“You might not like it, but it’s smart politics.”

'Twas the savvy style that led the political press astray. By the time Trump showed up, they were too far gone to realize it.

28 Sep 2020 9:08 pm 14 Comments

Recently someone asked me why, in facing up to the realities of the Trump presidency, the press has not broken with some of its more destructive habits  (For what I mean by “destructive habits,” see James Fallows in The Atlantic). This post is my answer to that question. Well, one answer. It’s not a simple story. My description here is just part of what happened to leave the press unprepared for Trump. As we saw with the release this week of a massive investigation into his tax returns by the New York Times, the investigative “wing” of the same press has done far better than the @whca cohort who are responsible for reporting on the day-to-day.   

They hitched their star to the political class— and for balance both sides of it. They learned to look at politics the way the masters of the game do. In the cultivation of this sensibility, which I have called the savvy style, they took rather too much pride.

They wanted to be undeceived themselves, and they had the idea of schooling readers, viewers and listeners — the attentive public — in what it takes to get elected, to be effective, and to “win” at a game played by insiders.

You might not like it,” they preached, “but it’s smart politics.”

People like Chris Cillizza and Mark Halperin built lucrative careers on that kind of statement. And in putting forward their proposition — it might be ugly, but it’s good politics — they lost sight of what drew them into journalism in the first place, which was to even the scales between insiders and outsiders.

Nine years ago I described the savvy style this way:

In politics, our journalists believe, it is better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It’s better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere, thoughtful or humane. Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be. (And to be unsavvy is far worse than being wrong.)

Savviness is that quality of being shrewd, practical, hyper-informed, perceptive, ironic, “with it,” and unsentimental in all things political. And what is the truest mark of savviness? Winning, of course! Or knowing who the winners are…

Prohibited from joining in political struggles, dedicated to observing what is, regardless of whether it ought to be, the savvy believe that these disciplines afford them a special view of the arena, cured of excess sentiment, useless passion, ideological certitude and other defects of vision that players in the system routinely exhibit. The savvy don’t say: I have a better argument than you. They say: I am closer to reality than you.

A kind of mutation in the code of newsroom professionalism, the savvy style flourished during a period in American politics when the system felt stable and the two parties stood roughly similar, but with different philosophies. Its symbolic high point was a story they still tell about Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill getting together and cutting a deal. (Chris Matthews — “Let’s play Hardball!” — wrote a book about it.) 

This was politics the way the savvy mind understood it. Sure, the parties stood for different things, but in the end two people who knew the score and had the power got together to make it happen. That’s how things get done in the real world, and it’s the job of the journalist to let the public in on such secrets.  

There’s a book you can still buy that conveys this attitude. It’s called The Power Game: How Washington Works. Listen to the promo: “Pulitzer Prize winner Hedrick Smith goes inside America’s power center in Washington, DC to reveal how the game of governing was played in the 1980s.” That’s what I mean by the savvy style. Without anyone thinking it through, or deciding it shall be so, this became the dominant style in political journalism: to explain how the game was played.

And then it all fell apart. In the 1990s the Republican Party started to reveal its present self with Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House, Fox News as culture war headquarters, the Clinton Impeachment, Bush vs. Gore, cooked books in the case for war in Iraq, the Tea Party’s rebellion against a black man in power, the rejection of moderation after Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012 (despite a frank autopsy the party had conducted on itself), the collapse of immigration reform, followed by the Birther movement, and finally Donald Trump’s capture of the party and attempt at autocratic rule. (Yes, I am leaving a lot out.)

None of these things fits the script of roughly similar parties with different philosophies winning elections by appealing smartly to the “vital center.” The savvy style was in crisis, but almost no one in the trade seemed to realize it.

In 2012, two solid members of the Washington establishment, Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein, tried to warn them: “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics,” they wrote. “It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

You might not like it, but it’s smart politics… was helpless to describe a party “unmoved by conventional understanding of facts.” Strategy coverage, both sides do it, who’s up and who’s down, winners and losers, controversy of the day, access journalism, “we’ll have to leave it there”… all these forms were spectacularly ill-matched to Donald Trump when he emerged as a threat to American democracy.

The press had drifted too far off course. It still identified with the pros who knew how the game was played. But the pros were themselves under attack in Trump’s style of resentment politics. Journalists trying to cover him discovered they were hate objects, useful for keeping his supporters in a state of pop-eyed rage. Nothing in their playbook had prepared them for that; they are still trying to recover from the shock of it. 

Recently someone else asked me for three or four changes in political journalism that might begin to right this ship. (Emphasis on begin to…) To wind this up, here is what I told him: 

  • Defense of democracy seen as basic to the job.
  • Symmetrical accounts of asymmetrical realities seen as malpractice.
  • “Politics as strategic game” frame seen as low quality, downmarket, amateurish, silly— and overmatched.
  • Bad actors with a history of misinforming the public seen as unsuitable sources and unwelcome guests.

They hitched their star to the political class. Now they have to recover their connection to a live public. Who’s up and who’s down won’t cut it when democracy itself is losing altitude.


Notes on Membership

Amid the search for a sustainable path in journalism

16 Sep 2020 8:58 am 4 Comments

1. Subsidy systems

Public service journalism has always been subsidized by something. But the system of subsidy varies across cultural eras and national boundaries. New subsidy systems can arise. Reliable ones can fail. We are living through such a shift today.

These notes on membership have a premise: Every system for subsidizing the production of real news has strengths and weaknesses. There is no perfect or stable answer. We have to be smart about the risks and advantages of each.

