A current list of my top problems in pressthink

Updated from time to time. Ranked by urgency.

30 Sep 2018 4:30 pm 11 Comments

1. Across Europe and the United States there moves a right wing populist wave that includes in its political style the rejection of the mainstream press as corrupt, elitist and part of the system that is keeping the good people, the pure people — the Volk — down. Illiberal democracy is on the rise. It has no use for real journalism, except as hate object. (Link.)

2. For most news publishers the advertising model continues to decline. Google, Facebook and ad tech companies dominate the digital ad market. The VC route does not seem promising. (“Pivot to video” is a good title for that feeling.) The chances of generating more state support — on the public service media model of the BBC, CBC or ZDF — are zero within the current climate. That leaves subscription, crowd-funding and friendly billionaires. Each is shaky in a different way. The business model for serious journalism remains unclear and unstable. That’s a problem.

3. In the United States the President is leading a hate movement against journalism, and with his core supporters it is succeeding. They reject the product on principle. Their leading source of information about Trump is Trump, which means an authoritarian news system is for them up and running. Before journalists log on in the morning, one third of their potential public is gone. No one knows what to do about it.

4. Marty Baron’s famous phrase, “We’re not at war, we’re at work” captures the consensus in American newsrooms about how to respond to Trump’s attacks. As I wrote here, “Our top journalists are correct that if they become the political opposition to Trump, they will lose. And yet, they have to go to war against a political style in which power gets to write its own story.” How to put that distinction into practice is not clear. That’s a problem. So is thinking you’re not at war, when in some ways you are.

5. Leading journalists in the US seem stuck on what they regard as a supremely telling fact: the same man who is leading the national hate movement against their profession cares desperately about his portrayal in the news media, consumes news with a vengeance, loves hanging out and sparring with reporters, and admits that he still holds tender feelings for the New York Times, which he nonetheless attacks as corrupt and failing. Struck uncommonly hard by this irony, they underrate the damage his campaign is doing. (Link.)

6. In local news the wreckage continues, with newspaper staffs reduced by 3X or 4X from their highs. TV newsrooms, public broadcasting and digital start-ups cannot make up the difference. The eye on power that local journalists once provided, fitfully and imperfectly, is today withering away, with no clear answer in sight. The slow motion collapse of the local newspaper is especially painful because that is where a relationship with trusted news providers typically begins.

7. The lack of diversity in American newsrooms and the loss of trust in the American news media are factors clearly related to one another, but there is no agreement on how to move forward, or even on which diverse perspectives are most needed. On top of that, most of the newsrooms from which genuine diversity is missing are officially governed by the View from Nowhere, an ideology that stands in subtle contradiction to the very premise that diverse perspectives are required to produce a fair and compelling portrait. No one wants to deal with that mess.

8. I refer now to a cultural condition and media climate involving bad actors and false claims that is so confusing and seemingly hopeless to most of us that terms like “death of truth” and “post-fact” are routinely used by educated people as they try to name and frame what stands out about this. Journalism’s response has been more fact-checking and the calling out of untruths, but it’s clear by now that fact-checking is not having the desired effect. So what lies beyond fact-checking? We do not know.

9. For 50 years or more, university-based journalism schools in the United States have connected with the news industry and the journalism profession using a simple formula that worked for everyone. “Send us people we can plug into our production routine tomorrow.” This was the agreement these schools had with students and their future employers in American newsrooms. But it isn’t good enough anymore. For one thing, the production routine itself has to be re-engineered, and the J-schools of America aren’t set up for that. Finding a business model that can sustain a quality newsroom is the industry’s biggest problem, but J-schools aren’t designed for that, either. There’s plenty of change, energy and optimism in journalism education, but it’s not clear what replaces the prior consensus: “Send us people we can plug into our production routine tomorrow.”

 

It’s time for the press to suspend normal relations with the Trump presidency

That is my recommendation.

25 Jun 2018 2:18 pm Comments Off on It’s time for the press to suspend normal relations with the Trump presidency

It sometimes happens in diplomacy that one country has to say to another: “This is extreme. We cannot accept this. You have gone too far.” And so it suspends diplomatic relations.

