By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

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What The New York Times is saying about ‘What Works in Community News’

A little more than a month from now, “What Works in Community News” will be released by Beacon Press — and it’s already receiving significant advance buzz. In addition to pre-publication endorsements from the likes of Margaret Sullivan, Steven Waldman and Penelope Muse Abernathy, The New York Times on Sunday published an opinion essay about the local news crisis in which our book is prominently featured. Times editorial writer Serge Schmemann interviewed Ellen Clegg and me, writing (free link):

[T]here are signs that things are looking up. In their book, Ms. Clegg and Mr. Kennedy chronicle various ways in which local and regional news organizations — whether paper, digital or radio — are trying to restore local coverage. Most are nonprofits, often assisted by a number of foundations that assist news start-ups. It’s not a flood, but what is certain, they write, ‘is that the bottom-up growth of locally based news organizations has already provided communities with news that would otherwise go unreported.’”

In addition, Booklist, the publication of the American Library Association, recently gave our book a starred review. The reviewer, Alan Moores, said: “For readers who despair at the collapse of traditional media nationwide, this survey is a bolster; for journalists looking to create such viable news sources in their own communities, its a highly useful road map.”

Ellen and I are thrilled that our book is receiving such a strong reception. We hope it will serve as an inspiration to spark the rise of still more local and regional news projects across the country. In the meantime, you can keep up on developments in local news as well as our podcast at our website, What Works: The Future of Local News.

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20 years ago, James W. Carey wrote that journalism must fight for democracy

James W. Carey

The late media theorist James W. Carey has been an enormous influence on my thinking. His insight that news is as much a ritual aimed at reinforcing tribal loyalties as it is a communications medium helps explain why Donald Trump’s supporters are impervious to factual information about their hero. As Carey wrote:

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…. 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.

Recently I read an essay of Carey’s that I wasn’t familiar with. Titled “A Short History of Journalism for Journalists: A Proposal and Essay,” it is a paper he wrote in 2003 while he was a fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, part of the Harvard Kennedy School. These days, papers written by Shorenstein fellows are freely available online. Sadly, Carey’s is not, though I was able to download it with my academic credentials; it was published in 2007 by the Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics.

Much of Carey’s paper traces the symbiotic relationship between the rise of journalism and the emergence of urban life and a public sphere. Toward the end, though, this call to action emerges:

The origins of journalism are the same as the origins of republican or democratic forms of governance — no journalism, no democracy. But it is equally true that without democracy, there can be no journalism. When democracy falters, journalism falters, and when journalism goes awry, democracy goes awry. The fate of journalism, the nation-state, and the public sphere are intimately intertwined and cannot be easily separated. In the modern world, in an age of independent journalism, this is a controversial assumption, for it seems to commit journalists to the defense of something, to compromise their valued nonpartisanship. It claims that journalists can be independent or objective about everything but democracy, for to do so is to abandon the craft. About democratic institutions, about the way of life of democracy, journalists are not permitted to be indifferent, nonpartisan, or objective. It is their one compulsory passion, for it forms the ground condition of their practice. Without the institutions or spirit of democracy, journalists are reduced to propagandists or entertainers.

This calls to mind the work of New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen (himself a Carey devotee) and journalist Margaret Sullivan, both of whom have called repeatedly for the press to take on a pro-democratic, truth-telling role in the face of Trumpism’s open embrace of authoritarianism. It also shows why we need a recommitment to the original idea of objectivity — that is, a fair-minded pursuit of the truth, not the mindless both-sides-ism that has become its caricature.

We are at a critical moment. There is, of course, no shortage of truthful reporting about Trump’s many transgressions. But that reporting needs to be front and center, and not balanced with ridiculous stories about the House Republicans’ plans to impeach President Biden (without making any mention of the reality that there is no reason to do such a thing) or polls showing that the economy is doing far worse than it really is without any mention of the media’s role in shaping that perception.

Carey was right, and he was well ahead of his time. Journalists need to fight for democracy, because it is the one fundamental precondition on which journalism depends.

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Brian Stelter’s departure is just the latest blow against media commentary

Brian Stelter. Photo (cc) 2019 by Ståle Grut.

The cancellation of CNN’s “Reliable Sources” and the departure of its host, Brian Stelter, is a development that resonates beyond one outlet and one journalist, because it takes place within the context of an ongoing decline in media commentary.

The news that Stelter was departing came Thursday evening. David Folkenflik’s account at NPR raises the possibility that Stelter was the victim of conservatives now ascendant at CNN, although the most prominent of those conservatives, John Malone, a major investor in CNN’s new owner, Warner Bros. Discovery, told Benjamin Mullin of The New York Times that he had “nothing to do with” the move.

