Will 2020 result in another 'mea culpa' for the media?

Somehow the press lapses of 2016, and the apologies that came after, never really stuck. They were never meant to.

Photo by Frank Okay on Unsplash.

I started writing this well before Iowa Clusterf*ck 2020, but you don’t need another hot take on all that … ok one quick one: As I say on every Bears missed field goal and Tar Heels missed foul shot—you had one job.

But in the spirit of the #GonzoPrimary it seems as the results are coming in is a perfect time to draw back and reassess where we are as the brokenness of media and our institutions seem to be the resounding theme thus far in the primary.

At Untold Story, I’m looking to work through and diagnose both what ails political media coverage and deliver journalism that clarifies our American political moment going into the presidential election. It’ll be a process. Most recently, I’ve written about the discarding of rural America and hit a sort of optimistic note that maybe America has finally begun to reckon with the ghosts of our past.

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We didn’t learn anything from 2016

I went to the Campaign Journalism Conference what feels like a lifetime ago in April when I was still living in Chicago. It held promise, first because it was about two subjects I care about, journalism and politics. Second, because it was free. And third, because it was held at Google, which meant swanky surroundings and free snacks I could horde and then forget in my backpack.

But entering the Midwest confines of Don’t Be Evil Inc. I was struck by two things 1) the campaign press corps is made up of mostly really, really young reporters and 2) nobody really wants to change anything—or can even begin to imagine what changing the up and down horse race game-ified edition of spin the wheel and elect our next leader has become.

In my downest moments lately, it’s dawned on me that the whole thing is just too big to change anyway. Even democracy itself can feel like something of an illusion: control over this massive thing, with powerful interests, media spin and money galore trying to control the fallout? Enter foreign interference (a new normal) and the act of honest argument + debate = voting booth action = change … It seems virtually impossible.

And to be fair, how should the media cover this mess? As I try to point out to whomever wants to gab on journalism, the biggest threat that faces us today is not that the number of journalists is plummeting and whole communities are being left out of the conversation—corrosive and harmful as that is. It’s that when people see the truth backed up by facts and the hours upon hours it takes to establish either a credible argument or a basic baseline of facts, politicians or the powerful can create their own media to take against the truth. And then we enter the Red vs. Blue chasm that doesn’t have a bottom.

Heather Bryant tweets and speaks often about journalism’s trust and credibility gap:

Those of us who write words on pages like to think we’re driving the agenda, but it’s really the people yelling at each other in the black box. Following the 2015 primary closely, I remember seeing Trump on CNN at every turn, unfettered—if you remember they carried his rallies live, uninterrupted, millions (as Trump would surely measure it) in media. Sure, he was well-known before but you can’t buy that kind of exposure, clips amplified online over and over again.

Was allowing a candidate to speak journalism? Is saying ‘he lied’ these days also journalism? Conventionally, yes. And it’s failing us big time.

People such as Jennifer Brandel and, for many years, professor and provocateur Jay Rosen, have asked for a Citizen’s Agenda—i.e. for readers and members of the public to be co-creators in creating the media’s agenda and coverage. More modestly, others have asked simply for more issues coverage. Again and again we run around asking ‘who’s your pick?’

At the conference in Chicago, an incredibly rich moment happened when Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief, un-ironically pulled out a copy of Boy’s on the Bus, a classic about the press and the 1972 presidential campaign that I read for the first time this year and realized it wasn’t the celebration of the press it’s made out to be but rather a full evisceration of the media machinery.

I have to trot out a quote from my previous piece (linked above) because it just so prescient and bound to age just as well. David Broder, the renowned Washington Post political reporter who was basically the Walter Cronkite of print, beloved and believed, pointed out the fallacy of trying to “figure out” every given presidential cycle. He actually pioneered the Citizen’s Agenda by blowing the mind’s of the press corps by going out and talking to people in New Hampshire and figuring out the polls were all wrong. From Boy’s on the Bus:

“I will be an old fart for a minute,” Broder said cheerfully, “and tell you that the most distressing thing about covering politics is that the guy who was absolutely right, whose wisdom was almost breathtaking one election—you go back to that same man for wisdom some other year and he’ll be as dumb as dogshit. That’s why it’s not a science. You can say, ‘in 1968, I learned the following key lessons, which I’m going to write down in the front of my notebook and look at them twice a day all day through 1972’—and you’ll get absolutely deceived by doing all that.’

New MIT research shows people still believe content they’re told is fake.

So how do we re-establish credibility, not just for journalists but for anyone who believes in truth?

I think it has to be done in real space and by eliminating journalist’s “elite” status in communities. In the meantime, the corrosive effect of what we are doing now should be reckoned with. Greg Jackson eviscerates the status quo in Harper’s:

Being fed trivialities when we need importance, like empty calories when we need nourishment, makes us sick. We grow to mistake bigness for importance, when importance is a measure of our involvement. Big trivialities make us psychically obese, with nowhere to expend this pent-up energy. “What a story. What a fucking story,” Dean Baquet said, watching Trump’s inauguration.

And

One consequence of inflating the stakes of ongoing political activity in order to fill formats and draw audiences is that people are afraid of politics: afraid of politicians—the government—actually doing anything. Large constituencies stand ready on either side to denounce any new policy or law as the end of everything they cherish. The potential effect of policy gets subsumed into the virtual space of the news, where it languishes as an untested proposition, an object of endless, futile debate. Instead of implementing policy and evaluating it in practice, we remain paralyzed, and the more paralyzed we get—the less able to enact or amend policy—the more the case for paralysis grows, since the chances of fixing a mistake diminish. This grants an asymmetric power to the forces that want the government to do less, not more.

I’ve spent much of my life, sad to think, covering non-events or pseudo-events. The county commission meeting where I wrote a story because, well, I had to write a story, a state panel subcommittee meeting where legislation was “passed” but for all intent and purposes nothing meaningful changed on the ground. When I tried to change these conventions at the medium-sized paper I worked at, I was told I was arrogant and pushed into line. This is about content, eyeballs, advertising and entertainment.

The Harper’s piece does a nice job of defining the pseudo-event.

What is a pseudo-event? They are everywhere; we hardly notice. Some familiar examples: the speech, the rally, the press conference, the briefing, the ribbon cutting, the political announcement, the political response, the interview, the profile, the televised debate, the televised argument, the televised shouting match, the televised roundup of other televised events, the official expression of outrage, remorse, righteousness, fear, sanctimony, jingoism, smarm, or folksiness. The talking point is its handmaiden. News analysis is a second-order pseudo-event, not an event per se but the dissection of pseudo-events: that is, theater criticism. It is not that pseudo-events are always uninteresting or meaningless but that they are always not news. They only exist to be reported on. To supply a format. To make up for the non-glut of occurrences. Take away the pseudo-event and what is left to fill the news?

Matt Taibbi thinks that the status quo and media’s ceaseless focus on Trump is sure to help Sanders, just as it did Trump.

The reason people are abandoning traditional political solutions on both sides of the political aisle is that most people can see how easy it is to put a thumb on the scale of such rosy Adam Smith market theory. They know companies buy regulatory and tax relief through political donations, offshore profits, export labor to unfree political zones like China, use central banking mechanisms to obtain heavily subsidized capital, and dominate debate through investment in media.

About that last point: One of the areas where systematic unfairness is most visible is through the aggressive suckage of the establishment press.

If inequality – not just in income but in influence as well as regulatory and criminal accountability – is a problem, the average media consumer knows by instinct what side of that problem the owners of major media companies represent. The average person, who is probably an illness away from bankruptcy, sees that Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos makes the median Amazon salary every nine seconds, the CEO of Disney makes 1,424 times what his line worker earns, Google has been parking profits in Ireland, and CNN busts its unions.

When a politician rises by talking about ending the rigged game, only to get a uniformly negative response in media outlets owned by some of the riggers, people make that obvious connection, even when the rhetoric is coming from someone like Donald Trump.

Oof. I worry about how all institutions—namely the government as a whole—is written off as a long-held strategy of division. If journalism as an institution doesn’t get more honest about the good we do and the corrosive aspects of how we do it, no one will be listening when we share with them what really matters.

Three good reads

1) This one has some good in it, I think. The NYT’s endorsement of two candidates (thanks guys but you know I can only vote for one, right?) makes me giggle. But the story’s palpable fear is worth noting:

We are not veering away from the values we espouse, but we are rattled by the weakness of the institutions that we trusted to undergird those values.

2) There’s an allure of billionaire Michael Bloomberg from lots of Democrats that he is going to save us from ourselves. I agree with Indy Week’s Jeffrey Billman that there’s fear there, it’s also that simply more of the Democratic Party likes to believe that they’re progressive while quietly not wanting to pay more taxes or deal with the uncertainty that comes from new progressive ideas.

Billman pegs it right on what’s really driving the Bloomberg fantasy:

But mostly, it’s that Democrats have spent the generation since Ronald Reagan living in fear of their own shadows, assuming that the cards are stacked against them and that the best choice is the safest choice, the least divisive choice, the grown-up choice, even as the GOP reoriented itself radically rightward and its inmates took over the asylum.

3) The Census is going to be crucial for the next ten years of … everything. I don’t know about you, but just because the courts have ruled against the Trump administration’s citizenship question does that means the Census will be fair? The stakes are high. From NC Policy Watch:

North Carolina is like other states in the South and West, several of which are also projected to win more seats, according to Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services.

States in the Midwest and Northeast, meanwhile, are projected to lose seats because their populations are not growing as fast.

Under Brace’s projections, Arizona, Colorado, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon are expected to pick up one House seat next year; Florida would gain two; and Texas three. On the losing side are Alabama, California, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and West Virginia.

4) BONUS. Omg, you’re so lucky. The people who had one job and designed an app that didn’t work in Iowa have ties to ACRONYM, a shady political group run by former Hillary & Co. Democratic operatives. So now they have two distinctions on their resume: losing an election to Donald Trump and an inability to count votes in the most consequential Democratic primary (OK, caucus) of our time. The group also has ties to some local news startups, which is frightening.

Key coverage came out late last year but I missed it: