The worst thing about being a reporter in the age of Donald Trump is, of course, the president’s concerted attacks on the free press. The second-worst thing is well-meaning readers who say things like, “Thank you for what you do.”
I mean, I appreciate it. Last week, on assignment in Cape Cod, Massachusetts — hardship travel, I know — I thanked myself for what I do with a dip in the Atlantic and a buttery lobster roll. Some of my more frontline colleagues, from Elmhurst, Queens, to Wuhan, China, take physical and psychological risks to deliver information that deserve true gratitude.
But when some of you who are alarmed by the rise of Trump thank a political journalist or a television pundit, you’re feeding our worst instincts — toward self-importance, toward making ourselves the story and toward telling you exactly what you want to hear. And you’re leading us into a dangerous temptation at a time of maximum pressure on the free press.
“The many mainstream journalists who have been charting Trump’s ceaseless outrages for four long years, myself included, inevitably risk becoming performance artists for appreciative readers who already agree with us,” said Frank Rich, the executive producer of the HBO shows “Veep” and “Succession” and a former New York Times columnist. “You have to wonder if any of it has swayed a single Trump voter.”
Trump obviously recognises the media’s desire to star in the story, and he’s trying to exploit it, conflating the most theatrical political journalism with the broad, dogged and often revelatory work of reporting. He has put the brand-name establishment media on the ballot in November. He’d clearly be as happy running against NBC-New York Times-CNN-Atlantic as he is running against Joe Biden. When a CNN reporter asked him last week about violence by his supporters, he replied that “your supporters” shot a man in Portland, Oregon, implying that she was responsible for the fatal shooting of a Trump supporter, Aaron Danielson.
If you watch Fox News, you see every day how the Republican Party defines itself as a party driven by grievance more than any specific policy, and grievance against the media is its highest form. It even appears in the one-page document that stands in for a Republican Party platform.
Trump’s great gift is for polarisation, and he’s driven many of the people who hate him to love journalism, particularly its most dramatic forms, with a new passion. Watch cable news to see the benefits to playing the role of the outraged television journalist. The White House beat was, before Trump, a dull hostage situation, with reporters shackled to a never-ending, often empty, sequence of ritualised events and briefings. Now, it’s an ongoing morality play about truth, in which reporters become famous as they confront Trump for lying, and the president delights his base by berating them. At its most revealing, it exposes his particular antagonism for blunt questions from women. But it’s also another irresistible opportunity for Trump to posture for the cameras.
Lewis Raven Wallace, the author of a provocative new case against detached, “objective,” journalism called “The View From Somewhere,” takes it further, arguing that reporters should get out of the White House briefing room entirely. “If they are serious about safeguarding democracy, they need to be building collective power around not even being in that room anymore” Wallace said in an interview.
But in the for-profit world of the media business, the incentives of both subscription sales and personal brand-building pull journalists in the opposite direction. Operators in the subscription business — which includes cable and a growing share of online and print outlets — have found success in telling you what you want to hear, and in signaling that they are, in some sense, on your team.
We are, after all, selling something. You can see the tension between exploiting Trump’s attention and being exploited by him in the reaction by CNN and The New York Times. Both hired ad agencies to produce glossy marketing campaigns, seeking to respond to the president’s attacks on their journalism but avoid being wholly defined by them.
“We’ve shifted from ‘Trump is telling lies, we’re going to talk about facts’ to ‘These are some facts you should know,’” said Mark Figliulo, whose ad agency, Fig, produced CNN’s “Facts First” campaign. The debut ads were a direct response to Trump’s denunciations of stories as “fake news.” But the network is now “trying to make it a little more centrist, to appeal to everybody,” he said. The Times has produced ads promoting its stories on Trump’s tax returns and the administration’s separation of immigrant families, but has sought to focus more on the journalistic process. “Even if there is a lift that could be gotten from marketing ourselves more oppositionally, we would never do that because it’s not what the core product is about,” said the Times’ chief marketing officer, David Rubin.
There are things that journalists can do over the next two months to resist our more self-indulgent impulses, do great journalism and stay off the ballot.