In 2012 the government of Canada announced that it would suspend diplomatic relations with Iran. “Canada views the government of Iran as the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world today,” said the foreign minister.

Journalists charged with covering him should suspend normal relations with the presidency of Donald Trump, which is the most significant threat to an informed public in the United States today.

That is my recommendation.

I began making this point on the third day of his presidency, January 22, 2017, when I said the press should send interns to the White House briefing room. Normal practice would not be able to cope with the political style of Donald Trump, which incorporates a hate movement against journalists.

“Send the interns” means our major news organizations don’t have to cooperate with this. They don’t have to lend talent or prestige to it. They don’t have to be props. They need not televise the spectacle live (CNN didn’t carry Spicer’s rant) and they don’t have to send their top people. They can “switch” systems: from inside-out, where access to the White House starts the story engines, to outside-in, where the action begins on the rim, in the agencies, around the committees, with the people who are supposed to obey Trump but have doubts… The press has to become less predictable. It has to stop functioning as a hate object. This means giving something up.

So that’s one way to suspend normal relations: send the interns. On MSNBC June 12, Rachel Maddow described another. She said that frequent viewers of her show may have noticed a pattern:

I don’t go out of my way to play tape of the president speaking. Nor do I tend to spend too much time parsing whatever the latest quote is from him. That is not out of any animus on my part, it’s just that the president very frequently says things that aren’t true. He admits that he says things that aren’t true. He calls it, you know, hyperbole, but he lies. And I feel like on this show I’d like you to be able to trust me to give you true information. Because I generally feel like I can’t trust what purports to be information from this president, I just try to do the news without words from him, most of the time.

Normally, the president is quoted more than any other public figure, and clips of him speaking are ubiquitous in television news. Maddow told her viewers that she had suspended this practice because, more likely than not, the president’s words would only misinform them. Every president needs to be fact-checked. This one doesn’t care if what he says is true. That’s extreme, and it calls for a response.

The opposing proposition was stated well by Chris Wallace, of Fox News:

“Anything that a president would say — even if it was libelous or scandalous — it’s the president talking, and I think you report it,” said Chris Wallace, the “Fox News Sunday” host who moderated this year’s third presidential debate. “Under any definition, it’s news, whether it’s sensible or not, factual or not, productive or not.”

A middle-ground would be this: what the president says is neither automatically newsworthy nor automatically suspect. Rather, it has to be judged in context. Which sounds super-reasonable. Who can be against “context” and case-by-case judgment? But here’s the context: bad actor, cannot be given the benefit of the doubt, no matter what the case is.

“How,” asked Chuck Todd on Meet the Press June 17, “can we believe a president who routinely says things that are provably false?” Instead of treating these questions as unsolvable riddles, Chuck Todd could… suspend normal relations. For Meet the Press, that might mean: don’t accept as guests the people the White House sends out as defenders of the provably false (especially Kellyanne Conway.) If Trump himself is willing to sit down with Chuck Todd, fine. Take him on over his many falsehoods. But no surrogates or fog machines unless they are willing to correct the president.

The American press corps is not like the government of Canada, which can speak with a single voice. Thousands of people working for hundreds of newsrooms cannot change their practices in synch with one another. But they can all decide, “This is extreme. We cannot accept this. This has gone too far.” And then make a break with normal practice.

For the Washington Post it might be declining to participate in so-called background briefings. For NPR, it might be refusing to report false claims by the President unless they are served as a “truth sandwich,” a suggestion recently made by Brian Stelter and Margaret Sullivan, interpreting the work of George Lakoff. For CNN, never going live to a Trump event — on the grounds that you will inevitably broadcast falsehoods if you do — would be a good start.

Suspend normal relations. It’s up to the journalists who cover Trump to decide how they will do it. The important thing is that they do it. And then announce what they did, to get others thinking about their own steps. In this way the sovereign state of journalism can take action, and show, as the Canadian prime minister said recently, that it will “not be pushed around.”

Why does CNN continue to have Kellyanne Conway on?

There was an exchange on "Reliable Sources" today that stands as a reveal.

20 May 2018 6:21 pm 28 Comments

I want to capture for you a little moment today on the Sunday shows.

It came during Brian Stelter’s lengthy and of course contentious interview with Kellyanne Conway on CNN’s Reliable Sources. (I watch so you don’t have to…) Something happened during the struggle that I believe sheds light on a question that a great many people have about such interviews. Why do the networks keep doing it?

I tried to answer that in January of 2017. Everything I wrote then still appplies, including “they’re never going to stop with @KellyannePolls. Never! She’ll be on TV for as long as she works for Trump.”

Today Stelter had a starter question for Conway: If special counsel Robert Mueller has yet to make any report, how does President Trump know that Mueller has found no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia? “Who’s telling him that?” Good question! A full 20 minutes later — with no commercial break — he had gotten no answer, despite coming back to the same question at least five times (I counted.)

Which is exactly why people continue to ask: why do you have Kellyanne Conway on? On Sunday morning, before his show aired, Stelter asked his followers on Twitter:

1,500 people answered. Typical replies:

So that happened. Here’s something that happened on the show. Read carefully, or you might miss it.

Conway makes an offhand reference to “people on your side of the aisle…” The implication: Stelter is a Democratic party operative.

Stelter: I am not on any side of the aisle.

Conway: Oh yeah? Who did you vote for?

Stelter: I didn’t vote for president. I left that line on the ballot blank. Anyway, it’s not appropriate for you to ask me that.

Conway: Oh, so it’s appropriate for you to ask me things?

Stelter: “We asked you to come on the program because you’re representative of the President… that’s the point of the interview!”

Conway. Well, the President thinks there’s no collusion. And even you guys seem to be losing faith in that narrative. You now have Michael Avenatti on all the time. The Democrats promised evidence of collusion. Where is it? “You confused America and you wasted time talking about that,” instead of trade deals, national security, a prosperous economy. These things matter to people. 

Stelter: They do matter.

Conway: “Look, if you think your job is to get the president and not get the story, you ought to just own it. Just say it. Because I know your viewers expect that now. Look at their comments all the time, ‘Don’t have Trump people on.’ They expect you to be reflexively, invectively anti-Trump, and that’s problematic.”

Stelter: “I’m glad you’re here! The goal is not to get the president, the goal is to get the truth. There’s a lot of people lying…”

There! Did you catch it? Kellyanne Conway knows that a whole lot of Stelter’s viewers don’t understand why he and the rest of CNN (Jake Tapper, Dana Bash, Chris Cuomo) continue to fence with her when the informational results are so thin. She brings up their complaints, but inflates and distorts them to make the critics sound as unreasonable as possible. (“Don’t have Trump people on.”)

Instead of siding with his puzzled viewers (“Well, Kellyanne, maybe they’re just frustrated, like I am, that I cannot get an answer to my original question, after six tries…”) Stelter places puzzled viewers in opposition to his own approach. That’s the moment I wanted to freeze for you. Some people may think there’s no point in listening to you, Kellyanne, but I’m not like that. I’m glad you’re here! (Go to 6:00 in this clip to see it yourself.)

Why does CNN continue to have Kellyanne Conway on its shows? Stephen Colbert asked Tapper that directly

Colbert asked. “Kellyanne Conway — why have her on TV? She is a collection of deceptions with a blonde wig stapled on top.” Tapper didn’t disagree, exactly, but he said he thinks “sometimes it’s worth it to have people on so you can challenge the very notion of the facts that are being disregarded and the lies that are being told.”

So that’s one answer: We may know with a high degree of probability that facts will be disregarded and lies will be told, but the interview is a chance for us to challenge that. From Reliable Sources today came a different answer. Interviewing Kellyanne Conway places us in opposition to our core audience— which is exactly why we do it, Kellyanne. To prove to the world how open we are to your voice, even when “they” are not. And we’re thrilled to have you here.

“I’m happy to be here!” she exclaimed, smiling.

When the President’s own lawyer pictures him a grifter

We should resist the term "strategy" for Trump's egoistic maneuvering. There is none. But there may be a new fact pattern.

