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The Media Learned Nothing From 2016

The press hasn’t broken its most destructive habits when it comes to covering Donald Trump.

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, SARAH SILBIGER / BLOOMBERG / GETTY

We’re seeing a huge error, and a potential tragedy, unfold in real time.

That’s a sentence that could apply to countless aspects of economic, medical, governmental, and environmental life at the moment. What I have in mind, though, is the almost unbelievable failure of much of the press to respond to the realities of the Trump age.

Many of our most influential editors and reporters are acting as if the rules that prevailed under previous American presidents are still in effect. But this president is different; the rules are different; and if it doesn’t adapt, fast, the press will stand as yet another institution that failed in a moment of crucial pressure.

In some important ways, media outlets are repeating the mistake made by former Special Counsel Robert Mueller. In his book about the Mueller investigation, True Crimes and Misdemeanors (and in a New Yorker article), Jeffrey Toobin argues that Mueller’s tragic flaw was a kind of anachronistic idealism—which had the same effect as naivete. Mueller knew the ethical standards he would maintain for himself and insist on from his team. He didn’t understand that the people he was dealing with thought standards were for chumps. Mueller didn’t imagine that a sitting attorney general would intentionally misrepresent his report, which is of course what Bill Barr did. Mueller wanted to avoid an unseemly showdown, or the appearance of a “fishing expedition” inquiry, that would come from seeking a grand-jury subpoena for Donald Trump’s testimony, so he never spoke with Trump under oath, or at all. Trump, Barr, and their team viewed this decorousness as a sign of weakness, which they could exploit.

Something similar is going on now with many members of the press. They’re behaving like Mueller, wanting to be sure they observe proprieties that would have made sense when dealing with other figures in other eras. But now they’re dealing with Donald Trump, and he sees their behavior as a weakness he can exploit relentlessly.

Much as Mueller didn’t recognize these realities in time, neither did much of our print, broadcast, and cable media four years ago. Networks ran Trump’s rally speeches endlessly from mid-2015 onward, giving him free airtime valued at some $2 billion. Why his speeches, and not Hillary Clinton’s or Bernie Sanders’s? Because they were deemed great TV, and the channels’ own ratings went up when the rallies were on. As the race continued, cable channels demonstrated their supposed balance by stocking political discussion panels not with representatives of conservative viewpoints but rather with tribalists and die-hard team members, people who would defend whatever Trump had done or said. (One of these people is now the White House press secretary, and her press briefings are like her old cable hits.) The choice of panelists did not reflect a range of policy viewpoints; it was sitcom casting, with people playing their predictable, recognizable parts.

Also in pursuit of the ritual of balance, the networks offset coverage of Donald Trump’s ethical liabilities and character defects, which would have proved disqualifying in any other candidate for nearly any other job, with intense investigation of what they insisted were Hillary Clinton’s serious email problems. Six weeks before the election, Gallup published a prophetic analysis showing what Americans had heard about each candidate. For Trump, the words people most recognized from all the coverage were speechimmigration, and Mexico. For Clinton, one word dwarfed all others: EMAIL. The next two on the list, much less recognized, were lie and Foundation. (The Clinton Foundation, set up by Bill Clinton, was the object of sustained scrutiny for supposedly shady dealings that amount to an average fortnight’s revelations for the Trump empire.) One week before the election, The New York Times devoted the entire top half of its front page to stories about FBI Director James Comey’s reopening of an investigation into the emails. “New Emails Jolt Clinton Campaign in Race’s Last Days” was the headline on the front page’s lead story. “With 11 Days to Go, Trump Says Revelation ‘Changes Everything,’” read another front-page headline.

Just last week came a fresh reminder of the egregiousness of that coverage, often shorthanded as “But her emails!” On Wednesday, September 9, Bob Woodward’s tapes of Trump saying that when it came to the coronavirus, he “wanted to always play it down” came out, along with a whistleblower’s claim that the Department of Homeland Security was falsifying intelligence to downplay the risk of Russian election interference and violence from white supremacists. On the merits, either of those stories was far more important than Comey’s short-lived inquiry into what was always an overhyped scandal. But in this election season, each got a demure one-column headline on the Times’ front pageThe Washington Post, by contrast, gave Woodward’s revelations banner treatment across its front page.

Who knows how the 2016 race might have turned out, and whether a man like Trump could have ended up in the position he did, if any of a hundred factors had gone a different way. But one important factor was the press’s reluctance to recognize what it was dealing with: a person nakedly using racial resentment as a tool; whose dishonesty and corruption dwarfed that of both Clintons combined, with most previous presidents’ thrown in as well; and whose knowledge about the vast organization he was about to control was inferior to that of any Capitol Hill staffer and most immigrants who had passed the (highly demanding) U.S. citizenship test.

Now it’s four years later. And we’re waking up in Groundhog Day, but so far without Bill Murray’s eventual, hard-earned understanding that he could learn new skills as time went on. For Murray, those were things like playing the piano and speaking French. For the press, in these next 49 days, those can be grappling with (among other things) three of the most destructive habits in dealing with Donald Trump. For shorthand, they are the embrace of false equivalence, or both-sides-ism; the campaign-manager mentality, or horse-race-ism; and the love of spectacle, or going after the ratings and the clicks.

Are these familiar problems? Yes, indeed! As familiar as “I Got You Babe” playing every single morning on the alarm clock in Groundhog Day. Over the past few years, they’ve been the object of careful, continued analyses by the likes of Margaret Sullivan, now of The Washington Post and the last really effective public editor of The New York Times (before the paper mistakenly abolished that position); Dan Froomkin, formerly of the Post and now of Press Watch; Jay Rosen, of New York University and PressThink; Eric Boehlert, of Press Run Media; Greg Sargent of “The Plum Line” at The Washington Post; Brian Beutler of Crooked MediaEric Alterman of CUNY Brooklyn College, author of the new book Lying in State; the linguist George Lakoff, who has promoted the concept of countering lies with a “truth sandwich”; and many others. For my own part, I wrote a book called Breaking the News nearly 25 years ago, excerpted as an Atlantic cover story, about trends like these that were evident then and have metastasized through the years since.

David A. Graham: Some real news about fake news

But it’s precisely because these trends are familiar that they matter. As Ed Yong has demonstrated in his latest Atlantic piece on the pandemic, and as Adam SerwerIbram X. Kendi, and others have argued about racial-justice struggles, it’s rarely the new issues that most bedevil us. It’s the same old problems and failures and blind spots and biases, again and again and again.

How are we again seeing these patterns, and what can we do about them?

Both-sides-ism

This is the shorthand term for most journalists’ discomfort with seeming to “take a side” in political disputes, and the contortions that result.

Of course, taking a side is fundamental to the act of journalism. Everything we write or broadcast is something we’re saying deserves more attention than what we’re not discussing. The layout of a front page, in print or online; the airtime given to TV or radio reports; the tone and emphasis of headlines; and everything else down the list of communication tools reflect choices. When we investigate and present exposés, we are taking a side in favor of the importance of these subjects, and the fidelity of our account. A 19th-century editor of what was then The Manchester Guardian argued that the function of a newspaper was “to see life steady and see it whole,” a variation on a line from the poet Matthew Arnold. Every choice about the steadiness and the wholeness represents taking a side.

But on the narrow, specific question of Republican-versus-Democratic disagreements, newspaper and broadcast reporters are profoundly uncomfortable with appearing to take a side. This issue has been extremely well discussed over the years, for example in a dispatch titled “The View From Nowhere,” by Jay Rosen back in 2010; and in an article from Dan Froomkin a few weeks ago. The simplest version of the point is that reporters are most at ease when they can quote first one side and then the other, seeming to be neutral between the two—or when they present a charge, and then the response. It’s a role idealized by John Roberts asserting, during his confirmation hearings to become chief justice of the Supreme Court, that his role as jurist was just “to call balls and strikes,” or by Fox News’s amusing motto “We report, you decide.”

Everyone in journalism has sat through countless discussions of the limits of objectivity. But the power of the impulse still shows up now, in 2020, in several distinctive ways.

One is a habitual, even reflexive presentation of claims or statements that a reporter knows are not of equivalent truthfulness, as if they were. (Thus, “false equivalence.”) A stark recent example was an AP story on September 4, with the headline “Dueling Versions of Reality Define 1st Week of Fall Campaign.” It began:

NEW YORK (AP) — On the campaign trail with President Donald Trump, the pandemic is largely over, the economy is roaring back, and murderous mobs are infiltrating America’s suburbs.

With Democrat Joe Biden, the pandemic is raging, the economy isn’t lifting the working class, and systemic racism threatens Black lives across America.

The first week of the fall sprint to Election Day crystallized dizzyingly different versions of reality as the Republican incumbent and his Democratic challenger trekked from Washington and Delaware to Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and back, each man on an urgent mission to sell his particular message to anxious voters.

All the conflicting messages carry at least a sliver of truth, some much more than others …

The “some much more than others” phrase is a way to signal what the reporter certainly knows: that Joe Biden’s claims are within the realm of normal political spin and emphasis, while Trump’s are not true. The U.S. is nowhere near the end of its pandemic nightmare; the economy has recovered barely half the jobs lost since February, and worse times may be ahead; the urban crime rate remains near its low point in recent decades, and crime is not spilling out to the suburbs. But the story presents them merely as “dizzyingly different” perspectives—gee, it’s all moving so fast; how can we make sense of it?—with an insider’s wink and nod that not all these claims are equally true: “some much more than others.” What might the reporter have written instead? Something like “Trump is running on a falsified vision of America, and hoping he can make enough people believe it to win.” A statement like that might have seemed more “intrusive” by the canons of wire-service “objectivity” in another age, but it is far truer to the realities of this moment, and would stand up far better in history’s view.

As Daniel Dale has tirelessly demonstrated, Trump lies in public statements dozens of times a day. So do his representatives: This past Wednesday, Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, coolly claimed in the White House briefing room that Trump had “never downplayed” the threat of the virus, just minutes after CNN aired Bob Woodward’s tape of Trump saying he had “wanted to always play it down.” (I don’t think she was distinguishing between downplaying something and playing it down. She was just brassing it out, Baghdad Bob–style.) Past press secretaries, and presidents, lied when the truth would be inconvenient or embarrassing. Trump just lies. As Dan Coats, Trump’s own former director of national intelligence, is quoted telling Bob Woodward, “To him, a lie is not a lie. It’s just what he thinks. He doesn’t know the difference between the truth and a lie.”

People outside the business may not recognize what a step it is, culturally and professionally, for reporters and editors to act on the implications of this reality—the knowledge that what a president or his senior representatives say has exactly zero factual value. If you are trying to inform the public, you’re better off not reporting what this president says, contends, or does, unless there are external indications that it’s true.

And there is certainly no reason to present Trump’s claims on equal footing with other information. Once again, that is because the track record indicates that if Trump or one of his press representatives says something, it’s probably not true. And yet the instinct is so hard to resist, the impulse to add “some critics say …” so powerful.

Take another example that should have been instructive: In March of last year, William Barr released his grossly misleading summary of the Mueller report, claiming that it offered a clean bill of health for Trump. Both The New York Times and The Washington Post fell for it. “Mueller Finds No US-Russia Conspiracy,” read the banner headline in The New York Times; “Mueller Finds No Conspiracy,” trumpeted The Washington Post. Weeks later, after Mueller had complained (delicately) about Barr’s behavior and the full report came out, the papers and other outlets ran stories about Barr’s intentional distortions. (Early this year, a federal judge criticized Barr for presenting a “distorted” and “misleading” account.) For the Post, the Barr episode was an atypical case of a running a headline that took Trump’s claims at face value. For the Times, it was unfortunately more representative.

