This started as a thread on Twitter about “things to look for” in the next six to eight months. Readers asked what could be done in response. I will try to meet that request in part two. (And here it is.) First we have to understand how deep and interconnected the problems are.
How bad is it? Pretty bad.
For a free press as a check on power this is the darkest time in American history since World War I, when there was massive censorship and suppression of dissent. I say this because so many things are happening at once to disarm and disable serious journalism, or to push it out of the frame. Most of these are well known, but it helps to put them all together. Here is my list:
1. An economic crisis in (most) news companies, leaving the occupation of journalism in a weakened state, especially at the state and local level, where newsrooms have been decimated by the decline of the newspaper business. The digital money is going to Google and Facebook, but they do not have newsrooms.
2. A low-trust environment for most institutions and their leaders, the same ones who are regularly featured in the news.
3. A broken and outdated model in political journalism, which tries to connect to the public through “inside” or access reporting about a class whose legitimacy is itself eroding. And since almost everyone got the result wrong in 2016, responsibility for this massive error is evenly distributed across the press, which means that no one is responsible for fixing what is broken.
4. An organized movement on the political right to discredit mainstream journalism, which stretches from Steve Bannon in the White House to Trump’s army of online trolls, with Breitbart, Drudge Report, talk radio and Fox opinion hosts mediating between the two, while the “alt reality” fringe feels newly emboldened. Its latest tactic is to shout down as “fake news” any work of reporting that conflicts with its worldview, leaving the term useless as a fraud alert. “Over the years, we’ve effectively brainwashed the core of our audience to distrust anything that they disagree with,” said John Ziegler, a conservative radio host, to a New York Times reporter. “Because the gatekeepers have lost all credibility in the minds of consumers, I don’t see how you reverse it.” In fact, no one knows how to fix this.
5. The rapid escalation of this drive-to-discredit as Trump gained traction with the electorate. Since 1970 it has grown from questioning the motives of people covering a Republican president in the speeches of Spiro Agnew, to countering liberal spin with the personalities at Fox News, to mistrusting all of the mainstream (or “drive-by”) media with Rush Limbaugh, and now to a place beyond that. Sean Hannity — who is probably closer to Trump than any other media figure — recently said on air: “Until members of the media come clean about colluding with the Clinton campaign and admit that they knowingly broke every ethical standard they are supposed to uphold, they should not have the privilege, they should not have the responsibility of covering the president on behalf of you, the American people.” In other words, the mainstream press should not be allowed to cover Trump. A few years ago that was a bridge too far. Now it’s a plausible test of poisoned waters.
6. After the debacle of 2016, trust in the news media as an institution feels lower than ever in living memory, while popular anger reaches an all-time high. The resentment is coming from the left, the right and what remains of the center. Pew Research Center: “Only about two-in-ten Americans (22%) trust the information they get from local news organizations a lot, whether online or offline, and 18% say the same of national organizations.” Gallup in September of this year: “Republicans who say they have trust in the media has plummeted to 14% from 32% a year ago. This is easily the lowest confidence among Republicans in 20 years.”
7. A homogeneity and coastal concentration in American newsrooms that can be described in many ways — lack of diversity is the most common, with disagreements on what kind of diversity is most desired — leaving the press ill-prepared to take creative action across a cultural divide. The situation was summed up in the most quotable line written by a journalist about Trump’s candidacy: “The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” (Salena Zito in The Atlantic.)
8. A figure in power who got there in part by whipping up hatred against the press, and who shows no signs of ending that abusive practice… coupled with a disturbing pattern in which Trump broadcasts through his Twitter feed outrageously false statements, the press reacts by trying to “check” them, and the resulting furor works to his advantage by casting journalists in the role of petty but hateful antagonist, with Trump as the man who takes the heat and “tells it like it is.”
9. The emergence of an authoritarian political style in which trashing the norms of American democracy (as when he cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election, or suggested prosecution of his opponent) works to Trump’s advantage with a huge portion of his supporters, while failing to alarm the rest. This is especially troublesome because norms of democracy are what give the press its place in public life and representative government; if these can be broken without penalty that means the press can be shoved aside and not much will happen.
10. The increasingly dim prospect that there will be a fact-based debate to which journalists can usefully contribute when the leader of the free world feels free to broadcast transparently false or ignorant claims… coupled with the full flowering of the “we make our own reality” attitude (circa 2004) into a kind of performance art that simultaneously kicks up hatred of anyone trying to be evidence-based and liberates the speech of powerful actors from even the most minimal factual constraints.
11. An advanced stage of culture war, political polarization and asymmetrical mistrust of the press in which, instead of leading to greater public awareness and a gradual movement toward reform, sensational revelations, hard-hitting investigations and exposés of corruption are consumed as fuel in an accelerating political divide. In other words, Watergate-style journalism increasingly enflames and polarizes, rather than informing and alerting the public. The more damning and irrefutable the findings are, the more likely is this furious reaction, especially when Trump launches attacks on the journalists and news organizations doing the digging.
12. The success of “verification in reverse,” a method on the march, in which a knowing political actor takes facts that have been nailed down, and introduces doubt about them, which then releases energy (controversy, resistance, ready-to-hate news coverage) which in turn helps power a movement among those who wanted the established facts repealed, as it were. This is how Trump launched his political career. He became a birther. Wherever it succeeds, verification-in-reverse is a triumph over the craft of journalism, which has to be pro-verification or it may as well exit the stage.
13. Amusing ourselves to death, as Neil Postman’s 1985 book put it, in which the logic of entertainment overtakes adjacent but nominally distinct spheres that are supposed to be governed by their own logic, as when newsworthiness and the requirements of political debate are subordinated to entertainment values by media companies obeying commercial imperatives, while claiming a public service mantle. For journalists, this is the import of Jeff Zucker’s reign at CNN, and one of the lessons of Trump’s career as a “reality TV” star.
14. A shift in the power-to-inform toward a single platform and attention-economy colossus: Facebook, a creature of the tech industry that feels no native commitment to journalism… that wants to avoid responsibility for editing because editing does not scale… that easily surfaces demand for false stories about real events… and that is slowly taking charge of the day-to-day relationship with users of the news system, especially on mobile devices, which is where the growth is.
15. A proven model — proven, that is, by billionaire Peter Thiel — for bankrupting news companies and driving them out of business by using the court system and jury trials, which can leverage public disgust for The Media (see no. 6 above) into jury awards that defendants cannot possibly pay. As yet there is no known counter to this strategy. The fact that it worked once has an intimidating effect.
16. A crisis of representation around covering Trump in which it is not clear that anyone can reliably tell us what his positions are, or explain his reasons for holding them, because he feels free to contradict advisers, spokespeople, surrogates, and previous statements he made. As Esquire’s Charles Pierce put it to me: “Nobody speaks for the prez-elect, not even himself.” I list this because the press is not good at abandoning rituals and routines when they cease to make sense. Every interview with Kellyanne Conway or Reince Priebus is premised on a claim to represent the man in power. This claim may be false. But journalists need people to interview! So they will continue to do it, even though they may be misinforming the public. They may even realize this and be unable to shift course. What I’m trying to point out is that existing methods for “holding power to account” rest on assumptions about how it will behave. A man in power untroubled by contradictions and comfortable in the confusion he creates cannot be held accountable by normal means.
17. Weak leadership and a thin institutional structure in the American press, which is not accustomed to organizing itself to fight back or act assertively in any coordinated way, as with the White House Correspondents Association, currently failing even to get a meeting with the Trump transition team, but still planning to yuck it up with him at the WHCA dinner in the spring of 2017. In many ways the press resembles a “herd of independent minds,” with no one responsible for the beast as a whole, and no easy way to fix broken practices, or re-direct effort. Collaboration is on the rise in journalism, and that’s a good a thing. But while it’s easy to act against the press, it’s almost impossible for the press as a whole to deliberate and act in reply. And even if it could miraculously discover the will to do so, this would probably give new ammunition to political enemies of the press. Remaining a “herd of independent minds,” politically weak, is thus the safest course. Which is not to say it will work.
