You cannot keep from getting swept up in Trump’s agenda without a firm grasp on your own

The 2020 campaign is here. Those who are covering it had better figure out what they are for, or they will end up as his enablers— as they were in 2016.

27 May 2020 10:57 pm 36 Comments

Not sure how long I’m going to be doing this.

By “this” I mean critiquing the American press as it reports on national politics, and trying to get journalists to adopt better practices when they are public actors who present to us as observers. It is a frustrating assignment, and I am wary of burnout.

But since I am self-assigned — self-appointed, really — I have freedom of movement, intellectually speaking. Were it not for the fact that we are all enmeshed in the biggest national emergency since the Great Depression, I would probably have exited by now from the “press coverage of politics” beat, in the belief that I have contributed what I can, worn out my welcome, and exhausted the patience of anyone who has been following along.

But I cannot quit before the 2020 elections are run. Until then I am going to press my case as hard as I can. Today my case to American journalists is this: You cannot keep from getting swept up in Trump’s agenda without a firm grasp on your own. I am quite aware that journalists are taught not to let their political preferences, party membership, or personal ideology shape their reporting, and I have no quarrel with that restriction. But it does not end the discussion.

Here is Jake Tapper on CNN in May of 2016, after one of Donald Trump’s fact-free accusations. (Italics mine.)

There is no corroborated evidence that Ted Cruz’s father ever met Lee Harvey Oswald, or, for that matter, any other presidential assassin. We in the media don’t talk about it because there’s no evidence of it. In fact, there is contrary evidence. Well before the picture was taken, Rafael Cruz’s sister was brutally beaten by Castro forces and Rafael Cruz had denounced the regime. So, any suggestion that Cruz’s father played a role in the Kennedy assassination is ridiculous and, frankly, shameful. Now, that’s not an anti-Trump position or a pro-Cruz position. It’s a pro-truth position.

Jake Tapper knows that journalists are not supposed to push an agenda like “Ted Cruz for president!” But he also knows there are fundamental values that he and his colleagues in the news business have to stand up for. Among these are a decent respect for truthtelling in public settings. When politicians competing for votes float poisonous charges without even a modicum of evidence, self-respecting journalists have to push back in some way.

In doing that, Tapper wasn’t crossing the border from journalism into some other line of work. He was practicing his craft the way he understands it— and legitmately so. The distinction he makes is important. Yes, he took a position on air, but it’s not anti-Trump or pro-Cruz. It’s pro-truth.

Now I want to go beyond what Jake Tapper said in 2016, and introduce a distinction of my own, between the political and the politicized. About press coverage of politics, nothing would improve our conversation more than a careful separation of these two terms. Not easy, but worth trying. Here is what I mean:

When TV journalists with Sunday morning shows push back against major party candiates who are floating poisonous charges without evidence, that is a political act. We should be clear-eyed in acknowledging such. Same goes for the newspaper fact checkers who wrote, “Trump is once again making a ridiculous claim.” With these moves journalists are trying to alert viewers and voters to be wary of Trump’s false charges. They would not put it this way, but I will: their implicit “agenda” is to prevent lying from being raised to a universal principle in politics.

That is a valid goal. When I call it a political act, I mean several things: It is undertaken for the good of the nation. It is a use of power in one sense, a check on power in another. It is constitutionally protected. And it is contestable. People can and do disagree about the propriety of journalists declaring what is true and what is false, what is in or out of bounds during an election, and they argue about the calls made. All these make it (properly) political.

But — and here comes my distinction — if journalists lose their place and operate as cheerleaders for individual candidates (“Ted Cruz for president!”) or they let their ideology distort their reporting so as not to injure a cause they manifestly believe in, then their work has been unduly politicized. This is not good. It erodes trust, validates bad faith attacks on the press, and ultimately renders journalism useless as a check on power because it is trying to be the power.

So we should be leery of an overly politicized press. We should also watch out for politicized attacks on the press. And we should be wary of journalists who don’t think their work is political at all. Here is Peter Baker, White House correspondent of the New York Times:

As reporters, our job is to observe, not participate, and so to that end, I don’t belong to any political party, I don’t belong to any non-journalism organization, I don’t support any candidate, I don’t give money to interest groups and I don’t vote.

