Speaking truth to audience power

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

3 Nov 2016 11:32 am 20 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeking truth or seeking refuge? Pick one, journalists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Protecting against criticism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking truth to audience

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

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

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

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


Steven Thuman says:

A large portion of Trump leaning voters will not read more than 1 or 2 paragraphs when they detect an anti-Trump slant. Your point is true and needs repeating but in a far more concise and eye opening way. Good luck with that. I’ve been trying for months without much success in my own little circles.

I’m just trying to describe what I see. If you want concise follow me on Twitter. I don’t expect to persuade Trump voters of a thing.

In journalism, the saying used to be that if you wanted a friend, get a dog. For the 21st century, perhaps the saying should be updated to: Nobody is innocent.

You can be truthful, but you don’t get to be innocent. So be truthful and wear the guilt, as it were, as a badge of honor.

That’s right. You are guilty of enlisting in the verification corps.

paul lukasiak says:

I think that there is some slight justification for the Daily Commercial’s “mea culpa” — and it is applicable to most of the media as well.

In general, the media hasn’t bothered to publish stories from a “positive” perspective about Trump when discussing his past. There are tons of stories about Trump’s history that casts him in a negative light, but few efforts to examine the positive things he has accomplished. In other words, there have been a disproportion of negative stories to what are often called “puff” pieces.

So in that sense, the coverage has lacked “balance”.

(Of course, the same lack of balance can be said of the coverage of Clinton. The press has all but completely refused to report on Clinton’s positive accomplishments to the point where people buy into the “she’s done nothing for the last 30 years” meme. )

Michael Brazier says:

I must contradict you – Trump has persuaded nobody that the media can’t be trusted to tell the truth. Rather, he has exploited a belief that the media is untrustworthy that was both wide and deep before his candidacy. The loss of faith in reporters’ honesty has been building up for more than twenty years – ever since it became possible for stories to become national news without being broadcast on TV networks – and will not be soon recovered.

The image of journalism in American popular culture, for better or worse, is now Kent Brockman – the Simpsons character whose most famous line, “And I for one welcome our new insect overlords”, is the crux of a speech demonstrating both his lust for tyrannical power, and his total inability to understand what was actually happening. Trump didn’t bring that about. Neither did his supporters. I leave it to you to work out who or what did.

Where did I say that Trump originated the mistrust of the news media? I don’t recall that.

paul lukasiak says:

I don’t think he said “originated”. He said “persuaded”. And that looks legitimate to me, given your statement “..by convincing his supporters to despise and mistrust the press”.

That being said, his comment is pure quibbling, and misses the point of your piece entirely. I think its clear that you meant something along the lines of “encouraged his supporters to further despise and mistrust the press.”

Michael Brazier says:

No, it’s not a quibble. The thesis of the post is that Trump represents so great a danger to honest political discussion that he must be discredited, and a scrupulous examination of his record and statements, without regard for any pretenses of “balance”, will accomplish this. What this neglects is that journalists, as a profession, aren’t in a position to make that examination, because all their pretensions – to objectivity, neutrality, expertise and yes, innocence – have been exposed. No one would heed the judgement of a man who had claimed wisdom and impartiality while demonstrating folly and prejudice, yet that’s what the media have done for decades.

And I’m not referring to political biases especially here. Michael Crichton’s remark on the “Gell-Mann Amnesia effect” comes to mind: that most news articles get the facts and the issues utterly wrong, to the frustration of those who understand their subjects. Or there’s Ben Rhodes’ gaffe, saying that the modern political press are so ignorant that they’ll uncritically believe anything the White House press secretary tells them. What these and other statements like them put in question is whether the media would recognize the truth if they heard it.

You’re assuming way too much, Michael. Over-reading. I didn’t say that “a scrupulous examination of his record and statements, without regard for any pretenses of balance,” will somehow discredit Trump in the eyes of his supporters. I have no idea how journalists can reach his supporters, and I am pretty sure, looking at what I wrote, that I did not pretend to have such knowledge.

You might take a look at the other section of this re-designed site, The Board. One of the entries there lists the top problems in journalism that concern me. Here are the first two:

1. How to cover Trump, whose political style “is an attack on the very possibility of honest journalism.” (Link.)

2. A huge portion of the country (20 to 35 percent) is effectively “lost” to mainstream journalism because it doesn’t believe what is reported in what it calls The Media. (Link.)

Michael Brazier says:

Of course you said nothing of convincing Trump’s supporters; you want reporters to convince the persuadable, the people whose political views are in flux. I’m saying that matters are worse than you know: even the persuadable are out of reach. You think only 20% or 35% of Americans don’t listen to mainstream journalists; I think the figure is well over half, and growing steadily. Why else was Stephen Colbert mistaken for a journalist?

As for your first concern, Trump is no innovator there. Of the four “basic notions” that you take him to oppose, Barack Obama consciously rejected two – “there’s a public record that cannot just be wiped away” and “a candidate’s position on major issues should be made clear to the voters” during his 2008 campaign by presenting himself as a blank screen for the voters to project whatever they hoped for; and he rejected the idea that a fact-based debate is needed for legitimate government when he declared, shortly after being inaugurated, that he could do what he pleased just because he’d won the election. I fail to recall the expressions of outrage from mainstream journalists at these statements, even though they implied the irrelevance, in Obama’s eyes, of journalism’s role in politics. (But then, I hadn’t found your site at the time. No doubt you had something to say against Obama then.)

Thanks. That comparison is enough for me. I won’t be engaging you any longer. You may have the last word.

This need to say something negative about Clinton every time they report something Trump has said or done reminds me of the way stories about the dangers of smoking used to be reported. The press finally woke up and realized that they didn’t have to present the viewpoint of the tobacco industry. Sometimes there really aren’t two sides to every story. There’s the truth, and presenting an opposing view to the truth is not journalism.

Could it be we are looking at symptoms but not seeing the disease? Isn’t it all just a result of technological change, no different than when the printing press was invented. That device allowed what was only spoken to be written on paper and read by many. With photography, film and video we could now see and hear what was once read only on paper. Still, up to a few years ago all this content was still tightly controlled by those that possessed it. Things on paper could be thrown away. Photographs, film and videos were held in storage where you had to drag them out to see them again. This impacted how we processed information. Now everything is saved forever! Powerful people are their own information gatekeepers. It is infoxication. One reporter’s voice can’t be heard in the crowd so now he has to SHOUT, but no one is listening! Politics has always been ugly. Journalists are not the only ones that get that. Not long ago the ugliness was quieter. It existed only in private talks, or on paper memos easily shredded, or on reporter’s notepads discarded after going to print. Now its out there for everyone to see and we have to adjust. Any technological innovation creates change. Journalism is not immune.


You hit a sensitive point with your suggestive phrase, “the production of innocence.” It is an American right to insist upon innocence at all times. But in this framework – corporate owned media – the next question must be “why?” Why is it better for a publication allegedly concerned with the public interest, but owned and operated by private interest, to appear “innocent”? I would suggest the answer here goes to the question of perceived economic necessity. Owners see no advantage to sacrificing revenue streams from advertising, often on the very local level, the very people they do business with every day. Innocence in journalism is a bogus concept, yes, but it’s also a strategy to avoid alienating an economic realm that truly is innocent – of all conviction, ethics, or concern with reality.

I appreciate the post but am not persuaded that the structural biases in journalism have been altered by Trump in any meaningful way beyond fleeting anecdotes.

Both of the below statements are guesses. They can be easily assessed for accuracy. Neither was.

“The most likely interpretation is that the publisher made him write the open letter and he hated doing it. He understood it as a form of corruption: soul damage. (That’s my read, not what he said.)” – Did you ask?

“I think that Trump has ended that struggle.” – Will you revisit to confirm such a change in journalism’s culture took hold beyond the fact-checkers that pre-dated Trump?

Michael Brazier says:

Presented without comment: http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2016/11/the-right-wing-media-isnt-crazy

“When I checked the news the other day, it was more of the same. I counted some 20 articles about the presidential race, each espousing the unequivocal view that one candidate is collapsing due to moral failings, financial improprieties, and complete and utter lack of judgment and ethics. Notably, I was not reading Breitbart. Instead, I was reading The Washington Post, delivered to my doorstep, and the attacks were squarely waged not against the Clintons but rather against Trump. “

I am going to close this thread soon. So get your last licks in.

Responding to asinine and trollish false equivalences between Trump and normal candidates is not something I am willing to do at my own site. And since not responding says the wrong thing, as well, I would rather shut down the space because that is where we are in America today.