“Membership” is a subsidy system of increasing importance to a free press around the globe. It is one answer — not the right answer, but one possible answer — to “how are we going to sustain public service journalism, given everything that is happening in the world?” 

Advertising models are still the most common solution. In that system, a media company publishes news, comment, and information that people like or need. Audience attention creates a second-level product that can be sold to advertisers. The good news: Advertising subsidizes the costs of newsgathering. Journalists can be paid for their work. Readers, viewers and listeners are familiar with the system. The bad news: Attention-grabbing content can take over from real journalism. Big advertisers can exert undue influence on the news. And they aren’t especially loyal. As my friend Clay Shirky says, “Best Buy never signed up to fund the Baghdad Bureau.”

If advertisers can find a better deal somewhere else they will take it, which is exactly what has happened to the press in the digital era. With the rise of the internet and social media, classified ads moved to Craigslist and specialist sites like AutoTrader. Other categories went to Google and Facebook. Today the collapse of the ad subsidy is the major reason we have a business model crisis in journalism.

Now let’s shift scenes.

The BBC in the UK, ARD in Germany, and NRK in Norway are three examples of a very different subsidy system. Government policy in these countries is that the nation should have available to it a public service broadcaster to provide news, sport and entertainment programming. Through a dedicated tax or mandatory fees paid by viewers and listeners, the state “forces” into existence a revenue stream that the public broadcasters turn into content, some of which is high quality journalism.

The good news: everyone participates in funding the work because the work is done for public benefit. That’s a great principle. The bad news: public policy is still subject to pressure from political forces. If the political climate changes, the subsidy can be threatened. These facts tend to breed caution in the newsrooms supported by a state (or state-enforced) subsidy. 

A look at other subsidy systems helps us understand what is different about membership.

Politico Pro, described as a “personalized policy intelligence platform that helps organizations who create, influence or are impacted by policy do their jobs,” sells specialized newsletters and databases to busy professionals. It subsidizes a free product, politico.com, which in turn advertises the Politico brand. 

In 2019, the outdoor gear store, REI, which is a run as a consumer co-op, started publishing a quarterly print magazine, Uncommon Path, with stories about environmental issues and other outdoorsy topics. It goes to REI’s 450,00 members for free. What’s unusual is that REI hired experienced journalists to do the work, and even published these Editorial Guiding Principles, which show a commitment to real journalism and to ethical conduct.

In Sweden the government subsidizes local newspaper journalism directly “in order to promote the opportunities for diversity within the daily press and to strengthen democracy by promoting public access to independent news throughout the country.”

Since 1908, the First Church of Christ, Scientist, has subsidized the Christian Science Monitor, once a newspaper, now an online product known for quality international journalism.

These are all subsidy systems. Each one works differently. None has completely solved the problem: how do we sustain quality journalism and bring it within public reach?

2. Subscription vs. membership

When you can’t receive the product unless you pay your share of the costs for producing it, that’s subscription. It is not a subsidy system, but an alternative to subsidy: direct payment. The good news is that everyone knows who the “customer” is: anyone who values the product enough to pay for it. The bad news: a lot of the public is left out, including those who cannot afford to subscribe. And there are costs that have nothing to do with producing good journalism: Marketing expense, and subscriber “churn,” for example.

For anyone attracted to journalism by the opportunity to inform the public as a whole — the nation, the province, the town — subscription-only models are a problem. Which is not to say they are a “bad” solution. In practice, most subscription models are combined with advertising and other revenue sources to lower the price and make the product more affordable. And remember: there is no perfect answer.

With membership, the logic is different. Locate your strongest supporters and learn how to appeal to them for support. This is how I would define membership after three years of work as director of the Membership Puzzle Project.

Of course it’s more complicated than that. In order to “appeal to them for support,” you first have to identify your strongest supporters, and understand what motivates them to contribute. You have to learn how to talk to them, when to make an appeal, what to ask for. You need good tools and good data to do these things well. You also need a feel for your members, an intuitive grasp of why they support you. And of course you need a useful and compelling product: journalism that is worth supporting in the first place. Nothing happens without that.   

3. Join the cause

I call membership a subsidy system because in most — but not all — cases that the Membership Puzzle Project has studied, the members who contribute money know that the product is also available to people who are not members. One of the best arguments for membership models is that they do not require a paywall, which means the journalism is free to find its broader public.

This is how public radio in the U.S. has worked for more than 40 years. The members contribute; everyone else can listen. It’s the same logic the Guardian uses when it explains (to its strongest supporters), “Unlike many news organizations, we have kept our journalism open to our global audience. We have not put up a paywall as we believe everyone deserves access to quality journalism, at a time when factual, honest reporting is critical.”

The City in New York says that it “serves the people of New York, producing consistent, high-quality and high-impact accountability reporting. Our work is free to all and does not require a subscription. Instead of charging for access, we rely on the support of members, donors and sponsors.”

Another way to look at membership is that it experiments with the relationship — or social contract — between journalists and their supporters. Subscription is a product relationship: if you want the product, you pay for a subscription. The CBC in Canada is created by law and funded by taxpayers; it is the national public broadcaster of Canada, with a mandate to “contribute to shared national consciousness and identity.” Here, the relationship is civic. If you’re a Canadian citizen or tax paying resident, you are part of the CBC.

With membership, the relationship is voluntary. People join the cause because they believe in the importance of the work. And “join” is probably the key word in all of membership. Join as in join the party. But also join as in the way the floorboards join.

4. Commonwealth

But getting people to join your cause, join your site, join up with your journalism is just the beginning. What really matters is what you do with the people who have become your members. Here’s a big thing I have learned by studying it for three years. The trick in membership is to operate in such a way that your community of supporters becomes more valuable over time. 