Chris Licht, who succeeded the scandal-plagued Jeff Zucker as the head of CNN, has said on several occasions that he wants to move away from opinionated talk shows and get back to CNN’s reporting roots. That’s fine, but we’re talking about Sunday morning, which isn’t exactly prime time. Stelter will host one final edition of “Reliable Sources” this coming Sunday, but I’d be surprised if he says much. In a statement to Folkenflik, he said, “It was a rare privilege to lead a weekly show focused on the press at a time when it has never been more consequential.”

Stelter came to CNN from the Times nearly a decade ago. During the Trump presidency, in particular, he used his perch at CNN to emerge as an important and outspoken advocate of an independent press. He’ll be missed, although I have little doubt that he’ll land on his feet. Maybe he’ll even return to the Times. Frankly, I never quite understood why he left in the first place.

As for what this move represents, well, it’s just the latest in a series of blows to media commentary. CNN isn’t just showing Stelter the door — it’s getting rid of a  program that had been in rotation for some 30 years, having been previously helmed by Howard Kurtz (now the host of “Media Buzz” on Fox News) and Bernard Kalb. The media are one of our most influential institutions, and journalism is under assault. This is not the time to dial back. Yet consider these other developments.

  • Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan is leaving to take a job at Duke University. Sullivan has been one of the true giants in holding journalism accountable. Before coming to the Post, she was a fearless public editor (the ombudsman) at The New York Times — someone unafraid of standing up to powerful people in her own newsroom. The position was later eliminated, removing a vital tool for accountability. At the Post, she’s used her platform to call for courage and truth-telling amid the Trump-driven onslaught against journalism.
  • The public radio program “On the Media,” as I’ve written before, is less and less about the media and more about the whims of its host, Brooke Gladstone, and the people around her. Cohost Bob Garfield was fired last year and accused of bullying the staff — charges he mostly denied in a recent essay at Substack. But the move toward non-media topics was well under way even before Garfield’s departure. The latest, believe it or not: a three-part series on erectile dysfunction. OK, they’re showcasing another podcast while they take a few weeks off. I hope they get back to real media reporting and commentary once they resume.
  • One of the most prominent media critics on the left, Eric Boehlert, was killed earlier this year when he was struck by a train while riding his bike. Before launching his own platform on Substack, Boehlert had worked for Media Matters and Salon. His Twitter feed was a running commentary on the sins of omission and commission by the so-called liberal media.
  • As many of you know, “Beat the Press,” the media program I was part of since its inception, was canceled last summer by GBH-TV (Channel 2) after 23 years on the air. Nothing lasts forever, and I was honored to be associated with the show. But we took on important national and local topics every week, and my own biased view is that its demise was a loss. Host Emily Rooney relaunched the program as an independent podcast earlier this year; I hope you’ll check it out.

I don’t mean to suggest that there’s nothing left in terms of media coverage and commentary. The Post, which is losing Sullivan, is still home to Erik Wemple, who writes incisive media criticism for the opinion section, Paul Farhi, an outstanding journalist who covers media stories for the news section, and others. One of the greats of media criticism, Jack Shafer, continues to write for Politico. And there are plenty of independent voices out there, from New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen to liberal watchdog Dan Froomkin to, well, me. (An aside: We need people of color and more women, especially with Sullivan moving on.)

Still, there’s less than there used to be, and “Reliable Sources” was a well-regarded outlet for many years. Best wishes to Brian Stelter. And I’ll be casting a wary eye toward Licht. Zucker left him with a real mess to clean up, but this was the wrong move.

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Why ‘both sides’ journalism fails in the face of the rising threat to our democracy

Previously published at GBH News.

One president lied about COVID-19 (the country’s and his own), embraced white supremacists and tried to overturn the results of an election that he lost. Another president has hit a few bumps in the road as he attempts to persuade Congress to pass his agenda. Can you guess which one received more negative news coverage?

If you guessed President Joe Biden, then come on down. According to an analysis of 65 news websites, Biden’s treatment by the media was as harsh or harsher from August through November of this year than then-President Donald Trump’s was during the same four-month period in 2020.

On one level, it’s inconceivable. On another, though, it’s all too predictable. Large swaths of the media simply cannot or will not move beyond both-sides journalism, equating the frustratingly hapless Democrats with a Republican Party that has embraced authoritarianism and voter suppression.

“My colleagues in the media are serving as accessories to the murder of democracy,” wrote Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, who ordered up the study. He concluded: “Too many journalists are caught in a mindless neutrality between democracy and its saboteurs, between fact and fiction. It’s time to take a stand.”

As I’ve written before, and as many others have said, we’re in the midst of a crisis of democracy. The Republican Party, already disproportionately empowered because of the Constitution’s small-state bias and the Senate filibuster (the latter, of course, could be abolished tomorrow), is working to strengthen its advantage through partisan gerrymandering and the passage of voter-suppression laws. The result could be white minority rule for years to come.

The situation has deteriorated to the point that the European think tank International IDEA now regards the United States as a “backsliding democracy.” To quote from IDEA’s report directly, “the United States, the bastion of global democracy, fell victim to authoritarian tendencies itself, and was knocked down a significant number of steps on the democratic scale.”

And the media remain wedded to their old tropes, covering political campaigns as though they were horse races and treating the two major parties as equally legitimate players with different views.

It’s a topic that was discussed at length recently on Ezra Klein’s New York Times podcast by New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen and guest host Nicole Hemmer, a scholar who studies right-wing media. Their conversation defies easy summary (the whole episode can be found here), but essentially, Rosen argued that the political press falls back on its old habits because breaking out of them is just too difficult.

“The horse race absorbs a lot of abuse from people like me,” he said. “But it can take that abuse, because it is such a problem-solver. It checks so many other boxes that even when people know it’s kind of bankrupt, it stays on.” As an alternative, Rosen proposes coverage based on a “citizens agenda,” which he has written about at his blog, PressThink. But he admitted to Hemmer that we may lose our democracy before his ideas are adopted by more than a fraction of journalists.

What I find especially frustrating is that the media have not been ignoring the Republican threat to our democracy. Far from it. As just one small example, the Times on Sunday published a front-page story by Nick Corasaniti on a multitude of actions being taken at the state level to suppress the vote and put Trump loyalists in charge of the election machinery.

“Democrats and voting rights groups say some of the Republican measures will suppress voting, especially by people of color,” Corasaniti wrote. “They warn that other bills will increase the influence of politicians and other partisans in what had been relatively routine election administration. Some measures, they argue, raise the prospect of elections being thrown into chaos or even overturned.”

So why am I frustrated? Because this sort of valuable enterprise reporting is walled off from day-to-day political coverage. We are routinely served up stories about the congressional Republican leaders, Rep. Kevin McCarthy and Sen. Mitch McConnell, going about their business as though they were latter-day versions of the late Bob Dole, sharply partisan but ultimately dedicated to the business of seeking compromise and governing. In fact, whether through cowardice or conviction, they are enabling our slide into authoritarianism by undermining the investigation into the Jan. 6 insurrection as well as by failing to call out Trump and the excesses of their worst members.

Earlier this year, Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan endorsed the idea of a “democracy beat,” which would look closely at attempts to subvert voting rights. Sullivan would go further than that, too. “The democracy beat shouldn’t be some kind of specialized innovation,” she wrote, “but a widespread rethinking across the mainstream media,” permeating every aspect of political and governmental coverage.

If Trump runs again, he may very well end up being installed as president even if he loses both the popular vote and the Electoral College. Who would stop him? In the aftermath of the 2020 election, there were still enough Republican state and local officials with integrity who refused to go along with Trump’s demands that they overturn the results. That is not likely to be the case in 2024. As Barton Gellman wrote in a new Atlantic cover story, “The prospect of this democratic collapse is not remote. People with the motive to make it happen are manufacturing the means. Given the opportunity, they will act. They are acting already.”

Meanwhile, the media go about covering President Biden and his travails as though our politics hadn’t changed over the past 40 years. Of course Biden needs to be held accountable. The ugly withdrawal from Afghanistan, confusing White House messaging about COVID and his inability to bring Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to heel are all worthy of tough coverage. (But not inflation because, please, don’t be stupid.) But it needs to be done in a way that we don’t lose sight of the big picture. And the big picture is that we are in real danger of losing our country.

As the Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan put it on Twitter, “The problem is the media failing to distinguish threats to democracy from normal negative coverage (an important form of democratic accountability!).”

Five years ago Thomas Patterson of the Harvard Kennedy School issued a report showing that coverage of Trump and Hillary Clinton during the 2016 general-election campaign had been equally negative — a finding that he found disturbing. Patterson wrote that “indiscriminate criticism has the effect of blurring important distinctions. Were the allegations surrounding Clinton of the same order of magnitude as those surrounding Trump? It’s a question that journalists made no serious effort to answer during the 2016 campaign. They reported all the ugly stuff they could find, and left it to the voters to decide what to make of it.”

Well, here we go again. Next time, though, it’s the future of democracy that is likely to be at stake.

The media should learn from the Times Union’s example on ethics and independence

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Photo (cc) 2014 by Diana Robinson.

Just last week I praised the Times Union of Albany, New York, for its reporting on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s history of sexual harassment and assault. Now the paper is having “a moment,” as a headline at the Columbia Journalism Review puts it, earning widespread plaudits for its principled — and colorful — refusal to accept off-the-record documents that were apparently aimed at smearing one of Cuomo’s accusers.

As Azi Paybarah reported in The New York Times, Times Union editor-in-chief Casey Seiler and managing editor Brendan Lyons were on a call last March with Cuomo’s then-top aide, Melissa DeRosa, when DeRosa told them she was going to send them documents about Lindsey Boylan, one of Cuomo’s alleged victims. It turned out that the governor’s office was secretly recording the conversation, and the transcript was included in last week’s report by state Attorney General Letitia James. (Secretly recording someone in New York State is legal.)

Seiler’s response: “Ugh, no, no! Not off the record. No, don’t send us anything unless it’s on the record, Melissa, OK?”

This is the way to do it. Although off-the-record conversations and documents can sometimes be helpful in establishing context, they are also incredibly dangerous, tying the hands of journalists and making them complicit.

As Jon Allsop notes at the CJR, the Times Union’s stand has nothing to do with the ongoing debate about objectivity; rather, it’s about independence:

There is, as Paybarah and others have suggested, something pleasingly old school about the Times Union’s approach to the Cuomo story. But at a moment of profound media-industry debate — that cuts, in caricature at least, down generational lines — as to the value of traditional journalistic norms and practices, it’s worth noting that what’s good about the paper’s journalism, as presented in the report, is not old-schoolness, in itself, but its strict critical distance from power, a value that many of the industry’s would-be reformers are trying to reassert, not muddy.

Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan praised the Times Union as well, writing that it “maintained proper journalistic distance from sources, even when there was a price to pay in terms of access. Refused off-the-record information. Served the public interest.”

Of course, it’s worth nothing that the Times, the Post and some of the other major news outlets that have lauded the Times Union over the past week regularly allow the powerful to go off the record even when they shouldn’t. So in addition to ladling on the hosannas, I hope they’ll also treat the example of the Times Union as a learning experience.

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Georgia signals some hope, but Trump madness remains vigorous

The Proud Boys in Washington last month. Photo (cc) 2020 by Geoff Livingston.

Previously published at GBH News.

And so today, at least for a few hours, we descend once again into the madness.

The past four days have been as dizzying as anything we’ve experienced as a nation, and would be seen as such if we hadn’t been dealing for the past four years with the terrible consequences of electing Donald Trump as president in 2016.

On Sunday, we learned that Trump had tried to muscle Georgia’s top election officials into awarding him the state in his ongoing efforts to overturn the results of the November election — surely an impeachable offense, and most likely a federal and state crime as well.

But life as we have come to know it during the Trump era rolled on. Republicans on Capitol Hill continued with their seditious plot to supersede the Electoral College, a tragicomedy upon which the curtain will rise later today. Thousands of MAGA protesters are arriving in Washington to urge them on. Meanwhile, the COVID pandemic is out of control, the economy remains in shambles and we learned once again that police officers can shoot a Black man in the back without much in the way of consequences.

And yet.

On Tuesday evening, not long after the polls had closed in Georgia, it started becoming clear that we may be in for a period of — what? Not normality. The radical right, as Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan has properly suggested we label the MAGA wing of the Republican Party, won’t allow for that. But relative calm at least.

It may be no exaggeration to say that the outcome of the George Senate runoff elections was as crucial to our survival as a constitutional republic as the outcome of the presidential election two months ago. As of early this morning, the Rev. Raphael Warnock has defeated the Republican incumbent, Kelly Loeffler, for one of the seats, and the other Democratic challenger, Jon Ossoff, appears likely to be declared the winner in his race against Sen. David Perdue.

With Warnock’s and Ossoff’s victories comes control (barely) of the Senate. Though each party will hold 50 seats, the incoming vice president, Kamala Harris, will be able to break tie votes. That would be a big deal in any case, but it looms even larger given the dangerous abyss into which the Republican Party has fallen.

At the liberal website Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall writes that “it allows Joe Biden to assemble a government. I think people have been underestimating the likelihood that a Republican senate would simply refuse to confirm major Biden appointees, forcing the President to try to wing stuff together with recess and vacancies act appointments that would themselves become tied up in the courts.”

We can’t underestimate what Biden will be up against once he’s sworn in. On Tuesday night I spent about an hour and a half watching Newsmax, which, along with OANN, has stolen a large chunk of the MAGA audience from Fox News because the journalists at Fox have remained at least somewhat tethered to reality.

Not long after the polls closed, Newsmax analyst Mark Halperin (remember him?) said that if the exit polls were “close to accurate,” then the Republicans would win. But an hour or so later, as it started to become clear that Republican turnout in Georgia wasn’t going to be enough to keep Perdue and Loeffler in office, the talking heads started to lay out the case that the results would be illegitimate.

For instance, Dick Morris (remember him?) took solace in figures that showed about 2 million early voters in Georgia had done so in person whereas just 1 million had voted by mail. “It’s a lot easier to fake mail-in voting than in-person voting,” he said, dumping a few buckets of poison into the well.

Another guest, U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., a leader of today’s rebellion against reality, actually called on the Senate not to seat Warnock and Ossoff even if they won. “It’s one thing for those ballots to be accurately counted; it’s another thing as to whether those ballots are legal,” he said, claiming without any evidence that there were “a massive number of illegal ballots in the system.”

Former Trump aide Sebastian Gorka (remember him?) tied the Senate race and the presidential election together by claiming “election fraud and quote unquote irregularities” and citing disproven allegations of votes being “pulled out from under tables.” Gorka also demonstrated a Trumpian facility for childish insults, calling Ossoff a “milquetoast Beto” and a “Justin Trudreau knockoff” and Warnock an “utter, utter radical.”

We can’t underestimate the effect of all this on the 40% of the public that remains in thrall to Trump and Trumpism. Whereas elite conservatives like Rich Lowry (“Republicans have likely lost control of the Senate, but will have the consolation prize of being able to marinate for hours tomorrow in delusional schemes”) and Tom Nichols (“the majority of the Republican Party and its apologists are advocating for the overthrow of an American election and the continued rule of a sociopathic autocrat”) rage against the president, Trump’s supporters have directed their own rage at the legitimately elected government of the United States.

Or as the pro-Trump conspiracy site Gateway Pundit puts it: “Pray for Vice President Pence to make the correct decision and save our nation from corrupt banana-republic elections that will undoubtedly be our future if this election is allowed to stand.”

Today’s attempted coup will end in failure. According to most reports, there will be more than enough Republican senators who’ll join with their Democratic colleagues to stop the madness. And if that doesn’t work, the Democratic House will put an end to it. But even with Republicans out of power in the House, the Senate and the presidency, we remain in a dangerous moment.

“America is in a precarious spot,” writes Boston College history professor Heather Cox Richardson. “But Americans have finally woken up. Democracy is not a spectator sport, and people are now speaking up, demanding that our leaders listen to us, and insisting that officials as well as ordinary Americans answer to the law.”

Crucial to navigating that future will be the role of the media. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen argues that much of the press would like nothing better than a return to the good old days — Democrats versus Republicans, balance and a retreat from the activism it embraced during the worst of the Trump presidency.

“Powerful forces favor a restoration,” Rosen writes. “It is by far the most likely outcome. After coping with an avalanche of news, an excess of controversy, and a hate campaign against them for five years, journalists would no doubt welcome a return to regular order, and a more human pace.” He adds: “Trump screwed with the ‘both sides’ system by busting norms and lying all the time, but that has only increased the longing to have the old constructs back.”

In theory, I agree with Rosen that the media can’t go back to the way things were. In practice, I’m not sure what that looks like. Already, I’ve seen pushback against normal journalistic vetting such as Politico’s recent story about the millions of dollars in corporate speaking fees earned by Biden’s choice for treasury secretary, Janet Yellen. I’m sorry, but that’s a perfectly fine story as long as we don’t make too much of it.

What I’d like to see is a refusal to take the Republicans’ bait on phony Democratic scandals (Hunter Biden, anyone?); a willingness to cover the Republicans in good faith when they act in good faith, but an equal willingness to denounce radical measures not based in reality; and an unwavering defense of democracy.

Fourteen more days.

Margaret Sullivan has written a useful guide to the horrifying decline of local news

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.

Read the rest at Nieman Lab. And talk about this post on Facebook.

In a new book, political scientist Andrew Hacker argues that Trump can’t win

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.”

In so doing, Patterson writes in “Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself?,” the GOP has abdicated its role as the necessary center-right counterbalance to the center-left Democrats.

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.

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Trump’s lies, tribal loyalties and the limits of journalism

Via CBS

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

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.

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Margaret Sullivan on the media’s terrible coverage of the Clinton campaign

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.

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