Susan B. Glasser’s article “Covering Politics in a ‘post-truth’ America'” is an interesting read, though not in the way it was intended. At least, not for me. As usual, the interest comes in the form of fnords, and how it demonstrates bad editing.
What’s the fnord? The whole thesis of the article! The idea that the press is better than it has ever been while also being more hated and more ignored than it has ever been is FUCKING INSANE. “The press is so good, today! It’s too bad that we have poisoned the well and no one respects us or pays attention to us.”
(And, as ever, I will take this time to point the finger at the Brookings Institute guys who let this obviously flawed thesis past the draft stage. The fundamental contradiction in the article is obvious, and I’m hardly an elite editor. If my primary job were to make sure that content was intelligible, I’d be ashamed to have let something this obvious slide by. The thesis makes no sense, and Glasser should have known it, and her editors at the Brookings Institute, too.)
Glasser also ignores some very real items. The biggest is the money.
The press loved Trump because he sold newspapers. So they followed him with a dogged, slavish devotion, hanging on his every word. The amount of free press that Trump got from the traditional media was in the billions of dollars. If they had treated Trump fairly, if they had focused as much on his flaws instead of just his fucking Twitter account, if they hadn’t been so sycophantic in following him, Clinton would have won. And they did this for money. It does not follow the basic principles of journalistic ethics – they prostituted themselves for money, and the whole country will suffer.
And, not for nothing, for the press, there is a hell of a silver lining. Trump is now President, and he’ll keep on selling papers. For them, there was no downside. Middle-class white people – and the press has yet to face the racism in its biz – are going to do fine under Trump. We’ll probably see big tax cuts, even! PLUS, they’ll sell a lot of papers! It made it very easy for the press to ignore how much they profit from Trump, and how that profit makes it hard for them to be objective about what happened in 2016. Glasser ignoring the role that money played in the media portrayal of Trump is unconscionable.
So when Glasser says that “the big media crisis of the Reagan era was all about the ease with which the journalists could be spun or otherwise co-opted into the Hollywood-produced story line coming out of Reagan’s media-savvy White House,” I think she’s ignoring that media manipulation is a problem we have today. Her article with the Brookings Institute is part of the modern willingness of the press to succumb to manipulation!
After all, part of the very story of the election was the way Trump was manipulating the media. They knew it was happening. It wasn’t a secret. But they let it happen; they let the Trump stories that should have remained in the pages of TMZ and other gossip rags spread through the “real” news and treated his every tweet as important. Sure, there were good stories about Trump’s corruption and incompetence – but they were buried in a non-stop barrage where the news media hung on his every word and movement.
Otherwise, it reads like a paean to the Good Old Days. I understand that Glasser believes that the democratization of media of the Internet age is a good thing. But the fact remains: as the media has been democratized, it has become easier to dismiss. This is not good. So while the technology of the news has improved dramatically, its effects have diminished. If computers ran faster than ever but broke down all the time, we would not say that “computers had improved.” We would yearn for the days when computers worked properly.
The inability of the news media to adapt to modern technology – even as that technology has made parts of their job much easier – means that the media has not improved!
That at this stage of the game they’re only becoming aware of the crisis is, itself, exceptionally telling. The public’s dissatisfaction with the news is old news. The Daily Show – the show is nearly old enough to vote – has been a running commentary on American dissatisfaction with the media. So while Glasser writes her personal history in the news business in the rise of Internet news, she doesn’t talk about how media’s failure with the Internet created the dissatisfaction with the news. It becomes a story of a day late and a dollar short – that the traditional press didn’t understand the significance of the 24-hour cable news, or the Drudge Report, or Facebook, or Twitter. She doesn’t describe better news, but worse.
Perhaps most tellingly, the article has a chart where age cohort ranks people’s primary news sources. Unsurprisingly, young people mostly get their news from the Internet. Equally unsurprisingly, the older you are, the more likely that you get your news from cable news shows, local news, and newspapers.
But remember Glasser’s thesis – that the Internet, specifically social media, has created insular worldviews that allow people to ignore objective facts.
Her chart, however, seems to indicate, well, the contrary. Young people voted for Clinton, they like gay and trans rights, they are pro-choice and believe in evolution and anthropocentric climate change. Trump’s anti-fact, news-hating cohorts tend to be older Americans, often with limited or no direct Internet access!
By her own data, there is an inverse correlation between getting news on social media and being gulled by anti-news conspiracy theories and counterfactual stories. If anything, it suggests that the real culprit behind hating the traditional news is cable news channels! But it is hardly a story that Fox News has attacked the basis for objectivity in America. However, that’s where Glasser’s data goes.
(And, again, how did this pass editorial muster? I know that analyzing data is hard. I do. But Glasser is the editor of Politico, and I presume there are editors for the Brookings Institute, too. These people are supposed to be the best in the world at editing news stories. I am constantly struck while reading this at how badly it is reasoned and analyzed. Clearly, they don’t even understand the data that they’re looking at, or else they would not have so brazenly printed it!)
Scattered throughout are ads for Politico (“These days, Politico has a newsroom of 200-odd journalists, a glossy award-winning magazine, dozens of daily email newsletters, and 16 subscription policy verticals. It’s a major player in coverage not only of Capitol Hill but many other key parts of the capital, and some months during this election year we had well over 30 million unique visitors to our website, a far cry from the controlled congressional circulation of 35,000 that I remember Roll Call touting in our long-ago sales materials,” and similar nonsense.)
It ends by continuing to ignore the brute fact that the Internet generation is pretty fact-loving – that they aren’t the problem. The people buying the “fake news” and “post-truth” garbage get their news from cable TV and newspapers. Glasser offers no solutions, not even for the wrong problem her article identifies. She says that traditional news media “took their audience for granted.” She talks about the dearth of investigative reporting and ignores Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowdon and the whistleblower websites that have utterly transformed investigative journalism. She also doesn’t mention the many failures of the news media – not just with Trump, but with, say, the Iraqi war when journalists “embedded” themselves with military units and praised Colin Powell for his “slam dunk” presentation to the UN that was entirely fictitious. Even though UN weapon’s inspectors were highly vocal about Powell’s failure and critical of the American march to war in Iraq – how did THAT happen, hmm? Glasser creates a fairytale where the sole problem with the news media has been a little arrogance, not that they have failed at every turn to both effectively communicate their ideas (which is necessary for their job) combined with factual errors of the highest caliber.
And while bragging about how much Politico is worth, Glasser fails to mention the extent to which editorial greed motivated the news media’s puppy-dog-like prancing after Trump, and how this plays into modern news reporting on all platforms. When Glasser started the job, newspapers were sustained almost by patronage. No one expected to get rich owning a newspaper. Nowadays, that’s the whole point. CNN ushered in an age where news was profitable on a scale large enough to interest big-money investors. And they want their money’s worth. And they were willing to pursue Trump – and be one of the forces that handed him the Presidency – to get it. So by failing to touch on the role of money in news, Glasser doesn’t have to look at the incredible journalistic ethical failures of modern news corporations including Politico and her own compromised status.
I also find it utterly disingenuous by Glasser to admit that the press sabotaged the election with their non-stop coverage of Trump (and, as a corollary, their equally bad coverage of Clinton) but then have a “shucks, who, us?” look on her face. You can’t grab a bunch of money in defiance of journalistic ethics and then claim that it was just a little mistake. If she was honest, she would have known that chasing money rather than legitimate, fact-based stories is part of the problem – and part of the reason why the news isn’t trusted. How many times can the media chase money and fail at their jobs before surrendering their claim to truth? I would argue we are well past that point. That skepticism of the news is a rational decision in the face of their money-grubbing and lies.
Which does not make it good for people to fall for conspiracy theories and fake news. It is, however, a dilemma. If you can’t rely on the news for accurate facts – and as the Trump election shows, again, we can’t – where does a person go?