The Press is Failing the American Public

When future generations look back on this time period, I believe they will be critical of the press coverage of Trump. “Why were they overlooking the dangers? Why weren’t they ringing the alarm bells?” I’ll try to share some of my thoughts on this in this thread. (Note: Jay Rosen, NYU journalism professor, has touched on this quite a bit, I believe, and I suspect much of what I say comes from him.)

My Impression of the Press’s Coverage So Far

The very strong impression I get is that the press really wants to cover Trump as if he is basically a normal president. They recognize that he is different in many ways, but when they talk about him, they basically want to view him through the same type of lens they would use for previous presidents.

Here’s the elephant in the room: what if Trump is trying to install an autocracy/kleptocracy, like a third world ruler? Should the coverage change? And if so, how should it change? In my view, the press is basically ignoring these questions. And while I may sympathize with the reasons, ultimately, my guess is that historians and future generations will judge the press harshly for this.

Why Are the Press Covering the President This Way?

Two ideas come to mind:

1. They don’t want to admit or accept the possibility that that Trump is an aspiring autocrat. The idea is too horrific to consider. This isn’t just a matter of being too squeamish; I think the brain may not even allow a person to even consider the possibility.

2. They fear covering Trump in a way that will make them seem biased against Trump. I think this is a big deal, and Rosen touches on this a lot. To say this another way: they don’t know how to cover Trump as an autocrat, while also finding a way to appear impartial. In other words, they would have to abandon the rules and guidelines for coverage that allow them to appear objective and fair. No respectable, professional journalist wants to give up this appearance. I think this is what you see going on now.

How Could Journalists Cover Trump as an Autocrat While Maintaining Their Objectivity?

Here’s an idea that I have for achieving this. A new agency will offer at least two narratives of the Trump presidency. One will could deal with Trump as a maverick outsider that is going to shake up the system. The narrative assumes that Trump, like other presidents, respects the rule of law and the Constitution, while also genuinely wanting to serve the country. The other narrative would see Trump as an autocrat, someone who doesn’t respect the rule of law and Constitution and has gained the office strictly to serve himself.

The news agency will feature these dueling narratives for their coverage…or maybe, instead of using these narratives every day, at the end of the week, the journalists could examine the week’s events through both lenses. The idea is to think of the narratives as akin to scientific hypotheses, with the journalists collecting data and then trying to see if which narrative can be best supported by the data.

The news agency can be completely transparent about this process, showing citizens the way the journalists are using facts and reporting with either narrative. The news agency could also allow comments and other input from the public to contribute to the process. If done properly, I think this could increase the public’s trust in the agency.

Conclusion

In my view, much of the mainstream coverage–at least in cable and network news–is essentially normalizing Trump, obscuring the real dangers around his presidency. Since I believe Trump really does pose a serious threat to our democracy and the world, I think the press is failing in a major way. I believe much of this failure stems from their rules and procedures that they use to achieve objectivity. But this benign approach is creating a false sense of normalcy with the many Americans who don’t really consume much more than newspaper headlines or the nightly news (if that). To reach these people, the press would have to send repeated, emphatic warnings about the dangers Trump poses to the republic and rule of law. (And there isn’t a shortage of these type of stories.) This isn’t taking place, and this is one of the reasons I believe the many of the news outlets (especially TV-based) is failing America.

10 Responses to “The Press is Failing the American Public”


  1. Mitchell

    I can’t comment on TV news since I don’t watch it anymore, but my small number of mainstream print outlets is giving me the vibe that they’re not ignoring or neglecting your concerns (autocrat/kleptocrat/whatever). The NYT’s use of “lies” in one of its headlines was a hint. The WaPo’s new tagline “democracy dies in darkness” is another. The fact that you’re not seeing a manifestation of a different way to cover the administration doesn’t mean the conversation isn’t happening, as I suspect it is. There’s simply too much talk about why the media is covering things as normal for me to think the media itself is unaware or unconcerned.

