On a recent episode of Recode Media hosted by Peter Kafka, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen discussed the challenges facing professional journalists in the age of alternative facts, Trump and fake news.
You can read some of the highlights from the interview at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Peter Kafka: I am here with Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at New York University. I normally ask people if I got their name right, but I know I got your name right. I know I pronounced it correctly.
Jay Rosen: Yes, you did.
Good. Depending on when you’re listening to this, we are a day away from Donald Trump becoming president or, more likely, Donald Trump is president. Jay writes about journalism and how the press interacts and the economics of media and the practical ways that media could get better. It’s great to read it under all circumstances. He’s crucial reading right now as we head into the Trump era.
You seeded this with me a few weeks ago. You wrote a couple posts. I guess they were tweets you turned into posts, “Prospects for the American Press Under Trump.” Spoiler, you’re not optimistic about the prospects for the American press under Trump.
I’m not, no.
The beginning of your essay is, “How bad is it? Bad.” At one point you say, “The darkest time for press since World War I when the Alien and Sedition Acts were around,” something you should Google if you’re not familiar with the Alien and Sedition Acts.
We’re not going to bum people out for the entirety of this podcast, but it’s dark and heavy stuff, Jay. You don’t feel good about the prospects of the American press under Trump because — you have many reasons, but is there one overarching one?
Because we have in power a figure who got there in part by whipping up hatred at the press, coupled with massive mistrust of the media and of institutions and leaders generally, and an organized movement to discredit mainstream journalism, which is part of the Trump coalition.
You put those together with other things that have been going on for a long time that you’ve talked about on your podcast, the economic crisis in news and bad habits in the press that have been building for a long time, you put it all together and it’s a dark time. Not in the sense that there won’t be great stories to report. There will be a lot of great stories to report.
This is one of the counterarguments, [which] we’ve seen especially this week: “Actually, we’re going to do great stuff.”
Yeah. There will be a lot to report on. There will no doubt be spectacular revelations and investigations. It may be the most fertile time for investigative journalism since Watergate.
That’s good, but that news and those reports will merge into an environment that is hostile to journalism. There are political enemies of the press that are gaining traction. One of them happens to be the president of the United States. That’s the situation. It’s not that there’s not going to be great stories. There’s going to be a lot of great stories. There’s a rejection of them already under way.
I’m normally not Professor Positive, but for the sake of this podcast, I’m going to try to offer a more positive counterargument, at least for the beginning of this. I’m so old that I can remember Ronald Reagan, and then the subsequent presidents, many of whom used an opposition to the press as one of the ways that they got elected.
It’s not a new idea for a candidate, especially a Republican candidate, to say, “The press is biased. The press is against me. Go stick it to the press and vote for me.” That’s not a new idea. Going over the heads of traditional media is something, again, that has been around for a long time [and] has been accelerating over time.
Is Trump a new thing? [Is he] just a culmination, or is there something really, really different about what’s happening now, as compared to Reagan or Bush or some of the other people we’ve had in office?
I have a complicated answer to that. It is a culmination of things that have been going on for a long time. You could trace one strain of it back to Spiro Agnew and his attacks on the media in 1970.
That’s the vice president under Nixon, sent specifically out by Nixon to go beat up the press as a way to shore up support for the rest of the Nixon administration.
I think what we’re seeing now is typical of countries that have slid into authoritarian rule, where conditions that have been around for a long time that have been frustrating to people for a long time, sources of anger and resentment coalesce around an individual because that individual happened to show up on the scene. It could’ve taken 20 more years for that to happen or it could’ve happened 20 years ago, but it didn’t, because the person didn’t arrive at the right time under the right conditions.
I think that one thing is yes, these things have been going on for a long time, but there wasn’t an individual who surfaced to embody them in the way that Trump has.
Second, resentment of the mainstream media dates back to Agnew. As I said, many presidents have made use of it. Republicans especially have been amenable to that. Now we have something more extreme, in the sense that we have a semi-organized movement of people who profit from that and who continue it in the institution of Breitbart and talk radio on the right and an activist core on social media that shouts down news reports and attacks journalists, and then a Trump machine that profits from that and coordinates in a way with that, because his Twitter feed is central headquarters for that in a way. It’s the combination of all of those things and the built-up frustration with the political parties, with political elites of all kinds, and with the national news media, which doesn’t see itself as part of [inaudible] class, even though it is.
