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.

 

The plan is to have no plan

"There is no genius there, only a damaged human being playing havoc with our lives."

4 May 2020 11:02 pm 117 Comments

In this space I am parking my short description of the de facto plan the Trump government has for getting the United States out of the public health emergency caused by the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This is my read on what the government’s guidance and actions amount to. I will revise the text and add new links as more information flows in. My purpose in posting it is to challenge the American press to be a lot clearer in its descriptions. 

The plan is to have no plan, to let daily deaths between one and three thousand become a normal thing, and then to create massive confusion about who is responsible— by telling the governors they’re in charge without doing what only the federal government can do, by fighting with the press when it shows up to be briefed, by fixing blame for the virus on China or some other foreign element, and by “flooding the zone with shit,” Steve Bannon’s phrase for overwhelming the system with disinformation, distraction, and denial, which boosts what economists call “search costs” for reliable intelligence.

Stated another way, the plan is to default on public problem solving, and then prevent the public from understanding the consequences of that default. To succeed this will require one of the biggest propaganda and freedom of information fights in U.S. history, the execution of which will, I think, consume the president’s re-election campaign. So much has already been made public that the standard script for a White House cover up (worse than the crime…) won’t apply. Instead, everything will ride on the manufacture of confusion. The press won’t be able to “expose” the plot because it will all happen in stark daylight. The facts will be known, and simultaneously they will be inconceivable

“The plan is to have no plan” is not a strategy, really. Nor would I call it a policy. It has a kind of logic to it, but this is different from saying it has a design— or a designer. Meaning: I do not want to be too conspiratorial about this. To wing it without a plan is merely the best this government can do, given who heads the table. The manufacture of confusion is just the ruins of Trump’s personality meeting the powers of the presidency. There is no genius there, only a damaged human being playing havoc with our lives.

UPDATE:  A few developments since then, as reported in the Washington Post and other news sites:

May 15, 2020: Trump’s continually strange comments on possibly ‘overrated’ coronavirus testing. (Link.)

The answer wouldn’t seem to be that testing isn’t necessary, but that more testing would be preferable to make sure people who are infected take precautions as soon as possible. The whole commentary is confusing and in many cases nonsensical.

June 27, 2020: With Trump leading the way, America’s coronavirus failures exposed by record surge in new infections. (Link.) 

While public health experts urge caution and preventive measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing, Trump, Pence and other top aides repeatedly flout their advice, leaving confused Americans struggling to determine who to believe. “They’re creating a cognitive dissonance in the country,” one former senior administration official said. “It’s more than them being asleep at the wheel. They’re confusing people at this point when we need to be united.”

July 6, 2020: Trump and Biden campaigns shift focus to coronavirus as pandemic surges. (Link.)

White House officials also hope Americans will grow numb to the escalating death toll and learn to accept tens of thousands of new cases a day, according to three people familiar with the White House’s thinking, who requested anonymity to reveal internal deliberations. Americans will “live with the virus being a threat,” in the words of one of those people, a senior administration official.

July 6, 2020: President Trump, coronavirus truther. (Link)

A review of Trump’s public commentary on the virus reveals precious little in the way of a reality check for a country confronting a surge in cases. He has instead again focused like a laser on downplaying the pandemic — suggesting the rise in cases is merely a symptom of increased testing (it’s not), questioning the efficacy of and need for wearing masks, and repeatedly suggesting the virus isn’t so bad after all. It all culminated Saturday in Trump declaring that “99 percent” of cases are “totally harmless” — a statement that bears no resemblance to what health officials have said.

July 13, 2020: Trump’s attacks on Fauci and other experts reinforce that he’d rather Americans be confused than concerned. (Link.)

Trump would rather have no one be trusted than that he stand out as unusually untrustworthy, even if the cost is confidence in his team and in experts trying to tamp down the pandemic.

July 15, 2020: As the coronavirus crisis spins out of control, Trump issues directives — but still no clear plan. (Link.)

There is no cohesive national strategy, apart from unenforced federal health guidelines. Instead, the administration is offering a patchwork of solutions, often in reaction to outbreaks after they occur. Although Trump and his team declare sweeping objectives, such as reopening schools, they have largely shirked responsibility for developing and executing plans to achieve them, putting the onus instead on state and local authorities.

July 15, 2020: As the Trump disaster gets worse, a new political theory helps explain it. (Link.)

Law professors David Pozen and Kim Lane Scheppele present “executive underreach” as a species of leadership failure that’s as destructive as executive overreach, defining it as: “a national executive branch’s willful failure to address a significant public problem that the executive is legally and functionally equipped (though not necessarily legally required) to address.”

July 17, 2020: Rancor between scientists and Trump allies threatens pandemic response as cases surge. (Link.)

September 11, 2020: Fauci’s message to skeptics. (Link.)

Trump in recent weeks has been committing less of his time and energy to managing the pandemic, according to advisers, and has only occasionally spoken in detail about the topic in his public appearances. One of these advisers said the president is “not really working this anymore. He doesn’t want to be distracted by it. He’s not calling and asking about data. He’s not worried about cases.”

On Thursday, President Trump said “we’re rounding the corner” and “we’re rounding the final turn,” suggesting that the pandemic will soon be a thing of the past. This is exactly the sort of reckless rhetoric that folks like Dr. Anthony Fauci have to counter. “We are still in the middle of this,” Fauci told Wolf Blitzer on Friday.

In interviews with Blitzer and MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, Fauci tried to correct Trump’s salesman-type happy-talk about an impending vaccine and a return to normalcy. When Mitchell brought up Trump’s fantastical talk, Fauci said “I’m sorry, but I have to disagree with that.” I’m sorry that he’s been put in this position, where he has to correct the president’s deeply misleading claims.

“I say look at the data; the data speak for themselves,” he said on CNN. “You don’t have to listen to any individual. And the data tells us that we’re still getting up to 40,000 new infections a day and 1,000 deaths.”

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.