinking. It’s not something new. The Sunday Shows have been refusing to call out BS for years. They are terrified that if they don’t treat the people they’re giving free publicity to nicely they won’t come back. That’s one reason fewer and fewer people are watching them. They would be a lot better off if many of those people didn’t come back — John McCain, Butchers Bill Kristol, Lindsey Graham, etc. I think a show that would blow the others out of the water would be one that would scrupulously check the ravings of their guests and then announce each week, “So-and-so refused again to appear on our show since we pointed out she was lying about Planned Parenthood. Also, Wossisname refused to appear this week, since we exposed his lies about illegal immigrants.” Unfortunately, as Noam Chomsky pointed out, the networks exist in order to sell advertising, not to inform the citizenry.

James M. Grandone says:

It only took a victory yell to have the media hound Howard Dean out of the race for president by airing it continuously for weeks, making Dean appear unstable. If only we had that atmosphere today, but we don’t. Trump should have been shown the door last summer but no one was paying attention to how unstable he really is. Now that he is in the lead, the media megaphone has taken over and what he was saying last summer and before, is not outrageous! So, we see his numbers falter, along with Ben Carson’s. The media is now paying attention and they don’t like what they see and hear.
So, gravity works. It was just temporarily suspended over the slow summer months. It’s back!

Mary Kay says:

I was in the room when that yell happened. It wasn’t a victory yell a there was no victory to celebrate. It was meant to be a rallying cry to hearten the troops. However, the man had been talking nonstop for weeks and was very hoarse. So it came out sounding very strange. It was the party the night if the Iowa caucuses.

I have not seen a commentator yet, Jay Rosen included, who has observed that Trump/Carson is not a universal phenomenon. It is all about the Base, the 20% or so of the electorate that is a wavy line from Father Coughlin to Wallace to Trump. That group has always ignored the mainstream media’s judgment about them. And do none of you recall Sam Donaldson’s frustration with the lies and tabulations of Reagan and his crew? The idea that somehow the media was gatekeeping recently is, well, quaint. The ability of the media to shoot down a candidate has only applied to Democrats since 1980. And now the right wing genie is out of the bottle, but that is because the GOP National Party has lost control, not because the media has lost its function. The MSM has not influenced the right Hal of the GOP in decades.

I think that Netanyahu is an inspiration to Trump, in some ways. Look at Netanyahu and you will see what can be expected from Trump – multiplied.

Look at how the press succeeded here and see what failed.

Siegfried Heydrich says:

Actually, more Benito Mussolini. Go to YouTube and view one of his speeches with the sound off. Then do the same with one of Trump’s. The similarity in delivery, posture, facial expressions, and gestures is striking. And we won’t even go into the similarities of ideology.

Brian Rassette says:

This should not be a surprise. The media has ignored major issues, not necessarily facts but issues affecting American’s lives, for the past 7 years. What issues you ask? 1) The Lois Lerner IRS Scandal – Americans saw how emails and records were destroyed, which if they had done with an IRS audit, would cause fines, penalties, and potential legal action. 2) Lack of transparency with Obamacare – Although it was supposed to lower premiums it has done the opposite, Congress isn’t subject to it, and there are still as many uninsured today as the day it was enacted. Additionally, the cost is so high businesses are unable to budget for it, thus it has slowed the “potential” recovery. 3) Dodd-Frank – Amazing since Barney Frank refused to listen to Treasury Secretary Jack Snow when he warned about the sub-prime mortgage issue. 4) eMail servers at the home of the Secretary of State – Really? That’s so stupid I could hardly key it. Plus, with the constant changing story it is never covered. 5) Bengahzi and Libya – The disaster and tragedy was said to be caused by a video to the public but not to Sec Clintons family.

With all of this there is no reporting, no journalistic investigation and that equates to no journalistic integrity. Matt Taiibi’s statement is true, but the media did it to themselves. Americans are treated poorly by the IRS, Obamacare is wrecking family budgets and making it difficult for job hunters, Dodd-Frank has put the screws on money for loans, Clinton has lied and put the country in danger, and the President and Sec of State blamed a terrorist attack on a video. Why would Americans care if the media found a fact wrong from a candidate when Americans live what has been wrong daily and the media is silent? Until the media learns to investigate both parties, they will be ignored. One thing is for certain, if a Republican wins the White House – everything will be investigated.