I’m going to continue to try to be positive for a little while longer. The president doesn’t like the press, and there’s a big chunk of the population, probably not the majority, who share his views. Maybe he’s even being actively hostile toward the press. We’ve seen him denigrate CNN and BuzzFeed and do that weird stagey press conference.
He’s been doing stuff like that throughout the campaign, putting the press in a pen, encouraging his audience to jeer at them. You don’t have to be popular. No one is preventing them from doing what they want to do. There are more ways than ever, more outlets than ever to reach people. The stuff you were talking about, the social media stuff that the Republicans and the Trump folks have done a really good job of harnessing, is all available to anyone of any ideological stripe. What’s the big deal?
If you think things are fine, you’re welcome to that.
Go with me here.
In addition to what I have said, we have another strange thing that’s happened that I don’t think anybody really understands. We don’t even have a good language for it. Part of what I’m trying to do in my writing right now is just find ways of describing this part of it that will make any sense at all. In some way or another, reality seems to have weakened as a constraint in politics. We don’t just see this in the U.S. It’s happening in Europe as well, where the whole idea that there are common facts that everybody has to accept just because they’re facts, and we can disagree, disagree violently about them.
About the cause and what they mean and what to do about it.
The cause and what to do. That idea that there are factual truths that don’t depend on opinion has, for some reason which I don’t think we understand, taken a hit in the West. Even though, yes, there are more ways for journalists to reach people than ever, there’s more stories out there than ever, there’s more people paying attention to different forms like podcasts than ever, it’s a glorious time for journalism, there is no way for us to be confident that even the most devastating factual account of what’s going on with the Trump administration will be accepted or believed or even register with the people who ought to be disturbed by it. When you put that together with everything else that I started the podcast with …
We don’t have any moorings.
… we are entering some kind of … Again, the fact that we don’t have a good language for this and that we sound like amateur philosophers or college freshmen trying to talk about it, the fact that reality is somehow losing its grip, that we don’t have a common world of fact, that we have a president who seems to find that whole notion alien to him, is deeply disturbing, and it certainly has huge implications for journalism.
In the last year when people have been talking about a post-fact era …
Which is a terrible name.
What does that really mean?
We’re full of terrible names, fake news. We’re all just fumbling around, like you said. Maybe we’re half-stoned because we’re freshmen in college. I think people say, “Oh, this is the internet and it’s Facebook,” and everyone gets to pick their own thing.
I’m sure that’s true, but I keep thinking, wait, Fox News has been on the air for 20 years and they’ve really been pushing an alternate version of reality, and that’s been pretty powerful. I think to let them off the hook in this discussion is unfair, because Obama, birtherism, any version of that, all the ills of the Clintons that were not true, you found a home for those on Fox News that was powerful in pushing the stuff out long before the internet. Are we giving them a pass just because we’ve now accepted that as mainstream?
I think it’s a very good point. Fox News has been pushing an alternate reality for a long time. They did it strategically behind a slogan, “Fair and balanced,” that was meant to mock the claims of the mainstream media.
By the way, if you ever said to Roger Ailes or anyone under him, “I know you’re kidding, right? I’m in on the joke,” they would get furious. They really carried it straight-faced.
That, as I said, has been building for a long time. One of the interesting things about that is, though, that people in the right-wing media’s machine, people at Fox, people who had large audiences on talk radio, had been telling their listeners for a long time, “Don’t believe the mainstream media.” They themselves began their day by reading the New York Times.
They didn’t start the day and say, “Everything in that newspaper is a lie.” They took it as the news of the day, yes, with a liberal spin, and they would try and unspin it for themselves and warn their audiences against that. They never looked at the news coming out of the major news organizations saying, “That is all fake.”
I remember Rush Limbaugh and driving around listening to AM talk radio aghast in the early ’90s and Vince Foster stuff. Maybe it was just a smaller sector of the world that got to that stuff, but there was a whole — I’m going to say the word anyway — fake news version of the Clintons that you could find easily by turning on the radio.
Let me repeat what I said. Let me repeat what I said. They told their audiences, “This is fake.” They told their audiences, “Don’t believe a word of it. That’s made-up.” I’m saying that individually themselves, they didn’t think that way. Now people who are refugees from right-wing radio, like Charlie Sykes, are saying, “You know what? We took this too far.”
“We made a Frankenstein.”
“Because our listeners, there’s no way to tell them that the thing that they just said they believed is factually incorrect. There’s no way to correct some of these lies and conspiracy theories and mythologies that the right-wing believes, and we don’t really know what to do about that, because we have taught our audiences that there is no such thing as a fact-check.”
We’re talking about structural stuff, and we’ll talk about more of it in a bit. There is one practical thing I want to talk about that’s top of mind with me. Some of the coverage that I’m reading from the press about the way Trump is interacting with the press seems to focus on, “Here’s the way the president normally interacts with the press.” You have a press pool. You have press conferences. When you have a press conference, you’re supposed to behave this way, let CNN answer a question because CNN is part of the established media. We get to be in a room in the White House, and the Trump folks systematically are saying, “Nope, nope, nope, we’re not doing all that.” They take great delight in pushing that stuff.
As someone who doesn’t participate in that world, I’ve never gone to a White House press conference, I don’t write about Washington politics, but as someone who reads this stuff pretty carefully, I keep thinking, all the things the press is complaining about seem to be the complaint of someone who’s used to a position of privilege, who’s lost that privilege and is not complaining about the right thing.
I agree with that.
Good. I don’t feel so bad.
I think especially the White House press corps, which is just one division of the Washington press corps, but the White House press corps is almost engaged in a kind of magical thinking, where if we can just preserve the forms and conventions and rituals of the job, then the job will remain the same.
If they’d let us have the room that’s literally above the pool in the White House, it’s okay, but if they move us 50 feet out, that’s really bad.
That’s right. They’re not capable of being strategic about what they defend fiercely and what they let go, because they can’t distinguish between things that are just conventions that don’t have any real force behind them and things that are truly important.
I’ll give you an example. If there is nobody on the White House grounds to see who’s coming and leaving, who’s actually meeting with the president, that’s a big deal, because he may be meeting with all kinds of people who are questionable, or where the question is why are they coming to the White House.
We can’t see them, and there’s no opportunity to ask them, “What did you talk about?” for example. That is a big loss. That’s really important. Whether there is a televised briefing or it’s not televised is not central to the republic. The White House press, I think, is so anxious about what is going to happen that they’re just holding onto things the way they used to be, as if that will make it better. It’s not going to be better. It’s going to be worse, way worse.
What is the thing they should be focused on instead?
It’s very important to try and find out what is going on in this administration. It is not important for the press to have this theatrical role as the inquisitor every day in the briefing room. Being on camera isn’t necessarily important. What you can find out is [important].
The idea of the live White House briefing, that’s a newish idea.
It’s a new thing. If it’s not live every day, if it’s not on camera every day, that’s not a central matter. Things like freedom of information requests and getting responses to those, that’s way more important.
Which they’re not going to get. The Obama White House wasn’t good with that stuff.
No, they’re not. One of the things that I want to see the White House press corps do, they had a town meeting a week ago where the members of the association got together to talk to their leadership. Usually they have about 40 people there, but this year they had 100 people there. What are they talking about? They’re talking about preserving the briefing.
They should be talking about how do we operate under conditions of semi-authoritarian rule, what can we learn from countries where that kind of shift has overtaken the political system, how do we shift from inside-out reporting to outside-in reporting. Those are the kinds of things that I think they should be deliberating about.
These are all things that you talk about in your posts. I want to talk about that in a minute. First we’re going to hear from me talking about something that I’m doing.
Jay, I’m back. I was just thinking about what it’s going to be like to hang out in February at a Ritz-Carlton on the Pacific. Pretty nice.
We’ll talk about Trump. We’ll talk especially with Marty Baron, but I think a lot of the folks there are thinking about Trump, even though they’re not doing coverage of the White House. You think about this stuff all the time. You were talking about some of the things the press corps can do, some of the things they can’t do. I think a lot of what you’re talking about is some of this stuff is structural and there’s really no way for the press to really properly get out of this hole they’re in.
One of the things I think about a lot, you and I tweet at each other about it, is if Trump is at best just talking without any thought about what he’s saying, and worst-case scenario is actively lying, if he’s got people like Kellyanne Conway actively lying on his behalf, Sean Spicer actively lying, and we’ve again tolerated lying and spinning from administration representatives for a long time, but this seems beyond the pale, should the press stop interviewing them? Should they stop asking them questions? Should they stop putting them on the air? Do you distinguish between asking Kellyanne Conway a question and asking Donald Trump a question? If Donald Trump’s going to go on a podium and say things that have no relation to reality, do you keep the camera on?
What I have said is, I don’t think the people interviewing Kellyanne Conway know why they’re doing that, meaning that the journalistic logic of it is growing dimmer with every interview.
Because the journalistic logic is, “We’ve heard from one side. Let’s ask the president.”
