Why don’t they just walk out?

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

12 Apr 2020 8:58 pm 40 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The All Media Daily Briefing: A short concept sketch

A vehicle for it already exists.

27 Mar 2020 7:54 pm 14 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will add to the FAQ as more questions arise.

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

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

19 Mar 2020 9:45 pm 157 Comments

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

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

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

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

This we cannot in good conscience do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

5 Feb 2020 11:04 am 7 Comments

This is part two. Part one is here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dean Baquet: “I do, actually.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Responsible parties at the New York Times explain to the country what went wrong with their journalism in 2016. Part One.

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

4 Feb 2020 4:23 pm 9 Comments

The New York Times has a franchise product in podcasting, The Daily with host Michael Barbaro. Last week it sent out to two million listeners a 50-minute interview with the executive editor of the Times, Dean Baquet. It was largely about the mistakes made by the Times and others, but especially the Times, in covering the election of 2016.

Since that is a subject I am known to care about, people on Twitter kindly alerted me to the appearance of this text.

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

This is not a transcript. Get the original podcast here. There is no substitute for listening to Baquet phrase and frame what the Times misunderstood, or describe his own background and class position. If you have ever wondered why the Times does what it does in covering politics, a careful listen to The Lessons of 2016 will be repaid.

The participants: Dean Baquet is the executive editor who was ultimately responsible for the Times coverage of the 2016 election. He is still responsible as the voting begins in 2020. Michael Barbaro, who has since become hugely valuable to the Times as host of The Daily, was then a political reporter and writer assigned to the 2016 campaign. He co-wrote the “Trump wins” story on Nov. 9. Mike put questions to Dean, but Mike already had some of the answers because he participated in the coverage.

He also went back and looked at stories the Times published at key moments. He asked newsroom colleagues for their recollections. Barbaro clearly paid attention to some of the most common and solid criticisms of the Times performance in 2016 and since. He was determined to put (at least some of) these points to Baquet. This was not an off-the-cuff discussion, but a sculpted event.

These, then, are the “responsible parties” mentioned in my headline. Mike Barbaro described the interview as an “exercise in explaining to the country what we learned.”

This PressThink post — in two parts — is my attempt to record for study not everything the participants said, but their body of thought on mistakes made and how to correct for them. In my opinion as a press blogger since 2003, the original interview is a key document in the study of American politics and media. That’s why I did this.

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

It’s not what I think, but how they explained themselves to what they repeatedly called… “the country.”

Part One is points 1-8.  Here is part Two.
1. By focusing on Clinton so early, we were annointing her the favorite?
2. “It feels a little pre-emptive to call someone a long shot the day they enter the race.
3. You have to tell people what to think sometimes.
4. “An assumption that Clinton was more or less inevitable.”
5. “He was an irresistable television candidate. He just was.”
6. We let party insiders guide us. We treated them as experts.
7. Do you think the Times newsroom reacted well to the discovery that its assumptions were flawed?
8. “Why is the country pushing ahead with these two very unusual candidates?”

1. By focusing on Clinton so early, we were annointing her the favorite?

Michael Barbaro: Coverage of the 2016 election has come to be criticized for three key assumptions. One: Hillary Clinton was inevitably going to be the Democratic nominee. Two: Trump would almost certainly not win. Three: Once he did win the nomination, Clinton would almost certainly defeat Trump. Today on The Daily, “a conversation with the executive editor of the New York Times, Dean Baquet, about the lessons of 2016.”

Welcome Dean. Your first time on The Daily.

Amy Chozik was put on the Hillaryland beat in July 2013, three years before the election and two years before she announced her candidacy. By focusing on Clinton so early, we were annointing her the favorite? And setting ourselves up to do skeptical stories about her before she even declared?

Dean Baquet: I do not think it was a mistake to put a reporter on the Hillaryland beat so early, no. But: “I would edit more carefully so that we did not give a sense of inevitability.”

Michael Barbaro: When Clinton officially announced her candidacy in April 2015, Amy Chozik wrote the story, which began this way: “Ending two years of speculation and coy denials, Hillary Rodham Clinton announced on Sunday that she would seek the presidency for a second time, immediately establishing herself as the likely 2016 Democratic nominee.”

Hearing that now, it jumps out at me. “We are writing the day she enters the race that she is the likely nominee. In retrospect, should we have written that a little differently?”

Dean Baquet: “Yes, of course…. If I had to edit that story all over again, I would have toned down the inevitability of it.”

2. “It feels a little pre-emptive to call someone a long shot the day they enter the race.”

Michael Barbaro: When Bernie Sanders announced in 2015, the Times story said: “Mr. Sanders’s bid is considered a long shot, but his unflinching commitment to stances popular with the left — such as opposing foreign military interventions and reining in big banks — could force Mrs. Clinton to address these issues more deeply.”

What do you think about this framing? “It feels a little pre-emptive to call someone a long shot the day they enter the race.” And by talking about him for the effect he might have on Hillary Clinton, aren’t we discounting his own candidacy? 

Dean Baquet: “I think that’s a good lede.” He was an unlikely candidate. Democratic socialist, from a small state. “I actually think it would have been sort of weird to not pull up and say: this guy’s a long shot.” We told our readers what he stood for. We described his key proposals, and the issues he cares about. The story is not too horse racey. I think we met our obligations with this one.

3. You have to tell people what to think sometimes.

Dean Baquet: “Journalism is by its very nature flawed.” (It’s also great and I love it.) One of its flaws is that “you do have to tell people what to think” sometimes— like when they’re just coming to a story because it’s new. 

Michael Barbaro: So what you’re saying is “contemporaneous understandings are by definition ephemeral.” Okay, but word choice and language are enduring. The way you characterize someone can stick. Couldn’t we have said: Clinton has advantages that might be hard to overcome, rather than characterizing Sanders as a long shot right out of the gate?

Dean Baquet. I go back to what I said: Journalism is imperfect. Political reporting especially because of the ups and downs of the horse race. Most Americans had not heard of Bernie Sanders. “I think we gotta tell the readers in the moment: how should we think about this? I think the reader picks up the New York Times and says, Bernie Sanders, I’ve never heard of him, how should I think about him? And I think this [story] captures that.”

4. “An assumption that Clinton was more or less inevitable.”

Michael Barbaro: “If we can agree that the media’s 2016 coverage reflected something of an assumption that Clinton was more or less inevitable, I wonder what you think the impact of that was… Part of what the Sanders campaign was so frustrated by, and angry about, is that they thought this coverage [had] real world consequences, that in presenting his candidacy, intentionally or not, as less valid, the mediia perpetuated those assumptions and helped to make them a reality. And if the New York Times thought that Sanders was a long shot, a voter might think that too. If they thought Clinton was the likely nominee, a voter might think that too.” 

Dean Baquet. “Part of my response to that would be we thought Jeb Bush was inevitable too and he lasted about 15 minutes… We just figured okay this going to be Bush vs. Clinton, this is going to be the old establishment… We probably should be very wary of language that seems to make somebody’s run inevitable. Because I think what we learned in 2016 is that none of the inevitable candidates were inevitable.”

5. “He was an irresistable television candidate. He just was.”

Michael Barbaro: I want to ask about our story from June, 2015 announcing that Trump will run:

Donald J. Trump, the garrulous real estate developer whose name has adorned apartment buildings, hotels, Trump-brand neckties and Trump-brand steaks, announced on Tuesday his entry into the 2016 presidential race, brandishing his wealth and fame as chief qualifications in an improbable quest for the Republican nomination…

It seems a remote prospect that Republicans, stung in 2012 by the caricature of their nominee, Mitt Romney, as a pampered and politically tone-deaf financier, would rebound by nominating a real estate magnate who has published books with titles such as, “Think Like a Billionaire” and “Midas Touch: Why Some Entrepreneurs Get Rich — And Why Most Don’t.”

But Mr. Trump, who has never held elective office, may not be so easily confined to the margins of the 2016 campaign. Thanks to his enormous media profile, he stands a good chance of qualifying for nationally televised debates, where his appetite for combat and skill at playing to the gallery could make him a powerfully disruptive presence.

Dean Baquet: “Look, nobody took Donald Trump seriously as a presidential candidate.” That story captures the moment. “The reality was Donald Trump was a long shot.”

Michael Barbaro But unlike Sanders, who was also called a long shot, the media seemed very interested in the long shot candidacy of Donald Trump, and gave it a lot of attention. Not in the belief that he could win, but from an interest in the “stunning unorthodoxy of the candidacy,” the way it broke all the known rules.

Dean Baquet: “He was an irresistable television candidate. He just was. He was funny, he was charming.” At the Times, “while we didn’t think he could win, that did not keep us from, if I can be frank, putting a lot of energy into digging into him as a candidate.” And to me that’s the test. We examined his real estate holdings. We broke the story that he barely paid taxes. We covered his mistreatment of women. We didn’t think he could win, but we still examined him critically.

In a way the Sanders and the Trump coverage is all of a piece. After the economic crisis, “more Americans than we understood at the time were rattled, and were looking for something dramatic,” which was reflected in the rise of Sanders and certainly in the rise of Trump.