@jerontius says:

The UK does not have this problem. Listeners to BBC radio 4 will mostly agree that the 08:10 slot on Monday morning’s Today is when Power gets stabbed in the front. John Humphries is the most aggressive. In other broadcast media, Jon Snow, Evan Davies and Jeremy Paxman are equably notable (I recall them from memory). These guys are comparable to Ramos and we’ve got lot’s of them. My point is that this is a local US problem, not a problem for Western Civilisation.

Kim Davis says:

The UK model isn’t, I think, the solution to Jay’s question. My recollection of Paxman in particular is that he’ll argue furiously with any point of view which confronts him, reasonable or not. Aggressive BBC journalism of this kind accepts the View From Nowhere stance, but demonstrates balance by being hostile to any argument presented. (Yes, it’s better than compliance in the face of power, but it’s not–I think–what Jay’s looking for.)


After at least 25 years of being active & blatant members of the Democratic Party and faithfully protecting that organization … the Media is astounded that most of America doesn’t believe them when reporters claim to be unbiased.

Just Amazing.

If this thread just becomes more liberal bias complaints I will close it. After being drilled on that single point for more than ten years straight, I think I’ve grasped it by now. I know how you feel. Journalism = Democratic Party. Got it! So thanks everyone. I’m sure you’re all boring yourself to death about it, anyway.

I will give this a few more comments and then euthanasia will be in order.

Will G-R says:

To be fair, “liberal media” does work if you avoid the peculiarly American definition of “liberal” as “Keynesian welfare-state social democracy” and stick with the historical/international/philosophical understanding of the term as something akin to “the ideology of individual freedom and equality in a capitalist economy”, creating a rhetorical umbrella that covers Democrats and Republicans in equal measure. In that sense “liberal” translates into electoral politics as something like “broadly centrist”, so while the sorts of far-right folks someone like Neiwert might describe as proto-fascists are quite correct to complain about their relegation to the Sphere of Deviance by the “liberal media”, an anarchist or proto-Marxist would be no less correct.

Of course, since the folks complaining about a “liberal media” in a place like this comments section would probably find it utterly bizarre to define “liberal” as anything other than “leftist”, accepted standards of intellectual vocabulary outside the narrow sphere of US electoral politics are hardly relevant…

Holdfast says:

The point is not to rehash the fact that most MSM Journolists = Dem Operatives With Bylines.

The point is that Candidate Trump is the Frankenstein monster created by angry working class white conservatives to overcome that Liberal Media Bias (and to reject the plutocratic GOP establishment).

TL/DR: The MSM caused Trump.

Good analysis, as always. However, I would say that this started with Romney.

As Ben Smith said in 2012 > “Romney Camp Bets On Welfare Attack

Their most powerful weapon, a top aide says. “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers,” says Newhouse.”

The press could not figure out how to deal with Romney and his campaign lies from the start. Trump is just the next SUPER HYPED version of what Romney started.

WM Magill says:

Ok, lets go back to your depiction of Jorge Ramos – “And as I have written before there is a difference — a crucial difference — between doing politics and doing journalism”

Which are you claiming he is and where does that place him on your scale of politicians and journalists?

I would completely agree that he is a TV commentator doing politics type personality. But a journalist? No. So I don’t really see how the end of your piece “works.”

Was it simply chopped off for space concerns? Or do you have the same problem I have — I can easily point out all kinds of issues; but have a difficult time writing a cogent conclusion.

This article was quite interesting up to that point, and then it just kind of petered out leaving one with a seriously “Is that all there is” feeling.

Maybe the real problem is that there actually are no Editors any more! Reports are simply allowed to do whatever they feel like doing.

Richard Aubrey says:

Jay. Two separate issues

1. If a liberal bias falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make any difference? Obviously not.
2. The power to make something stick, as with sending Quayle to Outer Mongolia due to a contentious question over plural forms. To this day, he’s a punch line because it pleased the press and political class that it should be so, despite his accomplishments.

The point of the article, as far as I could see it, is that the second issue, the power to make something stick, has evaporated. If it still existed, Trump would be someplace else.

If this is true than liberal bias can liberal bias itself into knots and it wouldn’t matter.

If there is no liberal bias, then the evaporation of the power is still a good thing.

I listen to you the way I listen to the jackhammer outside my window. Your sound is as varied as that sound.

Herbert J Gans says:

I think much of the discussion ignores the 800 lb gorilla that always sits on the mainstream news media: false balance.

Strong analysis as always, Jay. But I wonder if the old rules have fallen away quite as much as you think. Trump is appealing to a quarter to a third of one party. It would be pretty stunning if he actually wins the Republican nomination, and in any case he’d be unelectable in November. All he’s proven is that he can brazen out anything and not alienate his base of angry supporters.

Hi, Dan. Most striking to me was that journalists were saying the rules aren’t the rules anymore, and the laws of political gravity have been overturned. So I tried to explain how they ended up there.

I don’t know what Trump’s chances are, but I do know that he has confounded the political press.

John Kelsey says:

I keep wondering if Trump’s teflon coating will still be working when people actually start casting votes. His polling numbers have remained surprisingly good for someone who says so many factually-incorrect and offensive things, but I wonder what fraction of the people who support him in polls would actually show up on election day and vote for him. Has someone done some kind of analysis on this?

I have a longstanding question that is off-topic for this post. Is there still an online bloggy forum about journalism, somewhere, where it could get asked?

Siegfried Heydrich says:

Trump could strangle kittens live on stage at this point, and his base would cheer him on. He’s become the Ozzy Osbourne of politics, biting the heads off of bats and flinging the pieces to an adoring audience who would cheer him on as long as he told them that those were immigrant bats & kittens.

He’s what his supporters fantasize about being – too rich to care a whit about what anyone thinks, yet so nastily thin skinned that he’ll get into a Twitter war with anyone over a perceived slight. Vulgar, proudly ignorant, arrogant, brutal, domineering, a ‘winner’ who’s free to despise all you ‘losers’, this is what the GOP base now idolizes. They dream of being just like him. They want to burn down the house, and he’s offering to bring the kerosene and the marshmallows. If you’ve ever wondered why women stay in abusive relationships, have a look.

I think he’s enjoying seeing just how far he can degrade the republican party, and like his base, reveling in their impotence, laughing at them when they call him out. Because he’s Duh Donnul, a demigod of the lowest, basest elements of society who is invincible in his crass, crude, overglitzed kingdom.

The media can point out all of his slurs, slanders, insults, pandering, exaggerations, falsehoods, outright lies and farcical claims . . . and all that it will do is harden the resolve of his supporters. He is Lonesome Roads with more money and less decency. His base has found their Golden Child, and will believe nothing bad against him

Tim Schmoyer says:

Interesting reading on isomorphism and weak/strong sense of purpose.

The gaffe ritual weakened the political force of the political press in an increasingly partisan public.

I agree with other comments that identify the gaffe ritual as problematic.

Top ten campaign gaffes in modern presidential history

Biden gaffes video

Jay, great piece. I’d never heard the phrase “institutional isomorphism”, but it’s definitely a helpful concept.

I did have a similar question as Ed C above. What about Reagan as an antecedent to Trump? Reagan had a weak relationship with the truth, but somehow he got away with it. Not to say that Trump doesn’t take it to a new level; it does seem like he is blazing a new path that will be followed by others (scary as this is).

Thanks, I thnk there are many, many antecedents to Trump.

I didn’t say Trump is an original, that nothing like him had ever been seen before, but I guess I should have made that point more explicit. In my mind I wasn’t writing about Trump himself but about the difficulty the political press has in coping with him.

Tim Schmoyer says:

“Nobody heard what you said.” Lesley Stahl’s Fable About Reagan and the Press.

Worth reading, again.

Mark Richards says:

It all comes back to the one law of BS neither journalists nor anyone else can get away from. And that is, the amount of energy necessary to refute BS is exponentially greater than to produce it. If every American was familiar with Professor Frankfurt’s work on the subject of BS we’d all be a lot better voters and journalists.

The other side of the coin is that in trying to refute the BS of pols like Trump, it keeps them in the news cycle which is now committed to some freak false equivalence equal-time narrative. There is no bad publicity for Trump.

