Tag Archives: journalism

The GOP Retreat From Empiricism

I am hardly the only person to observe that Trump’s election was a predictable consequence of the fact that, over a number of years, the GOP has morphed into something bearing very little resemblance to a rational, center-right political party.

Political pundits differ on when the changes began. Certainly, Nixon’s “Southern strategy” laid the groundwork for the GOP’s growing appeal to racial grievance. Stuart Stevens’ recent book It Was All A Lie detailed five decades of “hypocrisy and self-delusion” dating all the way back to the civil rights legislation of the early 1960s.

A recent article from Pressthink, a project of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU, reminded readers of the 2004 Ron Suskind article about the George W. Bush White House–the article that gave us the now-ubiquitous quote about the “reality-based community.” Suskind was writing about concerns voiced by so-called  “establishment” Republicans who were increasingly encountering what Suskind called  “a confusing development” within the Bush White House. Suddenly, asking for corroborating evidence, expressing doubts, or raising facts that didn’t fit an official narrative were considered disqualifying or disloyal acts for allies of the President.

Knowing what you know now, about candidate Trump, listen to these quotes from 2004…

* “He dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts.” —Bruce Bartlett, former Reagan and Bush-the-elder adviser.

* “In meetings, I’d ask if there were any facts to support our case. And for that, I was accused of disloyalty!” —Christie Whitman, head of the EPA under Bush.

* “If you operate in a certain way — by saying this is how I want to justify what I’ve already decided to do, and I don’t care how you pull it off — you guarantee that you’ll get faulty, one-sided information.” —Paul O’Neill, Treasure Secretary under Bush.

* “Open dialogue, based on facts, is not seen as something of inherent value. It may, in fact, create doubt, which undercuts faith. It could result in a loss of confidence in the decision-maker and, just as important, by the decision-maker.” —Suskind’s words.

* “A cluster of particularly vivid qualities was shaping George W. Bush’s White House through the summer of 2001: a disdain for contemplation or deliberation, an embrace of decisiveness, a retreat from empiricism, a sometimes bullying impatience with doubters and even friendly questioners.” —Suskind.

* “You’re outnumbered 2 to 1 by folks in the big, wide middle of America, busy working people who don’t read The New York Times or Washington Post or The L.A. Times. And you know what they like? They like the way [Bush] walks and the way he points, the way he exudes confidence. They have faith in him. And when you attack him for his malaprops, his jumbled syntax, it’s good for us. Because you know what those folks don’t like? They don’t like you!” — Mark McKinnon, media adviser to Bush, explaining the political logic to Suskind.

That last quote, by Mark McKinnon, goes a long way toward explaining the root emotions of today’s Trump supporters, whose overriding need is apparently to “own the libs”–no matter what the cost to the country or their own prospects.

Suskind’s article was about the growing tensions within the Republican coalition. When he talked to Bruce Bartlett, Christie Whitman, Paul O’Neill and other loyal Republicans, they conveyed alarm over what he termed “the retreat from empiricism.”

It wasn’t only Republicans who were retreating from empiricism and reality–liberals had their anti-vaxxers  and people hysterically opposed to genetically modified foods–but they lacked the influence on their party that climate change deniers and birthers had in the GOP, and that asymmetry posed a “false equivalence” problem for journalists trying to be (excuse the phrase) fair and balanced.

Worse, fact-checking Trump had little effect, because he wasn’t trying to make reference to reality in what he said. He was trying to substitute “his” reality for the one depicted in news reports.

The goal of totalitarian propaganda is to sketch out a consistent system that is simple to grasp, one that both constructs and simultaneously provides an explanation for grievances against various out-groups. It is openly intended to distort reality, partly as an expression of the leader’s power. Its open distortion of reality is both its greatest strength and greatest weakness.

On November 3d, creating an alternate reality worked for 70 million Americans.

Houston, we have a problem.

 

A Meditation On Media

Is our current media environment to blame for America’s social dysfunction? Two critical questions:

In a large and diverse country, the ability of citizens to participate in the democratic process on the basis of informed decisions is heavily dependent upon the quality, factual accuracy, objectivity and completeness of the information available to them. Do Americans have the ability to select credible information from the incessant competition for eyeballs and clicks?

In a world where the news and entertainment environments are increasingly fragmented, where a media landscape populated with broadly shared information and common cultural references is disappearing, can Americans even conduct a truly public conversation?

Our ability to devise answers to these questions is constrained both by America’s commitment to freedom of speech and press—a commitment set out in and protected by the First Amendment—and a recognition that efforts by government to control what citizens can access online would be more dangerous than the current situation (assuming such control would even be possible in the age of the Internet).

So how did we get here? And far more importantly, how do we get out?

A series of new technologies challenged and ultimately defeated journalistic norms that had developed over the years. Cable television ushered in a virtually unlimited number of channels, upending government rules created for an era in which the federal government owned and auctioned off the limited number of usable broadcast frequencies. The numerous new cable networks made possible by the new technologies were unconstrained by the earlier requirement that their use of the airwaves be consistent with “the public interest.”  The subsequent development of the Internet greatly reduced the costs that had previously prevented the entry of numbers of would-be publishers by dramatically reducing the  investment needed to compete with established newspapers and magazines. Suddenly, virtually anyone with a computer, an internet connection and the ability to generate content could claim to be news sources. Professional journalists found themselves competing for readers’ attention with thousands of webpages, in many cases produced by persons and organizations unacquainted with and unrestrained by professional norms and ethics.

By the time the digital revolution took hold, much of cable news (and virtually all of talk radio before it) had already reverted to the explicit partisanship of earlier days. Fox News may have been the most effective; it shrewdly attacked and undermined the ethic of objectivity by elevating balance as the metric by which journalism was to be judged. The network’s motto, “Fair and balanced” reconceptualized journalism as stenography: suggesting that only “he said, she said” reporting was “fair,” and that failure to devote equivalent air time or column inches to “both sides” equated to media bias. Efforts to achieve “balance” (and thus “fairness”) led to reporters giving equal time to arguments for and against settled science or law; the reality of climate change, for example, was portrayed as an ongoing debate, despite the fact that some 97% of scientists are on one side of that debate and only a few outliers (mostly financed by fossil fuel interests) continue to take an opposing view. Such an approach to reporting leaves readers with the impression that matters of established fact are still unresolved. Balance so conceived does not require objectivity; worse, the pursuit of balance perversely operates to relieve journalists of a vital part of their job: determining, verifying and reporting what is and is not factual, so that the public can make genuinely informed decisions.

The great promise of the Internet was that it would make much more information available, and that Americans’ access to information would no longer be limited by the gatekeeping function of the legacy media. Online, many more stories could be told and they could be told in much more depth. Those undeniable gains, however, have come at a considerable and largely unanticipated cost—notably, the return of an intensely partisan media, wide dissemination of spin, conspiracy theories and outright propaganda, a massive loss of local reporting (especially about local government), the hegemony of new and enormous online platforms (most prominently Google, Facebook and Twitter), growing and corrosive public uncertainty about the accuracy of all news, and the near disappearance of a truly mass media.

It’s one thing to disagree about something that everyone can see. Different people can look at a photo, a piece of art, or a draft of a pending bill, and disagree about its meaning or, in the case of proposed legislation, whether it is a good idea, or would be effective in achieving its purported purpose. In a fragmented media environment that gives disproportionate time and space to assorted “pundits” of varying philosophies and degrees of probity (talking heads are much cheaper than investigative reporters), however, the American people are far too often not seeing the same thing, hearing the same analyses, or occupying the same reality.

Today’s media environment is reminiscent of the time before cellphones when a friend and I agreed to meet for lunch at “the tearoom.” Back then, two department stores in our city had tearooms; I went to one while she went to the other. This made conversation impossible, in much the same way that our current media environment, which places citizens in different “rooms” or conversations, impedes genuine communication.

There is a difference between an audience and a public. Journalism is about more than dissemination of news and other information; it’s about the creation of shared awareness. It’s about occupying the same reality (or eating at the same tearoom).  It’s about enabling and facilitating meaningful communication. As the information environment continues to fracture into smaller and more widely dispersed niches, Americans are losing the common ground upon which public communication and discourse depend. When cities had one or two widely-read newspapers, subscribers were exposed to the same headlines and ledes, even if they didn’t read through the articles. When large numbers of Americans tuned into Walter Cronkite’s newscast or to one of his two network competitors, they heard reports of the same events.  Recent research showing that political polarization increases after local newspapers close shouldn’t surprise us.

If today’s citizens do not share a reasonable amount of accurate information, if different constituencies access different media resources and occupy incommensurate realities, what happens to the concept of a public? To the ideal of informed debate? How do such citizens engage in self-government? If I point to a piece of furniture and say it’s a table, and you insist that, no, it is a chair, how do we decide how to use it? Worse still, if my description of the furniture goes to one audience, and your contrary description goes to another, to whom do we transmit a correction? How do we counter spin, propaganda or even honest mistakes when we have no way of determining who received those original, erroneous messages?

If the ultimate effects of our current information environment are unknown, the intermediate effects are less ambiguous. Citizens who choose different sources for their  news and information tend to choose sources that solidify and confirm their tribal affiliations, reinforce their fears, and make it more difficult to understand the perspectives of those with whom they disagree. Worse, the growth of uncertainty about the validity of what we encounter online has undermined trust in a wide variety of social and governmental institutions. Today, the most effective way to censor something is to sow distrust rather than by suppressing or muzzling the speech itself.

In the November, 2016 election, top fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined. The ability of social media platforms to target recipients for information based upon sophisticated analyses of individual preferences threatens the very existence of a genuinely public sphere in which a true marketplace of ideas could operate. We are clearly in uncharted waters.

The obvious question is: what can be done? How can Americans take advantage of the substantial benefits that come with access to virtually unlimited information while avoiding the pitfalls of atomization, inaccuracy and outright propaganda? How can we ensure that enough citizens share enough information to engage in informed debate and  political conversation?

It’s too late to put the genie back in the lamp.

Meanwhile…

Local newspapers keep dying, and that is very, very bad for democracy.

Academic studies confirm some of our worst fears: for example, civic engagement declines when local newspapers disappear. Municipalities that have lost their newspapers pay higher interest rates when they issue bonds. (When no one is “watching the store,” purchasers of municipal bonds worry about the competence and honesty of the local government that is issuing them, and factor in that concern when setting interest rates.)

Recently, both the New York Times and the Guardian have reported on the demise of local papers. The Guardian reported on the loss of Youngstown, Ohio’s newspaper, The Vindicator.

It was in the late 1920s that the Ku Klux Klan regularly began gathering outside the home of William F Maag Jr in Youngstown. Maag owned the Vindicator newspaper, which unlike others in this once prosperous part of Ohio, had been willing to criticize the racist Klansmen.

Men on horseback, clad in white robes and hoods, would burn crosses and flaunt rifles and shotguns, in an attempt at intimidation. It didn’t work. The men of the Maag family would stand outside their home, themselves armed, refusing to be cowed, as the Vindicator continued to expose government officials who were part of the Klan.

That defiance set the tone for decades of investigative, combative reporting from the Vindicator. The daily newspaper relentlessly reported on the mafia, the government, big business and even its own advertisers.

But no more. Soon after celebrating 150 years since its first edition came news that was devastating to many in Youngstown and the wider Mahoning valley. The Vindicator was shutting down at the end of August. For good.

The closure leaves Youngstown as the largest city in the U.S. without a daily newspaper.

According to a study by the University of North Carolina, more than 2,000 US newspapers have closed since 2004, and at least 1,300 communities have completely lost news coverage in the past 15 years. The Pew Research Center reports that the number of working journalists in the U.S. declined 47% between 2008 and 2018.

The Times devoted a special Sunday section to the issue, centering its discussion on the “Dying Gasp of a Local Newspaper,” the weekly Warroad, Minnesota Pioneer.

This, then, was what the desert might look like: No hometown paper to print the obituaries from the Helgeson Funeral Home. No place to chronicle the exploits of the beloved high school hockey teams. No historical record for the little town museum, which had carefully kept the newspaper in boxes going back to 1897.

And what about the next government scandal, the next school funding crisis? Who would be there? Who would tell?

“Is there going to be somebody to hold their feet to the fire?” asked Tim Bjerk, 51, an in-house photographer at Marvin, the big window and door manufacturer that dominates the town.

The problem is wider than reports of newspaper closures suggest, because the death of journalism isn’t always heralded by a shuttered operation. In my city–Indianapolis–the surviving newspaper (we once had three!) was pretty mediocre even in its heyday. When Gannett purchased it, it went from mediocre to worthless. In an effort to wring every possible penny of profit out of the paper (for which Gannett had wildly overpaid), the company cut costs by firing most of the people who produced the content–the reporters. Coverage of city hall and the statehouse is now nearly non-existent–the paper is now a sorry compendium of nostalgic “looking back” features, coverage of new bars and restaurants and sports, with a very occasional investigative report. (When there is an investigative report, it is revisited ad nauseam for days on end.)

People who want to know what school boards are doing can go to Chalkbeat (if they know it exists); people who need to know what the legislature is doing (and who can afford it) can subscribe to one of the for-profit services issuing statehouse newsletters. The general public, however, is left uninformed–and unaware of what they are uninformed about.

A couple of years ago, the textbook I used in my Media and Public Policy class was titled Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights?

Americans can still access information about Washington and the world. Information about their local and state governments is another matter entirely. The conduct of state and local government has an immediate and significant effect on citizens– think taxation, policing, education, infrastructure and its maintenance, and the myriad rules that constrain the conduct of our daily lives. Without easily available, objective reporting on the conduct of our elected and appointed officials, they are unaccountable.

At election time, voters are supposed to cast informed ballots. Without local journalism, how can we be informed?

 

Journalism Declines And Scandals Rise

I know I harp a lot on the importance of accurate, credible journalism–especially at the local level, but it is really, really important.

Believe it or not, the ongoing scandals in Virginia, which have embroiled the top three state officeholders, are illustrations of what happens when local coverage goes missing.

As Amanda Marcotte observed in Salon, 

The Virginia scandal is a reflection of a larger trend where politics will be driven more and more by revelations, gotcha moments and resulting scandals. The decline in robust, in-depth journalism, particularly on the local level — coupled with the rise of social media and well-funded partisan opposition research — is creating an atmosphere where political scandals, legitimate or not, will increasingly dominate politics and media.

“You have this degradation of resources in local journalism, which has been going on for a while now,” said Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab, which is currently offering a fellowshipfor local investigative journalism. “You also have this counterpart, which is that it’s easier than before for opposition researchers on all sides to dig up dirt of this sort.”

Benton explained that the decline in local journalism allows politicians in the early stages of their careers, when they are likely to be running for school board or city council,  to escape the scrutiny they would previously have gotten from the relevant local media.

Philip Napoli, a professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, added that this trend has coincided with another, “the rise of social media and the ways that political candidates are able to communicate with their constituencies directly” and present a version of themselves that’s more to their own liking.

The result is that politicians simply don’t get the vetting they might once have received as they climb the career ladder from smaller offices to statewide and even national offices. Red flags that might have been noticed before a politician reached a position of significant power get overlooked, because local papers simply don’t have the resources to catch them.

The decline in local coverage has coincided with the rise of partisan outlets– not just national networks like Fox and Sinclair, but local talk radio and blogs less concerned with accuracy than with scoring points.  Add to that the gift of the internet– the wealth of materials that vigorous opposition research can now unearth– and you have a recipe for ongoing scandals appearing at extremely “inconvenient” times in politicians’ careers.

