Bury My Journalism At Bended Knee: The Press And Donald Trump

A journalist who speaks truth to power, not a megaphone, not a stenographer. That, hopefully, would be the identity a conscientious journalist would seek; such has not been the case with the US press corps for ever so long. (The Iraq War is the prime exhibit in this brief, but many others can be found with a little work.) Matters have not improved in 2016, a year which has seen the press continue to fawn over the powerful, to pay more attention to tawdry scandal than genuine political and moral crisis. The latest exhibit in this sorry display of sycophancy and servility is now upon us as we learn of the secret, off-the-record meeting that media executives held with Donald Trump this past week–the ‘optics’ of which suggested nothing less than courtiers lining up to meet the king.

As Glenn Greenwald notes:

[W]hy would journalistic organizations agree to keep their meeting with Donald Trump off the record? If you’re a journalist, what is the point of speaking with a powerful politician if you agree in advance that it’s all going to be kept secret? Do they not care what appearance this creates: the most powerful media organizations meeting high atop Trump Tower with the country’s most powerful political official, with everyone agreeing to keep it all a big secret from the public? Whether or not it actually is collusion, whether or not it actually is subservient ring-kissing in exchange for access, it certainly appears to be that. As the Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone put it: “By agreeing to such conditions, journalists expected to deliver the news to the public must withhold details of a newsworthy meeting with the president-elect.”

As Greenwald goes on to note, such secrecy can only protect details of some kind of ‘working relationship’ the media hammers out with the president-elect, a relationship that is entirely irrelevant to their work: their job is to investigate and report. (Moreover, details of the meeting will be leaked eventually–selectively and strategically. As has indeed happened because the ‘media stars’ were upset at being–surprise!–harangued by a known loose-cannon, and ran hither and thither to complain about their hurt feelings.) Did the attending journalists imagine that they would receive some list of topics that were verboten and another of topics that could be covered? If so, they should have torn up any such list–and never have agreed to put themselves in a position where such ‘negotiations’ could take place. The press don’t seem to keen to assert their First Amendment rights; they’d rather accept them in curtailed form from those in power.

Greenwald makes note of the attendees’ rather precious complaints that they were subjected to a tongue-lashing, their claims that such criticisms would not sting for too long, and concludes:

The supreme religion of the U.S. press corps is reverence for power; the more Trump exhibits, the more submissive they will get. “I know I will get over it in a couple of days after Thanksgiving.” We believe you.

The right thing to ‘get over’ is the temptation to submit to power, and the right time to do so is now.

Margaret Sullivan Won’t Miss Five Things About The NYT; Here Are Two More

Margaret Sullivan–“the media columnist for The Washington Post….former Public Editor of The New York Times“–lists the five things she won’t miss about the New York Times:

1. The inherent tension of the job. The whole concept of coming to work every day to handle complaints, and maybe to criticize work done at the next desk over, well . . .

2. New York Times Exceptionalism: The idea that whatever The Times does is, by definition, the right thing. In editorial matters, this manifests itself as, “It’s news when we say it’s news.” Examples: Initially underplaying the Panama Papers; not covering much of the early days of Chelsea Manning’s trial (she was then known as Pfc. Bradley Manning); assigning a reporter to Hillary Clinton more than three years before the election; not digging in early on the water crisis in Flint, Mich. Excellent as it is, The Times is too often self-satisfied. If there’s a fatal flaw – as in Greek tragedy – this may be it.

This is a pretty damning indictment; one that is correct. Nothing else has made the Times look ‘out of touch,’ ‘not with it,’ than its slow-footed response to some of these times’ most important stories–too often, it is left chasing the leaders.

3. Defensiveness. Although The Times runs many corrections and has two staff people, including a senior editor, whose main job is correcting errors, it’s safe to say that many Times journalists find it hard to admit they got something wrong. In fact, what’s much more likely than any such admission is the tendency to double down.

Moreover, it’d be nice if the Times could be better at responding to correspondence that points out factual errors or conflicts of interest.