Richard Aubrey says:

It’s been said that, for whatever his faults, Trump has moved the Overton Window. Pretty soon, somebody may mention Kate Steinle and not be reviled for it.

Kate Steinle. She was the woman in CA who….

The analysis seems both too complex and too simple.

Too simple in that it does not take a step back and ask why citizens should listen to scribes hired by corporations who do what exactly? Reflect the interest of the public good? There now is one corporate party and the rest is personalities. The rhetoric varies but the actions never do: neo-liberalism from sea to shining sea.

The write up is too complex in that it obfuscates the corporate/public relations functions of the media today – one would have to be employed there not see this clearly.

It seems that people awoke to the fact that Trump is kicking over the cozy arrangement that existed for the last thirty years and actually saying something that resonates with the pissed off public. That he is a fascist (minus the discipline) is a very bad news for the future of the US system but this development should not be unexpected.

The public can be abused for only so long without the rage spilling over in various ways – Trump is just exhibit 1. Loss of media legitimacy is exhibit 2, etc.

The panic of the elites (including the media) seems palpable by now and the monster they created will eventually devour them. So the elites have that going for them!!!

debitor says:

don’t want to hear about the (D) stranglehold on the media? that bores you?

Journalism = Democratic Party, you and others believe. I got it. I got it 2005. It’s been a jackhammer outside my window for years and years. People who consider Journalism = Democratic Party a truism (and there are many, many of them) come to this site to yell at the media, and as long as there is an open comment thread they will contine to do that.

debitor says:

the liberal and now official republican establishment like that trump is a fascist is so old. it’s really no different than trump running around calling Obama a Kenyan. the evidence is overwhelming that Obama is Kenyan. just like the evidence is overwhelming that trump is a fascist, right?

just like the evidence is overwhelming that trump is a fascist, right?

Wrong. The piece I linked to defines fascism in multiple ways and introduces a lot of factors that have to be present to call something fascist. Then it says: in these ways he is drifting toward fascism (and that should be pointed out) and in these other ways he is not in the fascist mold.

So, no, the evidence isn’t overwhelming. It’s the opposite. It’s partial. Part of the way there.

Here’s another one in the same vein:

David Davenport says:

Jay Rosen = Democrat/Repub. uniparty ruling class hack

There is no trust left in the media. It isn’t just bias — its bad reporting. The rush to be first means that so many things are reported that we later find out aren’t true… and then we realize that the lies always cut in favor of one political orientation. There’s never a lie that gets reported that ever helps a conservative.

It’s like referees at a football game. If they are missing calls left and right, hey, you wish they were better at it, but at least they are fair. You get angry when you realize that they only “miss” calls on one team, and in fact catch everything the other team does and in fact calls a few things that they didn’t do.

That isn’t bad refereeing. That dishonest. You said,

“A public service press is one way we can hold power to account. It helps prevent lying from being raised to a universal principle in politics.”

You can’t do that when lying is one of your own principles.

There’s never a lie that gets reported that ever helps a conservative.

Bold statement! So categorical. Wow.

But back to the matter at hand. Journalism = Democratic Party. Got it. Got in 2005, still got it in 2015.

Jerry Stamper says:

Excellent comment AND a bold statement.

Here’s a test for the media: Trumps comment about Muslim’s dancing in the streets was in the context of bringing in Syrian “refugees”. The context involves two conjoined moral narratives – compassion vs. safety. Trumps comment was intended to highlight the safety aspect – Muslims dancing in the streets is a vivid illustration.

The media had the choice of focusing on the illustration or going beyond and dealing with the fundamental question. They chose to attack Trump’s illustration as a lie with the hope of impugning his character while ignoring the truth of his point. They pose as if “debunking” his illustration answers the question. An honest press would go beyond to accurately define the safety issue.

bystander says:

This is all pretty interesting. The whole political gestalt is now off the rails and the major media outlets have no good strategy to bring it to a conventional heel.

As other commenters – and you – have observed, there were earlier indications; previous campaigns have signaled the difficulties to come.

I’m trying to imagine what the reporting would be like, now, if outlets had taken your Citizens Agenda approach (2010). What would Trump’s campaign look like – sound like – in that framework? Would the two talk past each other, collide with each other, compliment each other, or would they be in absolute denial of each other?

