Friday, September 9, 2016

And Now For Something Completely Different

In the following, I fisk an essay by Jay Rosen about why Trump needs to be covered differently than 'other candidates'. Rosen's words are in italic, mine in bold. My 'regular' essays on the need for secession will resume, assuming this blog doesn't get banned.
Journalists commonly divide information from persuasion, as when they separate the “news” from the “opinion” section, or “reporters” from “columnists.” This is fine as far as it goes (and they get criticized harshly when they don’t honor this norm), but the distinction won’t help much in understanding why the 2016 campaign has been such an intellectual challenge for the media.


Note how the idea that the media is badly mistaken and dishonest about its actions is never raised. But if they did do this, it would indeed be fine.


Everything that happens in election coverage is premised on a kind of opinion: that our votes should be based on reliable information about what the candidates intend to do if elected. Remove that assumption and the edifice crashes. But this is exactly what the candidacy of Donald Trump does. It upends the assumptions required for the traditional forms of campaign journalism even to make sense.


Horseshit. THERE IS NO RELIABLE INFORMATION POSSIBLE ON WHAT CANDIDATES WILL DO IF ELECTED. Frequently, they don’t know themselves, because events take them by surprise. But even more importantly, candidates are human beings, “who, being a man, may err and, which is more, may lie.” (Hobbes, Leviathan, Chapter XXXII).

What a candidate will do in office is opinion. Jay Rosen, author of this piece, confuses reporter’s opinions with facts. I don’t know if he’s dishonest here, or just wrong. But since it can’t be done, that means his idea of how election coverage normally proceeds is fantasy.


Take one of Trump’s most famous claims: that he will build a wall on the border with Mexico and get Mexico to pay for it. Is that a serious proposal? Should journalists review it as one? If they do examine it as a policy idea, are they helping us achieve greater clarity about the Trump candidacy (by taking a hard look at what he would do if elected), or are they distorting the Trump phenomenon by treating a parody of policy discussion, a kind of goof on the political class, as a genuine proposal?


Will Trump actually attempt to do that? Beats me. If he tries, will he succeed? Don’t know. But Rosen assumes he does know that it can’t be done, and is not a serious proposal.  That is his opinion, and not fact.


“Mexico will pay for the wall” chips away at one of the foundations of campaign coverage: that running for president is serious business. If you take it seriously, you become the joke. If you don’t, then you let him get away with an absurdity. The fact that there’s no right answer should tell us something. Trump is crashing the system — violating norms and assumptions that were previously taken for granted because so far, everyone who had reached the point of consideration had obeyed them.


That bit about “norms” is a dead giveaway. A ‘norm’ is a moral rule, a prescription for conduct. But crime reporters cover those who break moral rules all the time, and without endorsing the deviant behavior. Rosen is pissed because Trump isn’t influenced by the media.


One of the newer parts of that system is fact-checking, but this is also a practice with a premise. The premise is that fact-checking will have some shaming effect on the kind of behavior it calls out. Notice I said “some.” While all candidates (including Hillary Clinton) will avoid inconvenient facts, make dubious claims or even lie at times if they think they can get away with it, they normally change behavior when a statement has been widely debunked. They may not admit they were wrong, but they will stop repeating the unsupportable claim, or alter it to make it more plausible. That’s what a “check” is supposed to be: it constrains a candidates’s power to distort the public dialogue.


By now it’s moving into the open. ‘Trump refuses to obey us.’


Trump shatters this premise. As put it: “He stands out not only for the sheer number of his factually false claims, but also for his brazen refusals to admit error when proven wrong.” Said Glenn Kessler, The Post’s Fact Checker columnist: “What’s unusual about Trump is he’s a leading candidate and he seems to have no interest in getting important things factually correct.”


If you were a man from Mars reading this, you’d never guess that “fact checking” has led to great controversy, with the “fact checkers” frequently called wrong. This is definite dishonesty. Rosen certainly knows about this, and ignores it.


Under conditions like these, fact-checking may still be worthwhile, but not because it has any shaming effect on the candidate. In fact, it could even be useful to Trump in whipping up resentment against the media, a key part of his appeal. My point is this: When the assumptions underneath a practice collapse, the ethics of that practice may shift as well.


So, if they can’t prevent Trump from saying things they don’t like, they’ll drop the pretense of honesty.


Traditionally, journalists have called out untruths. Here they may have to explain how untruths are foundational to a candidacy. Traditionally, journalists have thought it “ethical” not to worry about the consequences of election coverage: as long as it was truthful, accurate and newsworthy, all was well. Here they may have to worry that their checking actions have no effect, and regroup around that discovery.


You may recall from a few paragraphs ago that ‘fact checking’ is “One of the newer parts of that system”. Now it appears to be something traditional. I have a feeling that Rosen isn’t aware of his own contradiction here.

Then he goes on to say that “traditionally”, journalists only concentrated on whether their coverage was “truthful, accurate, and newsworthy.” If it was, “all was well.” Being truthful, accurate, and newsworthy has no necessary correlation with influencing a candidate’s behavior. He’s trying to put across the idea that “truthful, accurate” reportage automatically controlled candidates. A dubious claim.

But what’s really interesting, and revealing is the sneer quotes around “ethical.” He’s telling us that journalistic ethics has always been a sham. Major blunder there, Rosen.


One of the assumptions of campaign coverage was that candidates would never use their huge platforms to spread malicious rumors and unreliable information for which they have no proof: Too risky, too ugly. Trump has crashed that premise too. When called out on his rumormongering, he just says: Hey, it’s out there already. For journalists, this changes the practice of giving the candidate a broadcast platform. Just by granting that platform you may be participating in a misinformation campaign. Are you sure you know what you’re doing?


We’re now into the realm of fantasy again. Think of LBJ’s notorious “daisy ad”. Think of what most reporters claim Joe McCarthy did. Rosen is just lying here.


Imagine a candidate who wants to increase public confusion about where he stands on things so that voters give up on trying to stay informed and instead vote with raw emotion. Under those conditions, does asking “Where do you stand, sir?” serve the goals of journalism, or does it enlist the interviewer in the candidate’s chaotic plan?


Have voters every made their choices on anything but “raw emotion.” Many psychologists would deny that idea. And as noted before, journalists can’t tell the public what the candidate will do in office. All attempts to do that are opinion masquerading as fact.

Asking the candidate “ ‘Where do you stand, sir?’ ” is enough if you’re a “reporter,” giving the readers facts. It’s not enough if you’re an advocate trying to influence the election.


I know what you’re thinking, journalists: “What do you want us to do? Stop covering a major party candidate for president? That would be irresponsible.” True. But this reaction short-circuits intelligent debate. Beneath every common practice in election coverage there are premises about how candidates will behave. I want you to ask: Do these still apply? Trump isn’t behaving like a normal candidate; he’s acting like an unbound one. In response, journalists have to become less predictable themselves. They have to come up with novel responses. They have to do things they have never done. They may even have to shock us.


They may need to collaborate across news brands in ways they have never known. They may have to call Trump out with a forcefulness unseen before. They may have to risk the breakdown of decorum in interviews and endure excruciating awkwardness. Hardest of all, they will have to explain to the public that Trump is a special case, and the normal rules do not apply.

And there it is. Journalists may have to get blatantly open about stopping Trump.

The most important thing here is that Rosen is probably mostly ‘honest’ in this piece. He probably doesn’t realize how many dubious assumptions and outright impossibilities he’s advocating as fact here. But increasingly, the public does.