This election, I’ve been trying an experiment, judging journalism from a different perspective, from the outside, as a member of a community and a partisan. I don’t like what I’m learning about my profession.
We journalists tend to separate ourselves from the public we serve. We call ourselves objective, to distinguish us from the opinionated masses and to enable us to rise above their fray. We fancy ourselves observers, not actors, in the dramas we chronicle. I’ve argued that we must end that separation and learn to empathize with the needs and goals of the communities we serve, even considering ourselves members of those communities. Thus, social journalism. But in this argument, the journalist is still the journalist.
Then I found myself in a position to look at the field not as a journalist but as an involved participant in a community. That community: Hillary Clinton supporters.
I haven’t been a reporter or editor in years. I have been a loudly opinionated blogger since 2001, transparent about my political views and votes. I made it clear eight years ago that I voted for Clinton and then for Barack Obama. So there’s no surprise in telling you that I would vote for Clinton now. But this time, I decided to become politically involved. I bought my Hillary hat, went to a few campaign events, contributed to the campaign, made my support abundantly clear on social media, and a week ago volunteered at the Clinton office in West Philly, registering voters, driving others doing the same, and briefly canvassing a neighborhood so I could talk with voters. These are things journalists have never been allowed to do. Some people tell me every day on Twitter that I should not be allowed to do these things now. I disagree.
I have my reasons:
First, #ImWithHer. Full stop. I want to be clear that I am enthusiastic about Clinton’s candidacy. I am not voting for her as the lesser of evils. I am not just voting against Donald Trump. I am not voting for her in spite of all the reasons media give not to do so. I am voting for Hillary Clinton because I respect and trust her intelligence, experience, policies, and good will. I tweeted 25 reasons (and counting) #WhyImWithHer.
Second, I am voting against Trump and actively opposing him because I see a moral imperative to do so. As Jay Rosen said in my dotNYC podcast, Trump’s candidacy approaches a civic emergency. As Univision’s Jorge Ramos said in Time: “It doesn’t matter who you are — a journalist, a politician or a voter — we’ll all be judged by how we responded to Donald Trump…. And neutrality is not an option.” This is my generation’s “What did you do in the war, Daddy?” Still, I’m not hiding behind any Trump exception to the journalistic canon, arguing that this year is special. If Clinton were running against a reasonable, human, patriotic, unbigoted, smart, articulate, decent, mature, experienced opponent, I’d still be her passionate, open supporter.
My third reason — a fringe benefit of sorts — is that I’ve wanted a better understanding of journalism from the public’s perspective and I finally saw I could not do that unless the coverage mattered to me, unless I took it personally. I also realized that this meant I could no longer claim to be standing removed, as the disinterested critic. Some years ago, when I spoke on a panel at the Online News Association, an editor came to the mic complaining about my use of the term “citizen journalism.” She cried (choking back real tears): “I’m a citizen, too.” Then act like a citizen, I said; be a part of your community. Many years later, I decided to take my advice.
As I consume the news in my role as a citizen, not media critic or journalist, I find myself constantly aggravated — not just by Fox News but also by CNN and the Associated Press, often by MSNBC and NPR, and occasionally by The New York Times and The Washington Post. My lessons so far from this:
Journalism is a lousy mirror.
I don’t see myself in any of the coverage of the campaign. All I ever hear from media is that nobody likes or trusts the one candidate who has an 89 percent chance of winning the presidency. In media, I never hear from voters like me who are enthusiastic supporters. I never see reporters wading among eager backers at Clinton rallies to ask them how much they like her and why. I don’t even hear her surrogates (what a ridiculous beltway/TV invention that is, by the way) asked about their support of Clinton, only their defense of her. In media, I never hear echoes of the voices I heard last week when I met people on the porches of West Philly, who told me their families were all in to vote for Hillary. (Only when I continued the conversation did they also agree we must defeat Trump. Like me, they are voting for, not against. )
I’ve been able to use Twitter to call journalists on this failing. When The Post’s Post’s Chris Cillizza labeled Clinton a “deeply flawed” candidate on CNN once too often, I tweeted a challenge and, to his credit, Cillizza answered. He said polls show that two-thirds of Americans don’t trust her. But compared to whom? Four-fifths of Americans don’t trust journalists. When media keep hammering again and again how untrusted Clinton is, couldn’t that become a self-fulfilling prophecy?
This is why the great James Carey despised the reductionist impact of public opinion polls on democracy and the press:
[P]ublic opinion no longer refers to opinions being expressed in public and then recorded in the press. Public opinion is formed by the press and modeled by the public opinion industry and the apparatus of polling. Today, to get ahead of the story, polling (the word, interestingly enough, from the old synonym for voting) is an attempt to simulate public opinion in order to prevent an authentic public opinion from forming. With the rise of the polling industry our entire understanding of the public went into eclipse.
