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.

Tom Friedman Has Joined Google’s HR Department

Tom Friedman is moonlighting by writing advertising copy for Google’s Human Resources Department; this talent is on display in his latest Op-Ed titled–appropriately enough “How To Get a Job at Google”. Perhaps staff at the Career Services offices of the nation’s major universities can print out this press release from Google HR and distribute it to their students, just in time for the next job fair.

Friedman is quick to get to the point (and to let someone else do the talking):

At a time when many people are asking, “How’s my kid gonna get a job?” I thought it would be useful to visit Google and hear how Bock would answer.

True to his word, the rest of the Op-Ed is a series of quotes from “Laszlo Bock, the senior vice president of people operations for Google — i.e., the guy in charge of hiring for one of the world’s most successful companies.” Let us, therefore, all fall into supplicant mode.

The How To Get a Job With Us press release is, of course, as much advertisement for the corporation’s self-imagined assessment of its work culture as anything else; how obliging, therefore, for Friedman to allow Bock to tell us Google so highly values “general cognitive ability”, “leadership — in particular emergent leadership as opposed to traditional leadership”, and “humility and ownership”. (In keeping with the usual neoliberal denigration of the university, Friedman helpfully echoes Bock’s claim that “Too many colleges…don’t deliver on what they promise. You generate a ton of debt, you don’t learn the most useful things for your life. It’s [just] an extended adolescence.” Interestingly enough, I had thought Google’s workspaces with their vending machines, toys and other play spaces contributed to the “extended adolescence” of its coders. The bit about the “ton of debt” is spot-on though.) 

The use of opinion pages at major national newspapers for corporate communiques, to advance business talking points, to function as megaphones for the suppressed, yearning voices of the board-room, eager to inform us of their strategic perspectives, is fast developing into a modern tradition. This process has thus far been accomplished with some subterfuge, some stealth, some attempt at disguise and cover-up; but there isn’t much subtlety in this use of the New York Times Op-Ed page for a press release.

Friedman’s piece clocks in at 955 words; direct and indirect quotes from Bock amount to over 700 of those. There are ten paragraphs in the piece; paragraphs one through nine are pretty much Bock quotes. Sometimes, I outsource my writing here on this blog to quotes from books and essays I’ve read; Friedman, the Patron Saint of Outsourcing, has outsourced his to Google’s VP of “people operations.”

The only thing missing in this Friedman piece is the conversation with the immigrant cabbie on the way to Google’s Mountain View in the course of which we would have learned how his American-born children were eager to excel in precisely those skills most desired by Google. Perhaps we’ll read that next week.

Journalism Should Embody Anarchist Ideals

Bill Keller‘s lengthy online exchange with Glenn Greenwald makes for very interesting reading. It illuminates a great deal, especially the modern ‘mainstream’ understanding of journalism–as ‘objective’ reporter of ‘facts’–and its supposed ‘responsibilities’ and the ‘alternative’ view of journalism as fundamentally adversarial, beholden to no nation or state, dedicated to exposing the machinations of the powerful.

Greenwald’s critique of the former view is, as might be expected, quite pungent:

[T]his model rests on a false conceit. Human beings are not objectivity-driven machines. We all intrinsically perceive and process the world through subjective prisms….The relevant distinction is not between journalists who have opinions and those who do not, because the latter category is mythical. The relevant distinction is between journalists who honestly disclose their subjective assumptions and political values and those who dishonestly pretend they have none or conceal them from their readers….all journalism is a form of activism.

That last sentence is crucial: it takes journalism out of the sphere of some imagined realm whose contours resemble that of an archetypal scientific laboratory where men in white coats are replaced by reporters with notepads. These diligent collectors and tabulators merely report their observations of little parcels of reality called ‘facts’.

Instead, journalism turns into a form of political activity, its participants struggling just like any other political player to further some ends and not others. In a democratic society’s politics, the journalists are those players whose role is to report on, and make transparent, the workings of those in power. This power is not insignificant: the state can imprison, silence and immiserate its citizens; it can declare war and martial law; it possesses a monopoly of power, and in the modern state, this power is awesome indeed.

This asymmetrical distribution of power can only be offset and compensated for, by way of protecting those who are subject to it, if they are kept fully apprised of their rulers’ doings and deeds. What the citizenry does not possess by way of material power it strives to obtain by means of information and knowledge. Requests for secrecy, for coyness, for message modification, are, all too often, disingenuous requests that the balance of power be tipped back the other way. Thus, we best understand ‘journalist’ as merely a fancy name for ‘citizen activist dedicated to the full transparency of governmentality.’ A journalist represents the segment of the polity dedicated to making the powerful cower, not preen and strut; he is not an observer of the political system, he is part of it.

Understood in this way, a journalist embodies an anarchist ideal: the rejection of opaque, unaccountable power.  The profession’s basic stance is skeptical and adversarial; it should maintain a distance from those in power so that they may be critiqued more frankly and critically. This entails a prickly relationship with those in power, one with many rough edges. But those unable to deal with this consequent unpleasantness would be well advised to stay out of the proverbial kitchen. Critics aren’t supposed to have too many friends.

The Non-Existent Fourth Estate

In his review of W. Sydney Robinson‘s Muckraker: The Scandalous Life and Times of W. T. Stead (‘The Only True Throne’, London Review of Books, 19 July 2012), John Pemble writes

‘Nothing like being an editor for getting a swollen head,’ the Fleet Street veteran A.G. Gardiner wrote in his memoirs. He must have had W.T. Stead especially in mind, because no editorial head was bigger than Stead’s. In the 1880s, first as deputy editor then editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, he’d been able (he said) to ‘wreck cabinets [and] let loose a tide of war upon helpless populations’. He was responsible – in his own words – for ‘ministers driven into retirement, laws repealed, great social reforms initiated, bills transformed, estimates remodelled, acts passed, generals nominated, governors appointed, armies sent hither and thither, war proclaimed and war averted’. It’s no wonder he had such a high opinion of himself: Victorian journalists were always being told how important and powerful they were. Bulwer-Lytton’s lines of 1838 – ‘Beneath the rule of men entirely great/The pen is mightier than the sword’ – coined a proverb, and by common consent no pen was mightier than that employed by ‘the press’. This 18th-century term, originally used to refer to periodical literature in general, by early Victorian times meant first and foremost the daily papers. In 1828 Macaulay identified the press as ‘a Fourth Estate of the Realm’; by the 1850s, when William Russell was reporting from the Crimea for the Times and his editor, John Delane, was fulminating against the mismanagement of the war, nobody could argue with it. ‘This country is ruled by the Times,’ the Saturday Review declared. ‘We all know it, or if we do not know it, we ought to know it.’

Does the ‘press’ still rule? Can editors still claim the powers that W. T. Stead claimed for himself? It depends, I think, on what we take the referent of ‘press’ to be. If by ‘press’ we are referring to the gigantic media conglomerates that are the result of a never-ending process of corporate mergers of television, newspaper, magazine, and now digital services, then the answer is perhaps still ‘yes.’ The presidential candidate most likely to be elected is the one who can buy himself the most television time; the legislation most likely to pass is that which has been hawked the most successfully by its proponents on that same medium; wars are more likely to be declared if the press can be counted on, as in the case of the Iraq war, to faithfully parrot the talking points of the warmongers; a media frenzy over a politicians scandalous behavior can still bring end an career; a press conference remains the obligatory performative ritual for a disgraced leader; and so on.

But a great deal of what I’m describing above does not sound like what Macaulay had in mind in his ‘Fourth Estate’ formulation. All too often the media behemoth does not monitor the political process as watchdog, but rather manipulates it as active interested partner. How could it be otherwise given its monopolistic nature and corporate ownership?

Note: Pemble’s summation of the non-existence of the Fourth Estate, even in W. T. Stead’s time–unfortunately behind a behind a paywall at the LRB–makes for interesting reading: ‘the political weight of the press had declined as its circulation increased’ i.e., as it became subject to market forces.

2012’s Top Five Posts (Here, Not Elsewhere)

2012, the year that was (or still is, for a few more hours), turned out to be a busy one for blogging at this site. I wrote three hundred and twenty-four new posts, bringing the total for this blog to three hundred and fifty-five. The blog finally crossed fifty thousand views. (A humbling figure, if you think that major blogs receive those many hits in a day.)

The five most popular posts in terms of views were the following. (I don’t think these are necessarily the best pieces I wrote, which is a judgment I find hard to make in any case, but they definitely attracted some attention.)