I try hard not to take strong positions on public issues even in private, much to the frustration of friends and family. For me, it’s easier to stay out of the fray if I never make up my mind, even in the privacy of the kitchen or the voting booth, that one candidate is better than another, that one side is right and the other wrong.

I don’t trust this attitude. I think it is dismissive of some of the hardest problems in journalism. Correct in warning against an overly politicized press, it has nothing to say about the inescapably political nature of Baker’s day-to-day work. Not voting on principle, never making up your mind on tough issues, deliberately frustrating friends and family when they ask around your kitchen island: what do you think? These are fantasies of detachment.

When the president is using you as a hate object in order to discredit the entire mainstream press in the eyes of his supporters so that your reporting and the reporting of all the people you compete with arrives pre-rejected, what good is “our job is to observe, not participate?” You are part of that system whether you like it or not. You either think your way out of it, or get incorporated into it.

The hard work is deciding where the properly political part of journalism ends, and its undue, unfair, unwise and risky politicization begins. But we don’t have a discussion like that. Instead we have media bias wielded like a baseball bat, and journalists who think they can serve the electorate better if they remove themselves from it.

Now we are met on an ugly and brutal battlefield: the 2020 campaign for president. How should American journalists approach it? I have previewed my answer in the title of this post: You can’t keep from getting swept up in Trump’s agenda without a firm grasp on your own. But what should that agenda be? To this tricky question I now turn, armed with my distinction between the properly political and the overly politicized.

I am going to list a few things I think journalists can legitimately be “for” as they report on the coming election. If they choose not to choose, and head into the 2020 campaign without stars to steer by, they are likely to become lost in Trump’s predictable flood of newsy distractions and lurid controversies. They know what’s coming. What they don’t know is how to avoid playing along. Here are some suggestions.

1. A citizens agenda. This I have described many times, and I am working with a group that is advocating for it in 2020. It’s an alternative to the horse race model for election coverage. There, the organizing principle is: “who’s likely to win?” In the citizen’s agenda style, you start by asking the people you are trying to inform: what do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes? If you keep asking that question, and listen carefully to the answers, you can synthesize from them a kind of priority list that originates with the voters. (Example here.)

This list then becomes your “agenda” for covering the campaign. Get the candidates to address what the voters said they most want to hear about. Focus your journalism around key items on the citizens agenda. When one of Trump’s media storms blows in you can hold fast to your own priorities by asking if his latest controversy advances discussion of the citizens agenda. If not, you have good reason for downplaying it.

Because it pressures the candidates to address these issues rather than those, the citizens agenda is a political project. But it can be done without unduly politicizing election coverage if the act of listening to voters is a genuine one. The agenda comes from them, not from the newsroom’s political preferences.

I have been recommending this approach for many years. I wrote about it in my 1999 book, What Are Journalists For? The basic model has been around since the early 1990s. If journalists in the national press wanted to move toward this alternative they would have done so by now. My read is that it feels too earnest to them, too much like civics class, or “eat your vegetables” journalism, not enough like drinks with the country chairman in the Des Moines Marriott to see who has the early jump on the Iowa caucuses. I still think it’s the best way to keep from getting swept up in Trump’s agenda. But they do not. So we need other ideas.

2. Fighting authoritarianism and the subversion of democracy. Suppose you began with a frank recognition among editors, producers and reporters that democracy is at risk in the United States. (News flash: it is.) This would argue for extra emphasis on the integrity of elections, extra vigilance against those who would try to subvert them, and a special watchfulness for — a duty to warn about — authoritarian movements in the body politic: demonization of minorities, trashing of democratic procedures, evasion of checks and balances, erosion of accountability, threats of violence, and other forms of above-the-law behavior. (For what I mean by watchfulness, see this post by Dan Froomkin, When Trump takes a step toward autocracy, journalists need to call it out. For a “fighting voter suppression” agenda see this project.)

The extra watchfulness I speak of is a small-d democratic act. It has to be applied across the board: left, right, center, fringe. With that condition, it is entirely within journalists’ rights to make fighting authoritarianism the mission and heart of their campaign coverage. Call it threats-to-democracy journalism. If we were ever going to need an agenda like that, this is the year.

3. A more evidence-based political debate. Journalists could also decide to stand more forcefully and consistently for an evidence-based politics. If they did, this too would be a political act. But again, it does not have to be politicized. Asking, “is this evidence-based?” could be a way of deciding whether a campaign controversy is worth discussing— or dismissing. Holding all candidates to the same standards of evidence is the very essence of across-the-board fairness. Rating the campaigns on how evidence-based they are willing to be might prove especially useful in a political environment dominated by our struggle with COVID-19.

Imagine asking the best public health and immunology experts you can find, “When it comes to the pandemic, what do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes?” Filtered through community knowledge and common sense, this might be a good way of organizing state and local coverage of candidates who will have to speak about recovering from the virus to get elected. “We are going to be relentlessly evidence-based, because that is what our community most needs to get out of this mess…” is a solid agenda to adopt in an election year likely to be dominated by a public health crisis.

4. Pro-participation. Democracy is not a spectator sport, though some forms of punditry seem to frame it that way. The more people who participate in the system the stronger the system is. Journalists can design their coverage so that it helps people go out and vote. With good information and timely notice, they can make it easier for eligible voters to get registered and exercise their rights. They can expose those who would discourage citizens from voting. They can fight disinformation that tries to depress turnout. They can hold accountable the public officials who run elections. They can warn about problems that could haunt us on election day.

But it’s not just voting: all forms of participation could be part of this agenda: how to volunteer, how to contribute, where to see the candidates.

No way around it: encouraging participation is a political act. But as long as it includes all parties and all voters, election coverage that is shamelessly pro-participation does not unfairly politicize the press. Bad actors will of course make that charge, but bad actors always complain about good journalism.

Don’t like these ideas? Come up with your own! Some I didn’t get to: Fighting cynicism. Making politics fun again. Bringing emotions other than rage to campaign coverage. Transcending the red-blue divide. It would take courage and imagination, but all of these could work as organizing principles, possibly in combination with others I have mentioned. (You don’t have to have one and only one agenda!)

My point is that journalists need to know what they’re trying to accomplish with their election coverage. Covering the campaign the way campaigns in the U.S. are covered — which, as far as I can tell, is the current “agenda” at CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, PBS, NPR — does not provide a sense of mission strong enough to prevent a repeat of the debacle in 2016. Nor does vowing not to make the same mistakes. Something stronger is required.

They know what’s coming, I said about the campaign press. What they don’t know is how to avoid capture. Donald Trump is going to campaign the same way he “governs.” By flooding the zone with shit, and making so much news that no single revelation matters much. By accusing opponents of the very things he is manifestly guilty of. By giving his supporters license to reject the news: “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” By persuading the uncommitted that it’s useless to pay attention because you will never get the story straight. By leveraging his weirdness as a human being, like the fact that he lacks the gene for feeling shame. By lowering all of us. By manufacturing confusion. By calling himself the victim of journalists who point these things out. By warring against the press.

These methods — but they’re not methodical, just compulsive — exploit errors in the journalist’s code. Among them are:

    • What the president says is news.
    • Issues are boring. Controversy is good.
    • Conflict makes news, attacks are exciting.
    • Doesn’t matter if it’s true. If it could become a factor in the election, it’s worth reporting.
    • In theory, sources that flood the zone with shit should be dropped. In practice, we need them.
    • More information is better than less.
    • Meeting traffic goals means you’re winning at this.

These are propositions set too deep. There is zero chance of removing them in time for 2020. Each one opens the press to manipulation by Trump and his campaign. Which is part of why I say: You can’t keep from getting sucked into his agenda without a firm grasp on your own. Only a strong sense of mission will prevent a repeat of 2016. But I am not optimistic. It is so much easier to go with the flow.

A final thought: Campaign professionals speak of “earned” vs. “paid” media. Earned means news coverage. Paid means political ads. What if earned media really had to be earned? That might help a bit.


Barbara Hoffmann says:

I am not a journalist, but your points ring true to me. Thank you.

Larry Finger says:

It’s a good thing for journalists and the ideas in the article that only Trump and Republicans are assumed to be liars. If journalists had to consider, even for a moment, the same re Democrats, their job would be so much harder.

And here we go with people trying to drag Prof. Rosen and any who would heed his sensible advice off-point. As predicted and warned.

So true Sir: Journalist ‘s are swept up daily in his chaos. They are better than that. The nlt issue is the country. Stop. These past 3 1/2 years have resulted in weakening all foundations. How to re build? Stop.

Mark J. McPherson says:

It is heartening to read that JR has reenlisted for at least the duration of the 2020 campaign. No one has fought longer, harder or more clear-headedly in favor and defense of journalistic principles than this guy. The fact that this can only be sustained with the grimmest determination and without much rational hope for better is simply where we all are in this time.

We are way passed the time when we should be wary, or leery about what is transpiring and I suspect Professor Rosen, who saw this coming years ago, knows this. The starter’s pistol for our race-to-the-bottom went off on June 16, 2015 when Trump announced for the Presidency. We had been shambling downhill for decades before that, as press ownership became increasingly concentrated, and journalists increasingly captivated, first by celebrity candidates and then by the allure of personal celebrity for themselves as cable television beckoned.

It has to be more than dispiriting for Professor Rosen to have watched as mainstream press repurposed his idea of a citizen’s agenda into a Trump citizen’s agenda, as story after story appeared chronicling the immovability of Trump supporters, returning again and again to that squarely-anchored-in-place Duck Dynasty/Tiger King demographic (the pandemic providing fresh excuses for an outbreak of this same kind of coverage — Yep. Still there. Only now not wearing masks).

So it makes my hair hurt to recognize we are still at the point of reporters timidly trying to alert viewers and voters to be wary of Trump’s false charges as if lies were just some ill-mannered happenstance that comes and goes as fecklessly as the summer breezes.

Is accuracy an aspiration or not? More must be reported than that the President speaks falsely. He does so deliberately, ceaselessly, rarely bothering to sprinkle in suggestions of the truth. There needs to be additional garnishment applied to the truth sandwich (lead with accurate reporting — report and contrast the Trump falsehood — and then restate the truth). Reporters should describe his manifest motives and unflinchingly describe the character of his low behavior. It will not be pleasant because the President is malevolent, bilious, and filled with gutter-trash and spewing gut-wind. He knows and counts on that most will shrink from his nature and that the few who would do otherwise will be made to sound shrill and, gad-forbid, politicized. They are reporting on a grotesquely politicized administration that has never much bothered to pretend to be governing in the true national interest. Report the truth. It is not the reporters’ truth; they don’t own it. It is the truth and people will know it if they can hear it consistently above the cacophony.

For what it’s worth, as a non-journalist citizen, I do retain hope in my fellow man and in the collective character of this country. I have far less hope that a meaningful portion of the press will also rise to this challenge and they will likely make matters worse than they already are. I am resigned to the liklihood that real progress will only come in spite of the degraded efforts of today’s journalists and commentators.

Why on earth should anyone have the slightest interest in what a self-declared cipher and moral nullity like Peter Baker has to say?

Brian Hachez says:

News is a business. The scandals Trump perpetrates or invents are juicy. They get clicks. Healthcare does not get clicks. It’s as simple as that. As capitalism gets older and older, we start to see the cracks. Businesses running where no market should exist. Health care is the easiest one. Journalism is right behind it.

The question is, should journalists be citizens? Peter Baker of the New York Times would seem to say, “no.” Similarly, should publishers and media company CEOs behave as citizens?

Back in the 1990s, when some of us were experimenting with citizen juries and civic journalism, this was an unresolved issue. How do we engage publishers, editors, reporters, and readers into the active vetting of our political process? We are now turning democracy into a spectator sport, or, even worse, a pop culture exercise where celebrity is the most important currency.

I suppose the bigger question has now become, “what does it mean to be a citizen?“

I like this point very much. For all of the Russian interference in the 2016 election and President Trump’s manipulation of social media and the press, it all comes down to a gullible, obstinate and lazy electorate to allow this administration to exist.

Dean Wright says:

Thanks for this, Jay. As I’ve said before, your work is an important piece of my media ethics class. The student journalists we’re teaching really do get it. They know democracy is in danger and that journalists have a vital role to play in saving it. They give me great hope for the future. I only hope democracy is still there to save after they graduate.

Michael Fuchs says:

Couldn’t agree more. But one problem, as I’m sure you know, is that the agenda of the Republican party is precisely pro-authoritarianism, anti-evidence and anti-voter participation. So the journalism agenda that you suggest becomes ipso facto politicized, since there is almost perfect congruence between protecting democracy, small d, and helping the Democrats, big D.

