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.

 

Five improvements in the design of coronavirus coverage

Our news system is designed for daily content production, not for public understanding. In our current crisis we cannot afford that.

19 Apr 2020 10:04 pm 16 Comments

One: End duplication, work together, publish at the same time.

This idea comes from my friend Dan Gillmor in his March 8 Medium post. His complaint is about the division of labor in journalism. When each newsroom produces its own story covering essentially the same ground, that is an inefficient and ineffective way to do things.

“If you’re like me, you have no idea where to start given the duplicative work we’re seeing from so many news organizations,” Gillmor writes. “I want the best. I don’t have time to hunt around for every new scrap of information.”

Here’s an example of what we mean:

The point is not that these stories are identical. But they do have the same goal: to look back and describe the “lost month” or months when the federal government could have seen what was coming but failed to act, in large part because of the president’s management failures.

There is massive overlap among them.

Now imagine if instead of eight stories over six weeks, each trying to find its public, a consortium of newsrooms worked on one big story and published it on the same day. Imagine if the consortium included the major newspaper chains like Gannett (publisher of USA Today) and McClatchy (which has a strong Washington bureau), so that on the big day 100+ local newspapers ran with the same revelations that were dominating the national press. Now imagine if it was not just one splashy story — like the “lost month” — that received the consortium treatment, but all the major threads in coronavirus coverage.

Right now we need this kind of consortium to investigate “where are the tests?” because there is no plan for emerging from this crisis that does not depend on exponentially better testing. Gillmor has many concrete suggestions for how such a consortium could work:

Create a “war room” of editors, graphics experts, reporters (especially science journalists, not political ones), data specialists, and others who have the expertise and public-minded spirit for this kind of collaboration. Find someone not from any of the participating media companies to lead the project: a person of unchallenged credentials, who understands journalism, and is an expert in running complex projects in crisis mode.

He also understands that journalism won’t do this itself:

There’s a force in our society big and powerful enough to help jump-start it, however: major philanthropic organizations and wealthy individuals. I’m not just begging journalists to rise above business as usual here. I’m begging the funders, journalism-savvy and otherwise, to see the big picture — they’re often great at that — and come up with emergency resources right now to support what the public so manifestly needs.

I think Dan is right: Journalism has come a long way on cross-newsroom collaboration. (See Covering Climate Now, for one example.) Now we need it to find another gear and achieve a larger scale in coronavirus coverage.

Two: The Urgency Index.

One of the problems with our news system is that it’s designed for daily content production, not for enlarging public understanding over time. Another way to say this: the system as it stands tells us what’s new today. But we also need to know what’s true today, including what’s still true whether or not there was news on that subject over the last 24 hours. On top of that we need some sense of hierarchy: what’s most important, next most important, and so on.

Every time I bring this up to someone with long experience in journalism, they say the old print newspaper model did what I am asking for. The most important stories were given the biggest headlines and placed “above the fold.” The lesser, but still important news appeared further down the front page. The notable, but not essential developments were placed inside the newspaper, etc.

I get their point, but it’s not quite what I mean. The old front page system was a hierarchy of what’s new today, not of what’s true today— or better yet, still true. And so I propose the The Urgency Index. Think of it as an answer to the question, “what in the public realm should I be most worried about?” Or, “what do we need to be monitoring to stay reasonably well informed during this crisis?”

The Urgency Index is just a fancy top-ten list that is updated and re-published daily. Like a Google Form where you fill in these fields:

Headline: Where are the tests?

Current rank: 1

Rank a week ago: 1

Description: No one who knows the subject says we can get out of this without a vast expansion of testing. That’s the only way we can tell how far the virus has spread and who has to stay inside. But governors and public health officials continue to report big problems in ramping up their testing efforts.

The latest: U.S. Not Testing Enough for States to Reopen, Experts Say.

Catch me up: Everything You Need to Know About Coronavirus Testing

Do that ten times, rank the items on your list, add design touches to make it attractive and easy to use, and re-publish every day. That’s your urgency index.

Here, I think, diverse approaches are called for, rather than collaboration on a single product. Each newsroom should make its own Urgency Index because priorities will — and should — differ by region and editorial point-of-view. The Wall Street Journal’s urgency index will not be the same as the Seattle Times. That’s a good thing. Created for consumers of the news, the index will also have uses for the producers. It tells the editors what to keep focusing on. It tells reporters what to ask the office holders about. (Update, April 24. This idea has now been put into practice by The Verge, a technology news site in the Vox Media family. Skip to the second item on this page. Testing, isolation and contact tracing are the first three items on their list. April 28: the Urgency Index gets traction in the newsletter world.)

Three: How much closer are we to normal? 

This one comes from one of my colleagues in press criticism, Dan Froomkin, author of Press Watch. Listen to what he says here:

Donald Trump’s fixation on setting a deadline for “reopening” the country – first it was Easter Sunday, now it appears to be May 1 – is currently the leading indicator of his complete lack of understanding of what is required from a government during a pandemic.

