After Journalism

This is getting boring. What more is there to say about Hillary Clinton? She’s a lying harridan who left top-secret stuff out there on her personal email server for anyone to find – unless she sold it for fun and profit – and she likes to let our best people die, like in Benghazi, because she doesn’t give a damn. She’s going to jail. What more is there to say about Donald Trump? He’s an impulsive white nationalist bigot who likes to mock women and the disabled, with a bit of an ADHD disorder too – he can’t focus on any task for more than a few seconds. He’s sinking in the polls will lose this election in an epic landslide. She’s brain-damaged. He’s batshit crazy.

The narratives are locked in and the proof is out there, depending on the news source. Fox News and Drudge and Breitbart and talk radio have their proof. MSNBC and Vox and Salon and the rest have their proof. That proof is comforting for those who know that they know what’s “really” going on, while the other side mocks them for being gullible fools, or delusional. CNN simply gave up – they now have folks from each side line up in pairs and shout at each other. That’s unpleasant. CNN’s ratings have tanked. Viewers don’t want to squirm. They want to feel smug.

Still, there is basic news, and at the moment, Hillary Clinton is in trouble:

The scandals swirling around Hillary Clinton kicked up a notch on Monday, with the release of more emails showing the sway Clinton Foundation donors held at the State Department and an order by a federal judge that could result in a dump of thousands more emails before the election.

Clinton managed to coast through the conventions and the resulting weeks, gaining momentum in the polls as Donald Trump suffered through numerous self-inflicted controversies. But on Monday, Clinton was delivered a rude reminder that her long-running woes will likely persist all the way to November – and potentially beyond.

A federal judge ordered that the State Department must review 14,900 documents discovered by the FBI as investigators probed Clinton’s use of a private email server during her four years at the agency, and he set a hearing date for next month about the “production” of such emails.

That means Clinton could be a hit by a wave of fresh emails – possibly including deleted emails the FBI recovered – right before the election.

That guarantees at least three months of spin, as journalists tell us what this means – the smoking gun that sends her to jail or a bunch of nothing, with most of the emails about where to have lunch and such things. This Politico item, however, hints at a smoking gun:

Adding to her woes, Judicial Watch – the same conservative group who is behind that litigation – on Monday released 725 emails from Clinton’s top aide Huma Abedin, some of which showed the influence peddling that flowed between the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton’s State Department.

Does that mean that this aide’s boss goes to jail? Probably not. Nothing hinted at here is illegal. It’s just a reminder of how the world really works. Grow up. Or be outraged. Your choice.

Meanwhile, simultaneously, it was the usual Trump chaos:

The Donald Trump campaign has canceled a major speech on immigration that reportedly was slated for Thursday amidst renewed confusion on his stance on mass deportation.

A spokeswoman for the Trump operation in Colorado said the campaign had been looking into hosting such an event but the plans had changed, the Denver Post reported Monday. The campaign will not be hosting such an event when Trump swings through the state for a fundraiser, but supporters were told in an email “the speech (Trump) was planning on giving is still being modified,” according to the Post.

No one knows what he’s going to say about immigration, because now he doesn’t even know what he’s going to say:

It was reported by Buzzfeed and Univision over the weekend that Hispanic leaders in a closed door meeting with Trump Saturday were told the GOP nominee was going to flesh out his proposal for dealing with the 11 million immigrants in the United States illegally and present it while in Colorado Thursday. According to those in the meeting, Trump appeared to be softening his stance on mass deportation and was open to a plan to legalize millions of undocumented immigrants.

Throughout the GOP primary, Trump took a hard line on mass deportation, saying that the immigrants would be deported “humanely” but that they “have to go.”

Trump is now denying that he is preparing to flip-flop on the issue, while his campaign manager Kellyanne Conway has said his position on deportation forces is “to be determined.”

His campaign manager says one thing, he says another. He often says one thing and then, later, says he didn’t say that at all – the corrupt and dishonest press reported it all wrong. This is just more of the same, with the Conway woman added to the mix.

What’s really going on? Who knows? Earlier in the month, the New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg argued that Trump is testing the norms of objectivity in journalism:

If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?

Because if you believe all of those things, you have to throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half-century, if not longer, and approach it in a way you’ve never approached anything in your career. If you view a Trump presidency as something that’s potentially dangerous, then your reporting is going to reflect that. You would move closer than you’ve ever been to being oppositional. That’s uncomfortable and uncharted territory for every mainstream, non-opinion journalist I’ve ever known, and by normal standards, untenable.

But the question that everyone is grappling with is: Do normal standards apply? And if they don’t, what should take their place?

That’s what troubles Rutenberg:

Covering Mr. Trump as an abnormal and potentially dangerous candidate is more than just a shock to the journalistic system. It threatens to throw the advantage to his news conference-averse opponent, Hillary Clinton, who should draw plenty more tough-minded coverage herself. She proved that again last week with her assertion on “Fox News Sunday” that James Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, had declared her to be truthful in her answers about her decision to use a private email server for official State Department business – a grossly misleading interpretation of an FBI report that pointed up various falsehoods in her public explanations.

And, most broadly, it upsets balance, that idealistic form of journalism with a capital “J” we’ve been trained to always strive for.

Forget that:

Balance has been on vacation since Mr. Trump stepped onto his golden Trump Tower escalator last year to announce his candidacy. For the primaries and caucuses, the imbalance played to his advantage, captured by the killer statistic of the season: His nearly $2 billion in free media was more than six times as much as that of his closest Republican rival.

Now that he is the Republican nominee for president, the imbalance is cutting against him. Journalists and commentators are analyzing his policy pronouncements and temperament with an eye toward what it would all look like in the Oval Office – something so many of them viewed as an impossibility for so long.

You can see it from the minute the television news day starts, on the set of “Morning Joe” on MSNBC. A few months ago media writers were describing a too-cozy relationship between Mr. Trump and the show’s hosts, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski.

Yet there was Mr. Scarborough on Wednesday asking the former Central Intelligence Agency director Michael V. Hayden whether there were safeguards in place to ensure that if Mr. Trump “gets angry, he can’t launch a nuclear weapon,” given the perception that he might not be “the most stable guy.”

Then Mr. Scarborough shared an alarming conversation he said he had with a “foreign policy expert” who had given Mr. Trump a national security briefing. “Three times he asked about the use of nuclear weapons,” Mr. Scarborough said, describing one of the questions as “If we have them, why can’t we use them?”

Speaking with me later, Mr. Scarborough, a Republican, said he had not contemplated sharing the anecdote with the audience until just before he did.

“When that discussion came up, I really didn’t have a choice,” Mr. Scarborough said. “That was something I thought Americans needed to know.”

Is that journalism? Scarborough thinks so:

Mr. Scarborough, a frequent critic of liberal media bias, said he was concerned that Mr. Trump was becoming increasingly erratic, and asked rhetorically, “How balanced do you have to be when one side is just irrational?”

It’s not that easy for others but they may have no choice:

It’s much dodgier for conventional news reporters to treat this year’s political debate as one between “normal” and “abnormal,” as the Vox editor in chief Ezra Klein put it recently.

In a sense, that’s just what reporters are doing. And it’s unavoidable. Because Mr. Trump is conducting his campaign in ways we’ve not normally seen.

No living journalist has ever seen a major party nominee put financial conditions on the United States defense of NATO allies, openly fight with the family of a fallen American soldier, or entice Russia to meddle in a United States presidential election by hacking his opponent (a joke, Mr. Trump later said, that the news media failed to get). And while coded appeals to racism or nationalism aren’t new – two words: Southern strategy – overt calls to temporarily bar Muslims from entry to the United States or questioning a federal judge’s impartiality based on his Mexican heritage are new.

“If you have a nominee who expresses warmth toward one of our most mischievous and menacing adversaries, a nominee who shatters all the norms about how our leaders treat families whose sons died for our country, a nominee proposing to rethink the alliances that have guided our foreign policy for 60 years, that demands coverage – copious coverage and aggressive coverage,” said Carolyn Ryan, The New York Times’s senior editor for politics. “It doesn’t mean that we won’t vigorously pursue reporting lines on Hillary Clinton – we are and we will.”

Ah, but these two do not produce news at the same rate:

“When controversy is being stoked, it’s our obligation to report that,” said the Washington Post managing editor Cameron Barr. “If one candidate is doing that more aggressively and consistently than the other, that is an imbalance for sure.” But, he added, “it’s not one that we create, it’s one that the candidate is creating.”

Fine, but this guy really might be batshit crazy:

The media reaction to it all has been striking, what The Columbia Journalism Review called “a Murrow moment.” It’s not unusual to see news stories describe him as “erratic” without attribution to an opponent. The “fact checks” of his falsehoods continue to pile up in staggering numbers, far outpacing those of Mrs. Clinton. And, on Sunday, the CNN “Reliable Sources” host Brian Stelter called upon journalists and opinion makers to challenge Mr. Trump’s “dangerous” claims that the electoral system is rigged against him. Failure to do so would be unpatriotic, Mr. Stelter said.

