A current list of my top problems in pressthink, April 2020

The things I spend the most time puzzling about these days— and nights. Ranked by urgency. Updated from time to time.

28 Apr 2020 6:44 pm 16 Comments

1. The manufacture of confusion. The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the American economy, and killed more than 60,000 people— in an election year.

There is going to be a campaign to prevent Americans from understanding what happened within the Trump government during the critical months of January to April, 2020. Many times Donald Trump told the nation that it has nothing to worry about because he and his people have the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus well in hand. They did not. He misled the country about that.

“It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control,” he told CNBC on January 22. “We pretty much shut it down coming in from China,” he told Sean Hannity on February 2. On February 24, Trump tweeted that “the Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA.”

He misled the country. This basic fact is so damning, the evidence for it so mountainous, and the mountain of evidence so public — and so personally attached to Donald Trump — that the only option is to create confusion about these events, and about the pandemic generally, in hopes that people give up and conclude that the public record does not speak clearly and everything is propaganda.

Creating confusion is basic to how he operates anyway. But now his time in power and control of Congress are in doubt because of the pandemic. The stakes are unimaginably high, not just for him, but for the entire Republican Party and for all who have gained from his chaotic reign. The manufacture of confusion will thus move to the center of his 2020 campaign strategy. Is the American press ready for that? No, it is not. And that’s a problem.

2. The White House press needs to switch settings to cope with Trump. But this is not happening. For five years I have been sounding this alarm: your practices are built on assumptions about how presidents will behave. None of those assumptions apply to Trump. So your practices will have to change. On the second day of his presidency I said it as clearly as I could. “They can’t visit culture war upon you if they don’t know where you are. The press has to become less predictable. It has to stop functioning as a hate object.”

Margaret Sullivan pulled the same alarm in a column published today. Plenty of good work has been done by individual reporters, she writes. (I agree with that.) Small adjustments in practice have been made. (I agree with that too.)

But in the big picture and as a whole, we’ve never quite figured out how to cover Trump for the good of citizens. We’ve never really fully changed gears despite Trump’s constant, norm-busting behavior. Determined to do our jobs — dutifully covering the most powerful person in the world — we keep coming back for more: Beat reporters file into the briefing room, sometimes to be publicly insulted and disparaged as “fake news” or “a terrible reporter.”

James Fallows of the Atlantic put it this way: “The media were not built for someone like this. That someone has not changed. The media must change.” But it has not happened, not at the depth required. Which is why a few weeks ago I wrote this: Today we are switching our coverage of Donald Trump to an emergency setting. It’s a sample editor’s note from an imagined newsroom that spells out how to shift footing. It didn’t work, of course, but then nothing does.

3. The advertising model is dying. Direct dollar support from readers, viewers and listeners is difficult to come by and requires a lot of knowledge and training to do well. Creating a digital news product that people are willing to pay for is way harder than luring an audience and selling it to advertisers. Sustained government subsidy is unlikely and undependable— and it could be ruinous for independence. The tech platforms are not going to take responsibility unless they are forced. The economic crisis in journalism has no clear solution. Employment is falling. The news industry is contracting: shedding talent, losing memory. No one is going to ride to the rescue.4. At the deepest roots of our thinking about journalism are these fixed ideas now leading us astray. The French have a term: idée fixe. It means a persistent preoccupation that dominates the mind and resists any attempt to modify it. Some examples that vex me:

  • What the president says is news.” (This dooms the press to reporting lies.)
  • News is what happened in the last 24 hours.” (Also known as recency bias, where the thing that happened yesterday is elevated over what is still true.)
  • “Conflict makes news.” (Which hands control over to the makers of conflict, turning manipulation of the news system into child’s play.)

My most recent Twitter thread is about another idée fixe: the image of “exposure” as a description of what good journalism does: “Many of the biggest and hardest problems before the American press involve matters that have already been ‘brought to light,’ meaning they cannot be resolved by further exposure.” We can think of fixed ideas as places where journalism refuses to adapt. They are defended as if they were first principles. But they’re not.

5. We are heading into an election and it’s not clear what will be different from 2016. I can say this in a sentence or two because I think you all understand what I mean. It’s Trump against Biden. What evidence do we have that journalists have learned from the 2016 campaign (“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS…“) and are ready to take a different approach? Very little. Recently I tried to ask a CNN reporter that question. No reply.


This got my attention: “There is going to be a campaign to prevent Americans from understanding what happened within the Trump government during the critical months of January to April, 2020.”

I submit to you the suggestion that such a campaign is already in progress, Prof. Rosen, and that it began maybe two to four weeks ago.

Neal Boudette says:

The question I would like to have asked at the briefings is, “What has the federal government done today to beat the virus? What will it do tomorrow?”

Straight forward. Factual. Can’t spin that. You spin it, and you’re saying the government is doing nothing.

Neal: That’s a question for Drs. Blix and Fauci. Not for Trump and Pence and their lot. The doctors will answer as truthfully as they can, and we who watch and read and listen to the news reports will recognize that.

And I really should sit down to think of a more useful response to the rest of Prof. Rosen’s remarks here. They deserve that attention.

It has been an education for me in recent weeks to learn how many people think they have the one killer question that cannot be evaded (“Can’t spin that”) so it will stop the briefing or its MC dead in their tracks. It’s a fascinating belief.

Here’s my thread about why I think that unlikely.

Joseph Welch vs. Joe McCarthy…and Roy Cohn was there for that, and moved on to mentor Trump.

So, part of what he’s learned from Roy Cohn may be this: shame gets in the way of winning. Therefore, no shame. Ever. Never let the Joseph Welch-types of the world grind you down with decency. Whether the lesson was ever actually communicated explicitly by Cohn to Trump, let alone in those words…? That question doesn’t really need an answer. Not now, anyway.

Here’s the media dynamic that keeps us evidence-based medicine folk up at night:

Race Cowgill says:

Having worked in industry-change projects for many years, it is my observation that describing, in the national media, the severe problems the press is creating for itself and for democracy may lead to little change, and too late. There are change strategies that may have a faster and bigger effect. We at The Democracy Project are standing ready to bring forward our knowledge and skill in this effort.

Anyone want to dialog about how we might work together on this and make bigger progress?

Mark J. McPherson says:

No reporter, no construction of logic and reason, will force Trump to accept a rational premise and thereby be trapped into providing an honest or accurate answer. When he was asked, at least eight weeks into this crisis, about what steps were being taken, it was not only a lie that the virus was “under control”; it was untrue that anything meaningful and proportionate had or was being done or planned.

For almost five years now, with each fresh tweet or utterance, the Press continues to kvetch and caterwaul about precisely what nonsense he spews or how he says it, without ever learning a damn thing from it, so that nothing changes and the Press remain in thrall, in place, an indispensable component in the means of production of chaos and disinformation.

As the toll of years, the sheer debasing, degrading force of grotesque cynacism mounts and undermines one institution after another, the leading lights of the Press have not much shifted their immutable, credulous gaze up at that rostrum.

So now, when the stakes are life and death, well it just continues and the Press dutifully (to whom?) plays its role. Trump recasts his travesty as now a battle wherein he is opposed in his heroic championing for employment, wealth and freedom — by cowering, hectoring local officials. And the Press amplifies and endlessly repeats his scandalous statements, designed to trigger reckless behaviors, so that those local officials, stuck dealing with the grim viscera from the fallout of Trump’s abject failures, are forced to redouble their admonitions at a point where every one has grown tired and worn. You would think this would have a queasily familiar ring to it, for the Press, because a large part of Trump’s sustaining sideshow has been his call-and-response, enemies-of-the-people act where he says enough offensive things to trigger criticism from the Press, which just keeps that hamster-wheel dynamic spinning to the exclusion of any material information.

Trump will continue to do his thing, yet it is not as if actual epidemiologists went into hermetic hiding. But Trump knows he has the easiest show in town and figures that even if the pie has shrunk by 3/4’s, the Press that cover him are still getting their bellies filled.

Maureen O'Brien says:

The Press needs to shift focus away from Trump and his lies and scandals for all the reasons Professor Rosen has identified. I want to know more about the mechanics of current healthcare and elections, for instance, how other countries are dealing with reopening, supplies and economic constrictions. There is other life out there. Trump world is a black hole.

Peter Plagens says:

I’ve a bit of trouble with the idea of not covering Trump’s press briefings or what he says as “news.”

This will come back to bite the press in the future when mainstream news outlets refuse to cover what some progressive President–or, more likely on a State level, a Governor–says because the press consensus is that it’s bullsh*t.

In a world power of 330 million people, whatever its President/Premier/Prime-Minister says is news and should be covered. The press shouldn’t not cover it because it’s bullsh*t and/or because they think reporting it is somehow harmful to the public. That’s not the press’s call.

*How* the press covers what the President says is another story. How the op-ed sections of the press handles is another story still.

“The press shouldn’t not cover it because it’s bullsh*t and/or because they think reporting it is somehow harmful to the public. That’s not the press’s call.”

Disagree. What to put on the air is completely the call of independent news organizations. If it’s not their call, then they are not independent at all. The principle of editorial control is what’s sacrosanct here, not the president’s right to get his message out. It was rightly and completely the networks’ call when ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox did not carry Obama’s prime time announcement of his immigration plan in 2014. See: Why major US TV networks didn’t show Obama’s immigration address. Doesn’t mean they made the right call. Maybe in restrospect they didn’t. But did they have the right not to air the speech? Absolutely. If you say they didn’t have that right you are saying the president controls the airwaves, and that is not what the First Amendment says. It’s the opposite of what the First Amendment says.

Erik D'Amato says:

Number 6: The agenda-setting national media continues to be hobbled by a startling lack of cultural and ideological diversity mixed with a preening pretense of non-partisanship that drives even many liberals crazy, and makes it one of the country’s least-trusted institutions.

I don’t disagree with a word of what Jay says here, and I’m glad he keeps hammering away. Preach, brother!

The reason Jay needs to keep hammering is that the congregation is a collection of addicts. What they’re addicted to is The Story.

All stories have three elements: character, problem and movement. When an editor says to a reporter, “What’s the story?” he or she is looking for those three things.

The problem with Trump is that plays all three brilliantly. He’s a character who generates and amplifies problems, almost as a body function. And he’s great at moving the last problem off the table to make room for the next one. That’s Jay’s point in his opening section. The confusion piles higher as every well-covered lie gets replaced with another well-covered lie, while the liar calls those covering his lies “fake.” Wow. Has there ever been a more effective troll? And the press feeds him, because the press wants stories.

I’ve written about this here http://blogs.harvard.edu/doc/2019/07/23/where-journalism-fails/ and elsewhere. And I’d like to say I have a cure. But I don’t. The problem is of a breed that Jay calls “wicked.” But we do need to solve it.

ThresherK says:

Just wanted to add my upvote to the good perfesser’s works.

I was on a penny-ante college newspaper back in the Before the Internet days (and also a tiny radio station, back when the kids were excited to be on the air, and listened to the radio).

The stuff I see Rosen ripping in to would not have passed my college media outlets then.

Steve Johnson says:

Jay – I always appreciate your worrying, but I think there is one more: What if what journalists do no longer matters? Growing up in rural GA, we had conservative newspaper, Cronkite & Huntley/Brinkley on TV, Sat. Eve. Post, Reader’s Digest magazines, later Time as well. All info vetted by editors. I’m again in N.GA, folo dozens on Twitter/FB, read WAPO, NYT, etc but most neighbors don’t, nor do they get Time or RD or SEP. Instead it’s FB & talk radio, almost none of it vetted by editors. Turns out, we don’t seem to care if things are true. That worries me more cuz I don’t see how we fix it. Even if journalists were perfect, what does it matter if no one cares?