Trump Exploits “Fake News.” The Media Must Do Better.
It’s been a bad couple of weeks for the mainstream media’s efforts to combat the Trump White House’s “Fake News” meme. First came the BuzzFeed exclusive claiming that the special counsel had evidence that Donald Trump had told Michael Cohen to lie to Congress, which prompted the tight-lipped Robert Mueller team to issue a statement denying the claims. Then there the was the rush to judgment on the Covington Catholic kids at the Lincoln Memorial.
The media was broken long before Donald Trump came along. But Trump – a creature of the mass media if there ever was one – has always known how to exploit it for his benefit.
In an era in which clickbait is king, agendas matter more than facts, and ideological silos all but ensure it will only get worse.It’s on the media to fix itself before it’s too late.
- Report facts.
It’s always the simple things we forget the most.
How did journalism go from “who, what, where, and when” to “why, oh why, is everything this way?” There is a place for opinion-based analysis if authors are up front, but that doesn’t excuse a daily newspaper, cable news outfit, or other “nonpartisan, non-political” entity to cover one side fairly while doing all it can to butcher the other.
If a New York Times reporter feels he or she must push an agenda, then go find a job at The Nation or Slate or National Review.
If that doesn’t appeal, political campaigns can always use another communications flack.
- Speed kills.
Nothing has done more damage to good reporting than the creation of the 24/7 cable news cycle and the Internet. They are gaping maws demanding ever-more content, and being first ends up mattering more than being accurate. We’ve seen how that works out.
And you wonder how a meme like “Fake News” begins?
Does anyone in the upper floors of New York City’s Rockefeller Center (MSNBC), the Avenue of Americas (Fox News), or Columbus Circle (CNN) care their desire to “Be First” has gradually undermined their credibility? Clearly not, since all that seems to matter these days is click rates, ad revenue, and eyeballs.
- Narratives are for spin rooms.
“Flooding the Zone” is a stupid phrase fit more to describe a defensive scheme in basketball. It’s actually a marketing term designed to ensure maximum manipulation by those inundating the media with their side of events.
With reporting being crowded out by narrative, we’ve seen reporters go from truth-seekers to storytelling salespersons in the same timeframe. Look at how many stories of national and international importance, say the Venezuelan coup, were largely ignored while we fought about Twitter-spread videos of a bunch of teenagers wearing MAGA hats as a Native American beat a drum in one young man’s face.
Speaking of social media, media outlets cover it as if it were real news. Think I’m joking? The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel had a reporter explain how people were “losing their minds on Twitter” over the news Miller Park; home of the Milwaukee Brewers, was about to get a name change.
Was it compelling stuff? No. Did it provide online content? Yes. Was it part of a growing narrative which the Milwaukee area media will exploit for time eternal? Heck yeah!
- Politics is not a sport.
Politics is boring. It’s meant to be a debate on ideas, policies, and pieces of legislation. The Founders never anticipated it to be the all-encompassing pursuit of one’s life.
Yet, for far too many of us, it is. Now the constant media updates on politicians, personalities, and campaigns give off the feel of sideline reporting during a football game.
“Well Mark, I just spoke with Congressman Smith and he says his ankle’s fine and should be able to vote for the Pointless Piece of Legislation Act once he gets treatment during caucus. Looks like it will be a close vote. Stay tuned to catch all the gripping drama of the roll call.”
Gripping roll call vote drama? Have you watched C-SPAN? It’s TV to nap to!
Yet, that’s exactly what we’ve done with our political coverage. We have pundit panels debate the most minute details of the news day. Analytics-obsessed math nerds crunch the numbers like they’re baseball stats. Polls are dissected enough to make Frank Luntz and Charles Franklin blush.
Think I’m overreacting? This was Bulwark contributor A.B. Stoddard last week on The Federalist podcast:
“Since I’ve covered Congress, I’ve gone from seeing the Congress do a lot a things together to doing a lot of things in a partisan manner; but still big things, to doing nothing. And I think that, because there’s not a lot of consequence going on, everyone thinks they have to cover Beto O’Rourke having a camera of his teeth in the dental chair, ‘Because, Wow! He’s a big player.’ So it’s like a sports game. You cover the players, but the game has become indifferent, because there’s not a lot of meat to the game anymore.
So, it’s such a combination of the media becoming a business, they need conflict to fuel ratings to get the bucks. Trump feeds that and he’s such a perfect storm of all these things which are not good and I’m in your [Federalist co-founder Ben Domenech] camp and I don’t know how we dial it back.”
And you wonder why ideas and policy stopped mattering?
- Be “history’s first draft,” not an activist.
Do top journalism schools like Columbia or Northwestern change their approach in teaching the next generation of students to deal with these issues in the industry or do we continue down the current path?
One of the most tired tropes is asking j-school students “Why did you enter the field?” knowing that for many, the hours are long, the pay not so great, and the profession’s continued uncertainty in the digital age. Often the answer comes down to “I want to change the world.”
What that exactly means is different for everyone. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to change the world or better your community. But such an answer gives the impression many budding journalists choose the field only to be activists instead of truth-seekers.
Like many conservatives I mistrust the media and have seen too many open examples of bias not to believe there are reporters who are picking sides. But those who cheer the demise of the press — as happened last week when BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post announced layoffs — should know that a weak or non-existent presswould lead only to even further chaos.