Dear Stephanie Ruhl (sorry for using you as an example but you’ll thank me in the end):
I write this as a fan — someone who respects your talent and skill as a financial reporter. You know your stuff. But, when you turn from analyzing numbers (and what they could mean) to analyzing humans (and what they could mean), you lose your way. Take the subject of Donald Trump. You report on him every single day.
Every single day, Donald Trump does something that an American president should never do. He says something that a grown up should never say. He commits crimes, violates long-standing norms, openly betrays the country — hell, part of the running joke we’re all in on is the idea that Donald Trump does something bad, wrong or illegal every day. In a courtroom, this would be called “Preponderance Of Evidence”.
Think of it as a connect the dots picture like this one…
The preponderance of the available evidence says “It’s an elephant”. But, as the dots aren’t actually connected — and the elephant completely revealed — I guess one could think the picture could be something else but considering the preponderance of the evidence, you’d have to be a moron to go there. Seriously — a moron. It’s not a picture of anything else and was never going to be a picture of anything else. To ask “But, what if it’s a picture of a whale?” would be stupid. If we were to engage with you and your question, we’d have to point out how all the evidence points to the picture being an elephant.
Wasted time, wasted energy, wasted everything. That’s what happens when you give the benefit of the doubt to things that do not deserve any such benefit. And yet — every day, as you report on Donald Trump — you give him the benefit of the doubt. As if maybe he isn’t a racist… or a misogynist… or a corrupt criminal… or a traitor.
No, no, no, you surely think — “I’m just being objective”. Fair enough. Objectivity is essential to good journalism. Objectivity is perspective. But having perspective means you DON’T have to entertain things that your perspective deems unworthy. And having perspective means you KNOW there are plenty of things unworthy — of your time, your energy, your “but, what if…?” questions.
“But, what if…?” is not journalism. It’s you (or a journalist like you) being foolish and credulous. It’s you trading in your skepticism for a steno pad.
But, what if our country really isn’t facing an existential crisis because the president and his political party sold us out for money, power and permanent minority rule?
Connect the dots, damn it. Even simpler — Connect THE dot…
First things first. Journalists are storytellers. News is a story about what’s happening (theoretically out here in reality) right here, right now. As news anchors all over the world put it as they start yakking — “Here’s what’s happening now“.
Then they proceed to tell you the story.
Except way too many journalists are piss-poor at telling stories. Well… let me be fair — I don’t know how good or bad they are at telling stories in general; what I know is they’re piss poor at telling the “Donald Trump Is A Traitor” story. They don’t know how to approach it, let alone “tell” it.
It seems odd, doesn’t it, that professional storytellers would be so incapacitated by the greatest story they’ll ever get to tell? It starts with their forgetting that THEY’RE storytellers to begin with — albeit storytellers reliant on their sources. But how storytellers approach a source is different than how a storytellee approaches a source. Storytellees don’t have sources.
Let me go a little deeper. When I set out to write a story, I need as much control over as much of the story I can get — so I can FRAME IT the way I want to. I want to frame the story one way vs another because facts are not generic. In and of themselves, facts are independent things. String a bunch of facts together, connect the dots in other words, and those facts paint a picture. Or they present a mosaic-like image, if you prefer.
A storyteller — in composing that mosaic — needs to make choices. Some facts belong and others either don’t belong (they’re not relevant to THIS mosaic) or they aren’t facts. They’re bullshit or too unsubstantiated to have value — so, therefore, don’t make the cut. A storyteller needs to have this sorting process at work constantly in their minds — especially as they’re doing their research. They need to be hyper-critical.
Storytellees, by comparison, are there to soak it all in. Unless a fact or detail strays too far outside their own experiences of life and people, they’re happy to accept it as part of the storytelling. They’re there to listen (critically, one hopes), not story-tell.
Something bizarre happens however when Storytellers fail to act like storytellers and act like storytellees instead. Because they’ve turned their critical faculties off (aside from that last fail-safe one when a story’s details fail to pass any smell test whatsoever), they miss essential details any storyteller relies on. They lose perspective — and therefore any ability to successfully tell that story. You cannot accurately describe what you cannot actually see (one way or another).
The perfect example of the storyteller turned storytellee is NBC’s reporter Kelly O’Donnell. I’m sure Kelly’s a lovely person. That’s not the question. She’s far too credulous — like a storytellee. Watch virtually any Kelly O’Donnell stand-up and, aside from her professional demeanor, all she’s ever doing is repeating back what “her sources” told her.
I bet Kelly’s sources go to her as often as Kelly goes to them. That would mean (if I’m right) that Kelly’s sources are using her as much as Kelly’s “using them”. What Kelly doesn’t get though about this set-up: Kelly’s purpose is “information transmission”, her source’s purpose is “message control”. Without that context, Kelly’s information SOUNDS neutral (Kelly’s intent) while not actually being neutral at all — it’s one-sided. But Kelly has failed to report that fact.
In Kelly’s defense (and — bending over backwards to be fair here — it applies to a whole bunch of other reporters across multiple news networks) Kelly has lost sight of how her sources are using her; she’s been too busy patting herself on the back for having sources to begin with. To get those sources, Kelly agreed to put whatever critical faculties she has on hold. She’s agreed to not question their veracity or motives. She’s agreed to not question their information — regardless of how true, false or politically motivated it is.
Kelly has followed the Judith Miller Paradigm to a “T”.
Judith Miller worked in The New York Times‘ Washington bureau before joining Fox News in 2008. While at the Times, she gained notoriety for her coverage of Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) program both before and after the 2003 invasion, which was later discovered to have been based on inaccurate information from the intelligence community. The New York Times determined that several stories she wrote about Iraq were inaccurate, and she was forced to resign from the paper in 2005.
Miller herself refused to accept any responsibility. Her defense: It wasn’t her responsibility to “critique” the information she was passing between her “inside sources” and the American public, it was her responsibility to just “pass it along” all steno pool like. Miller’s “lackadaisical” approach to journalistic integrity killed her reputation deader than dead. She’s now a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute For Public Policy — carrying water for them full time. At least Judith finally is plying her trade on the up-and-up.
Miller’s willingness to trade access to Dick Cheney for her integrity had an even consequence. Miller actively took part in Dick Cheney & Scooter Libby’s deliberate outing of Valerie Plame as CIA. Miller spent 85 days in jail for refusing to reveal that her source in the Plame Affair was Scooter Libby. The fact that Libby was doing something stunningly illegal — its political motivation crayoned all over its giant sleeve — was, apparently, irrelevant to Miller.
It wasn’t her “responsibility”, I guess, to tell THE TRUTH. It was her “responsibility” to tell Dick Cheney & Scooter Libby’s “truth” regardless of how untruthful it was.
The process of Judith Miller-ing news gathering — of sacrificing integrity for access is the crux of the problem. It’s what causes storytellers to become storytellees instead. The moment they go critical-faculty-free for access, they put their storytelling into a near-permanent cocoon-like stasis.
If not for the fact that journalism is the only job mentioned in the Constitution — it’s obligated to be the final check on political power — none of this would matter. But journalism IS mentioned in the Constitution and it IS purposed with this very high mission. If you don’t want to do the mission, what the hell are you doing in journalism? If you don’t want to be an actual storyteller, please — let us know now. Our future depends on it.
I sure hope someone at CNN or MSNBC reads this. I know I can help them. I’ve got real world bona fides in my pocket, too. Having run TV shows, written and produced feature films, written scripts for computer games, advertising, blah-blah-blah-blah-blah, I know a thing or two about VISUAL storytelling. I know how the medium works.
That doesn’t mean you have to listen to me, CNN & MSNBC, it just means you wouldn’t be stupid to at least hear me out.
The “Biggie” — the mistake you make repeatedly as if you were absolute amateurs — understanding how FRAMING works. You don’t. That applies equally to visuals & storytelling. Framing eludes you.
Let’s start with visuals. A TV screen is like a canvas filled with information and visual vocabulary. Take THIS screen for instance…
When CNN puts these two people on-screen together, they present them in a simple 50-50. Each man gets half the frame. Now, here’s the part where you need to pay CAREFUL ATTENTION, CNN & MSNBC — in the visual vocabulary, a 50-50 frame says that both arguments have equal weight. One is as true or likely as the other. All of Bill Nye’s science has the exact same weight — in terms of its rightness or wrongness — as Marc Morano’s science-less, data-less, fact-less, EVERYTHING-LESS bullshit. It doesn’t matter what Morano says, in fact. The more ludicrous his pronouncements the better, in fact, from HIS corrupt point of view because the point of the exercise isn’t to “INFORM” anyone, it’s to dis-inform EVERYONE!
Get it? The more nonsense Morano spews, the more he diminishes all the facts on the other side of that 50-50 screen. The shot itself diminishes the value of the Truth within it? How’s that for twisted?
While that particularly framing happens less frequently now — because climate denial gets less air time — when it does get air time? It still gets to claim equal validity. Of course, CNN & MSNBC could “frame” climate denial first before putting it on their air — that, too, is a possibility. They could point out that one of the two arguments being presented is real while the other is complete horse shit — let the buyer beware! — but they won’t. The other way they could frame the discussion correctly would be to re-imagine the screen presentation of the two sides relative to their truthfullness.
Instead of a 50-50, the screen would be 99.9% Bill Nye and <1% Mark Morano. Like this —
See how that would more accurately represent — in visual language — the relative weight of each person’s argument? See how it feels like a giant talking to an ant? Or an adult speaking to a stupid child?
Let’s move on to my other “framing” bugaboo (I know those CNN & MSNBC eyeballs have a low tolerance for boredom and sitting still. How else do you let “Mexicans are rapists” and “pussy grabbing” stand?) This one begins with that unfortunate disease spreading like an STD through America’s Journalism Schools: “Both Sides Do It” and its brother-disease “False Equivalence Reporting”. The symptom is a reporter repeatedly giving the benefit of the doubt to someone who absolutely doesn’t deserve any such benefit (example — Trump. Why would any reporter give anything that spews from Donald Trump’s anus-shaped mouth a shot at being true when every bit of data says even “hello” & “good-bye” coming from Trump are most likely lies)?
So — if we accept the premise that Donald Trump is a liar — then any time you (CNN or MSNBC) begin your reporting with something Trump says — but without telling your audience Trump is a known liar who’s probably lying right now — your context-free steno-pooling of Trump’s lies have just given those lies the look, feel & legitimacy of Truth. But, it’s not.
When CNN & MSNBC report — as they did today — that Trump gave a good, solid D-Day Memorial speech, they make it sound like Donald Trump is a normal president. But that’s NOT the correct context, is it? In fact, Donald Trump’s presidency has been anything but normal — and, in fact — everything in Trump’s pretty speech (written FOR him by other people) is contradicted by virtually everything Trump’s ever done as president or said over the course of his entire life. Throw in the fact that he’s a goddamned TRAITOR and it gets truly absurd.
Sorry, CNN & MSNBC, but pretty words spoken by a TRAITOR are still just pretty words. SPOKEN BY A TRAITOR. See how that’s actually the headline?
One last criticism while/if I have CNN/MSNBC eyeballs: storytelling works by adding information and then using that new information as the BASIS for ongoing storytelling. Think of it as moving a football down the field toward a touchdown. Adding information to a story is like running a play. All added yardage moves us closer to our goal.
And yet… the stunning majority of on-air “talent” at CNN & MSNBC are utterly incapable of performing this simple party trick. They keep returning to a kind of mental “Square One” where they’ve never learned ANYTHING beyond the information they started with: Donald Trump is “president” which means everything is normal.
Too bad that was never the case. Never mind… those same merchants of mediocrity then take that flawed starting point and — here’s the nutty part — continue to deny knowing anything beyond it regardless of all the actual information raining down on them. They ask questions steeped in ignorance (the worst — tossing out the info as if it required a Rosetta Stone to decipher to their talking head group with a generic “What do YOU make of it?” as if the mere thought of thinking about it themselves was horrifying).
You are allowed, CNN & MSNBC, to use information as you receive it. Refusal to accept and contextualize new information is not the same thing as “being fair as a journalist”. It’s sticking your fool head in the sand.
I’m going to give you “the benefit of the doubt” here and assume that the REASON you employ “benefit of the doubt” journalism isn’t because you’re malicious assholes but because you suck at your jobs. While I know that, on the surface, “benefit of the doubt” journalism is just you trying to be fair, you’ve confused “trying to be fair” with being a total moron.
If you walked into a room with no knowledge of the room itself or anything that’s gone on inside of it, you would be justified (and even applauded) for NOT drawing any conclusions about the room (or what’s happening in it) until you’ve learned enough TO justify whatever conclusion you reach. In that instance, you SHOULD “give the benefit of the doubt” — because there is doubt.
However. If you’d been in the room many times before… knew most of the people “in” the room and “why” they were in it (in order to do…), you wouldn’t have many doubts about the room; you’d have context for the room. You’d know enough to NOT give the benefit of the doubt — cos you’d have no doubt. I believe in journalism it’s called “background”.
It’s my understanding (and I’m not a journalist by trade though I’ve become a “quasi-journalist” via Life Path (I’d heartily recommend my series BLUNT TRUTHS at Weedmaps — even if I wasn’t completely and totally biased) that background is supposed to “inform” the writer’s view — give it nuance, detail, flavor — and context. The kind of context that would make giving someone like, say, Donald Trump, the “benefit of the doubt” foolish. Or stupid. Or naive..
The “benefit of the doubt” is what that frog blithely swimming in that slowly heating water gives to the guy in the chef’s hat. A time will come however when that frog won’t give the chef the benefit of the doubt anymore — but only because the frog will be dead (boiled alive) and on its way to someone’s dinner plate.