If the goal is to get society back to normal, you don’t announce a date and then try to justify it.

You set conditions that must be met, and then try to meet them.

Again, one of the problems with the news system we have is that “it’s one damn thing after another.” This is the logic of content production, not of public service journalism. When journalism is at its best, it helps us get our bearings in a confusing world of conflicting reports. It tells us where we are in public time.

Governor Gavin Newsom has given residents of his state a list of what it will take to “re-open” or re-start the economy. (See: California lists 6 tests for gradually easing virus limits.) Don’t like Gavin Newsom? There are other resources that do the same thing. Far better than “one damn thing after another” is “how much closer are we to resuming normal life?” I wish the news could give me a clearer sense of that.

Content production: what we have that is new today.

Public service journalism: here’s where we are today.

Four: Dislodge Trump from his position as “protagonist” of the coronavirus story.

It would greatly improve things if the producers of our national news flows actively de-centered the president in accordance with his recent statement to 50 state governors: “You’re gonna call your own shots.” This is a telling admission and a fateful decision. The press has to find the courage and wit to treat it that way.

Here I agree with Ben Smith, now the media columnist at the New York Times: The coronavirus story isn’t “about” the president. Of course, he wants it to be about him, and in order to make that so he will continue to say outrageous, embarrassing, contradictory and chaotic things to bait the press into covering him, despite his clear statement that he is out of ideas and will turn things over to the governors.

Journalists are aware of this tactic, but still they fall for it. (I am guilty of that myself sometimes.) The answer is not to ignore him, but to de-center him.

To summarize: He is not the central character, the White House is not the “nerve center” for the national response, and his daily briefing is not a good way to update us on where we are. He said the governors are now calling the shots. Rather than try to see through it, journalists have to look squarely at that confession, and adapt to what it says.

Five: Track what you are doing.

None of this can work unless the producers of news know what they are spending scarce resources upon. How much space, how much time are you giving to Trump compared to other key actors— like the governors, or public health experts, or victims of his decision-making? How much attention is going to what he’s doing as against what he’s saying?

More questions: Who are you quoting most often? What are the triggers for the reports your newsroom is producing? Who are the implied protagonists? From whose point of view are your stories told? Who is visible in the frame— and who is invisible? Whose knowledge is considered authoritative?

Unless you are tracking these things you have no means for improving them.

Why don’t they just walk out?

During his daily briefings journalists are abused by a president who misinforms the nation. Here's 13 reasons they stick around for that.

12 Apr 2020 8:58 pm 40 Comments

Last week Maggie Haberman of the New York Times observed about Donald Trump’s daily briefings, “As long as he’s fighting with reporters, he can attempt to shift focus from where the government has lagged in its response.”

Which raises the question, “why stick around for that?” As Mehdi Hasan of The Intercept put it:

So why are the reporters, and the networks they work for, allowing him to do it? Being his punchbags on live TV *every single day*? Playing their role in his TV production? Why not ditch these ‘briefings’ and focus on the failed response? Relentlessly, forensically, passionately?

On social media people ask me this question a lot. Why don’t they just walk out?  There is no simple answer to that. I have no elegant explanation. What I have instead is a list of factors that might help you understand why the walk out doesn’t happen. But I want to be clear: I think it should happen. Here’s the way I have put it when people ask me what I would do:

If I ran a newsroom I would not broadcast Trump’s Covid-19 briefings live. I would not send reporters so he can waste their time and use them as his hate objects. I would instruct them to watch it on CSPAN, and report any news that emerges. If he makes a factual claim it has to be verified or no go.

A few months ago this would have been an unthinkable stance for journalists who report on politics. But that is changing. Ron Fournier is a former White House reporter and Washington bureau chief for the AP. You cannot get more establishment than that:

So why do newsrooms keep sending their people to the briefings? Here is my list of factors, which, again, is a long way from an explanation. I’m not defending these propositions. But I am proposing that the answer to the question is some combination of items 1-13 here.

1. What the president says is news. This was a wrong turn taken long ago in American journalism. It’s a kind of bug in the code for how to report on national politics. As a writer for the New York Times said in 1976, “Journalism has long been caught up in the particular tautology that runs, news is what the President says, so what the President says is news.” This never made a lot of sense. For one thing, it effectively hands over editorial control to the president. Another: what the president does is news, what the president says may or may not be. Third: journalists are always working with limited time or limited space. They cannot treat everything the president says as news. Nonetheless, the tautology remains. Trump has weaponized it. And if you think this way — what the president says is news — you’re going to want to be there when he says it.

2. There is enormous prestige in being the president’s official interlocutor because it means you are effectively part of the presidency. This is not something journalists think to mention, but to me it is major. There is glamour in being at the White House every working day. It means you’re important. If you’re not in the actual room where history happens, you’re pretty damn close. That’s seductive. One occasion on which you can feel this is an official prime time press conference in the East Room of the White House. Quitting that is hard if you want to feel important— and close to power.

3. It’s part of our franchise, a thing we are able to do that others are not. This is a prestige factor, as well, but more for the executive suite. Having a seat in the briefing room means your brand has made it to the big time. You are now part of the national press. And if you have been big time forever, like CBS News, that’s not something you relinquish. It’s one of the advantages of media incumbency.

4. We fought for this space in the White House, it’s valuable, we protect it, and we’re not going to give it up. This is how the White House Correspondents Association (WHCA) thinks. Its agenda can be summed up in one word: access to the president and his aides. It’s not only about the briefing room, but work spaces in the White House and the ability to ask questions of the president’s communicatons staff, and perhaps develop valuable relationships. (Update, April 26. On CNN, Brian Stelter asked Jonathan Karl, head of the WHCA, “why don’t they just walk out? See his reply.)

5. The American press tends to be a “herd of independent minds.” Meaning: it often moves as a pack, but each individual believes in his or her autonomous decision-making. Which means it can be acted on collectively, but it rarely acts as a collective. By attacking and ridiculing the reporters in front of him, Trump can lower trust in the press corps as a whole. But the press corps as a whole has developed no effective response to this. Still, there’s nothing in principle that prevents reporters from working together more often. It happens in other democracies. (See, ‘This is the Netherlands, you have to answer questions.’) The White House press works together on so-called “pool” arrangements. But on challenging Trump it’s considered a breakthrough in solidarity if one or two reporters re-ask a colleague’s question that went unanswered.

6. It’s a cheap, easy and endlessly repeatable way to “capture” some news. This is especially relevant for the TV networks. Setting up cameras in the White House and using footage from the podium is cheaper, easier and more reliable than sending reporters to investigate and camera crews to record interviews with sources. This is not a principle of journalism; rather, it’s the logic of content production, which favors predictability, repeatability and cost control.

7. Our job is to tell you what happened. You decide what to make of it. There is huge power in this principle. It is an utterly convincing, open-and-shut case to many people in journalism— and in the audience for news. Fox News made it into a tagline: “we report, you decide.” Applied to the coronavirus briefings it means you carry these events live because they happened, they involve the president, everything the president says is news and viewers will decide what to make of it. The trouble, of course, is that such logic does away with the whole principle of editorial control. In practice, Fox News like all other producers picks and chooses what it will report, including when it will go live from the White House podium. “We tell you what happened, you decide what to make of it…” is a clever way to avoid talking about those decisions. Nonetheless to many people in and out of journalism this is wisdom itself.

8. The news media should not be “protecting” the American people from their president. Tom Jones, lead writer for Poynter.org, a leading professional development center in journalism, writes:

Trump’s news conferences must be aired live and in their entirety. It’s critical to see what Trump and his team are doing and how they are thinking even if we don’t like or agree with it. When it comes to the president and his actions, it’s necessary that the media does not shield the American people and, in effect, protect Trump from the public.

9. The briefings let us hear from experts and White House advisors. “It is important for viewers to hear critical information from the administration’s public-health experts like Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx…” That’s the Daily Beast paraphrasing what CNN president Jeff Zucker said on a conference call with employees that was partly about this issue.

10. Sure, Trump is often untruthful, but that’s why our reporters are there, so the audience can hear the president face tough questions from journalists. Zucker said “he felt comfortable airing the briefings live because of those grillings by reporters,” according to the Daily Beast. (In this thread I explain why “grilling” Trump is a farce and counter-productive.)

11. Trump is good TV. Good TV means big ratings. Big ratings means big money. Among people who follow me on social media, this is by far the most popular explanation for why they don’t walk out. What could be clearer? They remember what CBS Chairman Les Moonves said about Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” There was some reporting in the press that Trump’s virus briefings were pulling good ratings. Recently they seem to be trending down. Of course you don’t see many ads during briefings, so that complicates things for the “televising Trump = $$” equation. Ad rates for the cable networks are not set by hourly fluctuations in viewership; they reflect longer term trends. And such a high proportion of their revenue is derived from multi-year contracts with cable systems that the day-to-day shifts in audience size have minimal effect on their yearly balance sheets.

12. TV news has no clue what to do about bad actors using air time to spread disinformation and hate. I am going to turn this one over to Andrew Tyndall, publisher of the Tyndall report, which tracks what the broadcast networks are reporting. I asked him, Why don’t they just walk out?

When television journalism presents a political debate it needs to do more than report on the gist of the competing arguments that are presented by the rival factions. It has to organize a format in which viewers can see those arguments being articulated by real live partisans. The requirement for talking heads on a Meet-The-Press-type show means that potential guests have more leverage over the show’s booking producers, more of an opportunity to game the system.

While it is commonplace nowadays for those operating in social media to concern themselves about how to conduct political discourse when some participants are committed trolls, television booking producers are faced with the same crisis in the extreme. The entire system of talking heads requires that those politicians who are booked in order to re-enact their disagreements in front of television cameras speak in good faith when they appear: good faith meaning that the guiding principle of the encounter should be that the audience be productively informed and honestly persuaded.