  • David Brooks Went to a Springsteen Concert, And All I Got Was A Stupid Op-Ed: I wrote this post in response to a typical display of asinine, pseudo-profound commentary by a columnist who is an integral component of the embarrassment that is the New York Times Op-Ed page.  It was a bit silly, and I suppose could be described as satire, but really, it was a pretty straightforward reaction to idiocy. Among others, Brian Leiter linked to it, as did Bradford DeLong, and Corey Robin, and that brought in many viewers. Many thanks to you all. (In particular, Leiter and Robin have brought many readers to this site, so I owe them multiple thanks.)
  • Bill Keller Needs to Drop the Snark and Do Serious Journalism: This was an angry reaction to a New York Times Op-Ed that I found profoundly politically offensive. I have grown increasingly depressed by the state of political journalism in the US and Bill Keller’s writing on WikiLeaks at the nation’s premier newspaper summed it up for me. As a public display of confusion about the responsibility of the journalist, and the relationship they should maintain with those in power, Keller’s piece has few parallels. Glenn Greenwald and Corey Robin linked to this post.
  • On The Lack of Women in Philosophy: The Dickhead Theory: This post grew out of a long-held concern of mine that the academic practice of philosophy often betrays what should be its guiding principles, among which should be the creation and maintenance of an atmosphere conducive to open and unfettered inquiry. I find the lack of women in philosophy appalling, and remain convinced that the way male philosophers run the profession has a great deal to do with it. This post was prompted by articles by Jennifer Saul and Helen Beebee.
  • Occupy Wall Street And The Police: Why So Estranged?: In this post, I wondered why the police, who should be on the side of those protesting the 1%, are instead, so committed to doing the bidding of those that would keep them in a state of economic and political deprivation. Again, Brian Leiter cited this post.

I wrote three hundred and nineteen other posts of course (check ’em out!). Most of them sank into obscurity, but that’s quite all right. I’m still amazed that anyone bothers to read anything posted out here.

So there you have it folks. Another year awaits, and while I’m not quite sure that I will blog at the same rate as I did in 2012–primarily because I two new book projects planned (besides a newborn!)–I will continue to write as often as I can. Do stick around.

Note: I also owe thanks to all those folks on Facebook and Twitter who linked to, and shared my posts. Much appreciated.

Responding to Caitlin Kelly on Journalistic Standards, Writerly Solidarity, and Bloggers’ Responsibilities

Caitlin Kelly from the New York Times writes in my comments space in response to my blog post from a few days ago and I respond. I want to expand on that response because I think her comment and mine bring to light some interesting issues. (The comments space also features some very good remarks by Satadru Sen, David Coady and Anna Gotlib; please do check it out.)

First off, it is entirely unclear to me why Kelly thinks a blogger needs to contact a journalist for clarification, when the blogger’s point is to note a piece has gone to press that doesn’t show the care required of a journalist. The point is to criticize the article, to call it out, to show to readers a journalist does not seem to have done the legwork required in order to produce a good piece of journalism. Critics of journalists cannot be expected to check in with them for vetting as it were; this seems like an unnecessary constraint. Since when has this requirement become de rigeur?

My friend Julie Rivchin Ulmet made the following perspicuous comment on my Facebook page:

That’s incredible on so many levels. First, you didn’t refer to any conduct by the author of the piece, you referred, appropriately, to the “New York Times” and the “article”. Its a bit ridiculous for her to take it personally, let alone to do so publically. And because you are referring to a published article and not behind the scenes actions, it is preposterous that you should ask for comment. It’s basically textual analysis. The text speaks for itself.

‘The text speaks for itself’ indeed.

Second, Kelly seems to ignore the tremendous power differential that exists between journalists like her who find a platform in media outlets like the New York Times and bloggers like myself. My blog posts have very limited visibility; if Kelly is worried her professional reputation will be hurt then she can perhaps rest easy. But her pieces have thousands of readers and are backed up by the authority of the New York Times; they have the power to influence opinion significantly. It is Kelly’s responsibility to do the checking, and to make sure her piece is not vulnerable to the kind of criticisms mounted in the Techdirt piece I was quoting. Like some dude once said, with great power comes great responsibility.

Third, Kelly wants to rely on a notion of writerly solidarity: that I should not attack another writer. But this is to invoke a solidarity or a fraternity that does not exist. More to the point, it is a dangerous invocation. Writers write, critics critique, journalists expose; once they put their ideas out there they should expect to be critiqued. I have now published three books, and am working on my fourth. None of my reviewers have bothered to contact me for clarifications; rather, they write first and then expect me to write defenses. I have a pen (or keyboard); I can defend myself very well with those. That’s what I do; I meet critique with more critique. I have written over 150 blog posts over at ESPN-Cricinfo so perhaps you could call me a sports journalist; I do not expect those who respond to me to ask me for clarification first. I have written almost 300 posts here. I don’t expect people who criticize me here to contact me first for clarification either. (In my response to Kelly I seem to have conceded too much in this regard). If someone critiques me, I will respond here (as I am doing at this very moment to Kelly’s critical comments).

Lastly, as I have noted, I look forward to Kelly’s response to the original criticisms mounted in the TechDirt piece. I have linked to her blog and will be monitoring it to see if that happens. Perhaps Kelly can post the original version of her piece so that we can see if editing by NYT editors above her resulted in the omissions we are all worried about.