For anyone in the news media who expected a Hillary Clinton victory, Donald Trump’s win in the 2016 presidential race might have been a moment to reflect on what they got wrong. But instead, as Democratic candidates begin to enter the fray ahead of the 2020 race, the media is retreating into its old habits, says NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen.
“No one needs to know yet what the status of the horse race is. It’s way too early for that,” Rosen said on the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka. “And it doesn’t matter if some attention is placed on people who have no chance to win, because if what the purpose of this year is a debate, people who don’t have a chance to win can easily contribute to that.”
In any election cycle, the resuscitation of the “horse race” model of political journalism — two years of dissecting poll numbers rather than real political issues — would be bad. But for several years, Rosen said, Trump has undermined American political norms while simultaneously waging war on the reputations of journalists, making the situation even more precarious.
Plus, now that Democrats have a majority in the House of Representatives, he explained, “a more normal picture has returned to Washington politics” and the political press. And that’s bad.
“The House Democrats have their point of view, the Trump administration has its point of view,” Rosen said. “Now the picture looks very familiar to mainstream journalists, they can slot themselves into that, and they can do, ‘on the one hand, on the other hand,’ both-sides reporting, and they are happy about that.
“What’s disturbing about that for me is that the civic emergency is still here, it’s even worse in a lot of ways,” he added. “He’s getting crazier, the undermining of our democracy is getting more intense, things are building to a pressure point. Now you have this setup where the conditions are perfect for this sort of artificial balance to return.”
You can listen to Recode Media wherever you get your podcasts — including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, and Overcast.
Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Peter’s conversation with Jay.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka, that is me. I’m here in New York. It’s very cold. I’m in Vox headquarters. We do the thanks, normally, at the end of the podcast. In case you’re not going to listen all the way through, I want to give special thanks to Jelani Carter and Golda Arthur, who trekked here from very far away. They live in outer boroughs. Bridges and tunnels. It’s extraordinarily cold, and it’s their day off, so thank you guys for making this happen. All right. And thanks to you guys for listening.
We’re here with Jay Rosen, NYU professor, three-time guest on the Recode Media podcast. A record.
That makes you the Steve Martin or the Alec Baldwin.
Not only that, I’ve produced a Recode podcast for you, my interview with Jack Dorsey.
So, we’re going to count you as a four-time guest. You’re awesome. Every year, we have you come on and you talk to us about Trump and political discourse and journalism and how they all work together and how they may be fundamentally broken. We will talk about all that. But you’ve cued me up for this conversation with a new topic. There’s a Twitter Moment, which you can go by Googling Jay’s name, searching for him on Twitter, titled, “Election coverage in 2020 is on track to be even worse than 2016.” You diagnosed the problem and then you also have a solution here. Let’s start with the problem first.
Let’s start with the premise. Beyond the fact that everyone seemed to be surprised by Trump’s victory in the immediate aftermath, what was so bad about the 2016 election coverage?
Well, when your model for election coverage is the horse race and you get the horse race wrong, it’s bigger than just a missed call because you’ve based your entire coverage on who’s ahead, who’s going to win, what’s likely to happen, what are the odds, what’s the probability? So it’s not just failing to anticipate Trump’s victory. It’s that election coverage is built around the question of who’s going to win.
To be fair, it was a very close election, and that’s what most of the polls said, and you had things like the Times meter and Nate Silver stuff that if you read it in a certain way, made you feel that it was going to be a slam dunk for Hillary, but if you go back and look back ...
There was caution.
The election results kind of mirrored what the polls said within a degree of certainty, right?
Well, yes. You can find cautions in the coverage that, in retrospect, should have drawn more attention.
But your point is not so much that they got it wrong. It’s that they did this horse race coverage. This is the complaint every election cycle.
Yes. Every election cycle.
They cover the elections like they are a horse race, meaning literally who’s ahead, who’s going to win, what are the odds? Full stop. We can imagine why that’s a bad way to do all election coverage, but in itself, who’s winning, who’s behind, that’s sort of basic journalism, right?
Yeah. The point that I tried to make about horse race journalism is not a puritanical one, like “that’s bad for you and that should be destroyed.” It’s that it’s not good enough as the template for election coverage. The race deserves attention. Knowing who’s likely to win or who has a chance to win is important. That could be something that voters care about.
You certainly wouldn’t want to withhold that, right?
You wouldn’t want to withhold it. You wouldn’t want to make a secret of it, but it’s just not good enough to sustain journalism over a year and a half or two years. That’s my problem with it, is that it shouldn’t be the template for coverage. It should be part of coverage.
And, in addition to that, we had another problem in 2016, which was the onset of what we now deal with daily, which is Trump’s campaign to discredit the press, and the way that it worked in tandem with another perplexing fact, which is that Trump coverage is very popular and is very useful to the media as an industry, because it produces attention. And so, sorting through that was also a challenge.
Anyway, most people in journalism now agree that 2016 was not a great year and was a problem for the press. So, what I saw happening, particularly in the few days after ... I’m blanking on her name, the Massachusetts senator who announced ...
I’ll miss some names too.
As I get older, this happens to me. Elizabeth Warren’s announcement was followed by news coverage, and it became clear to me that the people charged with covering the campaign are just going to do exactly what they did.
What about the coverage was a flag for you?
Just the way that the question immediately became, “Does she have the stuff to beat Trump?”
There’s a likability discussion, right?
“Is she likable enough?” That was part of it, that was the one that kind of blew up online. But it’s that frame of, is she going to be in the final two or three? Before she’s even started, before anybody’s even paying attention to ...
I’m going to play devil’s advocate on and off throughout this.
Okay. That’s your thing.
There’s other people who’ve announced.
Right? And the press has not spent very much time on a handful of them.
Well, that’s right, partly because they don’t think they have a chance.
Right. And there may be, depending on who you read, a dozen people announcing their interest in the near term. It seems useful to me as a consumer to go, “Elizabeth Warren is running, and she is a serious contender and we should pay attention to her” or “we shouldn’t.” Another signal today, Kamala Harris ... I’m probably butchering her name.
... has announced, and immediately we’re talking about her chances and comparing her old bio. Those all seem to be, especially early on, to be actually pretty useful to a regular news consumer. Maybe I’m not following the election closely, but now I know that Elizabeth Warren’s interested, I’m not going to read every bit of the coverage. At some point, if she becomes a serious contender, I might seriously look at what she stands for and think about it, and I think I’ll have lots of options to read about that or learn about that if I want.
What is ... Either Elizabeth Warren losing ... what are American political consumers losing in this initial rush of coverage?
Either don’t cover it all because it’s too early or decide that what’s important at this stage. Two years before the vote, is the debate about where should America go now that it’s been taken to this place by Trump? No one needs to know yet what the status of the horse race is. It’s way too early for that. And it doesn’t matter if some attention is placed on people who have no chance to win, because if what the purpose of this year is a debate, people who don’t have a chance to win can easily contribute to that. In fact, they can finish first, as it were, in the discussion that we’re supposed to have as a country, if they contribute to it.
So that’s what I mean by the model. The model of campaign coverage is that it starts as a race, it continues as a race, the middle is a race, the beginning is a race, and the end is a race. That works for the purposes of political junkies, political professionals whose industry is elections, and journalists whose full-time job is trying to report on politics.
Those are the three people who are most served by that kind of coverage.
You can tease it out a little more. You’ve talked about this in the past as far as media organizations, which generally are for-profit businesses, because the stuff is relatively cheap to produce. You can have talking heads on cable TV discussing it endlessly.
Yes, there’s many, many advantages that the horse race model has. Those are some of them.
Again, that version of talking about something endlessly and having takes and it’s quite cheap to put someone in front of a green screen and beating them around, that’s not specific to politics, right?
We’ve had way more of that in the Trump era, but CNN was doing the poop cruise for weeks on end and the Malaysian plane ...
Yeah, I remember that.
You find a thing, and you’ve got to fill time and it becomes that thing. Over the last two years, three years, it’s been Trump. But there would be something else filling this time. Now it’ll be the election. But if we weren’t having an election this year, we’d find something else to replace that void with.
Mm-hmm. So what?
Got it. So, your proposal is what? What do we do? Leaving aside the business ramifications of what we would do, of how we should fill that time, what do you propose we do instead?
Well, if it’s true that the horse race provides the template for election coverage, which I believe is true and most people who observe it believe it’s true. Although, I learned, as a result of publishing this thread, that some political journalists are now saying that, “The horse race? What’s that? Nobody even knows what that is. It’s just an abstraction. It doesn’t describe anything.”
This is a really good thread, by the way. You should check it out, because one of them, Nate Silver, has some interesting responses. It’s interesting.
Yeah. But this idea that “nobody knows what the horse race is and it’s not really a useful term and I don’t know what you mean by that,” is hilarious to me.
You think they’re protesting too much.
But, if that is the template for coverage, the only way you can improve it is by coming up with a different template to replace that one. My idea for a different template is called the citizen’s agenda approach to campaign coverage, and it’s different. It was first used in the 1990s. It was proven as an alternative, meaning it’s practical. You can do it. It’s been done.
So, the Charlotte Observer went through this.
With the Charlotte Observer, and others have tried to do it since then. But it kind of fell out of favor, disappeared into press history, and here’s how it works: First, and this is the part that may be the hardest thing... First, you have to identify the people that you are serving; the people you are trying to inform. You ask them, at the beginning of your coverage, a very simple but powerful question.
You go to your readers, your listeners, your viewers ...
Everybody you intend to inform with your coverage. And you ask them this question: “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?” Now notice, this isn’t, “Who’s going to win? Which candidate do you favor? What party has better answers to the nation’s problems?” But, “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?”
Instead of just asking it in one way, you ask it in every way you can think of and in every forum you can think of, and you listen to what people are telling you, and then, using your training and your professional skills in listening and synthesis, you produce an agenda of top discussion items that the people you are trying to inform have said they want the candidates to be discussing, which also means that’s what they want the media to be focusing on.
If you can do that, if you can listen that well, if you can get that input, if you can synthesize and interpret it, you will have a powerful product to base your coverage on.
Do you imagine this is as a top 10 list or a bullet point or whatever it is?
Yeah, as some sort of list, yes.
And whether you’re CNN or the Des Moines Register, you then, I guess, publish this, make this available. You say, “Here’s our agenda.”
You publish it ...
”Here’s what we want people to talk about.”
Yes. You publish it, you explain it. Not only that, you revise it, because it’s a moving thing, right? It moves with the campaign and with events. And, of course, as with any form of in-depth journalism, you have to be right. You have to be accurate. If, however, you are, you have a powerful instrument for organizing your campaign coverage, because it should focus on the items on the citizen’s agenda. You also have a set of instructions for what the relationship between you and the candidate should be, because your job, in the citizen’s agenda approach, is to get the candidates to discuss the items on the citizen’s agenda. Get them to address it and to flesh out what they have said and what they believe on those questions.
Now, it doesn’t mean you can’t report on the horse race. It doesn’t mean you can’t do other things that are also very valuable, like candidate profiles. Obviously, the citizen’s agenda would help you immensely in one area of local coverage that’s really important, which is voter’s guides. You produce voter’s guides. Here are the candidates. Here’s what they’re running for. Here are the issues in the race. Here’s what you should need to know when you walk into the voting booth, which is very practical information.
My idea is, you need an agenda to replace the horse race as a set of instructions for campaign journalists. Here’s one alternative. But the point I really wanted to make in this thread was not, “This is my answer. You should adopt it because it’s right.” But that this should be a time when people in the political press are searching for all kinds of alternatives to the horse race. This is one; I happen to think this is a good one. But there’s others as well.
That’s the discussion that should be happening. Instead, it’s like, “Elizabeth Warren announced. Is she likable enough?”
And then, Trump describes her as Pocahontas. “Well, we have to respond to that, and now we’ve got to go ask a Native American representative, how do they feel about that?” We go back and forth.
Jay, what happens ... I won’t spend the entire time on this. But, my basic problem here with what you’ve laid out as your alternative is, we’re in a world where ... I don’t know if the candidates would have ever played along, but we certainly seem to be in a world where the candidates, and there’s an entire right-wing media ecosystem which would 100 percent not play along with this, and may have also prevented this from even working. Right?
What happens if you poll citizens and a third of them this month tell you their biggest concern are migrants coming over the border to infect us with disease and crime, etc.? Or whatever else they’ve been ... whatever other meme has been propped up in the last few months. Right? If the citizens themselves are giving you bad data or telling you to pursue stuff that doesn’t make sense for the country, what are you to do with that?
Well, it’s possible they’ll say something like that.
Or ... and Nate pointed this out in one of his responses, most Democrats are most interested in who’s going to beat Trump. That’s their No. 1 response.
Yeah. Well, first we have to figure out what people say when you ask them, instead of anticipating what they’re going to say, which is sort of part of the problem, getting ahead of the voters. Right? It’s not like you just simply take what they say and just use manufactured phrases and stereotypes. The idea is that you listen deeply to what they’re telling you, and you try to discern what the underlying issue there is that can be addressed and should be addressed in a political campaign.
So, you formulate ... There’s an art to it. You have to formulate that in a way that makes it discussable. Legitimately discussable. We don’t know what the agenda would look like after that action takes place, because we don’t have a press that’s trying to do that.
I mean, I sort of imagine that you’re imagining going to people and sitting with them at their table or whatever forum and having a deep discussion and they’re telling you, “I’m really concerned about health care.” “I’m more concerned about education.” All of the kinds of things we think that government should probably have some role in helping or fixing.
But again, they could say, “Blacks.” Or however they would describe their racism, right? Because one bit of conventional wisdom about 2016 is that it really was a race-driven election. The country couldn’t really grapple with that. Do you imagine that the country could grapple with this frame?
I imagine that trying to do this would bring up all kinds of problems like that. Lots of them. And you would be faced with challenges of interpretation and framing and phrasing to really represent what people have told you, that would be novel and would force campaign journalists to think about, well, what’s really our purpose here?
That’s the whole idea here, right? Because campaign journalism is just too well-known by the people who do it. It’s almost like they’re tired. Listening to a lot of the early 2020 coverage, they sound bored themselves asking these questions.
”I don’t wanna get on the bus.”
Exactly, on the bus. So yeah, there’ll be 1,001 problems that would come up like that, and facing them and solving them with some wit and creativity, some insight, would be the whole point of doing it, absolutely.
And then there’s a ... I don’t know if “meta-question” is the right way to put it. I have an overarching question about all this stuff, because I think it’s a theme you come back to over and over which is, going to the people that you’re serving/providing information to, asking them what they want, we’ve talked about this a couple of times, and having that reflect your work. On the one hand, this is the most obvious thing to ever say about anything that reflects a business. Of course you want to ...
... give consumers that you want to serve ...
Works for Southwest Airlines.
Exactly. Of course you want to do that. There is something in the back of my journalist head, though, that gets skeevy about that.
I don’t know exactly what it is, it could be I’m just wedded to my role as a person who is an arbiter, it could be that I’ve done digital media in this decade and I know what sort of, responding to what you get from ... responding to cues you get from Chartbeat or Facebook or Google can lead you in weird ways.
Yeah. That’s a problem.
People might say, “I’m very interested in eating healthy,” I’m ripping off Ezra Klein, I talked to this fall. But, you know, if given a bunch of Oreos, they’re gonna eat those Oreos, and they’re gonna leave the healthy food alone.
So you can tie yourself in knots trying to serve ... trying to respond to all the sort of consumer input.
Then at some point, you do need to make some decisions about what you’re gonna cover.
Totally. Yeah. Well, I think anytime journalists hear it recommended that they ask the people they’re trying to inform what they wanna know about, they respond with these kinds of fears, and they’re legitimate fears. I think one way to put it is, if you are listening to the public that you’re trying to inform, what becomes of truth-telling?
I think that’s a good question, because one of the things we need journalists for is to tell us truths that we may not wanna hear. So my point is what’s gonna make it likely that people will listen to you when you tell them truths they don’t wanna hear? What’s gonna make that possible? Well, my answer would be if they think you understand them, if you have a relationship with them, if you are in dialog with them, if you’ve listened well to them, then maybe when you tell them these tough truths that they don’t wanna hear, they will actually listen.
That’s where the arguments come together. In order to tell people difficult truths, you have to listen to them.
Someone ... If a random person comes up to you and says, “You should rethink that boyfriend you have,” you’re probably not gonna listen to them.
Your bestie, under the right conditions ...
Exactly. If you have a friend who says, “You know what? You really need to lose some weight,” if you know this person cares about you, it means one thing. If it’s a drive-by, it means something completely different.
The other ... And I have less of a problem with this, but one of the general responses to any of this, this came up with fact-checking Trump with his nationally televised address at the beginning of the year, which is, this is all condescending, we think we’re trying to help the consumer, we’re really condescending to them. If we lay everything out, present it to them, people can make their own choices and we shouldn’t be so paternalistic. By the way, who are we to think that ... You know, there’s a third of the country that likes Trump, and not all of them are crazy people, when we should take them seriously.
A bunch of different things seem to be in conflict here.
Mm-hmm, yeah, that’s one reason why the horse race model, even though nobody really believes that strongly in it, continues on, because it has an answer to that, right? Which is, “Here are the polls, here’s what the standing is for the candidates, and one-third of the country is still this,” and you can just kind of wash your hands of it.
That’s also most issue journalism too, right?
“I went to this side, I went to that side, I asked them both, here are both of their quotes.”
Right. “What else do you want from me?” Yeah.
Totally safe. Not only am I safe, but my discussion for how are we gonna cover the 2020 campaign is very quick, it’s easy, we’re gonna cover it the same way we covered it before, right? It’s just a question of who we’re gonna assign, you don’t have to actually take any time to think about it. It’s quick, it’s easy, it’s transportable, it’s repeatable. Not only that, but everybody knows this model, therefore it’s easy to coordinate effort across a large organization like yours, for example, right?
Everyone’s on the same page automatically, you don’t have to spend any energy doing that. There are people by now who are invested in the sense that they have made their careers on the basis of that, right? It’s also for TV, especially as you noted, it’s perfect because it provides plots, it provides characters, it provides rising action, falling action, everything you need to manufacture a show, and even anticipate what your shows are gonna be like throughout ... from here until 2020.
So, it has tremendous advantages. It has built-in advantages that are almost impossible to dislodge. That’s why I keep writing about it.
Is there a country or is ... Other than Charlotte, and you’d mentioned a couple other places where you’ve seen this alternative model work, where you’ve seen this work sort of on an ongoing basis, as opposed to an experiment? Can we point to ...
No, what different about other countries ... And I am trying to expand the citizens model to other countries, I’m trying to interest people in Australia and Canada in doing it. But what the difference is, they don’t have two-year-long campaigns.
They do it in a few months.
Right, they look, “What are you doing?”
That changes the whole picture.
Right, and they go, “It’s almost like you have a business model attached to this campaign.”
I guess we do.
Yeah. So, here we are, two years ahead of time. What are we gonna do for two years? Discuss who has a chance to win? It doesn’t make sense.
And last, I wanna go back to this — and we can circle all the way back to Trump, right? It seems like all of this could work, perhaps, except that Trump and maybe the ecosystem that now has created Trump and Trump’s put in place, might permanently prevent this from happening. Because if, on the one hand you’re trying to have a reasoned, thoughtful discussion about, you know, let’s have a discussion about immigration, and you’ve got a big, important, powerful part of the electorate, and literally the president on down, saying either nonsense or being willfully ignorant, however you wanna describe it, you can’t do this discussion.
Put it another way, if there is a house fire over here, you have to go throw water at the house fire, and you can’t do anything else.
Definitely could happen. One of the reasons why I wrote this thread was I saw something else going on, which is that, we talked about this I think in the first two podcasts on Recode. Trump is creating civic emergency, and he’s also leading a campaign to discredit the American press. Those things go on.
That put professional journalism in a very difficult situation where they did not want to be, and it’s summed up in Marty Baron’s remark, which I think is very profound, “We’re not at war, we’re at work.” What he was saying was, we just have to keep doing our job, even though the president is attacking us.
That’s the editor of the Washington Post. The New York Times has a similar take on it.
Right. What happens with the campaign — and also with the takeover of the House by the Democratic Party — is that a much more normal picture has returned to Washington politics. Which is, two parties in conflict, there’s an election coming up, there’s the ... the House Democrats have their point of view, the Trump administration has its point of view. Now the picture looks very familiar to mainstream journalists, they can slot themselves into that, and they can do, on the one hand, on the other hand, both sides reporting, and they are happy about that.