One is to double down on the best of the coverage of Trump’s attack on democratic institutions. That is — not simply to call a tactic racist or undemocratic, but to introduce new reporting into clear patterns of how Trump, for instance, “uses race for gain” or has become part of “the swamp” he decried. It is better to focus on dangerous actions — attacks on the voting infrastructure, for instance, and Justice Department moves against political enemies — than the president’s unending outrageous comments.
Journalists can also be clear about where we’re coming from, and where we’re not. Most journalists see Trump’s attack on American political norms as a crisis; we understand it clearly because some of the attacks are on us. And we’re human beings with identities and beliefs that aren’t hard to find on social media.
But journalism also has its own weird ideology that doesn’t match up with a party or movement. That you, the public, should know, rather than not know. That sunlight is the best disinfectant. That secrets are bad. That power deserves challenge, including the power of figures most of our respective audiences admire. That compelling stories need to be told.
But those values are rarely the actual reason anyone likes us, or the direction in which praise pulls us.
I felt the lure of praise most intensely in 2017 when I decided to publish a dossier of unverified allegations about Trump at BuzzFeed News. I was praised at the time for things I hadn’t really done, and damned for intentions that I didn’t recognize. The unglamorous reality is that I chose to publish the dossier without thinking much about the political consequences. I considered it my job to share with the public a document of public interest that was being circulated among powerful insiders.
I can’t tell you with confidence today whether publishing it hurt the president or helped him; I didn’t think about that question much at the time, and I don’t think I should have. And if you read Part Three of some deep investigation of President Biden or Vice President Kamala Harris next year, the author and editor probably won’t have thought too much about the political consequences either. (I don’t extensively cover BuzzFeed, which I left in February, because I have yet to divest my stock options in the company, as required by the Times.)
If you’re a reader, you can enjoy journalism, appreciate its role in a free society and resist the search for heroes who will take down evildoers and save our democracy — what sociologist Zeynep Tufekci described to me as “the Luke Skywalker blows up the Death Star model of how we get out of here.”
The alternative to heroes are strong institutions, and a recognition that the people who work in them are human. Reporters, for all the preening from cable news to social media, are normal working people whose strengths are often connected to what would seem in other contexts to be personality flaws: obsessiveness, distrust, appetite for confrontation, sometimes a certain manipulativeness. You don’t get revelatory news from strange people with bad motives by giving the impression that you’re a saint. One of the journalists who has produced key revelations on Trump’s abuse of power talked to me recently about the job more in terms of the moral grays of John le Carré than the simple contrasts of cable news.
This dynamic presents itself with particular clarity on the television interview circuit. It’s an enduring global mystery why British and Australian interviewers are so much better than ours at pinning down politicians and forcing clarity out of confrontation, as Kay Burley of Sky News demonstrated in demolishing a Cabinet minister last Thursday.
The answer, I think, is that American television hosts need to be liked. There are tough American interviewers like Jake Tapper and Chris Wallace, but the most coveted and lucrative gig in the television business is being the host of a morning television show. The ideal host is a soothing presence who greets you as you are waking up, coaxing you into consciousness while you eat your cereal.
The ideal interviewer, on the other hand, makes you spit out your coffee. That’s what Jonathan Swan, an Australian political reporter for Axios, did when he challenged Trump with no special deference or formality in a half-hour interview on HBO on Aug. 3, perhaps the best interview of Trump’s term. You may not want Swan in your kitchen in the morning, making dyspeptic faces at you. You do want him doing those interviews.
I called up one of my favorite British interviewers, conservative former BBC host Andrew Neil, at his place in Provence, France, last week to test this theory. Neil’s exchanges with figures ranging from former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to American conservative Ben Shapiro to conspiracist Alex Jones are brutal and relentless. I asked him if he worried about coming off as a pompous jerk. (“You are the worst person I’ve ever interviewed,” he told Jones.)
He laughed at me.
“I’ve never, ever come away from an interview thinking, ‘Ooh, do you think the viewers will like me because of that or not?’ ” he said. “It’s never crossed my mind, actually, until you raised it in this telephone call.”
:The New York Times