Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Is It Time to Ease Off On the Media Criticism?

by Neil H. Buchanan

It seems impossible to have anything but a love-hate relationship with the American media.  On the "love" side, not only is an independent press an absolute necessity for a free society, but the mainstream media has done its job amazingly well at many times during the Trump era.  With The Washington Post taking a clear lead, but with ample and impressive assists from The New York Times as well as CNN and other outlets, the press has been the source of almost every investigative bombshell that has put Donald Trump's presidency (quite rightly) in peril.

On the "hate" side, however, the American press continues to lapse into various forms of the conventional wisdom, sycophancy, false equivalence, and laziness that we have witnessed for years (most prominently in the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003).  All of that was bad enough when the threats to American freedom were the slow bleed of voter suppression, money-driven politics, and all of the other familiar problems that led to the metastasis of the radical-right Republican Party of the twenty-first century.  Under Trump and his pliant party, it seems unforgivable.

Unfortunately, the press's willingness and ability to confront Trump and call out his lies has resulted in Trump's proto-fascist tendencies coming to the fore, with increasingly unhinged attacks on the press -- not just criticisms of perceived mistakes in doing their work, but claims that they are terrible human beings, which has predictably resulted in Trump's fanatical followers threatening members of the media with violence.

The past week or so has been so bad that it is no longer surprising (though it should still be shocking) to see predictions from commentators that Trump will soon have "blood on his hands" as well as warnings about "deadly violence" when someone takes the fateful next step and attacks reporters violently.  Claims by Trump's enablers that he is merely attacking bad reporting are simply false, and his followers seem unmistakably to be getting the message.

In an environment that has become this dangerous and volatile, is it now necessary for those of us who criticize the press on the merits (that is, demerits) of their coverage to cut it out?  When is even principled criticism a bad idea?

I have commented with increasing frequency over the past few years about my surprise at having become a de facto media critic.  When I agreed to become a columnist for Verdict and Dorf on Law, I anticipated writing about specific policy issues, legal cases and controversies, and so on.  Doing those things, however, has led me onto what now seems to have been an inevitable path toward media criticism.

In a column from immediately after the 2016 election, I wrote: "Prior to this year, I had never really thought of myself as a critic of the media."  I quoted a top-flight academic critic of the media, NYU's Jay Rosen, who wrote in a 2011 essay that mainstream reporters are committed to what he called a "cult of savviness."  where "[s]avviness is that quality of being shrewd, practical, hyper-informed, perceptive, ironic, 'with it,' and unsentimental in all things political."  Perhaps Rosen's best line is that "the savvy don’t say: I have a better argument than you. They say: I am closer to reality than you."

This default motivation, happily, works very well for getting reporters to pursue charlatans like Trump.  A president who denies reality, to the delight and approval of millions of devoted followers, is more than fair game for anyone who wants to be closer to reality than anyone else.  Not only is Trump dangerous, but he denies the importance of evidence itself.

The problem is that the cult of savviness, as I discussed in my 2016 piece, worked against Hillary Clinton by causing every supposedly neutral reporter to respond to her every utterance by saying: "She's lying.  I know she's lying, even though the evidence that she is lying has been debunked.  My version of reality is not actually evidence-based reality in all cases.  Instead, it is the reality of the other people in the cult of savviness, all of whom are afraid of looking like chumps by actually believing that Clinton is not lying."

In other words, the cult of savviness is right to go into overdrive in response to a president who thinks he can make reality itself go away, and when the other political party is not really part of the story.  Unfortunately, the cult also goes haywire when it is confronted with a situation in which it cannot say that both sides are wrong, which is why they were such patsies for Republican spin not only against Hillary Clinton but also Barack Obama (as well as John Kerry and Al Gore and Democrats in general).  Republicans won battle after battle not by being right but by manipulating the press's desire not to call Republicans uniquely wrong.

This means that the press is at all times ready to fall back into its two-sides-to-every-story framing, which is clearly the comfort zone of journalists.  So long as Trump is not the reality-denying story, the press seems eager to reinforce utterly false narratives about, say, the tax bill or health care.  Indeed, I devoted multiple columns last fall to calling out reporters at The Post and The Times for writing, for example, that tax cuts obviously increase long-run economic growth -- against the overwhelming weight of the evidence.  (Although I am making up these sentences, they could easily have been written by any political reporter in the U.S.: "Republicans say tax cuts pay for themselves.  Democrats say they don't.  The public likes tax cuts but worries about deficits.")

Trump and his supporters thus criticize the press for being an independent, skeptical voice that undermines his attempts to manipulate our very sense of reality.  Everyone else should be appalled by the press's sloppiness and small-c conservatism (which might better be thought of as a panicky effort not to be seen as taking a position that is not safely within the conventional wisdom) in their professional habits.

The problem, as I noted above, is that Trump has gone beyond saying, "They're lying, so ignore them and listen only to me," which is plenty bad.  He is telling people that reporters are un-American, enemies of this country, low-life baddies who are out to get him because he is speaking the truth.  In other words, Trump is doing what dictators do all of the time, and we now need to worry not only that he might actually try to become a dictator but that the path there will be strewn with the bodies of some number of American journalists.

It is truly scary even write to a sentence like that, and I do not do so lightly.  In any event, even though I am absolutely comfortable with the content of my substantive (and stylistic) criticisms of American journalism, I wonder whether these times are too dangerous to say something that can quite easily become fodder for those who are being convinced that the media is the enemy.  "Reporters suck.  See, even liberals agree.  Let's get 'em!"

In trying to think of analogies, I recalled writing a column early in 2014 in which I discussed the loss of nuance in discussing (among other things) evolution and climate change.  That column was inspired by correspondence with a biologist at a Canadian university who described a troubling situation in which his colleagues rejected his proposal to teach a course about the gaps in scientific knowledge.

Why is that relevant here?  The push-back from his colleagues was not: "Hey, there are no gaps in science.  Teach the truth!"  Instead, they said, "Look, every good scientist knows that knowledge advances and that there are plenty of things that we don't yet know.  (That's why we're scientists, after all.)  But telling undergraduates that the science on evolution and climate change is uncertain is going to lead to misunderstandings that reinforce the political backlash by ignorant politicians who want to undermine science to please their hyper-religious and resource-extracting supporters."

One can disagree with the position that my correspondent's colleagues took in that instance (although I confess that I probably would have said what they said), but the point is that there are times when nuance goes out the window.  If the consequence of saying that scientists do not already know everything is for politicians to shut down the pursuit of scientific knowledge and to ignore what science can tell us, then it becomes arguably irresponsible to inadvertently reinforce an existing anti-science political movement.

In the U.S. today, the consequences of media criticism are potentially matters of life and death (and perhaps ultimately a move from constitutionalism to autocracy).  Should well-meaning people now take the attitude that it is too dangerous to say, "This reporter wrote something inaccurate/irresponsible/wrong/sloppy/whatever"?  I hope not.  At this point, however, I do think that it is necessary at least to begin and end every criticism of the media by making it abundantly clear that their existence is a bulwark of freedom.

Those who wish to take away our freedoms are far too eager to heap hatred on the press, which means that everyone else needs to rally to reporters' defense -- even (especially) when we are also pointing out that they are human beings who have made errors.  Sadly, we might soon reach the point where it will be irresponsible even to criticize reporters while being careful to issue such caveats.  We do not seem to be there yet, and I hope we never will be.


David Ricardo said...

Until we have an honest media in the U. S. it will never be time to ease off on criticism and holding them accountable.

The current state of the media is one that has been cowed for decades by conservatives. Conservatives believe that their positions are so correct that the only reason the public does not embrace them is that the media does not correctly report them. The truth of course is that if the media did honestly report conservative positions their support would dwindle to a small minority.

Consider Trump's recent rally in which he stated that U. S. Steel was going to open 7 new mills. There is no indication whatsoever that this is correct. Yet debunking the claim is totally absent from media reporting.

What Americans do not know can hurt them, it already has.

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

[This post is in two parts owing to its length.]

Re: “The past week or so has been so bad that it is no longer surprising (though it should still be shocking) to see predictions from commentators that Trump will soon have ‘blood on his hands’….”

Trump, it should be said, as well as those in Congress and the public who continue to materially and immaterially (or directly and indirectly) support him, all have “blood on their hands.” In other words, they are all, more or less, complicit* in the wrongdoing that follows in one way or another and in part, from his incitive and inflammatory rhetoric against journalists and the press in general. This morally and politically irresponsible rhetoric has clearly served to embolden if not legitimate authoritarian and ruthless behavior around the globe toward journalists. The following is from an ABC news story on July 14, reminding us that Trump has already contributed to ruthless and authoritarian behavior against journalists:

“The fact that the whole world was watching in Brussels and London was significant because Trump’s refrains of ‘fake news’ are increasingly finding sympathy from other world leaders seeking to curtail freedom of speech, according to Tim Franklin, the senior associate dean at the Medill School of Journalism. ‘The fake news mantra has been weaponized against the entire news media industry,’ Franklin told ABC News. ‘He’s normalizing that narrative against the media internationally.’

