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Looking back and forward at ‘the media’ and Trump

It doesn’t make sense to me to blame “the media” for the outcome of the election if many voters preferred to vote their emotions or their grudges or their biases.

President-elect Donald Trump talking to reporters as he and his wife Melania arrived for a New Year's Eve celebration at the Mar-a-lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Happy New Year to all MinnPost readers.

In my last post of 2016, I confessed how heart-broken and horrified I felt (and still feel) about the turn our politics has taken and the prospects for government policy in the years just ahead. I don’t take any of it back. But heartbroken and horrified is no way to live, nor is it a plan to make things better.

I hope this won’t sound like too much of a cop-out, but it’s not the job of scribblers like me to directly make things better, unless by “better” we mean informing the public, and especially informing the electorate in ways that support your role as voters and citizens in a self-governing society.

As I mentioned in the previous piece, a lot of people seem to be blaming “the media” for the outcome of the election. I also mentioned that I don’t really agree with that theory of news media blameology. I’ll just say a couple of things about that, and then pass along some analysis and thoughts from a much smarter media observer/reformer.

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The public had access — easy access across all platforms and more access at less cost than ever before — to the information it needed to exercise its franchise knowledgeably in November. Many media outlets, in print and on air, abandoned old norms that prohibited calling a politician a liar and his statements false. I never seen anything remotely like it, but I agree that it was the correct response to a candidate telling so many lies and refusing to stop telling them even after they had been clearly proven to be false.

If many members of the public preferred to get their “information” from Donald Trump’s tweets, or from fake-news sites or from dishonest voices online or on the air, they had the right to do so. But they had a responsibility not to do so. Many of them exercised that right and neglected that responsibility.

Many Americans made a sort of a choice to be misinformed because misinformation apparently made it easier to believe things that they like to believe, about how the world works, about how the economy works, about the likely efficacy of Trump’s so-called policy ideas, which he changed frequently without apparently paying a political price.

To me, it is a sucker play to put one’s confidence in a candidate who has no coherent position on many important issues, has positions that don’t track with facts or logic on others, and whose positions change from week to week. And that’s without getting into the matters of character or biography that should have raised serious questions about whose interests the candidate would pursue once in power based on how he has used power in the past.

But, however obnoxious or condescending my attitude sounds to some, I do not dispute that all eligible voters have the right to award their vote on any basis they choose. Nor do I reflexively defend the performance of the media in all things. I assert only that since the media included easily accessible information that would enable voters to exercise their franchise on an informed basis, it doesn’t make sense to me to blame the “the media” if many voters preferred to vote their emotions or their grudges or their biases. I dearly hope that I am wrong in believing that Trump will deeply disappoint his followers to the degree they  were voting for him in hopes of seeing their circumstances improve.

Long ago, I was introduced to twin demons called “selective perception” and “confirmation bias” that get in the way of informed rationality. Those who prefer to believe certain things often have a “bias” in favor of arguments and facts (or fictions) that enable them to keep believing in those things. If that is one’s goal, it is easy to selectively perceive, or note, or rely on, only those facts (or fictions) and arguments that enable them to keep believing in those things. In my view, the election of Trump was a triumph of those twin demons.

But that triumph challenges journalism to try harder to communicate facts and truths to the widest audience willing to know them. So, as I struggled  over the long holiday weekend, I stumbled upon two posts by an old acquaintance of mine, journalism professor Jay Rosen of New York University, who also opines on media matters in his blog “PressThink.”

Rosen’s two-part series is titled “Prospects for the American press under Trump.” Part 1 is titled: “How Bad Is It? Pretty Bad,” and was devoted to a descriptions of many dangers facing the country and challenges facing journalism in the years ahead in 17 numbered paragraphs. Here are a few of the observations I found most compelling:

8. A figure in power who got there in part by whipping up hatred against the press, and who shows no signs of ending that abusive practice … coupled with a disturbing pattern in which Trump broadcasts through his Twitter feed outrageously false statements, the press reacts by trying to “check” them, and the resulting furor works to his advantage by casting journalists in the role of petty but hateful antagonist, with Trump as the man who takes the heat and “tells it like it is.”

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9. The emergence of an authoritarian political style in which trashing the norms of American democracy (as when he cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election, or suggested prosecution of his opponent) works to Trump’s advantage with a huge portion of his supporters, while failing to alarm the rest. This is especially troublesome because norms of democracy are what give the press its place in public life and representative government; if these can be broken without penalty that means the press can be shoved aside and not much will happen.

10. The increasingly dim prospect that there will be a fact-based debate to which journalists can usefully contribute when the leader of the free world feels free to broadcast transparently false or ignorant claims… coupled with the full flowering of the “we make our own reality” attitude (circa 2004) into a kind of performance art that simultaneously kicks up hatred of anyone trying to be evidence-based and liberates the speech of powerful actors from even the most minimal factual constraints.

16. A crisis of representation around covering Trump in which it is not clear that anyone can reliably tell us what his positions are, or explain his reasons for holding them, because he feels free to contradict advisers, spokespeople, surrogates, and previous statements he made. As Esquire’s Charles Pierce put it to me: ‘Nobody speaks for the prez-elect, not even himself.’ I list this because the press is not good at abandoning rituals and routines when they cease to make sense. Every interview with Kellyanne Conway or Reince Priebus is premised on a claim to represent the man in power. This claim may be false. But journalists need people to interview! So they will continue to do it, even though they may be misinforming the public. They may even realize this and be unable to shift course. What I’m trying to point out is that existing methods for “holding power to account” rest on assumptions about how it will behave. A man in power untroubled by contradictions and comfortable in the confusion he creates cannot be held accountable by normal means.

Rosen listed a few rays of sunlight in this bleak sky, and then a list of things “not to do,” which included:

Don’t settle for accusation-driven over evidence-based reporting, just to avoid drawing flak from Trump’s press-hating supporters or demonstrate how even-handed you are.

I endorse that suggestion.

To avoid starting off the new year with a too-long post (unless I already have, in which case sorry), I’ll just give you a taste of Rosen’s Part 2, in which he talks about ideas for approaching the crisis, but first reiterates how serious it is, thus:

This is a crisis with many overlapping and deep-seated causes, not just a problem but what scholars call a wicked problem — a mess. You don’t “solve” messes, you approach them with humility and respect for their beastliness. Trying things you know won’t “fix” it can teach you more about the problem’s wickedness. That’s progress. Realizing that no one is an expert in the problem helps, because it means that good ideas can come from anywhere. …

Here’s an abstract answer (sorry: it will only take a minute!) Journalists, I think, need to listen for people’s troubles, and find the points where they connect to public issues. And they have to be better at that than a broken political system is. From there they can start to rebuild trust.

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The distinction between “troubles” and “issues” was struck by sociologist C. Wright Mills in the 1950s. He said troubles were the problems that concern people in their immediate experience. “An issue is a public matter: some value cherished by publics is felt to be threatened.” When the issues that get attention fail to connect to people’s troubles, or when common troubles don’t get surfaced and formulated as public issues … that is where journalism-as-listener can intervene, and earn back trust.