The Mainstream Media Hasn’t Learned Anything

 

NOTE: I’m currently working on the third installment of Two Minutes Hate, so blogging has been sparse the last few days. The third piece will be more comprehensive than the first two.

But there is still a shit ton of news breaking.

In light of major networks allowing Trump to have uninterrupted airtime tonight, I thought I’d post a thread by Jay Rosen that I think is right on the money.

Remember something: this wall thing is not an emergency for the American public; it’s an emergency for Trump’s presidency by shutting down the government and having no idea what the political cost would be.

Democrats should not give an inch. Don’t let Trump save face. Make him eat it.

Oh, and if you tune into his stunt tonight, YOU ARE NOT helping matters.

Thread:

Over the last few days, it’s become clearer and clearer to me that, without intervention, coverage of the 2020 campaign is likely to be a disaster for everyone except Trump and his core voters, who want to watch it all burn anyway. In this thread I describe the danger I see.

By “disaster for everyone,” I mean all candidates opposing Trump, journalists themselves, voters from all sides (except those who have exited from the news system by merging with his hate campaign against the news media) and anyone who seeks the repair of American democracy.

Start with the simple fact of inertia. In ruins after the debacle of 2016, the horse race model and “game” schema that have instructed campaign journalism for at least 40 years are up and running again. It appears the bosses have no better ideas, and no will to develop them.

In November I outlined an alternative to the horse race model and “insider” sensibility. It exists. The people who make campaign journalism should be looking in all directions for such alternatives, but they are not. They are going with that they know. (Here is a link to that thread).

Part of the reason for the inertia is that the horse race still has advantages that pop up around its massive and burned-out core. It serves the junkies, creates instant newsroom consensus on approach, makes for cheap drama, and spreads risk because everyone else is doing it.

Another reason election coverage is once again getting modeled on ESPN’s College Football Gameday: The knowledge that campaign journalists most want to perform for us is their “savvy” as detached analysts and predictors of what will happen. It’s nuts, I know. But it is real.

Part of the problem is how we name and frame alternatives to the “Gameday” style. The usual choice is to promote “issues” coverage, or “policy,” or even more vaguely, “substance” over “the process.” Everyone who uses these terms thinks we know what we mean by them. I do not.

If “the issues” are a proper alternative to horse race journalism, we still have to ask: where do those issues come from? “Electability”— there’s an issue. Which does matter, to a degree. But it’s also another way of packaging horse race analysis. And it pre-empts the voters.

There are problems with calling for more “policy” too. Journalists hear that and think, “could be awfully dry.” Compared to the dynamics of The Race, it seems like an “eat your vegetables” thing. They position themselves as realists, compared to your well-meaning cluelessness.

We need to know what to call for. In ‘Election coverage: the road not taken’ I put my stake in the ground. Journalists should start by asking their public: what do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes? From there you can synthesize a voters agenda. It distills popular demand for the kind of debate about things that matter that can displace two years of horse race analysis, and “yeah, but can she win?” Savviness. Paul H Rosenberg explains it well in this Salon piece.

Not only is the search for campaign coverage alternatives nowhere on the visible horizon in American journalism, but a changed dynamic in Washington is threatening to make the situation worse. In order to explain how that works, I will need to introduce a term to you.

Alongside the production of news and analysis, journalists in the major media are constantly engaged in another manufacture: the production of their own innocence. They feel they have to continuously prove they are being even-handed and not on anyone’s side. We all know this.

By leading a hate campaign against the press, by emerging as the most potent source of misinformation in the culture, and by attacking the other institutions of American democracy in asymmetrical fashion, Trump has played havoc with the production of innocence in journalism.

Along with the reality of one-party control in Washington after the 2016 election, Trump’s war on institutional democracy — and his attack on the very possibility of a fact-based debate — made it impossible for journalists to stay in the safety zone between opposing sides.

That picture didn’t fit. They had to push back, even as their companies saw a surge in revenue from greater attention to politics and shock at the sheer awfulness of the Trump phenomenon. The production of innocence ground to a halt. Trump vs the press became a daily reality.

But journalists were never comfortable with it. Marty Baron, editor of the Washington Post, spoke for his colleagues when he said, “We’re not at war, we’re at work.” Having to take the side of democracy against Trump’s campaign to undermine it was not where they wanted to be.

Now the picture has changed; it has been normalized. Divided government in Washington — plus a field of 2020 candidates who can be examined and found wanting as plausible contenders to Trump — means the production of innocence has come roaring back, along with the horse race.

The case for taking the side of democracy against its undermining by Trump is as strong as ever in journalism. Maybe stronger, as he begins to melt down under pressure. But with “partisan warfare” revived as story line, and the primary campaign ready for Gameday treatment the conditions are in place for an even bigger debacle than 2016 was for journalists in the political press. Left to their own devices, they will go back to being above it all. (“Is she likable enough?”) Meanwhile, our civic emergency rages on. So what we are to do?

One thing we can do is draw attention to people in the news business who have been willing to speak up and say, “We have to change course.” This is what Chris Hayes [said] last week. “It is our job — all of our job — to do better this time around.”

I’d love to see a coalition of willing newsrooms emerge, made up of editors and staff who in 2020 are publicly determined to replace the Gameday template with something different. It will probably have to start at the local and regional level.
 
The situation in the US is serious, so it makes sense to look abroad too. Australia has national elections in 2019. They have a horse race press there and a cult of the insider in political journalism. Maybe a troupe of malcontents in Oz wants to experiment with alternatives.
 
Then there’s peer pressure. Journalists who are not on the politics beat, but who have looked with increasing disgust on the game, could start signaling to their colleagues that there is widespread frustration with these patterns in their work. It’s not just the “partisans.”
 
The institutions of American democracy are under strain, including the press. But the strength of American democracy has always been institutions + social movements that pressure them to act. I would not rule that out, either. The message has to be clear: This is not a game.
 
*End Thread*
 
A perfect example of a horse race journalist is Chris Cillizza of CNN. He’s the poster boy for lazy political journalism.