This is also why I am fascinated by the death of the mass-media business model, the consequent death of the idea of the mass, and the impact this has on institutions — the press, government, politics, advertising, brands, schools— which depend on speaking to and swaying the mass. The mass is dead. Long live communities.
My community of Hillary Clinton supporters is unheard and unseen. But that’s by no means the best example of journalism’s faulty mirror. Because of this election, we now know that the media has done a terrible job of reflecting the concerns and goals of underemployed, angry white men in the heartland. If media had done a better job of reporting — and then informing — their worldviews, would there have been an opening for them to be recruited by Trump and the forces of the so-called alt right?
Far more important than either of those examples, of course, is the experience of minorities in this country: African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, too often women, and too many others who are unseen in media. A few weeks ago, I spoke with a journalist planning to write about how the internet is destroying the truth. The unsaid assumption in his thesis is that we used to have the truth, when the truth came from media. But whose truth was that? The truth presented by mass media was but one view of the world and did not reflect so many diverse worldviews because the people making it were — and still are — not diverse. That is one reason why so many do not trust journalists. (Note that people trust presidents more.)
In this election, I am not a mass. I am not a poll number. I am not a color on a map. Neither am I a journalist. I am a member of a community I cannot see and hear in media. I am frustrated.
The news chases squirrels, calls them rabid, and shoots them.
Every damned day, news organizations scan the horizon for any distraction they could call a scandal — squirrel! — and, finding none, they just dredge up yesterday’s road kill and repeat it all again, over and over, asking the same questions that are so obvious as to be rhetorical but that nonetheless fill hours of airtime.
Is Hillary Clinton a bigot because Donald Trump says so? they ask. Did TV’s anchors even consider what an insult that is to the 91 percent of African American voters who support her vs. 1 percent for Trump? Can’t our commentators see Trump’s trick: that he projects onto Clinton every failing of his own? He is crooked, so he calls her crooked; he is unhinged, so he calls her unhinged; he is a bigot so he first calls her a bigot. But the press treats each new attack as news to be debated. Seriously?
I know I’ll get scorned for this, but I say Clinton’s email scandal isn’t a scandal. It was a mistake. Yes, I believe that she never knowingly sent classified information. Of course, she didn’t. In any case, where her email sat is less important than every issue facing the American electorate.
I’ll get trolled for this, too, but the Clinton Foundation story isn’t a scandal either. The Foundation does good work, and as James Carville says, someone will be going to hell for cutting off that good work. The Associated Press’ recent effort to find its scrap of squirrel meat in this story was an appalling example of journalism corrupted by the hunt for traffic. It is fine and necessary to ask the questions the AP asked but then, finding no quid pro quo, no smoking gun, why still report the innuendo of the question? I am utterly unconvinced by AP executive editor Kathleen Carroll’s defense of it. Of course, Secretary Clinton met with Melinda Gates and Muhammad Yunus; people line up to meet both of them every year at Davos because they are important people who do important work and, like the Clintons, they both raise and donate funds and find partners to help meet their worthy goals. That’s how the world works. I’d have thought world-wise journalists would be wiser about that. Amazing how they can turn off their sophistication when convenient.
The problems with chasing these squirrels:
- Balance: These faux scandals become tokens in journalists’ well-documented insistence on finding balance. Let’s spend one block of our show talking about how Donald Trump demonizes Mexicans and Muslims and — because we need something to “balance” that — let’s spend the next block repeating the same, year-old allegations about Hillary’s damned emails. The hunt for balance is especially cynical this year, as any attempt to give balanced coverage to an unbalanced candidate can only mislead.
- Savvy: Journalists use these stories and their impact to try to feed their political savvy, as Jay Rosen has pointed out for years. They want to sound like — no, they want to be — insiders who can predict every political outcome. I’ve been particularly struck this season how both commentators and reporters talk about what a candidate “should” do to win. When was that the reporter’s job, to advise on political strategy for politicians? Do they want to declare themselves partisans? Then they need to declare sides.
- Distraction: The real problem, of course, is that these squirrels keep journalism from doing its real job, which is to say….
Journalism does not inform.
If journalism as a whole had done its job informing the electorate in the U.K., I believe there would not have been Brexit. If journalism had informed and educated the American electorate, I am confident there would have been no room for Trump to spread his virus of ignorance, lies, and bigotry. It is patently clear that journalism is doing a terrible job informing the public. Judge the results.
This is what depresses me most and makes me realize more than ever that we must rethink and reinvent the very core of journalism, its relationship with the public, its forms, and its business models. For it’s the business model that makes Les Moonves at CBS and Jeff Zucker at CNN rub their greedy little hands in glee at the audience and revenue the Trump Circus brings them. It’s the business model that has newsrooms chasing rabid squirrels and outrageous Trumpisms to get more volume, less value. It’s the form of journalism — the scoop, the exclu, the provocative TV yelling match, the savvy political roundtable— that brings out our worst in political opportunism and sensationalism, leaving no room for substance. And because we in journalism separate ourselves from the public we serve — sitting above them, in judgment — we try to argue that it’s not our fault if they’re not informed. Because of that separation, we cannot credibly contend that we know what the public’s concerns are; we’re not good at listening. And because of that separation, we still expect people to come to us for the news, when we should be going to them wherever they are.
Imagine if even a fraction of the time we see wasted on cable news were devoted to educating the public about the issues and realities of immigration, refugees, criminal justice, the economy, infrastructure, education, health care costs, entitlement costs, security, the environment, taxes, jobs…. When was the last time you saw TV news do that? How much of any news organization’s work is devoted to doing this, to informing the electorate? Shouldn’t we ask before assigning every story and booking every TV discussion: How will this help the public better decide how to vote?
Journalism is failing the nation. This election is the proof.
Since I’ve declared myself a member of the community of Clinton supporters, I also have standing to criticize the campaign. If the campaign were run more as a grass-roots effort — à la Dean, Obama, Sanders — then it would be easier for the journalists to find and report on the enthusiasm I have seen myself. I can now speak from first-hand experience about how difficult it is to get involved in the campaign in person and online.
If the candidate did a better job addressing the damned email story from the start, maybe — maybe — we wouldn’t be bombarded with it every day.
If the foundation and family were more aggressive in sharing news of what the foundation does then it would be less of a target for squirrel hunters and more of a character statement in her favor.
If the candidate gave more interviews, there’d be less whining among the journalists about her not having a press conference (not that press conferences ever do a great job of informing; interviews are better because they allow for followup).
And — this is going to sound trivial but I mean it — if the campaign didn’t take a full month to ship the Clinton-Kaine bumperstickers, then we’d be seeing them on more cars and it would be more apparent to the journalists that there is a community of Clinton supporters out here.
As I was writing this, I spoke with one of my deans and he pointed out that all my complaints have been the fodder of academic critics of journalism for decades. They are outsiders. It has helped me to be the outsider so I could judge journalism as a user. That these problems continue and perhaps get worse as news companies get more desperate (“We need more traffic! Throw more squirrels on the fire! We need to save money! Fire more reporters!”) is only cause for deeper professional angst.
What could save journalism from uselessness and society from the consequent stupidity and ruin? We bloggers thought we would topple the gatekeepers. Blogs did allow more voices to be heard and social media did enable debate. Then again, blogs led in a straight line to Breitbart and Twitter to Trump and we know where those lines crossed. And as I noted in my Gawker death notice last week, the death of the mass-media business model might mean the death of blogs, too.
What stops me from quitting and sustaining myself on road kill or PR? My students. I tell them they must reinvent journalism. When I spoke with our incoming class last week, I came away inspired by their innovation (in a design exercise, none of them invented a magazine or a web-site filled with long-form writing) and their aspirations (I will once again quote the definition of journalism from student Kate Ryan: “It is a means to inform the public and, in doing so, cultivate an educated, empathetic, and engaged society”).
Does our political journalism inform and cultivate an educated, empathetic, engaged society? It fails on all counts, wouldn’t you agree? Could it ever do all that? Ever the optimist, I will say yes. It must. But we have to throw out our well-worn reflexes and assumptions and start over. Do we need to destroy the news to save it? People think that’s what I’ve been saying for years, but I wasn’t. Until now.
We must create a journalism that mirrors the many and diverse communities and concerns in societies and convenes these communities in dialog so they can foster empathy and understanding. We must create a journalism that educates the public about the issues that matter to each other (so we must start by asking them what matters, not assuming we know). We must create a journalism that does not reduce people to numbers and colors but instead invites them into a substantive, intelligent, fruitful, and civil discussion as individuals and members of communities, not a mass. We have so many new tools to do all that. That’s what I tell my students; they are our last, best hope.
In the meantime, be forewarned: I’ll keep tweeting my support for Clinton and my disgust at Trump. I’ll put my new bumper sticker on the car and wear my Hillary hat. But I won’t go this far: