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Trump exploited a broken press. Here’s how to fix it.

A conversation with media critic Jay Rosen.

President Donald Trump holds a news conference at the White House on August 19, 2020.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Last Friday, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden was confronted by a CBS reporter as he stepped off a plane. “What is your response to the New York Post story about your son, sir?”

To his credit, Biden dismissed the question, but that’s not really the point. The story the reporter was referencing, which was peddled to the Post by Rudy Giuliani, is absolute bullshit. The staff journalist who wrote the story even reportedly refused to put his name on the byline out of concerns that it was bogus and unreliable.

If any of this reminds you of Hillary Clinton’s fake email scandal in 2016, it should. Then, as now, the goal of people like Giuliani was to get the press to cover a story not in order to convince people that it’s true, but to amplify a false narrative and divert attention — and maybe drive the public to exhaustion. It’s a strategy that Steve Bannon colorfully dubbed “flooding the zone with shit.”

I’ve written about this problem more than once (here and here) and yet I still struggle to come up with viable solutions. The pattern is always the same: Trump, or operators working on his behalf, flood the zone with shit and the media responds as it always does: it covers the story. Even though much of the coverage is skeptical, as the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent argued, the mere fact that stories are printed with the words “Biden” and “emails” means the zone-flooding approach succeeded.

In general, the press has handled the Biden story much better than it handled the Clinton story in 2016, which suggests some lessons were learned. But I still worry that the attention — even to debunk it — nonetheless gives such a story oxygen, allowing the right to muddy the waters and confuse voters.

So what, exactly, is the media supposed to do?

I reached out to Jay Rosen, a media critic and professor at NYU and one of the sharpest analysts of political journalism in the social media age, to talk about the media’s dilemma. We discussed why he thinks the prevailing model of journalism has been hacked, why the press has been either unwilling or unable to adapt, and some practical steps journalists can take to deal with the realities of this new media ecosystem.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

The model is broken

Sean Illing

You wrote recently that Trump has exposed the weaknesses in “the journalist’s code.” What does that mean?

Jay Rosen

There’s a code that tells journalists what’s newsworthy. You won’t see it written down except maybe in a journalism professor’s research. But it includes timeliness, conflict, anything totally unexpected, anything seemingly consequential, anything that involves a charismatic person whose human interest looms large in the news, and so on.

Trump has hacked the newsworthiness code by being newsworthy in the traditional sense every day, many times a day. He dominates the public conversation. He overwhelms journalists trying to process all this news. He exhausts the patience of the public. And he throws off so many false or misleading statements that he breaks the controls or checks on that as well.

If, as a journalist, you continue with the traditional newsworthiness code, you will participate in this method, which Steve Bannon accurately described. “The Democrats don’t matter. The real opposition is the media.” Trump governs by fighting with the news media. “And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.” Which overwhelms many codes that journalists have for how to do their work.

Sean Illing

I’m glad you brought up Trump’s “flood the zone” strategy, because that’s really what we’re talking about here. And let’s use the first presidential debate as an example. Trump did what he always does: overwhelmed the moderator and Biden with a barrage of lies and outrageous claims, and the press responded as it always does, namely by fact-checking Trump.

But I think you and I both agree that Trump’s playing a totally different game. He’s not trying to win in the marketplace of ideas. He’s dumping bullshit into the public sphere and watching the press fumble all over itself while trying to debunk a hurricane of falsehoods.

Why does this keep working over and over again?

Jay Rosen

Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post fact-checker, has said many times that before Trump, presidents, Democratic and Republican, reacted in the same way when they were successfully fact-checked by the press. They would change the claim to make it kind-of sort-of factual, or they would take it out of the stump speech, because they didn’t want to suffer the penalty of being described as untruthful. And this was true across parties.

Trump not only doesn’t do that, but he frequently doubles and triples down on a false statement, or makes it part of his stump speech, like the claim that Biden is trying to destroy protections for preexisting conditions.

But that’s not the only thing. Attempts by the press to serve as a “check” on his lying only help Trump prove the culture-war proposition: “They’re trying to take me down because they hate you.” Glenn Kessler put out a book this year about 20,000 lies and distortions that Donald Trump has passed across that system. Well, if the fact-check is supposed to be a check on the tendencies of public figures to exaggerate or slip in falsehoods, it’s obviously not working. The press just hasn’t figured out how to build new routines on the wreckage of the old.

That’s one part of the answer. Another part of the answer is that “flood the zone” is a propaganda method. It’s crude but well-suited to an age of media abundance.

