Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The trouble with Joe

Media critic Jay Rosen talks about why the Trump candidacy has been so confounding for journalists. They point out that he's lying, and it doesn't matter. Not only does he refuse to admit to his lies, he keeps doubling down on them, and his constant lying does nothing to reduce his popularity. In fact, it actually makes him more popular among Republicans. The reason Trump is able to do this goes back to a technique for manipulation that is known in sports as "working the refs".

Working the refs is when a team tries to intimidate the referees by constantly challenging their decisions, accusing them of making bad calls. The idea is that if you keep it up long enough, the referees will either A) start to question their own judgment, or B) decide to take the easy way out and just do what you want. Either way, the result is the same: the referees will start shading their calls to favor your team.

In a democracy, the media are our referees. Their job is to penalize politicians who break the rules. Conservatives are basically contemptuous of democracy, and constantly seek ways to subvert it, so in the early 1980s they started working the refs hard, initiating a campaign accusing newly-elevated CBS Evening News anchorman Dan Rather of "liberal bias". From there, the campaign expanded to include every media outlet. The finishing touch was the creation in 1996 of Fox News Channel, a conservative propaganda mill that insisted that it was unbiased, and that all of the real news organizations had a liberal bias.

And it worked like a charm. The establishment media became utterly terrified of conservative accusations of "liberal media bias", and they bent over backwards to avoid it. The way they did so was to basically stop being referees. Instead of telling the truth, the new goal of journalism was to maintain the appearance of objectivity by refusing to point out when one side in a controversy (invariably the conservative side) was lying. The result was the spread of the "he said-she said" style of political reporting, which David Roberts aptly summarized this way: "Quote this one, quote that one, opinions differ, done."

Roberts notes that conservatives gave journalists an alibi for abandoning the referee role by creating an entire alternate universe of think tanks and media outlets that journalists could quote for their he said-she said stories. This gave journalists an excuse to stop passing judgment on dishonest policy claims, and focus on trivialities like "Al Gore said he invented the internet" or the minutia of John Kerry's Vietnam War record, or Hillary Clinton's remark that she once landed in Bosnia "under fire."

What Trump has done is refuse to provide journalists with any pretext for ignoring his lies. He doesn't rely on any studies, even bogus right-wing think tank studies, to back up his claims. He simply makes them, and dares journalists to call him on them. Then journalists do, and discover that nobody cares. And the reason nobody cares is that journalists have made it their business to ignore important lies; therefore, any lie they take notice of must ipso facto be unimportant.

Rosen, meanwhile, has proposed a way for journalists to start to reclaim their referee roles. They can begin, he says, by distinguishing between realities and appearances, and between facts and arguments. Rosen created the grid at the top of this post showing how news stories can be placed into one of four categories: reality-based factual stories, reality-based argument stories, appearance-based factual stories, and appearance-based argument stories.

However, there is a flaw in Rosen's proposal which he doesn't allow for, and doesn't even seem to be aware of. The flaw is that Rosen's proposal assumes that journalists are actually capable of distinguishing between facts and arguments, and between appearance and reality. But why should they be?

If this was a new situation, it would be a simple matter for journalists who were familiar with those distinctions to resume making them. But, as I've noted, this is not a new situation. This situation has been going on for over thirty years. I would argue that in that time, a whole generation of journalists has grown up for whom the ability to distinguish between appearance and reality is not only irrelevant, but actually counterproductive. After all, a journalist who doesn't know he's doing anything wrong has an advantage over one who does know, and has to fight the desire act on his knowledge.

The canonical example of this has to be Joe Klein of Time magazine. Back in November 2007, Klein wrote a column called "The Tone-Deaf Democrats" in which he claimed that a Democratic bill to reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act “would give terrorists the same legal protections as Americans.” It turned out that Klein had been played by GOP Representative Pete Hoekstra. Hoekstra had fed Klein a line of bullshit about the bill, and Klein gullibly took his word for it without bothering to ask any of the bill's Democratic authors if it was true. When Klein's stupidity was exposed, he notoriously insisted that "I have neither the time nor legal background to figure out who's right."

Mr. Rosen, I hope I'm wrong about this, but I think it's too late for American political journalists to start acting like political journalists again. They don't know how.

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