I think Jeet Heer has put up a supporting corollary/useful companion piece at TNR.

One of his observations is something I keep reflecting back on: “It took a party of liars to make Trump’s forays into outright bullshit acceptable.” Extrapolating/projecting, I suppose, in the Jake Trapper clip, then, Trump’s bullshit is made acceptable by inferring that Trump’s spokesman’s lied. That spokesman knows better, but is complicit in the bullshit.

It’s mind boggling, disconcerting, and fascinating – all at the same time.

Holdfast says:

Trump is not the first politician to make up his own facts, and get away with it. He’s just the first Republican (well, sort of, at the moment anyway) to do so and get away with it.

Harry Reid has been doing it for years (Romney never paid taxes, etc.). Joe Biden says all kinds of crazy sh*t and the media never calls him on it. Nancy Pelosi is dumber than a bag of rocks. If Barbara Boxer were any dumber, she’d be classified as a mineral instead of an animal. Barrack Obama certainly got away with some whoppers in his “autobiographies”, mostly because the MFM never read them. Hillary Clinton hilariously says that “all rape victims should be believed” [except those who accuse her husband] and let’s not forget her being under sniper fire in Tuzla. All of these Dem gaffes/missteps/whoppers/whatever are given a brief mention by the MFM, and then they instruct us all to “move on”. And then Candy Crowley undercuts Mitt Romney to assist Obama in the middle of a debate.

Trump says whatever he feels like – invented, exaggerated or copied from unreliable internet sources, and he gets away with it somehow. This is causing the media gatekeepers to freak the f*ck out – how can he do that? Only our MFM-approved Dems can do that, they think.

Part of it is that Trump is telling some larger truths that resonate with folks (both the Dem and GOP party establishments are rotten; Washington exists only to perpetuate itself; Amnesty will hurt working Americans; 500+ millionaire lawyers are not really representative of American people as a whole), so his supporters will let him get away with some stupidity on the smaller stuff. Also, his supporters and even non-supporters like me just love watching him put the MFM into a tizzy. And you know that he would never have let Crowley interrupt him.

To paraphrase Lincoln – We need Trump – he fights. He might be all over the place, but he refuses to be cowed, and that has bought him a lot of currency with folks who are tired of seeing the GOP nominate decent men like Dole and Romney (McCain’s a dick, just to be clear), only to see them adopt the “deer in the headlights” expression while the MFM savages them.

Journalism = Democratic Party. Thanks, got it! Will study.

Holdfast says:

I’ll help you with your math in a sec, but congrats for focusing only on the part you believed you could dismiss with a cut-n-paste one liner. Truly modern journolism at its finest!

US Journolists – (Fox News + WSJ + MSNBC*) = Dem Party Operatives with Bylines.

There you go. Always happy to help.

*MSNBC is farther to the left than even the modern Democrat Party, frightening as that is.

Quote: “No one even thought to ask: what are we trying to accomplish here? What’s the goal of our coverage in 2016? Everyone already knew the answer: We’re here to cover the campaign!”

You can’t be serious. For the great bulk of political journalists, their “goal” in 2016 was to re-elect Obama. That’s why so many people don’t listen to them any more. They’ve had enough grossly biased coverage.

Wait. Hold the phone. Are you saying Journalism = Democratic Party? Got it.

The narrative overriding the facts is not a unique cause to Trumpites, or even reactionaries.

Did someone say it was?

To get meta here – Does it matter to the people peppering your comments if someone said it or if it’s said via omission?

If the answer for Trump is to encourage more Jorge Ramos type activist journalism, which will encourage people who are not nearly as good at their job as Jorge Ramos and have as loose a relationship with facts as Trump, I’ll pass.

moneyrunner says:

Jay, I have no idea from your article whether you view Ramos as a model for journalists. You imply that a “strong sense of purpose” is being an advocate for one particular political position. Which leads me to believe that you don’t understand the Trump phenomenon.

There are two kinds of reality in America today, made possible by the MSM on one side and the Internet, Fox News and talk radio on the other.

In one reality, we have a racist cop killing an innocent Black kid – a Gentle Giant – by shooting him in the back, hands raised, as he’s on his way to his grandmother’s house. All of America learned the phrase “Hands up, don’t shoot.” Aggrieved African Americans react by “largely peaceful” demonstrations during which stores and cars are looted and burned. And Black Lives Matter is born advocating an end to an epidemic of murder by cop in a society where racial relations are stuck in Selma.

