A current list of my top problems in pressthink, May 2021

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

6 May 2021 10:25 pm 16 Comments

1. We have a two-party system and one of the two is anti-democratic.

The Republican Party tried to overturn the results of a free and fair election. When that failed it did not purge the insurrectionists and begin to reform itself; rather, it continued the attack by other means, such as state laws making it harder to vote, or a continuation of the big lie that Trump actually won.

By “anti-democratic” I mean willing to destroy key institutions to prevail in the contest for power. This is true, not only of individual politicians, but of the party as a whole. As (Republican) and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson writes, “For the activist base of the Republican Party, affirming that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential contest has become a qualification for membership in good standing.” A qualification for membership.

Journalists had adapted to the old system by developing a “both sides” model of news coverage. It locates the duties of a non-partisan press in the middle between roughly similar parties with competing philosophies. That mental model still undergirds almost all activity in political journalism. But it is falling apart. As I wrote five years ago, asymmetry between the major parties fries the circuits of the mainstream press.

We are well beyond that point now. Now we live in a two-party world where one of the two is anti-democratic. Circuits fried, the press has to figure out what to do. I spend a majority of my puzzling time on that.

2. The GOP is both counter-majoritarian and counter-factual.

This is different way to come upon the problem stated in 1.) above. By “counter-majoritarian” I mean the Republicans see themselves as an embattled — and overwhelmingly white — minority who will lose any hope of holding power, and suffer a catastrophic loss of status, unless extraordinary measures are taken to defeat a sprawling threat to their way of life. This threat comes from almost all major institutions, with the exception of church and military.

It includes — they believe — an activist government opening the borders to immigrants, Black Lives Matter militants destroying property and intimidating police, a secretive deep state that undermines conservative candidacies, “woke” corporations practicing political correctness, big tech companies tilting the platform against them, a hostile education system with its alien-to-us universities, an entertainment culture at odds with traditional values, and the master villain in the scheme, the mainsteam media, holding it all together with its vastly unequal treatment of liberals and conservatives.

These are dark forces that cannot be overcome by running good candidates, turning out voters, and winning the battle of ideas. Which, again, is what I mean by counter-majoritarian. Something stronger is required. Like the attack on the Capitol, January 6, 2021.

Stronger measures include making stuff up about election fraud, about responsibilty for the attack on the Capitol, about the safety of vaccines— to name just three. A counter-majoritarian GOP thus implies and requires a counter-factual party discourse, committed to pushing conspiracy theories and other strategic falsehoods that portray the minority as justified in taking extreme measures.

The conflict with journalism and its imperative of verification is structural, meaning: what holds the party together requires a permanent state of war with the press, because what holds the party together can never pass a simple fact check. This is a stage beyond working the refs and calling out liberal bias.

Basic to what the Republican Party stands for is freedom from fact. For it to prevail, journalism must fail. There is nothing in the playbook — or in Playbook — about that.

(See: Why Being ‘Anti-Media’ Is Now Part Of The GOP Identity.)

3. Sunlight disinfects. Sunlight also makes things grow. (Link.)

Familiar with this conversation?

Don’t give them a platform!

I hear you! But sometimes I have to tell people what’s going on!

You’re spreading their propaganda for them.

It’s already spread and having real world effects.

Well, it wouldn’t spread if you denied them a platform.

Gatekeepers don’t have that kind of power any more.

They might if they worked together!

That just drives it underground and it gets even worse!

Like others who have studied this problem, I have come to realize that there is no right answer here, only better and worse decisions. You can show good judgment, but you cannot solve it.

One thing is clear, however. “Newsworthiness” is a big fat dodge, or as Charlie Warzel put it, “a choice masquerading as an inevitability.” If you decide to give air time to a U.S. Senator sporting a strategic falsehood like “election integrity,” you need a far better reason than it’s an issue in the news. Almost every act of disinformation Donald Trump ever committed was in one way or another “newsworthy” by previous standards. Were all these acts worth amplifying? They were not. So what standard replaces the “newsworthy” standard? We don’t know.

If there’s no right answer — other than to drop the newsworthy dodge — then we can still find better ways to make these calls. Here’s scholar Nicole Hemmer trying to do just that:

Part of the solution has to be cutting the cord with Fox News and its fringier cousins. That doesn’t mean ignoring it all together — I’ve recently argued that we have to pay attention to people like Tucker Carlson, who uses his show to spread hate — but scaling back the overall coverage of right-wing stories. When outlets do tackle something like Carlson’s use of “great replacement theory,” they should do so in deeply contextualized ways, so the story is less about what Carlson said last night, and more about the ways unfounded xenophobic and racist talking points get woven into his prime-time show.

“Ignore the shiniest, least reality-based objects” she writes, “and deeply contextualize the rest.” It’s a start, but not a solution.

4. Diversify your pressthink.

This is from my post, Battleship Newspaper, published last year.

Many decades ago, the leadership class in big league journalism accepted the argument that racial integration had to come to their newsrooms, or the journalism would suffer. Or at least, this is what they said to themselves. But what they also said (without quite realizing it) is: We can have all that, a more diverse and multi-colored newsroom, and maintain the view from nowhere. They never faced up to the contradiction: minority journalists who are supposed to simultaneously supply a missing perspective and suppress that perspective in order to establish their objectivity

There is more pressure than ever to integrate the American newsroom. That you can do that and keep your pressthink the same is still commonly believed. That’s a problem.

16 Comments

Clint Stevens says:

Thank you so much for your powerful insights and continuing dedication to keeping our country free and informed.

Thanks, Clint. 🙂

Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems that the two biggest purveyors of right-wing propaganda and disinformation in the US are Fox News (the Murdochs) and Facebook (Zuckerberg). Do we have to accept the present behavior of these two institutions — actually, the behavior of these individuals — as facts of nature or are there practical ways to reduce their negative influence? Ways to address the problem have been suggested, but maybe there needs to be a more organized, targeted approach.

Thanks for these thoughtful posts! Looking at #1 and #2 I can’t help but think about a narrative we heard a lot in the first year or so of the Trump administration that we were “post-truth.” I don’t recall anyone on the right overly saying that, but I heard it often on cable news and throughout much of the political press. In retrospect that wound, perhaps self-inflicted, looks like a huge thorn in the side of institutions that purport to speak truth to power. I don’t see any silver bullets here, but at the same time I don’t see how a journalist, or journalistic institution, can proceed without first rejecting the post-truth lie. Wondering what you make of the post-truth narrative, if it’s taken hold in the press, and whether & how to reject it?

I never particpated in the “post-truth” discourse. Had reservations about it similar to yours.

George Colvin says:

If the Republican party gets its way, the 2020 elections will be the last free and relatively fair contest for the foreseeable future, and also the last that the Republicans will lose. The party is implementing a coordinated national plan to shape the electorate in advance, manage election procedures to its liking, and assign control of the outcome to reliable partisans. While there has been reporting on elements of this program, the press has largely ignored its totality. Also being ignored are the implications for journalism, the country, and the world of rendering elections into effective nullities in order to ensure perpetual political control by a minoritarian, lie-based Christian nationalist party. There is reason for more alarm than even you are expressing.

Max Sitting says:

As Karl Rove made clear in the Bush years: ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities,….

The Empire is the GOP. Reality is whatever the GOP wants reality to be. It’s not going to change no matter how much Liberals piss and moan about it.

No doubt about it: the GOP wants to “ensure perpetual political control by a minoritarian, lie-based Christian nationalist party.”

It adds up to a ballooning sense of urgency for a situation without a happy ending.

I take Mr. Rosen’s words seriously:

A counter-majoritarian GOP thus implies and requires a counter-factual party discourse, committed to pushing conspiracy theories and other strategic falsehoods that portray the minority as justified in taking extreme measures.

extreme measures: extreme measures will become more extreme. Then: the violence.

We don’t know it was Rove. Everyone just assumes that. As far as I have been able to determine, the author Ron Suskind has never revealed who was the source of that quote.

I have written about that very quote several times, the first time in 2006. See:

http://archive.pressthink.org/2006/12/18/suskind_empiricism.html

https://pressthink.org/2016/11/miss-bigger-missed-story-final-reflections-trump-press-2016/

Max Sitting says:

Thanks. Yeah, a nameless source.

Your essays from 2004 and 2016 give a clear understanding of the current GOP’s startling addiction to lying. The creators of alternative realities in the BushW administration made it a lot easier for a president in 2016 to spout 30573 lies during his 4 years in office.

The GOP claims of election fraud in 2020 harken back to the days when Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were gonna get us. Drum drum beat beat. Trump and the GOP are made for each other.

Sand Door says:

I know somebody who immediately attributed the quote to Marc Thiessen, who seems a better temperamental fit than Rove.

You wouldn’t perhaps consider that the (it seems to me): snide, self-congratulatory, partisan, self-deceptive ‘one-sideism’ of the ‘liberal’ MSM has helped cause the polarisation you now decry? This isn’t to exonerate Fox et al, but to point out that it takes two to tango.

Matt Greenfield says:

The press only seems one-sided to fanatics. The press was harder on Hillary Clinton than on Donald Trump in 2016. The press amplified right-wing talking points about non-issues like “the caravan.”

Max Sitting says:

“…snide, self-congratulatory, partisan, self-deceptive ‘one-sideism’ of the ‘liberal’ MSM.

You gave yourself away in that comment!

It takes two to tango but you only need one to sing the song.

I will let this comment by Mr. Mentz stand, but fair warning: if you try to use my site to rehearse for the 10,000th time the culture war claptrap of the American right wing (which also brought us the Jan. 6 riot) your posts will be deleted. Go to Parler for that, please. Zero tolerance for trolling the libs at this point.

David Thompson says:

The incompetence of the American media in being incapable and/or unwilling to hold the obvious liars of the GOP to account is truly stunning. They give oxygen every day to psychopathic liars – treating them with undeserved respect, while continually failing to hold them to account in real time on air.

Nancy Cunningham says:

I guess a massive exodus away from the offending news sites and pressure on advertisers is out of the question, but hitting their pocketbooks seems to be the only way to get their attention.