4. Articles that celebrate the excesses of the 1 percent

This could also have been titled ‘Articles That Provoke A Toxic Brew Of Uncontrolled Mirth And Homicidal Rage.’ Write on the rich and fatuous all you want; just read your copy back to yourself before you publish.

5. Articles or projects that seem to have “Prize Bait” stamped on them. The telltale signs: These pieces are very long, very elaborate, and clearly the product of many months of work. So far, so good. But they seem overwrought.

I can live with this last one.

Now, to add to Sullivan’s list, here are a pair of grouses:

  1. An appalling Op-Ed page, which continues to underwrite a cottage industry of satire and parody and just plain straight-up ridicule. Cluelessness, banality, sophistry, bromides; they are all here. It still remains unbelievable that the Times–with the platform and resources at its disposal–cannot put together a better crew here. (The Times grants ample space on its Op-Ed pages to ‘experts;’ it has no plans to be a Vox Pop even as it seems to work toward that standing through its comments sections.)
  2. Despite the pride the Times takes in its area staff, readers with a background in the regions being reported on often find the Times’ coverage superficial and uncritical. In some areas of coverage–like the Palestinian crisis in Israel or the fraught India-Pakistan relationship–the resultant skewed analysis is damnably poor.

Bagdikian on the Media’s Corporate Values and Overreliance on Official Sources

I’ve owned Ben Bagdikian‘s  The Media Monopoly for some twenty years, and have only just managed to get around to reading it. The edition I own dates back to 1987; its analysis of the growing monopolies in media ownership and their pernicious effect on political life in the US ring truer than ever before.  As I noted on Facebook this morning, it’s a “depressing read.” That mood is created by our knowledge that the situation now, in 2014, is only qualitatively and quantitatively worse.

Bagdikian’s analysis is comprehensive and his critiques plentiful. Today, I’m going to point you to just one component of his analysis of the worrying reflection of corporate values in American news:

Despite raised standards in journalism, American mainstream news is still heavily weighted in favor of corporate values, sometimes blatantly, but more often subtly in routine conventions widely accepted as “objective.” One is overdependence on official sources of news….[O]veremphasis on news from titled sources of power has occurred at the expense of of reporting “unofficial facts” and circumstances. In a dynamic and changing society, the voices of authority are seldom the first to acknowledge or even to know of new and disturbing developments. Officials can be wrong.

Overreliance on the official view of the world can contribute to social turbulence. Unable to attract serious media attention by conventional methods, unestablished groups have had to adopt melodramatic demonstrations that meet the other media standards of acceptable news–visible drama, conflict, and novelty. If they are sufficiently graphic, the news will report protests, demonstrations, marches, boycotts, and self-starvation in public places (though not always their underlying causes). But in the end, even that fails. Repeated melodrama ceases to be novel and goes unreported. Social malaise or injustice often are not known, by officialdom. Unreported or unpursued, these realities have periodically led to turbulent surprises–such as the social explosions that came after years of officially unacknowledged structural poverty, continuation of racial oppression [race riots in the 1960s], or damage from failed foreign policies [the revolution in Iran].

Over the years, the exaggerated demand for official credentials in the news has given the main body of American news a strong conservative cast….Where there are not genuinely diverse voices in the media the result inevitably is an overemphasis on a picture of the world as seen by the authorities or as the authorities wish it to be.

Bagdikian’s critique certainly puts modern critiques of the blogger into perspective; they remain part of the trend alluded to above.

As I noted in my mini-review of David Coady‘s What to Believe Now: Applying Epistemology to Contemporary Issues, (Blackwell, 2012) his work, which offers a spirited defense of bloggers, rumors, and conspiracy theories in Chapters 4 (‘Rumors and Rumor Mongers’), 5 (‘Conspiracy Theories and Conspiracy Theorists’) and 6 (‘Blogosphere and Conventional Media’), is:

[U]nified by two closely related themes, the importance of free public channels of communication and dangers of overcredulous deference to formal authority.

Coady thus points out how our politics is impoverished by an epistemic virtue gone wrong: we seek to be conscientious believers but end up believing too little. Bagdikian’s prescient analysis finds adequate philosophical support here.