Among the world leaders attending the NATO summit this week was President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who has been accused of jailing journalists and leading a crackdown on opposition voices while in office. The Committee to Protect Journalists named Turkey ‘the world’s worst jailer’ of journalists two years in a row. According to the nonprofit, 73 journalists were behind bars there in 2017. Also in attendance was Polish President Andrzej Duda, who has frequently praised Trump for fighting ‘fake news’ and has also tried to crack down on journalists in his own country. Duda also pledged to help Trump ‘fight fake news’ after the two met last year.

A report published in the Index on Censorship earlier this year found that more than 20 political leaders worldwide—from authoritarian to democratic regimes—have used the term ‘fake news’ to ‘accuse reporters of spreading lies to discredit journalism they do not like. ‘Trump’s comments in Brussels reinforce that message,’ Franklin said. ‘He’s essentially providing verbal fodder for folks like Erdogan in Turkey and other oppressive leaders to crack down on the media,’ he added.”

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

[remainder of post]

Other recent conspicuous cases include Russia, Hungary, and the Philippines. In the last, President Rodrigo Duterte (whom Trump has repeatedly praised) has “called some of the country’s largest media organizations ‘bullshit,’ ‘garbage,’ ‘son of a bitch.’ Journalists, he said, have no shame. They are corrupt fabulists and hypocrites who ‘pretend to be the moral torch of the country.’” A succinct summary was provided in an article by Sheila S. Coronel from NPR at the beginning of the year:

“Duterte is drawing from the Modern Autocrat’s Field Guide to Information Control. The aim is complete encirclement so as to drown out critical and independent voices. Like Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recip Tayyip Erdogan and Hungary’s Viktor Orban, he has launched a two-pronged attack. One prong is media muzzling through government regulation. In Russia, Turkey and Hungary, autocratic leaders have shut down critical news outlets or transferred their ownership to friendly proprietors. In all these countries, government regulators have hounded recalcitrant media owners with spurious allegations like tax evasion and failure to obtain licenses.

More insidiously, populist leaders have tried to de-legitimize independent and critical media by ridiculing their editorial standards and their claims to a moral high ground. The press, said Duterte, ‘throw[s] garbage at us ... [but] How about you? Are you also clean?’

Demonization by government — something President Trump also deploys against media outlets he dislikes — is just one tactic. The other is letting loose an army of trolls, bloggers on the state’s payroll, propagandists and paid hacks who ensure the strongman’s attacks against the press are amplified in newspaper columns and on the airwaves, on social media and fake news sites.”

All of this hit a bit closer to home when one of my FB friends let us know of the recent arrest of his uncle in Bangladesh, the photo journalist Shahidul Alam (Please see articles in The Guradian and elsewhere and visit the webpage of the Committee to Protect Journalists):

“A Dhaka court ordered that Shahidul Alam be held for seven days pending investigation into police accusations that he violated Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act by spreading propaganda against the government and spreading false information on electronic media, according to news reports. A few hours before his arrest on Sunday, Alam posted a video on the student protests [in Dhaka] on Facebook and appeared on Al-Jazeera, CPJ [Committee to Protect Journalists] documented. When Alam appeared in court on Monday, he was unable to walk without assistance and told his friends he had been beaten bloody, The Guardian reported.”

* Please see the excellent analysis and discussion of this and closely related terms (complicity’s conceptual brothers and sisters … and cousins) in our legal and, more importantly, moral vocabulary, in Chiara Lepora and Robert E. Goodin, On Complicity and Compromise (Oxford University Press, 2013).

Joe said...

There are some good journalists and we can cite them while also criticizing other members of "the media" (something that to me at times is wrongly treated as some stereotypical whole) worthy of said criticism. As the first comment notes, as long as members of the media (and certain general media practices) aids and abets the current situation, it should be called out. In the process, we can still defend media as a whole from Trump attacks. Unlike Trump, we can have nuance.

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

I inexplicably failed to mention above the case of Mexico with regard to the dangers journalists face today, although in this instance it's not clear how much the national government has been responsible for the relentless harassment, intimidation and threats ('[m]any reporters ... have been forced out of the profession or have opted to self-censor'). Journalists have been routinely murdered at an historically unprecedented rate for merely performing their duties, that is, doing their job.