Let’s get this out of the way first: Of course the networks made the right decision in giving President Trump airtime to deliver yet another pitch for his border wall. Yes, he lied, as we all knew he would. Yes, he engaged in fear-mongering, which is to say that he opened his mouth and spoke. But the notion that television executives should have said no to a president making his first request for a prime-time Oval Office address in the midst of the shutdown crisis (a crisis of his own making, but still) is hard to take seriously.
The dawn of a new year is yet another opportunity for President Trump to make news in all the wrong ways — and another invitation for the media to obsess over every tweet, insult, lie, and outburst of unpresidential behavior.
Aside from denigrating journalists as purveyors of #fakenews and as the “Enemy of the American People,” Trump has actually been good for the media. Digital subscriptions at newspapers are up, audiences for NPR and political podcasts are growing, and donations are on the rise at ProPublica and other nonprofits. At the same time, though, the relentless coverage of our dysfunctional, falsehood-spewing president has resulted in an overwhelming sense of fatigue.
I’m here to help. No, we can’t ignore Trump — not when his policies result in the deaths of children at the border, or when he refuses to take seriously the apparent murder of a journalist at the hands of the Saudi regime, or when one of his former aides implicates him in crimes. But we can retake control of our news diet, slowing the torrent of Trump news, semi-news, and alleged news to a more manageable flow. Not only will it help us stay sane, but it will allow is to react appropriately when something genuinely terrible takes place.
Here, then, are five ideas for de-Trumpifying your life in 2019.
1. Ignore nearly all stories about Trump’s tweets. The media can’t disregard the president’s sociopathic Twitter stream entirely. Someone has to pay attention. All too often, though, some awful thing Trump said on Twitter winds up overshadowing some even more awful thing he’s doing IRL. You might say Trump does that deliberately. I don’t think so; rather, I think Twitter is where he expresses his truest self. But we need to keep it in perspective.Granted, it can be difficult when he posts a beauty like this:
“General” McChrystal got fired like a dog by Obama. Last assignment a total bust. Known for big, dumb mouth. Hillary lover! https://t.co/RzOkeHl3KV
But, really, was that any worse than what he tweets out on a daily basis? It’s time for all of us to move Trump’s tweets off center stage and to regard them as the sort of low hum that’s given off by fluorescent lights — always there, but usually not noticed.
2. Pay more attention to the world around you. I don’t mean you should take a walk in the woods, although of course you should. I mean you should immerse yourself more deeply in non-Trump news that’s unfolding both internationally and nationally — stories about climate change, war, rising fascism, space exploration, religion, sports, culture, and yes, stories about kindness and compassion and hope.
Politics is just one part of the human experience, which is something that political junkies like me have to remind ourselves of from time to time. And Trump is just one part of politics. Yes, Trump has been good for the business of journalism, but the downside is that news organizations load up their home pages and social media feeds with all things Trump in order to drive clicks and digital subscriptions and to drive us over the edge. We don’t have to take part.
3. Become a news locavore. If you’re not paying attention to what’s going on in your community, make changing that one of your New Year’s resolutions. It’s not just that it’s important. It’s that people who might have wildly divergent views about national politics usually have less trouble finding common ground at the local level.
There’s an old saying that there isn’t a liberal or conservative way to pick up the garbage, and there’s something to it. More important, though, is that when we get to know each other as individuals, what separates us tends to fade away and what we have in common moves to the forefront. As the journalist James Fallows wrote in The Atlantic shortly after the 2016 election, “at the level of politics where people’s judgments are based on direct observation rather than media-fueled fear, Americans still trust democratic processes and observe long-respected norms.” (Fallows and his wife, Deborah Fallows, expanded that idea into a book called “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America.”)
Part of making a commitment to localism means supporting local media. National and regional news organizations need your support, of course, but so does the startup community website you might be lucky enough to have — or even the corporate-owned weekly newspaper that employs your town’s only watchdog journalist. What she reports on is at least as important to your life as anything you’ll find in The New York Times or The Washington Post.
4. Stop watching cable news talk shows. If there’s a big breaking news story, you’re going to tune in CNN, and so am I. But the social value of the talk shows that CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News broadcast during prime time every evening is close to zero.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, I recently watched Rachel Maddow’s and Sean Hannity’s top-rated talk shows on MSNBC and Fox, respectively. And though Maddow’s liberal program was more fact-based than the right-wing conspiracy theories that Hannity offers these days, both shows earn their money by exploiting the political polarization that defines life in 21st-century America. CNN’s idea of an alternative is to have liberal and conservative guests argue with each other.
There is quality news on television. At the national level, the network nightly newscasts are still respectable, and the “PBS NewsHour” offers substance, even if it’s too heavy on eat-your-peas seriousness. Surveys show that local TV newscasts are more trusted than other forms of news, and Boston’s choices are many and varied.
5. Change your relationship with social media. This is a tough one, which is why I’ve saved it for last. For most of us over a certain age, when I talk about social media I’m talking mainly about Facebook, with its 2.2 billion active monthly users. We all know the existential crisis Facebook is dealing with over the exposure of its repeated privacy violations, its manipulation of users via a Russian disinformation campaign, and its mysterious but highly effective algorithm, which keeps users engaged by feeding them content that plays into their fears and anger.
And yet Facebook is just so damn useful, connecting us with family and friends in some pretty powerful ways. For those of us who communicate for a living, Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms allow us to expand our reach beyond what was previously possible.
What should we do? Some people are quitting Facebook, and I respect that. Most of us, though, aren’t going to go that far. I’m not, at least not yet. Instead, I think we all ought to resolve to try to use Facebook responsibly in 2019. I can’t define what that means. But I imagine it involves some combination of using it mainly to stay in touch with people who are important to us, interacting on local and special-interest groups, and ignoring politically charged content even when we agree with it. It’s just not healthy.
None of these steps is aimed at eliminating President Trump from your life. That wouldn’t make any more sense than running around with your hair on fire every time he lies. There is going to be plenty of Trump news in 2019. Special counsel Robert Mueller will presumably submit his report at some point. The Democratic House may take up impeachment. The president will continue to act unpredictably, rashly, and, in many instances, horribly. We can hardly ignore it all.
But we can pay attention to what really matters — while at the same time downgrading Trump from a constant crisis to more of a dull, aching pain that never quite goes away.
It seems transparently obvious that Romney believes Trump won’t survive the Mueller investigation and that he’ll be in the best position to pick up the pieces. Add to that the fact that Utah Republicans can’t stand Trump, and this is a no-risk move by the Mittster — which is to say the only kind of move he ever makes.
Even the most public-spirited wealthy media owners are not perfect. Jeff Bezos has revived The Washington Post, but working conditions — though not as bad as those in, say, an Amazon warehouse — are hardly as good as they could be at a news organization that is reportedly growing and profitable. John Henry, frustrated by ongoing losses at The Boston Globe, has hired a union-busting law firm in an attempt to bring costs into line — as if that’s going to make for a better, more financially sustainable Globe.
But you’d have to go a long, long way to find an owner as awful as Philip Anschutz, who last week killed The Weekly Standard, reportedly so that he could raid its subscriber list and use it to pump up his Washington Examiner.
The Standard, a political magazine founded in the mid-1990s, has been a leading voice of #NeverTrump conservatism. The Examiner is considerably more pro-Trump. Anschutz is entitled to go full #MAGA, of course. But according to John Podhoretz, one of the Standard’s co-founders, Anschutz actually stood in the way of a possible sale because he wanted the Standard dead and gone lest it compete with the Examiner. Podhoretz writes:
That this is an entirely hostile act is proved by the fact that he and Anschutz have refused to sell the Standard because they want to claim its circulation for another property of theirs. This is without precedent in my experience in publishing, and I’ve been a family observer of and active participant in the magazine business for half a century.
Podhoretz was understandably so filled with rage that he either forgot or refused to name who “he” is. But I assume he’s referring to Anschutz henchman Ryan McKibben, who pulled the trigger last Friday.
As I argued on “Beat the Press” on Friday (above), political magazines like the Standard, National Review, The New Republic and The Nation have never made money. Rather, they have depended on wealthy owners to subsidize them. The losses are relatively small because the magazines themselves are shoestring operations.
The Standard didn’t die because it was losing money — it was supposed to lose money. Instead, as Podhoretz writes, it was murdered.
President Trump, whose multifarious assaults on basic decency include mocking a disabled reporter in front of a crowd of hooting supporters, may have hit yet another new low. Neomi Rao, Trump’s choice to replace Brett Kavanaugh on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, is an enthusiastic supporter of dwarf-tossing. Rao’s peculiar obsession with the practice of throwing short-statured people against Velcro walls was reported late last week by Stephanie Mencimer in Mother Jones.
As you might imagine, Rao, a veteran right-wing activist currently serving in the Trump administration, does not claim to take part in this humiliating and dangerous practice. Rather, she has argued on several occasions that dwarf-tossing should be a matter of choice, writing that it should be up to the tossee whether picking up a few bucks in some shady barroom is worth the risk to his health and his self-respect.
Rao explained her views several years ago at The Volokh Conspiracy, a libertarian legal blog, in which she criticized a ruling in France against a little person who wanted to take part in dwarf-tossing. Rao wrote that it “demonstrates how a substantive understanding of dignity can be used to coerce individuals by forcing upon them a particular understanding of dignity irrespective of their individual choices.” She added:
The issue is not whether laws prohibiting dwarf throwing, burqa wearing, prostitution, or pornography may be desirable social policy. Rather these examples demonstrate that the conception of dignity used to defend such policies is not that of human agency and freedom of choice, but rather represents a particular moral view of what dignity requires. These laws do not purport to maximize individual freedom, but instead regulate how individuals must behave in order to maintain dignity (and in the case of criminal prohibitions, stay out of jail).
The individual-rights argument may seem appealing. But it ignores all kinds of activities that society has decided to ban or regulate in order to protect not just the person taking part in those activities but also the rest of us — prostitution, as Rao notes, as well as drug use, cockfighting, underage drinking, casino gambling (until recently), practicing medicine without a license, and driving on the wrong side of the street. So it is with dwarf-tossing, which not only puts the person being tossed at risk of injury because of the spinal abnormalities present in most forms of dwarfism but also places others with dwarfism in harm’s way by normalizing a practice that should be considered beyond the pale.
I have skin in this game, though I hardly consider it a game. Our daughter, Rebecca, has achondroplasia, the most common type of dwarfism. My 2003 book, “Little People,” examines the culture and history of the dwarfism. Among the people I interviewed was Doyle Harris, a dispatcher at the University of Louisville and a former official with Little People of America, an organization for dwarfs and their families. As I wrote in the book:
Nearly twenty years ago, he [Harris] and some friends were waiting outside a Louisville nightclub. It was right around the time that dwarf-tossing — an Australian import that rears its ugly head wherever drunk, stupid men in their twenties gather — had first come to the attention of the media. “One of these guys came out — he was a little inebriated — and he went, ‘Oh, they’re going to have dwarf-tossing tonight. Well, let me practice,'” Harris recalled. “And the next thing I know, the guy literally picks me up and throws me out onto the grass. It was not a good situation. It was very demeaning to me. I was in fairly nice clothes, I was looking to go out, and I’m out in the grass, rolling around, getting grass stains and muddy. It was totally against my will.”
Florida, at one time the locus of dwarf-tossing in the United States, banned the practice in 1989. Incredibly, a state legislator proposed lifting the ban in 2011, dredging up the tiresome freedom-of-choice argument. As Angela Van Etten, a lawyer with dwarfism whose work helped lead to the original ban, wrote in The Huffington Post: “Dwarf tossing appeals to a lower instinct in people and creates a hostile environment in which Little People are disrespected and ridiculed. It legitimizes bully behavior.”
Exactly. Yet we now live in an environment in which bullying is not only condoned but indulged in by the president. In that respect, Neomi Rao seems like the perfect Trump appointment. According to Mother Jones, in addition to her fervor for dwarf-tossing, she holds retrograde views on LGBTQ rights and affirmative action and is an anti-regulation zealot. She should not be confirmed. But who will stop her?
