Seven Calls to Arms for Political Journalists

A political cartoon from the muckraking era, by Joseph Keppler for Puck.
"The Bosses of the Senate" -- A political cartoon from the muckraking era, by Joseph Keppler for Puck.

The press – and the truth – are under siege like never before.

But political journalists don’t have to take it sitting down.

They can actively defend their core values, which include honest governance and an informed electorate.

Here’s a look at some of the ways they could do that:

1. Fight for Democracy

Will Bunch (@Will_Bunch), the national opinion columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, delivered a rousing call to arms in a speech at Drexel University in April 2019, declaring that “we are in a war for the truth, for objective reality — and if we don’t grab our weapons and start fighting back we’re about to get flattened by a blitzkrieg of tanks.”

Fighting back “begins, I believe, with the simple acknowledgement that a free press has an agenda: A functional democracy.”

So when democracy is under attack — as it is in the Trump era — then saving journalism and saving democracy become the same job. The issue isn’t that the media needs to be relentlessly anti-Trump. The issue is that the media needs to fight relentlessly for the fundamental human principles that Trump has so consistently aligned his government against.

He identified four overarching areas for advocacy:

  • Voting: “[N]ewsrooms need to ask themselves — what am I doing to expose and get rid of the laws that make it harder for a citizen to cast her or his ballot? Have we enlisted our resources not only to help our readers register to vote and get to their polling place, but to help them make informed choices when they get there?
  • Human rights: “It’s not simply a matter of how do we expose these wrongs, but how do we use our power as a news organization to help America reconnect with its humanity.”
  • Climate Change: “It means giving our readers the truth, making that truth so engaging that they’ll pay attention — and tossing the oil-soaked money changers out of the temple.”
  • And the Free Press: “[W]e need to be much louder about proclaiming who we are, the role we play in every city and town across America, and the ways that this function that the Founding Fathers understood was so important for a functioning republic is now under assault.”

And he concluded:

That doesn’t mean ditching certain basic tenets — fairness, listening to differing sides on an issue, or a willingness to accept truth, even when it’s uncomfortable. But it also doesn’t mean treating journalism like an ossified religion where the daily rituals of access to the powerful outweighs the spiritual quest for the very soul of what we do.

Similarly, David Roberts (@drvox) wrote for Vox in May 2017 that political journalists are underestimating the danger to democratic institutions — including the free press  — posed by Trump and his followers believing that his lies are true. Roberts called it “tribal epistemology”: The evaluation of information based solely on “whether it supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders.”

Roberts wrote:

The US political media underestimated Trump’s potential for many reasons. Prominent among them was its longstanding refusal to grapple with the deepening asymmetry in American politics — the rejection, by a large swath of the right, of the core institutions and norms that shape US public life.

Under Trump, that asymmetry has become glaring and inescapable. And it is bumping up against the foundations upon which all independent journalism stands.

It is time for journalism to take a side — to fight, not for any political party, but for the conditions that make its own existence possible.

2. The Citizens Agenda

Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu), a journalism professor and outspoken media critic at New York University, has been urging news organizations to adopt what he calls a “citizens agenda” for their campaign coverage for decades. But there’s an even greater urgency for it now:

You can’t keep from getting sucked into Trump’s agenda without a firm grasp on your own. But where does that agenda come from? It can’t come from you, as a campaign journalist. Who cares what you think? It has to come from the voters you are trying to inform….

It helps focus your “issue” coverage and voters guide. It informs your explainers. And it keeps you on track. Instead of just reacting to events (or his tweets…) you have instructions for how to stay centered around voters’ concerns. When a candidate comes to town and gives a speech, you map what is said against the citizens agenda. When your reporters interview the candidate, questions are drawn from the citizens agenda. If the candidate speaks to your editorial board, you know what to do.

Download the Citizens Agenda Guide, written by Jennifer Brandel and Bridget Thoreson from Hearken, Joy Mayer from Trusting News, and Rosen and Ariel Zirulnick from The Membership Puzzle Project.

