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.

Nick Kristof Should Stick To High Profile Rescues

Nick Kristof writes on his Twitter feed:

Activists perhaps should have focused less on Michael Brown, more on shooting of 12-yr-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland

This is the kind of sensible, pragmatic advice that journalists like Kristof, safely ensconced in their opinion pages, are in the habit of handing out to unhinged radicals everywhere: pick your battles, choose wisely, activist resources and public attention are scarce, and on and on. (My guess is that Kristof also finds the activists’ rhetoric ‘incendiary and counterproductive.’)

Except that this advice is vacuous and misguided, and shows a severe lack of political nous.

The reason Kristof offers this second-guessing of activist strategies is because he has internalized some irrelevancies pertaining to the Michael Brown case. To wit: Brown was a ‘hulking young man’, a shoplifter who smoked marijuana and scuffled with a policeman. None of these factors remotely mitigates his shooting in cold-blood by a police officer whose actions that day and afterward suggest if not outright racism, then at least spectacular incompetence. Furthermore, the Michael Brown protests might have started out as protesting a young man’s senseless death, but they very quickly turned into a much larger statement against police brutality. It would have been politically dumb of those who resist police brutality and heavy-handedness to not make a visible statement against the excessive, ongoing militarization of the police that was visible, day after day, night after night, on Ferguson’s streets. And then later, after the grand jury’s scandalous acquittal of Darren Wilson, after a process that has now been shown to be irredeemably flawed and corrupt, protests broke out again, which had the salutary effect of highlighting the almost unconditional protection that police enjoy from prosecutors everywhere.

Michael Brown was shot on 9 August 2014; Tamir Rice was shot on 22 November 2014; the grand jury acquitted Wilson on 24 November. What does Kristof think the activists should have done between August and November? Waited for someone really, really innocent to be shot? A younger man, a slighter man, a man who didn’t smoke weed? Should they have canceled all protests against the grand jury decision, saying “Sorry, we got a a much better case to concentrate on”? Sauve qui peut, I suppose.

The most offensive implicit statement in Kristof’s tweet is that somehow Tamir Rice was ‘more innocent’ than Brown, that his death was ‘more tragic,’ and deserved more attention from activists and protesters. This is morally obtuse. The deaths of both young men were tragedies and they deserve equal attention precisely because the same system–the same deadly combination of systemic racism and an over-armed, trigger-happy, incompetent policeman–killed them.

Journalists like Kristof continue to write weak pablum on this nation’s most prominent editorial pages and persist in offering inane, offensive advice to those engaged in struggles whose dimensions they remain blithely unaware of. They insist that political protests–about issues which are far removed from their lives and experiences–conform to their notions and expectations in form and content and target.

What a waste of a soapbox.

PS: Do read the linked article Kristof provides; it details the criminal negligence that led to Rice’s death.

The ‘Historic’ Statue Toppling That Wasn’t

In his essay ‘The Toppling: How the media inflated a minor moment in a long war‘ (The New Yorker, January 20, 2011), Peter Maass provides, by way of context and background, a useful deflationary account of the famous toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square on April 9, 2003. The statue’s downfall had always had a stage-managed feel to it, even at the time; Maass’ account makes clear it was a journalist’s event through and through, with few Iraqis in the square, and even those outnumbered by war correspondents, cameramen and the like, and cheering only when the cameras  panned to them.

The over-the-top, prematurely celebratory response–of the Bush administration–to the statue’s toppling, part of the delusional description of the war, one made especially poignant by our knowledge now, of the mayhem that lay ahead for Iraq, was egged on by the media:

The powerful pictures from Firdos were combined with powerful words. On CNN, the anchor Bill Hemmer said, “You think about seminal moments in a nation’s history . . . indelible moments like the fall of the Berlin Wall, and that’s what we’re seeing right now.” Wolf Blitzer described the toppling as “the image that sums up the day and, in many ways, the war itself.” On Fox, the anchor Brit Hume said, “This transcends anything I’ve ever seen. . . . This speaks volumes, and with power that no words can really match.” One of his colleagues said, “The important story of the day is this historic shot you are looking at, a noose around the neck of Saddam, put there by the people of Baghdad.”

The invocations of ‘seminal,’ ‘indelible,’ Berlin Wall,’ ‘power,’ ‘historic,’ in these breathless descriptions of ‘ a minor moment in a long war’ are galling. They serve as good evidence for a thesis I have privately entertained for a long time: rare is the journalist who does not self-servingly succumb to the temptation to describe a reported event in precisely these terms because doing so increases their sense of self-importance as well. After all, if it’s a historic, momentous, seminal moment, then aren’t the journalists reporting on it carrying out equally momentous work, equally deserving of their place in history? Perhaps they should be written about next, made the subjects of detailed reportage, praised for their presence at The Event?

Descriptions like those cited above are thinly veiled exercises in self-glorification.  This was never more clear to me than during the Monica Lewinsky affair.  Then, confronted by one breathless television reporter and talking head after another, it rapidly became clear to me that what they all seemed to be desperately hoping for was an impeachment of a US president on their watch. Imagine: the memoirs you could write, detailing your role in the coverage of this ‘crisis’, the blow-by-blow accounts you could detail  of every manufactured twist and turn, every ‘intervention’, every skillful and perceptive and brilliant report you provided, as you expertly shepherded The Event and its actors towards its final, earth-shattering conclusion. I was there; this is what I saw.

It’s hard, apparently, to not want to be part of the story.