American journalism continues to fail at its most basic job: presenting the truth. It doesn’t help that Americans no longer agree on what the truth is. That, too, is another of American journalism’s failures. They’ve lost the capacity to discern truth from un-truth themselves; instead, they present all information as if it had equal value. Consider how long it took American journalists to say out loud that Donald Trump lied to them every day. Prior to gingerly pointing to Trump’s consistent dishonesty, most of our news media debated “what is a lie?” Maybe Trump “didn’t know” he was lying. You couldn’t give one human being more benefit of more doubt than our press still gives to Trump. That’s not journalism. FFS, American news media, please stop sucking at your jobs!
Last Line Of Defense
Our Constitution mentions one line of work that isn’t governmental: the press. Freedom of the Press is part of the First Amendment. The news media is our democracy’s last line of defense against corruption and power. While it’s imperative that the news media be genuinely fair to all sides of an argument at the outset, the simple fact is, not all sides of an argument deserve equal consideration.
The guy who steals my car has a point of view as do I, the car thief’s victim. The thief’s point – separate from his point of view – is that he wants my car and now he’s got it. That’s his point. My point is that car is my property. It’s not the thief’s, it’s mine. I have paperwork to back it up. He doesn’t. My claims to actual ownership are legitimate. His aren’t. Two points of view but only one of them has an actual, valid point.
Or have we already crossed the line and busted a cap in the rule of law’s noggin?
Both Sides DON’T Do It
It all starts (and ends) with “both sides do it”. I have no idea where that ludicrous idea came from, but I can guess. “Both sides do it” is what guilty people say to dissuade justice. “I’m not the only one!” That may be true, but those others aren’t under discussion right now. In most cases, the both-siderism reflects an extremely literal reading of events. In the whole history of time, people from both sides of a question may have behaved similarly. But if a thousand conservatives do things one way and only two progressives do it the same way? That’s really not “both sides doing it”.
Proportion matters. Yes, there are exceptions to lots of rules. So what? Ignore the exceptions and deal with the quotidian. In the big picture, both sides don’t do it because both sides are entirely different. If Democrats were like Republicans, they’d BE Republicans and march in lock step just like Republicans do. But, Democrats today are no different from the Democrats in Will Rogers’ day. Rogers famously said he wasn’t a member of any organized political party, he was a Democrat. Yeah – that’s us all right.
Binary By Design
In our news media’s defense, America’s political structure is binary by design. Third parties never last for long here because the system they’re trying to infiltrate is binary. There’s just no room for them. Independent voters lose power every time they affiliate with a party – especially an independent party. In fact, after Democrats (around 49 million registered members) – the second-largest reporting party affiliation was Independents , not the Republicans. Polls often ask about party preferences – a more fluid thing.
Do “party preference” questions really describe who will vote how? Hard to tell since most polling companies don’t release their actual polling questions. That’s proprietary. But, how a pollster asks a question – how they frame the thing they’re trying to measure – matters.
Because we’re so binary, we assume that a negative response – “preference” in the context of the question asked – means the respondent’s answer correlates directly to how they’ll vote. But, does it? Unless pollsters follow up with the very people they first interviewed, they’re getting a generic result to a generic question.
Our news media relies on polls – even as they tell themselves and their audiences that polls are merely snapshots of a moment. But, having said that, our news media will obsess on polls as if diving into a particular moment from the past could reveal anything about the future.
The Big Picture
Here’s the most confounding part: our news media has not missed reporting on this massive story. Many have done great work deep diving into profound corruption. Kudos for that! But brickbats for deep diving without any sense that the deep dive connects to the larger picture. Journalist and Journalism professor Seth Abramson has done yeoman’s work with his Proof series. He doesn’t do original journalism, he aggregates the work of other journalists into a coherent narrative.
The picture Abramson paints is staggering. More staggering – that the journalists whose work Abramson used don’t see the bigger picture themselves. It’s as if they people reporting the news never actually read the news. They know what they know and remain oblivious of what everyone else knows. Dots go unconnected despite their obvious connectedness.
Perfect example: On May 17, 2017, (then) Washington Post reporter Adam Entous reported on a taped conversation he’d heard. The conversation took place on July 25, 2016 not quite a year earlier. Current GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy exited a meeting about Vladimir Putin trying to corrupt Ukraine’s democratically elected government and entered a GOP leadership meeting.
Upon walking in the door, McCarthy said out loud: “There’s two people I think Putin pays – Rohrbacher and Trump – swear to God!” Remember: the Republican National Convention would begin in less than a month. Trump’s nomination was a fait accompli. But, that assumes that the man the GOP’s about to nominate isn’t a stone cold traitor! And, we are talking about TREASON here!
Trump taking money from Putin makes Trump a grave national security threat. At the very least, a Republican leader walking into a meeting with other Republican leaders and announcing “Putin pays Trump” should have gotten a stronger response than nervous laughter. No one said “What? Kevin, are you sure about that?” or “Dude – we’re about to nominate this guy – why on earth would you say such a thing?” Did anyone call the FBI or actively worry about the accusation’s implications for America’s national security?
Nope. Instead, then Speaker Of The House Paul Ryan stepped forward to put the kibosh on everything. Ryan instructed his Republican lieutenants to keep the conversation private, saying: “No leaks. . . . This is how we know we’re a real family here.” Did he mean a mafia family?
Asleep At The Switch
America was a year into Trump’s presidency at the time the WaPo published Entous’s piece. We’d experienced Sean Spicer’s inauguration numbers meltdown. The Muslim ban. The transgender ban in the military. Michael Flynn’s resignation and James Comey’s firing. Charlottesville. We knew something was up. Things were going down backstage, too.
All attempts to investigate Trump were either stopped dead (see Rod Rosenstein and the IC’s counter-intelligence investigation into Trump-Russia) or derailed (see The Mueller Report). In the latter case, while every member of the news media could have easily READ FOR THEMSELVES what Team Mueller wrote, instead they chose to go with AG Bill Barr’s bullshit version. It’s not unlike our news media insisting (because that’s how Trump framed it) that everything in Chris Steele’s raw intelligence dossier was a lie. Not so. And yet… Why indeed does the American news media suck at its job?
Journalism And Storytelling
If “both sides do it”, then America’s press doesn’t see itself as journalists, they see themselves as referees. We The People don’t need that. We need advocates for democracy – the Peoples’ last firewall against corruption and tyranny – just like it says in the Constitution.
Journalists are storytellers in real time – telling our story more or less as it’s happening. That includes ripple effects from corruption and bad acts in the past. The rules of storytelling apply regardless of whether the story is true or made up. People still have to act in ways we recognize as true. The instant a character acts out-of-character? The audience disconnects from them – and the story.
No one does things for no reason. All stories hinge on what people do in them. Characters who do things “just because” fail to satisfy because we don’t recognize them. Though real people claim “they don’t know” why they do things, the truth is they know perfectly well why they do them. What’s happening is they can’t or won’t articulate why. That’s not the same thing as not having a “why”.
The Failure To Ask “Why?”
One could argue that the great unanswered question of Trump’s presidency is “why?”. Why did Trump do all the strange things he did with Russia – with Putin – with Saudi Arabia – with China, with classified documents – with elections period? We need to know why guys like Lindsey Graham went from saying “Trump is a kook” and “he’ll destroy the Republican Party if elected” to a man auditioning to play a polyp up Trump’s ass. Why does Trump hold the entire GOP (minus a handful of people) in the palm of his bloated, orange-skinned, small-fingered hand?
I think “Putin pays Trump – swear to God!” answers that question. Trump’s a corruption vector, compromising everyone with whom he does business. If you’re going to make treason your business, you’re going to raise the stakes for everyone – which is exactly what Trump did. Trump seduced the GOP into bed with him. Some knew Trump was treasonous. Even if the rest only suspected, conspiracy bites them in the ass.
See something, say something. See something, say nothing? That nagging question “why?” pops up again.
Why does America’s news media suck at its job? Lots of reasons… lack of seriousness, lack of intellectual curiosity, lack of perspective, lack of talent, lack of taste, lack of self respect, lack of decency, lack of journalistic chops. Lack of imagination, too. A very big piece of the puzzle is our news media’s failure of imagination where Trump is concerned.
They still can’t imagine Trump is a traitor or that the GOP is complicit in treason. Hell, the news media normalized “Mexicans are rapists” and “pussy grabbing” even before Trump won the nomination. They were sure “But her emails” – barked out by Trump, a carnival barker – carried more weight, heft and substance.
Our news media has a Brokeback Mountain relationship with Trump. They love him because he humiliates them – and they can’t quit him because of it. This is unhealthy. And it’s stupid. But, how do we help the press 1) see it has a problem, 2) see they are the problem and 3) see how they might be the solution to the problem, too? The answer: we tell them. Repeatedly and to their faces. If we have to, we stop “buying their product” – that is, watching or reading or in any way using their work.
The news media needs to open its eyes and its mind. They need to see what’s really what and start calling things and people what they really are. People who behave like racists, say racists things or even just stand with racists are racists themselves – no need to ask them whether they are or aren’t. Like beauty, racism’s in the eye of the beholder. It’s about perception not intention. If I think you’re beautiful, you’re beautiful.
If I think you’re a racist, you’re a racist – especially if you’re behaving like a racist toward me. Inside my own head, I do get to be the judge (and the jury and executioner, too). What I do with all this? That’s entirely up to me.
I sure hope America’s journalists understand: if Republicans finish seizing the country from its voters and turn our democracy into a fascistic shithole, they won’t suddenly turn around and celebrate journalists or journalism. More likely, they’ll have special “journalist quarters” already set aside at some gulag. I bet their view of the rest of the concentration camp will be unbeatable.
Seems that’s really all it takes to evade press scrutiny: seduce journalists out of their skepticism. Nurture their cynicism instead. Promise them air time, a book deal, a podcast even. And hope like hell they get better at their damned jobs before the shit hits the fan!