The system has no place for bad faith actors; yet no procedures for screening for them transparently and notifying the audience when they have been banned. It is through this loophole that President Trump (but not only he) walks.

13. We can’t abandon the briefing room to the OANN’s and Gateway Pundits of the world. If all the correspondents from the establishment press “walked out,” or quit the briefing room, there would still be people in those seats asking questions. To White House correspondents whose companies long ago made it to the big time, it’s unthinkable to leave that task to the low-rent pro-Trump media— plus a competitor like Fox News. (Update, April 26: A former White House press secretary, who ran the briefings during the Clinton presidency, gives his advice to the press on how to ask questions.)

Finally, I put the question in my title to Mark Lukasiewicz, a former Senior Vice President at NBC News who is now a journalism dean at Hofstra University. He has recently been critical of the major news networks for broadcasting Trump’s briefings live, and for airing live discussions with political figures who repeatedly lie. Here is what he said about “why not walk out?” His answer touches on many of the factors I have reviewed in this post.

If I were a news manager with responsibility for covering the White House, yes, I would send reporters to cover the coronavirus briefings. I would send them to the rope line when the president is walking out to Marine One. I would send them to the driveway mics when someone from the administration emerged to make a statement.

I would send them because asking questions and demanding answers in all of these settings is an important part of the job. I would send them because at least with Dr’s Fauci and Birx, real information is sometimes being elicited. Not being there eliminates even the possibility of getting new information. Not being there increases the chance that bad information goes uncorrected.

The reporters being subjected to abuse and insults from the lectern is not a consideration. Journalists are accustomed to — and are generally unintimidated by — important and powerful people not liking them and pushing back on their reporting. Reporters around the world have endured much worse.

Boycotting the hearings would also risk subjecting a news organization to retribution from the White House, in the form of restricted access, loss of press room privileges or other measures. I have argued strenuously however that none of this should necessarily air live. Journalists should be able to treat these sessions like the dozens of other media briefings that happen every day, and sift them for news and information that is relevant to their audiences.

One last note: The New York Times does not send anyone to the coronavirus briefings. They walked out.

The All Media Daily Briefing: A short concept sketch

A vehicle for it already exists.

27 Mar 2020 7:54 pm 14 Comments

A few days ago I was contacted by Canadian editor and journalist David Thomas with an idea. Why don’t all the major media companies collaborate in producing an independent daily briefing on the Coronavirus? I thought Dave’s idea had merit, so I drafted this short description of how it might work. 

What: A daily briefing on where we are in fighting the Covid-19 virus.

When: Every day for the forseeable future, 4 to 5 pm ET.

Where: On the internet. Streaming video and audio always. Broadast whenever a particpating channel or station decides to pick it up. All guests appear remotely. All questions asked remotely.

Why: For the same reason there needs to be a daily briefing at the White House, but this one is independent from the White House. It provides a stream of factual and relevant information from experts who can speak with authority, and people on the front lines who are in a position to know.

Who: Originated by the “network pool,” a consortium of ABC, CBS, NBC, FNC and CNN that already collaborates on big occasions like the State of the Union, plus a few other events like this. Any other media company can join for free, submit questions live, and carry the video or audio, which are also available on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Twitch, and as a podcast.

How: Features 4-5 guests a day who have advanced knowledge or a vital perspective: public health experts, epidemiologists, scientists, hospital officials, governors. Journalists who are part the AMDB can submit questions live. Anyone on the internet can submit questions in advance.

FAQ

What are the minimum requirements to make this happen? A control room at one of the networks. A technical staff of 2-3 people. A unaligned moderator like Steve Scully of CSPAN, plus a back-up person for off days. An executive producer. An editorial staff of 3-4 people to vet and book guests.

What stands in the way? The hard part is to reach an agreement among the networks and people whose shows compete. The rest could be up and running in a couple days.

How do you know that? I asked people with network television backgrounds.

Is this supposed to replace the daily White House briefing? No. It is a parallel institution.

Is it supposed to compete with the White House briefing? All information competes with other information these days.

What’s your agenda? To build a daily audience for independent, evidence-based updates and to inject more quality, real time information into the news system during a public emergency of unprecedented scale.

Why would the big media companies collaborate on this? They’ve never managed to do that before. Well, they have never faced anything like this. And as I said, the five big commercial networks have collaborated before. A vehicle for doing so already exists. It’s called the network pool.

How do we convince them? We appeal to their public service mandate. We appeal to their instinct for cross-partisan truth. This is chance to show Americans that “the Media” can come together with one daily news update for everyone of every political stripe because these extraordinary times require it.

Why is Fox News included? Like CNN, Fox is part of the network pool.

Why is CNN a part of this? Like Fox, CNN is a part of the network pool.

Why is MSNBC included? Like Fox and CNN, NBC is part of the network pool, which is the most likely consortium to tackle something like this.

Who picks the questions? The executive producer and the staff he or she hires..

I will add to the FAQ as more questions arise.

Today we are switching our coverage of Donald Trump to an emergency setting

"This means our journalism will work in a different way, as we try to prevent the President from misinforming you through us."

19 Mar 2020 9:45 pm 157 Comments

Even this far into his term, it is still a bit of a shock to be reminded that the single most potent force for misinforming the American public is the current president of the United States. For three years this has been a massive — and unsolved — problem for the country and its political leadership.

But now it is life and death. On everything that involves the coronavirus Donald Trump’s public statements have been unreliable. And that is why today we announce that we are shifting our coverage of the President to an emergency setting.

This means we are exiting from the normal system for covering presidents— which Trump himself exited long ago by using the microphone we have handed him to spread thousands of false claims, even as he undermines trust in the presidency and the press. True: he is not obliged to answer our questions. But neither are we obligated to assist him in misinforming the American people about the spread of the virus, and what is actually being done by his government.

We take this action knowing we will be criticized for it by the President’s defenders, by some in journalism, and perhaps by some of you. And while it would be nice to have company as we change course, we anticipate that others in the news media will stick with the traditional approach to covering presidents.

This we cannot in good conscience do.

Switching to emergency mode means our coverage will look different and work in a different way, as we try to prevent the President from misinforming you through us. Here are the major changes:

* We will not cover live any speech, rally, or press conference involving the president. The risk of passing along bad information is too great. Instead, we will attend carefully to what he says. If we can independently verify any important news he announces we will bring that to you— after the verification step.

* We plan to suspend normal relations with the Trump White House. That means we won’t be attending briefings. (We can watch them on TV.) We won’t gather around him as he departs in his helicopter. We won’t join in any off-the-record “background” sessions with Administration officials. We won’t enter into agreements of any kind with the Trump team, which includes those nameless “senior advisers” who mysteriously show up in news stories.

* We have always tried to quote public officials accurately, including President Trump. In emergency mode we add a further check. In addition to, “does this fairly represent what he said?” we will ask: is what he said something we should be amplifying? If it is simply meant to demonize a group of people, rewrite a history that now embarrasses the President, or extend his hate campaign against journalists who are doing their job, we may decide not to amplify it, even though it happened. An old tenet of White House reporting states that what the president says makes news— automatically, as it were. Today we are disabling that autoplay system and replacing it with a manual one.

* In general, we will be shifting the focus of our coverage from what President Trump is saying to what his government is doing. We will be de-emphasizing the entire White House beat and adding people who can penetrate the bureaucracy from the rim, rather than the center of the distortion machine.

* Experience has taught us that there will occasionally be times when the President makes a demonstrably false claim, or floats a poisonous lie, and it is too consequential to ignore. We feel we have to tell you about it, even at the risk of amplifying his deceptions. In those special cases, we will adopt a news writing formula that has been called the “truth sandwich.” It is a more careful way of reporting newsworthy falsehoods. First you state what is true. Then you report the false statement. Then you repeat what is true. Like so:

In January and February, President Trump minimized the danger of the coronavirus. “We have it totally under control,” he said on Jan. 22. But two days ago he tried to erase that fact and escape accountability for his prior statements. “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic,” he said. If we judge by his public statements this is an outright lie. On Feb. 27, at a White House meeting he said: “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.”

Refusing to go with live coverage. Suspending normal relations with his White House. Always asking: is this something we should amplify? A focus on what he’s doing, not on what he’s saying. The truth sandwich when we feel we have to highlight his false claims. This is what you can expect now that our coverage has been switched to an emergency setting.

One more thing. Because we don’t know that we have done this right, and because your confidence in us describes the limits of what we can achieve as journalists, we will be hiring immediately a public editor who is empowered to field complaints, decide if something went wrong, find out how it happened, and report back.

Early in President Trump’s term, Marty Baron, the editor of the Washington Post, spoke these memorable words about the President’s “enemy of the people” rhetoric: “We’re not at war, we’re at work,” said Baron. This was a smart warning not to get caught up in bringing down a president.

Today we are recognizing that our journalism must shift, not to a “war” but to an emergency footing. (Donald Trump, meanwhile, is calling himself a “wartime president.”) We feel we cannot keep telling wild and “newsy” stories about the unreliable narrator who somehow became president. Not with millions of lives at stake. We have to exit from that system to keep faith with you, and with the reason we became journalists in the first place.

Notes

I need to clarify what kind of text this is. I am not a news organization with a White House press pass. I am a journalism professor and writer who is also a press critic. Since 2015, I have written a lot about the problem of covering Donald Trump. This post is a further elaboration of that work. It is written in the voice of an editor’s note “announcing” a new policy. But I am not a news executive in a company of journalists, and I don’t want to give the impression that a national news organization has made this shift. As far as I know that has yet to happen.

Responsible parties at the New York Times explain to the country what went wrong with Times journalism in the election of 2016. Part Two.

The Daily's interview with Dean Baquet is a key document in the study of the American press and politics. Here is what it says.

5 Feb 2020 11:04 am 7 Comments

This is part two. Part one is here.

On January 31, 2020, The Daily with host Michael Barbaro sent out to its two million listeners a 50-minute interview with the executive editor of the New York Times, Dean Baquet. It was largely about the mistakes made by the Times and others, but especially the Times, in covering the election of 2016.

I think we should read and examine what they said about the lessons of 2016. That can be hard to do in the flow of a podcast. So I decided to summarize their exchanges, using a combination of my paraphrase and their quotes to condense what was said, but not to alter it in any important way. 

This is not a transcript. The original podcast is here. I recommend it. If you have ever wondered why the Times does what it does in covering politics, a careful listen to The Lessons of 2016 will be repaid. It’s made for your ears.  

Dean Baquet is the executive editor who was ultimately responsible for the Times coverage of the 2016 election. He is still responsible as the voting begins in 2020. Michael Barbaro, who has since become hugely valuable to the Times as host of The Daily, was then a political reporter and writer assigned to the 2016 campaign.

Reader’s guide: If the words are in quotes, that means I took it verbatim from the audio. If they’re not in quotes that means I am paraphrasing and condensing from many listens of the audio. I am not attempting to add my own views here. This is a representation of the interview’s pressthink, using their own words or a close paraphrase, broken into 18 good exchanges with headlines that I wrote.

9. Did our assumption that she was going to be the next president influence coverage of her emails?
10. The next time we find a foreign government is behind a document release, what standard will apply?
11. “We do have a tendency to beat ourselves up a little too much.”
12. What have been the biggest changes to our election coverage this time around?
13. Is there a risk of over-representing the Trump voter’s perspective?
14. “The white working class midwestern voter: We tell that story a lot.”
15. “The Times has sometimes been accused of engaging in what’s called ‘both sides-ism.”
16. Has Times journalism adjusted to the reality of a president and allies who reject established facts? 
17. How do you cover Trump’s deceptions without disparaging the voters who support him?
18. After what happened in 2016, don’t we have a special obligation to get it right this time?

9. Did our assumption that she was going to be the next president influence coverage of her emails?

Michael Barbaro: About those emails from the Clinton campaign stolen by Russia and released by Wikileaks: Did the assumption that she was going to be the next president influence the coverage of those emails?

Dean Baquet: People forget there were big important stories in those emails.

Michael Barbaro: There were also less important stories. We did them. Did we apply more scrutiny to her because we were covering her in a sense as if she were the president-in-waiting? And we wanted to show we could be tough vetters of the next president?

Dean Baquet: No. I ran our coverage of Wikileaks and Snowden. You look at it carefully, but I think you have to report the newsworthy stuff.

Michael Barbaro: There are going to people who push back on this answer. This seemed like a leak designed to inflict political damage.

Dean Baquet: “I know. I get it.” At the time we didn’t know Russia was behind the release of the emails. 

Michael Barbaro: “We knew they were ill-gotten.”

Dean Baquet: We knew they were ill-gotten, but here is my view, and I understand it may not be popular: “When we learn important things, to not publish is a political act. It’s not a journalistic act.” “There should not be a whole lot that we learn about important stories that we don’t publish.” “My view is that publishing is journalism, not publishing is political balancing.”

10. The next time we find a foreign government is behind a document release, what standard will apply?

Dean Baquet: “The next big document dump comes in… I’ve even seen other journalists say I hope we understand that we can’t publish that stuff. No. I will read it. We will evaluate it. We will look at in the new context that we understand, which is Russia is actively trying to influence American elections. That will be part of the calculation. But the calculation cannot be, we’re just not going to publish because that would screw up American politics. At that point I will go into business as like a campaign adviser to people and not a journalist.”

Michael Barbaro: The next time it happens, and if we believe it’s the act of a foreign government, will we apply a different standard?

Dean Baquet: Sure. We will take all these events into account, and make a judgment about the importance of the material vs. the risk of being manipulated. “If it’s the tax returns of a candidate, and it’s really important and compelling, and we’re being manipulated, my view is we have to publish it and say we’re being manipulated… And I’m sure the debate will be more fierce that it was in 2016. But in the end if there is information the American public should know, we’ll publish it. And that’s what we do.”

11. “We do have a tendency to beat ourselves up a little too much.”

Michael Barbaro: On election night, “it felt in that moment like our asssumptions had truly guided us all the way to the final moments of election night and then they had been burst.”

Dean Baquet. Yeah. Of course that’s true. “If I could say one thing about journalism, though. We do have a tendency to beat ourselves up a little too much.” Yes, we didn’t have a handle on the turmoil in the country. “Something surprising and shocking happened with the election of Donald Trump. And it would be a little bit too narcissistic [for] my tastes to spend forever beating ourselves up over it.” This was a very unlikely event. He “walked in and captured the country at a particular moment.”

“Some things you can anticipate. But there are 300 million Americans. Some things you can’t anticipate.”

Michael Barbaro: “You used the word narcissistic, and I’m not judging that… But I think what we’re up to here is an exercise in explaining to the country what we learned.” What happened in 2016 is no small thing, “and the implications are still playing out.”

Dean Baquet: Yes, and that election changed journalism. “Something giant happened and while we should change our rules to understand it, to keep from missing a story like that in the future, I don’t think we should go into it with the assumption that all of our rules are wrong.” That’s all I meant by “narcisstic.”

12. What have been the biggest changes to our election coverage this time around?

Michael Barbaro: From our conversation “it feels clear that the source of these assumptions was in very large part a kind of institutional decision to cover the candidates so heavily, and to not cover as much or as prominently the country.” With that in mind, what have been the biggest changes to our coverage this time around?

Dean Baquet: Well, we’re covering the country better. We have plans to place writers in 7-8 states we are not usually in. We added a religion writer to our political team. “We give huge play now to stories about the anxiety in the country.” The Times now reflects the turmoil, the divisions in the U.S. We have doubled the number of people who cover the internet as a cultural and political force. “It’s a damatically different set up.” I don’t think we have annointed anyone the “inevitable” candidate. Or the long shot. “I am extremely proud of where our coverage is now, and nobody’s even voted yet.”

13. Is there a risk of over-representing the Trump voter’s perspective?

Michael Barbaro: “After 2016, there was an understandable emphasis on understanding Trump voters. Do you see any risk in giving those voters and those Trump allies and even the President himself too much of a platform in pursuit of that understanding, and over-representing their perspective, and maybe as a result missing the many other perspectives that are out there?” 

Dean Baquet: “I don’t. Not as long as you write about the other perspective.” Like Black people who are anxious about Trump and love Joe Biden. “One of the greatest puzzles of 2016 remains a great puzzle: why did millions and millions of Americans vote for a guy who is such an unusual candidate?” How did religious voters come to support someone like him? “Those puzzles are reporting targets.” When we go out and do these stories I know some critics roll their eyes. But understanding how these people voted and how they will vote in the future, that’s a pretty big thing. To dismiss 35-40 percent of Americans as people who should not be in our pages, “that’s not journalistic to me.”

14. “The white working class midwestern voter: We tell that story a lot.”

Michael Barbaro: “You’re bringing me to one of the biggest questions I have about over-correcting or over-simplifying what we learned in 2016.” There’s justifiably a very signifcant focus on the economic grievances of, for example, the white working class midwestern voter. “We tell that story a lot. But moderate voters may be driven as much by these questions of culture and morality and identity as much as anything in the economy. There may be Democrats who support universal health care and taxing the rich, but they oppose open borders, they oppose abortion, they oppose the culture of political correctness. And it’s very challening to capture that. Do you think we’re capturing that?”

Dean Baquet: “I do. I think we are capturing it.” We’re doing much more in this vein. “I always feel weird being called a member of the political elite. I’m a black guy who grew up in a poor neighborhood in New Orelans in a religious Catholic family.” I know from experience there’s a big chunk of America for whom cultural issues are a huge deal.

15. “The Times has sometimes been accused of engaging in what’s called ‘both sides-ism.”

Michael Barbaro: “When efforts are made to fairly cover this President, his voters, his allies, the Times has sometimes been accused of engaging in what’s called ‘both sides-ism,’ …this tendencty to represent both sides of a debate as equal, or both sides as having contributed equally to something.”

A few weeks ago there was a Times story about the impeachment hearings that was criticized for that. Among the lines people zeroed in on was this: “Throughout the committee’s debate, the lawmakers from the two parties could not even agree on a basic set of facts in front of them.”

The criticism is: there can only be one set of facts, so lay them out. At another point in the same article, it read: “They called each other liars and demagogues and accused each other of being desperate and unfair.”

The criticism there is: “We can tell who is lying or who is not lying based at the testimony and the evidence we have, but the story didn’t do that. It suggested both sides had equal, legitimate cases. Are stories like that a kind of both side-ism abdication?”

Dean Baquet: I will stick my neck out here and offer a “spirited defense” for “sophisticated objectivity.”

“We’re at a moment where people very much want us to take sides. And I don’t think that’s the right stance for the New York Times. I do think about the person who picks up his paper in the morning and just wants to know what happened. I do think we have an obligation to that person.” We’re sort of pretending we don’t.

Yes, there is a tendency in the American press to go for easy objectivity, especially under deadline pressure. Slap two quotes together and tell the reader: you figure it out. It happens. But that’s not what I mean when I say “sophisicated true objectivity as a goal.” True objectivity means “you listen, you’re empathetic, if you hear stuff you disagree with but its factual and its worth people hearing, you write about it.”

Do we fall into on the one hand, on the other hand sometimes? Absolutely. “It’s not the best formula for covering Trump and the impeachment trial.” “Both sides-ism and too easily saying on the one hand, on the other hand is not healthy for the discussion we’re having.”

Michael Barbaro: Who are the people who want us to pick a side?

Dean Baquet:: “Many of our readers hate Donald Trump and want us to join the opposition to Donald Trump, right? Well, I am not going to do that.” Then there are those who may have good reason to disagree with “sophisticated” objectivity. “There are people on our staff who disagree with that as a goal. I get that. I really do. That premise of sophisticated objectivity and independence? We should always debate it and question it.”

“I think of the reader who just wants to pick up his paper in the morning and know what the hell happened. I am beholden to that reader and I feel obligated to tell that reader what happened.”

16. Has Times journalism adjusted to the reality of a president and allies who reject established facts? 

Michael Barbaro: “Where do you draw the line between picking a side and holding truth to power? At this point there is a well documented pattern of President Trump, some of his allies and supporters denying established facts, speading misinformation, embracing conspiracy theories and frankly —  and this is uncomfortable to say it, it was not easy to kind of embrace this reality over time as a reporter, it’s against our nature— many of them have a different relationship to the truth than the Democrats and the Democratic Party. Do you think our journalism has sufficiently adjusted to that reality, and how central should that understanding and that reality be to our 2020 coverage?”

Dean Baquet: “I do, actually.”

Michael Barbaro:  But do you agree with that description of the pattern in the way the truth is being handled by the two parties? 

Dean Baquet: “Yes. I think it’s less the parties, it’s more Donald Trump.”

Michael Barbaro: What about the Republican Senators out there, saying what they are saying?

Dean Baquet: Yes. And there’s climate change. Trump is the most exteme version. “Donald Trump has made it his business to attack all independent arbiters of facts. And I think that you will find in the pages of the New York Times very powerful reporting that illustrates that.”

“What we haven’t done, which some people want us to to do, is to say, repeatedly, he’s a liar.  That’s the language, the word. But the reporting? No question we have done that.”

Michael Barbaro: Or racist. Another thing people have asked you to do.

Dean Baquet: “There was a big debate in our newsroom and outside our newsroom about whether the New York Times should use the word racist. And I accept disagreement.” In my view the most powerful writing let’s the person talk, and it is usually so evident that what they have to say is racist or anti-semitic, that to actually get in the way and say it yourself is less convincing.

17. How do you cover Trump’s deceptions without disparaging the voters who support him?

Michael Barbaro: How do you cover the reality of a president — and the party that supports him — repeatedly acting deceptively, spreading disinformation, without appearing to ignore or to disparage the very voters who support him, thus suggesting that we have picked a side?

Dean Baquet: This is hard. I will acknowledge that. You report the heck out of what they say. “We’ve done two or three reconstructs of what happened with the U.S. attack on the Iranian general that shows that some of the descriptions were false. That’s reporting. That’s not like labeling or cheap analysis. That’s deep reporting, lot of reporters. That’s my answer to how we cover Donald Trump… Let someone else call it a lie.”

The world is filled with pundits who can label or characterize things. There are not many institutions that can do powerful and independent reporting. And that’s what I want to do.

To convince his voters that you’re listening? “You show up.” Don’t do the cliched diner stories, or give voice to racists, you go talk to them, you listen empathetically. “I’m talking about the big unanswered question of 2016. For all our hand wringing and all the discussion, why did so many millions of  Americans vote for this very unusual candidate? I don’t think anyone has answered it, and I think one of our goals should be to come as close as we can.”

18. After what happened in 2016, don’t we have a special obligation to get it right this time?

Michael Barbaro: “In having a significant portion of the electorate share the assumptions of the media that we’ve been talkling about, that Clinton would win, Sanders and Trump wouldn’t, that when that all flipped on its head, the electorate was left feeling that they didn’t really understand and maybe still don’t understand what made for a winning candidate.”

Dean Baquet: “We don’t fully understand it, right?”

Michael Barbaro: After an election in which faulty assumptions “coursed through our veins, influenced our coverage,” leaving voters so uncertain, does this “create a special obligation to get it as right as possible, to show a certain amount of restraint, to show a tremendous amount of care and nuance?”

Dean Baquet: Yes, we have a special obligation to not to jump to conclusions too quickly, not to declare anyone inevitable and to “hold back and war against the assumptions of the political class,” which said that Trump couldn’t win. “I do think we have to keep reminding ourselves that what happened in 2016 was a remarkable, a remarkable upset and moment.”

Michael Barbaro: On Monday we’re launching a new show, The Field, that is about all of this, the lessons of 2016. Each week we’ll be going somewhere new in the country, with a Times reporter, “to talk to people and to listen, to do it in your words empathetically, and to do our part to make sure that we are not guided by assumptions.”

Dean Baquet: That’s terrific. That feels like an important contribution to not only our coverage but coverage of American politics.