The News Media’s Failure Of Imagination Is Killing Our Democracy

We live in a news world where a big slice of the news audience is better informed about what’s happening than the news people reporting the news. Maybe that’s because, unlike the news media, those of us in the cheap seats — untouched by the whorish need for access — can see all the players for who and what they are rather than what they can do for our careers. You’d think a crisis like this would force every person calling themselves “a journalist” to set aside the old rules of engagement. You’d think a man relentlessly lying to their faces for four plus years would eventually cause some sort of dynamic response. Aside from scratching their heads harder and longer? Most journalists have learned exactly nothing from their experience with Donald Trump.

Eventually, we’ll understand why most of our news media couldn’t aggregate the Donald Trump story which would have had them reporting on Trump as a stone cold criminal even before he was sworn in — just like Fusion GPS sorta kinda did. Fusion, the commercial research/political intelligence firm founded by former Wall Street Journal reporters Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, was hired in 2016 by the publishers of Jeb Bush-backing Washington Free Beacon to do oppo research on Trump. As Glenn Simpson testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on August 27, 2017, before beginning their formal work, Fusion did its due diligence: they got their hands on every piece of publicly available material they could on Donald Trump. They got and read magazine pieces, newspaper articles, they listened to radio interviews, watched TV shows and movie appearances. They spent a fortune on Amazon, visited actual book stores and even went to the public library to find what they needed. What Fusion found there — in publicly available material that ANY reporter could find (had they the motivation) — convinced them so completely that Donald Trump was a money laundering criminal in league with the Russian mob that they went and hired an English company called Orbis because its owner used to work for the British MI6 and had the best contacts bar none inside Russia.

Fusion demonstrated imagination — and did something about it. So did Christ Steele. When HE looked inside Russia to answer Fusion’s questions, he was deeply troubled by the answers coming back. He was even more troubled when the American government failed to heed his red flag warning that Russian intelligence was coming at us, cyber war style and we were doing nothing to stop them.

Because HE had imagination — and could extrapolate not only what Russia was doing but what our non-response to it was doing consequently — Chris Steele did everything in his power to put his work product (raw intelligence!) into the right American hands that could process it correctly and react accordingly and do it now.

Failure of imagination has haunted the American press especially where the threat of right wing terrorism is concerned. How easily do American journalists prick up their ears every time a Republican shouts “socialism” compared to when a Republican behaves like an authoritarian shit? They’ll jump right into a discussion about single payer universal health care with “But, isn’t that socialism?” but never even think to question Republicans and the legality and morality of their actively engaging in voter suppression. That, too, is failure of imagination.

When our news media failed to remind its news audience every day of the 2020 campaign that, for the first time in American history, a president was running for re-election having been IMPEACHED for CHEATING in the very same election in which he was running, that was a failure of imagination. When they relentlessly wondered aloud why Trump so relentless sucked up to Vlad Putin — their inability to answer their own question was a failure of imagination. That the news media even now can say that what Trump is doing is treasonous — and yet still ask aloud “Will he run again in 2024” is proof that they are utterly incapable of imagining a functional and functioning Department of Justice.

You’d think the possibility of making one’s bones on the greatest story anyone will ever get to cover would inspire more journalists to journalistic greatness. But to see oneself winning a Peabody or a Pulitzer takes incredible imagination (if one really has a shot at one).

No wonder achieving that kind of journalistic greatness can only ever be a dream for them — requiring imagination. Some circles are just plain vicious.

Dear American News Media – Stop Acting Like The Dance Band On The Titanic

The Dance Band on the Titanic went down with the ship. America, like the Titanic, is sinking. The difference is we don’t have to. Our ship of state can still be saved.

America’s news media can’t be blamed for Donald Trump. Fred and Mary Trump deserve that credit (oh, that we could go back in time and tie Mary’s tubes while also delivering a good, swift kick to Fred’s family jewels). But Donald Trump’s resiliency — the fact that he’s still POTUS and not a federal prisoner — THAT falls almost entirely on the news media and their remarkable inability to convey the story in front of them. The story they themselves have reported.

As we stand here today, Donald Trump is the first person EVER to run for re-election as POTUS having been IMPEACHED — for cheating in the very election he’s running in.

That’s not a small thing. It’s a huge, HUGE thing. And yet, our news media never reminds its news audience that THAT is the context in which Donald Trump is running for re-election. He does it — overtly cheating — having already been impeached for cheating!

But, not just cheating — committing TREASON while cheating.

The news media — what else can we conclude? — has accepted and normalized not only cheating but treason. It’s now just another facet of “Trump’s a different kind of potus” — that toxic confection the news media keeps feeding itself to explain away Trump’s lawlessness. No, he’s not “different”, he’s a criminal. He’s always been a criminal — and it’s always been there for all to see because the news media itself reported on it!

Among the stories our news media can’t seem to 1) get straight or 2) comprehend is Christopher Steele and the dossier of raw intelligence he put together and then desperately tried to get into the right hands. As an example of what I’m talking about — if (as our news media does) you simply assume that Chris Steele’s dossier dropped from the sky by magic — it’s easy to dismiss. It could just as easily be the work product of a crank.

Except it’s not. If we trace the story back to how we GOT TO the Chris Steele part of the story, we suddenly discover not only that there IS a story but there’s a story that the news media has already reported on — and seemingly forgotten. As the 2016 Republican primaries got under way, every Republican who wasn’t Donald Trump hated and feared Donald Trump. That included Republicans who supported Jeb Bush’s campaign.

Among them was The Washington Free Beacon (financed by hedge fund magnate Paul Singer). They funded oppo research into multiple Republican candidates but their research on Trump proved the most compelling. The Beacon hired the firm Fusion GPS — a commercial research and strategic intelligence firm founded by two former Wall Street Journal reporters. One of them, Glenn Simpson, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on August 22, 2017. The committee — under Republican control, don’t forget — was attempting to undermine the Steele Dossier’s integrity by undermining the integrity of those who hired Steele.

Why was Chris Steele hired in the first place, the Committee wanted to know — assuming, I guess, that they could imply something nefarious where nothing nefarious existed? Simpson explained how, after Fusion was hired, they did their due diligence. They got their hands on every piece of PUBLICLY AVAILABLE material on Trump that they could — newspaper articles, magazine pieces, radio interviews, TV shows — everywhere Trump’s name appeared or was spoken. They went to Amazon and actual book stores. They combed the internet. They even went to the public library.

What Fusion found — in publicly available material that anyone (including the press) could just as easily have found — convinced them that Donald Trump was likely a criminal who laundered Russian mob money through his (now bankrupt) Atlantic City Casinos. They saw other possible connections between Donald Trump and Russia, too. They were so concerned, in fact, that they sub-contracted the research out to the Westerner with, perhaps, the connections inside Russia — former head of MI6’s Russia Desk Chris Steele.

Did you follow that, American News Media? Publicly available material suggesting Trump’s likely criminality is what motivated the Steele hire. That means anyone — any journalist — could have, at any time, have done what Fusion did: the due diligence.

By the time Fusion got to Chris Steele, the Free Beacon had stopped funding the work; Trump had become the presumptive nominee. Steele’s work was paid for by Marc Elias, the lawyer for the D.N.C. and Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign. That doesn’t in any way disqualify it. Steele — with his excellent connections inside Russia — had no idea who was underwriting his work product.

Ah, but Trump says… The Republicans say. It’s like reporting what the iceberg says. “Go ahead — hit me! I promise nothing bad will happen to ya…”.

The Titanic’s dance band was great at dying nobly. For the purposes of argument though, what if Sam, the band’s talented sax player, possessed knowledge that could have saved the ship? What if Sam — in a previous life — had worked in a shipyard, building ships and new of a way that might stem the flow of water into the six forward watertight compartments that the iceberg exposed. What if another of the band — Val, the Violinist — recognized that if he could get the passengers to rush to the back of the ship, it would aid Sam’s plan and, perhaps, save them all? And what if all the others in the band immediately pitched in to do whatever they could to help.

Our news media has knowledge that could save our ship of state from sinking. They know the iceberg we’ve hit — they’ve reported on it. They also know how the ship works. How its engines work. While, like with the Titanic, time is short, our news media can still stem the flow of water into our tanks. Or, in this case, the flow of bullshit, propaganda and disinformation.

For starters, the news media needs to stop running around the deck like Chicken Little. They need to see themselves as PASSENGERS on this vessel with a rooting interest in not sinking. They need to stop seeing this story from the iceberg’s point of view — or the ocean’s. They need to see it entirely from the passengers’ point of view — because that’s who’s going to suffer the consequences.

Donald Trump & the Republican Party are our democracy’s iceberg. In collusion with their Russian friend, they intend to sink us and raise a Jolly Roger over the remains. That isn’t crazed left wing lunacy. It’s all been reported by our press. You’d think our press wouldn’t be so reluctant to read their own stuff.

The journalism professor turned journalist Seth Abramson hasn’t done any original reporting. Rather, he’s aggregated all the reporting that’s been done — all in one place: his three Collusion books. The portrait Abramson’s work portrays is beyond devastating. Like Fusion GPS mining what every other journalist could mine, Abramson demonstrates how journalism is supposed to work. We already know an awful lot about how exactly Donald Trump became POTUS. We know how corrupt Trump is and how vulnerable to blackmail because of it. Our news media reported it.

Our news media can still save the day. All they have to do is adhere to a few basic principles while seeing themselves as citizen journalists instead of corporate journalists. They might as well since anyone who doesn’t go full corporate, access journalist if Trump “wins” (cheats to win actually — which is not the same thing as actually “winning”) is going to end up in a gulag. Here are a few actions they need to take —

  • Stop Normalizing Everything Trump Does. Mexicans still aren’t rapists (despite the news media’s apparently accepting it) and pussy-grabbing is absolutely not acceptable, no matter how rich you are.
  • Access Journalism is stone cold bullshit. Stop running for the next Judith A Miller ‘It’s All About Access” Award.
  • Listen to Maya Angelou’s wise words: when someone (like Donald Trump) tells you (repeatedly and ad nauseum) who they are? BELIEVE THEM!
  • Whatever you have to do to get it, GET SOME PERSPECTIVE!
  • Words matter. A lie is a lie. Call it what it is, not some euphemism. And trust that your audience is at least as adult as you are. Swear words aren’t nearly as offensive as corruption.
  • Both sides don’t do it. That’s you generalizing — and badly. John Q. Citizen under-reporting his taxes is not the same as Bernie Madoff though both are committing fraud. Proportion and scale matter. So does motive.
  • No one does anything “just because”.
  • When you repeat bullshit without saying it’s bullshit, you validate the bullshit. Once bullshit has credence, it doesn’t give it back.
  • Learn to aggregate. Storytelling builds one scene atop another, each scene (ideally) adding information to the information added in the previous scene. It’s monstrously stupid — and bad storytelling — to keep returning to square one, as if you don’t know the very things you’d already reported on.
  • Recognize your Constitutional obligation. Look, you chose journalism. You choose to pursue it, regardless of the myriad challenges and difficulties. Journalism is the one non-governmental job mentioned in the Constitution — as the final check on governmental power. Tasks don’t get more sacred than that. Take yours seriously FFS!

C’mon News Media — career-minded as you are, you still have souls (religious or otherwise). Most of you got into journalism because you wanted to change things. You wanted to tell truths that stopped villains, rewarded heroes and made the world a better place because of it.

Great! Live that ethos, News Media! Report it. Our ship’s going down with all hands on deck otherwise.

Mind you — we’ll be on deck listening to YOU play us out. Glug, glug, glug…