To fight back, work together

Dan Gillmor
Aug 13, 2018 · 9 min read
Photo by Philip Strong on Unsplash

When the most powerful person in the world declares war on journalism, you can respond in one of two ways. The first adds up to surrender. I’m sorry to say that some of you appear to have done so, by normalizing what is grossly abnormal and letting your enemies take advantage of the craft of journalism’s inherent weaknesses.

The other is to find allies, inside and outside the business, and go on the offensive — together.

The glimmerings of that second option may be appearing. Dozens of newspaper editorial boards (update: more than 300 as of Wednesday) plan to use their platforms this week to call out Donald Trump’s escalating war on a free press — to “educate readers to realize that an attack on the First Amendment is unacceptable,” Marjorie Pritchard, a deputy managing editor of The Boston Globe, told the Associated Press late last week.

This is a welcome development. It’s also not nearly enough.

So here’s a plea to my friends who work in journalism’s non-commentary operations: If you don’t follow up on this collective complaining with real muscle, your organizations will have demonstrated the kind of weakness that Trump and his supporters are convinced — maybe correctly — rests at the core of the craft.

You — and probably free speech — can’t play constant defense. You can’t win if you rise to Trump’s bait and start calling him an enemy. And as my friend Jay Rosen said the other day, you need to go way, way beyond Washington Post Editor Marty Baron’s famous but too-facile admonition: “We’re not at war. We’re at work.”

The Post is doing mostly excellent work. It’s not enough.

Instead, I’m begging journalists to declare a sweeping mission. You need to fight, not against Trump, but for a free press and freedom of expression, in every possible way. Most of all, you have to do more journalism, with renewed passion, skill, relentlessness, and — this is essential — collective action.

That means breaking with customs, and some traditions — changing the journalism, and some of the ways you practice it, to cope with the onslaught of willful misinformation aimed at undermining public belief in basic reality. You can start by looking at the public’s information needs from the public’s point of view, not just your own.

The collaboration needs to be broad, and deep, across organizations and platforms. It can be immediate — such as an agreement among White House reporters to resist the marginalizing, or banning outright, of journalists who displease the president. If a legitimate reporter is banned from an event, or verbally dismissed in a briefing or press conference, other journalists should either boycott the event or, at the very least, ask and re-ask his or her question until it’s answered. In the briefing room, show some spine, and do it together.

Much more important — and something that should become a standard practice — is to collaborate on the fundamental journalism itself. One vital element of this should be providing the context that is so often missing. Today’s short-attention-span breaking news coverage amounts to mini-scoops followed by maxi-repetition and, typically, zero explanation of where the latest bit of news fits in the larger picture — the classic focus on trees while missing the forest. As Todd Gitlin put it recently, ignoring context is like “reporting a baseball game as if people in uniforms are running around a diamond and chasing a ball for no apparent reason at all.”

The kind of collaboration I want you to do isn’t entirely absent from journalism. It’s definitely not a new idea. In 1976, after the assassination of Phoenix investigative reporter Don Bolles, dozens of the nation’s top investigative journalists descended on Phoenix to continue his work. Earlier this year, after the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta, journalists launched “Forbidden Stories” to help send a don’t-go-there-again message to the malefactors.

Meanwhile, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists is doing astonishing work with a cadre of journalists and organizations around the planet on projects such as the Panama Papers. And in the U.S., ProPublica has partnered widely on focused investigations that have justly won major awards.

Again, terrific but not enough — not even close.

The collaborations we need from you even more in the Trump era should have several organizing principles. You should go deep and wide into topics that are just too big, or too diffuse, for even the best journalism organizations to tackle comprehensively on their own. The topics and issues should be of obvious interest to a large segment of the public — already the subject of some coverage, but mostly one-offs or sporadic bursts of attention that don’t convey their overall importance. You should hire specialists to help you do these collaborations — researchers, data scientists, forensic accountants, lawyers, and more — and invite your audiences to contribute their own knowledge. And there should be a collaborative plan to ensure that the results of these collaborations moves to the public agenda.

What kinds of topics? Here are a few, among many others I could suggest:

  • Broad shifts in longstanding policies, norms, and law. The Trump administration and Republican Congress are disrupting everything they touch. Every new day brings a slew of federal actions — maligned or wonderful, depending on one’s view of the president and his allies — that are transforming government and American life in massive ways. Give us the big picture and the specifics. Organize and display it in a way that the average person could get a much better understanding of how deeply and widely this disruption is happening. Go way beyond what the administration and the Republican Congress have done in environmental and health-care policies. This extends into every department, agency, advisory board, and more. The story is local, too, because federal actions have enormous consequences at home. Invite local news organizations into the collaboration to understand and explain the impact of all this to their own communities.
  • Climate change. There may be no bigger issue, period. By overwhelming scientific consensus, we are rapidly approaching a point of no return in our overall failure to slow the warming processes that are going to have catastrophic — a word that for once is not an exaggeration — consequences for humanity. This isn’t just a story that requires coverage of what’s happening. It requires explanations of what is coming; detailed information on what individuals can do in their own communities; probing coverage of how governments are, and are not, taking this seriously; and so much more. The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan has implored journalists to take this seriously. They should do so, and do it collectively; we can still save our children and grandchildren from disaster, but it’s a job for all of us. (Updated)
  • Government corruption. Leaving aside the combination of political and financial sleaze in TrumpWorld’s dealings with Russian interests, it’s plain from the Trump family’s past, and present, that there has never been a more corrupt head of government. Journalists did a half-baked job of laying it out during the campaign, though there were shining exceptions (e.g. the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold, who exposed a variety of misdeeds at the candidate’s allegedly charitable foundation). Now, the Trump family is monetizing the presidency in unprecedented ways, and the Washington press corps is still missing the forest for the occasional trees. Corruption is endemic in this administration. The twisted self-dealings of former EPA head Scott Pruitt were the proverbial tip of the iceberg that includes commerce secretary Wilbur Ross and many others. (Democrats are hardly immune from being corrupt, so don’t make this a totally partisan tale, but this particular administration is unprecedented in its activities.) Story after story about individual bad acts don’t begin to show the breadth and depth of the corruption, and it’s a virtual certainty that there is much, much more to find.
  • Voting rights. The Republican Party, with the help of the courts and massive spending by ideologues, is working relentlessly to lock in legislative majorities in both houses of Congress. The GOP has taken gerrymandering, a historically bipartisan tactic, to new extremes. Deploying an array of new laws, regulations, and propaganda, it’s relentlessly worked to deny the very right to vote to people who tend to support Democrats. Moreover, amid a torrent of evidence that voting systems and technology are grotesquely insecure and untrustworthy — and that foreign powers, including Russia, have penetrated some of these systems — the Republicans have blocked congressional moves to make voting secure and trustworthy. For reasons I can’t fathom, all these attacks on the most fundamental element of democracy have attracted only sporadic interest from major news organizations; the serious journalism has come from places like Talking Points Memo, the Nation, and Mother Jones, which have important but limited audiences. This is a local, state, and national issue that requires the broadest kind of collaboration.
  • Freedom of expression. I’ve argued in the past that journalists have to be outright activists on this topic, and the case for doing so is more obvious than ever. Don’t just leave it to the editorial writers. You have the proverbial horse in this race, so act like it. Freedom of speech and expression — including and maybe especially journalism — are under attack all around the world. They’re jeopardized by the power of giant technology companies that, sooner or later, are likely to come under governments’ thumbs — and which, in the meantime, have terms of service that supersede the First Amendment. The bad actors have poisoned the waters so thoroughly that some people whose communities depend on free speech are talking out loud about suppressing it. Journalists need to work together at every level, and especially in our communities to explain why freedom of expression is the cornerstone of freedom itself.

Yes, each of these broader topics has been covered. But there’s been little or no effort by journalism to put them front and center on the public agenda where they belong, and to put them in full context — showing the forest and the trees. The traditions of “competitive” journalism, combined with the shrinking resources news organizations are able to deploy, have turned so much of our news into a blizzard of quick hits and near-identical clickbait. (Slightly rewritten versions of other people’s stories is a bane of the new world of journalism. So is needless duplication of effort, such as having hundreds of reporters show up for made-for-TV events. News organizations should routinely collaborate on pool coverage — much more than they already do — to free up reporters to do real reporting.)

The kinds of collaborations I’m talking about would be difficult to set up and manage, to put it mildly. Certainly the international consortium proves it can be done brilliantly on certain kinds of stories. Can it be done right on the bigger and broader ones? Why not at least try?

This kind of effort would do best with some outside funding — for startup costs, management, researchers, accountants, lawyers, etc. — in addition to the journalism provided by the news organizations. Hello, foundations and philanthropists (Ford, MacArthur, Knight, Omidyar, et al): This is in your wheelhouse.

Who’d own the output? I’d argue for publishing as much as possible under a Creative Commons license — articles, data, transcripts, documents. Make the results of the journalism be available to everyone. These are issues of essential public interest.

Do this right, and you’ll achieve something we all need right now: an affirmation of why journalism still matters.

The editorial page editors in this week’s loose collaboration will do their best to make that case. I wish them well, and thank them. But the rest of us in the journalism ecosystem should use their commentaries as the launch pad for a bigger, broader, and game-changing campaign. We have a lot at stake: maybe the republic itself.

Resources: In addition to the links in this article, check out (among other things) the Mozilla Foundation’s Open News project and the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University.

This is the second of a series in how journalists (Part 1: “Stop Being Loudspeakers for Liars”) need to change their ways in response to unprecedented challenges in the age of Trump. I’ll be updating with more links and resources about collaborative journalism.

Dan Gillmor

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