A miss bigger than a missed story: my final reflections on Trump and the press in 2016

A shift in political culture away from journalism’s grasp.

6 Nov 2016 10:35 pm 37 Comments

On the eve of an election filled with danger I take up my pen to describe one more time what I think political journalists missed about the candidacy of Donald Trump.

We lack any common language for talking about press performance at the level where Trump eluded it. So this essay will have to roam a bit. If it doesn’t cohere in the end— well, neither do we. We who care about news, truth, factuality, and democracy. We don’t know where we are with Trump and the depiction of reality in an election contested this way. We have lost the plot.

This is my attempt to restore one. But it probably won’t work.

I’d start the story in October of 2004, with the appearance of an article by Ron Suskind in the New York Times magazine: Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush. You might recall it as the piece that introduced the phrase “the reality-based community” to American discourse. That phrase — and the quotation from the Bush adviser that introduced it — caused an instant sensation.

Few people remember that Suskind’s article was primarily about the creatures we today call “establishment” Republicans. They were dismayed by a confusing development within the Bush White House. Asking for evidence, expressing doubt, presenting facts that didn’t fit a simplified narrative: these were considered disqualifying acts, even for allies of the President.

Knowing what you know now, about candidate Trump, listen to these quotes from 2004…

* “He dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts.” —Bruce Bartlett, former Reagan and Bush-the-elder adviser.

* “In meetings, I’d ask if there were any facts to support our case. And for that, I was accused of disloyalty!” —Christie Whitman, head of the EPA under Bush.

* “If you operate in a certain way — by saying this is how I want to justify what I’ve already decided to do, and I don’t care how you pull it off — you guarantee that you’ll get faulty, one-sided information.” —Paul O’Neill, Treasure Secretary under Bush.

* “Open dialogue, based on facts, is not seen as something of inherent value. It may, in fact, create doubt, which undercuts faith. It could result in a loss of confidence in the decision-maker and, just as important, by the decision-maker.” —Suskind’s words.

* “A cluster of particularly vivid qualities was shaping George W. Bush’s White House through the summer of 2001: a disdain for contemplation or deliberation, an embrace of decisiveness, a retreat from empiricism, a sometimes bullying impatience with doubters and even friendly questioners.” —Suskind.

* “You’re outnumbered 2 to 1 by folks in the big, wide middle of America, busy working people who don’t read The New York Times or Washington Post or The L.A. Times. And you know what they like? They like the way [Bush] walks and the way he points, the way he exudes confidence. They have faith in him. And when you attack him for his malaprops, his jumbled syntax, it’s good for us. Because you know what those folks don’t like? They don’t like you!” — Mark McKinnon, media adviser to Bush, explaining the political logic to Suskind.

And then the money quote, the one everyone remembers, from a Bush adviser who went nameless:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Liberals immediately embraced the term: We’re the reality-based community, yay for us! Conservatives thought this hilarious (and they still do.) Both reactions bypassed what Suskind reported: a tension between factions within the Republican coalition. Bruce Bartlett, Christie Whitman, Paul O’Neill and other loyal Republicans who talked to Suskind were alarmed by what he called “the retreat from empiricism.” The most outstanding example was of course the faulty case for war in Iraq presented to the U.N., to Congress and to the American people, which the press had failed to detect, debunk, or resist. (With one exception.)

Today this is seen as a major screw-up by journalists, a moment of shame. They admit it: they missed a huge story. But now we can see that underneath it was an even bigger failure: they failed to flag the retreat from empiricism as a pattern that could replicate. That’s more than a missed story. That’s a shift in political culture away from journalism’s grasp. I tried to point this out in my 2006 post, Retreat From Empiricism. I failed.

The alternative to facts on the ground is to act, regardless of the facts on the ground. When you act you make new facts. You clear new ground. And when you roll over or roll back the people who have a duty to report the situation as it is—people in the press, the military, the bureaucracy, your own cabinet, or right down the hall—then right there you have demonstrated your might.

Complicating any attempt to sound this alarm was an asymmetry in the pattern. It wasn’t exclusive to the Republican Party; but it found more fertile soil there. Liberals warning about vaccines and genetically modified foods, left wing extremists who considered 9/11 an inside job: they were also in retreat from empiricism. They just never had the influence among office-holders and opinion leaders that, say, climate change denialists and the birther movement had within the Republican coalition. But as I wrote in a previous post: this kind of asymmetry fries the circuits of the mainstream press.

With the election upon us — and with our knowledge of what the Trump campaign turned out to be — try to connect these dots:

2009: Clip of Tucker Carlson at the CPAC conference, an annual gathering of conservatives. He’s trying to persuade them that they need their own version of the New York Times: a news source that cares first about establishing what actually happened.
Nooooooo, the crowd says. The Times twists everything! “Yes, they twist it, but they are still out there finding the facts and bringing them to people,” Carlson replies. Some in the audience cotton to what he’s saying. But he gets heckled and shouted down when he tries to insist “at the core of their news gathering operation is gathering news!” What the crowd wants is denunciations of liberal bias, not a plea for rigorous reporting from one of their own. They don’t know it, but the people heckling Carlson in 2009 are heralds of Trump in 2016.

2010: The New York Times runs a detailed portrait of the Tea Party movement, after sending a reporter on the road for five months to interview participants and understand their grievances. One part of it puzzled me:

It is a sprawling rebellion, but running through it is a narrative of impending tyranny. This narrative permeates Tea Party Web sites, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and YouTube videos. It is a prominent theme of their favored media outlets and commentators, and it connects the disparate issues that preoccupy many Tea Party supporters — from the concern that the community organization Acorn is stealing elections to the belief that Mr. Obama is trying to control the Internet and restrict gun ownership.

I did not understand what the Times was saying about this “narrative of impending tyranny,” other than: these people seem to believe it! No reports about an impending tyranny had appeared in the New York Times. The columnists weren’t warning about it. That’s a pretty big story to miss (if it was actually happening.) As I wrote at the time:

Why is this phrase, impending tyranny, just sitting there, as if Barstow had no way of knowing whether it was crazed and manipulated or verifiable and reasonable? If we credit the observation that a great many Americans drawn to the Tea Party live in fear that the United States is about to turn into a tyranny, with rigged elections, loss of civil liberties, no more free press, a police state… can we also credit the professional attitude that refuses to say whether this fear is reality-based? I don’t see how we can.

How can you say to readers: these people live in a different reality than we do… and leave it there? That is not the kind of story you can drop on our doorsteps and walk away from. It’s describing a rupture in the body politic, a tear in the space-time continuum that lies behind political journalism. I don’t think the editors understood what they were doing. But even today they would find this criticism baffling. We reported what people in this movement believe. Accurately! What’s your problem?

2016: This is from Oliver Darcy’s compelling portrait of the conservative media universe after Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party. The speaker is Charlie Sykes, host of a right wing talk radio program in Wisconsin that was influential in the rise of Scott Walker.

One of the chief problems, Sykes said, was that it had become impossible to prove to listeners that Trump was telling falsehoods because over the past several decades, the conservative news media had “basically eliminated any of the referees, the gatekeepers.”

“There’s nobody,” he lamented. “Let’s say that Donald Trump basically makes whatever you want to say, whatever claim he wants to make. And everybody knows it’s a falsehood. The big question of my audience, it is impossible for me to say that, ‘By the way, you know it’s false.’ And they’ll say, ‘Why? I saw it on Allen B. West.’ Or they’ll say, ‘I saw it on a Facebook page.’ And I’ll say, ‘The New York Times did a fact check.’ And they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s The New York Times. That’s bulls—.’ There’s nobody — you can’t go to anybody and say, ‘Look, here are the facts.'”

“Everybody knows it’s a falsehood.” (Sykes said.) Except our listeners! (Sykes said.) So “everybody” doesn’t mean everybody, does it? Just one way that language breaks down when we try to talk about the retreat from empiricism.

One of the missing facts in Darcy’s report is that while conservatives with big microphones taught their listeners not to believe what is reported in the mainstream media (and especially the elite press in New York and Washington) they themselves still relied on those sources as their baseline reality— minus the liberal “spin,” of course. They weren’t willing to adopt the information diet they recommended for others. This act of bad faith lies behind the complaints of someone like Sykes, who is now saying: Lord, what have we done?

2016: This is from Politico Europe, a few days ago:

Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned on Saturday that political debates devoid of facts present a “deadly danger” to democracy. Referring to the upcoming presidential election in the United States, the U.K.’s campaign to leave the EU, as well as an ever more assertive Russia, Steinmeier said the “audacity with which facts are hidden and denied in public, expert knowledge is discredited, and, simply, lies are being told in the West as in the East and beyond the English Channel, leaves one almost speechless.”

Speechless we cannot afford to be. Yesterday I read something by a philosopher, Jason Stanley, that illuminated what I mean by “a miss bigger than a missed story.” Beyond Lying: Donald Trump’s Authoritarian Reality. Stanley made the point that fact checking Trump in a way missed the point. Trump was not trying to make reference to reality in what he said to win votes. He was trying to substitute “his” reality for the one depicted in news reports.

“On a certain level, the media lacked the vocabulary to describe what was happening,” Stanley writes. And I agree with that. He compares what Trump did to totalitarian propaganda, which does not attempt to depict the world but rather substitutes for it a ruthlessly coherent counter-narrative that is untroubled by any contradiction between itself and people’s experience.

The goal of totalitarian propaganda is to sketch out a consistent system that is simple to grasp, one that both constructs and simultaneously provides an explanation for grievances against various out-groups. It is openly intended to distort reality, partly as an expression of the leader’s power. Its open distortion of reality is both its greatest strength and greatest weakness.

Trump’s campaign was “openly intended to distort reality” because that is a show of power. Power over his followers. Over the other candidates he humiliated and drove from the race. Over party officials who tried to bring him to heel. And over the journalists who tried to “check” and question him.

One of the first observations the checkers made about Trump is that he doesn’t care when his statements are shown to have no basis in fact. As Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker, put it: “What’s unusual about Trump is he’s a leading candidate and he seems to have no interest in getting important things factually correct.” The more astute journalists were aware that something different and threatening was going on. In December of 2015 Maggie Haberman and Patrick Healy of the New York Times made this observation:

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

A political campaign intended to erode people’s trust in facts is an attack on the very possibility that journalists can inform those people. But Trump went beyond that. He tried to substitute his world for the one we actually live in, as Jason Stanley describes:

The simple picture Trump is trying to convey is that there is wild disorder, because of American citizens of African-American descent, and immigrants. He is doing it as a display of strength, showing he is able to define reality and lead others to accept his authoritarian value system.

So what I mean by a miss bigger than a missed story is this. It is one thing to bypass the journalists and go directly to voters. It’s another to pull up the press by its roots. It’s one thing to lie for political advantage. It’s another to keep lying to prove you have the power. The retreat from empiricism was a disturbance in 2004. Twelve years later it is a political style in utter ascendency. “When we act, we create our own reality” was a boast in the Bush White House, a bit of outrageousness intended to shock the reporter. Now we have Trump’s attempt to substitute his reality for news of the world. Covering Trump was a massive challenge. Recovering from him may be all but impossible for the political press.

I hope that is not the case. But as election day dawns I fear it might be.


“The new information technology, with its cascades of rumour and limitless outlets for personal histories, is more often than not the enemy of informed public discussion. In the face of an endless readiness on all sides to heed the unmediated voice of personal experience, it has become harder to sustain the bigger picture needed for any plausible defence of progressive politics. This shifts politics, inexorably, to the right.” David Runciman, London Review of Books 2005 http://www.lrb.co.uk/v27/n11/david-runciman/tax-breaks-for-rich-murderers

Jay, the only thing I disagree with in your entire piece is your third paragraph, where you say your attempt to restore the plot probably won’t work. Because this was just a great, insightful, thought-provoking piece, and while no post can single-handedly come to grip with all the trends in politics, journalism, and psychology you’re grappling with here, your post is a hell of a start.

Your observation about the Times’ coverage of the tea party reminded me of something that was making me crazy recently, in The Economist’s special report on Russia. The guy who wrote it asserted several times what was going in Putin’s mind–speculative enough, but the speculation itself involved things like, “Putin feels that NATO is trying to encircle Russia.” I thought, “Well, assuming he really does feel that way, is there any basis in reality for the belief? For example, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, has NATO incorporated, say, Poland and the Baltic countries, extending all the way to Russia’s borders? How can you not talk about things like that while discussing the way the subject of your article is alleged to perceive the world?” But on the possible empirical basis for the alleged belief–crickets.

You know better than I do, but it seems that taking a position on verifiable, external developments–that is, on facts–is sometimes more fraught for the establishment media than speculation about the inner workings of people’s hearts and minds. Which is the opposite of what I would expect if I were a newcomer to earth.

Anyway, I think your post is an significant contribution to a vitally important conversation–one that I realized from reading your post should have started in earnest at least a decade ago (well, you tried). I don’t know the answers, obviously. No one does. But I think you’re asking a lot of the right questions. Thanks for that.

Thanks, Barry. I know what you mean when you say “it seems that taking a position on verifiable, external developments–that is, on facts–is sometimes more fraught for the establishment media than speculation about the inner workings of people’s hearts and minds.” I tried to address when I wrote about the Times portrait of the Tea Party. The Quest for Innocence and the Loss of Reality in Political Journalism.

To me an equally compelling mystery is: how did the retreat from empiricism happen to a “conservative” movement and the political party it had captured? Any time you ask that question you basically get a “both sides do it” lecture. I have sat through those lectures. I am familiar with the literature on confirmation bias. And I still want to know: how did the retreat from empiricism happen to a “conservative” movement and the political party it had captured? Why did it happen? Do we even know?

someBrad says:

The simple answer is that so many facts were inconvenient to that movement. I suspect the full answer is more complicated than that, but it seems like a place to start.

“How did the retreat from empiricism happen to a “conservative” movement and the political party it had captured?”

Of the 1% By the 1% for the 1% StateCraft and the connected worldwide cheating, corruption, and crime of the 1%. Academics are beholding to Academia, Academia is beholding to business, journalists and media are beholding to business and the branches of government are beholding to lobbyists who in the end makes us all beholding to Bankers. “We no longer have permanent principles, but permanent interests, which we pursue to the exclusion of all else.”  ~ Lord Palmerston, British Prime Minister at the time of the Opium Wars.

Strategy shows collusion among politicians which is not theoretical but an actual conspiracy. The above example of English policy and statecraft is exactly how America behaves. They called it EMPIRE.

paul lukasiak says:

Two words….

Fox News

While there were more than enough conservative anti-fact outlets, including behemoths like Rush Limbaugh, that effort remained fragmented. It was not until there was a visually arresting, 24 hour/7 day centralized assault on empiricism that the word “conservative” lost any meaning other than “opposition to Democrats”.

Lit3Bolt says:

1. As someBrad points out, inconvenient facts are simply unaddressed by conservatives. IMO, the movement is ideologically bankrupt and inconsistent, but this is more a consequence of the rejection of empiricism and how the conservative movement is simply the anti-Liberal party.

2. The rise of the conservative media infotainment complex, which is designed to agitate and instill fear. But to keep agitating and creating fear (and keep your audience), you have to make wilder and wilder claims. Competition within this market/demographic has raised a generation of conservative adults who cannot abide news or facts that does not adhere to their paranoid, conspiratorial worldview. Empiricism has now become a consumer choice.

3. The GOP is completely and totally captured by business interests and ideology, not governing interests or ideology. Thus all information and “facts” are seen through a marketing/public relations lens, rather than an empirical lens. Asking the GOP to be ideologically and factually consistent is like political reporters investigating whether Snuggle the Bear’s fabric softener really is the nation’s leading fabric softener, or whether Thera-Flu really does work, or which Diet Cola is preferred by consumers. If it works for the consumer, then it works and additional information/context need not apply.

Foucault may have beaten you tip the notion that truth is an expression of power by a few years. 🙂

It’s not true, of course, because done or later reality will assert itself. But that’s not much consolation to those who may have been harmed in the meanwhile.

Didn’t say truth is an expression of power. I said Trump was trying to substitute “his” reality for the one depicted in news reports, and therefore didn’t care if he was caught lying.

Stephan Shaw says:

But that is the implication, anyway, dennisaurus is right to bring up Foucault here.

And its interesting to see how the intellectual, ideological left occupies ground uncomfortably close to Trumpism. Foucault also has no NYtimes to fall back upon as an arbiter or basis for perspective.

Truth for both here (a thinker and an idiot) becomes only the act, and the power to posit itself. The piece makes the parallel point in showing the convergence of the political left and right fringes with their mutual absence of “facts”.
I enjoyed this piece. Thanks.

When you get to the so-called “truther” movement, which wildly disputes the 9/11 Commission’s account, the paranoid left and the conspiracy-minded right merge into one.


This is why I say in my book – and mean it – that there is a difference between “news media” and “political media” and that we played a big role in blinding viewers to that truth. Journalism separates opinion and fact, because it began – as Mr. Carlson was trying to point out – by informing people of current events. Opinion was left to the editorial page. As a reader, you knew that one paper was socialist or liberal or conservative because of the way they addressed issues on the opinion pages. No so with political media, whose very existence includes a reaction to the facts that journalism seeks. For example, the Wall St. Journal is a conservative paper, but it broke the story of Trump’s Playboy centerfold mistress. Our intent in the beginning was to influence intelligent people (the influencers), but the televangelist scandals sent them fleeing, and we were left with the very core about which you’re writing – those who embrace artificial facts designed to do political damage. Terrific work you’re doing, Jay. Keep at it.

Steven Greenebaum says:

Mr. Rosen: I am glad for your article. Much insight here and I very much agree that you have named an important “miss”. But, if you will forgive me, I think you have “missed” an important aspect – though I do understand there is only so much that can be discussed in one article! I am 68. I have watched with chagrin and to be honest increasing horror as our “news media” have evolved into a “circus media.” It really goes hand in glove with the disregard for reality that you describe.

There was a time when if a politician outright lied he (in those days, they were all “he”) would be challenged by a reporter. Much too frequently, those who pass for journalists (my bias) just let it pass. Even if, as example, Trump is called on a lie the first time, when he repeats it, only the repetition is reported. I do not believe our press are the sole cause of our problem. Not by a long shot. But I do believe they are a part of it. And, of course, the decision to take TV journalism out of the hands of the news department and make it responsible to the bottom line thinking of entertainment didn’t. Help. Sorry for the novel. I’ll stop.

Hanan Cohen says:

What you are describing is religion and the Conservative politicians as religious leaders.

Religion is not based on facts but on stories that have power over the audience because of who is telling them and not because of the facts in them.

I live in Israel and the conflict between religion and rationality is everywhere here. I think this is the reason why I see your post as describing a religion.

This is the reason I suddenly understand that Netanyahu is a religious leader – speaking and acting as such.

Since “rational” press cannot criticize religion as being irrational, I really don’t know where to go from here.

Maybe this understanding is the first step and I should be grateful for understanding it.

Teri Beau says:

Thank you. It’s how we got here alright. It sounds unlikely, like something from a Tim Burton fantasy…yet here we are. Up is down, and we are all disoriented and afraid.

Now, how do we right the world on it’s axis? 🙁

I’ll address this in more detail on my own blog this evening, but I want to emphasize that this problem doesn’t go away if Trump loses tomorrow. Way too many Americans are OK with the hate, vulnerable to the propaganda, or both, and right now someone smarter and more disciplined than Trump already is plotting how to capture those voters in off-year state and local races and in a race for the White House in 2020.

Aaron B Brown says:

The election of George W. Bush was the beginning of this, and he does not get elected without a split among Democrats, specifically the split between the Clintons and the Gores.

If Clinton had campaigned with Al Gore, Bush does not win that election.

And we see a split among Democrats again today, largely a direct result of the manufactured hatred of the Clintons by the Republican Party that started some 30 years ago

And America reelected that moronic frat boy in 04, proving just how desperate and stupid Americans are.

The rise of Bush and now the rise of Trump was and is about economic desperation and fear, and fear will overcome reason in the human animal every time.

Ultimately it’s about too many people with nothing to do, and no future for their children.

If Trump were to win this election, it will be just the continuation of the end of this country as we have known it.

Obama was the pulling back from the abyss, by people who could see that George W. Bush was not the answer to anything. But here we are again eight years later and those same people who voted for Bush are voting for Trump.

They see their world collapsing, and they are afraid. They don’t care that Trump lies every time he opens his mouth, they just want daddy to make it better, they just want to avoid winding up in the street living in a refrigerator box.

It doesn’t matter if Trump loses, what he represents will continue to grow in America, until he or someone like him does become president, and then woe betide us all.

So Clinton becomes president, and then what?

Jobs that actually pay enough to live on will continue to disappear in this country, and 150 million Americans, working class people, will have no future and no future for their kids.

It won’t matter that many of the white males voting for the Donald will be dying off over the next decade, because they will be replaced by other white males that can’t find work either. They will be replaced by minority males and females who can’t find work, because there is no work for them outside of McDonald’s and Walmart. And there is no dignity or chance at wealth building in that world. It’s a dead-end.

And dead ends make people desperate. And desperate people will drink the sand, and vote for someone like Donald Trump, because he tells them what they want to hear.

It doesn’t matter that they know he’s wrong, this is about their survival. Desperate people are dangerous, they will turn on anyone, even their own, they will eat their own children.

Anyone who has ever seen real desperation knows this to be true.

So Jay and others can parse this all they want but it won’t change the path we are on, the path that much of the world is on, because this is bigger than just the United States, it’s happening all over the world, and it’s much worse in places like Africa and in parts of Europe like Greece and Italy.

Things keep going the way they are going and very soon America will be in the same boat.

So we better go start coming up with some answers for what all these people are going to do, or what’s happening today is going to look like a blessed state by comparison to what’s coming.

The rise of Trump was more about racial animus than economic concerns, per the polling data, although economics were a nontrivial factor.

paul lukasiak says:

Ultimately, I think that the media actually succeeded in finding a way to cover Trump. Sure, it remains a “brute force” technique of constant fact-checking and rebuttal, but it was working.

Then, Comey. Suddenly, all the effort to provide consistent factual information deteriorated into endless speculation about how a vaguely worded, information free letter about the media’s bete noir would “impact the election.” Fact checking Trump was replaced with speculation about emails — indeed, until Bret Baier was forced to recant his story, Trump was able to accuse Clinton of virtually anything without any rebuttal whatsoever.

The media had the answer to the assault on empiricism in their grasp, and dropped it to pursue the shiny, evanescent bubble of Clinton scandal.

Edward Haley says:

Thanks!!! I really enjoyed it. I remember Suskind’s interview very vividly.

The author seems to me to mix up several things:

–the reality based idea
–character assassination
–and political manipulation

The quote about a state of mind that rejects “reality-based” decision-making seems to refer to foreign policy (We’re an empire now), but it looks and sounds like something all revolutionary movements do. The right-wing Republicans have been trying to substitute another reality for more than 50 years, or since Buckley emerged in the 1950s. Really since the Great Depression and the recoil from capitalism it unleashed. One way to do that is to act decisively (even if the strategy is bad), another is to block all other kinds of actions, as the current crop in Congress has been doing since Gingrich in the early 1990’s. The new reality is not new, but a throwback to primitive capitalism, England, say, around the 1820’s, the country that drove Dickens to write about work houses and Scrooge.

Character assassination is part of rejecting reality as a basis for action, but it has a life of its own and is very old. What the right-wing has been doing to the Clintons for 25 years and Obama since he emerged on the national scene is meant to taint them in every way possible. It’s been remarkably successful, and one measure of Obama’s success–and Bill’s while he was an active politician–has been to defeat it.

Political manipulation follows these two: what do people care about? Give them that and tell them it comes with primitive capitalism and nothing else. Thus, prayer in the school, guns, climate change, feminism, diversity, and on and on have been made to serve the return of primitive capitalism. As feeble as contemporary liberalism may be, it’s far more in the economic self-interest of most Trump supporters than primitive capitalism, but they’ve been sold on the connection.

The importance of ignoring reality, assassinating character, and political manipulation may come from the shift to a permanent campaign. I first read Sidney Blumenthal’s (none other) book called The Permanent Campaign where the idea is put in historical context. Apparently Patrick Caddell, a young poll reader for Jimmy Carter, first used the term. Wikipedia has an entry for it. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Permanent_campaign. Blumenthal has a wonderful chapter on the emergence of political advertising: in 1910 an advertising guy for a cigarette company hired some attractive young women to smoke in public—selling “want to be hip and beautiful? Just smoke our brand of cigarettes.” Old stuff for advertisers but all too easily and inevitably applied to politics and, after the 1968 election, Caddell argued, the application became permanent.

I don’t know what any of it means for the problem the author talked about. An inhouse problem that the news business has is to separate profits from covering reality. Part of the success that Trump had in creating a non-factual universe was his ability to manipulate the media into covering him by saying outrageous things. That was irresistibly good business for the news media, who ran with it 24/7. I read somewhere, maybe Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm about Goldwater’s 1964 campaign, that newspapers simply didn’t report about the John Birch society in the 1950s—the owners, people like the Chandlers, wouldn’t allow it—or they buried the stories in the middle of the paper. That’s one way, which worked, of course, because everyone was doing it. Wouldn’t work today. False equivalence is a problem, as Krugman has said over and over. Equivalence is a hold-over from the past that Fox buried from the start, and profited hugely, but all the others won’t let go. Then there’s the disorganization of the Republicans, that allowed all those idiots to run until the very end, giving Trump the nomination with less than half the Republican votes. . . .And Hillary’s wooden affect . . .

Just thanks. I am not able to add something to the conversation but thanks. This kind of retreat from facts and the way the media are in some way contributing to this is happening also in Italy. There are differences, but the underlying dynamics sound familiar, and yes we should be careful.

Thanks, Cate. Something I have realized over the last few weeks. I used to ask myself: how could Italians keep re-electing Silvio Berlusconi? He’s obviously a clown. He’s obviously corrupt. He doesn’t even try to hide it.

I don’t ask myself that anymore.

The media’s use of the word “corrupt” to describe any situation where elections require the use of campaign donations has made it very hard for low-information voters to distinguish the corrupt from the merely “corrupt.”

“One of the chief problems, Sykes said, was that it had become impossible to prove to listeners that Trump was telling falsehoods because over the past several decades, the conservative news media had “basically eliminated any of the referees, the gatekeepers.””

I can’t stop thinking that this all stems from the decentralized nature of the Internet.

Bastions of information and facts, like the NY Times, were once the predominant way we learned of the world around us.

But does a concept like ‘gatekeepers’ even make sense in this age? How do we go about solving this?

Should we accept that for the foreseeable future, millions of people will take anything they read online — even if it’s from a content farm in Macedonia — as fact?

Does Google have a responsibility to promote fact? (I say yes).

But do people who already think of Silicon Valley as an extension of liberal thought, even care?

I wish I could even start to answer some of these questions, but that’s what I have.

Where do we go, in a post-fact world?

Thanks for starting the conversation, Jay.

Patti Crane says:

Mr. Rosen, I always pay attention to what you say and what you write. Surely, somehow, your cogent analysis can penetrate this abominable, almost-unendurable fog before we lose track of facts and truth FOREVER!


I enjoyed this essay a lot, and it highlights something very important about journalists: We write for ourselves, not the people we are trying to persuade.

The people that wish to ingest Trump’s spew are not looking to think this critically about the news they consume. If we as communicators wish to get people to place weight on things such as accuracy and appreciate the leg-work that goes into verifying and collecting information, we must recognize that everyone consumes journalism knowing exactly what they want to get out of it. It relies on the skill of the journalist to bait and hook the closely held views of different types of readers and accurately bring them to decisional conflict in the shortest and most easily digestable medium possible, all without the author giving away too much. Good god is it hard to pull off.

The idea of “hooking” readers with something they want to to hear, and dragging them toward something they don’t… no, sorry. I don’t believe that is possible. I don’t think it’s a matter of skill. To me that is a writer’s fantasy.

I am a concerned Australian, observing and trying to make sense of a declining United States from a distance. I thank author Rosen and those contributing comments for your incisive insights and brutal honesty, traits that make society healthy. You give me hope the dark days will start to end as new leaders emerge.

You can’t pick up the plot starting with the last chapter.

You need to start at the end of WWII and you need to strip away the self-serving myths that the media includes when the media tell us the history of Post-War Media.

Joe McCarthy demonstrated that the post-war press was powerless in the face of shameless liars. Full stop. This lesson was missed because
A) The Army
B) Joe McCarthy played terrible on television.

A clear security flaw then existed in the media operating system: what happens when a shameless liar appears who plays well on television?

W. is what happens.
Trump is what happens.

I would add that the unbalanced state of journalism post-Reagan is the reason why the shameless liars are all on the GOP side.

But it’s also the MSM view from nowhere which eliminated the logical possibility of biased but fact based (which is to say: human) news.

If the NYT would be more responsive to subscribers like me who canceled over the Public Editor’s False Equivalence Fiasco, we might eventually live in a world where Megan Kelly and Chris Wallace take the ratings away from Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly.

> how did the retreat from empiricism happen to a “conservative” movement and the political party it had captured? 

9% of the public overall is consistently conservative, including 20% of Republicans and Republican leaners; most of the remaining Republicans and leaners were “mostly conservative” (33%) or had a mixture of liberal and conservative views (37%). http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/02/26/5-facts-about-consistent-conservatives/

To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss. https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/65231.Michael_Oakeshott

Conservative, n: A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal who wishes to replace them with others. http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/33012-conservative-n-a-statesman-who-is-enamored-of-existing-evils

Peter Jukes says:

This is a great provocative piece, but surely the fault is not in our stars, it’s in ourselves.

This will to power and retreat from empiricism is not just the fault of politicians. Your apt and ample quotes from the Bush administration could be matched many times over by admiring op-ed columnists and (as you point out) incurious reporters, especially in the run up to the Iraq war. Too many journalists are also engaged in a will to power, whether that’s merely access to the corridors of power and eavesdropping on five star generals, or actually becoming politicians themselves. Trump, after all, is basically a reality TV show compère gone haywire. If he loses the election, he can start his own channel.

One key development, perhaps as important as the decline of authority in the traditional mastheads and rise of social media, is that reporters and anchor men and women expect to become stars, with million dollar salaries, huge Twitter followings, endorsement deals, their own radio stations or websites (I was staggered to discover InfoWars has 50 or so staff). So journalism, or a form of it, is also a reality bending act.

In Britain, we’ve seen this for 30 years with a newspaper monopoly dominance of Rupert Murdoch’s News International (40% of circulation but 50% of sales). Having studied the biggest selling daily, the Sun, for the last four years, it’s clearly not intended as a vehicle of truth or fact, but as an assertion of political power. The paper could monster politicians with impunity, and with the aid of private detectives various journalists could hack voicemails, bribe cops for police records, blag bank details and medical records, and (at the News of the World) commission burglaries.

The power not to hold politicians to account but to hold them hostage has led to a cultural capture whereby many senior British politicians, especially those behind Brexit such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, began their careers as columnists. In the UK at least the rise of the punditocracy has meant a whole generation of would be politicos have wielded enormous power without accountability. Even when they finally face the ballot box and lose, as Michael Gove did, they can just return back through the revolving door between the commentariat and the political class.

From what I’ve seen of this election, the US still has a functioning press to hold Trump to acccount (70% of the UK press pumped out constant pro Brexit propaganda) even if your Foxified broadcast journalism took longer to do due diligence. So you’re still doing something right – I wish I knew what it was. Perhaps it’s the continued separation of fact and comment, reporting from op-ed, which has completely broken down over here. But the same will to power, of authority and influence mattering more than accuracy or insight, is surely just as much a malaise of the fifth estate as it is of the candidates and law makers.

This is a great piece, Jay, really enjoyed it. I wish I was closer to a solution than you are, but afraid not. Thanks for writing.

Josh Moses says:

I’ve been reading variations of this for years. And I’ve yet to see a single journalist do anything but bemoan the fact that half the country doesn’t care about facts. There needs to be a call, from people like you, for government to step in. Call it censorship if you like – it doesn’t really matter – but the steady diet of lies needs to stop. There need to be penalties for failing to live in the real world: foremost, you can’t vote in reality while living in unreality. Until we get that sort of push – and I mean it, a real push – the liars are going to continue to lie. They’ve learned there are no consequences, and ultimately they just have to win once. Just once, and it’s over. Because they won’t care about shutting down the NY Times or ending the African American vote. They’ll just do it.

The core problem actually lies deeper than you propose. Joseph Henrich’s new book on human evolution, “The Secret of Our Success”, points out that since language is so easy to subvert (simply by lying), it can only function as a communication tool if there are social norms in place specifying that most people, most of the time, tell the truth. Language is the only tool journalists have to pursue their trade. And Trump’s barrage of lies is calculated to destroy those norms and hence the value of that tool. And I fear it’s working.

Yes. I chose not to go into it, because the piece is already long and touches on so many things, but one part of Trump’s attack is on the social norms that make language itself a useful tool.