Last week, after Jeffrey Goldberg reported in The Atlantic about Trump’s calling veterans “suckers” and “losers,” the Post ran a story about the claims headlined “Trump Said U.S. Soldiers Injured and Killed in War Were ‘Losers,’ Magazine Reports.” The Times framed its story as if Trump’s rebuttals were the news:

Trump Angrily Denies Report He Called Fallen Soldiers ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers.’

The subhead (“dek” in journalese—together they are the “hed and dek”) was also significant:

“The report, in The Atlantic, could be problematic for the president because he is counting on strong support from the military for his re-election bid.”

That is: The news was what the contentions would mean politically. The framing was a way to avoid appearing to take sides, while in effect taking them. (And here is something I learned by going back to check the story: The hed and dek have been changed, and now read as follows, with no notation that they have been changed.)

Trump Faces Uproar Over Reported Remarks Disparaging Fallen Soldiers

“A report in The Atlantic said the president called troops killed in combat “losers” and “suckers.” He strenuously denied it, but some close to him said it was in keeping with other private comments he has made disparaging soldiers.”

Horse-race-ism

Decades ago in Breaking the News, I wrote about the near-irresistible impulse to convert the substance of anything into how it would seem from a political operative’s point of view. Much as football commentators can remain neutral between teams, but express sharp opinions on the three-four defense or whether the blitz pays off, political writers can avoid taking a side by expressing their judgment with tactical commentary.

This brings up one other tell, of people struggling with the both-sides impulse: the “could-raise-questions” technique. Consider a story last week in The New York Times about Douglas Emhoff, the husband of Kamala Harris. Here was the hed and dek on the story:

Will Doug Emhoff’s Legal Career Be an Issue for the Biden-Harris Ticket?

Mr. Emhoff, the husband of Senator Kamala Harris, has a long record as a litigator at two of the nation’s top firms, posing potential conflicts that could draw scrutiny.

Note the touches in the presentation that don’t appear to take a side, but actually do:

  • The question in the headline itself, deciding that the potential issue deserves notice.
  • “Posing potential conflicts,” again not taking a side but declaring a problem.
  • “Could draw scrutiny.” This was also the framing of nearly all of the reports on Hillary Clinton’s emails. For the record, perhaps they exist, but I haven’t found articles framed as explorations of whether Ivanka Trump’s trademark having been approved in China, or Jared Kushner’s relatives promoting their business there, might pose “potential conflicts.”

And from the story, about Emhoff’s association with a law firm, DLA Piper, that has a lobbying arm as well:

It remains unclear whether Mr. Emhoff will continue to practice law in any capacity, but keeping a connection to a firm with a thriving Washington lobbying practice and offices in places like Moscow and Riyadh could prove problematic. Critics are already scouring his client rosters at DLA and a previous firm, which have included representations viewed suspiciously by progressive voters whom Democrats are relying on to help defeat President Trump.

James Fallows: ‘Both sides’ and the decline of public institutions

“Remains unclear … could prove problematic … critics are already scouring … viewed suspiciously by progressive voters.” This is how you take sides and express judgments while striking a pose of not doing so. (An also-familiar phrase with the same effect: From the interviews, a picture emerges … When you see that phrase or anything like it, realize that you’re encountering someone who should be writing, “I came to think” or “From reporting I learned,” but is working within constraints that make “a picture emerges” seem “objective” and “I learned” seem judgmental.) Also, it’s a way of showing you will be tough on all sides.

