Three new broadsides against American political journalism

USS Wisconsin (BB-64) Firing a broadside to port with her 16/50 and 5/38 guns, circa 1988-91. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

One of the main reasons I am planning to launch a project constructively critiquing American political journalism is that I have been struck by how many super-smart people out there have super-useful things to say about what’s wrong with our political coverage — and how it could be better. (I’m testing possible formats for the project’s blog this week; let me know what you think.)

Here are three cases in point — just from the last couple days.

Emily Bell is a leading thinker on the intersection of technology and journalism. She’s a professor at the Columbia Journalism School and founding director of its Tow Center for Digital Journalism, is former editor-in-chief of the Guardian websites and remains a Guardian columnist. In a seminal lecture in 2017, she looked back on the 2016 U.S. election and concluded that “the information ecosystem has grown in ways that work against the interests of civic society and good journalism.”

In her Guardian column on Sunday, she reflected on lessons the UK media could learn from American reporting on Trump – now that the UK has its own version in the form of Boris Johnson as prime minister.

There, as here, the basic challenge is this: “Somehow, as events move at breakneck speed, the important and the substantive has to be sorted from the fake and superficial.”

She cites the “superficial coverage” of Robert Mueller’s testimony last week, which “gave media critics an opportunity to – once again – call out the tendency of US political journalists to review politics like a theatrical production; to focus on the drama and box-office quality of extraordinary times as opposed to digging deep into their significance.”

But the biggest takeaway in Bell’s piece actually comes from the extraordinary Margaret Sullivan, the former New York Times public editor who now writes about the media for the Washington Post.

Bell describes a conversation in which Sullivan emphasized the danger of normalization. “Once they [politicians] hold high office it’s very hard not to treat such a person as just a variation on a governmental theme even if he is nothing of the kind,” Sullivan said.

I think that’s very deep. Our democracy is basically in a state of emergency, but you wouldn’t know it from the day-in-day-out coverage.

I’ve written a lot about the danger of normalizing the Trump presidency myself — for instance when reporters treat Trump’s megalomaniacal gibberish like he’s actually saying something, fail to force him to confront facts, or barely pay attention anymore to massive corruption, vast ineptitude, and constant spectacle.

Bell concludes that British press, like the American press, “needs to become more rigorous and more serious.

“When the circus has left town, we will need a reliable record to remind us of what happened, and how, and why.”

Robert Kuttner is a giant in progressive political journalism. He is co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect, founder of the Economic Policy Institute, a prolific columnist and author of 12 book, including the upcoming The Stakes: 2020 and the Survival of American Democracy.

He let loose Monday with a blistering column headlined The Idiocy of Campaign Coverage, featuring two major New York Times stories.

First up, an article that ran in the print edition under the headline Pragmatism, not Ideology, Defines Harris, by Alexander Burns. Kuttner:

OK, for starters, this is a completely false framing. There is no such thing as a politician without an ideology, though there are plenty of politicians who try to duck or fudge where they stand.

Kuttner observed that Burns supported his theory by noting that “Harris has proposed no major policies to constrain extreme wealth and corporate power.” Kuttner responds:

Bulletin to the Times: That’s not called pragmatism. It’s called corporate Democrat. Which happens to be an ideology.

And then in Monday’s Times, under the print-edition headline A Clash of Democratic Priorities: Change Presidents, or Change the Paradigm?, Reid J. Epstein and Lisa Lerer ask:

Is beating Trump or enough? Or should Democrats, much like the man they hope to defeat, shake the political system like a snow globe and worry later about how things settle?


Say what? There is so much wrong with that framing that you could build an entire journalism course around it.

As Kuttner writes: “this idiotic piece would have the reader believe they are shaking things up for the sake of shaking things up, dropping bombs for the sake of dropping bombs.”

He concludes:

Jesus wept! Does the Times have editors? Are they as clueless as some of their political writers?

Where do these people get their political educations? And this is the best of the mainstream papers. No wonder our political discourse is so screwed up that Donald Trump can pose as a populist.

The third broadside comes from Faiz Shakir, the campaign manager for Bernie Sanders. I normally discount media critiques from political operatives, but Shakir was also editor-in-chief of Think Progress and political director for the ACLU. And his critique resonated with me.

Appearing on CNN’s Reliable Sources, with Brian Stelter (here’s video; here’s a transcript) Shakir said debates “tend to make the American people stupider” because they are “performative theater,” and complained about media bias against Sanders in particular. But he also gave voice to a sweeping critique of corporate media that you just don’t hear very often these days.

Well, Brian, this isn’t a personal commentary on you or any other journalist. There’s many wonderful talented journalists out there. But in about you know, a minute or so or two minutes or so, you’re going to cut to commercial breaks and you’re going to see some pharmaceutical ads.

You’re going to see a lot of ads that are — that are basically paying your bills and the bills of this — the entire media enterprise and what that ends up doing is incentivizing you and others to make sure that you’re asking the questions and driving the conversations in certain areas and not in certain areas.

Stelter pushed back, but Shakir was undeterred:

Do you know why you pay so much more, ten times more in America on prescription drugs than any other country? Does anyone know that or understand what?

Do you know what the Trump administration is doing about that? Do you even know who the head of the Health and Human Services Secretary is? Do you know his background that he worked in the pharmaceutical industry?

Shakir’s skepticism of corporate media – particularly with increased consolidation — is shared by citizen and consumer groups like Free Press and Common Cause.

But Shakir added a fresh observation: That Trump’s ability to change the subject by making outrageous comments dovetails with pro-corporate pressure.

I mean these — I think Donald Trump turns out these tweets and attempts to distract all of us and there isn’t a basic conversation around the fact that he’s betraying the working class by having selected a group — a group of people to run his government who come from industry, who benefit industry, and that story is not told.

The great theorist Neil Postman wrote a book many year ago about public discourse in the age of show business. It was called Amusing Ourselves to Death and concluded that “when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.” Perhaps we are distracting ourselves to death as well.


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