Here is what I mean:

Let’s say you have a list of 20,000 readers for your daily email, and you are able to convert 10 percent of them (your strongest supporters) into members at an average of $30 a year. That community of supporters is initially worth $60,000 to your annual budget, maybe enough to hire a young reporter. 

But if that same group of 2,000 supporters fully understands that their $30 a year does not entitle them to tell your reporters how the story should come out, they are a little more valuable, because that common understanding gives journalists the independence they need to do good work. As members become more literate about journalism — and how your site works — they become more valuable to have as members.   

Suppose these supporters gradually learn that being a “member” of your site means sharing links to recent stories with those in their own social networks who are likely to have an interest. Now the 2,000 supporters are a little more valuable. They’re doing distribution.

Suppose those 2,000 supporters regularly submit news tips to your site. And they understand there’s a procedure for how best to do that. Following the procedure helps you quickly evaluate whether there’s a story there. Now they’re a little more valuable. They are extending your eyes and ears. They are adding to productivity.

Let’s keep it going: If those 2,000 supporters giving $30 a year come to understand that they are supposed to contribute their knowledge and experience when it is relevant to investigations the site is undertaking, they are even more valuable. (See Get Involved: Participate in ProPublica’s Reporting.)

Finally, imagine that the same community of 2,000 strong supporters has entered into a database their credentials, life experiences, job titles, areas of expertise, and special fascinations so that journalists can easily look them up and contact them when they are needed. Now they are becoming really valuable. (See: A new tool for harnessing public knowledge for better journalism by the Bristol Cable.)

I hope you see the point I am trying to make with this simplified trajectory. Membership isn’t only raising money from people who have joined the cause. It’s also developing a community of supporters so that it becomes — in a sense — “wealthier” as it masters more ways to contribute to the enterprise of reporting great stories. As they learn about you, and you learn about them, your members become a more valuable asset.

Once we learn how to focus on the commonwealth of membership, it becomes obvious that members don’t have to contribute money to add to the wealth. This is fortunate because not all of your supporters will be able to give even $30 a year. If you can discover other ways for them to contribute, then your membership can grow in multiple ways at once. And so can your “wealth.” 

5. Subcommunities of support

But this can only happen if you continue to learn about your strongest supporters, including what persuades them to contribute. So here is another way of stating what membership is. The continuous refinement and expansion of the social contract between journalists and their strongest supporters.

By “contract” I simply mean what members give, and what they get; what member-supported newsrooms give (mostly, good journalism, but also a good experience in interacting with the site) and what these newsrooms get from the people they call members. Tinkering with the give/get bargain so that it works for more people — and does more for the journalism — is doing the work of membership. It is basic to the craft.

Refining the contract also means acquiring a more complex understanding of your members, rather than treating them as a mass, or email list. Not everyone supports you for the same reason. Some people just want to give money to the cause; they don’t have time for anything else. Other people want to be heard; that’s what keeps them engaged. Others want to be called on for their expertise, but only when it is specifically needed.

This is often called audience segmentation, but it’s really discovering sub-communities within the larger community of supporters that helps sustain your site, and learning how to talk to these smaller groups in a way that matches their priorities.

6. Tries, errors and routines

A few more notes before I conclude. If in journalism, the basic unit of work is the story, in membership it is the “try.” Meaning: you can only learn what works by trying things with the people who find value in your journalism. Here’s a simple example of a try, which I have written about before. It’s from The Tyee in British Columbia, Canada:

Today, we’re asking for your help in creating The Tyee’s election reporting plan.

Every investigation, explainer and expose begins with questions. So tell us yours. What do you want candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?

Share it with our journalists by scrolling down and filling out our one-question survey.

That’s a membership try: “Will our readers and fans help us create more audience-centric election reporting by taking this simple one-question survey?” In this case, more than 600 people did, which led to part two of the try: “Can we raise $60,000 from our strongest supporters for this adventure in reader-powered election journalism?”

We took a week to compile and analyze your input, and then put out a long list of questions and asked you to rank them, in order to help us focus the list to five questions. Nearly 2,000 of you sent us your rankings.

We have been truly amazed at the level of engagement. The result is the Tyee’s Reader-Powered Election Reporting Plan…

The Tyee is a reader-supported publication. We need your help to pull off this reporting plan.

Will you support The Tyee’s 2019 federal election reporting with a financial contribution? Click here to give now.

It worked. The Tyee met its $60,000 goal. 

It is through the membership “try” that your repertoire of moves expands, your ambitions get reality-tested, and knowledge of your strongest supporters grows. (Of course, tries lead to errors too.) The most successful tries often evolve into what the Membership Puzzle Project calls “memberful routines,” normal ways of operating that incorporate members and produce value. Maybe The Tyee’s Reader-Powered Election Reporting Plan will become the standard way they cover provincial and local elections, with their strongest supporters funding the enriched journalism. 

From tries to routines is thus one of the “rhythms” of membership growth. As you repeat this cycle, you are getting better at the art and science of membership.

7. The search for a sustainable path

These notes have been written from the point of view of the producers of journalism seeking a sustainable path. I have used a vocabulary that I think will make sense to journalists, membership managers, chief revenue officers, and other staff. Please be aware that the terms I have used here are not necessarily the right ones for talking to your strongest supporters and appealing to them for more support.

The term “member” can itself strike an off note in some communities because it sounds exclusive, whereas in other settings it is a perfectly good and natural word. People who find value in your journalism may not see “journalism” as a good name for the thing they are valuing. It might be news-I-can-use, “staying informed,” accountability for those in power, or some kind of community connection. “We care about this place, so we need to know what’s happening in it.” If people strongly believe that, they may not make reference to journalism at all.