So that is what I mean by “winter is coming.” All those things 1-17 are happening at once, and strengthening one another. The combined effect is chilling.
The common elements: Low trust all around, an emboldened and nationalist right wing that treats the press as natural enemy, the bill coming due for decades of coasting on a model in political reporting that worked well for “junkies” but failed to engage the rest of us, the strange and disorientating fact that reality itself seems to have become a weaker force in politics, the appeal of the “strong man” and his propaganda within an atmosphere of radical doubt, the difficulty of applying standard methods of journalism to a figure in power who is not trying to represent reality but to substitute himself for it as a show of strength, the unsuitability of prior routine as professionals in journalism try to confront these confusing conditions, a damaged economic base, weak institutional structure and newsroom mono-culture that hinders any creative response, and a dawning recognition that freedom of the press is a fragile state, not a constitutional certainty.
Are there any bright signs? Yes, a few.
18. When you ask about specific news brands (as against The Media) the trust picture looks better.
19. I quote New York Times columnist Jim Rutenberg: “In the weeks since the election, magazines like The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Vanity Fair; newspapers including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post; and nonprofits like NPR and ProPublica have been reporting big boosts in subscription rates or donations.” The Guardian and Mother Jones are benefitting, too.
20. According to news industry analyst Ken Doctor, the Washington Post will add more than 60 journalists in the coming year. The Post is making money again. And its leadership believes that “investigative and deeper enterprise stories are good for the brand and the business”— not an expense that has to be subsidized by lighter fare, but a means to sustainability in themselves. That’s significant.
21. As the scope of the emergency dawns, it is possible that journalists in the U.S. will be inspired to do a better job and change what needs changing. Talent (and tips) could flood in as a slumbering public for serious news awakens.
22. Facing the same kind of hostility in multiple countries where similar conditions are found, journalists may discover a new level of international cooperation that helps them cope with the threat to their occupation. There’s already a global movement for fact-checking in journalism. Maybe another one will emerge around the realization that fact-checking is not enough.
23. In the U.S., the Constitution remains firmly in place, hard to alter. First Amendment protections are real and among the strongest in the world. There are no signs that prior restraint or overt government censorship are on the horizon— though self-censorship is another matter.
What not to do…
24. Don’t recruit Trump loyalists into the news and opinion space (Jeffrey Lord of CNN is the model) as a gaudy show of balance. This will not save you. Conservative, red state, working class and rural American voices may deserve special recruitment, but if they have integrity these people are just as likely to be critical of Trump.
25. Don’t settle for accusation-driven over evidence-based reporting, just to avoid drawing flak from Trump’s press-hating supporters or demonstrate how even-handed you are.
26. Don’t make it all about access to the President and his aides, or preserving the routines of White House reporting, as the press corps is currently doing— mostly out of habit. A Trump presidency is likely to be constructed on a propaganda model in which fomenting confusion is not a drag on the Administration’s agenda but a sign that it’s working. Access to such a machinery could wind up enlisting the press in a misinformation campaign. Here, I am getting ahead of the story because we don’t really know what a Trump White House will be like. And I am not saying that access to the president and his top advisors is unimportant or a dirty word. Rather, it should not be the organizing principle for journalists who are preparing to cover Trump.
In part two of this post, coming tomorrow, I will discuss “measures worth taking,” given what I have said in part one. I have several small ideas, and one larger one. It involves listening better than the political system does to what’s troubling Americans, and fashioning a proper news agenda out of that. This is not a new notion, but it is newly relevant now that winter is here for the public service press.