In my post on media effects, I mentioned that Donald Trump himself had essentially become a media outlet as far as news information flows were concerned. He both creates and distributes content (specifically his rallies and Twitter feed), which has significant intermedia agenda setting effects on both traditional and non-traditional news sources. At the same time, there’s ample evidence that those same sources have significant agenda setting effects on Trump:
Everything suggests Trump tweets not some strategic 3-dimensional chess distraction plan. He just watches cable news all the time and reacts https://t.co/2IVXMlcbho
— Jonathan Ladd (@jonmladd) November 29, 2016
Several seemingly out-of-left-field tweets by Trump, both during and after the campaign, have later been connected to the times that cable news aired a story on that topic. He’s also apparently responded to a variety of online stories, such as Vanity Fair‘s thorough trashing of the steakhouse in Trump Tower. Of course, we also know that Breitbart and its coterie of white nationalist ducklings have his ear as well. All of these things contribute to setting Trump’s agenda, while he, in turn, contributes to setting the agenda of the mainstream press and political social media.
Since Trump tweets fairly often but almost never talks to the press (remember, he’s a media outlet, not a source), we have access to a pretty good representation of his agenda. Comparing the topics he tweets about with a timeline of cable news topics and the Twitter feeds of big online publications (including traditional outlets) would provide a good sense of where his moment-by-moment agenda — which will ultimately be filtered through to the traditional press — is coming from. This could also offer a pathway to resistance of a president that will be uniquely concerned with media and appearances. Taking a cue from his response to Vanity Fair, understanding where his agenda is built could allow for an organized campaign of, to be blunt, insults and disrespect centered around places he is most likely to see them. Trump is working with a margin of about 80,000 votes in three states, no established networks of political allegiance, and a hair-trigger temper; sowing dissension along the edges of his coalition by provoking a negative agenda could be a successful form of asymmetrical guerrilla politics.
Filed: Super Special Questions || 14:24, December 29 || No Comments »
As different as the 2016 election cycle was from the norm, in many ways the actions and attitudes of the national political press were entirely as usual. This was especially true when it came to how reporters saw their influence on the public when they were critiqued over their coverage of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. A typical response to the idea that mainstream news coverage had helped deliver the election to Trump, either by helping him or hurting Clinton, argued that the press had provided honest coverage of Trump’s negatives, and that the negative things they reported about Clinton were true. In other words, coverage didn’t influence voters’ decisions; reality did. If the press had influenced public opinion, per se, it would’ve meant that the press had been unfair in its reporting in terms of accuracy or completeness.
That working journalists so routinely fail to understand elementary media effects is a failure of curiosity and reflection for them, and a failure of communication and engagement for those of us in journalism scholarship. In this case, there are at least three major and fairly basic types of effects that almost certainly occurred, but that most journalists are unable or unwilling to see. All of them stem from the fact that reporting a piece of information accurately is neither the beginning nor the end of representing truth through the news.
Some argue that agenda setting is the only real news effect that we’ve ever discovered, and everything else is just a variant on it. I disagree with that, but its various “levels” are all over the kinds of effects we can see in this campaign. The basic idea behind agenda setting is that the news doesn’t tell people what to think, but does tell people what to think about. That is, based on what the press chooses to cover, and the extent of coverage it devotes to a range of stories, the public develops a set of beliefs about how different stories compare in terms of importance, and obviously stories that don’t get covered are stories the public never learns about.
That key relationship with knowledge tells us a lot about how Gallup’s word cloud came to be. Clinton’s email server (and most likely the unrelated email hacking stories contributed to this) dominated the press agenda, as confirmed by every study of campaign coverage. Negative Trump topics, such as the seemingly criminal Trump Foundation, were covered, but much less so. In the development of the press agenda, they were only minor pieces, sometimes pursued by only one outlet or even one reporter.
Perhaps more importantly, by running his rallies live so frequently, TV news allowed Trump to directly set their agenda. Print and digital outlets joined in by picking up elements from those rallies, as well as by obsessively covering his Twitter feed, which they continue to do now. As many have noted, Trump has essentially become a media outlet himself, and as such, theory related to intermedia agenda-setting is highly relevant. Needless to say, Clinton’s events and campaign communications were not granted the same access to the press agenda, which may be why so many people now wonder why she “never talked about economics.”
Mere prominence of one story over another was not the other thing going on. How those stories are presented contextually, even if the facts are 100% true, also has an impact on what people take away from them. In 2016, it’s clear a scandal frame was used to present many stories about Hillary Clinton; you can see this is the way the New York Times and others so often reported on “clouds” being raised or “shadows” being cast around her. For Clinton, the scandal frame was always operative, and it interacted with the game frame to produce stories that were often first about how things looked, and second about how the way they looked might affect the campaign.
We can hypothesize that these frames were picked up by the public by looking at candidate honesty judgments, which mostly found the public thinking Trump was the more honest candidate, despite direct assessment showing Clinton to be one of the most honest politicians, and Trump the very least. On top of that, Clinton was transparent about her and her foundation’s finances, while Trump refused to release anything he wasn’t legally required to. Given that, why would the public have things so backwards? Framing provides the simplest answer. It also provides the foundation which the single most important priming effect of all time was built.
I can’t be sure what various scholars might have planned to study the effects described above, but I’d be astonished if there weren’t a dozen or more public opinion scholars ready to pounce on the effect of priming in late vote decisions. Back in 1990, Jon Krosnick and Donald Kinder published a seminal article on the role of priming in assessing the president. This article used data from the 1986 National Election Study, a panel survey that included interviews of the same people before and after the revelation of the Iran-Contra affair. What they found was evidence of the extent to which evaluations of Ronald Reagan shifted in the direction of evaluations of him specifically on foreign policy grounds when the new scandal emerged and primed people to think of it when they thought of him.
James Comey’s October 28 letter to Congress serves the same role in the 2016 election as the Iran-Contra news did for the 1986 NES data. An analysis of panel data recently conducted for 538 structurally confirms this, as pre-letter and post-letter data gathered from the same respondents show a 4% swing to Trump as the dormant email story was made newly salient for late-deciding or flippable voters. Without additional data we can’t say for sure this was due to Comey’s letter, but there is no other plausible competing theory.
Some members of the press might point out that this is not really a media effect — Comey is a newsworthy individual who did a newsworthy thing in the context of the election, and they simply reported it. But this is where all three of these effects come together. The national political press responded to this event with zone-flooding coverage; the New York Times alone ran seven front page stories on it in the first three days of coverage, making it highly salient, telling the public it was an especially important story, and presenting it in the scandal frame. These choices were not made with any Trump stories, such as the illegal donation his foundation made to the attorney general of Florida before she dropped her investigation of Trump University, or indeed, the $25 million settlement of the broader Trump University case.
None of this is “fake news.” And yet, we have a journalism that is working at odds with what we think journalism ought to be for. Matthew Yglesias has this right when he says that the overriding issue of what looks to be the most consequential election since 1932 was email server management. That’s not something that just happens. But really, none of the things that happen in public opinion just happen. The press and the decisions that journalists make everyday — and they do make decisions everyday and in every story — affect what people know, think, and believe. Their desire to stand apart and abdicate responsibility for outcomes doesn’t change that.
Filed: Science Is Real || 9:52, December 25 || No Comments »
My previous post looked at 2016 turnout and results in cities across Wisconsin, but had some specifically interesting findings about Milwaukee. As the state’s largest and least white city, Milwaukee plays a polar role in Wisconsin politics (as do similar cities in their states’ politics — Detroit, Chicago, etc.). It’s a conservative scare tactic, often paired with liberal Madison in a two-tone dog whistle meant to remind the rural population who’s taking all their money.
Wisconsin is, by some measures, the worst state in which to be black, and Milwaukee itself is one of the most segregated cities in America. The voter ID law that kept 77-year-old Delia Anderson out of the voting booth for the first time since the 1950s is by no means the first assault by Wisconsin conservatives on the people of Milwaukee.
One of the key results that I found in the turnout data was the steep decline in voting in the city of Milwaukee from 2012 to 2016. Given the city’s high level of segregation and the targeted nature of the voter ID law, there’s good reason to expect that the 14.6% average drop in total votes cast would not be uniform across the city. Luckily, Milwaukee adopted its current voting ward map in 2011, meaning that the same map was used for both 2012 and 2016, allowing for direct comparison. What we don’t know is the extent of movement in and out of the city, or between wards within it, but Census Bureau estimates don’t suggest any major changes in population distribution between the two elections.
Milwaukee has 323 voting wards that can be legitimately analyzed (three had zero votes in either election, and one had four votes in 2012 and five in 2016). Only 16 of them had more ballots cast in 2016 than in 2012, and they’re largely in well-off, mostly white areas — Bay View, downtown and the Third Ward, the tony Northpoint neighborhood. They’re almost all on the east side, with the exception of a couple on the far west that border Wauwatosa.
Meanwhile, 158 wards had turnout proportional to 2012 that was worse than the city average of 85.8%, including 30 that were at 70% or below. Look at, and compare, the extent of turnout decline by voting ward and 2000 census data on percentage of residents in each tract who are black:
The ready explanation for this is, well, Barack Obama wasn’t on the ballot, so obviously black voters aren’t going to turn out. This is a very convenient argument for how tens of thousands of black voters disappeared in Wisconsin, but until I see some strong data it’s hard to buy the idea that upwards of 30% of black voters were only showing up for Obama and didn’t recognize the existential threat presented by Donald Trump. It’s also important to note that we can’t account for the impact of the voter ID law just by looking at how many people were turned away at polling places. There are also those who knew (or thought) they didn’t have the necessary ID and couldn’t expend the resources to get it, those who were hassled in a previous election and didn’t want to bother with it again, and those who weren’t sure but did know they’d been told repeatedly that voter fraud is a felony. It could go without saying that the state will not support any efforts to do rigorous study about this, but hopefully there is funding to be secured by scholars at UW-Madison or UW-Milwaukee, as long as the state doesn’t threaten to defund the school as a result.
(Thanks to The Both, whose “Milwaukee” provides the post title.)
Filed: We R in Control || 13:44, December 22 || No Comments »
One of the weirder aspects of the extended election post-mortem this year has been the focus on Wisconsin. The state flipping from blue to red was certainly a surprise to all observers (including both campaigns), and it slots into a neat narrative about overconfidence and the “forgotten working class” (or a certain subset of it). Nevertheless, anything that the Clinton campaign did to win Wisconsin would not have mattered a lick if it didn’t also flip at least one other state (Florida), or more likely two more (Michigan and Pennsylvania). So anyone making the argument that Russian hacking doesn’t matter because they didn’t keep Clinton from visiting Wisconsin is, to put it mildly, not engaging in good faith discussion. Anyone not talking about the role of Scott Walker’s vote suppression law is also not engaging with the reality of what went on in Wisconsin this year, as reported last week by the Los Angeles Times:
Starting with John F. Kennedy’s victory over Richard Nixon in 1960, Delia Anderson had voted in 14 straight presidential elections.
She had cast her ballot at the same polling place for years, never with a glitch. This year, however, a volunteer driving her to the polls mentioned that she would be asked to show a state-approved photo ID.
“Don’t these poll people already know who I am?” replied Anderson, who is 77, black and uses a wheelchair, as she frantically sifted through her purse for anything to prove her identity.
It was a lost cause. She had planned to vote for Hillary Clinton. Instead, for the first time in 56 years, she did not cast a ballot.
“Lord, have mercy,” she said. “What happened to voting?”
Such stories abound in Milwaukee, a Democratic stronghold in a state where Donald Trump won by 22,748 votes, a key victory in his path to the presidency.
Now, voting rights advocates, elections officials and political experts have zeroed in on the city as a case study of whether controversial new rules requiring ID for voting — the kind used in several states in November for the first time in a presidential election — blocked vast numbers of largely young and racial minority Democrats from casting ballots and contributed to Clinton’s defeat.