No, don’t say that:

While there are several examples of conservative media criticism of Mr. Trump this year, the candidate and his supporters are reprising longstanding accusations of liberal bias. “The media is trying to take Donald Trump out,” Rush Limbaugh declared last week.

A lot of core Trump supporters certainly view it that way. That will only serve to worsen their already dim view of the news media, which initially failed to recognize the power of their grievances, and therefore failed to recognize the seriousness of Mr. Trump’s candidacy.

This journalism stuff is hard, but the Washington Post’s resident conservative blogger, Jennifer Rubin, says it’s not that hard:

There has been, both on the right and left, massive confusion about the demands of “objectivity.” False balance cannot substitute for presentation of ascertainable fact. Ironically, conservatives used to be critics of post-modernism, arguing that there are knowable, objective facts. It seems to have escaped notice, however, that this standard is as applicable to politics as it is to other endeavors.

The first rule for coverage of the campaign must be to do no harm – not to add to confusion or misunderstanding, nor to encourage others to do so. Breitbart, which takes Trump’s spin and falsities as truth or actively creates jaw-dropping propaganda on behalf of Trump (e.g. using a photo of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ parade crowd in lieu of a real photo of a Trump rally), is not journalism at all. It’s an effort to mislead voters in service of a candidate. Likewise, Sean Hannity is not acting as a journalist, even a credible opinion maker, in interviews when he feeds Trump his own propaganda lines and then asks, “Isn’t that true?”

She wants conservatives to get back to the basics:

The conservative media was supposed to be a check on the excesses, biases and blind spots of the mainstream media. In some cases, however, the right-wing echo chamber has become far worse than the mainstream media it was intended to check. … The lessons of 2016 – respect for accuracy, refusal to cover up errors artificially to equalize mistakes, candor about the state of the race – should inform all media outlets. If not, they deserve ridicule and extinction.

And by the way, Trump is not winning, and cannot win without something impossible and catastrophic happening. Get real. Journalists should do their jobs.

Sure they should, but Matt Taibbi recently argued that’s just not happening:

We now have one set of news outlets that gives us the bad news about Democrats, and another set of news outlets bravely dedicated to reporting the whole truth about Republicans.

Like the old adage about quarterbacks – if you think you have two good ones, you probably have none – this basically means we have no credible news media left. Apart from a few brave islands of resistance, virtually all the major news organizations are now fully in the tank for one side or the other.

His thesis is that journalism is now dead:

In terms of political media, there’s basically nothing left on the air except Trump-bashing or Hillary-bashing.

Take last week’s news cycle:

Red-state media obsessed over a series of emails about the Clinton Foundation obtained by Judicial Watch (a charter member of the “vast right-wing conspiracy”) as part of a Freedom of Information lawsuit. The emails hinted that Foundation donors might have had special access to Hillary Clinton’s State Department.

Meanwhile, the cable-news channels consumed by Democrat-leaning audiences, MSNBC and CNN, spent most of last week hammering Donald Trump’s latest outrages, especially the “the Second Amendment people” comments seeming to incite violence against Hillary Clinton or her judicial appointments.

Practically every story on non-conservative cable last week was a Democratic Party news flash: Reagan’s daughter blasts Trump’s comments! More Republicans defect to support Hillary! GOP, expecting Trump loss, shifts funds to down-ballot races! Khizr Khan challenges McCain to Dump Trump! Trump’s worst offense was mocking disabled reporter, poll finds!

It’s not that stations were wrong to denounce Trump’s comments. He deserves it all. But he’s not the only stupid, lying, corrupt politician in the world, which is the impression one could easily get watching certain stations these days.

Forget journalism:

The commercial media has devolved, finally, into two remarkably humorless messaging platforms.

And blame The Donald:

Trump really sent this problem into overdrive. He is considered so dangerous that many journalists are beginning to be concerned that admitting the truth of negative reports of any kind about the Democrats might make them complicit in the election of the American Hitler.

There’s some logic in that, but it is flawed logic. When journalists start acting like politicians we pretty much always end up botching things even more politically and crippling our businesses to boot.

Journalists need to back off:

Our job is to grope around promiscuously for stories on all sides, like dogs sniffing fire hydrants. Trying to fill any other role leads to trouble… Just look at the history of Fox and its satellite organizations.

