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: