What’s happened to local news in our medium-size city north of Boston is a story that could be told in hundreds of communities across the country.
Nearly every poll says the same thing: Joe Biden is beating Donald Trump nationally, but it’s closer in the swing states, and by no means should we rule out a second term for Trump. For those of us who believe Trump represents an existential threat, it’s a nerve-wracking prospect, conjuring up nightmares from 2016 all over again.
But not to worry, writes Andrew Hacker in his new book, “Downfall: The Demise of a President and His Party.” Hacker, a political scientist based at Queens College who’s best known for his book “Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal,” argues that 2016 was a fluke that won’t be repeated. He opens thusly:
There is not even a long-odds chance that Donald Trump will gain a second term. Nor is this wishful thinking. Compelling evidence abounds that anyone the Democrats nominate will win the popular vote, and by a margin to easily carry the Electoral College. Republicans down the ballot will suffer a similar demise, losing even more House seats, and very likely the Senate.
Among other things, Hacker argues that Hillary Clinton was a uniquely unappealing candidate who combined arrogance with a sense of entitlement (I don’t agree, but I know plenty of people who do); that massive Democratic turnout in the 2018 midterm elections foreshadows a blue wave this November; and that the electorate continues to favor the Democrats demographically as it becomes less white, less straight and better educated.
Hacker wrote “Downfall” before the Democrats had settled on Biden as their presumptive nominee and before anyone had heard of COVID-19. It remains to be seen whether Biden was the best choice to do battle with Trump. But polling shows that the president’s cruel and incompetent response to the pandemic is harming whatever chances he had of being re-elected.
The argument that Hacker offers is in line with that of Rachel Bitecofer, a political scientist based at the Niskanen Center, a Washington think tank. Bitecofer made a splash earlier this year with a new election model that said Trump has virtually no chance of winning, mainly because unusually high Democratic turnout this fall is assured.
“In the polarized era, the outcome isn’t really about the candidates,” Bitecofer was quoted as saying in Politico Magazine. “What matters is what percentage of the electorate is Republican and Republican leaners, and what percentage is Democratic and Democratic leaners, and how they get activated.”
Another political scientist, Thomas Patterson of the Harvard Kennedy School, argues in a new book that the Republican Party has guaranteed its demise by moving to the extreme right, by ignoring demographic trends, by taking dictation from right-wing media, by showering tax cuts upon the wealthy, and by disregarding democratic norms such as voting rights, through which “it has made lasting enemies and created instruments of power that can be used against it.”
All of this is encouraging if you want to see Trump leave office next January. And the data suggesting that he’ll lose is compelling. But we’ve all been here before, haven’t we? Patterson, after all, is also the author of the definitive analysis of how media malpractice contributed to Trump’s election four years ago — and, as Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan laments, here we go again. So let’s see how it plays out.
Yelling louder about President Trump’s multitudinous lies isn’t going to change anything. Yet that’s what Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan suggested last week when she wrote in frustration about the lack of public outrage over the 10,000 “false or misleading statements” Trump has made since his inauguration.
Sullivan argued that “to do their jobs, the news media can’t engage in business as usual,” and that they “have to bring some new tools and techniques — and maybe a new attitude — to the project.” Her suggestions were commonsensical: be more willing to label falsehoods as lies and stop using euphemisms, as The New York Times did on Twitter recently when it blandly described Trump’s ugly libel that doctors who are performing abortions are “executing babies” as “an inaccurate refrain.”
But the idea that a more aggressive attitude on the part of the press will persuade Trump supporters to embrace facts that they don’t already know is not just absurd — it misunderstands the role of the media and the limits of journalism.
Consider that, by a wide margin, the public already regards the president as dishonest. According to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted two months ago, 65 percent of those surveyed said that Trump was dishonest while just 30 percent said he was honest. In other words, the message that Trump lies is already being heard loud and clear.
Consider, too, the swamp of misinformation and disinformation that many of Trump’s supporters are mucking around in. A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, for instance, found that “fewer than 30 percent of Americans who get their news via broadcast TV, CNN or MSNBC believe Trump has been honest about the Russia probe, compared with 61 percent of Fox News viewers.”
The reality is that the media we choose is based in large measure on our tribal identity, and that identity is far more powerful than mere facts.
Currently I’m reading a collection of essays by the late media theorist James W. Carey. Carey’s writing tends to be difficult and obscure, but some of his ideas are as relevant today as they were when he wrote them in the 1980s and ’90s. Especially useful to this discussion is his argument that media serve two functions: “transmission” and “ritual.”
The transmission function of media is to inform. In Carey’s view, it’s much more complicated than that — it’s tied up in notions of power and the ever-accelerating speed of media (from the town crier to the printing press, from the telegraph to the internet), which enables them to encompass ever more people and territory. But its essence is clear enough, and it’s what we generally mean when we think about the media.
By contrast, the media’s ritual function serves to reinforce a sense of community and identity. “If the archetypal case of communication under a transmission view is the extension of messages across geography for the purpose of control, the archetypal case under a ritual view is the sacred ceremony that draws persons together in fellowship and commonality,” Carey writes. Later, he adds, “ We recognize, as with religious rituals, that news changes little and yet is intrinsically satisfying; it performs few functions yet is habitually consumed. Newspapers do not operate as a source of effects or functions but as dramatically satisfying, which is not to say pleasing, presentations of what the world at root is.”
The problem, which Carey does not address because his work was published before the rise of partisan media, is that we are no longer reinforcing our shared sense of community with a mainstream newspaper and a daily visit with Walter Cronkite. Rather, we are hanging out with fellow tribe members in our own separate mediaspheres.
Seen in this light, calling more attention to presidential lying not only is ineffective but has the effect of confirming for Trump supporters that the mainstream press is not to be trusted and is fundamentally opposed to their interests and beliefs. At the same time, those mainstream outlets are themselves benefiting from tribal loyalties, as the anti-Trump majority rallies around newspapers like The Washington Post and The New York Times. Yes, those outlets have reported factually, for the most part, on Trump’s many flaws, lies, and misdeeds. But they have done so in much greater quantity than would have been strictly necessary to transmit that information to the public.
Margaret Sullivan closed her call for more innovative approaches to reporting on Trump’s lying with this: “None of this, of course, will solve the problem. It’s unlikely to reverse the avalanche or slow the ever-increasing pace. But it may help an overwhelmed and numbed public find renewed reason to care.”
No, it won’t. Most of us are well aware that he’s lying, and some love him all the more for it. The function of news is to inform, of course. But it’s also to express and reinforce our common values. Sadly, hyperpolarization means that there no longer is one set of common values, but, rather, two, three, or more.
“Everybody is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts,” the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said.
He was wrong.
There’s a very strong Margaret Sullivan column in today’s Washington Post on the media’s terrible coverage of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It’s especially good to see her call out The New York Times, for whom she was its best public editor before moving on to the Post.
Update: The charges against Amy Goodman have been dropped.
Freedom of the press is under assault—and it’s only going to get worse in the increasingly unlikely event that Donald Trump is elected president. Three related items for your consideration:
• In Mandan, North Dakota, journalist Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! is scheduled to appear in court today after she was arrested and charged with “riot” for covering the undercovered Standing Rock demonstrations against an oil pipeline being built through Native American lands. Lizzy Ratner has a detailed report at the Nation.
As state prosecutor Ladd Erickson helpfully explains: “She’s a protester, basically. Everything she reported on was from the position of justifying the protest actions.” And: “I think she put together a piece to influence the world on her agenda, basically. That’s fine, but it doesn’t immunize her from the laws of her state.” I would like to know what North Dakota law prohibits the practice of journalism, but we’ll leave that for another day.
• In the Philadelphia Daily News, columnist Will Bunch writes that the arrest of Goodman, and the prosecutor’s contemptuous dismissal of her First Amendment rights, is a harbinger of what’s to come in Trump’s America:
It’s not happening in a vacuum. It’s happening in the Age of Trump, when you have one of the two major-party candidates for president calling the journalists who cover his campaign “scum” and “lowest people on earth,” and the as-much-as 40 percent of the American people backing his campaign are cheering him on.
• In the Washington Post, media columnist Margaret Sullivan takes note of a resolution passed last week by the Committee to Protect Journalists warning that the press would be less free under a Trump presidency. As Sullivan puts it: “The idea: CPJ would make a strong statement against Donald Trump on First Amendment grounds—the kind of thing the organization had never done before. CPJ’s global mission is to try to keep journalists from being jailed or killed; but it hasn’t been involved before in politics.” (I gave a “rave” to CPJ on Beat the Press for its resolution.)
No president is especially press-friendly. A few years ago, I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post headlined “Obama’s War on Journalism” detailing the president’s overzealous pursuit of leakers and whistleblowers. I doubt that the woman Saturday Night Live now calls “President Hillary Clinton” will be any better than Obama.
But at a moment when our politics have gotten incredibly ugly—when a Republican headquarters in North Carolina is firebombed, and when folks at the traditionally Republican Arizona Republic are receiving death threats for endorsing Hillary Clinton—the last thing we need is a president who seems determined to whip up hate and violence against the press.
One of the last great newspaper rivalries got a boost on Monday with the debut of Margaret Sullivan’s media column in the Washington Post. Sullivan’s first piece was more a preview of coming attractions than an attempt to dig deep. But with Jim Rutenberg having replaced the late, great David Carr at the New York Times earlier this year, our two leading general-interest newspapers now have dueling media critics for the first time in ages.
Sullivan, a former editor of the Buffalo News, joins a team of experienced media observers at the Post, including reporter Paul Farhi and blogger Erik Wemple. She is the Post’s first media columnist since Howard Kurtz, who left in 2010 for the Daily Beast. (Kurtz was also the host of CNN’s Reliable Sources. He moved to Fox News in 2013 following some well-publicized problems at both the Beast and CNN.)
The Post’s hiring of Sullivan shows just how small the world of elite media can be, given that she was recruited while serving as the Times’s public editor, as the paper calls its ombudsman. Sullivan was the fifth and, to my eyes, the best. As Michael Calderone of the Huffington Post put it, Sullivan “radically updated the role for the digital age by quickly addressing Times-related controversies and debates in real time and actively engaging on social media.” Sullivan will be replaced by Elizabeth Spayd, currently the editor-in-chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review and previously (yes, you guessed it) an editor at the Washington Post.
Needless to say, it will be interesting to see whether and how Sullivan chooses to write about the Times. In a recent interview with public radio’s On the Media, she praised her former employer—but also expressed frustration over an institutional attitude of “when the Times decides to cover it, then it becomes news” as well as bemusement over its oft-mocked trend stories. Indeed, Sullivan started something she called the “Monocle Meter” after the Times ran a story about the supposed resurgence of monocles in Brooklyn—a resurgence that apparently came and went without anyone actually ever having been spotted wearing a monocle.
Rutenberg, a veteran political reporter, got into a spat recently when he wrote that not only did journalists in general miss the rise of Donald Trump, but so did data journalists like Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, whose empirically based methodology should in theory produce more accurate results. In a two-fer of Times-Post incestuousness, Rutenberg invoked an observation by the Post’s Farhi that “nothing exceeds the value of shoe-leather reporting” in criticizing Silver, who moved his site from the Times to ESPN after the 2012 presidential election.
Silver, never one to suffer in silence, ripped into Rutenberg on a FiveThirtyEight podcast. As Bill Wyman wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review, Silver called Rutenberg’s column “dishonest” and “unethical,” and rehashed some old grievances over the way he was treated at the Times by Rutenberg and others, saying they were “incredibly hostile and incredibly unhelpful.” Silver later subtweeted Rutenberg with a lengthy article in which he argued that he got Trump wrong not because of an overreliance on data but because his predictions that Trump would fade weren’t based on any data at all. “In other words,” Silver wrote, “we were basically acting like pundits.”
The rivalry between the Times and the Post has a long, colorful history As recounted in Chalmers Roberts’s 1977 book The Washington Post: The First 100 Years, when the Times published a condescending item in 1900 about longing for “the rudeness of New York” after spending some time in “amiable and inefficient Washington,” the Post replied: “No doubt. The pig returns to his wallow.”
After years of striving, the Post emerged on an equal footing with the Times over the constitutional crisis sparked by the publication of the Pentagon Papers. The Post captured the public’s imagination in a way the Times never had during and after the Watergate scandal. How could the Gray Lady possibly compete with a newspaper whose journalists were portrayed by movie stars like Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, and Jason Robards?
But the technological and cultural forces that have brought the newspaper business to its knees did considerably more damage to the Post than to the Times—that is, until Amazon’s Jeff Bezos bought the Post in 2013 and added about 100 journalists to its newsroom in a bid to transform the Post into a national digital newspaper.
Now, once again, the Post and the Times are genuine rivals. The Post’s executive editor, Marty Baron, and the Times’s, Dean Baquet, are longtime friends and competitors. Bezos said in a television interview that his goal was for the Post to become “the new paper of record,” a clear reference to the Times—and the Post took it a step further than even Bezos had by putting together an ad proclaiming itself already to be “America’s New Publication of Record.” The Post also moved ahead of the Times in online readership, despite having a newsroom staff about half the size.
It is into this ancient conflict—once heated, then dormant, and now heating up again—that Margaret Sullivan and Jim Rutenberg have now been enlisted. This is going to be fun.
New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet is blaming an overreliance on anonymous sources for his paper’s monumental screw-up involving San Bernardino terrorist Tashfeen Malik’s social-media activities.
“This was a really big mistake,” Baquet told Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, “and more than anything since I’ve become editor it does make me think we need to do something about how we handle anonymous sources.”
And yes, Baquet has surely identified part of the problem. But I would argue that anonymous sourcing in this case is symptomatic of a larger problem: a failure to vet damaging information as thoroughly as it should have been, compounded, perhaps, by a predilection not to look too closely when it involves alleged wrongdoing by a liberal administration.
Say what? The liberal mainstream media has it in for liberal politicians? The answer to that question, I would argue, is an unambiguous “yes.” There are few things more comforting to journalists—constantly under attack for their alleged liberal bias—than to make life miserable for their supposed allies on the left. Not only do they think it might give their critics pause, but it also feeds into their own sense of even-handedness.
Here’s what happened. On December 12, the Times reported that before the shootings Malik had “talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad,” and that government officials—who are supposedly monitoring such activities—missed it.
It turned out that the Times was wrong. Instead, FBI Director James Comey said several days later, Malik had made her views known in private messages, not in public forums. The Times posted an “Editors’ Note” at the bottom of the story and rewrote the lede. But as Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple pointed out, the rewritten version still emitted a strong whiff of governmental malfeasance even though officials had no reason to investigate Malik before she and her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, killed 14 people at a holiday party on December 2.
The Obama administration’s alleged fecklessness in failing to intercept Malik’s communications before the shootings became an issue at last week’s Republican presidential debate, as moderator Wolf Blitzer cluelessly allowed the candidates to prattle on even though his own network, CNN, had already reported Comey’s statements.
Margaret Sullivan, in her characteristically unstinting post-mortem, noted that two of the three reporters who wrote the Malik story, Matt Apuzzo and Michael Schmidt, were also the bylines behind a disaster earlier this summer in which the Times reported, falsely, that Hillary Clinton was under criminal investigation for how she used her celebrated private email account. As Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum put it, “In the end, virtually everything about the story turned out to be wrong. Clinton was not a target. The referral was not criminal. The emails in question had not been classified at the time Clinton saw them.”
And now you’re beginning to see the contours of the larger issue I mentioned at the top: the frequency with which the mainstream media unfairly go after liberal politicians in order to create the narrative that they are equally tough on both sides. The Times, in particular, has a record of being susceptible to this phenomenon (for instance, see Gene Lyons’s article“The Media Chase Hillary, Time And ‘Times’ Again,” at The National Memo.)
Consider the paper’s obsession with the so-called Whitewater scandal in the 1990s—a tangled affair involving the Clintons and Arkansas real estate that never went anywhere. Or its indulgence of then-Times reporter Judith Miller’s credulous reporting on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Or columnist Maureen Dowd’s endless mockery of a claim that Al Gore never made (that he’d “invented the Internet”) and her fabrication of a pretentious John Kerry soundbite that he never actually said (“Who among us doesn’t like NASCAR?”).
As a liberal commentator myself, I’ll confess that I’m not immune to the allure of dishing it out to liberal politicians I usually agree with. In 2012, for instance, I wrote a piece for The Huffington Post headlined “Obama’s War on Journalism.” I stand behind every word that I wrote about the president’s contempt for the role of a free press in a democratic society. But I’ve also cited it on a number of occasions when I’ve been criticized for being pro-Obama.
What often leads the media astray in these situations is that they are responding to what the liberal media critic Eric Alterman calls “working the refs”—that is, media-bashing by conservatives aimed at getting eliciting better treatment. It goes back (at least) to Richard Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, who declared war on the press in his famous speech deriding the “nattering nabobs of negativism.”
The way to deal with those complaints, though, is through fairness and fearless truth-telling, not through false balance.
Did the Tashfeen Malik social-media story make it onto page one without proper vetting because, institutionally, the Times benefits from beating up on a liberal administration? Probably not—at least not directly. But there’s an attitude at the Times and within the mainstream media generally that goes back so many years and has manifested itself in so many ways that you can’t help but ask the question.
Last month I shared with my ethics class an opinion piece that appeared in The New York Times claiming, among other things, that some rich women on Manhattan’s Upper East Side were paid “wife bonuses” by their husbands based on “how well she managed the home budget, whether the kids got into a ‘good’ school — the same way their husbands were rewarded at investment banks.”
The article, by a “social researcher” who goes by the name Wednesday Martin, was based on her forthcoming book, “Primates of New York.”
Martin’s Times piece was, shall we say, remarkably thin. There was not a single named source who could provide direct evidence of the practice. Nor were there any experts cited who could talk about the phenomenon. Statistics? We don’t need no stinking statistics. My students and I agreed that this was worth keeping an eye on.
Well, well, well. The New York Post reported over the weekend that Martin’s claims may not actually be true. Or as the Post puts it in its headline, “Upper East side housewife’s tell-all book is full of lies.” And though “wife bonuses” are not one of the “lies” exposed by the Post, its veracity appears to be on shaky ground. Here’s what Martin wrote in the Times on May 16:
Further probing revealed that the annual wife bonus was not an uncommon practice in this tribe.
And here’s what she told the Post:
I don’t necessarily think it’s a trend or widespread. It was just one of the many strange-seeming cultural practices that some women told me about.
Granted, not a full retreat. But Martin is clearly hedging.
Now it looks like “Primates of New York” is headed for the monkey cage. The Times today reports that the publisher, Simon & Schuster, will “append a note to future editions of the book, written by the social researcher Wednesday Martin, clarifying that some of the memoir’s details and chronologies were changed.”
We await public editor Margaret Sullivan’s take on the latest bogus trend story to find its way into the Times — something she has already joked about with her “Monocle Meter,” named after a trend story about young hipsters wearing monocles that appeared to be — well, uh, you know. Unsubstantiated.
Hat tip to Peter Masalsky for the “Casablanca” inspiration.