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

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

25 Sep 2016 7:59 pm 210 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four years later, Dan Balz of the Washington Post, probably the most respected figure in the political press, admitted that Mann and Ornstein were onto something. “They were ahead of others in describing the underlying causes of polarization as asymmetrical,” he wrote.

Why did it take four years? (In 2012 and 2014 Balz was noncommittal about the thesis.) Two answers: asymmetry fries the circuits of the mainstream press… and Trump. Because journalists rely so heavily on that mental picture I described, they stick with it as the anomalies build up. Mann and Ornstein had tried to warn Balz and his colleagues about this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Helen Major says:

This is, emphatically, not new. It wasn’t Trump who read Dr. Suess to filbuster congress in a routine budget function. It wasn’t Trump who, as either president or SoS lied about weapons pf mass destruction. It was not Trump who used Willie Horton, or Trump who swift boated a decorated hero.

He, as an opportunistic predator, saw that there was no downside to lying, slandering or obstructing government and he took it from there.

Freedom of the press is constitutionally protected to provide the Republic with tools to address the human failings inherent in all governments.

You refused, as a profession, to use those tools.

Don’t blame technology–we have seen this before in ancient and modern times. EVERY single insult Trump delivered predates the mechanisms used to deliver the lies, stochastic threats, fear and violence.

You stand accused.

I have no idea what you are talking about.

I said the problems weren’t new, they were building up for years.

I didn’t blame technology. I don’t know where that came from.

I don’t even know who “you” means in your comment. Seems you came here to yell at the media.

You have the wrong address.

J R Tomlin says:

You stated PLAINLY that the case for Iraq was ‘philosophical’. That is just plain not the truth. It was based on outright lies, moreover the press KNEW they were lies.

You have the wrong “you.” That was Dean Baquet, the editor of the New York Times. As far as I know he doesn’t have a blog. But his office is on 8th Avenue in New York City.

Let’s get back to the issues, neither party is addressing.

Marcel Kincaid says:

“You stated PLAINLY that the case for Iraq was ‘philosophical’.”

Um, no, he didn’t, he quoted someone who did. But in any case that’s quite irrelevant. Of course the difference of opinion about whether to invade Iraq was “philosophical”, but that’s not the point of the piece … it’s the opposite, that the GOP does not just represent some political philosophy, but rather it has become a bunch of stupid, ignorant, belligerent, immature thugs who are determined to have their way and have no regard for rules, or truth, or the survival of human society and institutions.

Matt Blank says:

Her point is that Trump is not the “new” anomaly that changes the paradigm, but, rather he is just the logical outgrowth of years and years of blatant lies and surreal fabrication and contradictions by the Republican Party and it’s minions. Trump is not some brand new phenomenon. They created him.

Yes. That’s why the piece says: I agree with the Atlantic’s James Fallows about Trump. “No one like him has gotten this close to the presidency in modern times.” Which is not to say he came out of nowhere, or that there is no precedent for his political style. A long series of developments left the presidential nominating system and the Republican party vulnerable to Trump.

I’m sure this is very frustrating to feel like you have to address basic reading comprehension problems regarding minutiae when there are bigger issues to be really worried about, but take some heart that the people who understood your piece don’t have as much of a reason to comment.


Thank you for a provocative, insightful piece.

You are right: “a long series of developments left us . . . vulnerable to Trump”

One of those developments was the death of fact-checking at major magazines.

The other is that, at some point, the news became a form of entertainment.

First–fact-checking: Back in the early 80s, when I worked at Time inc., every word of every story was fact-checked.

If a fact-checker made a mistake & put a blue check check mark next to something that was untrue she risked losing her job.

This was the case, not just at Time magazine but at PEOPLE.

(I say “she,” because fact-checkers were usually women–often older, very conscientious, smart women. Men were the writers. They were “imaginative” but sometimes embroidered on the reporting. Then women were assigned to go in and clean up the stories.)

Sometime in the 90s, fact-checkers began to disappear. This may be because everyone began to feel that time was of the essence. Print journalists had to compete with the Internet’s instant reporting.

I also think a new generation of editors were more concerned about circulation, which drove ad revenues. (The difference between “editors” and “publishers” began to disappear. A magazine’s “editor-in-chief” might also be its publisher.)

In the past, journalists had aimed to “delight and inform.”

But as television news began to change (and “faces” replaced Cronkite) print journalism followed its lead.

I remember when, in the early 90s, print journalists began to refer to themselves as members of “The Media”. If you were a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, success meant that you appeared on TV.

Increasingly, TV news was all about “entertaining” the audience.” The idea of “informing them” seemed old-fashioned, and condescending. (“People don’t need us to tell them what to think!”)

Today, many point out that Trump Is “entertaining” precisely because he is so outrageous. As one admirer recently said on Twitter “He just opens his mouth and says whatever he feels… . He has Balls!) ”

Many viewers wish that they could do that–with their bosses, with their wives.

So many in today’s media treat Trump and Hillary equally not because they truly believe that what he says is true, but because he sells newspapers, and ads (or air-time.)

Also, many journalists under 35 also are profoundly cynical about politicians: “They all lie.” They don’t remember a time when there were honest men both in the GOP (Lowell Wicker) and in the Democratic party

These young journalists don’t see the situation as “a-symmetrical” because neither they (nor their audience) is judging the two sides
based on “truthiness” but rather, based on entertainment value.

This may all sound overly cynical, but I’ve been a journalist for over 36 years (at Time inc., at the NY Times, at Dow Jones) and have watched journalism change.

Thank you, Maggie. Your perspective is invaluable. I really appreciate it.

William Bennett says:

Excellent article and I take your point that these criticisms aren’t actually germane to the substance of your own critique–in fact they in part re-iterate it.

I think the frustration in those comments, though, arises from how long left bloggers like Atrios and so many others have been making this critique of “bothsiderism” and seeing how impervious and hermetic the corporate media have been, even to Mann & Ornstein, who are anything but DF Hippies in Atrios’s memorable phrase, and yet were basically treated as if they were by the bothsiderist Villagers. All of us trying to make this point not because we to were DFH’s but because we could see one of our major parties becoming a threat to democracy itself, and it was structurally impossible to acknowledge that fact. If–and it is a HUGE “if” at this point–we dodge the bullet this time around, I have little confidence that the courtier media will do anything but breathe a sigh of relief and then return to their customary habits. So many many times we’ve seen this sort of “We have to examine ourselves” piece (notably in the wake of the Iraq debacle) and the examination produces… no change in behavior. But maybe this time, if we’re lucky enough to survive that long.

I wrote my first piece about “he said, she said” journalism in 2009, so I know what you mean.

If Trump loses and the Republican Congress goes into oppose everything mode with Clinton, it’s likely the press will be right back to where it was in 2011.

I think she fails to understand the metaphorical nature of an analogy, specifically your analogy regarding ‘technical debt.’

Matt Blank says:

I agree with all you said Helen.

Marcel Kincaid says:

How sad … both of you are completely lacking in reading comprehension.

Responses from Helen Major and Matt Blank are perfect illustrations why Trump is successful. No attention to the actual points in the post, just knee-jerk blind lashing out at whatever target is handy. The sad truth is that pushing people’s buttons is child’s play, and hacking a democracy is too easy. A demagogue like Trump is inevitable, it’s only a matter of when, not if. “The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with an average voter” Winston Churchill

Bill Watson says:

Astute observation, Boris. I was stunned at the criticisms aimed at things Jay didn’t even say. Just raw emotion and a national case of attention deficit disorder.


I agree: there is a problem with the media
but there is also a problem with the media’s audience.

People don’t read carefully. They prefer talking.

They don’t pay attention, which makes it that much easier
for the people who are supposed to be analyzing this
election to do a sloppy job.

The “on the one hand, on the other hand” style of reporting –which assumes that the arguments on each
side are equally good–is not new (as Jay says), but it has reached a new extreme.

The fact that the NYT acknowledges that it has been
reluctant to use the word “lie” says it all. To suggest that
one side is lying might undermine the Times’ reputation
for ‘objectivity.”

But of course the goal of journalism should be “truth”–
not “objectivity.”

Marcel Kincaid says:

Objectivity is a fine goal … truth is objective, independent of any agent. But the media has substituted a very different criterion — “balance”. Balance has nothing at all to do with objectivity … it’s about creating an appearance of equivalence regardless of reality.

What’s “new” is that Trump is “A Bridge Too Far” for the Republicans, not the press. They could go along with Reagan, Bush I, Bush II, McCain, and Romney (even as this path led further and further away from any Socratic or even American idea of governance and politics). But Trump is too much, for, I think, class reasons as much as anything (as well as some insider/outsider mechanics that are actually less important than the class stuff). Trump prompts a bilious “No way” response that the others didn’t. Nixon, the last person to risk this, did his time in New York at that law firm to establish his bona fides (not to mention the Whittaker Chambers stuff); Reagan had GE and the California incumbancy to prove he’d play the game despite his outlandish declassé roots. Trump has nothing like this. (He even makes Perot look like a Broder-ite by comparison.) Hence the seismic shifts.

But I don’t think it’s the press reaching their boiling point — it’s the Republican establishment. The press is just following along. If Washington said Trump was OK, all the Frank Brunis and Maureen O’Dowds would fall in line.

SqueakyRat says:

A bridge too far for the Republicans? Almost all of them are on board.

Agreed. The fact is, Trump is doing as well as any Republican candidate for the Presidency in recent memeory. The Republican base has no interest in “conservatism”; the dog whistles are all they care about.


Marcel Kincaid says:

Sorry, Jordan, but that is complete nonsense. Trump is the GOP candidate, he has 90% of the GOP vote. He is the result of the GOP, for reasons explained in the article that you seem to have completely ignored.

Did you even read Jay’s article? Because based on this rant, I can’t find much evidence that you did.

Already I hear media press saying we can’t be blamed, after all we didn’t nominate Trump nor will we be casting the votes putting him in office. I agree media – You stand accused! If he is elected it will be the media’s fault by failing in their responsibility to report and not just repeat news. You slobbered all over DJT during the primaries & profits were made. Lord help you if you continue to play the way DJT and his campaign wants you too and not hold those people responsible for each and every lie uttered by him or his spokes people and even supporters between now and November.

Time to earn your pay and maybe a little self-respect because you have lost ours.

If you want to yell at the media, please go to the media’s house.

This is my place.

I completely wholeheartedly agree with everything Steve said. No one else could be as responsible as the media for DT success. Without reiterating his point, I agree.
Why Jay would you claim this as ‘ your place’ it is a public site which invites comments, I didn’t see anywhere it being stated that each comment must be to YOUR liking to be acceptable, though this does seem to be your point!

What Steve and Jay seem to have missed, and I think Jay was trying to say in his responses, is that Jay is not part of “the media.” He is a well-respected media critic who has been raising these important issues for years.

Wasn’t yelling at Jay. I agreed with him on twitter but added my comments on an open site and believe Media’s failure to understand what’s occured as Jay stated if the problem. But Jay this is your house – keep it I won’t visit again wow, need to grow up son.

Thank you, Karen. Don’t come to my site to yell at the media. I am not the media.

That does not equal “you can’t say anything critical about what I wrote.”

I find your analysis on mark. I have been seeing some of the same things for years. The current apologetics for the endless false equivalency I am seeing elsewhere just proves your point.

Marcel Kincaid says:

So the GOP has nothing to do with Trump?

Your thesis is ludicrous. Of course the media bears some responsibility, as detailed in this article that folks like you and Steve seem not to have read.

Matt Blank says:

I agree with you whole heartedly.

Just like 2000. Because of the disgraceful behavior of the media, passing on–even creating–lies about Al Gore, we got a callow doofus as President, one who didn’t know enough not to depend on neocon Dick Cheney for foreign policy.

If Al Gore had prevailed, we would never have gone to war in Iraq. Therefore, I blame the media for the Iraq War in two ways–by helping Bush prevail in 2000 and by helping push the lies that Cheney/Bush used to get us into the war.

The situation this year may be even more dangerous.

The new tactic of the mainstream media, for the good of the republic, for the good of mankind, had better be to find any and every way possible to ensure the overwhelming defeat of Donald J. Trump.

Honest journalism? Honest journalism has left the building. Having decided that Trump is an existential threat, mainstream media have given themselves permission to deviate from any kind of normal journalistic principles to oppose Trump in every way possible. What a rich irony it would be if voters’ reaction to this uneven playing field were to get the huckster Trump elected president.

Marcel Kincaid says:

Your claims are seriously at odds with reality.

Very helpful in pulling together the strategy behind what looked like madness from the Trump team.

Given the dynamics you describe here, what would an appropriate response look like from the “political press”?

– more coverage of Trump U fraud cases?
– more coverage of Trump Foundation self dealing?
– less coverage of Trump?
– more coverage of Clinton?
– only quoting Trump if he has a coherent position on the topic being discussed?
– more fact check pieces (ala NYT whoppers of the week)

Interested in other possible approaches.

Terri L Perry says:

Here’s ONE stop giving them a forum in which they can freely LIE..and stop saying he is untruthful or whatever euphemism you a LIE A LIE!! Tell surrogates if they are NOT going to answer questions or deflect or LIE that their mikes will be cut & they will NOT be invited back. Stop broadcasting their rallies where he can LIE to millions of people unchecked! If someone like this is in charge the entire world IS in danger. He is unhinged, unbalanced, narcissistic…just plain fucking CRAZY!!!! STPP TREATING HIM LIKE HE IS NOT!!!

I agree, I said early on the media needed to hold him to a higher standard, telling him if he didn’t/couldn’t behave presidential he’d receive NO air time period!
But unfortunately media could not resist feeding their own insatiable appetite for what everyone believed would result in a train wreck.
Then it became a matter of ratings, at which point ethics were abandoned.

I can only be left to wonder how differently things would’ve unfolded for Bernie Sanders had he been given even half as much attention.

Ultimately in this day and age the media has far too much power of persuasion, which is why after 2008 much of news networks were bought up by the 1%.

SqueakyRat says:

The media can’t simply deny coverage to the nominee of one the two major parties, a nominee who seems to have a solid chance of winning the election. He may be crazy, but if so, a large part of the public is also crazy. That’s not something the media can just ignore.

Kimberly Krautter says:

That’s not holding Trump to a higher standard, that’s holdin him and his campaign/surrogates to ANY standard.

I’d also say one way the mainstream media can change is to stop covering liars so much.

Stop believing that it’s appropriate to have “both sides” get roughly equal time.

Donald Trump is running for president, so he should get coverage. But there is no reason that his surrogates should get time on screen saying whatever they want. If a journalist wants to cover them, cover them as a phenomenon like a storm, or a new animal. Don’t give them an outlet – talk about them as liars, and point out how incoherent they are.

The press should stop being stenographers and a TV studio, and instead try to critically uncover/provide information that enables citizens to better understand reality.


Nancy CAMEL says:

I agree that the media gives too much time and credence to Trump surrogates. Some are on cable networks so often that they seem like paid staff. That’s not journalism; it’s pandering for ratings!

I agree with Jay, Trump’s lies have caused so much confusion that some of the electorate just go with the hype rather than looking for the truth. I cannot abide the lies! How can the media?

Marcel Kincaid says:


Wikipedia has a set of policies that the media could do well to understand and adopt … such things as “reliable sources” and “undue weight”.

Paul Lukasiak says:

I don’t think the problem is giving surrogates time to “speak on behalf of the campaign” per se; the problem lies instead in allowing the surrogates for both candidates to simply ignore the question, and filibuster about something else. And the solution is simple…turn of their mikes, and put the camera on someone else. There is little point in attempting to discuss a specific issue if you are going to allow people to ignore the questions with impunity

Trump and his surrogates present an additional problem — flat out lying. And the solution is again the same — first, tell the liar that their statement is false and allow them to withdraw it, and if they don’t, turn off their mike. There is simply no justification for wasting airtime on discussions based on false premises.

Marcel Kincaid says:

“He is unhinged, unbalanced, narcissistic…just plain fucking CRAZY!!!! STPP TREATING HIM LIKE HE IS NOT!!!”

Um, he’s not the only one.

I agree and I would also add; Do the voters know that if Trump won, the “president elect” would be facing a RICO suit?

Bill Watson says:

A great many of them do not believe that is true, Debra, and a great many others do not care. Raw emotion based on a carefully nurtured belief that they are victims of an unfair system is what is driving Trump’s campaign.

I’m glad they are finally putting full quotes of the ramblings Trump uses for the English language.

I was so frustrated to read their ‘paraphrase’ of Trump has said such and such. They would put it into coherent sentences for him. !

Christopher Turnbow says:

The last two options you listed, look the most likely to have an impact to me. I like the idea of only quoting him when he says something coherent.

Great article. Are there any war rooms with journalists in them going over the points in this article and planning a Battle-of-Britain defense of Democracy? Or a D-Day assault on the false consciousnesses of Trump and the Republican Party?

Terri L Perry says:

God I hope so!!!

Judy DiBongi says:

Exactly what I was thinking. Is there even time at this point for the press to develop and launch a totally new approach? Feels like the proverbial turning the Titanic….to big, to difficult, too late.

Paul Lukasiak says:

yes there is time. The easiest way to deal with the problem (for TV) is turning off the mike of people who lie and/or go off topic.

People won’t focus on the issues as long as the (electronic) media demands/creates that focus.

William Pietri says:

Thanks for an excellent piece. This helps me a lot in understanding why the mainstream press has struggled so.

As a programmer, I think your use of the technical debt metaphor is appropriate. One of the things that makes too much technical debt so dangerous is the way it gives each individual an incentive to make the the problem ever so slightly worse. The toll it takes leaves people with an ever-decreasing share of time and attention to recognize and confront the problem.

In software, I only see the story of excess technical debt ending one of two ways. The good way is that some crisis makes people say, “We can’t go on like this.” They buckle down and slowly pay down the debt. The other is declaring technical bankruptcy. If the company is in good shape, they throw out the old system and create a new one. If not, it can destroy the company, as it did with Netscape.

Thanks, William.

I was a little hesitant to use the term “technical debt” because every time I do something like that people with a technology background tell me I’ve either misused it, or that no one uses that term because it’s meaningless.

William Pietri says:

I can’t say I’m surprised. In some sense we programmers make our living through making our metaphors flawless, so we are a persnickety tribe. Computers allow us nothing less. But as George Box wrote, “all models are wrong, but some are useful,” and I think it’s a pretty useful model here.

Perhaps the technical side of technical debt isn’t quite a match, but definitely the business experience is. The jointly-created intellectual work that underpins your business has become outdated through a mix of well-intentioned neglect and bad incentives. Each day you go without addressing it, the hole gets a bit deeper. The ongoing cost of the problems slowly sap your ability to address those same problems. Unless there’s a shared acceptance of the severity of the problem, nothing will get better; the problem is too big for an individual to solve. And so many people are used to the current situation that it’s very hard to get that acceptance: everybody’s stuck in what aerospace people call “normalization of deviance”.

So if my people still object, feel free to send them my way. I’ll do what I can.

I’m a retired programmer. The technical debt metaphor allowed me to understand the problem in a way I would not have otherwise.

The technical debt argument has resonance with me. In two cases, I was in organizations who would almost never consider making the decision to reduce that debt. It was either “too early to tell”, or “too late to change”. Changes that did get made were usually either hacks, or “disgusting hacks”. In one case, when it ended, a 1.8 billion per year was utterly gone within 18 months. In the other, a different division of the same company did clean up the mess, and the division I was part of was wiped out.

That’s interesting. Thanks.

The whole surrogate scam is a big problem. Trump has an army of slick liars who are happy to go on camera and peddle BS til the cows come home. They’re way better at it than he is.
A good first step: Banish them from the airwaves.

Paul Lukasiak says:

surrogates are not a bad thing — the candidates can’t be everywhere at once, and its good to have people in a position to speak on their behalf.

The primary problem is the lack of any demand that the surrogates focus on the issue at hand — or that they tell the truth.

(there is a related problem of news networks picking their own “surrogates” — that “taco truck on every corner” guy wasn’t an authorized Trump surrogate, he was just a Trump supporter who created an impressive sounding organization name.)

Even with their sudden, last minute awakening to the fact that Trump is not a “normal” candidate, our political journalists are still completely unaware of how bizarrely asymmetrical they remain.

The author even did it in this article. He had to put in that obligatory “Hillary’s guilty of something” disclaimer, lest, God forbid, some other journalist think that there will not be a full accounting of all her sins, over and over and over, any time she’s brought up, whether relevant or not. Hillary Clinton, “for all her problems, including ________”, insert favorite Hillary scandals/conspiracies here, (so nobody ever forgets that she’s constantly covered by scandal).

How you gonna fix that symmetry problem if you can’t get through an article without the obligatory reminder of Hillary’s sins,(real or imagined), even as you can’t begin to convey the sheer magnitude of Trump’s?

The whole political media got this wrong, and they still are. Trump punked them, the entire way, and they fell for it so hard that they still don’t know how bad they got taken. Even his fake press conference didn’t fully shake them out of it.

This week I’ve heard several of the professional ruminators, like Chuck Todd, & Joe Scarborough, going on at great length over how much money Hillary has spent on TV compared to Trump who has spent almost nothing, and how all her money didn’t seem to have bought her much since they are so close in the polls.

They seemed so sincerely concerned for Hillary, spending all that money and only being tied in the polls. And not one of them noticed that they never take unto account the millions in free TV time they all GAVE Trump for over a year, letting him position himself and define his message, and all for free.

They look at it and just see Hillary spending all that money, which she did, but they don’t follow through on what really happened and who paid for what.

Hillary paid for what she got. Every minute of TV time she used, she paid for. Trump, on the other hand, used “OPM”, Other People’s Money, and the media still hasn’t noticed it.

Trump, unlike Hillary, isn’t spending his campaign donations on the media, or on a national ground game to get out the vote. He’s paying himself, to the tune of millions, and most of the media remains oblivious.

Now Trump is running out the clock, not releasing taxes or any info, not giving press conferences anymore, not talking to any media except FOX, and saying enough outrageous things to keep the media distracted at least once a news cycle.

FGPalace says:


Matthew W Blank says:


Russell Hanks says:

Sorry, but as I read it, “all of her problems” sounds like a critique of her flaws as a candidate. While those flaws might be debatable, they are evident to both supporters and opponents. The so-called scandals do not factor into this piece. The same problem with reporting on Trump now and on the Republican party in the past few cycles feeds the scandal narrative and the inability to highlight the asymmetry allows the “even-handed” coverage that gives the imaginary transgressions equal footing with the actual lack of evidence.

Marcel Kincaid says:

“While those flaws might be debatable, they are evident to both supporters and opponents.”

Nonsense. The actual facts — such as that Clinton is one of the most honest, sincere, and caring people ever to appear on the political scene — is not at all “evident” to people because that’s not the picture that the media paints.

Paul Lukasiak says:

I disagree…but only to the extent that the media has harped so relentlessly on these supposed flaws that its become a form of gaslighting. At this point, is there anyone left who can perceive Clinton as “well informed, articulate, and organized” rather than “too lawyerly”? The media has pretty much decided that Hillary’s greatest strengths are actually weaknesses — and in doing so, has managed to convince the nation that its so. (another example — Hillary is the most transparent candidate ever — yet is presented as someone who is relentlessly secretive!)

Marcel Kincaid says:

Indeed. The talk of Clinton’s problems and relationship with the press is presented as if they were *her* fault, with no mention of the role the media has played. It isn’t just that the media doesn’t know what to do with Trump and the GOP, it’s that it operates on “narratives”, like Al Gore lying and sighing, and Clinton being untrusted, that THEY CREATED. On the night of the first Gore-Bush debate, all the polls taken by the press showed Gore won by 10%, but by the end of the week the media had created the impression that he had lost because of “eye rolling” and “sighing” — when in fact it was Bush’s mockery of mathematics that viewers saw as arrogant. And that narrative is now the recorded history.

Kirk Tofte says:

The most asymmetrical aspect of news media coverage this election season–xtending back 18 months–is the incessant coverage of Hillary’s e-mails. Add to that the overdone coverage of Benghazi and the Clinton Foundation and you get an “informed” electorate that is now saying in polls that Donald Trump is more honest and trustworthy than Hillary Clinton. The above article explains a great many things but it doesn’t explain THAT. Would the author of it care to try in a reply?

Jean Mathieson-Guest says:

Absolutely! The asymmetry is in the Clinton coverage. Too much coverage of the Clinton nonsense scandals (did anyone actually find anything in the e-mails that made it worthwhile?) and too little coverage of actual Trump horrific facts (bankruptcies, cheating small businesses, shady overseas business dealings). Put on a scale of importance the Clinton “scandals” are so lightweight they barely register.

I couldn’t agree more with Kirk. If Trump wins this election, it will have been primarily due to the coverage of Clinton, not because the coverage of Trump has been negligent (though it has been!). And, as others have noted, the approach to the coverage of Clinton is nothing new — it’s classic Rove projection — hit you opponent on their greatest strength and turn it into a weakness.

Consider the Clinton Foundation. Its vision is clearly stated on its website, and its effectiveness should have been the subject of journalism. Instead, the narrative became solely about pay-to-play and access (think about the irony there!), and too much of the public bought the idea that the Clinton and Trump Foundations were equally shady. Only recently did Dylan Matthews in Vox publish an extensive analysis of the effectiveness of the Clinton Foundation ( and found that it is excellent. Instead, we have been taught that it is a conflict of interest that must be shut down (all while ignoring the gargantuan conflicts of interest that constitutes the Trump empire if he should be elected).

Paul Lukasiak says:

I think the asymmetry is also in the creation of narratives. There three Clinton narratives that every story falls into
1) Clinton is dishonest
2) Clinton is secretive
3) Clinton is wonky.

Yet, there are no corresponding narratives for Trump. No one says “This just adds to the perception that Trump is a compulsive liar” or “Trump is reinforcing the impression that people have that he is completely erratic.”

That being said, I’d like to point out something that has not yet been mentioned about the post-debate coverage — while the media has been extremely negative toward Trump’s performance, they also have felt compelled to find things to criticize about Clinton. I mean, how many “She didn’t talk about this issue” pieces have you seen, especially about her “failure” with millennials. Clinton cleaned Trump’s clock, but the media can’t report that — even when she’s kicking butt and taking names, the media has to find some way to criticize her, in order to create some “symmetry”

Sanity Please says:

Good analysis of the problem, but if you’ve proposed solutions they went over my head. What should replace the mental framework you describe that relied on a symmetry that no longer exists?

I don’t particularly like the proposals made in some of the comments. It’s not as simple as merely calling every untruth a lie, or attempting to ban surrogates, even if journalists had the omniscience necessary to make such judgments.

I think journalists should study enough so that they, at least, know enough to distinguish fact from fiction, and certainty from matters upon which reasonable people can differ. I think they must be intrepid in clarifying the issues and their implications for the public, and in revealing the interests of issue and candidate advocates. They should help all advocates to make their best arguments. And they should call bullshit when arguments are made based on facts they know to be false.

in the context of Trump, that means helping the public to understand what his Presidency would be like. He is an unprecedented figure here, but people like him have won power elsewhere. How has that worked out for the people of those countries? In my mind, he has an authoritarian theory of government, where force of personality and “strength” substitute for normal statecraft. Is that true? If so, what might he do differently from a normal President?

Ironicallly, Trump’s lies and disruptive rhetoric may be so audacious and mesmerizing that they distract us from our duty to inform. To date, the public has no idea how truely awful it might be to live under a President Trump.

I did not propose solutions, you’re right.

I limited myself to saying: here’s what I see going on here.

I appreciate this, and the distinction.

We (and I mean we: the press + the press-consuming public, with the involvement of critics and experts such as Rosen and many others) will need to come up with solutions, but the first step is always admitting/diagnosing the problem.

Bill Watson says:

The thing the best media do best, shine a spotlight on facts, doesn’t work if the person shown to be on the wrong side of the facts has convinced his followers that the reporting is tainted. Many of Trump’s followers already disbelieve what they disdainfully call the mainstream media, and instead get nonfacts and fuel for their emotional hangover from outlier outlets, fake news channels like Fox, and bloggers who say what they want to hear because they want people clicking on their sites and generating click revenue. A plan for changing coverage that takes into account the alienation of much of the public from news reporting doesn’t seem to be possible, but I admit I have been part of the “find out what’s going on and just tell people” paradigm for too long. Part of the problem is that any attempt to explain to people why they are “wrong”, by virtue of being gullible, deliberately undereducated and misinformed, sounds like criticism of them,so they simply reject it out of hand.

Marcel Kincaid says:

That’s what the media COULD do best, but it no longer does. Instead it presents narratives it has constructed.

Paul Lukasiak says:

Why not?

(perhaps a follow-up post that allows us to focus on the problem here, and on solutions elsewhere?)

Michele Turner says:

Living under a president Trump would look very much like Russia since 1991. Media might want to take note of what that means to them. Need help?

Michele Turner says:

While not likely to happen, one journalist could save us all with 1 question. There are 2 more debates. I can only guess if viewership will be as high or still undecided.

Here is the suggested question:

“Secretary Clinton, by all objective standards you are an honest and trustworthy person whose character is vouched for by the most accomplished and respected people in the world. But for some reason, my peers have labored tirelessly to convey the opposite impression, and have done so with ruthless efficiency. Can you forgive us for savaging your character? Can you forgive us for actively tipping the scales in your opponent’s favor? Can you forgive our mindless and incessant repetition of baseless GOP talking points? Can you ever forgive us?”

This one question is absurd. It’s beyond a leading question, and it’s totally editorializing. This is JUST ONE MORE liberal fantasy in which the mouthpieces of reason (media?) only needs the correct statement to wipe away the left’s failure to adequately produce media for the “lowers.” Just his one question will redeem the liberal class from ceding the entire enterprise to the right for 30 years. Ahem. fantasy scenarios of “fairness” like this are batted around the strategically vacuous brain cavities of the political class as a salve to the utter failure of the liberal class to show empathy or make policies that reflect the interests of the Lowers.

Who cares if this is even the right thing to do? It’s the notion that you somehow believe that it should be done to soothing your sense of justice that is ridiculous.

Marcel Kincaid says:

Your comment reflects your own ideological fantasies. As for leading questions, talk to Matt Lauer.

John DesMarteau says:

The solution is right in front of you: the media needs to become asymmetric in its coverage of the race. Stop covering Trump’s every utterance by ignoring him and his surrogates, and start covering Hillary Clinton’s positives. One example is her mental health policy, which received very little publicity. Her take on Alzheimers, which will cost billions if we don’t find a cure, is another. And there are many more on her website. Help the public to recognize she is the most qualified person to be our next president. Stop covering Trump, giving the narcissist what he craves most, namely attention, and he will likely implode all on his own. It’s not too late to save us from Donald Trump.

Repetitions of a lie, even to refute it, fixes it in the mind of the listener. Over time, with enough repetitions, the listener only remembers the words of the lie and forgets the refutation part. This is how a lie becomes a “truth”. When Trump tweets or says a lie the media should only say it once, declare it a lie, and continue with “In other news…”. They should not give it more time. Do not rehash it over and over again.

But of course, this is too much to ask. Media will not ignore the sound that money makes while they repeat the lies and capture more gullible audience.

Matthew W Blank says:


I invite readers to read The Dangers of Hateful Language published August 23, 2016, and The Dying of Democracy in America published October 1, 2014, both at The Examined Life found at

Mr. Rosen’s excellent piece reinforces the idea that many people are susceptible to the allure of the authoritarian strongman who will say everything his audience wants to hear and doesn’t feel confined to societal rules of any kind.

Your theory sounds cool, but…nah….you all screwed up. If Trump is elected, the media and all its cohorts are getting the blame. Sorry, dude, you guys blew it.

Marcel Kincaid says:

The author is not a member of the media. Learn to read.

I’ve been waiting for something like this. As an NPR listener and former Jim Lehrer News Hour watcher, I could see how the urge to remain objective was being played by hucksters. Ron Elving finally said “enough is enough” regarding Trump’s lies, but I agree that the instinct of political journalists will continue to daunt and haunt us.

NPR, that leftist librul socialist Obamacast, has been egregious in its he said she said (literally this time) coverage. Like pretty much playing lengthy audio of Trump lying and then “but many people do not trust Hillary Clinton and think she is a liar.”

I have encountered raw bitter hatred against Hillary like I have never seen before, and it has built up over the decades to this crescendo, and I do blame the media and many Bernie supporters. Maureen Dowd of the NY Times wrote countless deranged, scathing columns attacking the Clintons. I cancelled my home delivery of the NY Times over it. It’s been a form of McCarthyism. We need to identify it as such. At long last, is there no shame? It looks like some shame is finally appearing.

Matthew W Blank says:

I concur

Thank you for this.
Some of us feel that we have fallen down the rabbit hole.
I remember a Christian Science Monitor story; “The impact of Bush linking 9/11 and Iraq” … “Polling data show that right after Sept. 11, 2001, when Americans were asked open-ended questions about who was behind the attacks, only 3 percent mentioned Iraq or Hussein. But by January of this year, attitudes had been transformed. In a Knight Ridder poll, 44 percent of Americans reported that either “most” or “some” of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Iraqi citizens. The answer is zero.”
This was a failure of media.

One gets the impression that the media has to downplay Trump’s negatives while exaggerating Clinton’s in order to equalize or balance them.
Kind of like a parent who tries to treat their two children’s bad deeds equally when Ike didn’t do his homework, and did not put the milk away after he said he would, while Mike slashed a teacher’s tires, got in caught using a stolen credit card and stole a car. They don’t want to appear as if they are always “picking on Mike”.
That is a failure.

Is this the NEW “political correctness”?

sunny raines says:

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men and women to say and do nothing”

A Campbell says:

I think this is a great analysis of the challenges and conditions that the Press has found itself in, created for itself, and ultimately been exploited by the GOP party and its candidates.

Accepting that, what puzzles me are the large number of voters who will acknowledge many or all or Trump’s efforts to “break the press” and essentially say that they just don’t care.

Put differently, voters can’t say that they don’t know Trump lies regularly or that he’s incredibly inconsistent with his positions–they’ve been presented with overwhelming evidence for both of these facts.

However, even with this knowledge they say that they support him and will vote for him. Worse, even with his misogynistic, racist, nativist, homophobic and islamaphobic statements (which are less about lying and more about outright bigotry), they say they’ll vote for him: they know he’s a bigot and they don’t care. In fact, that’s something that makes him attractive as one who “speaks his mind.”

Given all that, what’s the value of the media addressing the asymmetry of this cycle if the voters cannot themselves call out and denounce obvious and explicit bigotry and calumny?
Or if they see such behaviour as a positive attribute and call it honesty? Orwell would be delighted to know how such a complete inversion of meaning occurs at the level of the electorate.

T1gerlilly says:

I agree with the majority of commenters that the main flaw of this article is the asymmetry in describing the coverage in the two candidates. I have been struck this campaign season by how overwhelmingly negative the coverage of Hillary has been. It seemed clear to me early on that her main strategy was to engage the American people directly, so that she got SOME chance to talk about issues that matter – to her and to us. Whenever she talks to the press they generally focus on ‘controversial’ irrelevancies, like the emails, where the conversation has been defined by partisans on the other side.

I’m often struck, as well, by how often I hear entire conversations in the press and on TV in which ALL the voices are white men. It has made me extremely aware of who, exactly, makes up the political press core. I do think this is important, because you can see the difference in polling in how Americans of different identities evaluate Clinton and Trump. Black men haven’t been fooled by Trump’s lies and seem to recognize that if you’re pissing the Republican’s off THAT much, you’re probably doing something right. White women, even ones who normally vote republican, tend to see him for what he is: a narcissistic, lying, warmongering manchild whose utter incompetence is masked by the fortune he inherited and his criminal ability to make others bear the cost of his bad decisions.

But you never hear those points of view in the public sphere- they’re confined to the insular communication of social media. So political journalism simply reflects the conversation of white men to other white men and others who have chosen to align themselves with the dominant power structure.

Your comment gets me wondering about how US based Spanish language journalism is covering this race. I have seen commentary that Jorge Ramos and Univision and some other US Spanish press are less bound by the constraints Jay talks about here.

More broadly, I do think the dominance of the straight white male frame in US media is one of the problems with the coverage.

In the same way that we for a long time accepted some sort of multigenerational-midwestern white person as having a “broadcast standard” accent without questioning what that said to immigrants, POC, etc, we see in the underlying cultural assumptions of much print and TV journalism.

The reason for the asymmetry is not Trump. Trump just makes what has been going on for years so obvious that it can’t be ignored by most of the press anymore. The press hates the Clintons, period. And that dislike extended to Gore–the asymmetric treatment of Gore and Bush during that campaign is painfully obvious, yet both ran a “traditional” campaign that MOSTLY respected the norms (though Rove was breaking them in some ways.) It isn’t Donald’s refusal to accept the norms that has “fried the circuits of the press”, it is Clinton Rules.

Paul Lukasiak says:

I’m pretty sure that the asymmetry that Dr Rosen was discussing was that of the candidates — and the problem was the way in which the media felt compelled to cover them symmetically.

Hanan Cohen says:

A great list of ideas that will help me better understand Netanyahu, Israeli politics and press.

Does anyone in the media remember Hans Blix?
If so, how did you cover his reports and would you do your coverage differently now?
Do you feel a little to blame for what happened in Iraq?

Andrew Dabrowski says:

Are you sure the press doesn’t want Trump elected? Wouldn’t an impeachment be great for ratings?

Time to make Trump pay for his air time. Enough freebies.

Hello Jay,
A preferred term might be “immensely” challenging.
The premise to this hot mess is that media owners and managers want to alienate and lose as few viewers as possible. The dialectics end up becoming debilitated to such a debased degree that thinking and feeling viewers can feel demeaned.
Realpolitic, for a republican however, has been at the state level only. And they are winning. Witness what has happened in Florida, Ohio, Indiana, Kansas Michigan and Wisconsin. Don’t get me started on the south. And it happens with a corruption, a cheating and lawlessness condoned and unabated by a historically uncaring and worse, unaware, mostly blanched power structure including press (see: Dan Balz).
Republicans then make an attempt to take their idiot-festooned road show to a national stage.
Media is confronted by their Trump problem on a national level and the urge is for owners and managers is to not turn off a large portion of viewers to keep advertising revenue flowing. It leaves any thinking caring viewer aghast. You and I end up as witness to their spectacular failure as they try to come to terms except there are no terms only viewership and advertising dollars.
We are left watching and reading about a slick mal-adjusted tv impresario, too many fascinated, too many in disgust. No one turns it off.
Thank you,

Robert Bell says:

To give credit where credit is due, I think John Cole was well ahead of Mann and Ornstein in pointing out the asymmetry as early as 2009 with the “tire rim and anthrax” metaphor.

As was Paul Krugman:

Thank you for saying what needs to be said so clearly and powerfully.

I’m especially struck by your suggestion that creating confusion is Trump’s GOAL, not something to be avoided.

I recently read something in a new book on human evolution that struck me as extremely applicable to Trump’s campaign. I wrote a short post about it on Daily Kos, which I hope you’ll have a look at:

Here’s the nut of it: Language can only work as a communication tool if there are social norms against constant and outrageous lying. Throw away these norms—as Trump has—and language loses its effectiveness.

Trump says that “he alone” can be trusted, then he appears to nullify that message by constantly contradicting himself. The metamessage is “Don’t trust anything anyone tells you—even me.”

Why? Because when you strip the content out of the spoken word, what’s left is presentation. Attitude and emotion. And that’s what Trump is selling. Everyone lies, so the only way to choose is by how the sales pitch makes you feel.

As my Daily Kos piece says, Trump is deliberately and methodically destroying the use of language itself for communication in our politics. Obviously, Hillary wins on the content of her message. Trump plans to win on pure attitude. Facts—or even a coherent fiction—be damned.

And since the primary tool of journalists is language, Trump has effectively disarmed them.

Trump has tweeted that you can’t even trust his own campaign staff’s statements.

How can this be tolerated by the press? It shouldn’t be. And one solution is to stop accepting them as guests, as quotes for stories, etc.

But then the tap runs dry, and so far reporters don’t seem to be able to stand the silence.

Pwning Putie says:

Trump is running a chaos and confusion campaign. The concept is so foreign to most Americans we cant manage the cognitive heavy-lifting required to unpack trumps simple election strategy. A clear and easily understood framework for trumps ascent to the brink of power can be gleaned from the activities of Mr Putin. Putins Russia is a hotbed of hate toward all things western. The Russian population sidles up to the propaganda buffet bar willingly, because the fake stories, the outright lies, the alternate reality created from state controlled media is considered compelling. Thats right. Compelling is considered far more favorable that say something as mundane as facts. The Russian population is being lied to and they like it. Sound familiar? Do yourselves a favor. Seek out every article written about media in Putins Russia and you will come away with a clearer understanding of the trump phenomenon.

Ray Ward says:

This article appears to have been written by someone whose brain has been fried.

Dominic Holland says:

A comment on this quote from Dean Baquet

“We’re used to, I think as journalists, we’re used to philosophical debates, like one party thinks we should go to war on Iraq, makes its case—exaggerates its case, we now know.”

These are weasel words. It was a huge lie, which you could have seen if you were not willfully blind. Excusing yourself after the fact with “philosophical” and “we now know”: pathetic.


You are entirely right

I think your billboard illustration says it all (and a longer version is George Saunders’s piece in the New Yorker, or Eric Hoffer’s book on the disaffected roots of mass movements). There isn’t much of a ‘journalism’ response to ‘we hate you.’

There’s no audience in the middle. In effect, all the NYT can do is damage HRC, or stoke the fires for Trump. Positive words on HRC preach to choir, bad press on Trump just supports the views of his audience.

What I’d like to see is someone figure out who John Paulson is. That’s the missing key…Harvard admins read the NYT, but like money more, and that’s the answer in a plutocracy that would like to ‘feel’ civilized, but has short term ego and cash needs. Branko Milanovic has the most concise explanation of US politics:

“In the last few decades, Professor Milanovic argues, rising inequality in the United States led not to populism but to what he calls a “plutocratic” equilibrium, where elites purchase political power while the poor are systematically excluded and the working class is encouraged to support the status quo based on issues like gun control and gay marriage.”

Jay’s comments is very detailed and it’s hard to argue with most of the points he makes. However, there is a major problem with his analysis: he buries the lede, and by so doing fails to identify the primary cause of many of the effects he’s detailed.

This is the most important sentence in the analysis:

They (the press) should have admitted that they had become part of the political class, but it required them to retire too many illusions about themselves.

Jay says this but then just moves on, when it virtually the whole story! The trappings of journalistic objectivity like symmetry and the “similar actors” thesis are outgrowths of the press’s slow absorption into the political class, an absorption encouraged by the media companies Washington journalists worked for because it was good for business (for awhile).

Trumpists loathe the press because they (rightly!) view press organizations as accomplices in their political dispossession at the hands of elites. We can certainly argue over the degree to which the political inheritance those Trump supporters feel dispossesed of is a rightful inheritance, but the feeling is very, very real. There’s nothing the press can do in the short run to change this, since it’s been several decades in the making.

The atavism of Trump’s followers is nauseating and their analysis of the what ails them is flat wrong in obvious ways, but they are absolutely and incontrovertibly correct in feeling they’ve been abandoned by both the political class and the press that has chosen to serve it instead of serving their interests. That has happened.

Seems like a hell of a price for the society to have to pay for the pleasure journalists and editors get by sending their kids to the same prep schools and universities as the class of people they ought to be subjecting to close scrutiny.

Andrew Tyndall says:

Tonight’s debate represents a journalistic crisis for Lester Holt inasmuch as the demands of the role of moderator are on collision course with his year-long record in the role of newscast anchor.

Throughout 2016, NBC Nightly News has refused to treat the two candidates equally. Holt’s newscast has consistently been asymmetrical in its coverage, devoting three times as much attention to the Trump campaign (288 mins vs 93 for January through August) as to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s.

Suddenly, on the debate stage, Holt will be required to address the two candidates as equals: deserving of equal time, answering equally framed questions, subject to equal amounts of follow-ups and fact-checking.

How can Holt look into the camera with a straight face tonight — after months of presenting Trump as worthy of so much more attention — and pretend that the two candidates warrant equal scrutiny?

This table shows the Tyndall Report’s series for that portion of electoral coverage on the three broadcast networks’ weekday nightly newscasts (ABC, CBS and NBC combined) that has been devoted to the campaigns of the two main candidates in the first eight months of each year (January through August) from 1988 onwards. These numbers measure minutes of coverage of the candidates’ campaigns as opposed to other electoral coverage such as, for example, coverage of the primaries, the debates, the conventions, or issues, tactics, target demographics and so on.

In addition to the coverage of the Clinton campaign proper, this year the nightly newscasts devoted an additional 89 minutes to the investigation of her e-mails during her tenure as Secretary of State. Similarly, other non-campaign-related coverage of the two candidates (Trump University, Benghazi, their Family Foundations et al) is not included in these totals. During this eight-month period the totals for these additional topics has been negligible and so does not materially affect overall trends.

Rodham Clinton 296 Trump 822
Obama 77 Romney 308
Obama 557 McCain 315
Kerry 275 GW Bush 220
Gore 140 GW Bush 190
Clinton 104 Dole 207
Clinton 279 GHW Bush 274
Dukakis 155 GHW Bush 264

The lesson this year is that HRC has been covered as a normal candidate (very similar to Romney or McCain or Kerry or her husband in 1992). Trump is the asymmetrical aberration.

In interpreting these numbers, I side with the observation made above in point #2. Rather than perceiving in these data evidence that the network nightly newscasts have abandoned a mentality of symmetry between the two parties, on the contrary, I take it as evidence that Trump is being presented as an outlier threat to an abiding underlying symmetry.

If Holt breaks the debate commission’s rules tonight, and persists in treating the two asymmetrically, it will be persuasive that the “outlier threat” interpretation is incorrect.

Thanks, Andrew. I didn’t understand your final paragraph. Could you restate it?

Andrew Tyndall says:

If Holt were to abide by the debate commission’s rules tonight and treat each candidate equally, that would amount to an implicit admission that, at base, the General Election is a symmetrical contest and that all of the asymmetry of coverage that Holt has supervised in the build-up to the debate was merely a recognition that Trump represented an outlier threat to that symmetry.

On the other had, if Holt were to disobey the commission, and persist in his habit of the last eight months and treat the contest as a fundamentally asymmetrical one, then I would be forced to reevaluate and consider the entire course of campaign coverage so far this year as a recognition of a profoundly imbalanced political system: no longer two comparable parties with differing philosophies; but a contest between a radical extra-Constitutional insurgency bent on undermining political norms and the establishment itself.

The phrase I am having trouble with is “outlier threat to that symmetry.”

How is that different from the extra-Constituional actor you described?

Andrew Tyndall says:

I based the distinction on your own paragraph in #2. To wit: “But political journalism isn’t wired for this. It’s wired to safely reproduce the image of two comparable parties with different philosophies. As Ezra Klein noted, the fact that so many in the Republican establishment are appalled by their own nominee has made it easier for some journalists ‘to cover Trump as an alien, dangerous, and dishonest phenomenon.’ But this is not a break with the mental picture I described. It’s a kind of permission from the insiders to go after the guy as threat to the system they share with journalists.”

The distinction is between seeing Trump as the logical conclusion of an underlying partisan asymmetry (and therefore abiding, radical and structural) and seeing him as an aberrational alien phenomenon (and therefore a mere outlier after whom norms will be reestablished).

Okay, I understand now. Thanks.

I would think Lester Holt will try to be scrupulously ‘even handed’ and symmetrical in his behavior tonight, even to the point of balancing an unbalanced phenomenon, as Mann and Ornstein put it.

Andrew Tyndall says:

That is my expectation, too.

“Campaign journalists have to find a way to oppose this style without becoming election-season opponents of Trump himself, which is not, I think, their proper role.”
If Trump weren’t out to break journalism, and in my opinion quite likely thereby break American democracy, I’d agree. But the question of journalism’s role in the possible collapse of a system that they are seen as integral to isn’t theoretical. Do they have a responsibility to act outside of currently practised norms if the risk is great?
I am aware that overheated analogies can be problematic, but I think one can look at this election as pivotal at the level of 1930s Germany. What moral role should the press be playing now, if we may be nearing such a tipping point? Neutrally observer strikes me as reckless.
I have no background in journalism history, so I have no idea if German press operated on anything like our modern US concepts around objectivity and balance. But I wonder at what point they might have reached the ‘technical debt’ no-return moment?
I pose these worries in all seriousness. Six months or six years from now, I may look a fool. But I fear I may not.

When a guy shows up at the neighborhood bar and starts yelling at the bar staff and throwing furniture around because he doesn’t like the service, you don’t ignore him or try to reason with him for any length of time if you own the bar. You either toss him yourself or get law enforcement to toss him.

Donald Trump is that guy throwing the furniture. He thinks the system is rigged against him and intends to break it. The proper answer is to treat him like the child-like would-be vandal that he is.

august melish says:

The issue is more than the main stream media is viewing politics from within asymmetry. The msm is actively participating in upholding the illusion that the 2 party asymmetry is functioning on behalf of citizens. It is effect abdication of its duty to the truth in favor of its duty to its on self propigation has led to debt you speak of. Msm needs to be be struck with the monopoly stick to let the truth seep through. Trumps message resonates because he gives voice to what we feel.

Pwning Putie says:

trump gives voice to nothing we feel, unless you are fond of racist, lying frauds.

Actually, Putie, I’d say that Trump speaks to many in this country who feel left out, who feel economically vulnerable, who have been promised much by a generation of politicians (mostly on the right) who have promised solutions but of course never intended to follow through on them.

It shouldn’t make sense for them to chose another scammer, but with the current media crisis, they aren’t getting the information to see past their fears, and if any information does seep out, it is from sources they’ve been very effectively conditioned to distrust.

Ralph W–

Trump appeals to one group: white males who feel that they are being shoved aside by women, black, Hispanics, and new immigrants.

Most of these are white males who have only a

In the past, they were accustomed to being in a privileged position in this country. Many could get unionized manufacturing jobs that paid well. But now, thanks in large part to automation (not the Chinese) those jobs no longer eixst.

These men could benefit from apprenticeships in the trades (carpenters, plumbers, electricians) but many haven’t accepted the fact that the world has changed.

The problem isn’t so much the economy as the anger and fear they feel as they realize that they are no longer at the top of society’s pyramid.

It’s scary. And when people are scared, they tend to turn mean.

Another brilliant piece of thinking, Jay. I have two comments.

One, the thing journalists miss most in this argument is the, by now, common belief that they are liberal and the automatic enemy of the right. This belief among his audience is what gives Trump the free pass on behaving differently. You wrote: “Again and again with Trump, journalists find themselves in this position: persisting with familiar practices that don’t really make sense because the premise behind them has collapsed— collapsed for one candidate, but not the other.” The practices don’t make sense, because the readers believe the playing field is tipped, so any “confusion” created by differences stated by the candidate and his handles is completely accepted by his followers, because they believe the press is (deliberately) biased against the right.

Two, I’m liking more and more the comparison of Trump to a pro wrestler. Imagine, if you will, a split stadium in ancient times where both Olympic and professional wrestling was simultaneously entertaining the audience. The Greco-Roman style is “real,” while the pro is entirely fake. The elites in the best seats know that the fakes don’t belong in the arena, but they also know that the crowd of have-nots would kill them if the fakes were booted. Leader of the pros Vinceus McMannus is in many ways more powerful than even the emperor.

Keep at it, Jay. Your work – perhaps more than anyone else – is impacting the world of journalism more than you might think.

Thanks, Terry. Something this post is missing is what you noted: “the common belief that [journalists] are liberal and the automatic enemy of the right.” I had drafted a section about that, saying that the conservative movement essentially believes that there is no such thing as journalism, just politics by other means, or as I am frequently told, “Democratic lobbyists with press passes.” But I couldn’t get it to the point where it was as clear, as good as the rest of the piece and I was already at 3,000 words so I killed it.

You should read Roland Barthes on professional wrestling some time. You’d enjoy it.

J.C. Boone says:

Trump is usually defined explicitly or implicitly as a right wing populist. He’s a mashup of Perot and Wallace and every other populist third party insurgent, all filtered through a 2016 lens. This election we’re running the fun experiment “What if the crazy third party guy actually got one of the two mainline party nominations?!!” Hilarity has indeed ensued.

I dispute your premise that the Democratic Party doesn’t have a similar problem with a populist base that is out of touch with what can realistically be achieved within the current US political landscape. Ross Douthat made this point explicitly in his piece last week suggesting that the late night media echo chamber has led to a significant portion of the Democratic Party’s base that has no idea of where the broad political center of the country is at the moment.

I understand that your readership will tilt left, and many of them also suffer from Pauline Kael’s problem of not meeting many Nixon voters. But please step outside of that for a moment and think about this: a vocal, energized and significant portion of the Democratic Party’s base came close to nominating a 74 year old unabashed socialist whose policy proposals stood no greater chance of implementation than Trump’s. If Trump is the modern nominee who is farthest from the mainstream (and he is!), it does behoove people on the Democratic side to realize that Sanders would have been the second most.

The factors underlying this election are similar to the factors underlying Brexit – a vote against some perceived “establishment”, driven by emotion, not economic calculus, not careful examination of policy proposals.

To me, the equivalent article to yours above re: Brexit at a similar stage in the process would have been something like: “Wow, those Tories sure are a problem, with all of these racist creatures and broad middle class mad about everything. Gove, Boris all the rest deserve a special and harsher type of coverage.”

Omitted from that hypothetical article would have been any examination of mirror problems in the Labour Party base, leadership issues at the top of that organization, Brexit support from traditional Labour voters, and the like.

I agree 100% with your hypothesis that the party-media establishment is becoming disconnected from the base – I just think it’s happening to both parties.

It’s happening in both parties, but it didn’t overtake the Democratic party. Asymmetrical. That is what I wrote: “Now imagine what happens when over time the base of one party, far more than the base of the other, begins to treat the press as a hostile actor, and its own establishment as part of the rot…” Italics in the original because I was anticipating this point.

J.C. Boone says:

Fair point. I think we disagree on degree. “Far more” seems to overstate it to me, “more” maybe, but I’m not sure how much. Any party that nominated Sanders would had to have been viewed as captured by a populist element. He came closer than many people seem willing to admit in retrospect. Is everyone so sure that a similarly positioned Democratic insurgent doesn’t get the nomination in 2020?


I agree.

The Tea Party didn’t take over the Democrats.

And rational Dems were not driven out of their party in the 1990s.

Though some clear-thinking Dems did leave D.C. toward the end of the 1990s. They were disillusioned by Clinton’s attempts to move to the center & appease the GOP.

In particular, these Dems were appalled by the Welfare Bill which, as Robert Rubin argued, “would create latch-key children.”

? Sanders is nothing like Trump. He is an essentially honest person who has competently served the public for decades. He put forth robust policy proposals, based on working models that are currently in place elsewhere in the world. He repeated ad nauseum that acheiving these goals would require a “political revolution” involving sustained efforts from the public beyond simply voting him in. This is nothing like that con man claiming that he alone can solve our problems and refusing to divulge exactly how.

JC Boone says:

Ben, please. Are you suggesting “Who will pay for it? Mexico!!!” is not a well thought out plan to fund Trump’s largest proposed infrastructure project? If so I’m not sure we can have much of a discussion.

But (maybe?) more seriously, for just a minute, put aside that you think (and may be right) that Bernie is a better human than Trump. That doesn’t address the argument that Bernie’s campaign was driven by elements of the Democratic party that don’t feel heard by, or particularly identify with, the party’s mainstream. Call it populism, call it revolution, call it whatever you like, but both parties are clearly undergoing some kind of transformation. You personally may sympathize with one and feel repulsed by the other, but I’m not sure how that matters.

Dane Anderson says:

Thank you, Jay, for this excellent column.

EXCLUDING Jay Rosen and a very few others, the utter whoredom of the press and TV commenters this election season has been astonishing and destructive and has put this country in great danger by acting as if Donald Trump is a normal person.

He is not.

He gets what HE wants for HIMSELF or he makes people suffer!

Any dumb fool who thinks Donald Trump gives a da_n about anyone but Donald Trump (and a few in his family) is STUPID and in for a CRUSHING let-down if Trump gets to be president.

This election is not bean-bag; Donald Trump’s election as President could RUIN the lives of millions of innocent people.

Here’s a message to the media whores who tell us that Donald Trump is not the usual candidate and, therefore, they don’t know how to cover his candidacy . . . they “have to” maintain symmetry lest they be judged unfair.

(continuing my message to the media whores — NOT to Jay Rosen): You are already being unfair by giving print and TV space to far more right-wing opinionators than to normal people

Get work in a different profession, you idiots!!

Stop being afraid of Donald Trump. Stop using his antics to get viewers. You are stimulating the worst passions in the worst people. You are helping to elect the worst person ever to run for the presidency.
Quit your journalism job . . . you are a whore. . . get a job someplace where your lack of talent and integrity won’t matter!

I read this as a poor attempt to rationalize abandoning journalism to elect Clinton.

I agree, but at least Jay Rosen is somewhat measured in his discussion. Read the comments for a genuinely frightening look into the dark underbelly of progressive America. The authoritarian impulse is strong with these folks. They’re oblivious to the unremittingly negative coverage the mainstream media have given to Trump, coverage that ought to make anyone with concern for journalistic principles wince. Nothing less than suppressing the views they find so offensive will satisfy them.

And what a dilemma that creates for the mainstream media. Already beset by declining readership and viewership, they risk losing a significant portion of what remains if they anoint themselves the guardians of what’s appropriate to report to the masses.

What’s wrong with denying coverage to those whom progressive journalists deem to be enemies of the people? Only that it undermines both democracy and the continued viability of the mainstream media. And yet the Jacobins will settle for nothing less.

Brian Sament says:

The media are almost all liberals, including those who happen to be registered Republicans. And I don’t use “liberal” as a curse word. My views are closer to liberalism (which may be characterized as authoritarianism-lite) than Trumpism (authoritarianism, full stop).

The point – and I don’t claim originality on this, as there’s a half-dozen recent articles making the same point – is that the entrenched partisanship of a media that treated George W. Bush and Mitt Romney as monsters now has zero credibility to half of America. So they all scream that Trump is monster, with zero persuasive effect. Crying wolf, etc.

This argument has been trotted out the past few weeks and strikes me as absurd.

Can you point to straight news (not opinion writing, but A-section news) stories from major papers in the Bush years or Romney campaign season that called them ‘monsters’ and/or were ‘screaming’?

As the saying goes: Links or they didn’t happen.

Brian Sament says:

“Monsters” was hyperbole.

There has been a kind of meta-narrative of Republicans as these strange, ill-educated creatures, who are in given cases either pitiable or evil (because of their intolerance, bigotry, etc.). The political leaders of this group are then characterized as either just as dumb as they are (George W. Bush) or as evil manipulators of the sheep (Mitt Romney). President Obama’s “bitter clingers” comment back in 2008 – which was merely a repetition of what every 23-year old humanities grad student ever has said – encapsulated this narrative.

I have a dog in this fight. Maybe the rise of Trump illustrates that we have been rotting from inside, but at least for a substantial minority of us, the Republican Party is the Party of Lincoln, the Party of liberty and opportunity.

That’s what it used to be, anyway. We might need a new vehicle, post-2016.


The Republican party is not the party of Lincoln–and has not been since LBJ (and Robert Kennedy & Martin Lulther King) set out to desegregate schools in the South.

At that point, the South turned against the Dems & became a GOP stronghold. (LBJ knew that would happen, but he believed that he had to fight against racism.)

The majority of Trump’s supporters believe that the “Emancipation Proclamation” (freeing the slaves) was a mistake.

Donald is clearly a racist.

Chris Darling says:

Great as far as it goes. What the author leaves out is that, crazy as the asymmetry is, both parties exist primarily to serve the needs of large corporations and very wealthy individuals. That includes both Fascist Donald and Crooked Hillary. And the mainstream media, which is all the outlets the author lists and most of everything else that most of us read, also exists primarily to serve the same masters. And that is because 6 large corporations own nearly all of the print, TV, radio, and online media.

Bad as the unwillingness to acknowledge the asymmetry of the parties, and it is bad; it is even worse that the MSM do not want to acknowledge the huge populist uprising that supported the candidacy of Bernie Sanders.

If the media had given the coverage that Bernie deserved, and the DNC had not conspired against him, it is likely that Bernie would be the nominee. And he would be wiping the floor with Trump’s orange hair instead of the virtual tie that we have now.

It’s amazing to see the asymmetry even in the comments here, with lying statements such as “the entrenched partisanship of a media that treated George W. Bush and Mitt Romney as monsters now has zero credibility to half of America”

This is simply not true. GWB was considered very credible on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And Romney? The mainstream media simply reported what he said.

You are right that half the country doesn’t trust the media – but that’s due to the concerted effort to undermine it as described in this blog bost.

Paul Rulifson says:

Didn’t Hunter S. Thompson in the 1970’s write something on the codependency of journalists and politicians? Something about having drinks together after work and no journalist being willing to burn bridges by telling the McGovern campaign about Eagleton’s electroshock therapy?

I can’t find my copies of The Great Shark Hunt or Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.

Code Ferret says:

Great article Jay! I’ve been hoping someone would move on the asymmetric observation. You’ve captured nicely how the institutions are being manipulated – following on from Mann and Ornstein, and I think only a little need be added:

Trump is out to punish the institutions that have not given him the respect and acceptance that he seeks. Obama’s roasting of Trump was likely the tipping point that pushed a lifelong NYC Democratic into an all out campaign of destruction. He doesn’t want to become POTUS he wants to take down the entire affront to his being!

You do not defend the thesis, and think it indefensible, that politics actually is about two warring philosophies.

If politics is instead about two coalitions of identity/interest groups vying for power where the coalition composition drives the range of possible policy positions rather than the reverse, would it not be better to ditch access based journalism altogether?

Here’s something I wrote in 2011 that kinda sorta addresses that.

Very interesting! That theory is definitely more in line with my thinking.

You agree with it as description? I think it misses two things:
1. Party coalitions aren’t just coalitions of interest groups. They are “identity/interest groups.” This introduces the simple reality that humans use tribal identity as a heuristic that supplies “self-interest” and values/worldview, in-group/out-group designations, etc. we don’t reason out our interests. We are told by our tribe. Mostly the tribe gets it right. This frees up brain power for finding food, sex, and status. The all white nature of the press combined with an all white electorate pre-1965 obsures the fact that all politics is “identity politics”.
2. Party elites and interest groups/voters engage in a dynamic negotiation over policy preferences and identity politics. Elites have power to frame questions but identities are extremely conservative (that is, sticky or resistant to change).

You point to the cult of savvy as the result. I think the biggest problem is the “source v. institution” framing that dominates post-Watergate. When the source/individual is the protagonist of every narrative it’s very difficult to avoid casting his path as one of rational choices. That’s how individual narratives work. Our rational brains rationalize our lives.

Less focus on sources and more on events and public reaction might shift the narrative toward reality.

Perfect example of how this plays out: NYT Well Blog Piece on Sugar funding bad science that demonized fat.

Real story as reported by Gary Taubes: arrogant Harvard professor bucks his colleagues with scant evidence. He persuades the one staffer (non-expert, former journalist) writing the committee report to go his way. This end run causes countless American deaths.

Instead, the Times piece demonizes the Agriculture Industry and the Government when a courageous source leaks documents from big sugar. As if they created the arrogant and wrong Harvard guy in order to fund further research. Two institutions: Ag and Govt, between them, all Americans can say the NYT is clearly biased against something they hold dear, that organizes their world and gives life meaning. Who is spared? Two hacks, one from Harvard and one a reporter.

Ian Deal says:

You are leaving out one of the most important players; George McGovern, the liberal icon. His insistence that the problem was fat was contradicted by doctors and researchers on his committee, but he simply overrode them. Obesity and diabetes rates skyrocketed with the release of the food pyramid, and we have exported these epidemics to the rest of the world.

As influenced by your style as I am, here are two metaphors that stand in the way of reality-based journalism:

1. The political spectrum.
2. Parties as people.

Thank you for writing and sharing this, Jay.

I agree with your larger points, but I’m struggling with some finer details.

The media environment and what constitutes “the mainstream press” is very different today than when conventions of “regular” political and campaign coverage took hold. As a result, there’s more irregular coverage and selective consumption than before. Media consensus and audience atomization overcome in a way that contributed to greater departure from norms and greater space for asymmetry.

I also am putting this in context with Rauch’s contention that, “What we have done over the last 40 or 50 years is systematically attacked and weakened the parties, the political machines, the professionals, and insiders, and hacks, and all the tools they use to play well together. And with those gone, you get chaos.”

The more open and democratic we made our republic, the more likely the control by factions and “spectacles of turbulence” that many say Trump represents … or is the beneficiary.

In this light, I found this so intriguing: “It’s a kind of permission from the insiders to go after the guy as threat to the system they share with journalists.”

Interested to hear if you see any connection.

Lovelalola says:

Blah, blah, blah. Another insider trying to lead his cohort into battle against Trump. Notice I said cohort and not troops. You’re not battle tested or ready. You’re creative class parasites, using nepotism to stay just outside the 1%, so you can suck up the blood without sacrificing moral superiority.

Here’s what you’re not getting: we despise you. We don’t see much difference in you and the politicians you cover. And we will take any chance to disrupt your worldview and your connections. We don’t care if it hurts your children, or our own. You made us via your cooperation with the system you said you were covering objectively. You lied all the way through, and covered for criminals in order to profit. Now you will deal with us. Enjoy the next 4 years, suckers.

“Here’s what you’re not getting: we despise you.” I don’t know why you would say I don’t get that. Didn’t you see this photo? It’s in the post.


There is always asymmetry in campaign coverage, which should be expected.

More interesting would be an approach for how to measure the accuracy of the asymmetry? Politifact tracking campaign promises and fact-checking over time is an approach. Or is it?

Now imagine what happens when over time the media chooses sides as active participants supporting one tribe over the other. A different mental picture emerges.

All of the people you cite to and agree with happen to be leftists who vote D. You and your fellow travelers chose your side long ago. So come out of the closet and admit who you are. The rest of us have known it for a long time.

And you, Ms. or Mr. “Vertigo,” do we know who you are?

By the way, here’s my disclosure statement, which includes my political leanings. Where’s yours?

Lovely job bringing together these ideas into a cohesive whole.

I find some of the responses discouraging, and evidence that the left could just as easily slide into such thinking and actions based not in reality, or asymmetrical. What has prevented that on the left, in your opinion?

It could happen. Occasionally it does.

What has prevented it? I’m not sure.

Washington-insider consensual reality is not reality, for god’s sake.

Insider press culture is the outcome of the ongoing process of accommodation to the self-serving, imperial assumptions at the heart of the consensus. This is what allows for the press to become members of the political class. Jay ‘s job is to understand this, mention it in oblique, ass-covering ways, and them not to make too large a stink about it. There’s wine to be drunk, you understand?

One of the points is that Trump is attacking the media (and other forms of legitimization). In fact, he poses an existential threat (e.g., changing the libel laws). So it can’t defend itself without appearing to abandon the claim to objectivity on which it’s authority rests. A double bind. OTOH, Trump does have an entire media empire at his disposal in the form of Fox News. In essence, the GOP went rogue and Trump is the guy to take down the American political consensus (including such quaint notions as the rule of law). Win or lose, I;m unclear how we will recover from this.

This is a very good point:

“So it can’t defend itself without appearing to abandon the claim to objectivity on which it’s authority rests.”

Keith Howard says:

I’ve read the article with interest, and scanned through the comments. To me, the matter of how big media make their money is conspicuous by its absence. Trump’s blurtings, tweetings, outrages and lies function as entertainment and get attention to advertising. Isn’t this, at bottom, the basic reason DT gets so much press? To my mind, our society has lost sight of any value except money. With no other value than short-term profit, Trump is what one gets.

Jay – My google blog this year has many posts on a theory of the press false balance – why it needs an overhaul, not tweaks. Yes,asymmetry is key. I use the NYT as the main petri dish to study the disease, but obviously the problems are widespread. We all need to face the paradox of politics – the one field where it is “OK” to dismiss convincing arguments outright by presuming that the author is biased. Oh, so you vote? Case proven! If nothing else see:
One big mistake, though, is to call Trump “not normal”. This was foreseeable.

I notice you’re spending a lot of time defending yourself on your blog in the comments against people who now see the Press as the problem, when it comes to Trump.

And your response is to tell them to go elsewhere, because you have no answer for their accusations. Or maybe better to say you are afraid to try to answer them, because you don’t really have an answer, and prefer her not to look at things you don’t have an answer for.

You realize where this is going, don’t you?

If Trump were to become president, and considering the ensuing carnage that will follow, Think about the public perception of the press and how it will degenerate after that?

It will be coming from many directions, including the official ones from the people in the White House.

If people like you who examine the press, and the people in the press are not afraid, you should be. Because the shit storm that will come down on the Press from every direction will certainly be crushing.

Somebody is going to get blamed somebody is going to get used as a scapegoat. As of Jew I’m sure you understand what that means. And it’s never pretty.

A President Trump will set about immediately trying to dismantle the Free Press piece by piece. He sees the press as nothing but a tool that he can use. What do you think he will do with that tool once he has real power?

Who do you think he will target, I imagine you and many of the people you know are on the list.

It’ll make the purges that have been going on over the last decade look like a cake walk by comparison.

Journalism and the current failing models will be eviscerated and replaced with something wholly unrecognizable.

We already have a press that is at odds with itself. The profit motive in direct opposition to the primary job of a Free Press, to inform and educate the populace.

Trump already sees the press as it exists today as a danger to him, a threat. You think he won’t move to nullify that threat?

With the Donald in the White House there will be no reason for the corporations that own the press establishment, an establishment that remains a losing financial proposition, there will be no longer any reason to continue the pretense of maintaining objectivity, ethics or morality.

They see the profit motive in following the Fox model. And every media outlet including The entertainment industry is moving away from political exploration and insight, because they realize that continuing to do so threatens their bottom lines across the board.

Just look what Comedy Central did to two of the most popular political shows ever in America, shows that had enormous appeal to young people and kept them informed, they quietly destroyed them.

Even without the Donald in the White House we are going in this direction. It could be argued that this is an inevitability, just like Trump or someone like him become president of the United States.

Barring some huge disaster he doesn’t win this election, this time around. But it seems likely that in the next election or the one after that or somewhere in the immediate future if things don’t start getting better for working people in America, he or someone like him is going to become president.

It’s great that you’re so fixated on the minutia Jay, we all appreciate your perspective and analysis, but it looks like you’re missing the bigger picture.

When people everywhere you go keep making a point of pointing that out, maybe you should listen.

Thanks Jay. I notice this particular commentary leaves out the changing media environment that Trump was able to exploit beyond the “technical debt” of Republican Party politics. He’s been around for decades but only now is able to exploit the decline of traditional news media, both print and broadcast, the fragmentation of the electorate, the rise of cables news with its insatiable 24 hour demand for content, and the affordances of social media which allow Trump, for better or worse, to address his followers unfiltered. It is a perfect storm of media effects which make obsolete both traditional journalism and traditional politics.

Journalists and journalism schools are still working out the methodologies of this evolving paradigm shift, and often do so looking through the rearview mirror. When in media history has the establishment correctly anticipated the new technological order or failed to defend its obsolete prerequisites? Trump is an anomaly (outlier) we may survive this time. He is also a harbinger of things to come if we don’t get our act together.

Thornton Hall says:

Except Joe McCarthy exploited the exact same thing. The media myth of Murrow is belied by the actual fact of the Army.

If you utter bullshit in a resonant well-modulated voice, especially if it is designed to instill fear in listeners who may already be fearful, it is not difficult to convince a lot of them that you must be speaking the truth. McCarthy’s original claims about Communists in the State Department were total bullshit, but superficially exact (“there are over 200 Communists!”). Fake exactitude always impresses some people.

McCarthy was also a failure of the press, hamstrung by anti-communist hysteria. Print journalism couldn’t defeat him, but broadcast journalism in the form of Edward R. Murrow could. Joseph Welch’s “have you no shame” comment was magnified by its repetition on broadcast news. Even so, it took broadcast journalists too long to get there.

The internet long ago drove the cost of publication down to (for all practical purposes) zero. Partisan echo chambers completed the process of making it possible for partisans to immediately find websites, articles and commentators that faithfully reflect their opinions back at them. Echo chambers also activate binary thinking. Everything becomes good or bad, with no (wait for the word) nuance.

Many people like having their binary ideas uncritically validated and repeated, instead of having to pay money to read long-winded explanations that things are not binary.

The net result is that any time Their Guy says something, partisans run off to Echo ChamberLand and pat each other on the back, rather than turn to mainstream media, where there is a risk that they might be told that Their Guy just uttered a primo-grade whopper.

I agree with Jay’s analysis, but I wanted to add an idea of my own. Donald Trump’s whole approach to his ideas, claims and proposed policies seems to me to be patterned after the Gish Gallop used by Creationists in debates with scientists. The Gish Gallop would consist of the creationist firing dozens and dozens of factually distorted, incorrect or deceitful claims in rapid succession, making it practically impossible for the opposing speaker to refute them in any reasonable time frame (it always takes a lot longer to refute bullshit than to utter it).

Trump seems to me to be engaging in tactics very similar to a Gish Gallop. He utters dozens of falsehoods a day, his spokespeople and surrogates then alternate between defending the statements or ducking by saying things like “I don’t know what he meant you’ll have to ask him”. That further increases the level of confusion.

My tentative conclusion is that the blizzard of nonsense from Trump is actually part of a strategy based on the same idea as the Gish Gallop. Overwhelm everybody to the point where they cannot possibly engage in normal verification processes, much less even find the time to publicly challenge.

You counter a Gish Gallop with a “Jim-from-The-Office” look right into the camera. Hillary’s version of that last night along with her “crazy” characterization of Trump’s ramblings may work.

Bernie Latham says:

Another careful and solid analysis, Jay. Thank you again.

After a decade down south (NYC, Portland, Dallas) I’m now back in Canada (Vancouver Island). I can tell you that people up here are also stunned and alarmed that Trump has actually managed to get this close to the White House. I have no doubt the same holds true in Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Holland, etc.

The range and depth of institutional failure that has permitted this to come about is more than a little depressing. And even though your area of study is media, it seems to me this institution is a key aspect in what has gone so terribly wrong.

As you said, the dynamic forces working to maintain old patterns of thought and behavior are very strong. Not least in this mix is the incredible amounts of money being made by individuals and media operations as business entities. Elections are now a multi-billion dollar industry. So it is difficult to find effective ways to push back against these forces so that we aren’t all carried over the cliff.

What I think you’re trying to do – encourage and compel individuals working in media to increase their self-awareness, their sense of civic responsibility and their professional ethics – seems to me a valid and necessary component. Please continue.

I mostly agree with Jay’s conclusions, but get there a little different way. Asymmetry, like so many phenomena these days, is an observable fact to certain scholars, but a doctrine to be denied for others. If asymmetry of the structure and functioning of the political parties is accepted, the journalism standards of NYT and other mainstream outlets is proven obsolete. So far, credible accusations of bias in so-called balanced reporting aimed at the Times have been met by denials. The NYT public editor says that the abstract thinkers who accuse the Times of journalistic failure are themselves biased – abstract thinkers who marshall evidence and draw conclusions in a complex system are more often liberal — how shocking! So far the Times has stood firm with their conclusion that Trump is not “normal”, so that explains the failures of the press. But these failures have been evident for a long time. Sarah Palin could have been the President today, running for reelection, preparing to debate Hillary Clinton, if McCain had won in 2008 and died after two years in office and she had been elected in 2012. So Trump is no outlier as “not normal”. So if asymmetry of the parties is true, as it is, then the presumption that “both sides do it” in the exact same way is untrue. That means striving to balance every statement or action that is negative about one candidate with an equal and opposite statement or action by the other candidate, as if this he-said/she-said set up is Newtonian mechanics, is deeply flawed. What’s a journalist to do? How about reporting about each candidate separately almost as if the other candidate does not exist? (At least until they debate – too late now).And don’t search primarily for flaws. Don’t follow every lead fed to you by Fox News or the opposing camp. Try to research and report on the essential truths about each candidate, the good and certainly with the bad, creating as full and meaningful a picture as possible. That is the true meaning of fair and balanced. When journalists do that, they are not in fact checking mode. They do not need tax returns for this or the transcripts of speeches. Both Trump and Clinton have been in public life for decades. There is plenty of evidence to tell us who they are.

For anyone who thinks trying to report as if the other candidate does not exist is impossible, think about the current broken system – chasing down every accusation in wack-a-mole fashion as if the political journalist is incapable of interpretation of events without being biased. A journalist needs to be like a scientist, but seeking expert opinion when necessary and judging that opinion without bias. But a journalist who functions as a “White House Stenographer” as Colbert said, is not doing the job.

Although not *directly* germane to this discussion of the Press analysis and response to the GOP/Trump campaign, an equally important examination must consider how the GOP/Trump tactics would allow them to GOVERN if the were elected.

The world’s governments have depended on understandable policies and honest negotiations with the United States… would a Trump presidency offer those?

The international economic engines, both national ones and multi-national, depend on predictability, stability, and accountability. Would a Trump election allow those?

The other two branches of the US government depend on a predictable Executive Branch… would a President Trump provide that?

Jay Rosen’s observations (and/or critiques) of the GOP/Trump campaign should be transferred to the governing, as well as the electing of our next President. Which, IMHO, makes a Trump election a frightening future!

Is this better handled by journalists as an exercise in reporting with a deep understanding of how the candidates use rhetoric to make their argument and persuade voters?

The asymmetry between Trump and Clinton reminds me of the lawyers’ adage, “If the facts (logos) are against you, pound the law (ethos). If the law is against you, pound the facts. If the facts and the law are against you, pound the table and yell (pathos).”

Trump’s campaign is relying on pathetic appeal, pounding the table and yelling.

Clinton’s is more balanced, rhetorically.

Fact checking favors Clinton and everyone should do it during the course of the campaign … but not moderators during the debate venues. That would be extremely bad kairos.

Respect and trust the viewers during the debate who want to watch and listen to the candidates.

The debates will be fact checked.

I don’t know if enough of the electorate will be able to “stand back and look at” the candidates when they cast their vote in November, or they will just vote their emotion or party loyalty. But for the sake of our country, that’s what we want citizens to do every election: “stand back and look at” the candidates.

Which made me think of Jay Rosen’s words written 12 years ago in a comment on this blog:

“Okay, if we try to stand back and look at this…” is ordinary language’s way with the effort to be objective. Who would call it unreal, impossible? Post-modernists, I am one of you, so hear my plea. It’s naive to say objectivity is impossible.

If you mean it in any sweeping way, that is. The statement ignores human experience, the numerous other specialized situations in which people are trained or taught to “stand back,” suspend judgment, look at the data, first, or be a referee, or just intervene between competing points of view, lending to people you know the advantages of distance. Ever done anything like that? Then you know it’s possible.

The question that puzzles us: if objectivity is possible in life, where is it not possible in journalism? What about politics? Or social policy? How’s about war? It is then we discover the limits of objectity, the dangers of pushing it too far, it’s total unsuitability to many situations. The myth.

In fact, we learn other, more confusing things, such as that “objectivity, claim to be” has one of the longest headings in the Daily Encylopedia of Propaganda. Meanwhile, “we’re objective, you’re not” has the worst track record for any argument in journalism for convincing anyone but the professional journalist. And so on.

Journalist and technologist, here. Having come up as both during the ’90s, I continue to wonder how much easy access to the web contributed to the state we’re in now. We assume that more choices and more outlets are an unalloyed good, but press coverage changing from “residents of each major metro area have a few daily papers and access to the four major TV networks” to “everyone can trivially choose to read/watch only the coverage that reinforces their world view and makes them feel good” seems to have coincided with the rise of our hyper-partisanship and self-selection into highly homogeneous political tribes. (The long tradition of a partisan press in the U.K. certainly makes me think we’d have wound up this way even without the internet, but it seemed to come on a lot faster in the last 25 years.)

Jay describes journalists scrambling when a centuries-old habit of positing (sometimes false) equivalence of logic and rigor between two opposing political philosophies stops being remotely accurate: when one party has gone largely off the rails. Even assuming that more outlets do what Baquet has done and call lies “lies” … will it matter at this point? The challenge is reaching the people who have been steeping in undiluted hyper-partisan media for years now, and for whom the word “lies” is no stranger to their editorial pages, and carries little weight (and certainly not from an outlet outside their normal media diet, which has no established credibility with them).

Jay’s framing of the problem seems spot on to me as a journalist … but as a citizen, I fear that major media outlets’ reaction to it is coming too little and too late to prevent it getting worse.

Thanks, Adam. I would agree that if a few major news organizations start producing asymmetrical coverage of chronic lying by a major party nominee in the last six weeks of the campaign, that is not going to change anything, especially for the portion of the electorate that is “lost” to mainstream journalism both through self-selection in the news diet and the grim progress culture war has made.

No one seems to see the connection between corporate governance and media focus. Once the management structure is committed to marginalizing or omitting facts in favor of advertising profits, it is a trivial matter to make the business case that things like fact checking are not profitable unless the facts improve advertising revenue. Given this corporate culture, it is logical to assume that any fact based reporting will be viewed as increasing the cognitive dissonance of a significant portion of the viewership (and the resulting change to another channel) while keeping the audience that they already have. So, in this corporate culture facts only result in a net loss of viewers and pose a threat to advertising revenue. Many commenters have illustrated the media role in promulgating falsehoods in the name of balance. These days, facts are ignored for the sake of revenue. A recent example is the CNN piece on opioid addiction which failed to mention that states with medical pot have fewer deaths by opioid overdose. Big Pharma is spending a tremendous amount of money fighting pot legalization. CNN clearly made the editorial decision to avoid the fact that pot decreases death by opioid overdose and keep their advertisers happy. Similarly, a recent 60 minutes episode on the high cost of prescription drugs failed to note the fact that while Big Pharma justifies huge cost increases to support R&D, they also receive large tax breaks and credits for that R&D so we are paying twice for Big Pharma profits!!! Again, the editorial decision was made by CBS, to ensure advertiser satisfaction.

Mr. Trump routinely refers to facts & source data/video that you can look up yourself. You made many arguments from your perspective about Mr. Trump that were not based on fact, but based on a narrative.

This narrative, not based on fact, has been pushed as a narrative by the mainstream media.

I would say that the mainstream media is either in a collective denial or complicit attempt to manipulate the public into believing narrative not based on fact.

This has a dangerous precedent as the connection between physical reality & the reality of differentiating perspectives is severed from the prevailing narrative.

This is why there is no interop. The mainstream narrative is so far removed from physical & global collective reality, that it can’t connect anymore. This means those who believe in this narrative are locked in a fundamentalist bubble of their own collective delusion.

Nothing fills me with more despair than Trump and his supporters accusing critics of the very things that most stand out about Trump. In this example, Trump is Mr. Verification, the reality-based truthteller doing battle with the fictions that others use to stop him.

More narrative, no facts. Hillary Clinton has been telling lies up the wazoo for years; Let’s see:

* we have pay to play (barely covered by the media)
* HRC ties to LaFarge who funded ISIS (
* DNC conspired against Bernie Sanders (
* Blaming Trey Gowdy for his skeptism with this sham FBI investigation that only handed out immunity agreements despite clear evidence that there was intent, mishandling of classified information, & strong evidence of perjury
* Getting play-by-play instructions from Soros on handling Libya (
* Paying “penance” to the Rothschilds (

The mainsteam does not investigate Huma Abedin & her ties to Sharia Law.

To here is what I have to say about the mainstream media. You’re fired. You have no facts. Only narrative & spin & telling us how we should think. Good riddance. Now truth can come up from citizen journalism with direct & transparent links to sources.

ezra abrams says:

i read the libya thing,clicking thru to the tick tock memo
I don’t know how to say this, but you sir, are wrong

“They do it too” is not a response that any sensible parent would accept from a misbehaving child, yet you’re in here trying to foist it upon us? You’re totally unserious.

This is certainly not an original thought, but part of the problem with this election is that it is the opposing factions are probably better defined by upper vs. lower classes than political party or left vs. right.

You could change your asymmetry quote “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier … to “The Democrat party…” and find a warm welcome at almost any right wing site which further defines the problem.

Looking at the comments here there is certainly a dismissal of the legitimacy of the opposition party, nor does there seem much willingness to compromise. This is part of the asymmetry equation you laid out, but is likely not a problem to you because the people here are “mainstream”.

Arguing about which partie’s lies are the biggest or most grotesques is more a tribal thing. An extension of the culture wars. Are Trump’s lies really bigger or more outrageous than Clinton’s about her E-mail server?

which side is asymmetrical largely depends on where you stand. And if one can accept that both sides are asymmetrical, then what your tribe thinks is balanced really isn’t to the opposing tribe.

Furthermore, giving time to “expose” Trump and attacking Trump is likely to have the opposite effect outside your own tribe.

Just look at all the people on this forum who think Hillary is getting shafted by the press, and are willing to overlook or excuse her many misdeeds.

Here, in the comments, people find it inconceivable how anyone could excuse the words and opinions of Trump, while excusing words and actual actions from Clinton that are of equal or arguably greater magnitude. Greater mainly because she has had more access to govt power during her career.

The reality of the middle and working class is not your reality, it is not the political presses reality. Trump is breaking the press because its members do not appear able to grasp there are equally valid views of the world outside their own, or worse yet, that parts of their world view are wrong.

Marcel Kincaid says:

Your whole comment is an exercise in false equivalence and phony balance. You, like too much of the press, ignore the fact that some claims are TRUE and some are FALSE.

But Marcel, the truth or falsity of individual claims is far less important than the dishonest “shared picture” framing of the political class as basically decent and noble in its pursuits. Don’t you get that?

Try this. True or False: the Washington Consensus view of the world leads to the perpetration of repeated war crimes around the globe funded by the US taxpayer? TRUE OR FALSE? The answer is, of course: I’m a lunatic for even raising the question, since we can count on the question never getting asked or investigated by the press in a way that might make the leadership of the political class uncomfortable.

The press’s complicity in Washington’s war crimes and it’s utter abandonment of the working class in the US are vastly more important than any ten lies Trump tells, or Clinton tells, but those big stories – the main stories! – are almost completely off the discussion table. And why? Because they’re cost of admission to Dean Baquet’s press box. Finish the metaphor, Jay: the way you gain access to a press box is by being granted a pass by the teams who run the game, or own the stadium.

Jay skillfully leaves this stuff off to the side, mentioning it but not pursuing it as the central line of inquiry just as do all of the poodles in the ring of critics orbiting the media stars. It leaves them free to swill scotch during embarrassingly self-important late-night navel gazing sessions during which he can swoon over Rachel Maddow’s sneakers.

Yes but most are like Hillary Clinton deliberately had work e-mails deleted from her server. True or false?

Donald trump called the Venezuelan Miss Universe Miss Piggy. True or false.

Free college for all is fiscally sustainable. true or false

Bush is to blame for the Middle East.
Obama is to blame for the Middle East.

One of the reasons police, and soldiers, and firemen and doctors are held in higher esteem than Journalists is that these professions do not check your political affiliation before deciding if they are going to help you or not.

ezra abrams says:

i listen to NPR, morning edition and all things considered, and i’m pretty sure they give more air time to trump quotes the hillary quotes

Jay’s comments is very detailed and it’s hard to argue with most of the points he makes. However, there is a major problem with his analysis: he buries the lede, and by so doing fails to identify the primary cause of many of the effects he’s detailed.

This is the most important sentence in the analysis:

They (the press) should have admitted that they had become part of the political class, but it required them to retire too many illusions about themselves.

Jay says this but then just moves on, when it virtually the whole story! The trappings of journalistic objectivity like symmetry and the “similar actors” thesis are outgrowths of the press’s slow absorption into the political class, an absorption encouraged by the media companies Washington journalists worked for because it was good for business (for awhile).

Trumpists loathe the press because they (rightly!) view press organizations as accomplices in their political dispossession at the hands of elites. We can certainly argue over the degree to which the political inheritance those Trump supporters feel dispossesed of is a rightful inheritance, but the feeling is very, very real. There’s nothing the press can do in the short run to change this, since it’s been several decades in the making.

The atavism of Trump’s followers is nauseating and their analysis of the what ails them is flat wrong in obvious ways, but they are absolutely and incontrovertibly correct in feeling they’ve been abandoned by both the political class and the press that has chosen to serve it instead of serving their interests. That has happened.

Seems like a hell of a price for the society to have to pay for the pleasure journalists and editors get by sending their kids to the same prep schools and universities as the class of people they ought to be subjecting to close scrutiny.

An incredibly insightful piece of critique, I hope every serious journalist comes to much the same conclusion. I think these same shortcomings have contributed to countless false dichotomies, and have hurt the public consciousness when it comes to the incredibly serious issues of climate change, race relations, public education, stem-cell research, science and arts funding, etc., etc..

We’ve enabled a low-level fog of ignorance where the dim facts get lost in the coverage of the “debate”. Please keep up the great work, it’s nice to have an outlet for my inner media nerd.

Brian Burke says:

Your analysis is more of the same.

It attempts in orthodox reporting terms to justify your essentially conventional coverage of a race that cannot be reported that way. “Warring Philosophies” – the concept that appears to found everything you say has no place in a contest where one contender has no philosophy, or at least no consistent philosophy that is understandable or credible. And where that contender is simply the false front page of forces to which he is wed in a last minute marriage of convenience. His contribution to what he is doing is difficult to know and appears to amount to no more than saying what he believes will be popular.

How can you talk about “Warring Philosophies” when you begin your piece by quoting someone who says one of the two contenders openly lies.
Like another chisel stroke on Michelangelo’s David, the current forces that produced Trump and continue to provoke him are grotesque. Your challenge is to accept and overcome the criticism you will suffer if you report Clinton fairly and she wins, as she should, by a country mile. The seeking a ‘spurious balance’may be appropriate where “Warring Philosophies” can be identified but they are not here.
Brian Burke

I’m sorry that you did not understand what you read or who wrote it. I will take responsibility for both errors. I tried to make both as clear as possible, but evidently I failed.

I tried to suggest there is a standard picture of politics that pre-existed Trump in which two roughly similar parties with opposing philosophies contend for tactical advantage. I tried to suggest that a Republican party led by Trump didn’t fit this standard mental picture, but the inertia of a symmetrical view of politics made that difficult for journalists to recognize. I tried to explain that I am not a producer of campaign coverage myself — so it is not my coverage we’re talking about — rather, I am a longtime critic. I’m sorry that I was unable to make these points sufficiently clear.

Brian Burke says:

Thanks Jay.
Put it down to my confusion – I tried to make clear that the responsibility I assigned was to the media to report courageously a race that is unique and should not be constrained by the media’s inevitable feeling that it has a the burden of being “balanced”. Being “balanced” is being truthful in reporting the imbalance we have here. It is not finding “spurious” reasons to claim fairness.
Of course I should have made clear your role was observing, analysing and suggesting what is occurring and what might/should happen.Things are much less complicated in Australia and as you say – I didn’t understand what I read or who wrote it. I should have tried harder.
Brian Burke

Brian Burke says:

I should also have noted that the reason journalists have difficulty in recognising a lie (symmetrical conditioning or asymmetrical novelty) doesn’t seem as important to me as their ability to recognise and report the truth.
Brian Burke

Brian Burke says:

To avoid a quick side step: “Your challenge…” is the media’s challenge. There are not many brave people in the political world and even fewer in the media that reports it.
Brian Burke.

anna haynes says:

I hate to sound completely off the wall, but the sense I have is that he’s just too good a fit at exploiting what this blog and others had identified over the years as problems. That he’s the manifestation of something in the making – a coup, a beta test, a sting.

(but this may be my sleeplessness speaking)

Jay, I appreciate your posts, which often give me better grasp of important things happening with the press.

With that said, I’d like to throw out suggestions for ways journalists can deal with asymmetry.

First, mainstream journalists (as a collective, preferably) should begin by discussing fundamental norms and principles that are under attack—including explaining why these norms and principles are not only essential to journalism, but also to a functioning democracy; they should show that these principles aren’t partisan or ideological in the normal sense—-explaining how they differ from typical liberal or conservative ideology. For example, that opinions and policies should be based on facts and logic is a principle that is completely different from whether we should have more or less government involvement in the economy. The former is something fundamental and basic—not something up for dispute–while the latter can be legitimately disputed.

Second, if a candidate wantonly and egregiously violates these norms and principles, then the journalists should provide evidence and a compelling argument for this.

Finally, the journalists can explain the way they will cover such a candidate, how and why this will differ from candidates who do not violate these basic norms and principles. This explanation should include the reasons the press is justified in pushing back—and even vigorously defending—certain norms and principles that a candidate is violating; why not pushing back would normalize these behaviors, fail to adequately warn voters; why this isn’t about Trump per se—but a defense of vital norms and principles.

What this will do, in my view, is set the table for a different coverage, preparing voters for this new coverage, and providing compelling justification for doing so. One idea I have is for various mainstream news agencies to band together to make a 30-60 minute documentary explaining all of this (like something PBS’s Frontline/Pro-Publica would do), as well as publishing articles or even a kind of manifesto, in defense of certain norms and principles critical to both journalism and democracy.

I hope something like this could be done before election day, but if it’s not, I think this is something that should be done. If Trump wins, the press this will have to cover him differently. If Trump loses, the press should prepare themselves from another politician like him.

Suggest starting the discussion about fundamental norms and principles with “The Elements of Journalism” by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel.

For the discussion about how these principles aren’t partisan or ideological in the normal sense—-explaining how they differ from typical liberal or conservative ideology, I’ll offer an old post of my own exploring the conservative POV.

For the discussion about how these principles aren’t partisan or ideological in the normal sense—-explaining how they differ from typical liberal or conservative ideology, I’ll offer an old post of my own exploring the conservative POV.

Nick Sambides Jr. says:

I am a newspaper reporter who very much enjoyed this very thoughtful critique. I think some of your conclusions about media are incorrect, but I really agree with your assessment of Trump’s counter-clockwise methodology. He’s tapped into a deep vein of disenfranchisement and he is very canny about playing people. I had a friend write very intelligently about why she likes Trump and dislikes Clinton. To summarize it in a sentence: Clinton is a pre-packaged, survey-studying liar, slick and smug and evasive, and Trump is REAL. The political establishment is soooo divorced from many Americans that just the whiff of politics and “politicians” is enough to turn them off.

Your description of his method, and media’s difficulty in coping with it, in Sections 4-6 was terrific. He’s an expert manipulator who, with his anti-NAFTA, anti-immigrant, pro-manufacturing stance, is playing best to the Americans who are white and high-school educated. And like any manipulator, he plays on truths dear enough to those who believe him (NAFTA’s impact, the loss of American manufacturing jobs) that they reject the idea that he’s wrong. About anything. The thinking is, “If he errs, or lies, well, Hell, he’s just like one of us, and they lie, too, don’t they?”

And the reality is, he’s not at all like the people who support him.

Trebor Llevox says:

“A political style that mocks the idea of a common world of facts — and gets traction with that view —  is an attack on the very possibility of honest journalism.”

The problem here is that the political Left have absorbed the idea from postmodernist philosophy that there is no such thing as an objective fact, only narratives. The focus of the Left since the days of Clinton and Blair has been on crafting the Narrative, using the mainstream media as their tool. The problem for the Left is that they are now facing an alternative (alt-right) Narrative.

This has become a battle of Narratives: the Narrative of global equality and diversity versus the Narrative of American exceptionalism.

It is disingenuous to hold to a political philosophy that denies absolute truth and then complain that an opponent is lying.

Ian Deal says:

Mr. Rosen’s blog and much of the subsequent comments reflect the core assumptions that have led to the current state of divisiveness in American politics. In the current liberal worldview, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are well within the normative parameters of the political spectrum and Donald Trump is far outside of those normal parameters. From a conservative perspective, Barack Obama is a radical leftist who has assaulted Constitutional norms for the past 8 years. His parents were communists, his mentor a card carrying Communist. He is an ideologue whose judgement is warped by a worldview so distant from reality that he cannot even acknowledge the existential threat posed by Islamists. So bad is his judgement, that virtually every move he has made on the International front has been a disaster for the US and global security. Yet the media, academia, and the entertainment industry never hold him accountable, and they are not holding Hillary Clinton accountable for such disasters as the Russian reset, Benghazi and the failed state which is Libya–a direct result of the regime-change decision made by Clinton and Obama. So the media treat Obama and Clinton as mainstream, but then present Mitt Romney as this alien creature who tortures his dog and puts women in binders. That portrayal of Romney was so fundamentally dishonest (and in the obvious service of getting Obama re-elected) that the media lost all credibility. But this isn’t simply about the well documented journalistic bias, but the general assumptions held by the majority of people living in New York City, Chicago, LA, and San Fransisco. There is this unbelievably naive and parochial worldview where liberal beliefs, no matter how illogical and silly, are assumed to be morally superior to all other world views. This is clearly evident when children at elite universities publicly advocate for the suppression of any ideas that challenge their worldview or might hurt their feelings. And from the leftist worldview, Trump confirms their opinions of the right as a bunch of knuckle-dragging, racists, xenophobes. But conservatives have been vocally opposed to Trump for months. They see Trump as someone who has been a liberal democrat all of his life and has virtually no understanding of the core principles of conservatism or the Constitution. And those disaffected white people who are voting for him on the republican ticket are the working class that used to vote reliably democratic, a group that believes it has been abandoned by politicians. The only reason Trump is even still viable after running such a horrendous campaign is because Hillary is such a threat to the Constitutional republic. What is amazing to me in reading Mr. Rosen’s blog and many of the following comments is the complete lack of acknowledgement of how horrible Hillary Clinton is not only as a candidate but as a person. She personally set out to destroy anyone who got in her way, from Billy Dale at the White House Travel Office, to any woman who had the temerity to come forward and report her husband’s sexual predation. She has accomplished nothing in her various roles as US senator and Secretary of State (except a mid-east that is burning, an international refugee crisis, Russia in Ukraine, and China expanding its territory in the South China Sea). Where are all of the principled liberals advocating for #NeverHillary? America faces this disastrous choice because liberal dominance of the media, academia, and entertainment industries have presented an absurdly leftist worldview as mainstream. By failing to point out the leftist Asymmetry that is so obvious, Trump supporters have no confidence in the warnings coming from these same sources. Trust shifted to skepticism and skepticism became cynicism. And it is the cynicism that keep Trump supporters loyal. Hillary will probably win, but who knows in this bizarre election cycle. Regardless, if we are ever going to heal the deep fissures in American politics, the left will need to understand that it has lost its credibility with at least half the American population not because those people are stupid, mean, selfish, hateful, anti-science and every other silly thing the left tells itself to feel good about its natural superiority. The left has successfully taken over the core elements of the chronicling of our culture, but have become dishonest brokers in the service of an agenda aligned with one political party. Trump rose not in spite of the media, but because of it. Hillary or Donald will be our next president, and this will further pull us apart because both are such hateful people. When Hillary describes Donald’s supporters as a basket of deplorables, she is letting those people know that she is against them, and as President, she will oppose them and their interests. Donald alienates some group of people on a weekly (sometimes daily) basis. The president we elect will be the president of all of us. Unfortunately, our choice is between two candidates that are Asymmetrical.

TSowell Fan says:

I think I follow your argument/hypothesis and believe it is captured in this single sentence: “Imagine a candidate who wants to increase public confusion about where he stands on things so that voters give up on trying to stay informed and instead vote with raw emotion.”

A few Q’s that follow:

1. Do ‘investigative’ journalists have the tools, connections, intelligence to probe this hypothesis and determine whether or not it is true?

2. To many, Trump as presented in the media is a caricature, a hapless buffoon, an unreal human to whom few of us could relate. Yet, he’s a billionaire with seemingly well-adjusted children who has prevailed in a political battle against more experienced warriors — he’s a success in several meaningful ways. Has anybody in the media explored at least his business successes (yes, I know there are failures too)? How does he think? How does he learn? What, really, does he have knowledge of? How does he manage other people in order to achieve success?Couldn’t the media at least tell us how an apparent buffoon becomes a billionaire so that, maybe, a few of us could follow suit? (I’m skeptical that ‘Daddy’s money’ is the answer. He’s gone bankrupt and regained billions.) There’s got to be more there than an empty suit.