In another reality we have a large thug who manhandles a small storekeeper, steals some smokes, and walks down the middle of the street. A mid-sized cop sees him, tells him to get out of the street, realizes that he may be the thug, backs up and finds said thug reaching in his car window grabbing his gun, which discharges. Gets out of car, and when he’s rushed by the Gentle Giant shoots him. The press makes this the crime of the century, representative of the relations of cops and Blacks. Black Leaders gather like vultures on road kill. When the officer is cleared, the Black street explodes, leading to a series of riots which devastates the already blighted neighborhood. Sensing and opportunity, new “leaders” appear creating Black Lives Matter, advocating the murder of police, followed by a series of murders of police across the country, from cops sitting in their car in New York to pumping some gas in Texas.

Question: which reality corresponds more to what actually occurred? Which reality was the one that the media reported and continues to report to this day? Keep in mind that the original report was just a stone thrown into pond and we are now experiencing the ripples. Do you really think that the death of Laquan McDonald in Chicago would be leading to riots if the theme of “Racist Killer Cops” had not been created by the media in Ferguson?

There is the reality of Racist Killer Cops; a story with legs in the MSM. Then there’s the alternative reality of cops assassinated by vengeful African Americans treated as a local crime story.

Donald Trump is your creation Jay. Why should people believe the press as fact checkers when they see you lie by commission and – more importantly – by omission?

Thanks to the government controlled press, Russians in the USSR believed that ordinary Americans lived in poverty, engaged in constant gun battles with criminal gangs, and Black Americans were regularly lynched. Even Nikita Khrushchev was surprised by American super markets and farms. This was one reality; a reality reinforced by Pravda and American movies.

There is, of course a second reality. Visiting the US destroyed the old reality for Khrushchev. The Internet and alternative media is destroying the reality that the MSM presented to broad swaths of the American people. It’s too late for the MSM to change course. Its reputation and believably is firmly established. I’m not sure how you and your associates are going to cope. The print press is a money-losing hobby for the super-rich. The alphabet networks are losing viewer eyeballs. On TV today we have info-tainment. When people see that they have been lied to, they gravitate toward those who express contempt for the liars. His name today is Donald Trump. Tomorrow it may be someone else.

I’m not sure how you and your associates are going to cope.

My associates? Who did you have in mind?

Journalism = Black Lives Matter. Got it! Will add to Journalism = Democratic Party. Which I also got.

moneyrunner says:

Right. Journalists didn’t repeat “Hands up, don’t shoot.” We don’t get a daily dose of “Black Lives Matter” coverage. The MSM doesn’t need to say whose reality they support, they simply find the spokesperson who says the words to get the message out. Cute. Oh, your associates are the people in the press who you admire: paragons of objectivity like Chuck Todd and Candy Crowley. Objective. Journalists.

Actually, I am a critic of the way the press uses its claim to objectvity, which I call the View from Nowhere. If you knew anything about my work you would know that. But you don’t. Because you are here to yell at the media, and you think I am it.

moneyrunner says:

Jay, don’t put words in my mouth. You wrote an essay about the Trump phenomenon and the issues that the press has with it. You have gotten a lot of feedback. Feedback which you appear to dismiss and unresponsive. Assuming that you are the purest virgin in the press, something that is unsupported by your quotes from other members, why do you think that people support Trump despite the coordinated efforts of the MSM? Does it really have nothing to do with the disrepute that the MSM has fallen to in the eyes of so many people? The people who don’t believe your industry is honest it not some small fringe group.

Jerry Stamper says:

Jay, I for one am interested in your response to MoneyRunner’s question: which reality corresponds more to what actually occurred? Which reality was the one that the media reported and continues to report to this day?

moneyrunner says:

Jay, your entire premise is about the confusion of the press about Trump. You have gotten lots of people who respond to you, but you insist there’s another answer. I have heard about hitting a mule in the head by a 2 by 4 to get his attention. Are you as smart as a mule?

I Disagree that this is something new.

