Thursday, December 8, 2016

Political reporting in post-truth America

Quote of the day: “The election of 2016 showed us that Americans are increasingly choosing to live in a cloud of like-minded spin, surrounded by the partisan political hackery and fake news that poisons their Facebook feeds.” - Susan Glasser’s essay Covering Politics in a Post-truth America.

h/t Matt Boyd

How did we ever get to that low point? Below are snippets that I hope capture the essence of Glasser’s essay. It’s an autobiographical account of her career in news media spanning an internship to several editorships. It is a wonderful read spanning decades of changes in news reporting occasioned by concomitant changes in technology. But all these changes have opened the gates of news hell, both for the journalists and for the consuming audience. Here are my selected snippets from Glasser’s essay.

As editor of Politico throughout this never-to-be-forgotten campaign, I’ve been obsessively looking back over our coverage, too, trying to figure out what we missed along the way to the upset of the century and what we could have done differently. (An early conclusion: while we were late to understand how angry white voters were, a perhaps even more serious lapse was in failing to recognize how many disaffected Democrats there were who would stay home rather than support their party’s flawed candidate.) But journalistic handwringing aside, I still think reporting about American politics is better in many respects than it’s ever been.

I have a different and more existential fear today about the future of independent journalism and its role in our democracy. And you should too. Because the media scandal of 2016 isn’t so much about what reporters failed to tell the American public; it’s about what they did report on, and the fact that it didn’t seem to matter. Stories that would have killed any other politician—truly worrisome revelations about everything from the federal taxes Trump dodged to the charitable donations he lied about, the women he insulted and allegedly assaulted, and the mob ties that have long dogged him—did not stop Trump from thriving in this election year. Even fact-checking perhaps the most untruthful candidate of our lifetime didn’t work; the more news outlets did it, the less the facts resonated. Tellingly, a few days after the election, the Oxford Dictionaries announced that “post-truth” had been chosen as the 2016 word of the year, defining it as a condition “in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

… Even as we sat gasping at the Access Hollywood video, I thought back to that day so long ago in the Post newsroom, when we journalists were convinced the revelation of the Starr investigation into Bill Clinton’s womanizing—and the lies he told to avoid responsibility for it—could spell the end of Clinton’s presidency. Within days, Trump was thinking of that moment too, and in the effort to deflect attention from his scandalous behavior toward women, he sought to resurrect Bill Clinton’s old misdeeds, parading several of the women from Clinton’s 1998 scandals before the cameras at his second presidential debate with Clinton’s wife. Trump turned out to be more correct than we editors were: the more relevant point of the Access Hollywood tape was not about the censure Trump would now face but the political reality that he, like Bill Clinton, could survive this—or perhaps any scandal. Yes, we were wrong about the Access Hollywood tape, and so much else.

Of course, that’s not how it seemed at the time. It’s hard to remember now, amid all the anguished self-examination after the shocking outcome of the election, but it was at least occasionally a great moment for journalism. If ever there were a campaign that called for aggressive reporting, this one did, and it produced terrific examples of investigative, public service-minded journalism at its best. In a way, it was even liberating to have a candidate so disdainful of the old rules as Donald Trump. With some of us banned for months from his rallies even as they were more extensively recorded by more participants than perhaps any political events in the history of the world (thanks, iPhone), we journalists were still able to cover the public theater of politics while spending more of our time, resources, and mental energy on really original reporting, on digging up stories you couldn’t read anywhere else. Between Trump’s long and checkered business past, his habit of serial lying, his voluminous and contradictory tweets, and his revision of even his own biography, there was lots to work with. No one can say that Trump was elected without the press telling us all about his checkered past. Or about Hillary Clinton’s for that matter; her potential conflicts of interest at the Clinton Foundation, six-figure Wall Street speeches, and a secret email server were, in my view, rightfully scrutinized by the media. It’s just the kind of stuff we got into journalism to do.

When we assigned a team of reporters at Politico during the primary season to listen to every single word of Trump’s speeches, we found that he offered a lie, half-truth, or outright exaggeration approximately once every five minutes—for an entire week. And it didn’t hinder him in the least from winning the Republican presidential nomination. Not only that, when we repeated the exercise this fall, in the midst of the general election campaign, Trump had progressed to fibs of various magnitudes just about once every three minutes! So much for truth: By the time Trump in September issued his half-hearted disavowal of the Obama “birther” whopper he had done so much to create and perpetuate, one national survey found that only 1 in 4 Republicans was sure that Obama was born in the U.S., and various polls found that somewhere between a quarter and a half of Republicans believed he’s Muslim. So not only did Trump think he was entitled to his own facts, so did his supporters. It didn’t stop them at all from voting for him.

As this wild presidential campaign progressed, that became my ever-more nagging worry and then our collective nightmare—the fear, clearly realized, that all the flood of news and information we’ve celebrated might somehow be drowning us. So much terrific reporting and writing and digging over the years and … Trump? What happened to consequences? Reporting that matters? Sunlight, they used to tell us, was the best disinfectant for what ails our politics.

But 2016 suggests a different outcome: We’ve achieved a lot more transparency in today’s Washington—without the accountability that was supposed to come with it.

So Twitter and Facebook have provided the means for rapid communication and facilitated the job of political reporting. But consider this set of gloomy facts gleaned from Glasser’s essay.

During February-April 2016, mainstream media citations on Facebook totaled 12.4 million; citations of fake news stories were 2.9 million. But by the last three months prior to the election the trend had reversed: 8.7 million for the fake news items and 7.4 million for the national media items. There’s your evidence for America’s fascination with stupid, shitty non-facts. It gets worse.

When I grew up, our source of information was newsprint. Now the responses to where you get your election news is uniformly less than 5% from newsprint for all age groups. Other data suggest a march toward electronic sources that differ by age. 43% of the over–65 respondents get their news from cable TV; only 12% of those aged 18–29 do so. The social media data are dramatically different. 35% of those in the younger bracket get their information from social media while only 1% of those over 65 do.

You see where this is going, I hope. Social media has played an enormous role in the dumbing-down of America. And, like overseas job losses, those ex-smarts are not coming back to America.

Susan B. Glasser served as editor of Politico throughout the 2016 campaign. The founding editor of Politico Magazine, she has also been editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy magazine; a foreign correspondent, editor, and political reporter for The Washington Post; and co-chief of the Post’s Moscow Bureau with her husband, Peter Baker. Their book, Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the End of Revolution, was published in 2005. Prior to the Post, Glasser worked for eight years at Roll Call, where she rose from an intern to become the paper’s top editor.

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