I am not sure how long I’m going to be doing this.
By “this” I mean critiquing the US press as it reports on national politics, and trying to get journalists to adopt better practices when they are public actors who present to us as observers. It is a frustrating assignment, and I am wary of burnout.
But since I am self-assigned – self-appointed, really – I have freedom of movement, intellectually speaking. Were it not for the fact that we are all enmeshed in the biggest national emergency since the Great Depression, I would probably have exited by now from the “press coverage of politics” beat, in the belief that I have contributed what I can, worn out my welcome, and exhausted the patience of anyone who has been following along.
But I cannot quit before the 2020 elections are run. Until then I am going to press my case as hard as I can. Today, my case to journalists covering the US election, whether they’re US American or not, is this: you cannot keep from getting swept up in Donald Trump’s agenda without a firm grasp on your own.
I am quite aware that journalists are taught not to let their political preferences, party membership, or personal ideology shape their reporting, and I have no quarrel with that restriction. But it does not end the discussion.
Here is journalist and show host Jake Tapper on CNN in May of 2016, after Trump claimed – without evidence – that the father of former presidential candidate Ted Cruz had met with Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who shot president John F Kennedy in 1963. (Italics mine.)
"There is no corroborated evidence that Ted Cruz’s father ever met Lee Harvey Oswald, or, for that matter, any other presidential assassin. We in the media don’t talk about it because there’s no evidence of it. In fact, there is contrary evidence. Well before the picture was taken, Rafael Cruz’s sister was brutally beaten by Castro forces and Rafael Cruz had denounced the regime. So, any suggestion that Cruz’s father played a role in the Kennedy assassination is ridiculous and, frankly, shameful. Now, that’s not an anti-Trump position or a pro-Cruz position. It’s a pro-truth position."
There are fundamental values journalists have to stand up for
Jake Tapper knows that journalists are not supposed to push an agenda like “Ted Cruz for president!” But he also knows there are fundamental values that he and his colleagues in the news business have to stand up for. Among these are a decent respect for truth-telling in public settings. When politicians competing for votes float poisonous charges without even a modicum of evidence, self-respecting journalists have to push back in some way.
In doing that, Tapper wasn’t crossing the border from journalism into some other line of work. He was practising his craft the way he understands it – and legitimately so. The distinction he makes is important. Yes, he took a position on air, but it’s not anti-Trump or pro-Cruz. It’s pro-truth.
Now I want to go beyond what Jake Tapper said in 2016, and introduce a distinction of my own, between the political and the politicised. About press coverage of politics, nothing would improve our conversation more than a careful separation of these two terms. Not easy, but worth trying. Here is what I mean.
When TV journalists with news shows push back against major party candidates who are floating poisonous charges without evidence, that is a political act. We should be clear-eyed in acknowledging such. Same goes for the newspaper fact checkers who wrote, “Trump is once again making a ridiculous claim.” With these moves journalists are trying to alert viewers and voters to be wary of Trump’s false charges. They would not put it this way, but I will: their implicit “agenda” is to prevent lying from being raised to a universal principle in politics.
When politicians competing for votes float poisonous charges without even a modicum of evidence, self-respecting journalists have to push back in some way
That is a valid goal. When I call it a political act, I mean several things: it is undertaken for the good of the nation. It is a use of power in one sense, a check on power in another. It is constitutionally protected. And it is contestable. People can and do disagree about the propriety of journalists declaring what is true and what is false, what is in or out of bounds during an election, and they argue about the calls made. All these make it (properly) political.
But – and here comes my distinction – if journalists lose their place and operate as cheerleaders for individual candidates (“Ted Cruz for president!”) or they let their ideology distort their reporting so as not to injure a cause they manifestly believe in, then their work has been unduly politicised. This is not good. It erodes trust, validates bad faith attacks on the press, and ultimately renders journalism useless as a check on power because it is trying to be the power.
Where does the properly political part of journalism end?
So we should be leery of an overly politicised press. We should also watch out for politicised attacks on the press. And we should be wary of journalists who don’t think their work is political at all. Here is Peter Baker, White House correspondent of The New York Times:
"As reporters, our job is to observe, not participate, and so to that end, I don’t belong to any political party, I don’t belong to any non-journalism organisation, I don’t support any candidate, I don’t give money to interest groups and I don’t vote.
I try hard not to take strong positions on public issues even in private, much to the frustration of friends and family. For me, it’s easier to stay out of the fray if I never make up my mind, even in the privacy of the kitchen or the voting booth, that one candidate is better than another, that one side is right and the other wrong."
When the president is using you as a hate object in order to discredit the entire mainstream press, what good is ‘our job is to observe, not participate’?
I don’t trust this attitude. I think it is dismissive of some of the hardest problems in journalism. Correct in warning against an overly politicised press, it has nothing to say about the inescapably political nature of Baker’s day-to-day work. Not voting on principle, never making up your mind on tough issues, deliberately frustrating friends and family when they ask around your kitchen island: what do you think? These are fantasies of detachment.
When the president is using you as a hate object in order to discredit the entire mainstream press in the eyes of his supporters so that your reporting and the reporting of all the people you compete with arrives pre-rejected, what good is “our job is to observe, not participate”? You are part of that system whether you like it or not. You either think your way out of it, or get incorporated into it.
The hard work is deciding where the properly political part of journalism ends, and its undue, unfair, unwise and risky politicisation begins. But we don’t have a discussion like that. Instead, we have media bias wielded like a baseball bat, and journalists who think they can serve the electorate better if they remove themselves from it.
How should journalists approach the 2020 election?
Now we are met on an ugly and brutal battlefield: the 2020 campaign for president. How should journalists approach it? You can’t keep from getting swept up in Trump’s agenda without a firm grasp on your own. But what should that agenda be? To this tricky question I now turn, armed with my distinction between the properly political and the overly politicised.
I am going to list a few things I think journalists can legitimately be “for” as they report on the coming election. If they choose not to choose, and head into the 2020 campaign without stars to steer by, they are likely to become lost in Trump’s predictable flood of newsy distractions and lurid controversies. They know what’s coming. What they don’t know is how to avoid playing along.
Here are some suggestions.
1. A citizens agenda
This I have described many times, and I am working with a group that is advocating for it in 2020. It’s an alternative to the horse race model for election coverage. There, the organising principle is: “Who’s likely to win?” In the citizens agenda style, you start by asking the people you are trying to inform: what do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes? If you keep asking that question, and listen carefully to the answers, you can synthesise from them a kind of priority list that originates with the voters.
This list then becomes your “agenda” for covering the campaign. Get the candidates to address what the voters said they most want to hear about. Focus your journalism around key items on the citizens agenda. When one of Trump’s media storms blows in you can hold fast to your own priorities by asking if his latest controversy advances discussion of the citizens agenda. If not, you have good reason for downplaying it.
Because it pressures the candidates to address these issues rather than those, the citizens agenda is a political project. But it can be done without unduly politicising election coverage if the act of listening to voters is a genuine one. The agenda comes from them, not from the newsroom’s political preferences.
I have been recommending this approach for many years. I wrote about it in my 1999 book, What Are Journalists For? The basic model has been around since the early 1990s. If journalists in the national press wanted to move toward this alternative they would have done so by now. My read is that it feels too earnest to them, too much like civics class, or “eat your vegetables” journalism, not enough like having drinks with political insiders. I still think it’s the best way to keep from getting swept up in Trump’s agenda. But they do not. So we need other ideas.
2. Fighting authoritarianism and the subversion of democracy
Suppose you began with a frank recognition among editors, producers and reporters that democracy is at risk in the United States. (News flash: it is.) This would argue for extra emphasis on the integrity of elections, extra vigilance against those who would try to subvert them, and a special watchfulness for – a duty to warn about – authoritarian movements in the body politic: demonisation of minorities, trashing of democratic procedures, evasion of checks and balances, erosion of accountability, threats of violence, and other forms of above-the-law behaviour. (For what I mean by watchfulness, see this post by Dan Froomkin, "When Trump takes a step toward autocracy, journalists need to call it out". For a “fighting voter suppression” agenda see this project.)
The extra watchfulness I speak of is a small-d democratic act. It has to be applied across the board: left, right, centre, fringe. With that condition, it is entirely within journalists’ rights to make fighting authoritarianism the mission and heart of their campaign coverage. Call it threats-to-democracy journalism. If we were ever going to need an agenda like that, this is the year.
3. A more evidence-based political debate
Journalists could also decide to stand more forcefully and consistently for an evidence-based politics. If they did, this too would be a political act. But again, it does not have to be politicised. Asking “is this evidence-based?” could be a way of deciding whether a campaign controversy is worth discussing – or dismissing. Holding all candidates to the same standards of evidence is the very essence of across-the-board fairness. Rating the campaigns on how evidence-based they are willing to be might prove especially useful in a political environment dominated by our struggle with Covid-19.
Imagine asking the best public health and immunology experts you can find, “When it comes to the pandemic, what do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes?” Filtered through community knowledge and common sense, this might be a good way of organising state and local coverage of candidates who will have to speak about recovering from the virus to get elected. “We are going to be relentlessly evidence-based, because that is what our community most needs to get out of this mess … ” is a solid agenda to adopt in an election year likely to be dominated by a public health crisis.
Democracy is not a spectator sport, though some forms of punditry seem to frame it that way. The more people who participate in the system the stronger the system is. Journalists can design their coverage so that it helps people go out and vote. With good information and timely notice, they can make it easier for eligible voters to get registered and exercise their rights. They can expose those who would discourage citizens from voting. They can fight disinformation that tries to depress turnout. They can hold accountable the public officials who run elections. They can warn about problems that could haunt us on election day.
But it’s not just voting. All forms of participation could be part of this agenda: how to volunteer, how to contribute, where to see the candidates.
No way around it: encouraging participation is a political act. But as long as it includes all parties and all voters, election coverage that is shamelessly pro-participation does not unfairly politicise the press. Bad actors will of course make that charge, but bad actors always complain about good journalism.
Don’t like these ideas? Come up with your own!
Some I didn’t get to: fighting cynicism. Making politics fun again. Bringing emotions other than rage to campaign coverage. Transcending traditional party divisions. It would take courage and imagination, but all of these could work as organising principles, possibly in combination with others I have mentioned. (You don’t have to have one and only one agenda!)
My point is that journalists need to know what they’re trying to accomplish with their election coverage. Covering the campaign the way campaigns in the US are covered – which, as far as I can tell, is the current “agenda” at CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, PBS, NPR – does not provide a sense of mission strong enough to prevent a repeat of the debacle in 2016. Nor does vowing not to make the same mistakes. Something stronger is required.
They know what’s coming, I said about the campaign press. What they don’t know is how to avoid capture. Donald Trump is going to campaign the same way he “governs”. By flooding the zone with shit, and making so much news that no single revelation matters much. By accusing opponents of the very things he is manifestly guilty of.
By giving his supporters license to reject the news: “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” By persuading the uncommitted that it’s useless to pay attention because you will never get the story straight. By leveraging his weirdness as a human being, like the fact that he lacks the gene for feeling shame. By lowering all of us. By manufacturing confusion. By calling himself the victim of journalists who point these things out. By warring against the press.
These methods – but they’re not methodical, just compulsive – exploit errors in the journalist’s code. Among them are:
- What the president says is news.
- Issues are boring. Controversy is good.
- Conflict makes news, attacks are exciting.
- Doesn’t matter if it’s true. If it could become a factor in the election, it’s worth reporting.
- In theory, sources that flood the zone with shit should be dropped. In practice, we need them.
- More information is better than less.
- Meeting traffic goals means you’re winning at this.
These are propositions set too deep. There is zero chance of removing them in time for 2020. Each one opens the press to manipulation by Trump and his campaign. Which is part of why I say: you can’t keep from getting sucked into his agenda without a firm grasp on your own. Only a strong sense of mission will prevent a repeat of 2016. But I am not optimistic. It is so much easier to go with the flow.
This article was originally published on Jay Rosen’s blog, PressThink.