I’m a political journalist. I’ve been a political journalist for 15 years. I believe in my profession. But right now, I’m worried we’re failing. I’m worried we’re making American politics worse, not better.
That’s not because journalists aren’t doing remarkable, courageous, heroic work. Look at the #MeToo movement, the investigations of Donald Trump’s finances, the remarkable reporting that journalists do every day in the midst of war zones and Ebola outbreaks and authoritarian regimes.
It’s because everything around us has changed — our business models, the way people read us, the way we compete with each other, the way we’re manipulated — and we’re not keeping up. Instead, we’re getting played by the outrage merchants and con artists and trolls and polarizers who understand this new world better. President Trump is the most successful media hacker out there, but he’s not the only one.
We’re being used to fracture American democracy, and I don’t think we know how to stop it.
It’s hard to understand a machine when you’re inside of it, as I am. You need people on the outside who can see the system more clearly. So I asked Jay Rosen to join me on my podcast. Rosen is a professor of journalism at New York University and the founder of PressThink. He’s one of our sharpest critics and interpreters. I wanted him to help me think through what’s wrong in the press, what I’m doing wrong in my own work.
You can listen to our whole conversation here. Parts of our discussion, edited for length and clarity, follow.
Ezra Klein, There was this article going around about whether journalists pay too much attention to Twitter, and I think we clearly do. Twitter shows us what all your competitors are doing all the time. And it’s coming at this moment when the business models are under stress and so the consequences of taking a different approach feel more dangerous.
That’s an important point. The culture of the political press orients individual practitioners toward their professional peers, rather than towards the users, or even towards the news. It’s hard to know if you’re doing well in journalism. How do you know that you’re doing the right thing?
Ways that we could measure that, like audience response, are actually discredited by most journalists. Those are considered to be pandering. So professional journalists are really oriented towards each other.
There’s always a risk that if you follow the story of the day, you are missing what’s actually happening, and you can look at this pack journalism phenomenon as a way of spreading that risk. If everyone is wrong, no one is wrong. If everyone is following the wrong pattern, it’s not a problem for any individual professional because everyone missed the same story.
That’s one of the reasons why, after these major crashes and failures in the press system, like the runup to the Iraq War, like the failure to alert the nation about the financial crisis, like the debacle of 2016, you don’t see the press sort of called into crisis. You don’t see the equivalent of a 9/11 Commission to examine what went wrong. You don’t see collective action within the institution. You just go on to the next story because everybody was wrong, so it’s not really a problem.
I agree with that halfway. I do think there’s been a lot of a reckoning in the press post-Donald Trump. There’ve been these peculiar, but nevertheless agonizing, arguments over whether or not to call things he says that are untrue lies, or just misinformation.
There’s certainly been a move into a more oppositional space. It really surprises me, actually, the degree to which publications frame themselves antagonistically to this president.
You’ve talked a lot about “the view from nowhere,” this idea that journalists often try to come at their work as if they don’t have any view at all. What I think has happened is that we developed “the view from journalism.”
The things we are willing to protect are the core ideas of journalism: truthfulness, facts, the idea that we are not the enemy of the people. All that is different than actually being self-critical of ourselves. We’ve become very critical of Trump, but I’m not sure that we have really thought through our culpability in his rise. He’s mobilized us to protect ourselves and the things we believe we stand for, but I worry he’s delayed a reckoning around our work.
Most people in the political press long ago decided that the major questions are settled. You don’t take sides; you’re not part of this party or that party. You find out what’s going on in politics, and you tell the truth no matter what. Partisans try to move you this way or that way and you have to ignore them.
It’s an end-of-history thing. Like there cannot be any better resolution than that.
You see this in the most widely quoted and eagerly accepted statement about some of these problems than anybody’s made about journalism, which is [Washington Post editor] Marty Baron’s “We’re not at war. … We’re at work.” Or more recently, [A.G.] Sulzberger, the publisher of the New York Times, said it in a different way, which is, “We’re not going to be [baited] into becoming the opposition and we’re not going to be applauded into becoming the opposition.”
I want to go a bit further than that. Far from how do we defend American institutions, how do we stop making them worse?
One thing you always get into when you get into any criticism of journalism is that people immediately point to the investigative reporters. God bless the investigative reporters, but that is not what everybody is doing. That’s not what most of what is happening on cable news, for instance, and cable news drives a lot of politics.
Journalism has a definition of newsworthiness. We always say the word means “important,” but it doesn’t really mean important. It is some mixture of important, new, outrageous, conflict-oriented, secret, interesting. There’s a lot of things happening in it. But one of the ways you can hack it is you can just go outrageous enough.
I think of this as the Donald Trump-Michael Avenatti problem. What Donald Trump understood is if you just do the create enough craziness, enough conflict, enough drama, you get all the oxygen in the room. I don’t want to compare him to Trump in his ethics or morals, but I think Michael Avenatti has recognized this way of hacking the system too.
I think about Amy Klobuchar, the senator from Minnesota, probably the most popular senator in the country, given the partisan lean of her state. That’s a remarkable thing. Part of the reason is that she speaks in a way that a lot of people can hear her without getting defensive. I mean, even in the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, he began by saying, “Hey, look, I may hate all these other Democrats, but Sen. Klobuchar, I like you.” Then he got in trouble by attacking her, and he actually apologized.
But how does she get coverage speaking like a normal human being? Why does arguably the most popular member of the US Senate not get more day-to-day coverage than Avenatti?
That is the way I think we are probably making things worse. We are making decisions about who to amplify, and being led into decisions about who to amplify, by algorithms and the public and our competition. There are all kinds of things working in the system that I don’t think we even fully understand.
The voices that are winning out in the competition we are creating are not, I don’t think, the best voices for the system, and they’re also not, at least when they start, the most important voices. We then make them the most important voices through our coverage, and then, of course, we have to cover them, and we look farsighted for doing so.
That’s the thing I actually don’t know how to solve, but I don’t think we’re reckoning with it well.
I agree with all of that. Let me go back to the beginning of that observation.
Journalism academics have always known that newsworthiness, as the American press defines it, isn’t a system with any coherence to it. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s just a list of factors that occasionally come together to produce news. There’s no real logic to it, other than it’s a list of things that can make something news. The advantage of it is that it leaves maximum leeway for editors to say, “This is news,” and, “That’s not news,” and so it’s news if a journalist decides it’s news.
An example I would use is the way that CNN has purchased these pro-Trump talking heads. That doesn’t have any editorial logic to it. It makes sense to have conservative voices. It makes sense to have people from the middle of the country. It makes sense to have people who have certain priorities.
It doesn’t make editorial sense to have a pundit who is defending Trump, right or wrong. But it does make entertainment sense to have people like that on the air if you are following entertainment logic. Entertainment logic has become a huge part of what the new’s system, especially the cable news system, does, but it’s described as news.
When I said there wasn’t a reckoning after these big fall-downs, I mean about fundamental things like this. We don’t really have a press corps that takes responsibility for the priority list that it ends up working from. We have journalists who are just reacting to events. When you have a political figure who is beyond embarrassment, who is deliberately polarizing, who has no sense of shame and, as you’ve written, doesn’t care about negative coverage or negative publicity, that does hack the system.
I think another way of saying entertainment logic, which is in some ways more honest, is market logic. Journalism is a very competitive market. The context of American journalism right now is different than the 1990s; it’s a very difficult business. All of us who’ve now been in it for the last decade or two have been through layoffs; we’ve seen great institutions fall.
This is not like when journalism was safe as a business. The threat of everything collapsing around you is always there. When that happens, organization are very much trying to read the market. There’s this great line from George Saunders’s The Braindead Megaphone where he says something like, “‘Tell me the truth’ and ‘tell me as much truth as you can while making a profit’ are not the same thing.”
I think when we talk about entertainment, it sounds trivial. Like people are making a decision to be entertaining, rather than substantive. But rightly or wrongly, I think what’s really happening is they’re trying to be competitive. We’re trying to have a strong enough business to fund the journalism we care about most.
That then gets into this taking responsibility issue. I agree that we don’t, as an industry, take responsibility for what we’re covering, and I think there are two reasons for that. One is that we see ourselves as a public trust, not a business, and that’s a hard space to navigate. The other is that if we were to take responsibility for why we covered this and not that, if we made clear it was our choice and that choice mattered, then we’d open this idea that we’re not a mirror; we’re an actor or an amplifier. We are a core actor in everything we cover. We change it just by covering it, and we don’t want to say that. That’s the scariest thing.
Yeah, that’s death, right? And yet it’s obviously true. That’s the weirdest thing about journalism.
There’s this question, for me, of: What does the media actually do? We tell people we report, which is obviously some of what we do. But we also watch Super Bowl commercials and write them up, and we watch movies that you can see for yourself and critique them. We do all kinds of things.
This is why I’ve been writing about the View From Nowhere for so long. It’s a name for that problem. And you’re right. A lot of what journalism does is amplify things. And there’s nowhere you can go to look up what a given news organization is going to amplify for you. But you should. I wrote a piece last year about transparency and trust in journalism. One of the recommendations I made in it was that news organizations should go public with their priority list.
I should be able to go to Vox and find a list of what your editorial priorities are going to be over the near term. You’re going to cover the news and you’ll react to what happens, of course. But these are the things that we’re going to come back to again and again because these are the things that we find are really fundamental.
And it can shift and things can drop off that agenda and, suddenly, leap onto it. But it should be public and it should be there not just for the users to know what kind of news they’re getting, but it should be there for the producers of the news.
You’re putting the unit there as the organization. Vox, the New York Times, the Washington Post.
A newsroom is really the unit, yeah.
I’m just thinking about this in real time here, but I’m not sure that’s right. Having run a newsroom, I think it’s too big. I wonder if the unit here isn’t the individual reporter. That might be a more manageable space from which to operate.
Yeah, you can imagine it starting that way. That is a recommendation I’ve made for years as well. And the reason is that that’s really the start of a very different system for trust. Which is a key word in this discussion? That is the alternative system to the View From Nowhere.
What those disclosure statements are: Here’s where I’m coming from. And here’s where I’m coming from is a different way of generating trust. Because you know where these reporters are coming from, you can factor that into their reporting and use whatever discount rate you want for their perspective.
What the View From Nowhere says is, look, we don’t have a stake, we don’t have a priority list, we don’t have an ideology, we don’t have a view of the world. We’re just telling you the way it is, so believe it because that’s the truth. That kind of claim is increasingly mistrusted. And if people on the receiving end don’t trust that claim, you can’t change that by insisting ever more strictly on that claim. That’s why I say, here’s where we’re coming from is the alternative to the View From Nowhere.
This is a way in which Donald Trump has been very effective. I have this theory that Donald Trump turns everything he touches into something more like himself. He makes politics more like what he says it is. He makes the media more like an opposition party by treating it more like one.
Similarly, he lies so badly that he forces you to stand up for what’s a very narrow idea of truth: that some things are wrong and some things are correct. He’s got us defending the concept that just some things can be provably true.
I’m always more concerned about the problems with real news than the issue of fake news. It’s really easy to know what to do about fake news: You should get rid of it. But take the way Hillary Clinton’s emails were covered. Oftentimes, and not always, that coverage was true. But it was so disproportionate to what was happening that I think it was actually misleading. It created an equivalence that shouldn’t have been there. But we don’t have a good way of talking about the hard problems of truth, about whether our work is giving you an accurate perspective of the world in context.
Yeah, I think we’re completely losing this battle, on every level. And fighting about truth itself, there’s something inherently polarizing about that. We’re just at the beginning of understanding some of his methods for profiting in an environment where truth is exploded.
An example would be his use of verification in reverse. Verification is trying to nail down a claim with facts, evidence, data. Verification in reverse is taking something that has been nailed down and introducing doubt about it. When you do that, it releases a lot of energy, controversy, furor, reaction. And then you can power your political movement with that energy.
The truth-telling system and political journalism rested on certain assumptions about how public actors would behave. Trump shatters all those assumptions. A simple example would be: Savvy political reporters took it for granted that all candidates would be risk-averse. They didn’t even have a category for the political candidate who was risk-friendly. And that’s what Trump is. He risks everything every time he opens his mouth.
So many of the routines of political journalism were based on behaviorist assumptions about how candidates would behave that simply do not apply. And that’s one of the epistemological crises in journalism right now.
Speaking of epistemological crises, you’ve talked about is how an asymmetry between the parties fries the circuits of journalism. Do you just want to expand on that idea a bit?
I think, over time, political reporting started to rest on a picture of the political system that most journalists carried around in their heads. In that picture of the political system, you have these two parties, they’re roughly equal in weight, and they have different philosophies about what’s good for the country. And there’s a battle between those philosophies every election.
But they’re roughly equivalent, and so as a political reporter, you can stand between them and develop sources on both sides and tell the story of politics as a battle between these two beasts.
When one party, as Norm Ornstein and Tom Mann have documented, starts to behave in a different way than the other one, all those routines start to crash. But the people who have made careers out of those routines and who have come to power through them don’t want to deal with that.
One of the ways to think about that goes back to your point about taking responsibility. You hear this all the time in journalism: If both sides are angry, then you’re doing something right.
As if the truth is always somehow antagonistic to everybody simultaneously. We use reaction as a navigational device.
Let me give you a little perspective on that.
In 1979, Herbert Gans, a sociologist, published a really interesting book called Deciding What’s News. And in that book, which is a study of how journalists make decisions, he points out that one of the factors that goes into decision-making in a newsroom is the simple truth that journalists have to present their work every day whether it’s ready or not.
They publish their mistakes constantly, and so they are uniquely vulnerable to criticism. And because they are vulnerable to criticism, legitimate criticism, they need ways to protect themselves against the critiques that they know are not only coming but are, in many ways, deserved. And so one of the ways they do that is by saying, “What’s your problem? We quoted your guys and we quoted the other guys.”
Routines that offer a protection become extremely important to them. Paul Taylor, who was a reporter for the Washington Post back in the ’90s, wrote something about this that was really insightful. He said [paraphrasing], “When I write my story and I look for the mid-point between the worst and the best that could be said about somebody. … I’m seeking truth, yes, but I’m also seeking refuge.”
I think that’s a really important insight is that lots of things that journalists do do not because they are strictly truth-telling; it’s because they provide protection.
I came up through blogging, I’ve always been a critic of the idea of objective reporting. And part of the reason I’m a critic of it is that, it often seems that what you’re getting wasn’t objectiveness, it was formalism. It was how an article is structured, where it quoted both sides.
This was an approach to journalism that we hid behind. And then our antagonists, our critics, used it to manipulate us. And in some weird way, I believe they came to understand it better than we did.
Well, let me build on that. Another form of protection is what I call the savvy style in political journalism. The question, “Who’s gonna win?”, which is the classic horse race question, is a safe question because it’s clearly not ideological. You use it to start chronicling the game aspect of politics.
One of the really insidious results of that style, which became the dominant style in Washington journalism, was that it teaches citizens to look at their fellow citizens as objects to be manipulated.
That doesn’t ring true to me. I think that style of journalism is about peers. The savvy style in journalism is about writing for other journalists and impressing your editors and your sources. And that’s not to say that it has nothing to do with readers, because some readers are into it. But many, many, many more are not.
I’m a journalist. And I’ve been in lots of rooms with people who could give me a job or give me help or who are my peers and whose respect I want. And we’re all political junkies. We’re all doing this because on some level, we’re really interested in it. The coin of the realm is knowing what they don’t know. It’s being able to make predictions they can’t make.
I always think it’s telling that these tip sheets that became very important — first, Mark Halperin’s the Note, and then Mike Allen’s Playbook — a lot of them were being done internally for colleagues first, and then they got brought out to the world. It didn’t start with the general reader in mind. It started with the peer group in mind. It’s a very different product when you sit down and ask: What does the audience need versus what do my bosses need?
There’s no contradiction between what you’re saying and what I’m saying. You’re right about what the incentives for savvy coverage are. I was talking about what the message is for the people it’s presented to. Because there’s something very weird about telling citizens, voters, what the candidates are doing to win the game. I mean, should I vote for the candidate with the best strategy? As you said, it’s not a public-centered approach; it’s a peer-centered approach.
I want to talk about the audience. In a lot of your work, the actor is the journalist. But in a way that was not true 40 years ago, the audience is a really important actor. Whether or not people are liking the stories, and which stories they’re liking, has a huge effect on which stories other people are seeing.
We talk a lot about left-right polarization, but there’s this fundamental polarization of interested-uninterested. Most people don’t want to follow political news closely. The people who do, in the same way that people who follow sports news closely do, have a team. They care about who wins and who loses. And so they’re coming in with their own desires. They’re actors in all this too, not just passive recipients.
We can have this discussion about what we amplify, but a lot of what we’re amplifying is what we think people want from us, or what they’re demonstrating they want on these algorithmic platforms that are built to hype up the most tribally intense emotions.
That’s a part of this that we have a lot more trouble talking about. Who wants to blame the audience for anything? I don’t. And oftentimes, I think we’re the ones serving them poorly. But we can’t really get away from the fact that a lot of coverage now is on topics we are following our audience into doing.