In the Russian setting, it’s called the firehose of falsehood. The most important feature is the constant production of falsehoods in every channel, every platform — mixed with a little truth. Another key feature is that you don’t care if the truth claims are contradictory. There’s no need to be consistent. You use every tool you can. You throw out multiple crappy arguments rather than make one good one.

One of the goals of this method is to overwhelm and dishearten people rather than persuade them. It’s about driving them from the public arena, getting them to give up on efforts to know the truth. The firehose of falsehood is very hard to oppose. It’s difficult to know what to do in response.

Steve Bannon surrounded by journalists with microphones.
Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon in Rome on March 25, 2019. In an earlier interview with journalist Michael Lewis, Bannon said, “The Democrats don’t matter; the real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”
Alessandra Benedetti/Corbis/Getty Images

Sean Illing

Is Trump so extreme in his nihilism and bullshit artistry that the press just isn’t capable of dealing with him? And I want to be clear and say that there’s nothing new about bullshit in politics, but I do think Trump is different.

Jay Rosen

I would agree that the producers of news aren’t capable of dealing with Trump within their present rules and formulas. One of the odd things about the news system as it stands is that there’s no emergency switch. To fix this you would have to call a halt to regular journalism, suspend your routines. You would have to, for example, tear apart the Sunday shows and start again with different premises. And there’s no appetite for that.

I have tried to write about that very thing just to make it sound a little bit more possible. But it would take something like that to match the phenomena, and our journalists aren’t very good at coming up with new practices on the fly. They will assimilate critiques over a long period of time and occasionally change their behavior. People think it doesn’t happen, but it does — slowly.

A good example would be the change in the way the news media deals with mass shooting situations, where they kind of listened to the critique that if you glorify these people, you get more shooters. So there have been changes in how they handle that. They don’t use photographs of the shooters as much. They’re aware that centering the story on these people is unfair to the victims. But that took 10 years or so.

We don’t have 10 years. We don’t have 10 days at this point.

The press has an agenda. Own it.

Sean Illing

This is probably a good place to push this conversation in the direction of solutions. One thing you’ve said over and over again is that journalists have to abandon what you call “the savvy style,” and part of the problem is that reporters have this delusion that they’re merely spectators when, in fact, they’re actors in the process. By that I mean the actions they take, the things they choose to focus on, impacts the very events they claim to be just covering.

Why is this such a crucial distinction?

Jay Rosen

When you look at the American news sphere as it stands, two big things influence political journalism. One is extremely well-known: commercial pressures. We can call it ratings. We can call it clicks. We can call it the industry of attention. All these are names for the same thing, which is using news to generate an audience, and then selling that audience. And, of course, Trump assists with that. That’s why the words of Les Moonves, the former CEO of CBS, are so revealing: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

But even after we allow for that, there is still within the media system a good deal of autonomy and room for maneuver, where journalists can do what they think is important, even though they are parts of a commercial operation.

And here, I think, political journalists took a wrong turn. At some time in the ’70s and the ’80s, they began to look at politics as a game of insiders. They sought to explain to an audience that was itself sort of fascinated by politics — the political junkies, as they are sometimes called — how that game worked and who the masters of it were. This gave us political journalism as a savvy analysis of who was up, who was down, who’s winning or likely to win, the horse race, the spin, the strategy — all of that.

I call it the savvy style in political journalism. It kind of reduced the audience for politics to the junkies who wanted that and responded well to it.

Sean Illing

Why do you think the American press has been unwilling or unable to adapt?

Jay Rosen

If we asked members of the press, responsible people like, say, Dean Baquet, the editor of the New York Times, or others in positions similar to his, or those on the front lines like [the Times’s] Peter Baker, they would say they have adapted. And if you asked them, “What do you mean by that?” they would say things like, “Well, we’re a little more likely to call a lie a lie.” Dean Baquet would point to the various far-reaching, big investigations of Donald Trump that they’ve done for five years, and to his taxes especially. “See? We’ve been tough on him.”

They would say they’re more skeptical than they were at the beginning. They’re less likely to run with his latest tweets. They think they have adapted. That’s important to understand, because their metric is any departure from normal news judgment, whereas people like you and I are comparing what they continue to do to the phenomenon of Donald Trump. And that’s a different scale.

As an institution, the American press has a thin tradition of self-reflection. Part of the reason is it’s hardly an institution at all. It’s a collection of newsrooms that kind of operate in a similar way, but there’s no council that unites it. There’s no CEO of the press. If a Martian landed and said, “Take me to the media’s headquarters,” where would you take them?

After these major crashes in which the news media failed the public in very visible ways, like the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003, or the 2016 election, there’s no 9/11 Commission to figure out what happened. There’s no panel that can synthesize what went wrong.

President Donald Trump participates in the first debate against Joe Biden at Case Western Reserve University on September 29, in Cleveland, Ohio.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Sean Illing

I thought this latest Hunter Biden nonsense story from the Post showed that the media at least learned a few lessons from 2016 and handled this much better than the Hillary story in 2016.

Do you see progress there?

Jay Rosen

Yes, I do. There was more restraint. Of course, the fact that Rudy Giuliani was involved helped a lot. Still, I think there has been some serious reflection about document hacks with obscure actors involved, and the dangers of running with material like that. I know for a fact that some journalists participated in scenario-planning around that possibility, so maybe that had some effect.

Sean Illing

A journalism that’s equal to the scale of the Trump problem will be seen as inherently biased by a lot of people, which I’m fine with, but it seems like a real problem. The editor of the New York Times, for example, wants to serve the entire country, but how does he do that? You can sort of see this in the conservative response to Savannah Guthrie’s handling of the town hall. It’s bullshit, obviously, but half the country thought she was unfair. If you’re running a paper or a network, what’s your response to this challenge?

Jay Rosen

The key is in your phrase, “seen as inherently biased by a lot of people.” If we start with perception, there can be no answer. When the goal is to be seen as without bias you wind up with the view from nowhere, and all the dysfunction that comes with it: working the refs, “both sides do it,” a focus on the horse race because it feels non-ideological, and so on. To continue with that model because you’re afraid of being called biased is defeatist.

But you’re right: Dean Baquet wants the Times to be a paper that serves the entire country, Republicans and Democrats. What’s actually achievable, however, is a newsroom that serves everyone in the country — Democrats and Republican — who shares with Times journalists a certain baseline reality and evidentiary standard. That’s all you can get. Today this group includes a minority of Republicans. That cohort could shrink. Trump has tried to shrink it. Over time it could grow. It could disappear altogether. Margaret Sullivan, media writer for the Washington Post, uses the phrase the “reality-based press” for what I believe is the same idea.

Social media guidelines currently on the books at the New York Times say, “If our journalists are perceived as biased... that can undercut the credibility of the entire newsroom.” This kind of thinking cannot work. If the perception of critics can shape rule-making in his newsroom, then Baquet has surrendered power to enemies of the Times, who will always perceive bias because it is basic to their interests to do so.

Sean Illing

One last thing I will say, and it’s something you’ve suggested before, which is that we need a better answer to the question, “What does it mean to succeed at election coverage?” As it stands, success is some unholy combination of clicks or ratings and predicting winners. That’s the approach to journalism that has to die, and I guess the question is then what will replace it?

Jay Rosen

I have two answers to that. One is sort of leaning into the light, and one is leaning into the dark.

I’ve been advocating for a long time for a citizens agenda approach to election coverage. It puts the electorate in the center of the story, rather than the candidates. The protagonists are the voters struggling to get their concerns addressed by the system, including the media system, but also the candidates. It begins by asking the people you’re trying to inform, “What do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes?” Another way to put the question would be, “What do you want this campaign to be about?” By asking lots of people those questions and getting a really good sense of their answers, you generate a priority list that can keep you from getting blown away by a hurricane of lies, or by the inside game of polls and tactics.

In the citizens agenda model, you “win” when you gain an accurate sense of what people want the campaign to be about, and when you successfully pressure the candidates to address those things people told you they want the campaign to be about. At the local level during this cycle, there are, here and there, public radio stations and local newspapers, that are doing it. So there is an alternative out there. It’s weak compared to the status quo. But it’s real, and it does begin in a different place and overhaul the entire contraption.

The other answer is darker because I think this is where we are going. The Republican Party has become a counter-majoritarian party. It can only win elections by making it harder to vote, and by making it harder to understand what the party is all about. The conflict with honest journalism is structural, not just a matter of broken practices or bad actors. And I believe the people who report on politics in the United States are going to have to confront that reality, whether Trump wins or loses.

If our journalists continue in the assumption that we have a normal system where there is a contest for power between roughly similar parties with different philosophies, then every day of operation they will be distorting the picture more and more. Can that go on indefinitely? I don’t know, but it seems to me that we’re headed for a crash.