The Fried Synapses of the Mainstream Media

Every once in a while, a journalist or blogger comes along and writes a piece that instantly becomes a resource, like a thesaurus or the Rosetta Stone, that we all keep going back to to help us be better writers or to interpret things with more precision. That’s what NYU Prof. Jay Rosen just did with his latest piece: Asymmetry between the major parties fries the circuits of the mainstream press. It’s that good, so go read it. I don’t think we’ll be able to engage in media criticism again until everyone has internalized Rosen’s basic insights. What’ll we’ll do is argue about what it all means and what might be done about it. For now, at least, Rosen owns the paradigm.

Let me make a couple of initial observations about the piece. It’s important to really understand that there’s a value to having print journalism that aspires to be non-polemical and nonpartisan. It’s also important to truly grasp that there are limitations on how good that kind of journalism can be, and that this isn’t an argument against its existence.

I’ll use an example to make my point. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the case for war was largely being organized out of the office of the vice-presidency, and through aligned actors who Dick Cheney had seeded throughout key departments of the administration. To cover what was happening, which included the internal debates, the intelligences assessments, the prewar planning, whether or not to go to the United Nations, how to get allies to support us at the United Nations, and much much more, it was vital that organizations like the New York Times and Washington Post have sources close to Dick Cheney.

Of course, Cheney knew this. And he knew that his team could advance a journalist’s career by giving them scoops, leaks, exclusive on-the-record interviews, choice quotes (anonymous and otherwise) right before deadline, and occasional access to Cheney himself. They also could punish reporters who gave their scoops and leaks a skeptical treatment by not repeating the favor.

In such a scenario, it was easy to boost the career of Judith Miller, make her look like a star to her editors, and use her as (to be charitable) an unwitting dupe to spread their propaganda and thereby win the internal debate within the administration, deceive Congress, the public and the United Nations.

We can pick on Judy Miller, but the greater problem was that the media are always at this kind of disadvantage when they seek to get access to political actors who want to lie. It wouldn’t serve the public interest to simply refuse to have your reporters develop sources near to the vice-president. There’s always a trade off when you have a source that is incredibly valuable and you want to report on them (and their boss) objectively.

Certainly, most reporters navigate these choppy waters better than Judith Miller did, but the problem is more systemic than particular. What breaks the model is not bad reporting but immoral leadership. After all, if some corporate source burns you, you can drop the source. But you can’t drop the vice-presidency or stop covering the case the administration is making for war.

When Prof. Rosen says that the Republican Party is frying the circuits of the mainstream press, that plays out in processes and mechanisms (like the example I’ve just provided).

Now, Rosen points out that the mainstream press operates with a worldview in which it sees itself as an impartial observer and a bit of a referee. But it also falls too easily into being a scorekeeper. I don’t know how many articles Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post has written that are nothing more than an assessment of who had a good week or a bad week in national politics. Who’s up? (Mitch McConnell). Who’s down? (Harry Reid). And if you really look at any of those pieces, they can be broken down and distilled into Cillizza’s estimation of how many voters have been swayed (in the very short term) by the antics and posturing and talking points and lies and fear-mongering of our political leaders. Was the 67th failed effort to repeal ObamaCare a net-plus or net-minus for the House Republicans and their leadership?

And this is supposed to matter even when it happens sixteen months before the next federal election.

The idea that these maneuverings might have some intrinsic and substantive merit or that they might be wholly manipulative, dishonest, and conniving? The suggestion that one side might be lying while the other appears to be on factually sound ground? There things are rarely if ever considered and they’re never emphasized. If Cillizza thinks a completely cynical move was politically successful, then that move gets a plus.

I don’t want to pick on Cillizza, though, because this phenomenon is widespread, rampant even, in print and especially on cable news. And it’s not the unavoidable kind of problem I highlighted above with covering vital but dishonest sources in high positions. It’s a totally voluntary kind of vapid and soul-deadening journalism. It serves no higher purpose than to chase clicks, and it really amounts to cheerleading cynicism and manipulation. It’s not even worth anything as analysis, as it amounts to nothing more than some political junkie’s highly subjective, data-free, estimation of the gullibility of the American people and how susceptible they are to the latest stunts. This is what happens when you jettison any effort to impose moral standards on the behavior of the people you cover.

This kind of journalism has always been crap, but it really only undergoes a circuit overload when a true asymmetry develops between the major parties in terms of how dishonest and cynical and manipulative they are behaving.

It’s one thing when there’s an approximate level of parity in how much bullshit each presidential campaign is doling out. In that case, you can get away with reporting both sides, doing a little light refereeing, and letting the (hopefully) better informed electorate sort it all out. The voters still won’t benefit from reading what a Chris Cillizza thinks they are influenced by, but they can at least see what each side has said, get a little fact-checking, and come away a little better prepared to form their own conclusions.

But, when one side goes completely over to the dark side and the other stays playing the traditional game, the effort to treat both sides equally no longer ensures fairness. This is what the New York Times was grappling with here:

All politicians bend the truth to fit their purposes, including Hillary Clinton. But Donald J. Trump has unleashed a blizzard of falsehoods, exaggerations and outright lies in the general election, peppering his speeches, interviews and Twitter posts with untruths so frequent that they can seem flighty or random — even compulsive.

It’s okay to make that kind of observation in the opinion pages, but to report it in the news section breaks the paradigm the mainstream nonpartisan press operates in. It becomes especially problematic if you then make Trump the Winner of the Week because his lies seem to have propelled him forward in the polls.

At some point, you have to take a stand. There are other values that a nonpartisan press tries to advance than evenhandedness. They hope that people will benefit from reading news that isn’t deliberately designed to sway them to one party or the other. But that hope is based on the idea that people benefit from getting factual information, not an impartial presentation of crap designed to make their lizard brain glow.

The idea is to inform the public, and a nonpartisan press that abandons that goal might as well just chase their clicks and dollars the way the partisan press does because shareholders really have no preference.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.