The ascension of Donald Trump has set off a new round of soul-searching among “the media,” a term now so broad that it includes everything from The New York Times to cable news to self-edited bloggers to anyone with a Twitter account.
What responsibility does this sprawling aggregation of voices have for Trump’s status today? Is it as simplistic as asserting that he was irresistible catnip to ratings-chasing TV executives? If so, how do you account for the avalanche of negative coverage he has received and still flourished? What has “the media” missed or misunderstood about his audience?
As you may have noticed, America’s press corps has no shortage of critics. Currently, the profession of journalism has roughly the same approval rating as Congress, which is just barely above that of pedophiles. Sensing a moment for another exercise in self-examination (or self-flagellation), New York magazine dispatched writers to interview a couple dozen prominent practitioners of some variation of journalism.
Having read more of these sorts of things than I care to remember, I was struck by both the quality of the cast — people like Steven Brill, a veteran exemplar of long-form and genuinely deeply reported dives into broadly relevant issues (his 25,000-word gold standard story on America’s absurd health-care system, “The Bitter Pill,” consumed nearly an entire issue of TIME magazine in 2013); David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun beat reporter turned creator of “The Wire”; Dean Baquet, editor of The New York Times; academics like the oft-quoted Jay Rosen, an NYU journalism professor — and the quality of their responses. Even conservative players like Tucker Carlson of The Daily Caller offer sharp-edged analyses of what the country’s news system does right … and mostly wrong.
The interviews sprawl across a wide expanse of topics (the magazine provides links to each conversation in full), so there’s plenty from which to cherry pick. For the purposes of this story, I’ve plucked a handful that jumped out at me, or appealed to my personal biases, that being a recurring criticism from the chosen subjects.
I think it’s useful to see Trump as very much like an independent television production company that has a hit show called Trump. Or Trump for President. Media ownership, let’s say TV executives, want that show really badly. And this gives him more power than the network’s own people, or their own journalists sometimes — it’s almost like they would rather go for an outside source for their programming than to their own people. So because he produces this show, Trump for President, that has amazing ratings, he was able to command what was called in the trade “free media” — that’s a fascinating phrase in itself. Trump, the independent producer with the hit show, was kind of irresistible.
— Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at NYU.
Comment: Trump clearly understood the value he was bringing to television networks in particular. And it simply isn’t credible for any executive, from Jeff Zucker at CNN to Phil Griffin at MSNBC to the traditional network heads to pretend that Trump’s ability to draw and hold eyeballs wasn’t key to the amount of airtime they lavished on him, certainly in the early primary season, before he became the presumptive nominee. The point of reflection for television executives, should they decide to reflect, is why, since Trump is a fellow New Yorker long familiar to them, didn’t they commence a full and fair reiteration of his business career simultaneous with their all-in horse race coverage?
The media did not create Trump. I don’t think the media missed a story of Trump, or failed to scrutinize Trump — that’s a ridiculous criticism. The criticism that might be valid is whether the media understood the circumstances that caused so many Americans to vote for Donald Trump. It’s always hard to have your finger on the pulse of the country. It’s one of those things that we’re always beating ourselves up for. We probably didn’t quite understand the deep economic fallout after the financial crisis a few years ago. There were fewer national correspondents out in the country, and we’re one of the last institutions to have a big national staff. That’s probably part of it. Some of the anger was quiet, and Donald Trump came along and turned the volume up. The anger hadn’t quite showed up in ways that were obvious until he came along. But our job is to be out in the country, trying to understand the country, and to reflect the country back to itself in some way.
— Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times.
Comment: The reference to being “out in the country” is an interesting one. While Baquet is arguing from the perspective of one of the country’s last remaining national newspapers, it reflects an awareness that reporters and editors in general do not have a particularly good feel, good “sourcing” if you will, among the population responding most intensely to Trump’s message. Mainstream media take pains (and make a great show of taking those pains) to cover minority groups. But in many cases the stories produced are sympathetic. Minorities victimized by discrimination, and such. But with a group composed primarily of whites making so often ill-informed, racially based complaints about their victimization, how do you apply sympathy? Specifically the kind of sympathy that engenders good will and builds sources? Moreover, how much time does the average college-educated, professional journalist spend with such people?
We all underestimated him at first. He was, by every analysis, a ridiculous premise as a presidential candidate. He remains so. But Trump has been caught up on any number of idiocies, offenses and affronts and it just doesn’t matter. Like Huey Long or Father Coughlin, his outrages — even when carefully reported — serve only to excite some of those who are having their deep anger at the status quo fingered by Trump. The press has been fine at holding Trump to his [bleep]-headedness, and while there is some criticism that can be directed at the media for overreporting him in the run up to New Hampshire, since then he has been the leader in the GOP field. He gets legitimate attention for being such. I think the press has been exceptionally unimportant at assessing the American status quo for the last twenty years, for losing sight of the trends that were producing the anger that has led to Trump, and in a healthier sense, to Sanders. The marginalization of labor, the purchase of government, the rampant drug war, mass incarceration, the demeaning of the working class and the brutalities of globalization — we told those stories too late or not at all. That was our complacency. This is just one more election cycle.
— David Simon, creator of the Wire and former reporter for the Baltimore Sun.
Comment: Here again the observation that American journalism, certainly in the forms consumed by most of the population, hasn’t done the job it needed to do to gauge and chronicle the antipathies welling up, particularly among the white lower middle class.
Of course the media failed. But they’ve failed with conservatism all along. Now it’s reached a full boil, where suddenly you can’t ignore the failure. You can’t keep ignoring this thing that you call the fringe. We talk about a 10 percent factor of American society; that’s not a fringe, it’s 30 million people. But beyond all that, it’s the idea of the journalist measuring a story’s importance by the scale of the stage on which it occurs, rather than by the depth of meaning it reveals. You go back to the Scopes “monkey’ trial” — the famous evolution trial. Every paper in America declared fundamentalism dead. Good call on that one. In fact, you can find that declaration about every five years. And the reason they keep getting it wrong is that they’re guided by the idea of trends. If creationists’ candidates are not in office, then they don’t stop existing. They’re still there, and they’ll have kids, and they’ll raise their kids to believe these things. [The media failed to see this] not because the press is so left, but because the press is so relentlessly center. … If you have left, center, and right, the center is a position, no more, no less than any other, right? And that tends to skew things. I think that same effect, unfortunately, ripples out from the political realm into other aspects of life.
— Jeff Sharlet, magazine journalist and professor of English at Dartmouth.
Comment: This speaks to the tradition of neutral objectivity in reporting and to some extentstory choice. The idea that the center is a “pure zone,” a temperate, moderate place best suited for a fair (and balanced) presentation of conflict is a concept that needs fresh debate. How often is this center simply a refuge from asserting a demonstrable, verifiable truth? How often is it a safe zone for journalists fearful of blowback, both partisan and financial? Also, how accurately can this temperate, self-consciously well-mannered center comprehend and explain the forces of irrationality?
There’s this relatively new principle of journalism that journalists are supposed to be neutral and free of opinion. What that means is that journalists are increasingly discouraged from ever doing anything other than saying, “Here’s what one side says, and here’s what the other side says.” That shows you’re objective. When Harry Reid says one thing and Mitch McConnell says the other, then you get to report that, it’s easy. When you don’t have that, when you have to go searching for it, or when there’s not this clean conflict, it’s difficult to pretend that you’re neutral.
— Glenn Greenwald, cofounding editor of The Intercept.
Comment: I don’t know about “relatively new,” but Greenwald’s underlying point is a challenge to the lazy but entirely acceptable tradition of “both sides equally” reporting. He’s questioning both the journalistic value of this concept of reporting and the sustainability of it at a time when startups like his, ProPublica and various fact checkers are bringing near simultaneous veracity-assessment — of assertions, statements and claims individuals and organizations — into their work.
The real problem with journalism is groupthink. My father was a journalist — he never graduated from high school, he joined the Marines as a 17-year-old and then went to work at the L.A. Times. It was not a profession; it was a trade, and you had a whole diverse field of people entering it. Now, for a bunch of reasons — and this is the problem with American society more broadly, in my view — it’s just a masturbatorium, filled with people who think exactly the same, who are from the same backgrounds, who have the same assumptions about everything. And you get a much less interesting product when you have that. And you also get a lot of fearful people. A lot of people who are too dumb to go into finance, so they went into journalism instead. And they get older and they realize, “I’ve got tuitions, and this is actually a pretty shaky business model on which to build a career,” and they just become unwilling to take any risk at all. When was the last time you saw anybody in the press — except the fringe press — really write a piece that challenged the assumptions of their neighbors? That would actually make their friends in Brooklyn avert their gaze?
— Tucker Carlson, founder and editor in chief of the Daily Caller.
Comment: For all the attention paid to bringing diversity to newsrooms, the grand irony remains that regardless of gender or race there is still a significant overlay of homogeneity in the staffing of such places. It’s as much a part of the selection-process criteria as the ability to report and compose a story, albeit far more implicit. Don’t agree? Let’s have the discussion.
For the mainstream media, it’s no longer plausible to say, “Oh, we’re just going to be objective.” How could you not have an opinion at this point, when your reporter is sitting there and Donald Trump is calling him an idiot? It’s not believable. I think that, at some point, the mainstream media — both rightfully and strategically — needs to shed that cloak of objectivity and say, point blank, “This is not a good person, this is not who should lead our country.” They’re handicapping themselves by playing by a set of rules that no one else is playing by anymore. And if they continue to cede that ground, their influence will continue to be diminished.
— Kurt Bardella, former Breitbart News Network spokesperson.
Comment: There’s no danger of Bardella and Dean Baquet speaking from the same dais anytime soon. The former was a singularly cartoonish figure in New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich’s “This Town” that instantaneously classic dissection of D.C.’s mediapolitical elite. But again, the embedded question is this: “At a time when a major political party has been taken over by a man with little to no respect for or interest in facts, and yet remains enormously appealing to millions of citizens, are you, as a professional journalist, providing full service to your readers/viewers by treating him, on the basis of verifiable facts, as anything other than a fraud?” If it’s still a bridge too far, Bardella is correct when he says hundreds of others have already crossed it.