The other problem is the asymmetry in American media. Most of mainstream media is like Peter Baker, purists ad absurdum. But Fox News, etc., is unashamedly, nakedly politicized. It’s not just Trump, is it?

That’s why the solution, it seems to me, is for the US to embrace a media system more like the UK has. The reason the Cummings scandal there has legs is because there is actual politicized symmetry among outlets there. Since Fox News and the rest aren’t going to disarm, there has to be a countervailing force.

I’m not saying fight misinformation with misinformation, lie back into the faces of liars. But I am saying that, since agitating for truth and democracy will be seen as polemical anyway, the well-intentioned press should own it proudly. Let there be actual liberal newspapers and TV stations to match the right-wing ones, not just pearl-clutchers going up against terrorists.

Chris Naden says:

“That’s why the solution, it seems to me, is for the US to embrace a media system more like the UK has. The reason the Cummings scandal there has legs is because there is actual politicized symmetry among outlets there. Since Fox News and the rest aren’t going to disarm, there has to be a countervailing force.”

As one who lives here, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Firstly, we have the most insanely rich-titled libel laws in the developed world. People bring libel and slander cases in UK courts when the disputants are two Saudis arguing about a blog post published in Gujarati. This happens because the rich half of the argument knows they will win, if the case is tried in the UK.

Secondly – the idea that there is ‘politicized parity’ in the UK press relies on never having read any of it.

For much of the time since Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun in the 1980s, there have been two vaguely left-wing papers in the UK – set against nine or ten (before or after the death of the News of the World) which are not merely right wing, they are /radical/ right wing extremists. Murdoch only owns three of them.

Since the Blair years, the one slightly left-of-centre broadsheet – the Grauniad – has moved to become a centre-right paper instead – leaving only the Mirror, a tabloid, with an even vaguely leftist editorial policy.

The BBC, which used to be a genuinely neutral press voice, has been threatened with functional abolition (loss of the license fee) if they don’t tilt coverage towards the Tory extreme right; which is why the newsdesk, but not the cultural and drama programming, now reflects the extreme-right / Brexit view of any issue. A newscaster was literally kicked out of her job /this week/ because she didn’t reflect the far-right view of Cummings and whole-heartedly defend The Boris.

The reason the Cummings scandal has legs is that after the Mirror broke the story, /even the Daily Mail/ – this is a newspaper which literally campaigned for British fascism in the 1930s, thought Hitler was The Man and that Britain should join him in WWII against the Allies – instantly recognized that their own readers would crucify them if they didn’t publish against Cummings.

The UK press is much further right than the US press, because in the US there are a large number of orgs which still have ethics, and there are some left-wing publications to balance Breitbart and Fox. In the UK, none of that is true.

Michael Fuchs says:

I bow to your knowledge and experience. My prescription won’t work. Unfortunately, my diagnosis stands: Jay’s won’t work either. We’re up the creek.

Such smart, sensible perspectives on an array of urgent issues. Insightful takes, Jay.

I, too, recall when politics and political coverage were fun.

Jerry Kavanagh says:

I wish there were more follow-up questions by WH press corps to non-answers, evasions, and lies given to their colleagues by Trump and his mouthpieces. Alas, that is not possible when a sycophant is called on. But too often a colleague changes the topic. When Kaitlan Collins courteously allowed a colleague to follow up, Trump stormed off.

Harris M Meyer says:

I agree with Jay that journalists need to openly declare their agenda, and he lays out a sensible one. But I also agree with Michael Fuchs that declaring that you favor participation, evidence, and anti-authoritarianism means that journalists will be accused of politicizing coverage because of the unfortunate asymmetry between Republicans and Democrats on those broad issues. But they need to tough that out.

I personally would like to see journalists declare social justice as another cornerstone of their political agenda. Many privately feel that way but shy away from stating it.

I’ve covered health care for decades, and I am not shy about saying I want everyone in this country to have affordable access to quality health care, whatever means we devise for achieving that. I would like to see journalists covering housing and real estate openly shaping their coverage to advance decent housing for all. Same for those covering the criminal justice system, the environment, etc. etc.

This is related to the citizens’ agenda, covering issues and solutions that most Americans care about. If politicians, corporations, or anyone else are trying to thwart progress on social justice goals, journalists should transparently point that out, without apologizing for having a social justice agenda.

Of the “errors in the journalist’s code” there is one in particular that strikes me as deserving scrutiny, namely: “Doesn’t matter if it’s true. If it could become a factor in the election, it’s worth reporting.”

My memory of Campaign 2004 is that the political press was careful to avoid falling into that particular trap. Those covering John Kerry’s campaign knew that the Swift Boat charges against him were tendentious exaggerations at best, if not downright fabrications. So, abiding by the precepts set out in this post, they did not find the charges worth reporting on, despite the fact that they did indeed turn out to become a factor in the election.

Furthermore, my memory tells me that this decision was roundly criticized for its naivety in its assumption that the propagation of tall tales by SuperPACs does not amount to news.

Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t.

Michael Fuchs says:

The Swift Boat instance illustrates the problem. “Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t” — that’s the false dichotomy we’re still suffering from. There’s more than one way to “do. ”

Yes, if you just repeat the lie, you magnify and spread it. Yes, if you ignore the lie, you allow it to spread anyway through community infection and malign superspreaders.

But what about the “truth sandwich” approach? Say that Kerry was an honorable, decorated soldier. Cite the lies that are being told about him by unscrupulous specific people. Call those people liars. Repeat that, in fact, Kerry’s service was heroic.

Most importantly, stop writing “there is no evidence” of X. That’s how scientists talk to pass peer review. Lay language in newsprint doesn’t need this weasel wording. Do we say there is no evidence of human immortality? No, we say that everybody dies.

We should have said the Swift Boat accusations were simply not true. We can — we must — truth sandwich every lie told by everyone we quote.

Harris M Meyer says:

Great point by Michael Fuchs that saying “no evidence” isn’t a strong way to debunk b.s. Just say it’s not true, or in some cases, that the speaker knows it’s not true and is lying.

Anne-Marie Martin says:

I fear the media is too invested in their own agenda and far too lazy to consider these suggestions. The level of arrogance is just too deep. The NYT’s Baker illustrates that in his position, which tells us he is just beyond all of this pettiness and, most telling of all that “it’s easier to stay out of the fray.” Indeed.

Michael Fuchs says:

Well, working reporters have no agenda other than paying the mortgage, and the size of their bank accounts keep them from becoming too arrogant. But I agree about “lazy.” Journalists have a scholar’s curiosity combined with a teenager’s temperament. That’s why, whenever they want to know something, they reach for their contact list instead of a book.

Harris M Meyer says:

See today’s Carl Hulse piece in the New York Times for a prime example of a special form of media disinformation called false equivalence.

chunga's revenge says:

I subscribed to the NYT, Wapo, TNR, Mojo, and others. I often engaged in friendly email exchanges with journalists at all of these publications. I began cancelling these subscriptions during the canonization of the 44th president, when journalists were busted conspiring to characterize all questions about the character of this individual as racism. At that time, any other leading Dem would have done. I then watched the press do all they could to protect their candidate and president for the following 8 years. I realized then that Walter Pincus had left the building. All the while the national press paid lip-service to objective reporting, while ignoring the hollowing out of the US economy, the death of small towns, outsourcing of American jobs, and the suffering of US minorities. War became peace, and endless war became the new normal. Now, after 4 years of open advocacy against a president many in the press despise, you arrive to explain to the press that a return to objectivity is immoral and impossible. I’m sure to you it is. Your decision to ignore those of us who would happily pay for objective news coverage comes at a cost. The least of which is the likely re-election of the man you loathe. The press has a duty to present the news to the public, not pursue partisan agendas – that’s for the editorial page and opinion writers. No news, means no news. It seems that’s a price you’re willing to pay, a price many of us believe is far too high. I doubt, however, you’re open to argument or persuasion. I’m inclined to believe, however, that some in the press may actually try to traffic in truth, rather than political persuasion. Bad them.

Thomas Harr says:

Where do you start in responding to an article (and comments) that is so self unaware? You are the “journalism problem” you are trying to solve. Like many others (half the country, but only half) you don’t agree with Trump’s policies. In addition, like about 1/2 of that 1/2 you are completely outraged by those policies. Because of your outrage at Trump’s policies you cast about for possible reasons for his success in getting elected and retaining support. Your “high minded “ solution: “Trump is lying like no one else has ever lied”. For some of your persuasion it is, “Trump is lying like no other president has lied” or “Trump is lying like no other politician has lied”. Trump is certainly over the top and brash, but most of what the elite left call lies are politically based assertions that will need to be debated in any democratic, civilized society. Again, those assertions are generally in line with the thoughts of about half the country. The assumptions behind those assertions don’t go away when you suppress them, ignore them, or belittle them. You (in opinion articles) actually have to argue effectively against them. As a journalist (Or reporter, as the vocation was known in a simpler time) it is your job to report, perhaps with context, but certainly not with personal opinions. “Journalists” generally have such a high opinion of themselves nowadays that they often don’t consider that their own opinion carries the same weight as anyone else’s opinion. What , if anything, makes them valuable is their ability to report in a way that is engaging (not necessarily convincing) to all sides of a contentious policy or position.

By the way, I am a Trump supporter – if you were to believe I need to apologize for that, my point would be accentuated.

Don A in Pennsyltucky says:

The Fox/Murdoch outlets are politicized.
When Dan Rather did the CBS Evening News he reported on politics. Whether or not the “false document” trap that brought him down is politicized remains to be seen.

When you say, “When the president is using you as a hate object in order to discredit the entire mainstream press”… where is the “Truth” element you seem to be so infatuated with? And how is the notion of “hate” not abstract and up for debate, therefore not “truth”? The other issue is, are these criteria you’ve laid out being applied equally to everyone, all the time?

I’m not a Trump supporter but I don’t know how you can lecture anyone about “truth” from such an obviously skewed POV.

Though I kinda agree with you on “Making politics fun again.” John McLaughlin RIP!

The current occupant of the Oval Office is in fact trying to turn reporters into a persecutable class of people. A scapegoat class. From where I stand in Canada, “I’m not a Trump supporter but…” does in fact flag your intent to join their ranks.

To your point…Trump said it himself to Lesley Stahl. May 2018, on 60 Minutes. This is on the record. He has done nothing to dissuade me from believing that this is one of a few occasions where he told us the truth of what kind of human he is and wants to remain.

Richard Cronin says:

The only truth which is reliable comes from Science, and not Political Science. We are the Water planet, not the CO2 planet. Water acts as a coolant as it passes thru phase change — evaporation, condensation to rain/dew/fog and freezing to snow/ice/sleet. The planet’s biome is not enclosed in a glass-paned building (greenhouse). Rather, we live beneath a patchy blanket of clouds with warm moist air below and cold dry air above. Heat is released from the planet by emisson of Long Wave Infrared Radiation (LWIR) from cloud tops. I knew that I would vote for Donald Trump just for blowing off the Paris Accords. I will vote for him again in Nov., 2020. “Keep America Great.” !!

Great post, although I think you could be specific about one policy area – global warming. It is a multigenerational existential threat and I think nearly all press coverage should cover everything within that lens.

This morning I posted here the following questions:

Did the Trump Campaign collude with Russia?

Are surveillance and intelligence operations by and incumbent administration against the domestic opposition during and election year and threat to Democracy?

Is the illegal leaking of information about domestic opposition a threat to democracy as well?

Are the public statements of Obama Admin officials along with the statements from elected Dem Reps claiming evidence of Trump Collusion with Russia an example of “Flooding the zone with Shi%?

Now the posts have vanished, why?

Douglas B. Levene says:

Some good suggestions, but I wonder how the author would apply them to the media’s coverage of the accusations against Kavanaugh? Or to the media’s relentless hyping of the claims that Trump is a Russian intelligence asset or a criminal coconspirator with Putin? Because unless you’re willing to call out those abuses, you have no credibility.

Sorry Jay, but I disagree with almost everything you wrote here.

When I went to journalism school (about 45 years ago!) we were told that even going down to the city clerks’s office to register to vote, telling them you were a D or R, was tantamount to choosing sides, and even that innocent act made it impossible to claim you were an objective, dispassionate, just-the-facts ma’am journalist who called ’em like you saw them, wrote what you knew and let the chips fall. Which is why I’ve been an I all my life, even though I no longer cover politics.

I am impressed by Baker’s decision not to vote. My J-school profs told us about some of the old Washington hands of the day who also deliberately did not vote. I never went that far, but being an independent left me free to select the best person for the job without the binary filter of party.

I was also amused by your desire to make politics fun again. You obviously have never attended, or probably even watched, a Trump rally. See it through the eyes of the attendees: they’re in a big arena with 10 or 20 thousand people who think like they do. There’s music. Speakers, including the Main Man, come out and toss zingers out at the opposition (both Democrats and the media). All those people are having a GREAT time, and it’s peaceful and lawful and political. The Democrats have nothing remotely similar.

The political press of today is in a shambles. I date it to the Jim Rutenberg piece in the times in August 2016. He said (and I’m paraphrasing) the standards of journalism we have developed over the last 50 years or so — the principles of objective reporting, use of referenced sources, not anonymous ones, dispassionate observation of facts–all of that stuff isn’t working on Donald Trump…SO WE NEED TO JUNK IT ALL AND JUST MAKE SHIT UP SO HE LOSES.

That is so destructive to the craft. If those time-honored principles weren’t working, the solution is to double down on the principles, not abandon them completely. It was the Groucho Marx response: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them, well, I have others.”

Every poll I’ve seen over the last four or five years has “the press” at an unfavorable rating of 80 to 90%. About half the country thinks the press is just making it up. The credibility of the media sinks by the day.

We need more objective, right-down-the-middle reporting, not less.

Harris M Meyer says:

I’m really sorry to see the great journalist James Bartlett so completely misrepresent what Jay is saying here. “Make shit up”? Come on, man, none of us are advocating anything like that. But if journalists pretend they have no values, they often advance untruths. See my comments above about openly declaring values like social justice. Your own work grew out of your and your colleague Donald Steele’s unstated social justice values.

The only value a reporter needs is the honesty to look for the truth. When you subsume that honesty beneath the layer of “a people’s agenda” or some concept of social justice, you stop being a reporter and you become an advocate. And in my opinion, the reason the media’s popularity (read: approval) among the public is around ten percent is because the public sees partisan advocates when they want honest, objective reporting.

Nord-Ulv says:

Trump isn’t just journalism’s penultimate excuse to finally embrace behaviors (i.e., “Damn the GOP!”) they’ve heretofore only childishly concealed behind their backs. It’s liberalism’s rationale, more broadly, to let their freak-flags fly.

So, whether you’re a sidewalk bully for whom “MAGA” caps are rage-inducing (or a merchant convinced they’re the exception to public accommodations law), a municipal (or state) bureaucrat subverting black-letter immigration law with “sanctuary” declarations, a “highly placed government source” seething with partisan animus (& the Times, WaPo, & Mother Jones on speed dial), a Party apparatchik who’ll vote for blitherin’ Biden regardless of whom he’s sexually assaulted, a blue-state governor for whom extended lockdowns are a prudent investment in one’s political future, or the journo for whom every Trump-pejorative calumny — no matter how preposterous (e.g., “He’s a Russian agent!”), or shabbily-sourced (e.g., DNC bug-eating Renfields) — is breathless “breaking news”, Don à l’orange is the perfect pretext.

The gargantuan conceits underwriting this entire ideological heterodoxy are that [a] it’s Trump’s personage that has necessitated (v. merely outed) these frank partisan machinations, and [b] we’ll all click our heels together three times and return to Kansas, just as soon as Trump’s denouement can be orchestrated. When the left’s ‘truths’ are the only ones permissible, there’ll be no keeping progressives — ‘journalists’ or otherwise — “down on the farm, now that they’ve seen Paree”. Welcome to the New Normal.

The media (press) have zero credibility anymore. You have, literally, ruined your own profession and the American people do not believe you.

To overcome this obstacle will require something along the lines of a “bar” in the legal profession. If one of your ilk can graduate from college with a Journalism degree and “pass the bar” then, you might have a chance to regain your stature.

And, that “bar” will be set high. Things like Math & History & Economics… not “creative writing”.

Good luck – you’re gonna need it.

Trump’s strategy is divide and conquer. He goes out of his way to say things that will get Americans fighting. And this is part of Russia’s strategy too in its attempt to play a larger role on the world stage. Journalists need to call Trump out on this instead of just reporting his latest outrageous statement. This should be part of the agenda for journalists covering the election.