What’s disturbing about that for me is that the civic emergency is still here, it’s even worse in a lot of ways. He’s getting crazier, the undermining of our democracy is getting more intense, things are building to a pressure point. Now you have this setup where the conditions are perfect for this sort of artificial balance to return. The campaign especially provides all kinds of opportunities.
He’s supposed to be yearning on the part of mainstream press to present ...
Yes, to have a more familiar picture to insert themselves into.
Even though, when they go home and talk to their family, when they go talk to their colleagues at the bar, they say, “This shit with Trump is worse than you can imagine.”
Absolutely. They think it’s nuts.
”It’s terrifying, I can’t print half of what’s going on.”
When they do, when the Times and the Post, I think, it was really struck ... I think this summer both had stories almost within hours of each other describing Trump’s real estate patterns.
And doing everything but saying, “It sure looks like he’s engaged in money laundering.” They specifically don’t say money laundering, and they maybe quote someone who’s got ... they quote ... they just don’t say it, and they can’t say it for legal reasons, they can’t say it for professional reasons. That was one where I just wanted to shake them and go, “Just say what you wanna say.”
They can’t say it.
I know with the tax story, they sorta did say he’s a tax cheat.
Tax cheat. But another thing to say he’s actually engaged in money laundering, this is a recent thing that’s been happening.
It’s incredibly obvious, we just literally legally can’t say it, yet. They get this response all the time from the readers, on and off Twitter, other forums say, “Why won’t you just come out and say that he’s lying when he’s lying?”
Or whatever it is.
I hear it all the time.
You wrote a bit about this this fall too, and you said that there’s sort of a conflict within the Times, within the Post.
Very much so.
They understand what their audience wants, they don’t actually wanna do that.
Well, I wrote ... specifically made reference to the Times, I feel that there’s a conflict brewing. It’s here already, which is, the Times as an economic entity is more dependent than ever on, not just its readers, but its core readers. The 1 to 2 percent of the readers who are gonna subscribe.
Paying subscribers. “We value the New York Times.”
“So much we’re gonna pay it every month.”
This is ... Their very clear business strategy is to get everybody on the same page about the subscription funnel, and the core readers, the return readers who are going to be the economic future of the Times, makes sense. Those people are not the American public. They are, for the most part, educated, coastal, liberal, cosmopolitan people.
Probably did not vote for Trump.
Probably didn’t. They exist in every city across the country, they’re concentrated in some of the bigger ones. Those people want the New York Times to be far more aggressive on this civic emergency, they want it to speak in a plainer language. They are extremely frustrated by all of the attention paid to Trump voters, and little attention in a way is paid to Hillary voters, who now realize that their election was stolen ...
They’re the ones that got upset when the Times had an op-ed page full of Trump voters.
Exclusively Trump voters. “How dare you?”
Right? That was a flashpoint, but it was only one of many flashpoints. I think that the journalists are caught in the situation where they feel grateful to the core readers of the Times, they understand the business strategy, they know these people are the future of their institution. They know they can’t rely on advertisers or Facebook or platforms, right? There’s no billionaire that’s gonna come to the rescue for them.
They feel kind of indebted to them, and they also feel very powerfully that they need to push them aside, they need to not listen to them, they need to understand both sides, they need to stay in the middle, they need to be professional and have a certain professional detachment. In normal times, that kind of tension might be survivable, but under the pressure of Trump and the demolition job that he’s doing on the American republic, that is pushed into a kind of tension that’s much higher than normal.
I don’t think the leadership of the Times really has a way of grappling with that. I don’t know that they have a strategy for that. They have an economic strategy for the newspaper, and it’s working, working pretty well, but for this, I don’t know. I think this is why there are these flare-ups all the time between Times readers and Times journalists.
It seems like it’s a tension they’re just gonna have to tolerate for a couple years or maybe more.
Let’s talk a little bit more about Trump. Every year you come on, we talk about sort of the basic state of Trump and journalism, which is, there’s some amazing journalism being created about the Trump administration and its aftereffects, and it’s not just the craziness out of the White House and Bannon’s up and Kushner’s down. It’s the real kind of shoe-leather reporting we all also wanna see investigated, they’re throwing a lot of resources at both Trump himself and what’s going on with the EPA. All that’s great, countered by Trump is, as you said, successfully waging a war against journalism.
Lots of our Democratic institutions in general, but specifically journalism, and seems to be winning. Is there anything that gives you any hope for things improving in the next two years? Assuming we have two more years of Trump.
Is there anything that says, post-Trump, we can fix this?
Depends on who gets into power. We don’t know how successful the Trump route will be for others. We have historical parallels that we could point to, but we don’t know if they are gonna work. For example, Charlie Savage, I remember, did a lot of reporting about this eight years ago when Bush had built up executive power over legislative power, hugely. That was a concern at the time, and it’s hard to remember now, but that was a big deal. And he said, “Once a president gains more power, the next president never gives it up.”
Right. This is part of the Dick Cheney movie that they don’t really get into.
But it’s not just that ... In the movie’s telling, Dick Cheney became this awful boogeyman that accumulated power for his own end, but it kept going in the next administration.
Right, because the next president comes in and says, “Well, that was bad, but that’s because he was a bad president. I’m a good president, I’ll use these powers for good,” right? So, that might happen. On the other hand, we could have a backlash to Trump, right? And want a return to normalcy, as clichéd as that sounds. Who knows? We don’t know. But, in anticipation of this conversation, I did ... I sort of came up with my grades for the press.