In a state that saw its lowest turnout in 20 years, nearly 248,000 people voted in Milwaukee, roughly 41,000 fewer than in the last presidential election.
“I believe it was voter suppression laws from the state government that crushed turnout,” said Milwaukee County Clerk Joe Czarnezki, one of two officials who oversees local elections. “They tend to hit hardest on people who are poor, who don’t drive and don’t have a license, who are minorities.”
That said, Wisconsin is a very interesting case quite apart from its lack of impact on the overall outcome of the election. The state has long been at the median of many social indicators across the country, and has experienced a precipitous move to the right since 2010. It’s not for nothing that Hillary Clinton did better there than Russ Feingold, who obviously spent quite a bit of time campaigning in the state. There has been a considerable amount of examination of county-by-county results so far, with a particular emphasis on urban/rural splits (and for background on this, Kathy Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment is the place to start), but even in Wisconsin, rural counties are not where most people live. So although the data aren’t superb yet, I decided to explore a bit in the vote records for 2012 and 2016 to see what happened in Wisconsin’s cities.
The ten biggest cities in Wisconsin, as of the 2010 census, are home to 1,449,059 people, or just a little more than a quarter of the state’s population. More than half of that group lives in the state’s two biggest cities, Milwaukee and Madison. That is to say that, like most states in 2016, Wisconsin’s population is concentrated in cities. Unlike most states in 2016, Wisconsin saw its voter turnout hit a 20-year low, as the state cast only 97% of the total number of presidential ballots it cast in 2012 (which doesn’t take population growth into account, so the actual drop in turnout was larger than 3%). If Walker’s attempt to suppress Democratic votes worked like it was supposed to, we would not expect to see that number even across the board, but to generally be lower in cities, and especially to be lower in cities with larger non-white populations.
Wisconsin is also a state that both nominees lost in the primaries, and where neither was especially well-liked. That also suggests a reason for voters to turn away (despite there being a competitive and potentially balance-tipping Senate election on the ballot) or to vote for a non-major candidate. So below I tabulate three things. First, the net change in votes and percentage points for Clinton over Trump compared with Obama over Romney, the net change in third party and write-in votes and percentage points, and the number of ballots cast as a proportion of the total from 2012 (to compare with the percentage of the population that is white).
With the caveat that there’s a lot that raw vote totals can’t tell us, there are several interesting things here. Starting at the right side of the table, turnout relative to 2012 and whiteness are highly correlated (r = .76). This is only the ten biggest cities, of course, and it would be worth extending this analysis to every municipality for which the Census Bureau has race data. It is a compelling finding, though, and particularly so for Milwaukee and Racine, the state’s two blackest cities and the two with the biggest dropoffs in this set. I’ll have more on Milwaukee’s low turnout in a subsequent post.
In the middle columns, we see that every single city gave non-major candidates at least four more percentage points than they did in 2012, up to nearly seven in Waukesha and Eau Claire. Even this maybe undersells it — for Eau Claire that was a 328% increase (from 1.8 percentage points to 7.7). Those big increases are also how Trump was able to win the state with only 47.2% of the vote. But the top and bottom of the list also tell another story. There was a lot of discussion during the campaign among people on the left about whether refusing to vote for Clinton was a move based in privilege (and also whether it was a big free-rider move, but that’s another discussion). The two least white big cities in Wisconsin, Milwaukee and Racine, had the lowest increases in non-major voting; they also had the lowest raw third-party and write-in rates of these cities. That is to say, these electorates appear to be the ones least interested in screwing around with this election. Waukesha, at the other end of the list, is interesting for another reason. It is the center of Wisconsin Republican politics, but it’s not a place that was ever happy with Donald Trump. Its big jump suggests a lot of Republicans there couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton, but chose to vote for Gary Johnson or write in Paul Ryan instead.
(Aside: We don’t know how many write-in votes Ryan or Bernie Sanders or any other non-registered write-in candidate got, but we do know how many Evan McMullin got. For some reason, he absolutely dominated the write-in vote in Appleton, Kenosha, and Racine, getting 546 of 576 write-in votes in those cities. At the same time, in liberal Madison, write-in votes were up from 251 to 2,099, but McMullin got only 367 of those; I’d bet most of the others went to Sanders.)