It says to ask this exact question: “What do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes?”

3. Ban the Liars (Or at Least Put Them on Tape Delay)

Dan Gillmor (@dangillmor), a prolific writer on media and technology and director of News Co/Lab at Arizona State University, has consistently called for dramatic and collective action in response to Trump’s relentless misinformation campaigns.

In a June 2018 essay, he cautioned political reporters:

You’re confronted with radical hacking of your own systems of operation. This requires radical rethinking of those systems.

So in a world where powerful people lie so brazenly, how can you stop letting them do it, while still fulfilling your essential role in our society? By hacking journalism to meet the challenge, starting with an announcement to the liars and the public that you’re no longer going to play along.

His plea:

Please stop giving live airtime to liars. Stop publishing their lies….

CNN, MSNBC, CBS, et al: you know for certain that Kellyanne Conway will lie if you put her on TV. Just don’t do it anymore…

For print-oriented news organizations, this is much easier. Make the coverage about the truth, not the lies, but in the context of how the issue came up — the official’s deceptions.

At the very least don’t let them hijack your show, advised Michael J. Socolow, a journalism professor at the University of Maine:

On a live broadcast, when a guest misbehaves or misinforms the audience, a host has few options. They can ungraciously argue and yell, but that might inspire sympathy for the interviewee. They can cut off the microphone, but that might incite charges of censorship….

Ultimately, this is not an ethical issue of “balance” or fairness. Citizens require credible, verified, and accurate information to perform their democratic responsibilities. There’s no journalistic obligation to disseminate views that mislead, misdirect, or offer irrelevant information designed to intentionally confuse viewers. In fact, there is a journalistic obligation to do the opposite.

To fulfill their democratic and journalistic responsibilities, perhaps TV news operations airing these programs could consider inviting alternative guests and changing the standard format. That way, we could all be more reliably informed.

As Emily Tamkin (@emilyctamkin), the Columbia Journalism Review-appointed “public editor” for CNN asked in June 2019:

[I]f the people being interviewed aren’t in the administration, can’t be held accountable to anyone, don’t have relevant expertise, and refuse to answer a host’s questions, what’s their value?

4. Put Trump on Tape Delay

The president of the United States commands a bully pulpit. Cable news networks are used to airing his public remarks live. When he announces a major speech, the broadcast networks clear the decks.

For instance, while it was obvious that Trump would repeatedly lie in what he billed as a major address on immigration in January –  and boy did he –  the networks agreed to show it live anyway. (Even though they had refused a similar request from Obama in 2014.)

CNN and MSNBC have both taken baby steps to mitigate the lies: CNN sometimes runs fact-checks on a split-screen as Trump talks;  MSNBC recently cut away from a news conference as Trump was lying about Ukraine.

Dan Gillmor’s suggestion:

Don’t put him on live TV, since you know perfectly well he’s going to lie relentlessly and use you as a loudspeaker. Put him on a short delay while you fact-check, and handle the broadcast accordingly….

If you’re doing TV, mute the sound output. Do a voice-over saying what the truth is.

Frank Sesno, director of the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, told CNN’s Oliver Darcy that a given speech “could be rebroadcast later when networks could have had the time to do fact checks so that when the event is replayed it can be fact checked on screen or through panel discussions so that viewers have context and accuracy as part of the coverage.”

Former Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart said in an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review:

I think, particularly on television and radio, anything that’s live, and particularly cable, there is an implicit agreement between newsmaker and journalist:  You’re going to be playing by the same set of rules, and you’re going to try your best to tell the truth. And in return for that, and for being as responsive as you can to whatever is being asked, or the issues of the day, you get access to them putting you out live.

But Trump has broken his end of the agreement by lying, openly. So what I think they should do is say: “You know what, we’re going to put you on the air, but we’re not going to put you on live. We’re going to let you talk, and then we’re going to have an editorial person to say, ‘we’re about to show you the president, and, when he says these three things, he’s not telling the truth.’”

The problem is, when you give him 15 minutes to rant and rave on TV, and then a couple of talking heads come on afterwards and say, well that wasn’t true, the damage is done.

The impression is left. You can’t unsee it. If I were running a cable network, I would not put him on live, because he has lost his right. He won’t keep up his end of this bargain.

5. Suspend Normal Relations

Rosen, in a June 2018 blog post, called for the press to “suspend normal relations with the Trump presidency.”

For instance, back when the White House still held semi-regular press briefings, Rosen encouraged beat reporters not to waste their time. “Send interns,” he wrote. For TV hosts, “no surrogates or fog machines unless they are willing to correct the president.” He continued:

For the Washington Post it might be declining to participate in so-called background briefings. For NPR, it might be refusing to report false claims by the President unless they are served as a “truth sandwich,” a suggestion recently made by Brian Stelter and Margaret Sullivan, interpreting the work of George Lakoff. For CNN, never going live to a Trump event — on the grounds that you will inevitably broadcast falsehoods if you do — would be a good start.

In a marvelous Twitter thread in July 2019, Rosen noted that Trump sometimes makes news just to sow confusion about the news he made the day before. He urged newsrooms to explain that to readers:

6. Embrace Muckraking

Not long after Trump’s election, Juliette De Maeyer, who teaches journalism at the University of Montreal, proposed a reinvention of populist journalism – journalism “working in the interest of the people instead of that of the elite”. Also known as muckraking.

Facing the loss of a central tenet of journalism — “that a news report must be somehow related to something real, to facts that actually exist in the world” — journalists “could try to do more of the same,” she wrote. “More facts, more dots on the chart, more experts, more granular maps, more polls, more data, better data — all expected to inform rationally-minded citizens. But the risk of having quality and high-precision journalism about which nobody cares seems greater than ever.”

She looked to history for an alternative:

Populist journalism, and even quality populist journalism, has existed in the past. The muckrakers of the Progressive Era perfectly exemplify that: Their reporting was sensational and rabidly adversarial, politically engaged with a reformist agenda — going against the grain of what would become the dominant ideal of “objective journalism” in the 1920s — but for all that, they didn’t disregard facts. Their populist reporting style was close to the interest and language of the working-class people, but that is not incompatible with accuracy, verification, and facticity….

[I]f there’s one thing that 2017 could hope to emulate, it’s the muckrakers’ ability to produce journalism that is genuinely concerned with the interest of the people, fiercely adversarial but never personalized…, and obsessed with connecting facts together into a broader inquiry.

7. Positive Reinforcement

Vox editor Ezra Klein (@EzraKlein), recently proposed a form of positive reinforcement.

The idea is that it’s too easy for Trump to get media attention by saying something racist, sexist, bigoted, outrageously untrue or fascistic. Klein wrote:

But what if we reversed that approach? What if instead of lowering the bar to cover Trump, we raised it? …

Perhaps Trump’s behavior — the lies, the insults, the ignorance, the feuding that happens outside the realm of official administration policymaking — shouldn’t get coverage….

Perhaps offense and bigotry should be understood as Trump’s baseline — newsworthy, just as the central projects of other leaders are newsworthy, but not worthy of blanket coverage upon every utterance….

Perhaps Trump should only get the coverage he seeks when he acts like the president rather than an internet troll. In this theory, a new health care proposal released by the White House might deserve coverage, but the latest round of insult comedy at a rally gets ignored. Perhaps, to receive the coverage he seeks, Trump should have to normalize himself.

 

1 COMMENT

  1. I like the suggestion to mute the President. I have been trying to tell people for months that the media are failing us by simply transcribing or running tape of this buffoon and his acolytes and sycophants. I get a lot of pushback from those who think that’s not the media’s job.

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