Let’s go for it.
Under the different parts of this problem, because I don’t think you can discuss press coverage of Trump in the totality, it’s composed of different problems. So, the first one, and the part that’s probably the reason people say this is the golden age for journalism, is that in the investigation of Trump, the press is doing a pretty good job. There are mistakes, there are stories that turn out to be wrong ...
Right, right, right. We’re discussing this a few days after the BuzzFeed story, and we still don’t really know what to make of that.
Yeah, that one, I’m not sure that’s a mistake yet.
There are occasional problems. But in investigating Trump, in digging into what actually happened, in alerting the public that there’s something serious going on here, I give the press an A-minus for that.
Then there’s the problem that Margaret Sullivan helped to name, which is letting Trump be your assignment editor. There, I would give the press a D, because that’s ...
Still today, in 2019?
Yeah, I still think that he is very effective at getting the press and journalists to talk about what he wants to talk about.
I do think we’re improving.
So, up from an F?
Right, and just to tease these out, the idea ... he says something batshit in a tweet or in an interview, it’s a crazy thing to have the president say, you feel dutifully, we should respond to it, or at least note it, because the president said an insane thing, and [it’s] 100 percent unclear, and quite usually unlikely that he actually means it or cares what he says.
Yes. Or he goes on a campaign that lasts for more than a tweet cycle, that is based on no visible facts to back it up.
Not even that it’s not fact-based, it’s that he doesn’t believe it, he doesn’t intend to carry through.
Yeah, it’s completely cynical, it’s completely made up, or it’s whatever. Like the caravan, right? So that’s letting Trump be your assignment editor. I still think the press struggles with that, a lot.
Last fall there was lots of coverage of the caravan, lots of coverage of the press debating whether or not ... How would you cover the caravan? But it still covered the caravan.
It still ... yeah. That’s a perfect example.
The third problem is responding to what I called earlier in this podcast the civic emergency that Trump is bringing on. Which is really difficult, because it requires journalists to puzzle their way through a situation they never thought they would be in.
There’s nothing in their training or background that prepares them for reporting on the slow-motion undermining of American democracy by the person in power. Or, to take a small leap, the possibility that the president of the United States is in fact working against the nation’s interests, which is definitely a possibility, right? There’s nothing ... It’s almost like a spy novel.
Yeah, you can say that out loud in 2019 and no one says, “You’re crazy.”
Yeah, nope. Exactly.
They say, “That’s certainly a possibility.”
So, in adjusting their routines, inventing new ones, innovating on the fly in the middle of a civic emergency, which is, I think, a big problem for the American press, I give it a C.
Okay, for that. Then there’s a really hard problem you mentioned earlier, which I think is agonizingly difficult to think through, and that is the crack-up of the American public. The fact that about a third of the country relies for its news about Trump on Trump. That, as I’ve said before, is an authoritarian news system up and running for one-third of the country.
Can’t be reached. You’re never ... I mean, you could even at this point maybe have video of him committing a crime, they wouldn’t believe it.
Right. It’s not only that they wouldn’t believe bad news or accusations against Trump, it’s that they mistrust the product of the press on principle. And because it’s in the Washington Post, it is to be mistrusted, which is different than applying a skeptical lens to everything the Washington Post publishes, which had been a conservative attitude for decades. It’s gone beyond that now.
Yeah, I thought about this when the BuzzFeed story broke or sort of after it broke and for whatever reason I wasn’t that tuned to the news cycle and by the time I got to it I thought, “All right, I get that this is a very big deal,” it’s a giant big deal. You’re accusing the president of telling someone to lie before Congress. He could be impeached for it. But I thought, “I know how this is going to play out, which is a third of the country just won’t engage in it.”
Right. And I will have to give the president an “incomplete” on that because it’s so hard to know even where to start. I don’t think anybody has an answer to that.
And then there’s another problem that ... maybe a fifth problem that interests me the most because I’m a journalism professor, which is kind of an intellectual emergency in the sense that many of the concepts, forms, routines, practices of journalism have just broken under the pressure of Trump.
So an example would be, the other day, maybe it was today, Washington Post came out with this latest number, 8,000 false statements or lies that the president has made in two years with an increasing level per day. And so there’s an example of a broken form. The fact-check, obviously, even though it might be valuable, isn’t having the effect that it once did. He broke it.
Right. Because the idea is if you accumulate even a small fraction of that many lies, you should be hounded out of office.
There are political costs, exactly. That was the idea. Or as Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post fact-checker, has said many times, “What used to happen is that when candidates or presidents made false claims, they would adjust.” They would stop making that claim. They would change it so that it was kind of within the rules. They would de-emphasize it. Without saying, “You got me,” they would just change their behavior and it worked kind of, sort of well. Obviously, this is not Trump’s approach.
And so what I mean by intellectual emergency is, that form is broken. What do we replace it with? Well, in order to figure that out, you kind of have to call your own profession into crisis. It’s related to another thing that I think is really in the background here, Peter. After the debacle of the Iraq War coverage in 2003, in which a phony case for war passed through the political system and the press system without being detected. There was no grand inquiry in journalism about, how did this happen?
We drummed a few people out of ...
Yeah, there was a few postmortems. There was a few mea culpas, but no large-scale reflection at how did this happen, what made this possible? Similarly, after 2008, in the financial crash, you had some small debate about, “Well, did the press alert us?” And lots of business journalists said, “We wrote those stories,” and a lot of other people said, “I didn’t see them.” And it was sort of left there. But it wasn’t a grand inquiry. And the same thing after 2016. The press is not good at reflecting on these major institutional ...
Which is funny because the press loves talking about ourselves. That’s why we have this podcast.
Well, not to this degree, I mean.
So if you have these massive failures that are systematic and the system doesn’t ask, “What went wrong here? And how can we fix that?” What’s going to happen? You’re going to have the repetition of cycles, which is why, when I saw the coverage of Elizabeth Warren, I said, “Here comes another cycle,” and I tried to speak up.
Thank you for doing homework in advance of this podcast. I really appreciate it.
I had notes.
One quick aside, can I give Trump a tiny bit of credit? Trump and his ecosystem for breaking up some of the artifice, specifically around political reporting? We talked about this in the very beginning, that some of the first things you heard the press worrying about after Trump was elected were the least important things. “Are we going to have access to the actual White House briefing room?”
“Trump has not given us enough press conferences,” right?
Some of the form and formality now seems to be just killed, right?
He’s showed you it’s pointless. I mean, he didn’t intentionally do so. Maybe it’d be good if we don’t bring some of that back.
We don’t need to have a presidential press conference. He can speak however he wants, whenever he wants. He’s very available to reporters.
And it turns out, again with Trump specifically, it doesn’t matter what he says, it doesn’t have meaning, but maybe we could think about that in a post-Trump era that maybe some of this stuff, the White House Correspondents Dinner, some of this stuff really is kind of silly and we could move on without it.
Yeah, I think there’s a point there. It’s certainly true for any White House reporter with a modicum of self-awareness that ... Access has been shown to be not so valuable, right?
Yes and no. The most prized reporters, some of the most in-demand reporters are the people who can call up Trump and get him to get on the phone. Maggie Haberman has a brief ...
Well, it is, that is considered valuable. I’m not sure it’s correct that it is that ... Within the world of journalism, it’s considered valuable, absolutely.
Maggie Haberman isn’t going to stop reporting, calling up Trump and asking ...
No, but I think the materials for questioning the value of access have been provided by this administration.
Right. The counter to that would be Fahrenthold, right, who’s done ... David Fahrenthold at the Washington Post, who’s done great reporting, again, showing Trump to be a fraud. And the two things can exist in the same place, that that kind of calling up Trump and asking him a question and getting him to respond, that’s valuable. And Fahrenthold’s Trump-free reporting, also incredibly valuable.
Well, no, I don’t think I quite agree there, Peter, because if you have access to a source who is fundamentally misinforming people with everything they say, you can’t just say, “Well, it’s valuable because we have access.” There’s a problem there because you have access to a disinformation machine.
And I think that issue has been raised by Trump, but it’s one of many things that have shown — and this, I think, is your point — that had been shown to be much more artificial and superficial than they looked. So like the whole idea that there is a White House with some sort of coherence between the president and his mind and his will and the people who work there who represent him, that idea has also been broken in half by Trump. In that sense, there is no White House. There’s nobody that you can go to who can tell you what the president thinks and whose word is reliable as a kind of stand-in for the president himself.
And we’re assuming that there will be a future and that at some point there’ll be some sort of more normalcy and there will be people in the White House in the future where you could have those discussions?
Probably, yeah, because one of those strange things about this situation is that Trump has undermined himself. The White House briefing room, that space, with the podium and the seal is an enormous asset to the United States president. It’s an incredible stage.
“I’m here. I’m saying something important. I command all of your attention automatically.”
And the world listens. And to essentially piss that away by undermining it so that now it’s kind of useless as a stage, there’s no sense in which that helps Trump or that helps the presidency at all. It’s just an artifact of his own craziness.
There was an early January story where Trump called up the networks and said, “I have a speech I want to make about the wall. I want you to get me airtime,” and there was a brief news cycle of should they or shouldn’t they have given him the time. Did you care about that?
But then obviously, they all gave him the time.
They all did, but just making them ask that question and making them explain why they did is good.
And their explanation basically was, “We got to do it. He’s the president and we can’t pick and choose.” That was the on the record...
It was that. It was also that “he hasn’t done this before.” It was, I think, a belief that “we can counter his falsehoods with our commentary after,” there was that. And it was also the fact that they didn’t want to be the only one not televising.
Right. And do you believe they made the right call or do you think they all should have unanimously said ...
What I would like to see is more plurality in this. It would’ve been good if one or two said, “No,” and one or two said, “Yes.”
NBC said, “Nah.”
Yeah. That’d be interesting.
Yeah. Then you could at least have the discussion ...
Or, a middle course which is, “We’re going to run it on tape delay once we know that there aren’t any truly dangerous disinformation moments in it.”
Right. And I think that was part of the response. That was, “You guys are being way too paternalistic. People can make up their own mind. We can figure it out. You shouldn’t be able to quarantine what the president says from the public and, by the way, anyone who wants to get this is going to get it anyway,” etc., etc.
Yeah, that sort of libertarian hands-off philosophy can solve almost any problem in journalism.
Speaking of alternate models, you mentioned this last time you were on, it’s getting closer to being a thing. There is a Dutch-based news organization called The Correspondent?
That you have invested your time and energy in.
And reputation. You had Trevor Noah talk about it?
Yes, we did.
That’s even fancier than Recode Media. Tell us what it is and where it’s at right now.
Okay. Well, I was the first US ambassador for De Correspondent, a Dutch startup [that] dates from 2013, this is the world’s most successful member-funded news site, ad-free, member-funded, 90 percent of the revenues come directly from people who support it.
Not a subscription.
It’s not subscription. The difference is subscription’s a product relationship: If you pay your money you get the product, if you don’t pay you don’t get it. Membership is, you join the cause because you believe in this work. If you believe in the work, you want it to spread even to non-members, which is important because it means it doesn’t imply a digital paywall.
It’s an NPR, public television...
The NPR model except it’s ad-free and also sponsor-free and no government funding either, so all those things increase independence. So they wanted to expand to the United States, to English-language publishing around the world. In order to do that, they wanted to start the way they started in the Netherlands, which is a crowdfunding campaign for founding members who believe in these principles and want to see a publication built on them.
So I helped them design this campaign, I was their ambassador, we raised about a million and a half dollars for the startup costs needed to get to the starting line and the campaign ran from November 14, shortly after the election, to December 14. We had a $2.5 million goal, we ended up with 45,000 members around the world and $2.6 million. So we met the goal, which means there is going to be a The Correspondent.
And it’s going to be up and running this year?
And it’s going to be up and running in 2019 and now we have to figure out, I assume I’ll be helping them, “All right. What are we going to do with this? How do we create this approach which is successful in the Netherlands, in the US?”
Because the financial structure of it is a unique, or relatively unique thing, but then there’s a whole other component of what they’re actually going to make which is very different, basically, counter to just about anything you see in traditional ...
That’s the idea, yeah.
Spell out that part.
Okay. So their editorial philosophy conflicts with a lot of what’s normal in American journalism. First of all, it’s not the daily news grind. They don’t try to participate in that because, with no ads, you don’t have daily traffic quotas. All you really care about is at the end of the year, does that person think that this was valuable and will they renew? That’s the one thing that matters. So the daily news cycle doesn’t matter that much.
Secondly, they drive editorial sovereignty downward in the organization, so each full-time correspondent is allowed to design their own beats and decide their own reporting projects, which is unusual. And in exchange for that, they are required to spend 30 to 40 percent of their time interacting with members around the knowledge that members have that could be useful to reporting.
So being a member is not just supporting The Correspondent financially, it’s when we report on something that you know something about you’re supposed to help us out, which could mean, for example, if you have expertise in health care or cybersecurity, we might ask you not only for quotes but we might, like, enlist you as a proofreader to make sure that we don’t make any errors. That would be an example, so there’s that.
Then there’s the fact that they practice what is called in Europe “constructive journalism.” And what that means is you can’t report on a problem without also reporting on what can we do about this. What can you, Peter Kafka, do as an individual, like reducing your carbon footprint? What can we as a society do about this? And that’s part of their formula as well.
And they have some other principles like that that try to address what people hate the most about digital news, like repetitive coverage, clickbait headlines, sensationalism that is traffic-driven, the fact that stories explode, you hear about nothing else for three days and then you don’t hear about them again, things like that. The Correspondent’s editorial approach is pitched to some of the pain points and sore points that have developed around digital journalism over the years.
Half of that sounds like basically sort of the pro- case for subscription-based businesses. You’re not worried about advertising, you’re worried explicitly about serving a base and you can sort of grade yourself yearly on whether that base comes back to you and gives you money. Membership called a subscription, that seems relatively virtuous right now. Question about how often you can apply that model and where you can apply it. The part about going and asking your readers for help is the part that I can just feel the hair on the back of my neck creeping up a little bit.
Yes, except, one thing you have to keep in mind is the readers don’t get to decide what gets reported on.
You’re not crowdsourcing your journalism?
Not crowdsourcing your editorial agenda. As I said, they drove sovereignty downward in the organization. The correspondents themselves decide what their beats are and what their reporting projects are. They are required to consult with the members when those members have knowledge that would be valuable to the reporting. So it’s not like, “Tell us what our journalism should be about.”
And we’re not giving you a soapbox, so you don’t get to have a quote in here, this is “I’m going to go make my work, you’re going to like it or not. I would like you to be involved in it. I’m going to formalize that sort of …”
It’s a very journalist-centric model in which the correspondents ... It’s called The Correspondent for a reason. The Correspondent is at the center of the model.
This will launch in spring?
Probably. First half of 2019 is the target.
How many working journalists/correspondents will you have?
Unclear, somewhere at the beginning between five and 10, probably.
Okay. Well, I imagine we’re going to have another conversation about that this year.
Hopefully. It’s like any other crowdfunding thing, the campaign is energizing, it’s fun, and then if it succeeds, now you got to do what you say you got to do.
And that’s the downside, you got to go to work.
You have to measure up to what you said you were going to do, but I’m optimistic that it’ll be a valuable thing to try.
I’m going to leave on optimism because a lot of this conversation could be not optimistic.
Thank you, Jay. Thanks for your time. Thanks for visiting us once again.
Peter, my pleasure.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.