Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Saturday, September 17, 2016 2:45 pm

The press is lying, but so are the voters


Two of our greatest American institutions are badly failing us today — our news media, and our very electorate. Both like to think of themselves as standing up for our essential American-ness, embracing values as defined in, say, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and even the Pledge of Allegiance. But both groups are lying, to us and to themselves.

Evidence of the problem can be found in the news media’s problems in covering Donald Trump, which I addressed earlier this week, and I’ll have more to say on that in a bit. But let me start with the electorate.

We voters like to think of ourselves as spokespeople for American values, holding these truths to be self-evident — a free and independent country, a democratic republic where all are equal, with liberty and justice for all, and so on and so forth. In point of fact, those truths are not self-evident; they are evident only to the extent that we do the work of making them real, every day, everywhere. And that is not what American voters have chosen to do. Largely although not exclusively by embracing Donald Trump as a presidential candidate, a large minority of Americans has said something quite different: that they choose to be ruled by a tyrant.

This is not a new development. That segment of Americans has always been present and has been politically active continuously since World War II. They were there in the 1950s, lining up behind Joe McCarthy; they were there in the 1960s, hailing the domestic spy and hypocrite J. Edgar Hoover long after it was clear he was a constitutional abomination; they were there in the 1970s, defending the indefensible Richard Nixon; they were there in the ’80s, supporting the lawbreaking and increasingly senile Ronald Reagan; they were there in the ’90s, cheering George H.W. Bush’s pardons of the Iran-contra lawbreakers as he left the White House; they were there in the aughts, angrily denigrating anyone who didn’t support the Bush administration’s serial violations of U.S. and international law; and they are here today preparing to cast a ballot for a dyed-in-the-orange-wool fascist. Take it away, Esquire’s Charlie Pierce:

A substantial portion of this country wants someone not to govern, but to rule, to defeat the imaginary enemies they have concocted so as not to bestir themselves to resist the forces that actually are working against their interest. For the balance of this election cycle, and largely due to the presence in it of this ridiculous man and his ridiculous campaign, the American people have proven themselves profoundly unworthy of being called citizens. …

[Trump’s personal and financial involvement with Moammar Qaddafi] likely will occasion another spasm of impotent introspection on the part of our elite political media on the topic of, “Why doesn’t any of this stick?” But few of the members of that media will dare to look at the real answer, which is that there is a substantial constituency for what Trump has been peddling. …  Americans are bored with their democracy and they don’t have the democratic energy to do anything about it, so they’ll settle for an entertaining quasi-strongman. When they decline, democracies get the dictators they deserve. A country mired in apathy and lassitude gets a dictator who can’t even put in the hard work of becoming very good at it. …

But the truth is that the facts are out there if anyone wants to make the effort and find them. (The elite political media makes this harder by its curious reluctance to let these stories fully inform its coverage of the campaign.) That’s our collective job as citizens, and to do it requires a collective national will that no longer may be in us. With every new poll that is released, I comfort myself with the knowledge that Donald Trump is not willing to put in the hours to be a competent authoritarian, which is cold comfort, I know, but you take what you can get.

That cannot be said of the next guy to try it, and there will be a next time, because the basic tectonic plates beneath our democracy have shifted so as to make the next guy inevitable. The mechanics of tyranny are not a magician’s prestige, the third part of a trick in which the lady is reassembled or the rabbit brought back to the hat. The mechanics of tyranny are primal in all of us, and vestigial in very few. They are reflexes, like breathing or flinching. We engage them without thinking. In fact, that’s the very best way to do it.

These are people who largely have decided not to do the hard work of self-goverance. Rather than seeking wisdom, or at least knowledge, they seek candidates who reflect their preconceptions and prejudices and who seek extraconstitutional power. They do so secure in the belief, though lacking any proof of that belief, that should such a tyranny come to pass, they would never suffer.

Why do they do so?

One big part of the problem, as I noted on Monday, is that the U.S. news media, for the most part, has not provided the information that a free people need to govern themselves, but the problem with the press is bigger than that. Donald Trump has presented the press with a campaign in which it is important, perhaps for the first time, for the press to respond not only with facts but also with values — and the press has almost completely failed to do so.

When Web 2.0 and social media began to become a thing back in the early 2000s, I wrestled with this issue in my role as an editor, Web jockey and blogger for the News & Record in Greensboro. Among the many things that seemed clear to me was that “objectivity,” the standard of the mainstream U.S. news media for the past century or so, was an inadequate standard for a changing industry. I suggested to co-workers at that paper and in the industry, and to the occasional reader who asked, that we needed something different, something more.

I argued, in different times and places and with differing levels of coherence, that we needed not objectivity, but fairness, accuracy and transparency in pursuit of what Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, in their book “The Elements of Journalism,” called “the discipline of verification.” With respect to transparency, I said, news organizations need to be open to their publics about how they do what they do, and about why they do it. And those reasons, I argued further, should stem from clear, well-defined values.

What should those values look like? I never completed a list, but I did start one. I would have hoped, for example, that a U.S. news organization would embrace and stand for some of the country’s fundamental values — like, well, liberty and justice for all. Equal protection under the law. Government by the people, which meant, as a practical matter, that the people needed to be able to know in almost all circumstances what the government was doing, and how, and with whose money and for whose benefit.

It sounds pretty basic and pretty logical, but the longer I spent in newspapers, the less I believed that the U.S. news media really stood for this stuff anymore, if it ever had. (Some of the country’s best, and best-known, newspapers were segregationist until relatively recently, for example. For another example, U.S. news media did not uniformly criticize our government’s use of torture, a crime against both U.S. and international law for which it had hanged representatives of other governments.)

And that is part of the reason why the media are failing to confront the danger that a possible Trump candidacy poses to those American values, writes Brian Beutler in The New Republic: The press hasn’t expressed those values because it hasn’t embraced them except in very attenuated circumstances. What it values most is itself.

The press is not a pro-democracy trade, it is a pro-media trade. By and large, it doesn’t act as a guardian of civic norms and liberal institutions—except when press freedoms and access itself are at stake. Much like an advocacy group or lobbying firm will reserve value judgments for issues that directly touch upon the things they’re invested in, reporters and media organizations are far more concerned with things like transparency, the treatment of reporters, and first-in-line access to information of public interest, than they are with other forms of democratic accountability.

That’s not a value set that’s well calibrated to gauging Trump’s unmatched, omnidirectional assault on our civil life. Trump can do and say outrageous things all the time, and those things get covered in a familiar “did he really say that?” fashion, but his individual controversies don’t usually get sustained negative coverage unless he is specifically undermining press freedom in some clear and simple way.

Even then, though, the press has no language for explicating which affronts to press freedom are more urgent and dangerous than others. All such affronts are generally lumped together in a way that makes it unclear whether the media thinks it’s worse that Trump blacklists outlets and wants to sue journalists into penury or that Clinton doesn’t like holding press conferences.

The result is the evident skewing of editorial judgment we see in favor of stories where media interests are most at stake: where Clinton gets ceaseless scrutiny for conducting public business on a private email server; Trump gets sustained negative coverage for several weeks when his campaign manager allegedly batters a reporter; where Clinton appears to faint, but the story becomes about when it was appropriate for her to disclose her pneumonia diagnosis; where because of her illness, she and Trump will both be hounded about their medical records, and Trump will be further hounded for his tax returns—but where bombshell stories about the ways Trump used other people’s charity dollars for personal enrichment [or about how his financial dealings conflict directly with national interests — Lex] have a hard time breaking through.

News outlets are less alarmed by the idea that Trump might run the government to boost his company’s bottom line, or that he might shred other constitutional rights, because those concerns don’t place press freedoms squarely in crosshairs. Controversies like his proposal to ban Muslim travel into the U.S., create a deportation force to expel millions of immigrants, and build a wall along the southern border are covered less as affronts to American values than as gauche ideas that might harm his poll numbers with minorities. Trump’s most damaging scandal may have been his two-week political fight with the Khan family, but even there, the fact that Trump attacked the Khans’ religious faith was of secondary interest to questions like whether attacking a Gold Star family of immigrants would offend veterans and non-whites who might otherwise have voted for him.

Against that backdrop, it’s no surprise that when liberal intellectuals argue the press’ coverage of Trump and Clinton is out of whack, in ways that imperil the democracy itself, members of the media don’t see a world-historical blindspot that must be urgently corrected. They see an attack on the trade itself—and reflexively rush to protect it.

So when someone points out weaknesses — often huge ones — in the press coverage of Trump, the press doesn’t perceive the criticism as highlighting a danger to the country, it perceives the criticism directly as a danger to itself. As Beutler notes, this tendency was highlighted by Liz Spayd, the grossly inferior successor to Margaret Sullivan as public editor (ombudswoman, if you will) of The New York Times.

This problem can be prevented if the press will define and then act in accordance with its explicit values as elucidated in the founding documents, crafting those values as reflective of the press’s historical role as the representative of the people, all the people, who govern this country: its citizens. It also can be prevented if journalists will stop spending so much of their time worrying about what effect this proposal or that comment will have on one candidate or the other’s standing, and worry instead about what we talked about earlier: pursuit of the discipline of verification, including eyewitness verification.

Beutler agrees, in a separate article published just yesterday:

Most prominent political reporters have covered more than one election. This is my third election as a professional political writer; James Fallows has been doing this since the 1970s. Whether you have a short or long view, you’ve seen enough to say authoritatively that Trump is different from all major party nominees in living memory. It is not normal in modern times for a major party nominee to be an erratic, racist demagogue; and it is almost definitionally abnormal for a major party nominee to be described as such by leading members of his own party.

These are the cardinal facts of this election. They should be the dominant upshot of any significant increment of news coverage and analysis—the thing that reaches and sticks with casual news consumers, in the same way that even musical dilettantes can hum the leitmotif of Beethoven’s fifth symphony.

That is a journalistic judgment, just as sending hundreds of reporters to Louisiana to cover Hurricane Katrina was a journalistic judgment. It is not a Democratic or liberal judgment. It is not the equivalent of saying that unflattering revelations about Clinton should be suppressed or that any particular new revelation about Trump should be overhyped. It’s simply to say, through the many means we have to indicate what is important, what is breaking news, what is worthy of discussion, “we have seen this, it is ongoing, and it is extraordinary.” And then let the chips fall where they may.

For several weeks now—including since Labor Day, when most Americans truly began paying attention to the campaigns—these truths, which we all took for granted six months ago, have not been communicated to glancing news consumers. They’ve receded from most article leads, headlines, front pages, and A-block TV segments.

That development is the product of many collective choices and thousands of individual ones. It is an institutional failure, and as such, a major and abrupt course correction seems highly unlikely. But that doesn’t absolve reporters, editors, producers or anyone else who is part of the system. There’s still time to alter our focus, however incrementally, so that it better captures what’s new and alarming, and all journalists have some degree of power to nudge it in that direction. The goal is not to swing an election, or call Trump mean names, or render partisan judgment about whether electing him would be a world-historical mistake. It’s simply so that after this is all over, however it shakes out, we can say we bore witness faithfully.

What we do about the large minority of the electorate that appears to desire, or at least be content with, the election of a tyrant is a larger and more difficult question, likely encompassing everything from family dynamics and civic education to neuropsychology. And the stakes could not be higher outside the realms of global warming and giant meteors: The future of the 240-year-old American experiment depends on our finding an answer, for as Pierce observes, while this tyrant is quasi-comical and in many ways inept, the next tyrant quite likely will be neither. But one thing that cannot hurt and almost certainly will help is a press that strives to pursue the discipline of verification within the context of explicitly stated and observed values that will inspire us to be our best national self, which is the best the world has to offer.

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6 Comments »

  1. […] SOURCE […]

    Pingback by | Greensboro 101 — Saturday, September 17, 2016 3:09 pm @ 3:09 pm | Reply

  2. Truly powerful, Lex. One of the best and most important pieces you’ve ever done. I’m proud.

    Comment by Emmie Hancock — Saturday, September 17, 2016 3:47 pm @ 3:47 pm | Reply

  3. […] SOURCE […]

    Pingback by The press is lying, but so are the voters | Greensboro 101 — Saturday, September 17, 2016 4:09 pm @ 4:09 pm | Reply

  4. http://okotoenigma.wordpress.com

    Comment by okotoenigma — Saturday, September 17, 2016 7:03 pm @ 7:03 pm | Reply

  5. The press and the GOP

    “Any Republican has a difficult pathway to the presidency. On the electoral map, expanding blue blobs in coastal and big-city America swamp the conservative geographical sea of red. Big-electoral-vote states such as California, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey are utterly lost before the campaign even begins. The media have devolved into a weird Ministry of Truth. News seems defined now as what information is necessary to release to arrive at correct views.

    In recent elections, centrists, like John McCain and Mitt Romney – once found useful by the media when running against more-conservative Republicans — were reinvented as caricatures of Potterville scoundrels right out of a Frank Capra movie.

    When the media got through with a good man like McCain, he was left an adulterous, confused septuagenarian, unsure of how many mansions he owned, and a likely closeted bigot. Another gentleman like Romney was reduced to a comic-book Ri¢hie Ri¢h, who owned an elevator, never talked to his garbage man, hazed innocents in prep school, and tortured his dog on the roof of his car. If it were a choice between shouting down debate moderator Candy Crowley and shaming her unprofessionalism, or allowing her to hijack the debate, Romney in Ajaxian style (“nobly live, or nobly die”) chose the decorous path of dignified abdication.”

    ……….

    “In farming I learned that there is no good harvest only each year one that’s 51 percent preferable to the alternative, which in 2016 is a likely 16-year Obama-Clinton hailstorm. It may be discomforting for some conservatives to vote for the Republican party’s duly nominated candidate, but as this Manichean two-person race ends, it is now becoming suicidal not to.”

    RTWT

    Comment by Fred Gregory — Thursday, September 22, 2016 7:19 pm @ 7:19 pm | Reply

  6. Is Scott Adams a part of the media./ How about Gary Trudeau ?

    Here is Adams take on this election.

    ” Do you remember way—-way—-way—back in July, when the public thought Trump was the candidate they couldn’t trust with the nuclear arsenal? That was before we realized he could moderate his personality on command, as he is doing now. We’re about to enter our fifth consecutive week of Trump doing more outreach than outrage.

    It turns out that Trump’s base personality is “winning.” Everything else he does is designed to get that result. He needed to be loud and outrageous in the primaries, so he was. He needs to be presidential in this phase of the election cycle, so he is.

    Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has revealed herself to be frail, medicated, and probably duplicitous about her health. We also hear reports that she’s a drinker with a bad temper. Suddenly, Clinton looks like the unstable personality in this race. Who do you want controlling the nuclear arsenal now?

    You probably thought Trump was the bigot in this contest, until Clinton called half of Trump’s supporters a “basket of deplorables.” That’s the point at which observers started to see a pattern. Trump has been consistently supportive of American citizens of all types – with the exception of the press and his political opponents. The main targets of Trump’s rhetoric are the nations that compete against us. In stark contrast, Clinton turned her hate on American citizens. That’s the real kind of hate. Trump is more about keeping America safe and competing effectively in the world. That is literally the job of president.

    Trump was once the candidate that the LGBTQ community found easy to hate. Then it turned out that Trump is the loudest voice for protecting America against the anti-gay ideology that Clinton would increase in this country via immigration. At the GOP convention, Republicans stood and applauded Trump’s full-throated support of the LGBTQ community. While Clinton was talking about a better society, Trump was transforming the Republican Party into one. (Yes, I know there is more to do.)

    You might remember a few months ago when Clinton had lots of policy details and Trump had few. Clinton still holds the lead in the number of bullet-points-per-policy, but while she rests, Trump has been rolling out policy details on one topic after another. Perception-wise, the optics of “who has policy details” has flipped. (Reality isn’t important in this context.)

    Do you remember over a year ago, when Trump first entered the race? Social media relentlessly insulted his physical appearance. They mocked his orange hair and his orange skin. They called him a clown. They called him a Cheeto. It was brutal.

    But over time, Trump’s haircut improved. He softened the color to something more blonde than orange And his fake tan and TV makeup improved too. Today, if you ask a voter to name the candidate for president who “looks bad,” the answer would probably be Clinton, primarily because of her recent health issues. In our minds, Clinton went from being a stylish and energetic personality to a hospice patient dressed like a North Korean dictator at a rave.

    Not long ago, you would have said Clinton was the strongest candidate for protecting citizens who need the help of social programs. Then Trump unveiled his plan for childcare and senior care. You can debate the details, and the cost, but nearly everyone recognized the idea as a critical need for working class people.

    In other words, the world is turning inside-out, right in front of our eyes. I summarized this surprising reversal in the most popular tweet I have ever created.

    ( Tweet wouldn’t copy )

    That’s how a Master Persuader does it. A year ago, I told you that Trump was bringing a flamethrower to a stick fight. His talent for persuasion is so strong that he has effectively flipped the script and rewired the brains of the people watching this show.

    But I’ll bet you still think Trump is “thin-skinned,” primarily because Clinton’s team ( the media ) has done a great job of branding him that way. The label sticks because Trump has a pattern of going on offense whenever he is attacked. But let me give you another framework to see this same set of facts. Specifically, I’m going to tell you how Master Persuaders convert embarrassment into energy. It’s a learned skill.

    I often talk about the benefits I got from taking the Dale Carnegie course. One of the skills you learn in that class is how to convert your anxiousness about public speaking into excitement and positive energy. I personally observed the Dale Carnegie course turning a few dozen introverts into people who were enthusiastic about speaking in front of a crowd. It was astonishing.

    Part of the Dale Carnegie process involved each student doing something embarrassing in front of the class just to get used to the feeling, and to know you could survive it. It is one of the best skills you can learn because our egos tend to hold us back. We fear embarrassment so we don’t risk it. That limits our potential.

    Now think back to 2011, at the Correspondent’s Dinner, in which President Obama mocked Donald Trump in front of the world – while Trump sat in the audience, stone-faced. The popular reporting was that Trump was humiliated by the event. But Master Persuaders don’t process humiliation the same way as others. They convert it to energy, the same way Dale Carnegie students learn to convert anxiousness to excitement. It’s a learned skill. And it is literally the opposite of having a thin skin. It only looks the same because of confirmation bias.

    How do I know Trump has mastered the skill of converting humiliation into energy? The signs are all there. For example…

    Trump has entered one high-risk business after another, guaranteeing that he would experience a large number of setbacks, failures, and humiliations. People don’t run toward humiliation unless they know they can convert that negative energy to fuel. When you see someone succeed across multiple unrelated fields, that’s often a sign of a Master Persuader who feeds on both success and failure. You are watching Trump do exactly that, right in front of your eyes. He has converted every “gaffe” into news coverage. He eats bad news and converts it into fuel.

    Many of you have watched me do the same thing. You’ve watched as I jumped fields from corporate America to cartooning. Then I became an author of business-related books. I opened two restaurants that didn’t work out. I tried lots of stuff that failed miserably. Now I’m talking about the presidential election. What do all of those things have in common?

    I risked public humiliation in each case.

    And in each case, lots of people told me “Keep your day job.” On a typical day, dozens of strangers insult my body, my personality, my brain, my integrity, and lots more. Like Trump, I consume it as fuel. And it is a learned skill.

    You might have noticed that both Trump and I are quick to attack anyone who attacks us. Observers tell me I shouldn’t do that, because it makes me appear thin-skinned. Observers tell Trump the same thing. But observers are missing one important thing: We use the critics to refuel

    If you were an alien from another planet, and you observed a lion killing a gazelle, you might think that lion was angry at its prey. You might think the lion was insulted that the gazelle was using its watering hole. What did the gazelle do to deserve that treatment? Is the lion being thin-skinned?

    Trust me when I tell you that sometimes the lion is just eating

    Comment by Fred Gregory — Thursday, September 22, 2016 8:29 pm @ 8:29 pm | Reply


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