In the “old model,” Benton said, people  who wanted to share damning information like sexual assault allegations or past episodes of racist conduct would “go to a reporter and hand him or her the documents or the evidence,” and that reporter would “determine whether the information that’s being handed to them is correct or not.”

 “Now, increasingly you can just post it online and skip that step in the process,” he added. So questions about whether the information is true and legitimately newsworthy don’t get answered in advance.

It appears that the Virginia accusations are all true, although the stories were “broken” by a sleazy partisan web site. But in other cases, innocent parties and organizations sustained real (and sometimes permanent) damage before manufactured allegations could be debunked. Remember when Breitbart accused the nonprofit ACORN of being involved in sex trafficking? Its story was entirely false, but it led to the group’s collapse. A doctored video was used to accuse Planned Parenthood of selling “baby parts” from aborted fetuses and was gleefully spread far and wide. It was later shown to be part of the ongoing, deceptive effort to convince lawmakers to stop funding Planned Parenthood, but pro-life groups continue to cite it as “evidence” of the organization’s evil doings.

In the absence of adequate, reliable reporting, conspiracy theories and partisan invention will fill the void. And citizens won’t know what they can and can’t believe.

The problem is national, but far more prevalent at the local level.

Balancing Act

There may not be any sport in America more popular than media-bashing, and I am a frequent participant. We do live in a confusing, changing and sometimes overwhelming media environment; it sometimes seems we are “marinating” in information. In such an environment, it’s easy to lose sight of the differences between journalism, entertainment and propaganda– to forget what journalists are supposed to do and why it is that what they are supposed to do is so important.

The reason this country’s founders specifically protected journalism in the First Amendment is that we depend upon reporters to tell us what government is doing. If we don’t know what decisions are being made, what actions are being taken and who is taking them, we have no basis upon which to evaluate our elected officials, cast our votes or otherwise participate in self-government.

And that brings me to Fox News.

It’s bad enough that Fox is little more than a propaganda arm of the GOP, but I want to argue that slanting and misrepresenting reality isn’t the worst thing Fox has done. Fox has misrepresented the essential task of journalists. Its slogan, “Fair and Balanced” has led to a widespread understanding of journalism as stenography (he said/she said) and a belief that if a story isn’t “balanced,” it isn’t fair.

Should reporters investigate the claims of all sides of a dispute or controversy? Certainly. But they should do so in order to determine what the facts actually are, so that they can produce an accurate accounting of those facts. We count on reporters to investigate contending claims and perspectives  because we citizens have neither the time nor expertise to do so, and we rely on them to tell us whose claims are verifiable and accurate.

As British reporter Gavin Esler recently argued, how can any news organization “balance” the overwhelming weight of scientific opinion about vaccines or climate change with the crackpot anti-vaccine theories of Andrew Wakefield, or those who claim that climate change is “fake news”?  We don’t “balance” arguments on child protection by giving equal time and space to advocates of pedophilia.

Esler writes that we face a crisis in democracy, “because maintaining quaint ideas of ‘balance’ in a world filled with systematic disinformation is now an existential threat to the country we love, the Britain of the Enlightenment, a place of facts, science and reasoned argument.” That observation applies with equal force to the United States.

The Fox News version of balance plays to the anti-intellectualism that, as Isaac Asimov tellingly observed, has long been a part of American culture, “nourished by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

As David Niose wrote a few years ago in Psychology Today, anti-intellectualism is killing America.

In a country where a sitting congressman told a crowd that evolution and the Big Bang are “lies straight from the pit of hell,” where the chairman of a Senate environmental panel brought a snowball into the chamber as evidence that climate change is a hoax, where almost one in three citizens can’t name the vice president, it is beyond dispute that critical thinking has been abandoned as a cultural value. Our failure as a society to connect the dots, to see that such anti-intellectualism comes with a huge price, could eventually be our downfall.

Americans desperately need good, responsible journalism. We also need to understand that good journalism strives for accuracy rather than “balance.”

And a little respect for competence and knowledge wouldn’t hurt.