Getting granular with the claim that Trump is some media wizard

That our President is a master of media manipulation is a view commonly expressed by American journalists. I doubt it.

28 May 2017 11:27 am 25 Comments

I have written about this before, but it keeps coming up. So here I take a more detailed look at it. I show you ten versions of the same claim so you can gain a more rounded view of what I am talking about. After each one I comment. At the end I make some concluding points. (Or you can skip to my conclusions first, then read the analysis. Some readers recommend this.)

Date: Nov. 6, 2015
Headline: The Master of Manipulation
Jounalist: Mary Kate Cary, contributing editor, opinion section, US News and & World Report

When Trump insults war heroes, women, immigrants, his fellow candidates, Congress, members of the media – the list goes on and on – those are not one-off spontaneous outbursts where Trump is just popping off. Those are carefully planned “outrageous,” “sensational” stories used as bait to get the press to write about him – by his own admission. And it’s working. He’s become a master at manipulation.

My read: This is a very basic version of the claim in question. Trump says outrageous things that trigger eye-catching headlines (McCain got captured; what a doofus!) This is supposed to show he’s a “master” of media manipulation. Alternative view: it’s easy to generate headlines by being a colossal jerk in public. This takes no genius. It takes gall. And a press willing to amplify.

Date: January 5, 2016
Headline: Donald Trump’s free media bonanza
Journalist: Hadas Gold, media reporter at Politico

Donald Trump reserved nearly $2 million for a seven-day ad blitz in Iowa and New Hampshire this week. But the billionaire real-estate mogul and master media manipulator also got hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of free airtime on Monday — and even more in seemingly endless coverage and discussion of what amounts to a glorified press release touting his candidacy.

Trump’s new 30-second spot, released Monday morning, was played in its entirety 40 times on the cable news networks between Monday and Tuesday morning, according to POLITICO’s count. Using hour-by-hour prices provided by ad tracking firms for 30-second ads on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, POLITICO estimated that the 40 airings would have cost Trump $330,000.

My read: Here the occasion for calling Trump a “master media manipulator” is that he got free advertising by releasing a nasty ad that was replayed and discussed as news. But any reporter familiar with political advertising knows that this in no way special to Trump. One of the most famous spots ever aired on behalf of a candidate, the “Daisy girl” ad intended to raise doubts about Barry Goldwater, ran exactly once. “And yet the ensuing media discussion — and re-airing of the ad on news broadcasts — gave the ad tremendous impact.” (Link.) “Consultants now know that attacks can draw significant attention in the free media, which gives them more incentive to produce and to air negative ads than they had 25 years ago,” wrote one political scientist in 2010. Ads have been covered as news for a long time. There is simply nothing here that is unusually masterful— or characteristic of Donald Trump.

Date: March 22, 2016
Headline: How Trump became a master of manipulating the media
Journalist: Emily Jane Fox, reporter for Vanity Fair.

Trump’s rise can best be explained as a successful marketing campaign. To voters, he has branded himself as the anti-politician politician. He says what some people want to say but feel they can’t. He wins, all the time, constantly; in fact, he is the most successful person to ever walk the earth. Despite multiple high-profile, ugly divorces, he has painted himself as the consummate family man.

The electorate slurps this all up…. By all accounts, Trump has the nation rapt and the media wrapped around his short fingers. But Trump has been successfully and self-servingly manipulating the press for decades, long before he entered the political arena. As The Washington Post reported Monday, for a decade starting in the 1980s, Trump sometimes assumed a fake name and pretended to be a spokesman representing himself when the media pressed him or he wanted to craft a deliberate message without connecting his name to it.

My read:  The sentence, “Trump has the nation rapt and the media wrapped around his short fingers” is empty hype. It asserts; it does not attempt to convince. But here’s the tell: “The electorate slurps this all up.” That is an expression of contempt. Trump’s use of a fake persona shows you can fool reporters with fraud, but is that mastery? The internet has a name for the practice: sock puppetry. Practitioners of it are not normally seen as masters of anything. They are regarded as slightly pathetic.

Date: May 6, 2016
Headline: Trump a master media manipulator in his prime
Journalist: David Zurawick, media reporter and columnist, Baltimore Sun.

In August, I wrote a piece headlined, “TV may be too timid to cover Trump.” In it, I mapped some of the ways Trump was outsmarting and intimidating TV interviewers.

One of the people I interviewed was CNN’s Chris Cuomo who called Trump “The Great Deflector.” The morning-show host explained how Trump deftly deflected his questions about misogynistic comments.

“So, I ask him, ‘What about those things you said about women?'” Cuomo said. “And he says, ‘I’ll tell you who has real trouble with women: Jeb Bush.'”

And Trump was off and running, pivoting away from the question of misogyny to attack Bush.

My read: Trump is here said to be a wizard at media manipulation because he changes the subject. Deftly! As if a determined reporter could not change it back.

Date: January 12, 2017
Headline: As Trump Berates News Media, a New Strategy Is Needed to Cover Him
Journalist: Jim Rutenberg, media columnist, New York Times

There were two big lessons in the Wednesday morning melee.

1. Mr. Trump remains a master media manipulator who used his first news briefing since July to expertly delegitimize the news media and make it the story rather than the chaotic swirl of ethical questions that engulf his transition.

2. The news media remains an unwitting accomplice in its own diminishment as it fails to get a handle on how to cover this new and wholly unprecedented president.

My read: These two items are connected. One way for the press to avoid facing the “accomplice in its own diminishment” part is to testify about what a master of manipulation the guy is. If he’s awesomely great at it, then maybe being an accomplice isn’t so bad… We were tricked into participating by a master of trickery!

Date: January 11, 2017
Headline: Do Press Conferences Still Matter?
Journalist: Jeff Greenfield, writing in Politico Magazine.

To say that Trump does not have a traditional relationship with the press is a sure front-runner for Understatement of the Year… He gave more interviews to more media outlets than any other candidate—he was also far more in demand than any other candidate—and has spent countless hours on the phone with reporters, columnists and analysts. He has also shown himself to be a master of manipulation, using tweets as a symphony conductor uses his baton, all but compelling the press to cover his rant of the hour.

My read: Trump tweeted outrageous and politically risqué stuff. The press gave it crazy coverage because normally candidates are risk-averse. They’re afraid of earning high negatives. Masterful it would indeed be if Trump tweeted outrageous things and escaped high negatives. But of course he didn’t. Getting the press to cover you by saying shocking and irresponsible things does not seem that hard to me. I think I could do it. I think you could do it. The internet has a name for this practice: trolling. Everyone knows it can be effective. But it is not thought to be particularly difficult.

Date: January 17, 2017
Headline: Trump literally holds the world’s attention in the palm of his hand
Journalist: Abby Phillip, reporter, Washington Post

With Twitter, Trump — known as a master marketer in the real estate and entertainment world — has met his medium. Just as he stamps his buildings and properties around the world with his name, each Trump tweet is branded with his name and likeness and sends a clear signal to the political world about what he wants them to know.

Trump has thrown out the traditional social media handbook and replaced it with his own unmistakable flair. There are few hashtags or photos to catch the eye, only outrageous statements and exclamation marks. Trump rarely vets the content he retweets, largely ignoring established brands, preferring instead to amplify the voices of real people.

My read: Wanna know what a genius the man is at marketing his message? You’re not gonna believe this. “Each Trump tweet is branded with his name and likeness.” Amazing. And you know what else? He retweets random people who agree with him! Yes. But that’s not all. He doesn’t care if what they’re saying is true. No fact checking! Would you have thought of that? Admit it: you wouldn’t. Learn from the master, people.

Date: March 1, 2017
Headline: Trump Moves to Become Master of His Own Messages
Journalists: Maggie Haberman and Michael M. Grynbaum, reporters for the New York Times

All presidents lunch with major news anchors. But this week’s White House gathering was different. The president kept his guests 30 minutes beyond the allotted hour, was gracious and spoke so much that he left his peekytoe crab salad untouched — a recognition, those close to him say, that he must sell himself to the Washington news media because he believes the people who work for him cannot….

A master media manipulator and storyteller, Mr. Trump went without a traditional press secretary during the presidential campaign, preferring to field queries on his own. Now he is increasingly taking command of his administration’s message making, and privately expressing frustration with a White House press office under siege amid leaks and infighting.

My read: I don’t know how to evaluate this claim: “master media manipulator and storyteller.” It seems to refer to interactions between Trump and the newspaper reporters who interview him. These moments are normally unavailable to us. In a Twitter exchange about this very thing, Maggie Haberman advised me: “I’ve covered Trump periodically for 20 years. He is actually better at this aspect than traditional pols.” Better how? I do not know. When I told her I hadn’t seen the evidence of his mastery she replied: “Maybe your criticism should allow for things you don’t know first-hand.” Fair enough, Maggie! Dear readers: I have never interviewed Donald Trump. So I have not seen first hand his wizardry in manipulating reporters. Still: something makes me doubt the blinding brilliance of it. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s gotten more negative press than any candidate or president ever. Which leads us to…

Date: May 12, 2017
Headline: “The Subject Is the Proper Noun Donald Trump”
Journalist: Glenn Thrush, reporter, New York Times on WNYC’s On the Media
Context: Thrush was discussing an interview he and Maggie Haberman had done with Trump. It was supposed to be about infrastructure spending. Trump made an evidence-free accusation that Susan Rice broke the law “by seeking to learn the identities of Trump associates swept up in surveillance of foreign officials by United States spy agencies.” Glenn comments:

“We’re former tabloid reporters from New York. We went in with a very broadsheet mentality: to discuss infrastructure. He knows we’re tabloid folks. And he knows he can make news any time. I was annoyed personally by the fact that he chose to use the interview to kind of go off on Susan Rice. We had to report it… It was in the middle of a news cycle. We couldn’t have buried it, that’s not our function. That he why he is so effective. He understands the fact that we have a dual function: to break news, to get scoops, and to provide insight. We’d prefer to have those two halves of our being fused seamlessly together. Donald Trump — and this is his genius — understands how to cut us in half. He gets between us and our imperative. That is a very, very sophisticated thing that he does.”

My read: We’re supposed to believe it was effective, and an act of genius, for Trump to float an evidence-free charge against Susan Rice, and get Glenn and Maggie to feature it, when they had other ideas for the interview. But was it? A week later this is what CNN reported:

After a review of the same intelligence reports brought to light by House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers and aides have so far found no evidence that Obama administration officials did anything unusual or illegal, multiple sources in both parties tell CNN.

Their private assessment contradicts President Donald Trump’s allegations that former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice broke the law by requesting the “unmasking” of US individuals’ identities. Trump had claimed the matter was a “massive story.”

Summing up: The New York Times reporters wanted him to talk about something positive he could do for the American people that was squarely on his governance agenda and has bipartisan support: infrastructure spending. But Trump cleverly diverted the conversation to a baseless charge about the previous administration that was soon shot down by his own party, after which the story sank. And the Times reporters were helpless, because the baseless charge was news. Genius!

Date: May 14, 2017.
Headline: Does Trump watch too much TV?
Journalist: Michael Scherer, reporter for Time on CNN’s Reliable Sources

“The president has always been an enormously sophisticated consumer of media. If you go back to the campaign, when he called Jeb Bush ‘low energy’ or Marco Rubio ‘little Marco,’ those were punditry moves. He was commenting on television, not on them as politicians, but on how they came across on television. And he still consumes his own presidency very much as a television show.” [Brian Stelter: when you went for your interview, he was watching TV with you, right?] “Not just was he watching it with us, we walked into the Oval Office, he said: ‘Come on, I want to show you something.’ He had queued it up for us, and he wanted to show it to us, and he wanted to do color commentary, which was actually rather vicious.”