Trump is coming out of an old New York tradition, that of the celebrity bomb thrower. Surely you remember the rise of Al Sharpton and Howard Stern in the 90s. The New York’s Press was similarly frustrated with their (very different) stunts and how they benefitted from them.

Isn’t there a new book out on William F. Buckley’s run for NYC Mayor? Was not also Buckley a celebrity bomb thrower?

Trump is just repeating this on a national level. It is the power of the immigration issue allows Trump to do this.

The thing about bomb throwers is that by willing to break taboos they come off as truth tellers to their supporters. I think Al Sharpton is a fraud, but that is not how he is viewed in the black community who are in possession of the same facts I am.

I Disagree that this is something new.

Who said it was?

From the article: “[Trump supporters] repeatedly asked, why don’t you ask this about Hillary Clinton, why don’t you ask this about President Obama?”

I think this, more than many other noted items, is at the crux of the matter. The softball treatment of progressive/Democrat politicians compared to the questions aimed at Republican/libertarians is so out of balance–and recognized by the public–that no conservative-oriented person reads ‘news’ any more from NY or LA Times or views CBS, NBC, CNN or PBS without thinking “Democrat operative with a byline.”

The lies and obscuration by President Obama (endorsed by the press) highlight this distrust in the media reporting. Alan Keyes, no revolutionary, has noted six different issues for which Obama should be impeached ( Many of these issues should have been addressed robustly by the media, along the lines of how the Nixon administration was investigated by the Washington Post. Yet here we are in 2015 and we still don’t know a thing about Obama’s matriculation at Columbia with anything close to the information we have about Bush’s years at college.

When we know so little about a President such as Obama, how can the press be trusted to tell us anything accurate about Clinton or Sanders? The personal and professional intersection of Democrats and the media, from marriage into prominent Democrat families or the Clinton Foundation to fear of missing future interviews, the press works far differently with Democrats and Clintons then they have with Republicans over the last 60 years.

The lack of balance in how the media addresses ‘facts’, ‘red lines’, ‘global weather’ and political issues has created Donald Trump…and many of us who loathe Trump and his neo-fascist attitudes (so similar to Clinton) will have to vote for him because he’s a less scary monster than any progressive fascist Democrat on the ballot.

px fragonard says:

A wonderfully amusing read. The Isomorphism got nearly close to the real issue: sociology. But if failed because it excluded profit motive as the deciding factor. All papers need advertisers and hot stories sell ads. Problem two is that it got almost nearly sort of close to the point when it asked what the journalists are “trying to do” here. Not to mention electing the first black president in 08 was an astounding “oversight.” (It was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.) But I’m encouraged generally, as I can now see the press (a creation of the political party) is purblind. If it’s still analyzing Trump this way in August 16, he’ll win in a landslide, especially if it insists on paying him high compliments like calling him classless and tasteless.

moneyrunner says:

One other point that Jay overlooks with his focus on the MSM. Trump is not just a product of the media but of Obama and the Republican party. “If you like your health care you can keep it” was a lie with no legs. “Give us the Congress and we’ll repeal Obamacare” was another one. Since lying carries no consequences, Trump has running room.

The media is shocked, shocked, that the old reliable dogs no longer drool when commanded.

moneyrunner says:

President Obama just stated in reply to a question by Scott Horsley: “– you go down to Miami, and when it’s flooding at high tide on a sunny day and fish are swimming through the middle of the street …”

This was followed by applause from the press corps.

And Jay wonders about Donald Trump’s popularity.

Okay everyone, in summary: what we have learned from this comment thread is:

Journalism = Democratic Party.
Journalists = Democratic Party Operatives with Bylines.

Also, a lot of you disagree that it started with Trump. No one said it did but you disagree with that anyway, which is fine.

Also we learned that in this post I am trying to “explain” the rise of Trump and his success in the Republican primary so far but I can’t explain it because I don’t grasp that Journalism = Democratic Party and Journalists = Democratic Party Operatives with Bylines.

And we learned Candy Crowley isn’t objective, but then which operative of the Democratic Party is, right?

It’s 5:12 ET. I will leave this thread open for a few more reminders that Journalists = Democratic Party Operatives with Bylines and a few more opportunities for you guys to yell at the media, which you believe I am. At 6 pm I will close it. So get your last insights in!

Thanks for the illumination.