Recently someone asked me why, in facing up to the realities of the Trump presidency, the press has not broken with some of its more destructive habits (For what I mean by “destructive habits,” see James Fallows in The Atlantic). This post is my answer to that question. Well, one answer. It’s not a simple story. My description here is just part of what happened to leave the press unprepared for Trump. As we saw with the release this week of a massive investigation into his tax returns by the New York Times, the investigative “wing” of the same press has done far better than the @whca cohort who are responsible for reporting on the day-to-day.
They hitched their star to the political class— and for balance both sides of it. They learned to look at politics the way the masters of the game do. In the cultivation of this sensibility, which I have called the savvy style, they took rather too much pride.
They wanted to be undeceived themselves, and they had the idea of schooling readers, viewers and listeners — the attentive public — in what it takes to get elected, to be effective, and to “win” at a game played by insiders.
“You might not like it,” they preached, “but it’s smart politics.”
People like Chris Cillizza and Mark Halperin built lucrative careers on that kind of statement. And in putting forward their proposition — it might be ugly, but it’s good politics — they lost sight of what drew them into journalism in the first place, which was to even the scales between insiders and outsiders.
Nine years ago I described the savvy style this way:
In politics, our journalists believe, it is better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It’s better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere, thoughtful or humane. Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be. (And to be unsavvy is far worse than being wrong.)
Savviness is that quality of being shrewd, practical, hyper-informed, perceptive, ironic, “with it,” and unsentimental in all things political. And what is the truest mark of savviness? Winning, of course! Or knowing who the winners are…
Prohibited from joining in political struggles, dedicated to observing what is, regardless of whether it ought to be, the savvy believe that these disciplines afford them a special view of the arena, cured of excess sentiment, useless passion, ideological certitude and other defects of vision that players in the system routinely exhibit. The savvy don’t say: I have a better argument than you. They say: I am closer to reality than you.
A kind of mutation in the code of newsroom professionalism, the savvy style flourished during a period in American politics when the system felt stable and the two parties stood roughly similar, but with different philosophies. Its symbolic high point was a story they still tell about Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill getting together and cutting a deal. (Chris Matthews — “Let’s play Hardball!” — wrote a book about it.)
This was politics the way the savvy mind understood it. Sure, the parties stood for different things, but in the end two people who knew the score and had the power got together to make it happen. That’s how things get done in the real world, and it’s the job of the journalist to let the public in on such secrets.
There’s a book you can still buy that conveys this attitude. It’s called The Power Game: How Washington Works. Listen to the promo: “Pulitzer Prize winner Hedrick Smith goes inside America’s power center in Washington, DC to reveal how the game of governing was played in the 1980s.” That’s what I mean by the savvy style. Without anyone thinking it through, or deciding it shall be so, this became the dominant style in political journalism: to explain how the game was played.
And then it all fell apart. In the 1990s the Republican Party started to reveal its present self with Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House, Fox News as culture war headquarters, the Clinton Impeachment, Bush vs. Gore, cooked books in the case for war in Iraq, the Tea Party’s rebellion against a black man in power, the rejection of moderation after Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012 (despite a frank autopsy the party had conducted on itself), the collapse of immigration reform, followed by the Birther movement, and finally Donald Trump’s capture of the party and attempt at autocratic rule. (Yes, I am leaving a lot out.)
None of these things fits the script of roughly similar parties with different philosophies winning elections by appealing smartly to the “vital center.” The savvy style was in crisis, but almost no one in the trade seemed to realize it.
In 2012, two solid members of the Washington establishment, Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein, tried to warn them: “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics,” they wrote. “It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
You might not like it, but it’s smart politics… was helpless to describe a party “unmoved by conventional understanding of facts.” Strategy coverage, both sides do it, who’s up and who’s down, winners and losers, controversy of the day, access journalism, “we’ll have to leave it there”… all these forms were spectacularly ill-matched to Donald Trump when he emerged as a threat to American democracy.
The press had drifted too far off course. It still identified with the pros who knew how the game was played. But the pros were themselves under attack in Trump’s style of resentment politics. Journalists trying to cover him discovered they were hate objects, useful for keeping his supporters in a state of pop-eyed rage. Nothing in their playbook had prepared them for that; they are still trying to recover from the shock of it.
To wrap this up, here are five changes in political journalism that would pay immediate dividends.
- Defense of democracy seen as basic to the job.
- Symmetrical accounts of asymmetrical realities seen as malpractice.
- “Politics as strategic game” frame seen as low quality, downmarket, amateurish— and overmatched.
- Bad actors with a history of misinforming the public seen as unsuitable sources and unwelcome guests.
- Internalizing of the “liberal bias” critique seen as self-crippling, a historic mistake in need of correction.
They hitched their star to the political class. Now they have to recover their connection to a live public. Who’s up and who’s down won’t cut it when democracy itself is losing altitude.