    I’d be willing to bet that at the very least, there’s conversation at the editorial level about normalizing. That’s at the very least. At some point, they may feel the need to call for heads on pikes, and of course I have no idea whether they have decided where that point is or whether they’re still talking about where that point is. But they have to be talking about it.

    I’m reminded of a headline in Ka Leo a few years ago, when MRC Greenwood was still running UH. In very, very large type, it read WE DESERVE BETTER with a photo of Greenwood beneath it.

    That audacity still exists in the editorial meetings at these papers, I’m almost sure. I can feel it. Like you, I’m wondering what’s holding them back. Unlike you, I’m not willing to ponder the reasons right now because I can only stomach a few minutes on this topic per day. And I may have just gone past that limit for now.

  2. Reid

    The NYT’s use of “lies” in one of its headlines was a hint. The WaPo’s new tagline “democracy dies in darkness” is another.

    I should have been clearer–I’m mostly talking about TV news and headlines. I’m not talking about the publications of record or magazines.

    Some journalists are definitely sounding the alarms (See David Frum), and I’m also hearing it from academics (Brendan Nyhan) and politicians (Maxine Waters).

    I also think some journalists are grappling with the coverage, but the sense I get is that they really haven’t come up with an answer–and I’m not sure how hard they’re trying to find an answer, to be honest. This, again, is especially true of what I see on cable news.

    Like you, I’m wondering what’s holding them back.

    Speaking of this, I want to pivot to a related subject (and I briefly mentioned this to you when I saw you last):

    There has to be a point where the press just says, “That’s it, we can’t trust you, and we’re going to treat you accordingly.” Politicians lie and distort, but there has to be limits, right?

    But, again, I think raises the same problems I mentioned earlier. If they start treating Trump differently because of his lies, many people will think: “Hey, all politicians lie. The press just has it in for Trump.” I think the press will have great difficulty explaining and justifying their actions.

    Having said that, I toyed with the idea of having the press do a 30-minute explainer–maybe doing it with all the network and cable news programs–explaining how they believe Trump’s lies are different–making a compelling case for this–and then explain how their coverage will change as a result.

    (Don’t feel any pressure to respond to this.)

  3. Mitchell

    You might be surprised at the clips from this montage. I haven’t been watching TV news, so I was somewhat surprised. It doesn’t seem to back up your case in the original post.

  4. Reid

    It seems like Pelley is copying Jake Tapper–I like Jake better. (I posted a clip of Tapper in the shouts that I forgot to post.)

    Having said that, are you saying that the Pelley is covering Trump as if he were an autocrat? I don’t really think that’s the case (and I think the same could be applied to Tapper’s monologues). My sense is that many people in the general public don’t really think of Trump as an aspiring autocrat, kleptocrat. If you suggest that, they would probably think you’re nutty.

  5. Mitchell

    I wasn’t specifically thinking about the autocrat thing, but he’s certainly not normalizing things. The national news guys didn’t say these kinds of things with past presidents.

  6. Reid

    But the “autocrat thing” is a central part of the original post. The issue is the way the coverage obscures the real dangers of the Trump presidency. Pelley’s and Tapper’s commentary may not be normal, but does it, as well as the TV coverage in general, make clear to the American public that Trump is a threat to democracy? I don’t think so.

  7. Reid

    Here’s. a page that compiles Jay Rosen’s tweet storm about the way the press uses everyday lingo to describe Trump and how this distorts the reality of Trump. This is precisely what I’m talking about. Rosen focuses on language, but I think we might even be able to talk a little about non-verbal cues as well.

  8. Reid

    How the Conservative Press is Failing the Country

    This article:

    brought to mind a few things. For one thing, news outlets like WSJ or Fox News are in bind. Trump’s says and does crazy things, and often goes against conservative values and ideology, but the conservative outlets and pundits can’t say this–not without losing their audience and, therefore, profits. So they have to find ways to support Trump and attack the Democrats–otherwise they’ll lose a lot of money.

    But in going this route, they’re sacrificing their integrity and credibility as a news agency and enabling Trump and misleading their followers.

    The more left-leaning press has a different problem. If they cover Trump accurately, they’re going to seem biased, so find ways to temper this and also seek balance coverage whenever possible.

  9. Reid

    Vox interview of Linda Greenhouse, a long-time Supreme Court reporter. I share a lot of her views.

    I want to address a few areas where I might disagree with her:

    1. While I think balanced coverage is a problem, my sense is that Greenhouse (and other press critics) don’t recognize the problems with abandoning this approach. Greenhouse and others seem to believe that good reporting will be sufficient, but I don’t think this is necessarily the case (although, personally, I would be happy with this).

    The analogy I would use is power of standardized test scores are used the quality of students, teachers, and schools. One could argue that written exams or more comprehensive written evaluations would be better. This may be true, but the problem is that the latter is more complex, murky, and more time-consuming to process. A test score conveys the desired information efficiently and, as a number, it has an objectivity and veneer of accuracy that written assessments do not.

    I think balanced approach, which can be conveyed relatively easily by the daily headlines, is somewhat similar. Good reporting based on thorough analysis takes more time and energy and isn’t so clear-cut, and can leave readers with a sense of uncertainty. This is actually a positive sign as many issues are murky and not clear cut. That can be psychologically uncomfortable for readers. To be fair, balanced coverage can have the similar effect, although I think it’s far less intense.

    2. Greenhouse explains the reluctance of journalists to charge politicians with lying by mentioning that the process involves identifying intent, which can be tricky. I agree with this, but I think there’s much more to this.

    Lying is actually a part of what politicians do, and there’s a range of lies, some being more acceptable or understandable than others. Knowing when a politician crosses the line can be really difficult to identify, and the decision can be very subjective.

    The issue touches on the concept and importance of facts. My sense is that journalists put way too much importance on facts. What I mean is that they ignore other factors like the meaning and importance of specific facts; why some facts more relevant than others. These factors are just as important. Without this information, facts can be meaningless or even misleading.

    I believe journalists need to evaluate lies in a similar way. Not all lies are equal; lies should be evaluated within a broader context and meaning. Doing this is really hard, and maybe expensive, work.

  10. Reid

    Mitchell,

    I’m interested in hearing your take on this op-ed from Chris Wallace. Wallace says that Trump has posed a threat to our democracy, specifically by his attacks on the press. At the same time, Wallace says that Trump has a point, with regard to bias in the press. Here are some examples Wallace lists:

    On Feb. 16, this was the lead on the “CBS Evening News”: “It has been a busy day for presidential statements divorced from reality.” A week later, this was the lead: “The president’s troubles today were not with the media — but with the facts.”

    On Aug. 2, this was the report from CNN’s White House correspondent: “This White House has an unhealthy fixation on what I call the three M’s: the Mexicans, the Muslims and the media. Their policies tend to be crafted around bashing one of these three groups.”

    Wallace asks the read to be honest: Are these appropriate for the front page or the lead in the evening news? I’m interested in hearing your response to this.

    Wallace goes on:

    We are not players in the game. We are umpires, or observers, trying to be objective witnesses to what is going on. That doesn’t mean we’re stenographers. If the president — or anyone we’re covering — says something untrue or does something questionable, we can and should report it.

    Is the examples above going beyond reporting? If so, what would the appropriate wording be? If the President claims that the crowd size at his inauguration was larger than Obama’s or that millions voted illegally for Hillary Clinton–that Ted Cruz’s dad was involved in the JFK assassination–is the use of “divorced from reality” crossing the line?

    In my view, I would argue that the press, at times, moderates their coverage of Trump, creating an impression that he’s not as bad as he might be. But then again, I think he might be mentally ill or have serious deterioration of his faculties.

    Finally, I’m annoyed that Wallace lends some credibility to Trump’s criticism. Trump isn’t just saying that the bias is skewing coverage. He’s claiming that the press is dishonest, that they’re making things up. I would be shocked if Wallace believes this. Wallace and other conservative critics should be clear that there is a difference and Trump’s claims is totally unfounded and dangerous.

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