To criticize the media is to tread into disputed territory, even before the content of one’s criticism is unfurled. There is no such thing as ‘the media’ in the sense of a monolithic entity. But to the extent that anything binds together the mainstream media, it would be a shared commitment to neutrality of coverage. The media’s job is not to issue subjective opinions but to lay objective facts on the table.
This is a noble goal, and one that I genuinely do respect. But ‘neutrality’ is a slippery concept. And in recent months, as we draw near to the endpoint of a half-century’s worth of conceptual development, the modern understanding of media ‘neutrality’ is nearing the point of structural collapse. In an age of heightened partisanship, the complexities of neutrality have been stripped away, leaving it a mere husk of its former self. In this age, ‘neutral’ is now virtually synonymous with ‘nonpartisan.’
That has long been an economic necessity, as Josh Marshall points out in an excellent piece on the age of single-paper cities. But increasingly, the economic need to avoid directly antagonizing significant portions of the reading public has been internalized, regarded as the defining feature of journalistic integrity. That trend has only been exacerbated by the proliferation of partisan media outlets, who clearly do put their thumb on the scales in terms of editorial judgment. ‘Mainstream’ sources therefore (quite understandably) have seen this sort of objective treatment of ‘the issues themselves’ as the benchmark of good journalism.
The consequences of this shift have long been problematic. But this year, we have watched the media’s allergy for attacking the opinions of a significant voting population crowd out all other considerations, including the pursuit of truth as such. The laudable premise (that the media should report stories, not become stories themselves, that nonpartisanship is a shield against subjectivity) has now been exposed as an autoimmune deficiency.
In seeking to protect itself, the media is exterminating all of the life-sustaining mechanisms that are supposed to give it strength.
The problem of ‘how will this play?’ journalism
‘How will this play’ is the watchword for this sort of reporting, which has no problem with flights of fancy, so long as those flights operate within the terrain of valid speculation.
To opinionate on the baseline horribleness of Trump is impermissible, because reporters must remain distinct from advocates or pundits. By the same token, to opinionate on the fundamental grossness of Clinton’s attitude toward political power is also beyond the pale. But these topics are by no means inaccessible. They simply have to be unlocked through the mediating structure of popular opinion. When a reporter asks ‘how will this play,’ they filter the question through a legitimating device. It’s no longer the reporter making the argument; they are simply asking a question on the behalf of an imagined public.
However, once we recognized this function, it immediately becomes clear that Clinton and Trump will be differently exposed to its effects. Because, to be blunt, we already know how voters will respond to these stories. New evidence of his lies, his corruption, his abuses of power, his sexism, his racism, his utter cluelessness about matters of public policy, his lies about giving to charity, his stealing 9/11 recovery funds, his authoritarianism…his voters will shrug of the shoulders, or (more likely) with an attack on the media for daring to report these facts at all. Everyone else will see the new event as simply one more example of his manifest unfitness for office. In either case, the needle doesn’t move.
Result: at best, there’s no ‘news’ here, because all these things are ‘already baked into the cake.’ At worst, the reporter will actively shy away from poking the beast, because it would risk undermining the delicate latticework of ‘neutrality’ upon which the whole edifice of contemporary campaign coverage rests.
Meanwhile, the Clinton scandals produce endless coverage, not because they are more important (‘importance’ is verboten as a basis for selection – see this recent, horribly depressing theory of media responsibility from Liz Spayd), but because they can easily be integrated into the journalistic decision tree. While Clinton supporters are willing to tolerate her various problems, they also find them upsetting. This means a new discovery about emails, the Clinton Foundation, a cough, or virtually anything else is a ‘legitimate’ story—because both sides of the partisan divide will regard it as at least potentially newsworthy. And this is completely independent of the intrinsic news value of the issue.
The Tinkerbell effect and perverse faith in journalism
But surely not all Clinton stories work this way. In some cases, her partisans really are united in their utter dismissal of a story, in the same way that’s far more common with Trump supporters. So why doesn’t this quash stories in the same way?
The answer is both depressing and perverse. Put simply, the problem is that Clinton supporters, broadly speaking, seem to share the media’s fascination with how stories will play. As a result, they tend to regard media treatment as important and worthy of discussion on its own terms, even when the specific claims are flawed beyond repair.
That is: because they accept the media’s gatekeeping role, they therefore fear the power it can wield in judging the behavior of candidates. Somewhat bizarrely, then, their collective faith in the importance of objective adjudication actually helps to sustain the drumbeat of negative coverage. Like Tinkerbell, this sort of coverage can survive only so long as people believe in it. So as long as the media can identify partisans across the spectrum who regard a story as worthy of deeper investigation, the stories will continue to be written, and the wound will continue to bleed.
This is because the vast majority of campaign coverage isn’t actual coverage of the campaign itself, but is coverage of anticipated reactions.
Bring this back to Trump, and it becomes even clearer what’s going on. Think about Trump’s lies—about Iraq, about Libya, about his supposed charitable giving, about his tax policy, about literally everything else in the world. ‘The media’ has reported all these stories. They laid the facts on the table, and the issue is undisputed. From their perspective, that means their job is done. That story has reached completion. To hound him further on these topics would be gauche, partisan, unseemly. And it wouldn’t go anywhere.
Trump’s brazen refusal to believe in media norms, and the willingness of his supporters to follow him, renders the media toothless. The scripts they write—committed as they are to this sort of neutrality—provide no entry point for further attack.
The crisis of modern reporting is a crisis of crypto-punditry
So what’s really going on here is a fundamental blurring of media responsibilities, to serious detrimental effect. If you really want to know ‘how a story plays,’ you can simply wait a couple days and read the polls. Or you can wear out your shoe leather actually talking to voters. Both have limitations and problems, but both are capable of producing actual knowledge.
But pre-heated speculation by reporters, about whether something ‘raises questions’ or ‘casts a shadow’ or ‘might not play well’ serves no purpose and adds nothing to the conversation. It’s a form of crypto-punditry, which adds nothing to the conversation, which explains nothing about the candidates or the issues, which merely exists to translate argumentative attacks into objective-seeming language. And, importantly, which primarily works for attacks on Clinton, while mostly failing to support attacks on Trump.
What should the media be doing instead?
The deep irony of all this is that in attempting to sustain the principle of objective reporting, many members of the media are doing more than anyone to undermine and corrupt those values. The problem is emphatically not the premise of media as an external check on political culture. It can and must continue to play that role. The problem is the belief that existing techniques (which presume collective buy-in to the basic premises of civic engagement as truth-seeking) are utterly incapable of successfully characterizing a candidate and partisan base who reject those values.
The media doesn’t need to sacrifice its independence or aspirations toward neutrality to cover this election. They just need to recognize the existence of tools and techniques that go beyond crypto-punditry, which regards voter opinion as the endpoint of all political conversation. The goal is truth, but truth comes in many flavors and with many shades, and the media should be in the business of exploring them all.
Does Trump constitute a violation of historical norms? Of course he does. Does Trump represent a truly unprecedented degree of secrecy and double-dealing? Of course he does. Does Trump offer a breathtaking degree of cluelessness about basic incompetence that ought to give us pause about electing him grand marshal of a parade, much less president of the most powerful country in the world? Of course he does.
Those are truths, too. Those things don’t stop being important stories just because 40% of the country seems impervious to those truths. If anything, such commitment in and of itself is a massive story that reporters should be frothing at the bit to investigate.
There should be daily investigations asking people why Trump’s constant lying doesn’t seem to matter. There should be front-page exposes about the impossible breadth of Trump’s corruption. Every interviewer of Trump (or any surrogate) should pick a topic about which Trump has lied, and simply refuse to give it up. And if they refuse to do those things, in fear that it might make some people mad, they need to seriously ask themselves why that has become a decision rule for campaign coverage.
Why does this matter?
I say all of this not because I worry all that much that this coverage will swing the election. I don’t believe many voters are all that confused about the ultimate stakes, nor do I think that many people are open to persuasion in either direction. My concern is less for the winner and loser of the election and more for what this sort of coverage is doing to the fabric of our public political life.
One party nominating a lunatic is bad, but it isn’t a crisis in democracy. But it becomes a crisis when it infects those institutions of public life that should be working against the corrosion of our normative structures.
By dragging Trump up, the media legitimates his bigotry, grants it a sense of normalcy. This is terrible. But just as terrible is the way that the media drags Clinton down, grades her on the same terms as Trump, and encourages people to understand her flaws (real, but fundamentally normal) as on the same sort of plane as Trump’s. When they do so, they contract the scope of political possibility. They wipe away the transformative, the uplifting, the generous. They tell us that politics is nothing but disgusting people saying disgusting things for disgusting reasons.
That is a real problem.
And, in the final irony, by encouraging the population to think in those terms, they cultivate ever more anger and frustration about shared institutions of public culture, of which ‘the media’ itself is an important part.