6 May 2018 5:41 pm 14 Comments

By Jay Rosen

White House reporter Jonathan Karl of ABC News gave a scary report Sunday about the recent round of interviews by the President’s new lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. On ABC’s “This Week,” Karl said:

“I think what you are seeing now is a new war on Robert Mueller, a new war on the investigation. Mueller and the investigation are now central to the Trump midterm election strategy and his re-election strategy. They want to vilify, they want to delay this investigation. They want to draw it out. You will see more interviews like this. They actually want this issue to be front and center. Because, George, they believe that the biggest motivator for the Trump base in the midterm elections will be fear of impeachment.”

Speaking on CNN’s Reliable Sources, Carl Bernstein said of Guiliani:

“What he has done, unlike any of the president’s surrogates, is to picture the President of the United States as almost a grifter, with no interest in anything but conning the American people, saying as he said today, ‘Oh yeah, there might be more Stormy Daniels,’ and ‘there might be more hush payments.’ It’s extraordinary what Giuliani is saying and the picture he — not the press — is presenting.”

On Jake Tapper’s “State of the Union,” Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff said:

“I have to say I am a little taken back by this new lawyer Giuliani’s strategy. His legal defense for the President seems to be, ‘You can’t believe the President of the United Stated, that’s our defense. So when he says things you just gotta discount them’… Other things that Giuliani said in his maiden voyage as the Presidents new lawyer were deeply hurtful to the President’s case.”

I was confused by this myself until I heard Jon Karl’s interpretation this morning. By normal criteria, Giuliani’s recent television appearances have been at best puzzling and at worst disasters for his client. “Normal criteria” means common sense propositions like these…

  • the President doesn’t want to be seen as a liar in front of the whole world;
  • the President doesn’t want to do anything that would put him at greater legal risk;
  • the President doesn’t want to prolong an investigation that is time-consuming and emotionally-draining;
  • the President doesn’t want to strengthen the case for his own impeachment, the ultimate humiliation for any commander-in-chief.

What if none of these any longer apply? We need to be alert to the possibilities Jon Karl outlined. I think we should resist the term “strategy” for Trump’s egoistic maneuvering. There is no strategy. But there may be a new fact pattern, the outcome of his lawyers attempting to manage their client’s malignant narcissism by accepting its most bizarre constraint: any managing will have to be done through semi-regular television appearances that explode the news cycle. Nothing else will the big boss trust.

Plug in those factors and the crazy machine spits out widgets like these…

  • prolong the special counsel’s investigation as long as possible so as not to relinquish a potent source of resentment;
  • add to the chances that impeachable offenses will be found— by, for example, making the Comey firing sound sketchier and sketchier;
  • instead of building a case for the President’s basic innocence, confuse the case by constantly shifting your explanations and by spicing them up with trace elements of guilt;
  • instead of steering away from sources of legal danger, like the Stormy Daniels case and lawyer Michael Avenatti, sail right into them so as to thicken the atmosphere of crisis and guarantee non-stop news coverage;
  • instead of minimizing evidence that the President lies in his public statements, dangle additional proof and let the press pounce on it;
  • instead of projecting lawyerly competence and command of the case, let Giuliani admit that he still doesn’t know the facts, even though he’s on TV arguing about them.
  • instead of denying that worse news is yet to come, flip it around: it may well be that more damaging stuff about the president will come out… so stay tuned!
  • raise the psychological price that core supporters would have to pay for abandoning Trump by making them swallow bigger and more blatant falsehoods, and then hint around that this is indeed what you have done.

As with so many other moments since that escalator ride, we’re in uncharted territory for the American presidency, where crashing the ship of state is seen as clever programming, and willing the impeachment of the President is revealed as an Oval Office plan.

I will be studying German pressthink in Berlin this summer.

What are the common sense ideas about the role of the press that almost all German journalists take for granted?

4 May 2018 5:53 pm 11 Comments

In 27 days I fly to Berlin to spend June, July and August as a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy. I have never lived in a European city, so this will be a new experience for me.

I am posting here a description of my project, so that people with suggestions can share them, either by using the comment section, by talking to me on Twitter, or by sending me an email, hopefully with Berlin! in the subject line. Here’s my project:

I want to answer this question: What is German pressthink and how is it changing? In order to show what I mean, I need to explain that term, “pressthink,” which is my invention. It is also the name of my blog. I define pressthink as the common sense of the journalism profession, the ideas that journalists share in common about their work, the meaning and importance of that work, and the way it should be done— or should never be done. You could also say that pressthink is the assumptions journalists make about what “good” journalism is, and how to do good for society through journalism. Sometimes these are less-than conscious.

Up to now my writing has been primarily about American journalism and its pressthink. So, for example, I have analyzed “he said, she said journalism,” and what I call the View from Nowhere because these are practices that reveal how American journalists think. In the summer of 2017 I wrote about how asymmetry in the two-party political system is almost too much for American pressthink, which can’t handle it.

During my stay at the Bosch Academy in the summer of 2018 I want to ask German journalists, editors, publishers, scholars, activists, and politicians: what is German pressthink? What makes it distinct? How is it different from American pressthink? What are the common sense ideas about the role of the press that almost all German journalists understand and take for granted? Where did those ideas come from? What pressures are they under? What is uniquely German in them? A lot of American pressthink has been broken by Trump. It doesn’t work very well any more. Has anything like that happened in Germany? Is German pressthink evolving? Is there consensus among German journalists about what “good” journalism is, and how to do good for society through journalism? Or is that breaking apart?

I will investigate these questions by talking to people and trying to make sense of their answers.

Update August 31. I have now returned from Germany. My first attempt to write about what I learned was published in German translation by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), one of the big national newspapers in Germany. Here it is in English. (Reactions from German editors here, in German.)

These are the 53 people I interviewed in and around the German press. The list includes editors and reporters, freelancers and trainees, product managers and start-up founders, journalism professors and scholars of German politics, newspaper publishers, heads of public broadcasting companies, directors of journalism non-profits, journalism bloggers, activists trying to change the press in Germany— and the Danish ambassador, who is a keen student of the German media and a voracious consumer of it. The complete list:

Ferda Ataman, board chair, New German Media Makers (Neue Deutsche Medienmacher)

Günter Bartsch, director,  German Association of Investigative Journalists (Netzwerk Recherche)

Markus Beckedahl, founder of Netzpolitik.org

Michael Brüggemann, chair of Communication Studies, University of Hamburg

Yermi Brenner, freelance journalist, Berlin

Kai Diekmann, former editor of Bild

Thorsten Dörting, managing editor, Spiegel Online

Daniel Drepper, editor-in-chief, Buzzfeed Germany

Patricia Dreyer, news editor, Spiegel Online

Michael Ebert, editor in chief, SZ magazine

Sebastian Esser, founder and publisher, Kraut Reporter

Alexander Fanta, writer and reporter, Netzpolitik.org

Alina Fichter, member of chief editorial staff at Zeit Online

Jannis Frech, researcher, Journalism and Communication Science, University of Hamburg

Cornelius Frey, co-founder, Opinary.com

Michael Hoffman, Habermas scholar, Florida Atlantic University

Andreas Kluth, editor-in-chief, Handelsblatt Global

Tanit Koch, former editor of Bild

Kai Kupferschmidt, Berlin-based correspondent, Science magazine

Sina Laubenstein, project director, New German Media Makers

Anette Leiterer, chief editor ZAPP at Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR)

Mirco Liefke, PhD candidate, Goethe University Frankfurt am Main, Institute of Sociology

Sasha Lobo, author and Spiegel columnist

Boris Lochthofen, director of MDR’s Landesfunkhaus Thuringia

Uli Machold, director of product and managing editor of Upday news app

Georg Mascolo, head of investigative unit for NDR, SZ & WDR

Yascha Mounk, author and expert on the rise of populism

Stefan Niggemeier, media critic and blogger

Stefan Ottlitz (formerly Plöchinger) head of product, Der Spiegel

Jan-Eric Peters, deputy CEO and editor-in-chief of Upday news app

Friis Arne Peterson, Danish ambassador to Germany

Barbara Pfetsch, professor, Institute for Media and Communication Studies, Free University of Berlin

Dieter Pienkny, member of the programming council, Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg (RBB)

Bernhard Pörksen, professor, Institute for Media Studies, University of Tübingen

Sissi Pitzer, media reporter for br.de’s Das Medienmagazin

Matthias Revers, lecturer, School of Media and Communication, University of Leeds

Anna Sauerbrey, head of opinion, Tagesspiegel

Caroline Schmidt, reporter, ZAPP program at Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR)

Thomas Schnedler, project head for nonprofit journalism, German Association of Investigative Journalists

David Schraven, publisher, Correctiv

Sandro Schroeder, journalist trainee, Deutschlandfunk Kultur

Christoph Schwennicke, editor in chief, Cicero magazine

Wolf Siegert, Director, IRIS® Media

Johanna Sprondel, digital strategist, Berlin

Christian Stöcker, Faculty of Design, Media and Information, HAW Hamburg

Andree Thorwarth, head of editorial team at the political talk show, “Anne Will”

Sebastian Turner, publisher, Tagesspiegel

Heidi Tworek, historian of modern Germany and Europe, University of British Columbia

Vivian Upmann, manager for the board, New German Media Makers

Konstantina Vassiliou-Enz, director, New German Media Makers

Sonja Volkmann-Schluck, German Press Council (Presserat)

Stephanie Walter, senior research associate, Institute of Journalism and Communication Studies, University of Hamburg

Andreas Wolfers, director, Henri-Nannen School of Journalism (journalistenschule.de)

Anita Zielina, former deputy editor-in-chief and online director, Stern

 

What savvy journalists say when they are minimizing Trump’s hate movement against journalists

To the uninitiated it may look like a fight. Actually, it's a dance, they tell us.

29 Apr 2018 12:35 pm 38 Comments

For two years I have been tracking a speech pattern among American journalists, in which they try to explain to us — and perhaps to themselves — why Donald Trump’s campaign to discredit them is not what it seems, why it’s no big deal.

In this post, I am going to show you the pattern (mostly) and comment on it (a little bit.) It started during the 2016 campaign…

1. Jack Shafer, media writer for Politico, June 6, 2016

Donald Trump’s Phony War on the Press.

Some journalists—dare I say it?—are overreacting to Trump’s bile and bluster. It’s not that his outbursts are merely for show. He obviously gets steamed at direct, prodding questions that he can’t evade. But his eagerness to insult the press—it was by his choice that the press-damning press conference went on for 40-minutes—perversely signals his passion for the labors of the fourth estate. The Trump vs. the press story is like a rom-com sit-com, only it airs on the news channels!

Truth is, he loves us! He lives and dies by what we say about him.

The anthropologist in me views the Trump-press contretemps as the endemic and persistent warfare associated with the stylized combat sometimes observed between tribes in the Papua New Guinea Highlands: The two sides pair off, shouting insults and derision at one another, claiming the other side started it. Much noise and many insults are traded, grudges are captured and preserved. Skirmishes break out here and there, followed by temporary truces until the cycle begins anew. A lot of people pay attention. Only rarely does anybody die.

To the uninitiated it may look like a fight. Actually, it’s a dance.

2. Matthew Yglesias, senior correspondent, Vox.com, Apr. 5, 2017

Though during the campaign it was suggested at times, including by Trump, that he would seek to enact actual, specific legal and policy changes that would be bad for the media, Trump has never gone there as president. He enjoys the political pretense of a war with the press, and much of the press has used the pretense of conflict with the Trump administration as a marketing gimmick. But the whole conflict has a kayfabe aspect to it, in which the appearance of a feud is entertaining for the audience and mutually beneficial to the practitioners.

It appears as one thing. To the savvy observer it’s really another.

3. Glenn Thrush of the New York Times on CNN, April 23, 2017.

On CNN’s Reliable Sources, Thrush said: “I never bought the shtick in the first place, that he hated the media.” The “slap and tickle” approach, as Thrush called it, has been standard operating procedure for Trump from the days when they were all coming up together in the New York tabloids: Maggie Haberman, Glenn Thrush, and Donald Trump.

The experienced pros see through the bluster and show a sense of humor about it.

4. Ben Schreckinger and Hadas Gold of Politico April 23, 2017.

Trump’s Fake War on the Fake News. “The president puts on a big show of assaulting his ‘opposition’ in the news media. But inside the White House, it’s a different story.”

On the campaign trail, Trump called the press “dishonest” and “scum.” He defended Russian strongman Vladimir Putin against charges of murdering journalists and vowed to somehow “open up our libel laws” to weaken the First Amendment. Since taking office, he has dismissed unfavorable coverage as “fake news” and described the mainstream media as “the enemy of the American people…” Not since Richard Nixon has an American president been so hostile to the press— and Nixon largely limited his rants against the media to private venting with his aides.

But behind that theatrical assault, the Trump White House has turned into a kind of playground for the press… The great secret of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is that Trump’s war on the media is a phony one, a reality show that keeps his supporters fired up and distracted while he woos the constituency that really matters to him: journalists.

It’s a “playground” because starting with the man at the top they all care desperately about how they are depicted in the news media, because the different factions are always knifing each other by going to the press, because the leaking is like nothing anyone has seen before, and because they’re incompetent at almost everything they try to do.

5. Peter Baker, White House correspondent for the New York Times in Politico, Nov. 29, 2017.

“Every president to a greater or lesser degree is unhappy with the coverage, and has an adversarial relationship of sorts with the people who cover him every day, so that goes with the territory. This one happens to be more vocal about it,” Baker said. “Where I think we as reporters ought to be concerned is if that kind of sentiment is translated into tangible actions that restrict our ability to do our jobs.”

Trump is not so different from other presidents. Just louder.

6. Matt Yglesias, Vox.com, January 9, 2018.

Donald Trump’s phony war with the press, explained “A genuine — but mutually beneficial — antagonism.”

The marketing pitches [“Democracy dies in darkness”] underscore that in concrete dollars-and-cents terms, Trump has been very good to the mainstream news media — driving clicks, ratings, and subscriptions at a time when the broader economics of the industry have grown difficult, due to Facebook and Google hoovering up a rising share of advertising revenue… What matters to Trump isn’t any actual crushing of the media, but simply driving the narrative in his core followers’ heads that the media is at war with him. With that pretense in place, critical coverage and unflattering facts can be dismissed even as Trump selectively courts the press to inject his own preferred ideas into the mainstream.

The war is phony because both “combatants” get something from it.

7. Peter Baker, Feb. 21, 2018.

New York Times reporter on Trump’s media attacks: ‘It’s just theater’

“The people who say this has a broad impact on society and the credibility of the media and so forth and so on, I get their point,” said New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker at a Tuesday night event hosted by the White House Correspondents’ Association. “I don’t dispute that. In terms of my job, worried about working as a reporter in the White House, it doesn’t have that much impact. I mean, it’s just theater.” Baker said he would get “more worked up” if the name-calling “leads to specific limitations on access or our ability to do our jobs.”

Note the comparisons: Theater. Professional wrestling. Tribal ritual.

Baker highlighted the gulf between Trump’s pronouncements about the media and his personal approach. When the president does his rallies, said Baker, he’ll blast the media and generally create an atmosphere of intimidation toward the people who cover him. On the plane ride home, Trump will say, ‘Hey, everybody, how’s it going? Everybody have a good time?’ He’s like the valet at his resort; he wants to make sure everybody’s having a good time,” recalled Baker.

“It’s like he’s two different people sometimes…”

8. John F. Harris, editor-in-chief of Politico, April 27, 2018 in conversation with James Bennet, editorial page editor at the New York Times.