A recent illustration of the powerful draw toward the ever-tightening horse race: This past Sunday, September 12, The New York Times ran a poll showing Joe Biden up by nine points in Minnesota. The headline on its article from the state was “Minnesota: Some See an Edge for Trump.” Or just yesterday, as Matt Viser of The Washington Post noted in a tweet, Joe Biden gave a speech about climate policy, and then got three questions from the press: What would be his message in Florida the next day? Why are his numbers among Hispanics so low? and, Are the gloves off? As I spent much of Breaking the News arguing, questions like these are of enormous in-the-minute fascination to political reporters. But they have virtually nothing to do with most voters’ concerns at the election, and even less to do with what historians will say was at stake in our times.

My suggestion: Follow the advice from an essay by Dan Froomkin, or another by Jay Rosen, about how to drop the pretense of both-sides-ism, and channel the analytical ability that goes into tactical commentary in order to plainly say who is lying and who is not, and what is at stake. Rosen also argues that the media should form a “threat modeling team” to anticipate efforts to undermine the upcoming election. What is at stake is more than just another race.

The spectacle

Entertainment will always draw a bigger audience than news. During 2015 and 2016, the audiences drawn by Trump’s spectacles proved irresistible for TV programmers. Now the novelty has worn off, and the audience has been distilled to the believers. But still you can see the temptation to cover whatever he does, live, and—most of all—to be diverted by his latest stunt or outrage. Trump’s greatest strategic advantage is distraction: forcing, or tempting, the public mind to forget what happened yesterday, because of the new fireworks he has launched today. The tragedy at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya—when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state—was in the news for years and was the subject of at least 10 congressional hearings. Less than three months have passed since news broke of Russia paying bounties for the deaths of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and it’s rarely covered.

Donald Trump is weak on book-learning but extremely canny about attention management. The challenge for reporters and editors is to maintain attention on the “yesterday’s news” items that will matter tomorrow—in the state of the economy, in America’s standing in the world, in the structures of democratic governance. It is to see things steady and see them whole. (That is: Be more like Matthew Arnold, less like a cat chasing a laser dot.)

When a presidential confidant who has been convicted of felonies—one of several in that category—and then spared punishment by Trump’s direct intervention calls for “martial law” if election results go against Trump, that should not be just a one-day story. Roger Stone, who made that call last week, is known for histrionics. But if we have learned anything about Trump and his colleagues, it is to question their facts but be deadly earnest about their intent. (Take him “seriously but not factually,” we might say.) So too with Trump’s efforts to delegitimize in advance any vote count that does not go his way. His endless harping that “it’s rigged, folks, rigged” is so destructive that it has only one obvious precedent in modern U.S. history. That was Trump’s insistence on the same point four years ago, until the Electoral College swung his way. We can’t be sure now which is more destructive: a president openly encouraging much of the public to mistrust the democratic process, or that same president openly welcoming foreign interference in the process. Both are steps toward authoritarianism and danger, and awareness of them should shape coverage every single day.

“History will not judge us kindly,” Margaret Sullivan wrote recently, about this weakness of the media. But there is time to adjust.

Every american institution is now being tested. From the police to the postal service, the judiciary to voting systems, public health to education, and city councils to the U.S. Senate—all of them, all of us, are undergoing stresses we hadn’t anticipated, enduring blows that are falling from all directions, all at once. On our response to them, the country’s future may depend.

The institution I am part of, the media, is also being tested. The press isn’t the only part of America’s institutional crisis. But it’s an important part of the predicament we are in, and of the hope for getting out.

For as long as the press has existed, it has been shambling and imperfect and improvisational. At our best we get things right on average, and incrementally, with a lot of getting things wrong along the way. Most of us in this business do our imperfect best. But any hope of doing better depends on the ability to learn. Soon the clock will show 6:00 a.m. once more; the alarm will start blaring “I Got You Babe” another time. This day, we can do better.

JAMES FALLOWS is a staff writer at The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Jimmy Carter's chief speechwriter.