My read: “The President can watch himself on TV and play pundit at the same time. I know that sounds impossible, but he gave us a live demo. In the White House. It’s real, folks. And let me tell you: the man is a champion television watcher. He’s incredible at it. Enormously sophisticated…”

Conclusion: To the claim that Trump is a master of media manipulation — which I doubt — I offer these alternatives:

1.) He cannot be shamed. Trump does not care if he is shown to be a liar, idiot, ignoramus, clown, or monster. Most people are not built like that. Therefore he can generate media attention without caring about the consequences. Most people are not built like that, either.

Trump is exceptional, but this is different from saying he is a masterful. In fact, he’s a compulsive. Which is the opposite of mastery. Everything explained by attributing to Trump some genius for the media arts is better explained by his utter shamelessness, his malignant narcissism— and his indifference to being the clown figure.

2.) He is risk-friendly in a field where nearly all practitioners are risk-averse. This follows from what I just said. Enormously risky behavior is routine for Donald Trump, because he simply doesn’t care if he is shown to be a liar, idiot, ignoramus, clown, or ethical monster. Therefore he can accuse a previous President of the United States of a devilish crime without any evidence… and feel fine about it. It’s true that by these methods he dominates the news agenda and forces attention to his groundless charges, but “master media manipulator” is a poor description of the man who would do that.

3.) If you have opened yourself to manipulation, it’s less bad if a master of it did this to you. Think about it. If it takes a wizard to manipulate me, I must be pretty smart… right? When journalists testify to Trump’s genius as a mover of media they are bragging in a way they don’t quite realize. For they are implicitly saying: genius is required to manipulate us. Sorry, it’s not. Anyone in a position of power willing to float a false accusation can get you to cover it— and subvert your intention to cover something else. Anyone eager to make a spectacle of himself can create lurid headlines. Anyone smashing to bits norms of democratic governance will dominate the news agenda.

If you are a man, and you bite a dog, that does not make you a master of anything. But it does make of you news.


“The Trump White House has turned into a kind of playground for the press.”

More than 35 White House correspondents spoke to Politico about what it's like for them. They want you to know they're having a blast.

24 Apr 2017 12:41 am 23 Comments

On CNN’s Reliable Sources this week Trump’s “contentious relationship with the press” was said to be back in the spotlight because of the upcoming marker of the First Hundred Days on April 28. Host Brian Stelter asked if there had been “some softening of the president’s anti-media position” since Trump’s inauguration in January, citing as evidence a recent interview he gave to Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush of the New York Times.

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 coming up together in the New York tabloids: Haberman, Thrush and Trump. Stelter came back to the question: “Could we make the case that things have not been as bad as they could have been between the press and the president?” After all, Press Secretary Sean Spicer conducts daily on camera briefings. And Trump gives interviews to news brands other than Fox. Not the war that we thought was coming, right?

That same day Politico posted a more in-depth version of this argument, based on more than 35 interviews with members of the White House press corps, most of whom would not let their names be used. Politico’s lengthy account, by Ben Schreckinger and Hadas Gold, is a kind of status report from inside the castle on how the people who are there to inform the public feel about the “slap and tickle” style of press relations.

It is a fascinating document, well worth reading for what it reveals about the operation of the Trump White House. Also hugely dismaying for what it does not say, and for what the people inside the castle apparently cannot see. Since this is also the week of the White House Correspondent’s dinner (April 28) I thought I would annotate Politico’s report: talk back to it, and to the people who are speaking to us through it.

The main theme of Politico’s account is that in public Trump is always having bitter clashes with the press. But the real story — the inside story — is quite different. Oh, the irony!

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. We interviewed more than three dozen members of the White House press corps, along with White House staff and outside allies, about the first whirlwind weeks of Trump’s presidency. Rather than a historically toxic relationship, they described a historic gap between the public perception and the private reality.

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. Put it all together and you get a fount of juicy stories: palace intrigue, constant backstabbing, spectacular screw-ups by clueless amateurs, and no end of sources because so much of the action in the Trump White House flows through the news media.

To which I say:While you’re enjoying your playground, what are you doing about this chart? This is what Glenn Thrush (“I never bought the shtick in the first place, that he hated the media…”) doesn’t seem to understand. Trump’s hating-on-the-media posture is not supposed to convince Thrush. It’s binge-worthy programming for core supporters of the president, catnip to their confirmation bias, extra insurance that anything damaging uncovered by the Times and its peers will be dismissed out of hand by 25 to 40 percent of the electorate.

That Trump is insincere in his hate speech about journalists is not the most important fact — for journalists — about that way of speaking. But you wouldn’t know this from Politico’s account, which fixates on the irony of a president who says he despises the press when actually he craves its approval. (His narcissism would explain that.) Trump’s hate speech about journalists matters because it is part of a program to substitute his reality for reality itself, word of which doesn’t seem to have reached the playground.

Politico further reports that Trump is cordial to reporters in person. (Oh, the irony!) Steve Bannon even sends “crush notes to journalists to let them know they’ve nailed a story.” Sean Spicer maintains bonhomie with many of them. Meanwhile, the staff is “too divided and too obsessed with their own images” to really crack down on the media. “And for all the frustration of covering an administration with a shaky grasp on the truth and a boss whose whims can shift from one moment to the next, reporters have feasted on the conflict and chaos.”

It is indeed a feast. But let’s remember why those reporters are there. They are not there to stuff themselves with story. The White House press corps is supposed to be part of a reality check upon the executive. By asking inconvenient questions, digging up dirt, cultivating diverse sources, and revealing what’s going on behind scenes that are arranged for public consumption, the press screws with the president’s effort to present to the country an image of perfect mastery and pleasing consistency, which of course can never be real.

By answering difficult questions and trying to repair the breach between what’s in the news and what’s said from official podiums, the White House is willy-nilly — and always imperfectly — brought into better contact with an observable and shared reality. That’s the hope, anyway. That’s the logic of the system. That’s what legitimates the permanent presence of the press within the White House. Politico seems to have forgotten all of this. It ignores questions of civic purpose to focus instead on the delicious irony of a press that is publicly despised and privately cultivated:

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.

We get it. His pose of complete contempt for the press is largely fake. Like everything else he does. But what matters to the nation is not whether Trump has a neurotic crush on Maggie Haberman and hate watches CNN late at night, it’s whether anything journalists do forces the president or the White House to become a little more reality-based, a little more accountable, a little more likely to give reasons for its actions, or to explain what it’s actual policy choices are. On this score, has the press corps had any success at all? It appears not.

“If you’re doing anything involving any sort of palace intrigue, they are crazy cooperative,” said one reporter, voicing a common observation. “But if you have any sort of legitimate question, if you need a yes or no answer on policy, they’re impossible.”

So it’s a feast for journalists if the story is about who’s up and who’s down inside the castle. But if it’s about decisions that might affect the lives of Americans, no feast. “They’re impossible.” Notice how — according to Politico — Trump’s real constituency is journalists, but not to the extent that their questions about policy would get answered. Not to the extent that speaking truth to the American people makes any difference to the Trump government:

One reporter said he has been surprised to find that background information from Trump White House officials is more reliable than what they say on the record, a reversal from previous administrations that he has covered. Especially unreliable is anything said on camera, as it is most likely to be seen by Trump, who watches television religiously. By the end of March, according to a Politico Magazine analysis, Spicer had uttered 51 unique falsehoods or misleading statements in his press briefings, on topics ranging from voter fraud to Obamacare to Trump’s Russia ties.

“Especially unreliable is anything said on camera.” In other words, the more likely it is to reach the public, the greater the chances that it’s false. “Through it all, Spicer has been unfailingly loyal— defending all of Trump’s most risible lies and baseless contentions despite the snickering of his frenemies in the press corps.”

Great job, guys. You’re snickering. Sean’s lying. (But you have access!) And if the president says it, it’s likely to be false. Who’s the bully on this playground?

“Media companies, meanwhile, have been laughing all the way to the bank. In the weeks after the election, the New York Times reported it was adding new subscribers at 10 times the normal pace. The Wall Street Journal reported a 300 percent spike in new subscriptions on the day after Trump’s victory… According to CNN, the network’s total audience in the first quarter of 2017 is the highest it has been in any first quarter since 2003, when the United States launched its invasion of Iraq. As for Trump’s preferred network, the first quarter of 2017 was the best three months Fox News has ever had.”

Turns out “slap and tickle” is a commercial hit. The irony!

This is what a news organization looks like when it is built on reader trust

Why I'm teaming up with the Dutch site, De Correspondent, on its U.S. launch. Because a membership model grounded in trust is one plausible way out of this mess.

28 Mar 2017 7:53 pm 33 Comments

On March 28 the news was announced: De Correspondent will expand to the U.S. I will be their first ambassador to the American market. The Knight Foundation, Democracy Fund and First Look Media will give $515,000 to NYU to create the Membership Puzzle Project, which will collect knowledge about how membership models can support quality journalism. I will be the director of that project. Here is the post I wrote that explains all this. Originally published at Nieman Lab.

At the kind of journalism conferences I attend, Aron Pilhofer, who had key roles in the digital operations of the New York Times and the Guardian in recent years, has been asking a very good question. What if news organizations optimized every part of the operation for trust? Not for speed, traffic, profits, headlines or prizes… but for trust. What would that even look like?

My answer: it would look a lot like De Correspondent.

Launched in 2013 in The Netherlands, De Correspondent is funded solely by its members: 56,000 of them, who pay about $63 a year because they believe in the kind of journalism that is done by its 21 full-time correspondents and 75 freelancers. The leaders of the site announced today that they will soon expand to the U.S. and set-up shop in New York. (See Ken Doctor’s post on Nieman Lab for the details on that.)

It was also announced today that I am going to help them. With $515,000 from the Knight Foundation, Democracy Fund and First Look Media, I am launching at NYU a research project that is designed to benefit American news organizations that have a membership strategy while improving the odds that The Correspondent will succeed in its move across The Atlantic. (Press release here.) I have further agreed to become The Correspondent’s first “ambassador” in the U.S. market. That means I will help introduce its model to others who might be able to assist — including possible funders. (Are you one?)

As you might have sensed, I believe in what these young Dutch journalists are doing. I think they have a strong sense of how to build a sustainable newsroom. But what really impressed me is what I said before: the way they optimize for trust. In this post I will:

* unfold what I mean by “optimized for trust”
* describe the research plan for the new Membership Puzzle Project, funded by Knight, Democracy Fund and First Look.
* explain why I am supporting The Correspondent’s move to the U.S. and lending my name to their efforts.

Part One: Optimizing for trust

Why do I say that a news organization optimized for trust would look a lot like The Correspondent? There are four main reasons.

Reason 1. No ads. No targeting. Have you ever heard this maxim? “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” Its lessons can be overdrawn, and some think it silly, but this phrase captures something about commercial media properties. You cannot trust them to be wholly on the side of their publics because they have another class of customers to worry about: the advertisers. Even if they are run with integrity and would never cave to an advertiser’s demands, a range of subtler distortions can creep in. Obvious example: click bait. Less obvious: pools of available ad money (food, real estate, cars) tend to spring up as editorial products (Grub Street, Curbed, Jalopnik.)

There is nothing inherently corrupt about this. It’s a system that can subsidize a lot of good work. And every subsidy system has drawbacks, including membership. But if you’re doing public service journalism and trying to optimize for trust, it helps immensely to be free from the business of buying and selling people’s attention. The Correspondent got that right away. That is why it is ad free and has no commercial sponsors.

“The Correspondent does not have to think about target groups or tailor its content to please, for instance, well-heeled readers between the ages of 25 and 40,” the founders told me. “The site sees its readers as curiosity-driven individuals who cannot be reduced to demographics. This principle is also the basis for our data minimization privacy policy.” Its key tenets:

* We only collect data required by law or necessary for the proper functioning of our platform.
* We do not sell this information to third parties.
* The purpose of any data collection must be clearly explained to our members.
* Members should, where possible, have control over their data.

Of course, terms like “where possible” leave a lot of room for interpretation. Because it still relies on third party services like YouTube, Vimeo, and SoundCloud, The Correspondent cannot say to its members: “You will never be tracked.” But it can say: These are the services we use and why. This is what we are doing to minimize the problem. It can level with people, as it does here and here. (Google translations to English here and here.)

Reason 2. Freedom from the 24 hour news cycle. The Correspondent calls itself an “antidote to the daily news grind.” When you’re not straining to find a unique angle into a story that the entire press pack is chewing on, it’s easier to avoid clickbait headlines, which undo trust. Not chasing today’s splashy story can hurt your traffic, but when you’re not selling traffic (because you don’t have advertisers) the pain is minimized.

The other risk is to relevance: if you’re not covering the stories that everyone is hearing about ad nauseam, will you begin to sound inessential and out-of-touch? The Correspondent has an answer to that: “not the weather but the climate.” It’s a phrase the editors use to keep themselves on track. It means: ignore the daily blips, focus on the underlying patterns. “Not the weather but the climate” is just a slogan. You have to execute on it, and that is always hard. But it is the right slogan when you’re trying to optimize for trust. And if you can execute on it, you won’t seem out of touch at all. You will feel more essential. (To get a feel for The Correspondent’s brand of journalism, go here and here.)

Reason 3. Writers at the center with room to run. In the era of print journalism, the term in use was “writer’s paper.” (The Village Voice in its golden age of the 1960s and 70s was called a writer’s paper.) That means a newsroom where the editorial initiative — the ideas for what to cover — come from the people whose names are on the articles. They are given lots of room to run. The implied contrast is with an “editor’s paper” (Time magazine during its classic period) where the writers have less room to run.

It has no print product, but The Correspondent is a writer’s paper. Its 21 full-time correspondents are encouraged to define their own beats and pick subjects they are passionate about, driven to understand. (Here’s a list of what their writers cover.) The approach is similar to the “obsessions” model developed by Quartz. At The Correspondent, there is no requirement that journalists take the view from nowhere, but they are also not on anyone’s team.

No party line. No forced objectivity. The writers can come to conclusions and show conviction, but they have to be evidence-based in the extreme. If the evidence obliges them to, they will alter their convictions and share that new perspective with readers. Correspondents never do he said/she said journalism; rather they do “I said then, I say now” journalism.

In my view, this is the right way to optimize for trust in the writers.

Reason 4: Journalist as discussion leader. In exchange for the freedom they are allowed in defining their beats and reporting on their passions, correspondents are required to invest in rich interactions with readers. They do not have a choice. It is part of the job. This step is crucial to The Correspondent’s trust model— and its economy. The editors call it “journalist as conversation leader.” It starts with a feature of the site. You can follow individual writers: the ones whose projects you care most about.

Expectations are that writers will continuously share what they are working on with the people who follow them and read their stuff. They will pose questions and post call outs as they launch new projects: what they want to find out, the expertise they are going to need to do this right, any sort of help they want from readers. Sometimes readers are the soul of project. Writers also manage the discussion threads — which are not called comments but contributions — in order to highlight the best additions and pull useful material into the next iteration of an ongoing story. All of the correspondents have weekly email newsletters that update their followers on what the writers are working on. (Here’s an example from clean tech and mobility correspondent Thalia Verkade.)

These methods resemble the approach taken by the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold during the 2016 campaign. As I wrote in December:

Fahrenthold explains what he’s doing as he does it. He lets the ultimate readers of his work see how painstakingly it is put together. He lets those who might have knowledge help him. People who follow along can see how much goes into one of his stories, which means they are more likely to trust it. (And to mistrust Trump’s attacks on it… See how that works?) He’s also human, humble, approachable, and very, very determined. He never goes beyond the facts, but he calls bullshit when he has the facts. So impressive are the results that people tell me all the time that Fahrenthold by himself got them to subscribe. He is not “solving,” but he’s certainly helping with the trust problem.

Fahrenhold came to this style on his own, and was widely praised for it. Journalists at The Correspondent are required to operate this way. And it pays off. Here’s a call out to readers (and people the readers might know.) “Dear Shell employees: Let’s talk.” And here’s what resulted from it: ‘Shell knew’: oil giant’s 1991 film warned of climate change danger. Impressive. And here, readers explain in their own words why they contribute knowledge to The Correspondent.

In 1999, my friend Dan Gillmor, then working as Silicon Valley columnist for the San Jose Mercury news but early to blogging, came to an important realization: “my readers know more than I do.” It took fifteen years, but a news company finally baked into its business model Gillmor’s profound insight into what journalism could be in the internet age. This is from an excellent article in The Drum about The Correspondent’s rise, which quotes co-founder and current publisher Ernst-Jan Pfauth:

De Correspondent’s philosophy is that 100 physician readers know more than one healthcare reporter. So when that healthcare reporter is prepping a story, they announce to readers what they’re planning to write and ask those with first-hand knowledge of the issues – from doctors to patients – to volunteer their experiences. “By doing this we get better informed stories because we have more sources from a wider range of people,” Pfauth tells The Drum. “It’s not just opinion makers or spokespersons, we get people from the floor. And, of course, there are business advantages because we turn those readers into more loyal readers. When they participate that leads to a stronger bond between the journalist and the reader.”

Right! And that is how you maximize trust — and produce quality journalism — through genuine reader engagement.

Notice how all the pieces fit together: When you don’t have advertisers, there’s nothing you have to cover because it brings traffic or offers the right environment for ads. Release from the 24 hour news cycle — coupled with dropping the advertisers — lets you grant to your writers more creative freedom. This in turns helps attract talent. Requiring the talent to interact with the readers and draw knowledge from them not only improves the journalism by broadening its base, it also binds the readers to the writers and gives them a stake in the final product because they joined in its formation. They are thus more likely to share it with others— and more likely to renew their membership.

Here I have to explain something about how The Correspondent’s “pay” model works. If you go to the home page and try to access its contents, you will be asked to join and pay the membership fee. But that is the one and only incarnation of any pay “wall.” On the web or via email, any link you come across to an article in The Correspondent is always free to access. Members can share links with their networks without limit, and those links will always work. No one ever gets a notice like: You have accessed 9 of the 10 free articles you are entitled to this month… Members don’t pay to be members because they’re getting exclusive access to something the rest of the public is denied. That’s not how it works. That’s how Politico Pro works. That’s how The Information works. The Correspondent wants its work to spread freely. It also wants you to become a member. It refuses to grant any contradiction between the two.

Again, I think this is the right way to maximize trust in a “readers pay the freight” model.

Part Two: The Membership Puzzle Project.

As I have tried to make clear, I think The Correspondent has a good model. But so far it has only proven itself in the Dutch market (17 million people.) The American market (325 million) is different: far bigger and vastly more competitive. It would be foolish to assume that The Correspondent could simply transplant itself and thrive in the United States. Member-funded journalism has a long history here, most obviously in public radio but not only there. And there are membership organizations in fields other than journalism that might have good insights.

At the same time, The Correspondent knows things that local, non-profit and specialized news sites in the U.S. can benefit from as they turn to readers to support them. Knowledge ought to flow in both directions. From American sites to The Correspondent, and from The Correspondent to American journalism as the Dutch site brings its model to the U.S. This is where the Membership Puzzle Project begins work. It is designed to answer three questions:

1. What can American journalism learn from The Correspondent’s success in developing a membership model for the support of public service journalism?

2. As it expands to New York and the American market, what does The Correspondent need to know about how membership has worked — and not worked — in the U.S.?

3. If readers are going to support public service journalism by giving money directly to it, what does the social contract between them and the journalists have to look like? What are best practices for keeping that relationship strong and alive?

Here’s how the project will try to answer these questions

* Find out how membership has worked — and where it has failed — for news organizations in the U.S that have tried it, which means traveling to key sites, interviewing knowledgeable participants, compiling documents and statistical measures of success, and piecing together a portrait of best practice that focuses on lessons learned.

* Using similar methods, research The Correspondent’s experience with membership since 2013 and distill the lessons of it for American journalism.

* Organize in-person events among those with knowledge and experience to lend so they can pool what they know and learn from each other.

* Share the results of this work in a series of published reports and articles that make the findings available to the journalism community and other researchers, focusing especially on the social contract that has to exist between journalists and readers if readers are going to the work directly.

Part Three: Why I’m supporting The Correspondent.

Because I think they know what they’re doing. Because they have the right priorities. Because American journalism needs to open itself to influence from abroad. Because the production of public interest news cannot be successful without the reproduction of trust in the people who are authoring that news. Because Aron Pilhofer asked a really smart question: What if news organizations optimized every part of the operation for trust? Because Trump is manufacturing mistrust at a faster rate than journalists can adapt their methods for inspiring public confidence in what they do. Because we don’t have a lot of time, people. Because readers, viewers, listeners, waking up to the urgency of the moment, are ready to support real journalism with real money, but only if the social contract changes. Because what good is an academic reputation if you aren’t prepared to spend it on something you really believe in?

A few notes on unbuilding a key part of the presidency

The American President can blow up the world. A lot of work went into reassuring us that he won't. Now it's being undone.

19 Feb 2017 7:19 pm 97 Comments

Watching President Trump’s February 16th press conference, I felt stunned into silence. I could not think of how to comment on that performance. These notes are my attempt to figure out why.

1. Since the start of the Cold War 70 years ago, Americans have been aware of a crazy thing about the holder of the Presidency. That person could blow up the world. The possibility of nuclear annihilation changed the institution by introducing new psychological facts to the relationship between the American people and the occupant of the White House. And, we should add, between the publics of other nations and the American President. For this was a terrible power to invest in one man. (It has always been a man, which is part of the terror, so I will be using the masculine pronoun throughout.)

2. By giving the order, the American President could blow up the world — or at least Europe, North America, and Russia — and everyone at some level was aware of this. Which meant we had to have confidence that he wouldn’t do it, or we could never vote for him. There would be no time to go to Congress, or for any plebiscite. The power had to be entrusted to one man, and his reactions in the moment, as with Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis. We didn’t have to trust Theodore Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln in that way. But from the Cold War on Americans have been required to extend to their president an almost inhuman degree of trust: don’t blow up the world, Mister President… Please!

3. It’s not possible to have a normal relationship with a mortal who obtains that kind of power. And yet the American President has to present himself as a “normal” person who has a very, very important job. Through successive governments since Truman the presidency has been adjusted to meet these conditions. How do you make people comfortable with the fact that the President is able to blow up the world? Or: how do you make them forget that he has this power? Well, you project an image of inner strength, measured calm, unflappable temperament. But that is just a start. In fact, the whole model of the modern presidency is affected by this demand to quiet a completely rational anxiety surrounding the president’s awesome, god-like and mostly unearned powers. In a word, the American presidency has to do psychological work. It has to reassure.

4. So how is this work done? Through a series of propositions that are implied in the behavior we expect of presidents, in the daily rituals of the job, and in the way the executive branch organizes itself. Here are a few of those propositions. (There are many more.)

* The President has access to the best intelligence in the world.
* The President starts his day with a classified briefing on all possible threats.
* The President is kept constantly informed.
* The President is never, even for a moment, “off the grid.”
* The President is never alone.
* The President is surrounded by people who know what they are doing.
* The President is of sound and sober mind. He does not easily “fly off the handle.”
* The President does not free associate, speak carelessly, or grant roaming privileges to his id.
* The President does not make factual statements that are wholly insupportable.

I’m not saying that these features of the modern Presidency don’t serve other ends. They do. But one of them is to make us feel okay with a man who gets to play god with our civilization.

5. Part of the psychological work the American presidency had to do was done through the media. Rituals like the televised news conference were supposed to show that the president was in command of the facts, and could handle challenges without losing his cool. Command of television in a speech or interview is one way that presidents show us they’re in command of themselves. That’s reassuring. That’s acting “presidential.”

6. Trump does not participate in this regime. He may have access to the best intelligence in the world, but he is at war with the intelligence community. The apparatus exists to keep him constantly informed, but he prefers to watch cable news, so that he can rage at his unfair treatment. He flies off the handle constantly. He makes threats. He free associates, speaks carelessly, and grants roaming privileges to his world class id. He doesn’t care if what he’s saying is true. When a reporter at his February 16 press conference told him his facts were wrong, he shrugged and said, “I was given that information; I don’t know… I’ve seen that information around.” That is the opposite of reassuring.

7. Trump is thus revising the Presidency before our eyes. In his grip, it no longer attempts to muffle anxiety about the President and make people around the world feel okay about granting one person such enormous, unthinkable and inhuman powers. Instead, a new model is proposed: the president keeps everyone in a constant state of excitement and alarm. He moves fast and breaks things. He leads by causing commotion. As energy in the political system rises he makes no effort to project calm or establish an orderly White House. And if he keeps us safe it’s not by being himself a safe, steady, self-controlled figure, but by threatening opponents and remaining brash and unpredictable— maybe a touch crazy. This too is psychological work, but of a different kind.

8. Remember: the launch codes are with him at all times. We are supposed to not think about that. Since Truman, the Presidency has been styled to help us with the forgetting. Donald Trump is busy blowing that up. But how do we surface this story?

Steve Bannon’s styrofoam balls

It's not like reality gives up easily, and lets you roll over it. That's Distortion Field 101.

15 Feb 2017 1:27 pm 23 Comments

I will be brief because — like the news itself — I’m moving quickly today.

For a moment there I thought these guys were serious about treating the news media as “the opposition party” and trying to remove it as a check on power. That seemed to be the plan. They had the pieces in place. But when Michael Flynn was vanquished from the White House they revealed to us that for now at least they’re unable go through with it.

Here’s Greg Sargent:

Trump’s top adviser Stephen K. Bannon has offered up sublime bluster about how the news media has “no power,” arguing that its aggressive reporting on the Trump White House reflects nothing more than panicked media elite shrieking about the “new political order” that Trump is raising out of the ashes of the corrupt old order. As I’ve argued, the Trump White House has established — as an explicit, actionable doctrine — the goal of trying to obliterate the possibility of agreement on the news media’s legitimate institutional role in informing the citizenry, and even on facts and reality itself.

I agree: That’s what they’re trying to do. But if you’re going to do it, you have to really do it. It’s not like reality gives up easily, and lets you roll right over it. You can’t just say to the national press “you’re fake news” and “so biased no one believes you” like some once-in-a-generation tough guy and then when it gets really tough switch back to freaking out over what’s in the news.

The way they’re acting, you’d think these guys had never transcended reality or slipped the bonds of surly pundits before. Look at this report: should have a ‘pitiful if true’ sticker on it.

According to three people close to Mr. Trump, the president made the decision to cast aside Mr. Flynn in a flash, the catalyst being a news alert of a coming article about the matter.

“Yeah, it’s time,” Mr. Trump told one of his advisers.

The trigger was a news report? That’s not how you do it. Leaks that are published in the fake news media (Trump’s term) are fake leaks! You have to call them that. And you have to act on that understanding. As soon as you let on that you’re using the news media the way other people do — to find out what’s happening, for real — you’re showing reality that it can roll you. I can’t believe I have to explain this to a Graduated Leninist like Steve Bannon, but I guess I do. Here are the steps:

1. “This isn’t happening.” Basic stuff! Anyone who says it is happening is off the team, outside the circle of power. These stories about Mike Flynn connecting with Russian officials, talking about sanctions on Russia, lying about it to the Vice President: that’s the biased media being the opposition party and spreading misinformation again. Like the news is fake, the sources are fake. If these “government officials” know so much, let them identify themselves. If there are recordings, where are they? Anyone can fake a transcript. Etc.

2. We are not the investigated, we investigate! You don’t fire your guy because journalists report he’s a liar and a cheat. That’s reality-based. You’re against all that, remember? You keep him in his post and start digging into who’s leaking and receiving the nation’s secrets. Every time the press asks about the Flynn mess you brag about how far-reaching your leak investigation is. They say Flynn’s calls were monitored? Well, we know how to monitor calls to find out who’s passing you this fake information. Drop the hint. This is Distortion Field 101, fellas.

3. No one in the press or the DC establishment will believe you; that’s the whole point! Incredulity is their gift to you. The opposition party is everyone who listens to the news and says: actually, this Flynn thing is happening. The more shocked and voluble they are, the better for you as our polarizers-in-chief. The wind of their insistence gives lift to your resistance. Didn’t your instructor in Wedge Tectonics go over any of this?

4. Supporters have to either a.) join in calling it fake news or b.) face spiritual collapse. You used to understand this. Back when you were on your game, like during the Sean Spicer debut. You let everyone on your side know the deal… Wanna be on the team? Then look at those pictures and see larger crowds for Trump. For that’s the price. Price too high? Then you can step off right now. Here, you want the worm of doubt to creep up a little— so it can be banished by core supporters. (And there’s frisson in that.) You gesture toward cognitive dissonance so extreme it would crush normal people, as in: the man who ‘tells it like it is’ lies constantly, about everything. You flash that fact, they flee it. Win for you.

If that’s winning, this is losing. Greg Sargent again:

This Flynn episode suggests that facts and reality do matter. The Trump White House is not invulnerable to them. A dogged and determined press corps can indeed ferret them out, notwithstanding the White House’s efforts to render them meaningless and irrelevant — or indeed to make them disappear.

He’s right. They got rolled by reality, as if reality had that kind of muscle! But what stands out for me is: Bannon, Trump, Miller, Conway, Spicer, the inner circle: they didn’t even try to show reality that it can be rolled. Let’s go over it again: You act as though this isn’t happening. You threaten to investigate those who document that it is. You remind the press that it has no power because it was humiliated in 2016. They remonstrate, you escalate. Use the pundit shows and briefing room to polarize. Cognitive dissonance takes care of your party and core supporters, but you have to show reality who’s boss.

Bannon is the one who surprises me. He pushed for Flynn’s firing? That’s standard eliminate-a-rival behavior, exactly what an establishment climber would do. He’s no Lenin. Turns out he has balls of styrofoam, and I think I know the reason. He reads the New York Times and Washington Post with fear in his heart. Like normal people in power do.

Send the interns

Put your most junior people in the White House briefing room.

22 Jan 2017 7:26 pm 135 Comments

#sendtheinterns is a hashtag that stands for some advice I have given the Washington press corps about its dealings with the Trump White House.

After this weekend’s spectacular display by new Press Secretary Sean Spicer — mixing provable falsehoods with culture war attacks on the journalists assembled before him — the case for sending interns to the White House briefing room is stronger than ever. In this post I want to restate that argument in light of what just happened, and clarify what I am not saying.

A good place to begin in the analysis of Spicer’s performance is that we have no name for what this thing was. We can’t call it a press conference because, in a remarkable show of cowardice, Spicer walked out without taking questions. It wasn’t an announcement because there was no policy news external to press relations.

Spicer called it an “update on the president’s activities” but attacking journalists for being biased against you is in no sense an “update.” It wasn’t an informal discussion among people who have to work together because, as I said, there was no back and forth, and the setting was stiff, formal, heavy with significance as this was the first official briefing room event of a new presidency. Spicer looked tense. He was shouting at times as he read from a prepared script. Watch the clip: what would you call it? (It’s 5:32)

Trying not for elegance but for accuracy, I would call this event a “relationship message delivery vehicle,” operating on three levels.

First, it told staffers who work for Trump: this is what we expect. If The Leader is reeling from a narcissistic wound (crowd figures too small) you will be expected to sacrifice dignity and best practice to redress that wound. That’s what you bought into when you agreed to work for President Trump. This is a stark statement. No wonder Spicer sounded tense.

A second message was to the press: You will be turned into hate objects whenever we feel like it. We can do that to you without providing right of reply because… what are you going to do about it? Small mistakes quickly corrected will be treated as evidence of malicious wrong doing by the entire group. (And you deserve that.) 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!

Reaction from the press corps:

A third “relationship” message went to the listeners, in tripartite.

* 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. Screen shot from the Washington Post’s fact check: * To the listeners who are hostile to Trump the message is: you don’t count. There is no common world of fact that connects us to you. Rage on, losers. We don’t have to acknowledge any part of your reality. We’re fine if you dispute ours. In fact, the hotter the better. Our aim is true: to maximize conflict between your core group and ours. So please: help us polarize!

* To the neither/nors, the people who are not part of the Trump constituency and not yet committed to opposing him either, the message is very different. I can summarize it in two words: Don’t bother. People are fighting over what is real— and what is a lie. They dwell in different worlds— different, but neither of them yours. Any modest effort to pay attention will collapse into futility. Truth is impossible to discern without a heroic — and expensive — act of crap detection. Mostly there is confusion. The only rational choice is to pass on the whole spectacle. This space isn’t for you. This is for “them,” the people obsessed with politics. You should just live your life.

Look, then, at what Sean Spicer’s “relationship message delivery vehicle” accomplished on Day One. For Trump staffers: You gave up your dignity when you joined up with The Leader. Act accordingly. For journalists: You are hate objects. We are unbound from all evidence, all truth. For Trump supporters: We will put these press people down for you, but in return you have to lie to yourselves for us. For Trump’s opponents: go nuts, we love it! For the neither/nors: Don’t bother paying attention. You won’t be able to figure it out.

Listen to Ezra Klein explain why this is more than a sideshow:

The Trump administration is creating a baseline expectation among its loyalists that they can’t trust anything said by the media. The spat over crowd size is a low-stakes, semi-comic dispute, but the groundwork is being laid for much more consequential debates over what is, and isn’t, true. Delegitimizing the institutions that might report inconvenient or damaging facts about the president is strategic for an administration that has made a slew of impossible promises and takes office amid a cloud of ethics concerns and potential scandals.

And that is the business that was transacted in the White House briefing room… on Day One.

“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. As I wrote on December 30:

During the Trump campaign who had better access: The reporters in the media pen, or those who got tickets and moved with the rest of the crowd? Were the news organizations on the blacklist really at a disadvantage? I can hear the reply. We need both: inside and outside. Fine, do both. My point is: outside-in can become the baseline method, and inside-out the occasionally useful variant. Switch it up. Send interns to the daily briefing when it becomes a newsless mess. Move the experienced people to the rim.

Sean Spicer has no power over the press but what they give to him. From a New York Times reporter whose beat is Congress:

When I say #sendtheinterns I mean it literally: take a bold decision to put your most junior people in the briefing room. Recognize that the real story is elsewhere, and most likely hidden. That’s why the experienced reporters need to be taken out of the White House, and put on other assignments.

Look: they can’t visit culture war upon you if they don’t know where you are. The press has to become less predictable. It has to stop functioning as a hate object. This means giving something up. The dream of the White House briefing room and the Presidential press conference is that accountability can be transacted in dramatic and televisable moments: the perfect question that puts the President or his designate on the spot, and lets the public see — as if in a flash — who they are led by. This was always an illusion. Crumbling for decades, it has become comically unsustainable under Trump.

Please note: I am not saying that as a beat the White House is unimportant, or that its pronouncements can be ignored. I’m not saying: devote less attention to Trump. Rather: change the terms of this relationship. Make yourself more elusive. In the theater of resentment where you play such a crucial part, relinquish that part.

The hard thing is not sending the interns, or tasking the experienced people with an outside-in beat into which they can dig. The hard thing is giving up on the dream of some exquisite confrontation that reveals all: accountability in a box.