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 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 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.

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.

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.