One of the key facts about journalism today is that the audience has a lot more power. They have more power because they have more choices. They have more power because journalists are exposed to public comment and ridicule and feedback in a way that they weren’t before. And they have more power because they’re paying more of the freight in the case of subscription models. When there’s a shift in power, the relationship changes.
I don’t think journalism is really ready for that. I think this is one of the real challenges the New York Times is having right now. The rising power of the Times’s core audience is creating anxiety among the journalists because they sense that this rising power can end up as a kind of censor. They don’t want to produce news for an ideological segment, but those are the supporters of the Times.
They fear the rising power of the audience as much as they are relieved that more and more people are willing to support them with digital subscriptions.
I want to talk a little bit about how the audience’s power is expressed. Because this is something I’m struggling with. There are a lot of ways somebody can tell you what they want. But the specific way journalists are learning what their audience wants is real-time analytics platforms. You write about Avenatti saying something on MSNBC and Chartbeat fills up with dots. You write about Klobuchar and it doesn’t.
The way the audience is expressing what they want is through analytics that are getting algorithmically manipulated or amplified. But that’s a weird way of expressing an opinion. It’s not the same as what they would tell you if you sat down with them in a room for a couple hours and asked about their interests. If you put Oreos in front of me, I’ll eat them. But I also want to eat healthy in life, and so I try not to be around Oreos. So which one is the true me? Which one of my preferences should you listen to? The me who eats Oreos when they’re presented, or the me who tries to stay away from Oreos so I don’t eat them?
I’m not upset about the audience getting more power. But I’m worried about the very weird way in which we can hear them, and the way it’s mediated by social platforms that have their own very messed-up incentives.
One way to think about this is that in an era where the audience has more power, are they a lot happier with journalism?
Do they like us better? And the answer’s no. So something’s going wrong here.
Well, maybe we’re getting somewhere, Ezra. Because I think what we may need is journalists who learn how to listen to both of those things.
It’s very similar to a friend who can tell you the truth about yourself even if you’re not necessarily open to hearing it. If our friend understands us, and is most of the time in sync with us, then maybe we’re willing to hear difficult truths from that person. And I think the relationship between journalists and their users is very much like that.
There has to be the sense that most of the time you’re listening to me, you understand me. And then sometimes you’re telling me things I don’t want to necessarily hear. That ability to say to somebody: “You’re not focused on this, but you should be.” That’s trust in journalism.
One of the things you bring up there I think is one of the very central tensions in journalism right now: Are we for everyone or not? And if we are, but we find we can’t be, what does that mean?
There’s been an outpouring of support for a lot of journalistic organizations as they’ve begun to be seen as a bulwark of freedom in the face of a leader with autocratic intuitions. As we’ve done that tremendous investigative reporting and called out things that are untrue, that comes with 40-ish percent of the country that is on his side turning on us in a way that I haven’t seen before. So on the one hand, we become more important to the people who feel like they are on our side. And we have become less important to the ones who aren’t.
I think a lot of people in journalism want to return to a time — to some degree, I want to feel like I am in a time — where what we do is for everyone. We want to be creating a common set of facts upon which we can build a political system, a social ecosystem, a country, a world. And on the other hand, it may not be possible. Part of that is up to the audience, not to us. And I’m curious just how you think about that tension.
What you’re describing, I think, is at the moment a problem without a solution. It’s actually worse than what you said.
Oh, good, I was worried my presentation was too optimistic.
There’s a core of Trump supporters who at this point disbelieve the Voxes and Washington Posts and New York Times of the world on principle because they’ve been instructed to do that. There’s been a culture in the conservative moment for a long time that encouraged that. It’s a very efficient system now.
The loudest voice in the culture, the president, is constantly giving that message. An army of online activists and trolls at the bottom of the period shout down news stories they don’t like, attacks individual journalists, ridicules the institution. And then between those two, you have the mediators — Rush Limbaugh, Drudge, Fox News, Daily Caller — that efficiently connect the top and the bottom.
The result of that is that for about 30 percent of the electorate, Trump is the major source of news about Trump. Which means that for that portion of the American public, an authoritarian news system is already up and running.
Another way to put it would be before journalists log on in the morning, about a third of their public is already gone. And when they do their job, when they hold power to account, when they uncover new facts, when they behave as a fourth estate, that dynamic is actually reinforced because Trump attacks them and the news that they’re digging up about him enrages his supporters.
It confirms their belief that this institution is against them. And so by doing their job, they actually make that situation worse. And right now, nobody has any idea what to do about that.