Journalism is a craft and occupation. Membership is a subsidy system and management discipline. But this is not what matters to members. Your job is to find out how to talk to them in a language that strikes a responsive chord— in them and in you. 

These notes are meant to help you build a scale model of the problem in your head, so you can think “with” membership in new and productive ways, turning the object around in your mind to see it from different sides. The language of membership as a discipline, and the language you share with your community… these are likely to be two different things. 

Locate your strongest supporters, and learn how to appeal to them for support. Over time develop that community into a more and more valuable system for sustaining your journalism. This means constant improvement in the give/get bargain, and in the user’s experience of it, along with more membership tries, more errors and the emergence of memberful routines.

That is my expanded definition of membership as a distinct business model and operating style in journalism. If we zoom out from there to the global struggle for a free and sustainable press, membership can be seen as a kind of floating construction site where people around the world are trying to rebuild the relationship between journalism and its public. Rebuild it, that is, on different grounds: volunteerism, mutual support, media literacy, civic pride. 

We don’t know yet whether membership will develop into a sustainable path for a public service press. There are promising signs, but it depends on how many people choose that path. I am not here to tell you that we have found the answer to the business model problems in journalism. 

But… One of the reasons I have spent three years researching them is that membership models are the place in journalism where we are, in a way, starting over— finding that portion of the public that still believes in the implied contract between people with a need to know and journalists determined to find out.

Today the research program I direct, The Membership Puzzle Project, is releasing its most important work yet. Three years of study went into it. The Membership Guide is a how-to manual and a review of best practices for people in journalism who want to try this path.

It is the product of research, but the product is not a research report. Rather, it’s a practical tool for making membership work, which draws on the lessons from membership sites on five continents. You can read a summary of what’s in the Guide here. Or just start with the first page: Defining Membership. Or jump to the 34 case studies from membership sites around the world.

I admit: I am extremely proud of this work. In my 34 years of publishing things as a professor of journalism, it is probably the most useful thing I have done. We had a team of researchers, designers and developers working on it for six months. They’re the ones who made it. I wrote this essay, “Notes on Membership” to do my part, and to draw attention to the launch of the Guide.

If you are interested in making membership work as a path to sustainability in journalism, the Membership Guide tells you what is found along that path. And it can keep you from getting lost.

The product of research, but not a research report. This expresses one of my ideas about how to be a professor of journalism at NYU. In the struggle for a free press that informs a live public, learn to be useful. I hope you will check it out. Both the Guide, and the struggule.

The big national news providers need threat modeling teams

Journalists have to defend democracy by reporting on the most plausible threats to its exercise. Threat modeling can help them do that.

14 Sep 2020 1:24 am 7 Comments

As voters, as journalists, as citizens, and as writers, as participants alive in what was once considered a secure democracy, we are today living through what Masha Gessen (following Bálint Magyar) calls an “autocratic attempt.”

Let those words sink in for a moment: an autocratic attempt…”the build up to actually wielding autocratic power.”

When a political figure who has gained power tries to use that power to probe the possibilities for establishing an autocratic state, that’s an autocratic attempt. The other stages in the process are an “autocratic breakthrough,” and an “autocratic consolidation.” I hope we never get to either point. But I cannot say with confidence that we will not. Neither can Masha Gessen. (Read their book, Surviving Autocracy.)

Four weeks ago I recommended that the big national newsrooms create threat modeling teams to help organize coverage of the Trump government and the 2020 elections. My concern was that American democracy was being put at risk, and traditional campaign coverage was not capable of addressing that kind of threat.

Today I am back to develop this suggestion a little further, in hopes that some of our major news providers will take an interest. I consulted two people who have worked with threat modeling in other danger zones, and I asked them to help me imagine its possible uses in a newsroom setting.

One is Joshua Geltzer, currently a Visiting Professor of Law at Georgetown University. From 2015 to 2017 he was Senior Director for Counterterrorism on the National Security Council staff, where he particpated in what are called “table top” exercises that try to imagine how threats would play out. (This is often called “threat ideation.”) As a “customer” working on counter-terrorism for the executive branch, he used the products of threat modeling teams based in the intelligence agencies and law enforcement. He has also written about Donald Trump’s attacks on the 2020 election.

My other informant is Alex Stamos, former Chief Security Officer at Facebook, and Chief Information Security Officer at Yahoo, which he described as “the most senior person at a company who is solely tasked with defending the company’s systems, software and other technical assets from attack.” At Facebook his duties were two-fold. One involved defending the company’s IT systems against hacking: “supervising the central security team that tries to understand risk across the company and work with many other teams to mitigate that risk.” His other duty was to help prevent misuse of Facebook products to cause harm. “Exploiting a software flaw to steal data is hacking. Using a product to harass people, or plan a terrorist attack, is abuse,” he explained. (The full text of my interview with Alex was published at The Verge.)

Incorporating what I learned from Josh Geltzer and Alex Stamos — and from an off-the-record briefing about election threats put on by the Aspen Institute, which I attended last week — here is how I see it working.

The recommendation: The big national news providers — ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, NPR, PBS, AP, Reuters, New York Times, Washington Post — should have threat modeling teams, just as they all have pollsters. These teams would try to identify the most serious threats to a free and fair election and to American democracy over the next four months, so that their newsrooms can take appropriate action.

What is threat modeling and how does it work? 