Yes, the Murdoch Empire has succeeded in accruing enormous power across the globe. In the United States, its impact on political affairs has been incalculable. It’s led us into war, paralyzed Democratic presidencies, helped launch movements like the Tea Party and effectively spread so much disinformation that huge majorities of Republicans still doubt things like the birthplace of Barack Obama.

But Fox’s coverage has been so overwhelmingly one-sided that it has lost forever the ability to convince non-conservatives of anything. Rupert Murdoch has turned into the Slime Who Cried Wolf. Even when Murdoch gets hold of a real story, he usually can’t reach more than an inch outside his own dumbed-down audience.

Worse still, when you shill as constantly as his outlets have, even your most enthusiastic audience members very quickly learn to see through you.

This is a problem because if there ever comes a time when you want to convince your own audience of hard truths, you’ll suddenly find them not nearly as trusting and loyal as you’d thought. Deep down, they’ll have known all along you were full of it.

And that’s what happened:

The world may never have heard a yawn louder than the one evinced by flyover audiences in January, when the National Review gathered 20 prominent conservatives, headlined by Glenn Beck, to demand that Republican voters draw a line in the sand against Trump. It was an unprecedented show of media unity and determination.

Trump casually walked over the red-pundit-Maginot-line and raced straight to the nomination from there.

This was a powerful lesson. Media power comes from trust and respect, and both are eroded quickly if you only ever give people what they want to hear.

That’s a dead end:

The model going forward will likely involve Republican media covering Democratic corruption and Democratic media covering Republican corruption. This setup just doesn’t work. For one thing, if most of your staff is busy all day working up negative stories about Republicans that dramatically lowers the likelihood that they’ll develop sources with info about Democratic corruption.

Moreover, even if you do make an effort to look at both sides, stories usually must be picked up by outlets across the spectrum to have an impact. That happens less and less in the partisan age.

Last year, the New York Times dipped a toe into the “Clinton Cash” material and did its potentially damaging “Uranium One” story about a series of suspicious donations to the Clinton Foundation. The story was soundly reported and forced the Clinton campaign to admit to “mistakes” in its disclosures.

But the response of other non-conservative outlets was mostly silence and/or damage control. That left it to mostly circulate in the Washington Times and Breitbart and the Daily Caller, rendering it automatically illegitimate with most blue-state audiences.

There’s no winning this:

The public hates us reporters in the best of times, when we’re doing our jobs correctly, merely being conniving, prying little busybodies forever getting up into peoples’ business.

But the summer of Trump could easily turn into an Alamo moment for the press. There are reporters who are quietly promising themselves they’ll go back to being independent and above the fray in November, after we’re past the threat of a Trump presidency.

But just ask the National Review: Once you jump in the politicians’ side of the pool, it’s not so easy to get out again. And what will they think of us then? Is there a word for “lower than scum?”

Needless to say, Taibbi shook things up with this article, so Slate’s Isaac Chotiner interviewed him and teased out a few more observations:

Trump, just as entertainment, as a ratings magnet, as a way to make money, is pure gold for television networks and for news organizations, and everybody in this business who covers the campaign trail knows that this is really an entertainment show that we’re doing over the course of 18 months or two years and we need great characters to make it work and sell ads and do all of those things. And Trump, as Les Moonves confessed, may not be great for America, but he’s great for CBS.

They covered him in the first stage of the campaign as this crazy curiosity, and I think part of the reason that it wasn’t always as negative as it is now was because he was a little bit farther away from actually winning, and there was a significant portion of the journalistic community that thought he had no chance at the nomination. I wasn’t one of those people; I thought he was going to win very early. Now that he is the nominee, I think there’s been this kind of “Oh shit, we screwed up and got this guy nominated, and now we’ve got to act like real journalists again and stop him,” and I think that’s why they’ve been sharply negative. The thing is, it doesn’t matter whether you’re going negative against him or just covering him as a circus act, he still fulfills the same role commercially, and he’s still great for ratings.

Yes, journalism is dead, and there’s this about Trump:

It’s hard to cover him in terms of policy because I think one of the first observations that anybody would make about Trump is that it’s pretty clear that, even in his own mind, not a whole lot is settled. I think his personality is so mercurial and he has got so many obvious and bizarre pathologies that you’d only be guessing in the best-case scenario… Normally, back in the day, if you had a candidate who said so many things and then changed his mind so often and the press uniformly said, “Look, this is bad, this person is telling untruths, and has been caught making these statements over and over again,” that would have been a death knell for any serious presidential candidate. Why isn’t it this time?

Why isn’t it? It’s a new world. It’s the world that comes after journalism. Now everyone can feel smug.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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