Trump’s attack on the legitimacy of institutions including the free press— how seriously should we take it? There seem to be two schools of thought. One is that this is one of those historic moments where core values are under attack and that we’re going to be judged historically by how well we defend and vindicate those values, and that the Trump threat is serious. I think the other school is, “It’s just so much bluster and bullshit that’s not even meant by him to be taken seriously, and it really pales in comparison to places around the world where journalists actually are executed or opposition politicians are executed or jailed over these issues. So we shouldn’t delude ourselves that we’re really on the barricades of the front lines of freedom here in the United States.

Drama queens, inflating the threat so they can feel important.

Harris: In the news media context, I don’t think it’s an assault on democracy. Personally, I feel like Trump’s bombast is not meant to be taken seriously and not intended to be taken seriously even by him.

Bennet: You mean he doesn’t intend it to be an assault on journalism?

Harris: That’s right. And I don’t think journalists in this country face any real obstacles to our task of getting information and telling the truth as best we can ascertain it. I think it seems especially frivolous compared to lots of countries where there are real genuine obstacles—there’s government surveillance; there’s government censorship; there’s government punishment for challenging authority. And so, I think it makes us seem a little frivolous to be portraying ourselves on the front lines as though we’re freedom fighters.

9. Hiawatha Bray, a reporter for the Boston Globe business section, April 26, 2018, reacting to John Harris at my Facebook page.

So far, all Trump has done is utter a flood of dishonest and stupid insults, culminating in, well, nothing. This really is, so far, just a lot of noise. Sticks and stones, everybody. Call me back when they start slapping the cuffs on reporters. Till then, fasten your seat belts and remain calm.

So that’s the pattern I wanted to show you. What are we to make of it? First, the speakers in this post make valid points. Among them are:

* In Turkey journalists are being arrested. Independent media has been absorbed into the state. Nothing like that is happening in the U.S.

* Journalists can still report freely and publish what they find. As far as we know, Trump’s worst threats on that score have not materialized.

* The civic emergency created by Trump’s election has been good for the media business, and good for writers who wish to be read.

* Reporters on the White House beat find sources eager to talk and an almost unlimited supply of big, important stories to chase.

* Trump is desperate to be liked. He craves press attention. He is a media animal. These facts modify his public expressions of disdain for journalists.

I do not contest the truth of these observations. Journalists are right to point them out, and we should factor them into our understanding of events.

But I do dissent from the larger theme of a “phony war.” Something quite dangerous is happening. I have put my arguments for that proposition into an essay for New York Review of Books. You can read it here. It begins, “There is alive in the land an organized campaign to discredit the American press. This campaign is succeeding.”

To my thoughts in that essay I would add a few headlines.

AP: “President Donald Trump’s campaign to discredit the news media has spread to officials at all levels of government, who are echoing his use of the term ‘fake news’ as a weapon against unflattering stories.”

All for show?

Buzzfeed reporter Anne Helen Peterson:

Spent the last 2 days at the Range Rights Conference in Modesto, CA, where Rep. Devin Nunes made a surprise appearance and told the crowd:

“The media that’s here, they’re here to mock you and call you a bunch of people in cowboy hats.”

“I think we need a free press, but 90% of publications are owned by hard left billionaires”

“The media is totally corrupt, if you don’t think 90% of the media is totally corrupt, you’re fooling yourself.”

What Nunes is doing there: akin to professional wrestling?

Axios, Dec. 10, 2017. How Trump is spreading the “fake news” virus around the world.

Politifact, Jan. 22, 2018 Donald Trump’s ‘fake news’ epithet emboldens despots around the world.

CNN, Jan. 29, 2018 Asia’s strongmen follow Trump’s lead on fake news.

Just theater?

Last night at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, WHCA president Margaret Talev said: “We reject efforts by anyone, especially our elected leaders, to paint journalism as un-American, to undermine trust between reporter and reader.”

To undermine trust between reporter and reader is one thing Donald Trump definitely aims to do. Contrary to what Margaret Talev said, the journalists who speak in this post do not “reject” that project. Their response is cooler than that, more distanced. They are fixed on the irony of it all. Actually he loves reporters! He wants them to enjoy their time on Air Force One. He craves the attention too. Undermine trust? It’s just for show! Stop being so dramatic. He hasn’t put anyone in jail yet… has he?