6. We let party insiders guide us. We treated them as experts.

Michael Barbaro: How much do the faulty assumptions we had spring from our reliance on insiders and establishment sources? “I know as a political reporter how much I used to call figures within the party establishment, operatives, party leaders. And those become important sources in how you think about the party and the candidate.”

We know now that the Democratic establishment clearly favored Clinton over Sanders. They didn’t want him to win. The GOP establishment was horrified at the idea of Trump being their nominee. Looking back, seems we let party insiders guide us, and treated them as experts when they had their own agenda and weren’t reflecting voter sentiment. “Maybe the media allowed them to have outsized influence on the way we understood the situation.”

Dean Baquet: “I think that’s true. Coupled with, we weren’t out in the country enough.”

7. Do you think the Times newsroom reacted well to the discovery that its assumptions were flawed?

Michael Barbaro: Once the actual voting started, some of these assumptions started to give way. Sanders did much better than expected. Trump began sweeping the primaries. Do you think the newsroom reacted well to what was happening on the ground?

Dean Baquet: Yes and no. We turned up the volume on our scrutiny of Trump. It certainly felt at that moment that we started to treat both of them a little more seriously: Sanders and Trump. But I am also not pulling back from what I said: “We didn’t quite have a finger on the country…”

When Sanders started doing well it meant, “the country was a little more radically inclined than we thought.” But also that Hillary Clinton was not the perfect candidate and obvious winner that we thought she was. I do think we started to look harder at the chinks in her armor that Sanders was exposing.

Michael Barbaro: But again, that’s covering him by what he was doing to her, and framing her as the likely winner.

Dean Baquet: Yeah, but that framing was right. She was the front runner. She had all the money. She had the machine. She ultimately won the nomination. Won the popular vote.

8. “Why is the country pushing ahead with these two very unusual candidates?”

Michael Barbaro: “Is it fair to say we turned up the volume, to use your phrase, on covering the candidates” at this point in the campaign, but we did not turn up the volume on the country, the people who are voting?

Dean Baquet: Yes. I think that’s right. “That’s my biggest self-criticism.” We did cover voters and what was going on in the country, but we did not elevate those stories. We did not dig in and say, “why is the country pushing ahead with these two very, you know, unusual candidates: Donald Tump and Bernie Sanders? I don’t think we quite understood that.”

Michael Barbaro: Why did we not learn from the primary that Trump was not to be under-estimated and that he could in fact win?

Dean Baquet: “It sure looked like he was going to lose.” We bought into what the establishment was saying. We had the experts on the phone, McConnell included. We didn’t have a handle on the country. All these things we’re talking about today came together in the final months.

Tomorrow: Feb. 5. Part Two. Points 9-18.

The Christmas Eve Confessions of Chuck Todd

That disinformation was going to overtake Republican politics was discoverable years before he says he discovered it.

26 Dec 2019 1:40 am Comments Off on The Christmas Eve Confessions of Chuck Todd

‘Round midnight on Christmas eve, Rolling Stone posted a short interview with Chuck Todd, host of “the longest running show on television,” NBC’s Meet the Press.

Its contents were explosive, embarrassing, enraging, and just plain weird.

Three years after Kellyanne Conway introduced the doctrine of “alternative facts” on his own program, a light went on for Chuck Todd. Republican strategy, he now realized, was to make stuff up, spread it on social media, repeat it in your answers to journalists — even when you know it’s a lie with crumbs of truth mixed in — and then convert whatever controversy arises into go-get-em points with the base, while pocketing for the party a juicy dividend: additional mistrust of the news media to help insulate President Trump among loyalists when his increasingly brazen actions are reported as news. Todd repeatedly called himself naive for not recognizing the pattern, itself an astounding statement that cast doubt on his fitness for office as host of Meet the Press.

While the theme of the interview was waking up to the truth of Republican actions in the information warfare space, Todd went to sleep on the implications of what he revealed. It took him three years to understand a fact about American politics that was there on the surface, unconcealed since the day after inauguration. Many, many interpreters had described it for him during those lost years when he could not bring himself to believe it. (I am one.)

You cannot call that an oversight. It’s a strategic blindness that he superintended. By “strategic blindness” I mean what people mean when they quote Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

The ostensible purpose of the Rolling Stone interview was to promote a special edition of Meet the Press on December 29 that will focus on the weaponization of disinformation. But its effect is to bring MTP — and by extension similar shows — into epistemological crisis. With Todd’s confessions the mask has come off. It could have come off a long time ago, but the anchors, producers, guests, advertisers and to an unknown degree the remaining viewers colluded in an act of make believe that lurched along until now. One way to say it: They agreed to pretend that Conway’s threatening phrase, “alternative facts” was just hyberbole, the kind of inflammatory moment that makes for viral clips and partisan bickering. More silly than it was ominous.

In reality she had made a grave announcement. The nature of the Trump government would be propagandistic. And as Garry Kasparov observes for us, “The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.” This exhaustion, this annihilation were on their way to the Sunday shows, and to all interactions with journalists. That is what Kellyanne Conway was saying that day on Meet the Press. But the people who run the show chose not to believe it.

That’s malpractice. Chuck Todd called it naiveté in order to minimize the error. This we cannot allow.

Now let’s look more closely at his Christmas Eve confessions

* “The Ukraine story for me really crystallized it,” Todd said. By “it” he meant the damage that disinformation “was doing to our politics.” His show has been “at the forefront” of the problem, he said. “Whether we’d liked it or not, our platform has been used, or they’ve attempted to use our platform” to disseminate fabrications. (What has to change to prevent this went unremarked upon.)

* “We have a systemic issue here.” Which is that it’s easy to spread lies through social media. (And on Meet the Press!)

* Peter Wade, the Rolling Stone interviewer, asked about Sean Spicer’s inauguration crowd size rant. “Were you surprised that the president and other administration officials and their allies just kept it going?” Todd’s answer: “I guess I really believed they wouldn’t do this. Just so absurdly naive in hindsight… if people want to read my answer to your question, ‘Boy, that Chuck Todd was hopelessly naive.’ Yeah, it looks pretty naive.”

* Todd said he had been studying up on Trump’s methods. “He learned at the feet of a master of deception in Roy Cohn, who learned at the feet of the original master of deception of sort of the modern political era in Joe McCarthy.” (But McCarthy not only deceived the country. He exploited existing routines in journalism to do it, which is the theme of this book. “He was able to generate massive publicity that made him the center of anti-communism because he understood the press, its practices and its values; he knew what made news.” The press was implicated in McCarthy’s rise because he had gamed it by, for example, announcing wild new charges just before the wire services deadline. The accusations would be out there. The investigation of them took more time and made less news.)

* Todd said he recognized that “the right has an incentive structure to utter the misinformation” when they come on his show. And they welcome a confrontation with journalists over it because fighting with the press helps them with core supporters. (Again, this seemed to be new information to him.)

* He said he he was “stunned” that Ted Cruz came on MTP and did as Senator John Kennedy had done before: repeat the debunked claim that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election in a material way. “I was stunned because he’s a Russia hawk… I was genuinely shocked.” He revealed that the Cruz camp had asked to come on Meet the Press in order to spread a false story! Another shock. “And I really naively thought, maybe he wants to remind people.” Meaning: remind them that the Ukraine plot is Russian disinformation. “And it turned out not to be the case.”

* “One of the things we don’t fully appreciate in mainstream media,” he said, is that “it’s become fun to attack the press,” and “it doesn’t matter if we’re right or wrong.” The attacks keep coming. “Trump has turned this into sport.”

* As if discovering this for the first time, he marveled at pervasive bad faith on the right. He said that prominent people he knows in the Republican coalition who would normally trust skeptical accounts in the establishment press over Sean Hannity’s latest conspiracy theory will now parrot the conspiracy theory. “Wow, have we gone off the rails on the right side of the silo of the conversation that’s taking place.”

* He confessed to not understanding the motivations of Republican office holders who spread lies that are easily disproved. “I don’t get why so many people are comfortable uttering stuff that they may know will look ridiculous in three or four years.”

* He said that when the Trump era is concluded, “we’re going to have another reckoning” over how the press performed during it. About journalists in the run-up to the Iraq war, he said it’s not that they didn’t believe what they were reporting, but reported it anyway. Rather: “They were too trusting of their sources. They maybe were too naive.” (That word again…)

* Throughout the interview, Todd repeatedly changed the term “disinformation” in Rolling Stone’s questions to “misinformation” in his answers, as if United States Senators were just poorly informed and not actively and deliberately misleading the public. (Thus he continued to perform his naiveté while simultaneously calling himself out for it, a weird combo.)

* In a crucial error of omission, he said nothing about what he or his show would do to change course— other than broadcast his Dec. 29th special on the problem of misinformation.

* And to cap it off, he said of Republican operatives and office holders. “I think we all made the mistake of not following Toni Morrison’s advice, which is when people tell you who they are, believe them.” (Fact check: It was Maya Angelou who said this, not Toni Morrison.)

What to make of this performance?

It’s not naive of him. It’s malpractice. Chuck Todd’s entire brand is based on the claim that he understands politics. Since 2007 he has been NBC’s political director, which means he has influence over all coverage. He is literally the in-house expert on the subject. You don’t get to claim you are naive about politics when you have these kinds of positions. It would be like a chief risk officer saying, “I didn’t understand the gamble we were taking.” Well, that’s your job.

It’s not that he was naive. He did not care to listen. I am going to use my own writing to show what I mean, but there are many others who could be quoted in similar fashion. On January 22, 2017, two days after Trump was inaugurated, I wrote about Sean Spicer’s crowd size spectacular. There are several audiences for it, I said. One of course was the press. For them the message was…

We are not bound by what you call facts. We have our own, and we will proceed to put them out regardless of what the evidence says. It’s not a problem for us if you stagger from the room in disbelief. We’re not trying to “win the news cycle,” or win you over. We’re trying to demonstrate independence from and power over you people. This room is not just for briefings, announcements and Q & A. It’s also a theater of resentment in which you play a crucial part. Our constituency hates your guts; this is the place where we commune with them around that fact. See you tomorrow, guys!

Another message went to core supporters:

To the core Trump constituency — and an audience primed for this over years of acrid ‘liberal media’ critique — two things were said. “We’re going to rough these people up.” (Because we know how long you have waited for that.) But also, and in return, you have to accept our “alternative facts” even if your own eyes tell you otherwise. This too is a stark message. The epistemological “price” for being a solider in Trump’s army is high. You have to swallow, repeat and defend things that simply don’t check out.

That disinformation was going to overtake Republican politics was discoverable years before Chuck Todd discovered it. That attacks on the press were baked into Trump’s political style was knowable from 2015 on.

It’s not naiveté. It’s a willful blindness to what the Republican Party had become. Four years before Trump was elected, Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein wrote, “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. 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.” Chuck Todd as NBC’s political director, and Meet the Press as its premiere politics show could have taken seriously what these exemplary members of the Washington establishment were saying back in 2012. They chose not to, but not because of their naiveté. They thought they knew better than Mann and Ornstein. And they were probably afraid of sounding too extreme themselves.

He’s not naive. He’s an insider who thought his read was better. You can smell on his Christmas eve confessions the regrets of the insider who thought he knew these people well because he broke bread with them, rang them up for off-the-record conversations, and enjoyed the kind of green room bonhomie that says, “sure, we have different roles, but we’re all part of the same industry called Washington.” He thought he could predict what a Ted Cruz would do because he has behind-the-scenes knowledge. Naiveté is not a good word for that. He thought himself savvier than the rest of us. I was not at all shocked that Senator Cruz took the party line on Ukraine interfering in 2016. Were you? Todd was because he had miseducated himself.

It’s not naive. It’s a lack of imagination, a failure of insight. The practices common to political journalism have premises to them. When the premises shatter, the practices make less sense. This has been the central problem of covering the Trump movement since 2015. (I wrote about it here.) A simple example is fact-checking. One of its premises is that candidates and office-holders can be shamed into staying roughly within factual bounds. A president who has no sense of shame “breaks” the practice by busting the premise. Doesn’t mean you stop fact-checking. But you do have to alter your expectations, and start thinking about alternatives.

A key premise for Meet the Press is symmetry between the two major political parties. The whole show is built on that. But in the information sphere — the subject of Chuck Todd’s confessions — asymmetry has taken command. The right wing ecosystem for news does not operate like the rest of the country’s news system. And increasingly conservative politics is getting sucked into conservative media. It makes more sense to see Fox News and the Trump White House as two parts of the same organism. As these trends grind on they put stress on Meet the Press practices. But it takes imagination to see how the show might be affected— or changed. In place of that we have Chuck Todd pleading naiveté.

So what will they do now? My answer: they have no earthly idea. This is what I mean by an epistemological crisis. Chuck Todd has essentially said that on the right there is an incentive structure that compels Republican office holders to use their time on Meet the Press for the spread of disinformation. So do you keep inviting them on air to do just that? If so, then you break faith with the audience and create a massive problem in real time fact-checking. If not, then you just broke the show in half.

There is simply nothing in the playbook at Meet the Press that tells the producers what to do in this situation. As I have tried to show, they didn’t arrive here through acts of naiveté, but by willful blindness, malpractice among the experts in charge, an insider’s mentality, a listening breakdown, a failure of imagination, and sheer disbelief that the world could have changed so much upon people paid so well to understand it.