Monday, April 23, 2018
The war against the press
Professor Jay Rosen gave a speech this week called "The Campaign to Discredit the Press" which he shared on a long twitter thread. I thought those who don't tweet might find it interesting:
There is alive in the land an organized campaign to discredit the American press. This campaign is succeeding.
Good morning. That was uplifting wasn't it?
Its roots are long. For decades the Republican coalition has tried to hang together by hating on elites who claim to know things, like “what is art?” Or: “what should college students be taught?” Or: “what counts as news?”
The media wing of this history extends back to Goldwater’s campaign in 1964. It passes through Agnew’s speeches for Nixon in 1969, and winds forward to our own time through William Rusher's 1988 book, 'The Coming Battle for the Media'...
... then through the growth of conservative talk radio, and in the spectacular success of Fox, which found a lucrative business model in resentment news, culture war, and the battle cry of liberal bias.
Donald Trump is both the apotheosis of this history and its accelerant. He has advanced the proposition dramatically. From undue influence — that was Agnew’s claim — to something closer to treason: “enemy of the people.”
Instead of criticizing The Media for unfair treatment, as Agnew did, Trump whips up hatred for it. Some of his most demagogic moments have been attacks on the press, often by singling out reporters and camera crews for abuse during rallies held in an atmosphere of menace.
Nixon seethed about the press in private. Trump seethes in public, a very different act. But his transformation of right wing media complaint goes beyond these lurid performances.
It starts at the top with the President’s almost daily attacks on “the fake news,” and his description of key institutions — the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, NBC — as both failing AND corrupt. Contempt thus has two places to settle.
At the bottom of the pyramid is an army of online trolls and alt right activists who shout down stories critical of the President, and project hatred at the journalists who report them.
Between the President at the top and the base at the bottom are the mediating institutions: Breitbart, Drudge Report, Daily Caller, Rush Limbaugh and especially Fox News.
The campaign to discredit the American press operates differently on the three major sections of the Trumpified electorate: supporters, opponents, and those who are not in either camp.
For core supporters, media hate helps frames the president as a fighter for them. “I will put these people down for you” was one of the most attractive promises Trump made during the campaign. He has delivered on that pledge.
They in turn deliver for him by categorically rejecting news reports that are critical of the President, in the belief that biased journalists are simply trying to bring their guy down.
On his committed opponents, the President’s political style “works” by inviting ridicule and attack. Their part in the script is simply to keep the culture war going via native responses to the awfulness of the Trump phenomenon.
The anger, despair and disbelief that Trump inspires in his most public doubters is felt as confirmation, and consumed as entertainment by his most committed supporters— and his trolls.
Notice how if Trump’s opponents defend the reporting of an elite institution like the New York Times — or simply make reference to it as revealed fact — that only supports his campaign to discredit the press as a merely ideological institution.
Then there’s the third group: Americans who are neither committed supporters nor determined critics of Donald Trump. On them, the campaign to discredit the press works by generating noise and confusion, raising what economists call search costs for good information.
If the neither/nors give up and are driven from the attention field, that is a win for Trump, the polarizer-in-chief. So that’s my short course in how the campaign to discredit the American press operates. Now let me turn to our subject: the risks that come with this pattern.
There is a risk that one third of the electorate — his core supporters — will be isolated in an information loop of their own, where Trump is the source of news about Trump, and independent sources are rejected on principle.
I described this as a risk, but in fact it has already happened. An authoritarian system is up and running for that portion of the polity. Another way to say it: Before journalists log on in the morning, one third of their public is already gone.
There is a risk that Republican elites will fail to push back against Trump’s attacks on democratic institutions, including the press, even though these same elites start their day by reading the New York Times and Washington Post. This too has already happened.
There is a risk that journalists could do their job brilliantly, and it won’t really matter, because Trump supporters categorically reject it, Trump opponents already believed it, and the neither-nors aren’t paying close enough attention.
In a different way, there is a risk that journalists could succeed at the production of great journalism and fail at its distribution, because the platforms created by the tech industry have overtaken the task of organizing public attention.
There is a risk that the press will lose touch with the country, fall out of contact with the culture. Newsroom diversity is supposed to prevent that, but the diversity project has been undermined by a longer and deeper project, which I have called the View from Nowhere.
The press is at risk of losing its institutional footing. For example: In the hands of Sean Spicer and Sarah Sanders, the White House briefing has gone to ruin. It was always frustrating, now it’s useless and frequently counter-productive.
Many floors below the surface of journalism there are bedrock attitudes that make the practice possible— and thinkable. There is a risk of erosion there. One example is the shared belief that there exists a common world of fact that can be established through inquiry...
When the President of the United States forcefully rejects the premise of a common world of fact, and behaves like there is no such thing, any practice resting upon that premise is in political trouble. This has happened to journalism. No one knows what to do about it.
Used to be that when the American president went abroad, the press came with. There would be a joint press conference with the foreign head of state. Under authoritarian regimes this would often be the only time the host country’s press corps got to question their own leader.
In these moments, the American government and the American press came together to show the strongmen of the world what a real democracy was. All that is now at risk. What was once described — yes, with some hyperbole — as a beacon to the world is flickering...
When Donald Trump met the president Xi Jinping of China in November of 2017 there was no joint press conference. The Chinese didn’t want it. The State Department failed to press for it.
There is a risk that established forms of journalism will be unable to handle the strain that Trump’s behavior puts upon them. For example: the form we came to call fact checking has had zero effect in preventing him from repeating falsehoods.
There is a risk that journalists will hang onto these forms way past their sell-by date because it’s what they know. They want things to be normal. Access to confusion and disinformation serves no editorial goal, but “access journalism” remains basic to White House reporting.
I will close with something Steve Bannon put to the author Michael Lewis in February of this year. "The Democrats don't matter,” Bannon said. “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit."
To this kind of provocation (“The real opposition is the media...") Marty Baron, editor of the Washington Post, has a succinct reply: “We’re not at war, we’re at work.”
I think our leading journalists are correct that if they become the political opposition to Trump, they will lose. And yet they have to go to war against a political style in which power gets to write its own story. There's a risk that journalists will fail to draw this distinction: between opposing Trump and opposing a political style that erodes their place in the public sphere. In my role as a critic, I have been trying to alert them to that danger. So far it is not working.
He's right. And none of this is to say that the media is immune to criticism or that people cannot complain about coverage. That's as American as apple pie. But this ugly, extreme hostility we see under Trump along with the propaganda and "fake news" is something different. Maybe it will peter out. Let's hope so because if it doesn't it's going to escalate into something we don't recognize.
digby 4/23/2018 09:00:00 AM