Waukesha has a lot to tell us about Clinton’s columns, as well. It and Madison — political polar opposites — are the only two of the ten cities where she had a net gain over Obama’s 2012 margins, 5.1 percentage points in each. In relative terms, Trump did horribly in Waukesha, getting only 51.1% compared with Romney’s 57.1%. Clinton did only a little worse than Obama, and might have done better if a few more of those anti-Trump Republicans had been willing to vote for the only candidate capable of actually beating him. The results in Madison, full of liberals and students, suggest that turning out those two frequently scapegoated groups was not the problem in Wisconsin. Clinton got a higher percentage of the Madison vote than Obama did, Trump did worse than Romney, and Madison’s increase in non-major candidate voting was lower than the state as a whole. Madison was also the only city of these ten that cast more ballots in 2016 than it did in 2012, so the suppression of the student vote does not seem to have been all that successful, especially in light of how much turnout cratered in Milwaukee.
In 2012, Milwaukeeans cast 287,387 presidential ballots; this year it was only 246,617. Both major party candidates were down in percentage point terms from the 2012 nominees, with a relatively small net loss for Clinton. The much bigger loss came from votes that were never cast. If Milwaukee’s turnout drop had been the same as the state average and those extra votes cast in the same percentages as the others in the city, Clinton would have a net gain of a little more than 21,000 votes. But there’s good reason to think the lost votes wouldn’t be cast the same as the votes that happened; they would likely be more favorable to Clinton. In a follow-up post, I’ll dig specifically into Milwaukee turnout to look at how vote suppression manifested in this election.
(Thanks to Locksley for the great song that provides the title of this post.)
Filed: We R in Control || 18:25, December 21 || No Comments »
If the press exists to inform the public, how can its performance be assessed? Journalists often respond to critique by noting that partisans on both sides are unhappy with their reporting. However, this sort of reflexive framework, a fundamentally moon-based journalism, can’t really tell us anything about how the public has been served. A better way is to take a sun-based approach, and figure out what news organizations have actually informed the public about by measuring public knowledge.
This isn’t as easy as it might sound, and there are a variety of approaches in political science to measuring political and civic knowledge (and other kinds of public knowledge in other areas). Large-scale surveys typically use true/false or multiple choice questions by necessity, which have the down side of allowing educated guesses, or at least giving an additional prompt to recall information that might otherwise have been inaccessible in memory. For example, this Buzzfeed survey, while illuminating, doesn’t tell us anything beyond whether people think they heard about a story, which could be accurate or could be the result of a bunch of cognitions running together. Another way of doing this is with open-ended questions that ask respondents to describe what they know about a particular topic, but which give them as little as possible in the prompt.
This is a particularly important question for examinations of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but also for all elections going forward in liberal democracies. The reason is “fake news,” a term that in the last few weeks has come to represent misinformation, conspiracy theories, propaganda, hoaxes, and even parody to a certain extent. Although the political commentary community doesn’t have a great conceptual handle on “fake news” yet, we do know the election was subject to both widespread hacking and leaking of private information, and several stories that compounded upon themselves in partisan information loops fed by motivated reasoning. Occasionally these stories came up for air, but it’s reasonably likely that their main aggregate effect was simply to toxify the entire news environment.
Unlike some of my other question generation posts, this is a question I’m actually planning a study around. What I’m really interested in is what information people had available when certain story concepts were primed by events in the campaign, or at least what they have that can still be primed now. Specifically, I’m going to use open-ended questions to ask survey participants to describe in as much depth and details as they can three “scandal” stories each about the two major party candidates: for Hillary Clinton, her emails, her paid speeches, and the Clinton Foundation; and for Donald Trump, his tax returns, accusations of sexual assault against him, and the Trump Foundation. I’ll also ask about two fact-focused post-election topics: the percentage of the popular vote won by each candidate, and how turnout compares with that of 2012. After those knowledge questions, I’ll have an extensive battery of media and information behavior questions, political attitudes and behaviors, and a couple public opinion perceptions.
These results could be paired with content analysis (or reports such as this one from the Shorenstein Center on campaign news coverage) to see how well knowledge matches news volume, but I expect them to be interesting in their own right. The preliminary question that got me thinking about this study back in October was whether people distinguish the two ongoing Clinton stories involving email — the server she used as Secretary of State, and the hacks of the DNC and John Podesta. I’ve got five dollars American that says that on average they don’t.
Filed: Super Special Questions || 10:30, December 14 || No Comments »
For the good of the country and the world, Twitter must wall off Donald Trump’s account. Yesterday saw Trump double down on his embrace of Taiwan by tweeting a bunch of stuff about China being a currency manipulator, not “asking us” before they did various things, etc., etc. This is genuinely dangerous stuff for the entire world, and there’s no indication Trump intends to quit shooting his mouth after taking office.
Luckily, Trump only seems interested in Twitter and not any other social platforms, presenting exactly one point of failure in his quest to get everyone killed. Twitter has a lot to answer for, but there’s an opportunity here for them to make up for a big chunk of the damage they’ve caused society in recent years. All they need to do is quite a virtual Twitter environment and quietly slot Trump’s account into it.
Make a bunch of bots, only visible to him, that retweet him, like his tweets, post autogenerated replies, etc. You’d also need a curator to selectively make some of his tweets public, to avoid him seeing “Why did Trump stop tweeting?” pieces on CNN. This won’t be a simple undertaking, obviously, and unfortunately they can’t make any noise about it. But if they let him continue to use their platform as he has been, Twitter will be complicit in everything he does.
Filed: We R in Control || 19:20, December 5 || No Comments »
Related to my previous post, am I confident that the press can avoid moon journalism, chasing shiny objects that they can reflect to the public? I am not:
Apropos of IOP mtg, this is how much Trump dominated news coverage in the general election: pic.twitter.com/eMfXlgjh7R
— Monkey Cage (@monkeycageblog) December 2, 2016
Hillary Clinton barely got the majority of coverage of the two major party candidates during the Democratic convention (for what it’s worth, Gallup’s survey data has the same finding). The three occasions when she had the clear majority of coverage were related to bogus scandals. The point here is not the press was blindly pro-Trump — coverage of him had a reasonably neutral valance overall — but rather that Trump was allowed to set the agenda and consume all the campaign oxygen. This is consistent with coverage of the primaries as well. No non-Trump candidate’s message was ever able to break through as a major component of campaign discourse in the media. Now that the election is ostensibly over, the pattern continues with Trump’s Carrier PR stunt and victory tour.
Filed: Watching the Detectives || 17:45, December 2 || No Comments »
This is admittedly not a great research question, but it’s a fundamentally important one to grounding research on the role of journalism in a mature democracy. It implies some key research questions — for example, what journalists think journalism is for, how the public understands the role of journalism, etc. — but this is conceptually a bigger question that the major institutions of the press have proven ideologically unable to grapple with.
The reason why this is so important is that an unmoored press is as likely to damage a democratic society as to serve it, and a press pointed at the wrong goals can be just as bad. The press, by which I mean the national political press, is a political institution, the only extra-governmental institution mentioned in the Constitution. But also, it doesn’t want to acknowledge that status — for example, Michael Wolff, who declared that “stenographer is what you’re supposed to be” after receiving criticism for a feckless interview with Steve Bannon, recently mocked the idea that journalism is necessarily political as a “millennial view.” Instead, the press defines itself by its reflexive ideology — that is, getting between two conflicting poles as much as possible. In an electoral campaign, that bipolar structure is essentially a given.
Placing itself conspicuously in the middle makes things very easy, and is why we have so much “he said/she said” journalism. But it also detaches the press from the idea that it plays its own unique role in our democracy. As such, journalists become predisposed to disclaim any actual impact on things that tilt toward one pole or the other. Thus they can claim at the same time that they successfully informed the public about, for example, Donald Trump’s conflicts of interest, and that the choices they made didn’t affect the outcome of the election — or in other words: “Media reported all the terrible things that make us angry about him. Voters didn’t care.”
The enormous newshole modern news organizations have to fill makes it trivial to say you’ve “reported” or “covered” something. What we know looking at the aggregate is that the Clinton email server story received three times as much network TV coverage as all policy issues combined during 2016; all that reporting can be factually correct and still present an incorrect picture to the public. To wit, the incredible word cloud based on Gallup’s summer surveys, mapping things respondents had recently heard about the candidates, may be the rosetta stone of the 2016 election (n.b., “email” defined Clinton in late 2015 as well).
The need for a bipolar structure also manifests in other important ways. Jay Rosen has written recently about what he calls “accusation-based” vs. “evidence-based” reporting. Though he was reacting to coverage of Trump’s false claim of millions of illegal votes being cast for Clinton, it was a story that fit cleanly into the press’s campaign season mindset — a partisan makes an accusation, they report it, counter-partisans respond, and they report that. It is fundamentally detached — to use another Rosen term, a “view from nowhere.” The problems with this are self-evident: If you know your claims will be repeated credulously by the press, you have no incentive not to lie like crazy. It’s especially insidious in a context like this one, whereby democratic principles come to be seen through the zero-sum lens of partisan politics.
But strangely, we can also see the press react to a unipolar environment with more willingness to be adversarial. In mid-November, we saw a mini boom of stories addressing Trump’s unprecedented conflicts of interest and, indeed, nascent pre-inauguration corruption. These stories were known during the campaign and could just as easily have been front-paged then; they weren’t, in part because Clinton didn’t make specific campaign issues of them.
In all these situations, the press is taking an effectively nihilistic approach, as reflected quite clearly in the centrist consensus that Jonathan Chait critiques in his David Brooks-focused assessment of the mainstream, establishment opinion press. But the unmoored desires of Brooks and his peers to put themselves in the center regardless of its location isn’t a symptom of our times — see The Washington Post’s Paul Taylor from 1990:
Sometimes I worry that my squeamishness about making sharp judgments, pro or con, makes me unfit for the slam-bang world of daily journalism. Other times I conclude that it makes me ideally suited for newspapering– certainly for the rigors and conventions of modern ‘objective’ journalism. For I can dispose of my dilemmas by writing stories straight down the middle. I can search for the halfway point between the best and the worst that might be said about someone (or some policy or idea) and write my story in that fair-minded place. By aiming for the golden mean, I probably land near the best approximation of truth more often than if I were guided by any other set of compasses– partisan, ideological, psychological, whatever… Yes, I am seeking truth. But I’m also seeking refuge. I’m taking a pass on the toughest calls I face.
There are a million more places I could take this, but it’s meant to be a philosophical question/blog post, and not a book. So I’m going to lay down some normative markers that I think ought to guide a period of introspection for major American press institutions:
- A free press exists to present important truths to a democratic polity.
- Truth exists at both the macro and micro levels — that is, just because you put several individual truths together, you haven’t necessarily presented a larger truth, and may have presented a larger falsehood.
- Partisan institutions don’t have a first-order interest in truth, which doesn’t necessarily mean what they say isn’t true.
- The public broadly lacks not only time-sensitive policy knowledge, but also fundamental civics knowledge.
The question then becomes, in light of these factors, what means ought the press use to achieve its ends? To be sure, major news organizations are facing institutional challenges for which they have few answers: traditional revenue streams evaporating, historically low levels of trust from the public, loss of their gatekeeping oligopoly. But they also face challenges to which they have simply failed to adapt: How to handle a president-elect who doesn’t need you, and who broadcasts lies on a regular basis? How to respond quickly to new information with both context and clarity, rather than stenography (for example, to claims from Trump that he is “handing off” his business)? How to incorporate an understanding of the potential effects of news on public opinion, as well as the value of “partisans” in the news ecosystem? These questions all have to do with the press’s willingness to stand as its own democratic institution, rather than primarily a reflexive one — a sun, rather than a moon. Without sunshine, this is where we are: