Answers to Craig’s Questions

Craig Newmark asked me: What did the press learn from 2016? Here are my replies.

24 Mar 2022 1:21 pm 8 Comments

I have known Craig Newmark for a long time. He’s the Craig from Now he’s best defined as a philanthropist.

Craig supports a lot of journalism projects, including one named for him: The Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York (CUNY) to which he gave $20 million in 2018.

Occasionally he sends me questions about the state of journalism. I try to answer them— in a concise way, rather than going into all the details as I might with my academic colleagues.

Craig and I agreed to publish this latest exchange. It’s 800 words. His questions are in bold. 

What did the trustworthy press learn from the 2016 election?  

That its laws of gravity — predicting that Trump would crash — were not laws at all but social conventions.

Flimsier than was thought. Not great if your brand is understanding what is likely in politics.

Dan Balz, Washington Post, July 2015: “The question now is whether Candidate Trump is immune from the laws of political gravity or soon will be isolated and regarded as an object of scorn or curiosity rather than of presidential seriousness.”

A second lesson from 2016: Journalists conceded they were out of touch with large portions of the country — by which they typically meant Trump country. They said they were caught by surprise.

Dean Baquet, New York Times, looking back on the 2016 election in February of 2020: “More Americans than we understood at the time were rattled, and were looking for something dramatic… the country was a little more radically inclined than we thought.”

A third lesson. The press learned that it was vulnerable to a raging demagogue who drove audience metrics and triggered broad interest in politics.

Les Moonves, CEO of CBS, in Feb. 2016: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

Jeff Zucker in Oct. 2016: “If we made any mistake last year, it’s that we probably did put on too many of his campaign rallies in those early months and let them run.”

But Zucker also defended that choice. “You never knew what he would say, there was an attraction to put those on air.”

Craig Newmark: What’s in practice today?

When social scientists study newsrooms they look not at personalities but routines. Poduction routines, especially.

These include routines of the mind: the way journalists imagine, explain, defend and legitimate their work, another term for which is press think.

On the whole the picture today is not vastly different from where political journalism stood in, say, spring of 2015. Still, there have been some shifts.

By shifts I do not mean shifts completed, or well handled, or consistently applied. I mean only that the category of the acceptable has been revised somewhat.

Seen this way, changes in practice since Trump began winning the presidency include:

* Describing politicized lying as lying, and false claims as straight-up false, not only in dedicated fact-check sections later on, but while you are telling the story. That’s a shift in routine.

* Recognizing in the right wing’s media ecosystem not only a source of alternative views, but a competitor in the attention economy. Producer of an alternative reality that charges up the Republican party, and competes with the picture of reality produced by mainstream journalism, replacing it for a portion of the audience.

How large a portion? A fifth, a quarter, a third? Maybe more. This is the audience for Trump’s use of the press as a hate object.

* Internet movements, conspiracy theories, and media figures that once could have been dismissed as “extreme” now have to be reported on because they could turn into powerful actors or factors.

* About Trump specifically a general recognition that he is willing to wreck the place, a premise that did not obtain in 2015-16. As ABC’s Jonathan Karl said about the prospect that Trump could run in 2024: “You’re covering somebody running in a system that is trying to undermine that very system.”

There are other realizations from the Trump era that do not arrive with good solutions or changes in practice attached.

One example: Trump’s ability to do corrupt, scandalous and democracy-damaging things right out in the open, rather than hiding them, thus undoing the power to expose shocking truths, which does not apply to the already exposed. No one quite knows what to do about that. (See my thread.)

Craig Newmark: Is it trustworthy to amplify disinformation?

Far more care has to be taken by news organizations to avoid amplifying disinformation. We are just at the beginning of extending this practice throughout what Margaret Sullivan calls the “reality based press.”

However, it’s not as simple as “don’t amplify…” because there are occasions when the public needs to know that a political figure is fasifying reality, or that a consequential lie is gaining traction, as with Stop the Steal.

So we have to go forward with both: Avoid amplifying disinformation when you can, knowing there are times when you cannot.

One need is for sound practices — like the truth sandwich — when “ignore” is not a realistic option.

Craig Newmark: What might be next?

Well, the Washington Post has a new democracy desk, which recognizes some of these threats. So did CNN’s on-again, off-again 9 pm show, “Democracy in Peril.”

These are glimmers of what might yet become a stronger defense of American democracy by mainstream journalists, but that is all they are so far: flickers of light on a dark and cresting sea.


You and other press critics deserve credit for the changes you describe, though I’m sure you agree we have a long way to go. I’ve seen positive changes in the specific area I focus on–the reporting of traffic violence, so I think we’re moving in the right direction.

That said, I think economic pressures, the general laziness & ignorance of the American voter, and the shallow, yet respected, sources many citizens depend on (traditional TV news among them) may limit the progress that can be made.

But soldier on, sir. Someone has to do it.

I would agree: we have a long way to go.

Of the learnings you list in response to the first question, do you see any structural changes in newsroom practices that signal hope that coverage will catch up with what the situation demands?

I referred to the two structural changes I have seen: the Washington Post has a new democracy team, and for a few nights, CNN had a prime time show specifically devoted to “democracy in peril.” I also wrote about some encouraging developments here.

George Colvin says:

The shift to “describing politicized lying as lying,” including using the “L-word”specifically, is still very partial at best. I’ve seen quite a few articles in major press sources where the word “lying” would be factually justified and terminologically preferable, and yet it has obviously been avoided. There is still a lot of editorial hesitation about that word, which results in articles that are both less candid and worse written.

Which is why I wrote: “By shifts I do not mean shifts completed, or well handled, or consistently applied. I mean only that the category of the acceptable has been revised somewhat.”

George Colvin says:

I didn’t intend to disagree, and I was aware of the point you were making. It’s just that the shift in this particular area is so very incomplete, even to the point of using multisyllabic, inelegant terminology where “lie” is the obviously right word. Change seems to occurring at a glacial speed that is wildly inadequate to the need.

I hate to say this but nobody else will, because they refuse to believe it. The both sides thing won’t slow until the killing starts in earnest.

I spent 2 days trying to expand on that but I’ll just leave it lie. Note I said slow, not stop.