Yes, and also, Peter, the logic is, “This is a representative of the president. This is somebody who can speak for the Trump administration.” If we find that what Kellyanne Conway says is routinely or easily contradicted by Donald Trump, then that rationale disappears. Another reason to interview Kellyanne Conway is our viewers want to understand how the Trump world thinks. If what the end result of an interview with her is is more confusion about what the Trump world thinks, then that rationale evaporates.
It’s not the lying. It’s that she’s not consistent.
No. It’s not just lying or spin or somebody who is skilled in the political arts of putting the best face on things.
Or not answering a question.
Or not answering a question, which is a pretty basic method of doing politics. It’s that when you are done listening to Kellyanne Conway, you probably understand less. That’s a problem.
If that’s the case, and you’re Jim Rutenberg and you’re writing an article about Bill Maher this weekend or you do anything, should you stop asking Kellyanne Conway for comments? If you’re CNN, should you stop putting them on the air?
CNN this weekend I think tweeted, “As we know, just because Sean Spicer says something or someone from the Trump administration says something,” I’m butchering the tweet, “doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true.” If CNN now is saying as an organization that we know consistently we’re not going to get truthful things from these people, why put them on air, or do you think they should?
I think that is a question CNN should be asking itself. Either you take special measures so that after these people appear you have something on air that responds to that, checks that, that undoes the confusion that they just created, maybe that. Or you shift your rationale and you explain candidly to people, “We’re having them on just to prevent us from being criticized,” or, “We’re having them on because it’s entertaining,” or, “Look, we need conflict.” Just be real about it and say, “This isn’t actually of journalistic value. It has a different value, and that’s why we’re putting them here.”
Put the Benny Hill theme in the background as they go on.
Yeah, whatever, a chyron solution, I don’t know. There’s got to be some way of just don’t pretend that this is a normal interview with the normal rationale.
You were talking about this before the break, the idea that the press has been getting together and having these discussions in that case about the institutional behavior that they want to encourage or not. People broadly say, “The press has to get together and act together and defend itself.” I think you’re skeptical about that idea, but I think you also are endorsing it.
The way I think about it is, the press as an institution is a very weak institution. Part of the reason for that is it’s very difficult for it to act in coordination. I call it a phrase from Harold Rosenberg, the great mid-century critic, a herd of independent minds, meaning everybody in journalism thinks of themselves as a maverick and that they’ve got their own thing.
They have their own bosses and they have their own audiences.
Yeah, we’ve got our own thing. Yeah, they’re very conformist. You have to understand that about the press. There really aren’t any strong institutions that can speak for the press as a whole, for example. It’s very difficult to get this beast to change its behavior. Even something as simple as, “Hey, let’s not go to these off-the-record briefings with administration officials who should be able to speak on the record,” even that, which is actually a fairly easy thing to do, is almost impossible for them. An institution that can’t act institutionally is easily exploited. That’s the situation we have.
Would you want them to if they could, if they could get together and actually do things that were both symbolic and maybe even practically important?
There might be certain things that would be smart for them to do. I don’t necessarily tell them, “I have the answer. Here’s what you should do.” I think the people who do the work really should do that. I don’t want to be lecturing them in the negative sense of, “I know what’s wrong with you.” I do think that they are under attack, and the people who are attacking them and who want to discredit them are coordinating, in a sense.
They should respond in kind.
They need some sort of response to it. They need to realize the fight that they’re in. Doing good stories is not going to be enough.
The fact that — and you say this in one of your posts — you say, “By the way, if they did respond and coordinate, they’ll then generate more criticism because they’ll say, ‘Look, the press is colluding. We told you they’re out to get us.’ Here they are.”
There’s a related question for me, which is, we’re in a weird place so maybe this is the kind of question we can’t entertain, but the press is not The Press, capital T, capital P. The press is CNN and CBS and mainstream stuff, and it’s also Breitbart. They’re actually a press organization or journalistic organization.
You can do it in asterisks or quotes or italics if you want. Glenn Greenwald and The Intercept. There’s all sorts of different people. They’re a range of the ideological spectrum. It’d be weird if they all moved as one. I don’t think we’d want that.
That’s true. From a legal point of view, which is a very important point of view, all of them are the press, they all have equal protections. When we talk about who belongs in the briefing room, it isn’t just the big organizations like ABC News and CNN. Certainly smaller organizations, ideologically inflected journalism has a place as well. These are the press. However, there is a core to that body which stretches from the PBS News Hour to CNN to Washington Post, L.A. Times, Time Magazine, AP, CNN.
Yeah, and that’s a very large portion. Within that group I think you can talk about common beliefs, common practices. I always found this interesting, when somebody shifts from CNN to PBS, which people have, like Judy Woodruff, she doesn’t have to relearn journalism. It’s exactly the same journalism, even though she’s moving from a commercial system to a quote unquote “public” system, and because it’s one culture. That’s what I mean when I say the press. I’m talking the political press. I mean that, that culture.
You were saying you didn’t want to be prescriptive and you don’t want to tell people how to do their job, but you do have lots of advice that you’re giving them.
I want to go through some of it, because I think we’ve established some of the problems they’re facing now. Here’s one I like: “Zero-base the beat structure.” I know what that means, but you tell our audience.
I recommended this as a thought exercise, something that might loosen up the mind. If a big national news organization like the Washington Post or CNN didn’t have any beats to start with, and they had to redraw the entire beat system from scratch for Trump in this moment right now, what would that system look like, if you threw out everything you started with?
An example of what I was getting at there is what Marty Baron has assigned Dave Weigel to do. He’s a really interesting reporter, been around Washington for a while, very talented. His beat is going to be Congress, roughly speaking, but it’s specifically the extreme right and the extreme left in Congress. That is interesting. It’s not covering Congress, it’s not covering the leadership, which are inherited categories that aren’t of your own invention. It’s a certain point the extreme right and the extreme left touch, that’s one of the premises of the beat, but also that you need people monitoring stuff that at one time would’ve been called fringe, because the fringe is now empowered in some way that it wasn’t before. Anyway, that’s not a traditional beat.
Traditionally you might’ve spent more time on what’s the whip doing and how’s this bill progressing. You still need to talk to Mitch McConnell and figure out what he’s doing, but the stuff on the edges is just as important or maybe even more so.
It’s also this, another element, very different, is what’s a feature. These categories that journalists use to organize their work, which descend from basically the era of the print newspaper, and make total sense to them, actually have no meaning to users at all.
They’re just stories.
Yeah, and what to a user is enterprise journalism. If you explain what journalists mean by enterprise journalism they say, “I thought that was journalism.” What is features? What is style? What I meant was by zero-basing the beat structure, it’s not only how should we divide up this subject, but how can we begin to categorize what we’re doing in terms that make sense to users? A lot of the categories that seem totally natural to people in journalism don’t actually make any sense to users.
This is one that people have been struggling with throughout the Trump campaign, and certainly accelerating since November, “Don’t let Trump’s Twitter feed set your agenda.”
This is a really naughty one, because on the one hand, he’s the president. Even if he or whoever’s tweeting for him says something preposterous, that’s still coming from the president or the president-elect, you can’t ignore it. And then part of you says, “Absolutely ignore it. It’s nonsense,” or, “He’s intentionally distracting you from whatever. Who knows? There’s more important things than what this person tweeted.” You say don’t let it set your agenda. How do you pull that off?
I think it’s a tricky thing, but we can handle one degree of complexity on this podcast, right?
At least. Maybe one.
You can’t ignore it, because fundamentally it’s not that different from him posting a message on WhiteHouse.gov or stepping to the microphone and saying, “Here’s my policy.” There’s no basis on which to exclude tweets from presidential communications. You can’t ignore it, because it’s an insight into Trump, but you can’t let it set your news agenda.
You need a more well-anchored, more fundamental way of saying, “Here’s what we’re going to concentrate on today.” That means coming up with some way of dealing with his tweets without letting them overtake your day. I don’t think that’s that hard. As a design problem, I think we could solve that pretty easily. We could annotate his tweets. We could have a section where we just tell you what’s going on in his Twitter feed and fact-check it without letting it become what we’re doing that day.
Over the weekend, John Lewis says, “It’s not a legitimate president. I’m not going to the inauguration.” Trump attacks him via Twitter. His aides then double down on it. That then is a story for the weekend. On the one hand, I kind of get it, he’s going after a major figure in American history and American government. It seems to be yet another step beyond the pale.
On the other hand, it seems to me that this is the exact same thing we went through last weekend except instead of John Lewis, it was Meryl Streep, not to diminish John Lewis in any way, but it’s still someone speaking out against the president, the president reacting via Twitter, a whole series of stories about it. Meanwhile, the things that are going to be really consequential, we’re not covering.
I have a little thing at my blog that I started a while ago. I haven’t updated it yet for the last month or so, so I have to do that. I have this little post in a section of my blog called The Board in which I list …
Yeah, it’s really slick.
Thank you. I list the top problems in press criticism that concern me most right now. It’s a live list. It gets revised. I wrote it out. Each one’s a sentence with a link. It’s there to remind me, but also to anybody who’s interested in my work, these are the things I’m obsessing about. I would like to see news organizations have that list. It should be live. It should be easily linked to. They should revise it as events move. If you have that, these are the things that are really important.
Here’s our core.
Here’s our core that we’re concerned about, not topics, not business news, but actual ongoing stories, stories that are bigger than one story, and therefore revising it would actually be a big deal. If you could create that, make it public, refer to it, use it, actually believe it, then that is the ballast that keeps you from being swung from side to side by the Trump Twitter feed.
Here are two that are related, I think: “Try threat modeling” — you’re going to have to explain that one — and then also: “Journalists need to think politically about journalism itself, which does not mean to politicize it.” This might be two levels of difficulty.
Let’s take the first one. By threat modeling, I mean we have a lot of experience in how republics descend into authoritarian rule, and you can look at what’s happened in places like Turkey, in South America, in Poland, under Berlusconi in Italy or even Rob Ford in Toronto.
That’s the crack-smoking mayor.
Yeah. Learn from those situations what some of the warning signs are. A simple example would be extreme things are announced that really freak people out, and then they backtrack a little bit, so it doesn’t seem so bad. That would be an example.
Threat modeling, the suggestion there was how would press freedom begin to disappear in the United States, how might that actually happen, or how would the press become a completely impotent force, what would be the steps, what would be the warning signs, and try and articulate them before they happen so that you know what to look for. Threat modeling is a term that comes from cyber security, actually, which says: Try to game out how our system is going to be invaded, and then we’ll know what to protect against.
Now in cyber security you can say, “Oh, here’s various things we could do,” none of which I know, because I don’t know how to do any of these things. It seems like one of the recurring themes of your work here in these posts is, there’s not a lot you can do, some of this stuff is structural. You’re really boxed in. You say, “Try threat modeling. What would the threat look like?” A lot of people say the sirens are going off right now.
We don’t need to look for the signs. They’re here.
Yes. In fact, one of the funny things that’s going on for me now on social media is I try to give my warnings as I have here and then people who follow me say, “It’s worse than that! It’s already happening!” or, “Winter isn’t coming, it’s already here, Jay!”
I’m being lectured to by people telling me it’s worse, and I’m thinking, “Well, it’s pretty bad.” Anyway, that’s just an occupational hazard right now. I think that real threat modeling would, if you conducted it and thought it through, it would help you decide what your priorities are, what you should put investment into.
This is a huge screaming air raid siren. This is an alarm clock.
This is worth making a big deal about and this is a one-day story.
Let’s move on. Then thinking politically about journalism instead of politicizing it means what?
Here’s what I mean. The press is a political institution in the sense that it cannot do its job unless people trust it. It needs a certain amount of support in order to function at all. For example, if nobody will talk to you because everybody thinks you’re just the worst, you can’t do the job of reporter. In Silicon Valley, if everybody thought Recode was propaganda and refused to pick up the phone, you actually could not do your work.
Your work depends to a certain degree on trust as an institution, and any institution in that situation has to have in that sense a constituency. The press is political in that way. However, if it starts to think of itself as political in the sense of as a partner with politicians, an adjunct to political parties, or as simply an ideological reflex, then no one’s going to trust it.
Seems like we’re there in the minds of some people, you can see a place, the part where the press becomes politicized as a political actor. It seems like gravity is going to take a lot of people there, and/or they’re going to go there by themselves.
The New York Times very much seems like it’s setting itself up like the opposition party. I think the Washington Post is as well. The Times just announced this morning they’re going to spend $5 million on Trump. It seems like BuzzFeed, which initially said, “We’re going to be apolitical,” has really embraced the idea they’re going to be oppositional to Trump. I think a lot of people would say that’s a good thing, by the way, that it’s silly to pretend otherwise. What’s wrong with that?
I don’t think anything’s wrong with it except that we have to keep in mind that doing journalism is different than doing politics. When you are doing politics, your goal is to win.
It’s to win, it’s to achieve power.
Winning power is different than telling people what’s going on. Even if you are an ideologically inflected journalist, let’s say you are editor of a labor union newspaper, you definitely believe in a labor movement, you think organized labor is a good thing. You wouldn’t have a job if you didn’t. You still have to be able to say to the members and the readers, “You know what? Your union leadership is selling you down the river.” That’s journalism. If you are, on the other hand, on the leadership’s team, you’re not going to do that, because that’s doing politics.
Even in cases where journalists are free to have an opinion, are clear about their ideology, the role of the journalist in telling us what’s going on and whether people like it or not remains the same. Kara Swisher sometimes tells people what she thinks is going on in Silicon Valley. She criticized tech leaders who went and met with Donald Trump. She’s a reporter, but she also has views occasionally, and she lets us know what they are. I think that’s ultimately a better way of being trusted than, “We don’t have any opinions. We don’t have any ideology. We don’t have any beliefs.”
The “view from nowhere” that Jeff Jarvis talks about.
Is that you?
That’s my phrase.
Oh man, I was so pleased with myself because I was going to attribute it to the right person, and I confused Jeff and Jay.
You completely blew it.
I fucked it up, sorry.
Let me explain something else that I think is really important here. The economist Albert Hirschman wrote a really interesting little book a long time ago, kind of obscure, called “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.” His notion was that when people are dissatisfied with a firm, he used the company, but it could also be an institution or political party, they have three basic options available to them.
Loyalty is, “I don’t like the way the Chicago Cubs are run, but I’m a Cub fan, what can I do?” That’s loyalty. Voice is, “Chicago Cubs, you’re really ripping the fans off, and I’m really angry about it, and I’m going to tell you why.” That’s voice. You speak up. Exit is, “That’s it. I’m out. I’m done. I’m going to become a White Sox fan.” I think this is what has happened to the national media is there were people who were just loyal, the New York Times readers.
It’s what you do.
Yeah, what you do, “I watch Walter Cronkite.” That worked for a while. There’s fewer and fewer of those people.
Some of that was structural. They didn’t really have a lot of choice. You’re going to want news, you’re going to need an ample place to get it.
It was structural. It was control of distribution, things you’ve talked about on this podcast many times. Some people were loyal. Voice was always weak in journalists. Journalists were not great at voice. They said they did everything in the name of the reader and the viewer, but they didn’t actually listen to them very much. That’s been a big problem.
Then there’s been a lot of people who have exited. If Hirschman wrote his book today, there would be a fourth category, exit, voice, loyalty and attack, discredit. Partly what I mean by political institution is that. Journalists are in this situation where a lot of people are dissatisfied with the firm. Fewer and fewer are loyal. A lot of people are using voice. They ought to listen to them. Many have exited. Those people, it’s very hard to get them back. Then you have others who are on the attack.
One more dour thing and then we’re going to end on an up-note. About a year ago I had Nate Silver on this podcast. It was the time where Nate was saying, “All right, I get it, I was wrong. I discounted Trump. Looks like he’s here to stay and he may win the nomination.”
During that conversation Nate would say, “Look, one of the things I’m really upset about is the way that the media has really not covered Trump responsibly. They really haven’t done a good job of explaining how flawed a person he is, what a bad candidate he is, what a bad leader he would be.” I disagreed and I said, “There’s tons of stuff out there.”
You can’t argue anymore that in between last February and March and through the election that most of Trump’s skeletons or a number of his skeletons were dumped out in clear view. Many people who voted for Trump said, “I have questions and doubts,” or, “I dislike him.” He still won.
Now he says, “By the way, everything you complained about doesn’t matter because I won.” If we’re in a world where both through an election and also behavior, getting all this information about Trump out as best we can isn’t going to affect anything, should we just abandon all hope?
This is probably the hardest question that you’ve asked. I’ve thought a lot about it. My answer is inadequate, but I have tried to answer it. Here’s how. In order for the press to recover some authority so that what it says about Trump makes a difference, which is what you’re asking about …
Yes, thank you.
… I think journalists have to conduct a kind of extraordinary act of listening that they’ve never tried to do before. What I mean by listening is not asking people why they voted for Trump or ask them what they don’t like about the media. I employ a distinction here from C. Wright Mills, the great mid-century sociologist, who distinguished between troubles and issues.
I think what journalists have to do is understand people’s troubles so well by listening to them that they can see what the issues have to be if the political system is going to address those troubles, and then keep their eye and their coverage on those issues so that they are better representatives of what’s bothering people than the politicians who are trying to make traction out of those troubles.
I understand that if you’re talking about, with a clean slate we’re going to talk about what matters to America and what ails America, and we’re going to go out and we’re going to figure out what people in real America feel, and we’re going to write according to that. Now we’re in a world where there is a smorgasbord of things that Donald Trump is doing that are alarming to many people, with real reason. Are you saying we should find out which of those things are going to be resonant with that audience and write about those and ignore the others?
No. I’m saying that the starting point is having a better grasp on people’s troubles than the political system does. That’s the first thing. In order to be trusted with the kind of journalism that’s coming, I think there’s other things journalists can do. One is shift from the “view from nowhere” to “here’s where we’re coming from.” I think that’s more believable.
Tell the audience what the view from nowhere is, because it is your term and you should take full credit for it.
Shifting from the view from nowhere to here’s where we’re coming from.
No, no, no, can you tell people what the view from nowhere is?
The view from nowhere is actually a philosophical concept that we can observe the world without having a position. It’s an attractive idea. It’s a seductive idea. It’s also an illusion.
It’s bogus. No one actually believes that when you look at something you don’t have an opinion about it. It’s dumb to behave as such as a journalist.
Right, but there are certain reasons why people put forward that view even though it is impossible. Ditching the view from nowhere, or the voice of God, which would be the audio version, and instead saying, “Here’s where we’re coming from,” would be very good.
A second thing journalists should do is make it clear, “Yeah, we’re coming from somewhere, but we’ve done our reporting. We talked to a lot of people. We looked at the documents. We dug up information.” Emphasizing that you have a view but you are not just somebody who gives their views, you are a reporter, is really important.
A third thing is to shift toward the claim, “Don’t believe me, look for yourself. Don’t accept it, here’s the data. You think we’re biased, check it out.”
Show your work.
Show your work. The fourth thing is talk back. You think we got it wrong, we’re listening, and to be genuinely listening.
You segued nicely because I think you just covered some of this stuff, but I wanted to end on a up-note here. You say one of the things the press should do is learn from Fahrenthold. That’s David Fahrenthold, star Washington Post reporter, doing some of the things you’re talking up.
Explain why you want people to learn from him and what specifically you thought is worth emulating. He’s done some great reporting on Trump, and again, showed conclusively that his claims about giving extensively to charity were lies — again, didn’t matter in terms of the election. Beyond being a good reporter, what are the things that you’d want people to learn from him?
He was just named a CNN Contributor today, by the way, which is interesting. Some of the things Fahrenthold did that are really worth noting, one is he stayed on a story for a long period of time, same story. That sense of, “I’m not going away. I’m going to get to the bottom of this,” I think helps produce trust.
A second thing is he told us, “This is what I’m reporting on. This is what I’m trying to find out.” A lot of reporters don’t like to do that because they think someone’s going to steal their story. Did anyone steal his story really? Did that really happen?
No, it was a hard story. No one steals hard stories.
Because when you stay on something for that long, you can’t just steal the story. He told us what he was working on. Third thing he did was show us his methods, like the call sheet, which I’m sure you saw, handwritten.
If you haven’t seen it, he would literally show his call. He would take a photo of it, post it on Twitter.
“Here’s all the people I’m calling,” which is not only transparency, it also shows people, man, there’s a lot of work goes into this.
By the way, it stirs things up. If you’re not on that list, you think, “Oh, I should be on that list, maybe I should,” and you got tips that way, they generated tips.
That’s right. That’s the next thing he did was he asked for help, “Do you know something? I don’t know everything. Do you know something? Has anyone seen this? Does anyone know anything about that?” He asked for help. Then people who followed him could see the results of all that work in the stories that appeared in the Washington Post, which is not only seeing the culmination of effort, but it’s also, “Ah, now other people can see what I have been following.” There’s a lot of satisfaction there.
Plus, “I helped make this, whether my name’s on it or not.”
“I helped make this.” People are aware that not everybody’s following as closely as they are, so they want to see it in the Washington Post. Then finally, he’s a person with good humor, he’s self-effacing, he has a good nature about him, he’s interactive, he’s self-deprecating, and all those things of course make it easier to trust. “Learn from Fahrenthold” means he’s showing you how you can be trusted even in a low-trust environment like the one we’re in now.
There we go. We’ve got four years or more of Donald Trump, most likely. Learn from Fahrenthold. Learn from Jay Rosen. We can follow you on Twitter.
Learn from Peter.
Your blog, PressThink.org. That billboard thing you have up there is very cool. Thank you for your time today. This is a heavy discussion, but informative, and some humor in there as well. Thanks to you guys for listening.