“Threat modeling is the effort to articulate dangers in ways that allow us to prepare to prevent, mitigate, or respond to them,” said Josh Geltzer. “It’s a way of identifying and describing threats that helps us to address them.” Its purpose is to assess vulnerabilities and anticipate attacks in a more systematic fashion than just being worried about them. Alex Stamos put it this way.

“Threat Modeling” is a formal process by which a team maps out the potential adversaries to a system and the capabilities of those adversaries, maps the attack surfaces of the system and the potential vulnerabilities in those attack surfaces, and then matches those two sets together to build a model of likely vulnerabilities and attacks.

What does it take to do threat modeling well?

Josh Geltzer told me: “You need to have a deep sense of what you’re trying to protect in the first place.” (I will come back to this point later; it is critical.) You also need expertise in the kinds of dangers that are likely to arise. For Donald Trump as a threat to American democracy, this might mean consutling people who have devoted serious study to “how democracies die.”

For other kinds of threats newsrooms often have in-house expertise, in the form of beat reporters who know their terrain intimately, like NBC’s Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins, who have been tracking QAnon and other misinformatiom rabbit holes.

You need to be able to step into the shoes of your adversary, and think like they do. You need the right temperament, says Geltzer, “to take seriously dangers without inflating them (which can happen when you start thinking hard about them!) and also without underestimating them,” which cognitive bias and organizational pressures can make us do.

What kinds of things do threat modelers do?

They identify weaknesses or likely points of attack, what Stamos called “attack surfaces.” For each plausible threat they try to divide the assessment of how consequential it would be from how likely it is to happen, and then carefully combine those two to determine its overall urgency. As Josh Geltzer said, they study how attacks can be prevented, how the damage can be mitigated if they do happen, and what kind of response is required if an attack succeeds.

Threat modeling also flows into exercises that help an organization prepare for threats and understand them better. At Facebook Stamos helped run “red team” exercises. “A Red Team is a team, either internal to the company or hired from external consultants, that pretends to be an adversary and acts out their behavior with as much fidelity as is possible,” he said. “At Facebook, our Red Team ran large exercises against the company twice a year. These would be composed based upon studying a real adversary— say, the Ministry of State Security of the People’s Republic of China.”

What is the product — or deliverable — of good threat modeling, and what does it help you do?

One answer: it helps you deploy scarce resources. As Stamos said to me, his security team had only so many people. They could only take on so many projects. Threat modeling can tell you how to spend your budget. The parallel to the newsroom is clear: you only have so many reporters. There is a limited number of investigations you can do before the election. With Trump in power there is always a flood of news. How do you decide what’s urgent?

Another answer: Done well, threat modeling — and what’s called threat ideation — makes your staff more alive to dangers that their routines or assumptions might have obscured. It’s an awareness tool.

Beyond raising awareness, what specific uses would threat modeling have in a newsroom setting?

In a previous post, I described a published product that could emerge: A Threat Urgency Index. It would summarize and rank the biggest dangers (to the election and to American democracy) by combining assessments of how consequential, how likely, and how immediate each threat is.

The Index would have a web address. It would be updated when there is new information, sort of like Five Thirty Eight’s Election Forecast. You could also subscribe to the Index as a newsletter. Right now, for example, the crippling of the postal service might rank highly on that list. Or the call — echoing from Trump’s Twitter feed — for armed militias to “protect” the vote count in a disputed election.

Another use might be to run excerises that raise newsroom awareness around the possible manipulation of the news system as we get closer to the election. “The obvious one is hacked documents,” said Alex Stamos. “Worked great in 2016. Why change horses?”

What problem is threat modeling supposed to solve? 

As Steve Bannon famously said, Trump’s method for neutralizing the news media is to “flood the zone with shit.” There’s always too many things to pay attention to. Threat modeling could help with that by separating things that sound scary from things that really are scary— and could happen.

That’s one answer. Another comes from Kyle Pope, the editor of Columbia Journalism Review, who recently wrote:

The American people are living on the edge of death and economic despair. Those are the stakes of the 2020 election, one whose integrity is in jeopardy thanks to the hypocrisies of Silicon Valley and the influence of foreign (and domestic) actors, on top of voter suppression—by online disinformation campaigns and simpler means (including manipulating the post office). The press must look past the campaign coverage that was and embrace its role as a safeguard of democracy.

To be a safeguard of democracy you cannot just react to what explodes into the news from now until January 20. You have to zoom forward in imagination, glimpse danger, and then work your way back to decisions made today and tomorrow. Threat modeling helps you move about in time.

If threat modeling is defensive, what is it that journalists should be trying to defend? 

To me this is one reason to do it. In order to deploy a threat modeling, or threat “ideation” team you have to know what you are trying to protect against. You have to own that responsibility. Which is a lot different from reporting whatever comes down the pike.

Earlier in the campagn, I wrote a post about this problem: You cannot keep from getting swept up in Trump’s agenda without a firm grasp on your own. But what should that agenda be? I think it has to be some kind of defense of American democracy and its central ritual: free and fair elections that engender trust in the outcome, and thereby make the peaceful transfer of power possible.

Earlier in the modern era, journalists covering election campaigns had been able to assume the existence of a stable system, and therefore focus on the contest itself. That doesn’t work for 2020. For it is by no means guaranteed that we will have a free and fair vote. Journalists have to plant their flag on the sacred ground of legitimate elections, and help defend it against all threats. Threat modeling can assist with that project. And that is my argument for its adoption by the big national news providers.

From emergency to active threat: We have again switched settings in our coverage of Donald Trump

When the presidency is turned against the voting system itself, a bitterly fought election becomes an enterprise threatening event.

16 Aug 2020 11:15 pm 31 Comments

On March 19 of this year we alerted readers to a shift in our coverage of Donald Trump’s presidency. We said then that we were moving to an “emergency” setting, which had these consequences for how we would treat Trump as a figure in the news.

    •  To prevent him from misinforming you about matters of life and death — the coronavirus — we will no longer carry his news conferences live.
    •  From all normal press relations with the Trump White House our reporters will withdraw. We will not attend briefings, we won’t gather around him as he departs in his helicopter, and we will not enter into “off the record” arrangements with White House sources.
    • In reporting on his public statements, in addition to asking, “does this fairly represent what he said?” we will ask: is what he said something we should be amplifying?
    • In general, we will shift the focus of our coverage from what Trump is saying to what his government is doing.
    • If we feel we have to report something he said that contains deceptions and falsehoods, we will use the “truth sandwich” method for reporting on false or dubious claims.

Today we are announcing further steps to respond to Trump’s escalations. Democrats, Republicans and voters who call themselves independent are all equally entitled to news coverage that properly gauges the urgency of the threat to American democracy represented by the President’s conduct of the presidency and methods for winning re-election.

If, as a member of the Democratic Party, some future president resorts to similar methods, we will take similar measures in response. For the principle on which we are acting is not reflexive opposition to Donald Trump, or some standing hostility to the Republican Party, but loyalty to democratic institutions, including the surpassing importance of free and fair elections.

When the powers of the Federal government are turned against the reliability of the vote itself, we have crossed an invisible boundary that separates a bitterly fought election from an enterprise-threatening event.

We know this sounds extreme. We wish it were not happening. We understand the risk we take by putting it so starkly: The presidency of Donald Trump is an active threat to American democracy. What do we mean by an active threat? Using the powers he won by election, the incumbent is trying to destroy public confidence in the results of the next election.

For example: “A Wall Street Journal review of Mr. Trump’s tweets dating back to 2012 found more than 110 instances of the president claiming widespread illegal voting, asserting an election or primary was rigged, or that voting by mail would allow for rampant fraud. More than half of those tweets were from this year, with the most of them concerning mail balloting.”

Upon his campaign against the expanded use of mail-in ballots, Trump has constructed a new threat: his sabotaging of the Post Office, a part of the government that is more necessary than ever to this year’s election because of the coronavirus pandemic. Here is how factcheck.org put it:

In an Aug. 13 interview, Trump admitted that he opposes a coronavirus pandemic relief bill crafted by the House Democrats because it includes funding the U.S. Postal Service and state election officials — funding that Trump said is needed to allow the Postal Service to handle an expected surge in mail-in voting.

What do we mean by an active threat? Look again at what is happening:

1. Using the public platform of the presidency, Donald Trump is trying to persuade Americans that their elections cannot be trusted, while standing for election as a candidate himself.

2. Using the formal powers of the presidency, he is trying to make this reckless claim come true by preventing the Post Office from performing reliably as the country turns to mail-in voting.

3. And he is doing this during an election in which a reliable mail service is an imperative because of a public heath crisis that his presidency has failed to contain.

Put 1, 2 and 3 together — examine the way they loop into one another — and it’s more than a civic emergency; it’s a national crisis. News coverage has to reflect that. We can’t just cover these events in bigger type. We have to take commensurate action.

And so we are announcing today these additional measures, beyond the “emergency” setting to which we shifted in March.

Almost all the resources we would have used to cover the party conventions will be redirected to a threat modeling team. This team will be responsible for locating the most likely breakdowns in the election system, and for advising the assignment desk on what deserves attention in our daily report. Everyone in the newsroom will know what our top priorities are in covering the campaign: the biggest threats. There will be no excuse for getting distracted by his tweets.

One of the products of that new team will be a “live” Threat Urgency Index, re-published daily at our site, and in a newsletter you can subscribe to. It will summarize and rank the biggest dangers to a free and fair election by merging assessments of how consequential, how likely, and how immediate each threat is. Right now, for example, the crippling of the postal service would be expected to rank highly on that list. But we don’t know what others will emerge between now and January 20.

One purpose of that index is to provide a counterweight to the confusing onslaught of America-in-crisis headlines, each of which feels like a “big story.” (Usually because it is.) This has been called “flood the zone with shit” by Trump confidant Steve Bannon. It shrinks the importance of any one warning signal by jamming the system with too much signal. When outrageous conduct produces no outrage because people have given up on trying to process it all, the zone flooders have “won.”

The Threat Urgency Index will try to combat this method by adding hierarchy, continuity, composure, clarity. Voters and news consumers will be able to hold us accountable for our coverage of what we publicly declare to be the biggest threats to a free and fair election.

As President Trump becomes a more active danger to American democracy, the rest of the political system has to decide what to do about it. This is one of the levers that journalists have. They are in a position to pressure office-holders and other government officials to go on the record with reactions to what Trump is doing. Pressing for answers can itself can have effects, as we saw last week in Montana.

In a normal campaign year, we assign people to “embed” with the candidates and follow them around as they hit the campaign trail. This time there is no campaign trail because of COVID-19. So we are shifting those resources to a different project: getting key office holders in both parties on the record through relentless questioning designed to hold them accountable for supporting, opposing, or interrogating what Trump is doing to undermine the vote.

In a normal election cycle, we put considerable effort into tracking “the race.” We do this in the belief that people want to know who’s winning and how they’re doing it. But we’re confident we can keep you informed with a simple daily summary of polling averages in key states and nationally. (Sites like 538.com and Real Clear Politics speciaize in this kind of information.)

With a deadly pandemic that has not been brought under control, a collapsing economy that is leaving families adrift, and a threat to its democratic institutions coming from the top, the United States is badly in need of people with political courage and practical vision who can inspire others.

And so the resources we would normally devote to state-of-the-race journalism will be redirected: to reporting about people who are providing exceptional leadership, or devising solutions, like the team from Yale and the NBA who this week came up with a coronavirus test that the FDA called “groundbreaking” in its efficiency.

We are well aware of the smirking contempt in which “positive” news is held by the most hard-boiled journalists. But anyone who has listened carefully to readers, viewers and listeners knows that news fatigue and a sense of hopelessness are now serious obstacles to the maintenance of an informed public.

If the United States is to emerge from this crisis with its democracy intact, we are going to need an alert and engaged citizenry. It is unrealistic to expect people to pay attention to an unending stream of crisis news, especially in a nation deliberately polarized by a president sowing chaos, selling hate. There has to be another key in which the country’s song can be played. Instead of who’s ahead in the horse race, we will be reporting on who’s ahead in the human race to get us out of this mess. We feel this is part of a rounded approach to crisis reporting.

Finally, if you want to contribute to our project of combating an active threat with careful journalism, you can become a member of our Red Alert team. You sign up, get verified (real names and addresses only) and then pick among different ways to get involved.

Our first crowdsourcing project will ask Red Alert members to help us test wait times for mail delivery in different parts of the country. Other projects will track the spread of misinformation through Facebook ads and messaging apps. You can sign up to monitor local TV news for us. Know someone we should be reporting on? (Someone who’s ahead in the human race to get us out of this mess?) Red Alert members can suggest stories, and help us diversify our reporting.

So here again are the steps we will be taking:

    • We will shift resources from convention coverage to a threat modeling team.
    • We will generate with that team a Threat Urgency Index, and reorganize around it. That will become a priority list for our day-to-day campaign coverage and for our investigative journalism.
    • The index will also be a published product. You can use it to hold us accountable.
    • We will shift resources from campaign trail coverage to reporting that gets office-holders and govenment officials in both parties on the record in their response to Trump’s active threat to American democracy.
    • We will further shift resources from “who’s ahead?” coverage to profile people with political courage and practical vision who can inspire others.
    • You can become a member of our Red Alert team and participate in crisis coverage by helping us gather information.

In our March note to readers we said this: “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.”

A few days ago, Stephen Collinson of CNN wrote something similar: “The most dangerous threat to the integrity of November’s election is coming from the man sworn to protect it, the President of the United States.”

That is an escalation. Trump is an active threat. This has consequences for our journalism. How can it not?

Don’t be surprised if you get another of these notes.

I need to clarify what kind of text this is. I am not a news organization, just a lone writer, and a journalism professor who is also a press critic. Since 2015, I have written a lot about the problem of covering Donald Trump. This post is an extension of that work. It is written in the voice of an editor’s note “announcing” a new policy. (A similar note was published in March, 2020. This is part two.) But I am not a news executive within a company of journalists, and I don’t want to give the impression that a news organization has made this kind of shift. That has yet to happen. So consider this my statement of what editors in the national media could and should be doing right now. Call it press criticism in a different key. That means you can’t sign up for the Red Alert team or subscribe to the Urgent Threat Index. Those are my ideas, awaiting pick up by the American press. —JR

Battleship Newspaper

Dean Baquet has a phrase for it: We are not the resistance. But if that were entirely true, James Bennet would still have a job.

8 Jun 2020 2:27 am 56 Comments

It was 2005 when Bob Sipchen, then an editor at the Los Angeles Times, said at a public forum about bloggers and journalists that he had always thought of the LA Times as “a heavy battleship under steam, regarding its critics as no more important than swimmers in the water throwing dead fish at it.”

I begin with this almost surreal image from 15 years ago — newspaper as giant battleship moving slowly out of harbor, critics so impotent they can only toss dead fish at it — because it shows how much has changed for the people formerly known as newspaper journalists, and especially for the editors who try to steer these organizations. They have suffered a massive loss in power as the media and political worlds have changed around them.

To whom has this power gone?

To the tech platforms that have a stronger hold on the audience for news; they do a better job and charge a fairer price for targeted advertising. To the internet itself, which continues to disassemble the newspaper “bundle” into specialist sites that satisfy niche audiences. To the faux-populists preaching resentment politics who have turned the “liberal media” into their always-on hate object, accelerating a loss of trust in the journalism that big city newspapers once practiced with impunity.

Power has been lost to Fox News. And to the trolls, including the one in the White House. And to sources who can find a following without playing ball with the press.

Battleship Newspaper was built for a world that has largely vanished. That means a lot of ideas have to come down that are still standing, like statues from an earlier era. This is my primary takeaway from the events at the New York Times last week that resulted in the resignation of editorial page editor James Bennet, who was thought to be one of the favorites to replace executive editor Dean Baquet when Baquet retires. (He is 63.)

Bennet left because his opinion section published “Send in the Troops” by Republican Senator Tom Cotton. It argued for intervention by the U.S. military in response to a nationwide protest movement that has taken up the Black Lives Matter cause. “Rioters have plunged many American cities into anarchy, recalling the widespread violence of the 1960s,” Cotton wrote. “One thing above all else will restore order to our streets: an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers.”

“Send in the Troops” went online Wednesday afternoon, June 3. It drew intense criticism that evening, including unprecedented resistance from Times journalists who took to Twitter to say, “Running this puts Black @nytimes staff in danger.” But James Bennet defended the decision to publish it. His logic: I don’t agree with it myself, but we have to be open to opposing points of view. (“Times Opinion owes it to our readers to show them counter-arguments, particularly those made by people in a position to set policy.”)

Publisher A.G. Sulzberger also supported the decision in a memo he later called a “placeholder” pending further review. By Thursday night June 4 that review had come to a startling conclusion: “A rushed editorial process led to the publication of an Op-Ed that did not meet our standards.”

On Friday Bennett apologized to his colleagues in a tense staff meeting. An editor’s note was then attached to Cotton’s Op Ed:

After publication, this essay met strong criticism from many readers (and many Times colleagues), prompting editors to review the piece and the editing process. Based on that review, we have concluded that the essay fell short of our standards and should not have been published… For example, the published piece presents as facts assertions about the role of “cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa”; in fact, those allegations have not been substantiated and have been widely questioned.

Two days later James Bennet resigned.

Where to begin in interpreting these events? Where I begin is with the opening paragraphs of Michelle Goldberg’s outstanding column in the Times on June 4.

Before Donald Trump became president, most newspaper op-ed pages sought to present a spectrum of politically significant opinion and argument, which they could largely do while walling off extremist propaganda and incitement. The Trump presidency has undermined that model, because there’s generally no way to defend the administration without being either bigoted or dishonest.

In normal times, editors pick and choose among critics and defenders of the people in power in order to create a lively mix of plausible views. That’s what opinion journalism is at daily newspapers… in normal times. But what if times change? The Trump presidency is demagogic and mostly fact-free. What if there is no way to defend the government without practicing bigotry or demagoguery— or just making stuff up? This is the kind of question editors at the New York Times have tried to avoid. They want to declare it impossible. And by trying to avoid it, by declaring it impossible, James Bennet lost his way, then lost his job.

Michelle Goldberg again:

Opinion sections, eager to maintain ideological diversity without publishing lies or stuff that belongs in Breitbart, have therefore filled up with anti-Trump conservatives. As a result, newspapers like this one have often been criticized for elevating an intellectual clique that has little mass base or political influence.

Tom Cotton’s “Send In the Troops” was supposed to be provocative. A joint product of Cotton’s staff and Times editors, it was designed to challenge core readers with a point of view they were likely to reject, but still ought to hear. That was the idea, anyway. Rather than construct a “both sides” world out of liberals and conservatives who share a common opposition to Trump, the Times went to a Trump backer and rising star who could provide more friction than, say, Charlie Sykes.

Cotton delivered on his end. The editors could not deliver on theirs. This we learn by returning to the web address where “Send In the Troops” was first published. With the editor’s note attached that page now says, absurdly: here we bring you an essay we should never have brought you. The New York Times was unable to sustain an act of publishing that was supposed to challenge its audience. Why? Because it lacks courage and can’t stand the heat?

That’s what Cotton, Trump and their allies would say. (And this episode is a huge propaganda win for them, a successful troll.) My answer is different. Battleship Newspaper lives on, intellectually, but the costs are mounting. Ideas born in that era have refused to die, and their continuation is proving more and more costly.

Debate club democracy — where people of good will share a common world of fact but disagree on what should be done — is an expensive illusion to maintain during a presidency that tries to undermine every independent and factual check there is on the executive’s power, not just a free press and its journalism, but the intelligence community, the diplomatic corps, the civil service, government scientists, inspectors general, and Congress in its oversight function.

Stories about the Trump government undermining all of these have appeared in the New York Times. They are ably reported. But at some point the light bulb has to flick on. This isn’t debate club. It’s an attack on the institutions of American democracy. Just as police work in our cities isn’t law enforcement constrained by the Constitution. It’s systemized suspicion of Black people, free of Constitutional constraint, and it frequently ends in violence.

The idea that the New York Times can never reach conclusions like this, and build them into its core values, because it has to remain neutral in order to be trusted as a news source by the very people who reject those values  — an idea I have called the view from nowhere — might have been a mistaken-but-survivable construct in the era of Battleship Newspaper. That is no longer the case.

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

Appearing on CNN the same day that James Bennet resigned, Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, who is African American and a Pulitzer Prize winner, made the connection explicit: “This adherence to even-handedness, both-sidism, the ‘view from nowhere’ doesn’t actually work in the political circumstances that we’re in.”

A few days earlier it was Wesley Lowery, formerly of the Washington Post, and now at 60 Minutes:

Lowery also told Ben Smith, media columnist of the Times, that the “core value needs to be the truth, not the perception of objectivity.”

Elite newsrooms badly need people like Wesley Lowery and Nikole Hannah-Jones. But these people have no need for detritus from the age of Fortress Journalism. They aren’t going to shut up. And they aren’t throwing dead fish. Their moral clarity is a rebuke and wake-up call to an older generation of journalists.

In November of 2019, Ben Smith, then at Buzzfeed, published a long article on the succession drama at the New York Times. Who will replace Dean Baquet? He also checked in with some of the arguments made in this post. Smith concludes his piece this way:

And what about the Times that Sulzberger and Baquet hear so much about from critics on Twitter, from grumbling subscribers, and from much of the young generation of their own newsroom? The one that stops trying to be perceived as fair by Trumpian critics whose beef is with journalism itself, and shakes off the old obsession with political neutrality?

Sorry. The phrase I heard to dismiss that again and again: “It’s just not in our DNA.”

Dean Baquet and his lieutenants have another phrase: We are not the resistance. But if that were entirely true, James Bennet would still have a job. The Times has evolved a lot since 2005. But now it has to update its pressthink; it has to evolve politically. That’s not in the newsroom’s DNA. But it is the call of the times.

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.