‘If it’s all my fault, then the media doesn’t need to do any soul searching.’
I wish I could talk with Hillary Clinton in front of a journalism class, for she is a witness to — and victim of — journalism’s failures. Journalism as an institution largely refuses to examine its derelictions — which itself is a failing of the field. In What Happened, Clinton tries to teach us lessons. What did we do wrong? Let her count the ways.
First, What Happened reveals a Hillary Clinton the press did not show us: decent, human, caring, smart, thoughtful, studied, funny. You know the narrative: Clinton is unlikeable, cold, and somehow — even if we have no evidence of this, only endless innuendo — corrupt. Journalism was wildly inaccurate about her.
Second, journalism was wrong about Clinton’s followers. She had no fans, said the press, only reluctant, dragged-along voters who didn’t like her because — remember? — she’s unlikeable; one self-fulfilling press narrative had to follow the other. I wrote about this during the campaign, how I — as an enthusiastic Clinton fan, volunteer, and contributor: a believer— never saw myself represented in media. Journalism failed to find, listen to, and reflect people like me. That journalism ill-served me, a privileged, white man, is the least of its problems. Journalism fails to listen to and reflect so many communities in society. This election is the evidence.
Third, journalism failed to fulfill its most important, most basic job: informing the electorate. This election is evidence of that, too. Voters didn’t know nearly enough about Trump, only his made-for-TV face. If they had, they would not be surprised at what they elected. Voters didn’t know about the issues — health care, the economy, the environment — or else they likely wouldn’t have voted against their interests. The most basic value journalism must provide is to leave the public more informed. No sane observer can say we did that.
Fourth, instead of convening and informing a civilized public conversation — the necessary precondition to a deliberative democracy — journalism appealed to base emotions and stirred up conflict. I’ll blame the business model. Until we fix that, we’re screwed.
Fifth, journalism sought scandal and made it up when it didn’t exist. Fucking emails. I will remain profoundly disappointed in the journalistic judgment of The New York Times because of emails (and, of course, WMDs). There simply was not a scandal there; the Times ginned it up. Or as Clinton says, the Inspector General found the scandal to be “baloney.” On the criminal referral story, she notes The Times had to publish two retractions. The Times “spent nearly two years beating me up about emails” and “the press acted like it was the only story that mattered.” Chris Cillizza, she says, wrote more than 50 stories in The Washington Post about the damned email. Matt Lauer shamed himself and the field in his shipboard town hall with Clinton over the damned email. Gallup’s word cloud of “everything Americans read, saw, or heard” or Clinton in the campaign “was dominated by a single giant word: email.” The Times is to blame. Over the years, Clinton laments, “it’s seemed as if many of those in charge of political coverage at the New York Times have viewed me with hostility and skepticism.” The Times has much unfinished soul-searching to do.
Sixth, journalism continued to feed on gaffes. Good God, the only language Donald Trump knows how to speak is gaffe. Yet it was Clinton’s supposed coal miner gaffe that the press latched onto like leeches on warm flesh. Truth was, there was no gaffe. Clinton said, “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” By “we” — and everything she said before and after that line — she clearly meant the nation, the economy, reality, not herself. She was concerned for the miners’ future and proposing policies to help them. But the right grabbed that line out of context, made it looked like a bone, and the press fetched it for them. Which leads us to....
Seventh, journalism is a chump. It did the bidding of the right, the alt-right, Julian Assange, and Vladimir Putin, allowing them to set the agenda of coverage. We have not yet learned that even when we fact-check and debunk a fake-news meme — Hillary is sick, Hillary runs child sex-slave rings, Hillary has it out for coal miners — we repeat the lie and bring into the public conversation. Says Clinton: “I watched how lies insinuate themselves into people’s brains if hammered often enough. Fact-checking is powerless to stop it.” We must learn how to track back the source of this shit before we spread it so we can make a responsible decision about whether to repeat it. Or as Clinton writes: “The mainstream media also has a responsibility to do more to debunk the lies infecting our public life and more directly hold the liars accountable.” (My emphasis.)
Eighth, the news lacked news judgment. Trump bragged about sexual assault and the press did indeed go nuts over that until the press lost interest because WikiLeaks or the alt-right or Putin’s boys unleashed their email leaks, their squirrels. Which story was more important? From the press’ coverage, you’d damned near think risotto was. Clinton writes:
Comparing the effects of WikiLeaks and Access Hollywood may prove the old Washington cliché about how the ‘drip, drip’ of scandal can be even more damaging over time than a single really bad story. Trump’s tape was like a bomb going off, and the damage was immediate and severe. But no other tapes emerged, so there was nowhere else for the story to go. Eventually the press and the public moved on. It’s amazing how quickly the media metabolism works these days. By contrast, the WikiLeaks email dumps kept coming and coming. It was like Chinese water torture.... We sometimes joked that if we wanted the press to pay attention to our jobs plan, which I talked about endlessly to little avail, we should leak a private email about it.
The intended irony, of course, is that the Russian-enabled leakers and memers and their accomplices not only drew attention away from Clinton and her policies but from the biggest story of this campaign: that very Russian manipulation of the election and likely of a candidate and now an administration. The real story was not the emails but the emails as media manipulation. Talk about awful news judgment! That was the result of skewed priorities.
Journalism, you see, thinks its job is first to tell you what is happening (BREAKING NEWS!); second to find out secrets — and, of course, investigative reporting is critical but not every SCOOP! (of risotto) is useful, necessary, or valuable; and third to be the savvy insider who can predict what will happen (we did a fine job of that, eh?). I will argue that journalism must operate according to a far higher priority: assuring that the public can enter into civil and productive deliberation because it is equipped with the information it needs to do that. By that priority, another day’s drip from Putin’s and Assange’s sewer pipe should not have overtaken journalism’s prime job: to make sure the public knew about each candidate’s policies (or that one candidate had none), qualifications (or that one candidate had none), and character (or that one candidate had none). Journalism should judge its value not by pageviews, eyeballs, or attention — that is how we got in this mess. Journalism should judge its success on the quality of civic discourse. The evidence of this election: We failed.
Ninth, journalism failed — and still fails — to fully recognize and report on the racial and sexual politics at the heart of Trump’s victory and his so-called administration. The topic is too big to cover in a paragraph. Go read Ta-Nahisi Coates on the former, Hadley Freeman on the latter. Note well that journalism should not just inform public conversation but also convene it. Journalism should listen to communities in conflict and bring them together in civil dialogue. That is why we started a program in Social Journalism at CUNY: to learn those skills, to take advantage of the new opportunities the net provides to do this. If this election teaches us nothing else, it should teach us that we still could not understand and cover the racism and misogyny running and ruining our nation. We are even irony-blind about the reaction to Clinton’s book, with media people telling Clinton — but no man — to shut up and go away. I am grateful she ignores the advice.
Tenth, false balance. Do we really need to go over this lesson again, class? By making left and right equivalent, emails became equal to pussy grabbing and racism and ignorance and idioocy because, in the end, emails were all they could find on her. Or as Jonathan Chait has said — and Clinton quotes him — the normalization of Trump required the abnormalization of Clinton. Because balance.
Last I knew, Chalkbeat — which covers schools in New York and other cities — used to take its stories to its subjects after publication to ask, “How did we do?” Journalists should have the guts to ask Hillary Clinton that and learn from the answer. That’s why I want her to teach a class with me.