Former Boston Globe editor Matt Storin once said there was nothing wrong with newspaper circulation that a depression and the return of the military draft couldn’t cure.
Storin was right about scary news driving circulation. The crisis (or the excitement, if you prefer) created by Donald Trump’s presidency has led to a substantial increase in the audience for journalism. Paid circulation has reached 4 million at the “failing” New York Times. The Washington Post last year reported it had signed up more than a million digital subscribers, a number that is presumably much higher today. Audience and contributions have risen at places like NPR and ProPublica.
But hold the applause. The flip side of Storin’s observation is that the improved fortunes for purveyors of high-quality journalism are fundamentally the consequence of national interest in national news. At the local level it’s a different story. Storin’s old paper, the Globe, reached 100,000 paid digital subscribers recently. That’s a significant milestone, but publisher John Henry continues to cut in order to minimize his losses. And a steady stream of Globe journalists has departed in recent months for the Times and the Post.
The situation is considerably worse elsewhere. The journalism business analyst Ken Doctor wrote at the Nieman Journalism Lab last week that the economics of local newspaperscontinues to deteriorate:
The year has already been marked by an unforeseen acceleration of decline in the core local daily newspaper business, both in advertising and in circulation. At the same time, the hushed whispers of a local news emergency have grown louder. There’s talk — both public and private — of the need to raise huge amounts of money in order to address a crisis a decade in the making.
In casting about for solutions, Doctor looks mainly at the supply side, such as initiatives from the likes of Report for America (co-founded by Charles Sennott’s GroundTruth Project, a WGBH affiliate), which is placing young journalists in underserved areas along much the same lines as Teach for America. And there’s no question that such ideas are needed, along with new forms of nonprofit and for-profit funding.
But what about the demand side? Storin’s sardonic observation as well as the success of high-profile news organizations suggest that interest in news has been nationalized in a way that is similar to other aspects of American culture. These days, voters are more likely to choose congressional candidates based on whether they support or oppose President Trump than on local issues. We shop at Amazon, eat at chain restaurants, and write columns just like this one at Starbucks rather than, say, the local library or independent coffee shop. Given the nationalization of just about everything, how many people still care about what is taking place in their neighborhood or their community?
This is not a new phenomenon. Years ago, before the internet became the primary way by which we engage with news, an academic study found that consumption of local journalism decreased among the educated elite whenever the national edition of The New York Times expanded into a new region. After all, it’s hard for the latest wrangling among city council members to compete with the outrage of the day from Washington.
Yet we live in neighborhoods and communities, not Washington, and what happens at the local level matters a great deal. Like other media observers, I have written about the need to bolster local journalism and save newspapers from the clutches of corporate chains controlled by hedge funds. But getting ordinary people to care about what’s happening in their backyard may prove to be just as much of a challenge.
“It’s not that educated people have ceased thinking it’s important to get news,” the journalist Mark Oppenheimer once told me. “It’s that now they feel that NPR fills that vision.”
So what is to be done? These days you hear a lot about encouraging media literacy. And certainly it’s important to help people understand what’s quality and what’s crap, what’s real and what’s fake. But civic literacy matters even more. After all, you can’t get people interested in news about what’s taking place at city hall and at local neighborhood councils unless they understand why they matter.
The Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam wrote in his landmark 2000 book on the decline of civic engagement, “Bowling Alone,” that people who are engaged in civic life — voting in local elections, taking part in volunteer activities, attending religious services, or engaging in any number of other activities — are also more likely to read newspapers. “Newspaper readers,” he wrote, “are machers and schmoozers.”
What we need today is to turn those machers and schmoozers back into readers of their local newspapers.
I was puzzled as I watched the returns roll in from Tuesday’s midterm elections. For weeks, the polls had pointed to a solid Democratic win in the House, continued Republican control of the Senate, and a tough slog for rising Democratic stars in Texas, Georgia, and Florida. That’s exactly how it played out. And yet the pundit class was acting as though Hillary Clinton had just lost again.
“This is not a blue wave. This is not a wave knocking out all sorts of Republican incumbents,” said CNN’s Jake Tapper. NBC News’ Chuck Todd agreed: “It is not a blue wave.” Added New York Times columnist Paul Krugman: “Clearly Republicans are doing better than expected after a closing argument based entirely on fear and lies. This is going to be grim.” (Quotes compiled by Alex Shephard of The New Republic and Ryan Saavedra of The Daily Wire.)
Why such gloom over being right all along? I’d attribute it to irrational exuberance followed by the dope slap of cold, harsh reality. Even though the data predicted the outcome pretty accurately, I think a lot of commentators — rightly horrified by the deeply unpopular president’s lies, racist outbursts, and attacks on the media — believed in their heart of hearts that a hidden surge of new Democratic voters would sweep the countryside.
It didn’t happen. Nor should anyone have expected it. And by this morning, commentators appeared to have regained their equilibrium. “Republicans will pitch this as a split decision, because they gain seats in the Senate,” wrote Aaron Blake of The Washington Post. “It’s not; the Senate map was highly favorable to them, meaning that maintaining control of it was expected. Democrats just took over a chamber of Congress, and that’s a big thing for them, period.” Michael Brendan Dougherty put it this way at the conservative (but mostly anti-Trump) National Review:
No one should kid themselves. Republicans may have been more resilient in the Senate and in governor’s mansions than people expected, but it’s a big night for Democrats. Early exit polls show that polarization along the lines of sex is real, and a real problem for Republicans. Republicans have turned off women.
It would have been an even bigger night for Democrats were it not for structural disadvantages that artificially boost the Republican vote. As Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne pointed out, Democrats won the popular vote in House contests Tuesday by about 9.2 percent — more than Republicans won in their big midterm victories of 1994 (7.1 percent), 2010 (7.2 percent), and 2014 (5.7 percent). The votes are still being counted, but if that 9.2 percent margin could be applied nationally, then Democrats would control the House by a margin of 237 to 201. The actual margin will fall well short of that.
House seats aren’t assigned on the basis of a national vote, of course. But partisan gerrymandering that favors Republicans, coupled by a Democratic electorate that is increasingly concentrated in overwhelmingly blue urban areas, means that Democratic victories invariably fall short of the party’s actual vote total. And that’s not even counting the enormous built-in problems they face in presidential and Senate elections, which I wrote about recently.
Three other quick observations about Tuesday’s returns:
1. Democrats prevailed in the House despite what is often described as the strongest economy in years, something that generally favors the party in power. Perhaps the economy wasn’t as much of an issue as it might have been because Trump is so unpopular. Or maybe it’s because the topline economic numbers mask the continued erosion of wages and widening income inequality. Most likely: both.
2. The most significant win for Democrats may have taken place in Florida, where voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure to restore voting rights to 1.2 million ex-felons. Samantha J. Gross reported in the Miami Herald that Florida was only one of three states that permanently banned felons from voting. Given the vast racial disparities in the criminal-justice system, the change should provide a large boost for the Democratic vote in 2020.
3. Two Democratic African-American gubernatorial candidates, Stacey Abrams of Georgia and Andrew Gillum of Florida, appear to have fallen just short of victory. (Abrams, also victimized by voter-suppression efforts, had not yet conceded as of this morning, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.) Both candidates were the subject of over-the-top racist attacks. The Washington Post reported, “Robo-calls in Georgia featured a voice impersonating Oprah Winfrey and calling Abrams ‘a poor man’s Aunt Jemima.’ In Florida, robo-calls mimicked Gillum as jungle sounds and chimpanzee noises were heard in the background.” Nauseating — but also effective with the white racists Republicans needed in order to win.
The most important takeaway from the midterms is that the Trump presidency has been significantly diminished, and that investigations into possible wrongdoing on his part and that of his administration have gotten a new jolt of life. As David A. Graham wrote at The Atlantic, “While it will be all but impossible for Democrats to actually turn any of their priorities into law, House control provides them a position to conduct strict oversight of the Trump administration and to further bog down an already sclerotic presidency.”
The punditocracy’s initial reaction was wrong, but that’s hardly a surprise. If you’re a progressive, a Democrat, or just an appalled critic of the president, imagine what today would be like if Republicans had hung on to the House. Tuesday’s results were good for accountability — and, thus, for the country.
It was an irresistible hook at a moment of horror: Squirrel Hill, the heavily Jewish neighborhood in Pittsburgh where a hate-mongering gunman killed 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday, was the home of the late Fred Rogers, the otherworldly host of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
As Beth Shalom’s executive director told a reporter at the time: “I didn’t have to look — everyone came to me.” The line put me in mind of my favorite of Fred Rogers’ sayings. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”
Last summer we saw the Fred Rogers documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Rogers was not a major part of my life. I was too old for his original television show, and by the time we had kids the program was fading away. But I’ve thought about Rogers quite a lot since seeing the film and have wondered what this profoundly unhateful, uncynical children’s advocate would say about what is happening to us.
How might things be different if the Pittsburgh shooter had been exposed at the right time in his life to someone as devoted to the emotional development of children as Rogers? Or the conspiracy-minded Florida man who was arrested last week and charged with sending pipe bombs to high-profile liberal and media targets such as the Clintons, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, and CNN? Or the racist white Kentucky man who authorities say walked into a supermarket last week and murdered two elderly African-Americans — but only after he tried and failed to enter a black church?
Or — it has to be said — what if someone like Fred Rogers had been able to reach President Trump at a young age?
I find myself feeling more sad than angry. That sadness stems not just from the terrible events that have taken place during the past week but from the certainty that our president has helped stoke the right-wing lunacy that has been unleashed upon us. Trump does not care about the consequences of his words as long as he believes they will advance his own selfish interests.
There has been much speculation in recent days — renewed speculation, that is — as to whether Trump is an anti-Semite, notwithstanding the fact that some members of his own family are Jews. I think that’s the wrong question. So what if, in his heart, he does not harbor anti-Semitic views? What matters is that he is willing to use anti-Semitism when it suits him, just as he is willing to use racism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, and misogyny. Meanwhile, anti-Semitism is on the rise, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Rich Lowry, a callow opportunist who passes for a responsible conservative by the low standards of our times, had the temerity to sneeringly ask on Twitter: “What’s even the theory supposed to be that Trump is an anti-Semite?” That brought about a devastating retort from the journalist Mehdi Hasan, who pointed out that Trump has engaged in such dubious behavior as consorting with white nationalists and attacking “globalists,” a euphemism for educated Jews.
1) He ran an ad attacking only 3 Jews 2) He rails against 'globalists' 3) He put Hillary next to a Star of David & cash 4) He told a Jewish crowd: 'You're not going to support me because I don't want your money' 5) He liked a book of Hitler speeches 6) He hires white nationalists https://t.co/QxuOaK6PSo
Much of the Trump-inspired hysteria of the past few weeks can be tied to the president’s exploitation of the so-called caravan of Honduran immigrants who have left their country to escape violence. Never mind that they are in southern Mexico and that few of them have much chance of entering the United States. Trump and his sycophants on Fox News and elsewhere have conflated this into some sort of George Soros-financed (that is to say, Jewish) plot to flood the country with illegal aliens — I am using their term, not mine — so that they can vote for Democrats on Nov. 6. The alleged Pittsburgh shooter specifically cited this bizarre theory in a post on Gab, which has been described as a social platform for anti-Semites. Adam Serwer of The Atlantic explains:
The apparent spark for the worst anti-Semitic massacre in American history was a racist hoax inflamed by a U.S. president seeking to help his party win a midterm election. There is no political gesture, no public statement, and no alteration in rhetoric or behavior that will change this fact. The shooter might have found a different reason to act on a different day. But he chose to act on Saturday, and he apparently chose to act in response to a political fiction that the president himself chose to spread and that his followers chose to amplify.
No doubt Trump is scared. If the Republicans lose one branch of Congress in November, he will finally face the prospect of a serious investigation on Capitol Hill — an investigation that is almost certain to document all manner of wrongdoing. He is willing to say anything to prevent that from happening. As ugly as his rhetoric has been, it is likely to get worse — and damn the consequences. Josh Marshall, for instance, wrote the other day about a new Trump ad that reeks of anti-Semitism.
We have come a long way from Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. And we are all the worse for it.
Last week I was asked a provocative question. What prompted it was a panel discussion of The New York Times’ 14,000-word exposé of how President Trump built his fortune on the dual foundations of his father’s wealth and of legally dubious tax schemes. The story was such a sensation that the Times printed it twice — once on Oct. 3 and again the following Sunday. Yet it seems to have barely resonated beyond the Times’ core readership.
Why, the panelists were asked, should we care? Thanks to the Trump effect, paid subscriptions are up at mainstream newspapers like the Times and The Washington Post, listenership has grown at NPR, and donations to nonprofit news organizations like ProPublica have increased. Wasn’t that good enough?
I responded that journalists want to do more than reach an audience. They want to have impact. They want to see concrete evidence that great reporting has an effect. That doesn’t mean journalists — good ones, anyway — want to change the outcome of elections or substitute their own judgment for that of the public. But it does mean that when they do important work, they want it to resonate beyond those already inclined to believe them without having it immediately dismissed as #fakenews by those on the other side of the social and cultural divide. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens in our current hyperpolarized environment.
I’m not sure what can be done. But New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, one of our most perceptive media observers, thinks he knows what’s behind much of it: a deliberate blizzard of lying by our president aimed at burying stories beneath an avalanche of falsehoods; a right-wing populist movement in the United States and Europe that dismisses anything coming out of the mainstream press as corrupt and elitist; and the decline of trust in the media, accompanied and exacerbated by the ongoing deterioration of journalism’s business model.
The heart of Rosen’s argument is contained within a recent post at his blog, PressThink:
In the United States the President is leading a hate movement against journalism, and with his core supporters it is succeeding. They reject the product on principle. Their leading source of information about Trump is Trump, which means an authoritarian news system is for them up and running. Before journalists log on in the morning, one third of their potential public is gone. No one knows what to do about it.
Of course, Trump wouldn’t be able to wield this kind of power over the truth if he didn’t have enablers in the media, principally Fox News. But here we are some three and half years since he rode down the escalator and into the center of our political life, and too many journalists still don’t know how to cover him. Not that there are any obvious solutions. But surely the editors at USA Today knew better than to publish his falsehood-filled op-ed piece last week. And mainstream outlets too often engage in coverage that normalizes this most abnormal of presidents.
A large part of what needs to happen, Rosen says, is to acknowledge precisely what Trump is doing. I’m enough of a traditionalist that I have been more comfortable with describing Trump’s “falsehoods” rather than “lies,” mainly because we have no way of crawling inside his head to determine whether he knows the difference. Far too often, though, Trump traffics in false information that has been thoroughly debunked so many times that he has to know better. Through mid-September, he had spoken falsely more than 5,000 times as president. It’s clear that many of those falsehoods are deliberate, and that he lies for a reason. Rosen, in a Twitter thread, explained what Trump is doing:
Flooding the system with too much news, much of it misleading or simply false, not only reduces the weight of any individual story; it has the further effect of keeping opponents in a pop-eyed state of outrage, which in turns shows supporters a hateful image of the other side.
And that is why journalists care not just about reaching their own pre-determined audience but in changing hearts and minds. In decades past, reporters made a difference in how we thought about civil rights, the Vietnam War, and Watergate. Now nothing seems to matter. The Times’ tax story, Rosen wrote in his Twitter thread, “is proving to be simultaneously devastating and harmless, a news condition previously unknown to presidents facing a check-on-power press.” Trump is a historically unpopular president, yet he continues to exert a mesmerizing hold on his base — a base that has proved impervious to facts.
The Times and the Post, in particular, are doing a magnificent job of telling the story of the Trump era. Those two papers have never been more important than they are today. Yet in a fundamental way they have ceased to matter. Democracy dies in darkness. But it might also die in the clear light of day if not enough people care — no matter how much our audience has grown or how many subscriptions we’ve sold.