• What if Political Journalism Can’t Snap Back from Tabloidization?

    January 25, 2019

    Tags: , , , , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America, Trump


     

    What if mainstream political journalism can’t snap back from its current state of tabloidization? After a week in which Buzzfeed brought the false claim Trump told Michael Cohen to lie to Congress, quickly followed by a tsunami of inaccurate but inflammatory reporting over a bunch of Covington high school kids and their MAGA hats, the media needs to do more than apologize and delete a few Tweets. It’s time for a dollop of introspection.

    Journalism is the only profession specifically mentioned in the Bill of Rights, and the Founders assigned it a specific role, helping citizens (we have a task assigned as well) carry on an informed debate. And yet in the last two years, serious political journalism has all but been pushed aside in a rush toward tabloidization. Political journalism has slipped into a kind of con job to wash away the dangers of free speech.

    The con is this: since by acclamation America is perched on the precipice of 1933 (you’re reading this somewhat tongue-in-cheek but too many people are dead serious about the historical warning) resisting Trump’s policies until he can be run out of office (emoluments lawsuit, 25th Amendment, indictment, impeachment, an election if it really has to come to that) is a moral duty. Trump and his MAGA people are Nazis, their red caps the equivalent of Klan hoods. This is for the first time in American history beyond the push-pull of politics. The survival of the Republic itself on the line, dammit don’t-you-know.

    It follows journalism in the specific and free speech more generally cannot afford to allow for both sides to be heard (now known as “giving them a platform”) or allow objective reporting that might inadvertently make Trump look good. Journalists, some of whom literally believe they are responsible for Hillary’s defeat, live in fear they might abet the government-sanctioned mass lynchings of blacks and beatings of transpeople they expect to break out across America, Charlottesville’s everywhere controlled by Putin. Objectivity is #Collusion. Advocacy is #Resistance. The new standard is tabloid journalism, where every story has to be a Fruity Pebbles sugar high serving the cause of freedom.

    While the tension between objectivity and advocacy isn’t particularly new (read up on The Jungle and The Way the Other Half Lives) what’s new is the near-complete way the mainstream media has created an anti-Trump narrative of Charlottesville’s everywhere controlled by Putin while condemning any outlet not on board as the Fox in democracy’s henhouse. Demonizing a perspective has gotten rougher in the age of deplatforming and weaponized “fact checking.” A new step in the wrong direction is to claim talking heads have blood on their hands for supporting disagreeable but still legitimate political positions say on restricting immigration or withdrawing from Syria. It’s a bit much, but it falls within a snappable-back range for now.

    Classic tabloids like the National Enquirer once upon a time ran Elvis-is-alive articles, or reported on aliens walking among us, or trafficked in outrageous celebrity gossip. It was OK, because absent a few blue haired old ladies in what used to be called the beauty parlor, no one really believed the stories were true. The con included us as willing participants, spectators at a magic show where we know no one is actually sawed in half but it was fun to be fooled anyway.

    The greater concern lies in how alongside all this social media has tabloidized “real” news. The most recent example is Buzzfeed’s use of anonymous sources to claim documentary proof exists Trump ordered his attorney (whom the media by common agreement libelously calls a “fixer”) to lie to Congress about the so-called Moscow Project. Tagged on is the fact-free narrative chain of Trump wanting to build a hotel in Moscow so the Russkies helped him win the presidency so he’s now their asset. To any objective reader, same as an Elvis sighting, Buzzfeed’s story was too good to be true: a literal paper receipt for perjury before Congress. Trump could not lie his way out of this, and he would go down for basically the same crime Bill Clinton was impeached over. Trump would be out of office as fast as the paperwork could be processed.

    The Buzzfeed story appeared out of nowhere, went globally viral, and was shut down by the Special Counsel himself, all within a span of hours.

    So that’s why there are no viral stories that need to be walked back claiming “Trump is innocent.” Nope, the media wants to believe he is guilty of, well, something, and they know they are peddling that belief to a willing audience. A good con also has some truth in it, otherwise the con artist’s job is much harder. Cohen actually did lie to Congress. Next step is knowing most media and many Americans want to believe Trump was involved. Not a hard sell. But it has been the lack of actual evidence that has held back Russiagate in all its metastasizing forms for over two years, you know, actual proof, something you can hold in your hand or listen to online, not simply the now-you-see-it now-you-don’t self-serving statements from convicted perjurers, anonymous officials, and felons we love to hate.

    Enter Buzzfeed, who sets the hook with something new, and it appears given Mueller’s unambiguous press statement, wholly untrue: Buzzfeed’s sources have seen written evidence Trump told Cohen to lie. One of the Buzzfeed authors, albeit one with a history of plagiarism and misreporting going back years, kinda sorta maybe even said he personally saw the documents.

    Social media rockets the story around the globe. Media outlets as once prestigious as the WaPo and New York Times have learned how to hide behind the micro bikini bottom of appending “As reported by Buzzfeed…” after which for all they care they are allowed to headline “The Earth is Flat” at no cost to themselves. In 2019 they are no longer responsible for what they print. Democratic Congressman Jim Clyburn spoke for all media and pols when he said “I don’t think that my Democratic friends are in any way rushing to judgment because they qualified right up front [by saying], ‘If this is true.’ When you preface your statement with ‘If this is true,’ that, to me, gives you all the cover you need.”

    It doesn’t hurt that this model of journalism seems to be also good for business in a market where clicks equal dollars, in the words of one NYT columnist “reinforc[ing] the prejudices of your readers.” The sad thing is craven economic self-interest in the service to social media mob-think is the least worst explanation for this phenomena of tabloidism.

    The free press the founders wrote into the Bill of Rights isn’t part of some long con, where the goal is to take the rubes for their ticket money, or give them a chuckle over Elvis. No, the serious media adopting the standards and methods of the tabloids, feeding us back what we want to hear, pretending this all is serious and real without the little wink which says “pssst, we’re in on it with you…” is a very bad thing for a democracy. As one writer put it “let’s not underestimate the damage being done… people of all political stripes will acknowledge the important role that free and unfettered discourse plays in the democratic process. By extension, when that discourse is poisoned, so too is the process.”

    We are being taught there is no truth beyond ever-briefer viral spasms. Falsehoods are just bad sources, we’ll try again next week with basically the same story about Trump from hopefully better sources. Because all that matters is proclaiming some moral stance — Trump is evil, really evil, not just a bad president — and that ends justifies the journalistic means. Advocacy journalism in 2019 is not about pointing out real wrongs with the occasional professional missteps caused by the haste of social media. Nope, it is about teeing up “crimes,” with any small outlet opening the door for the bigger ones to legitimize the story. Members of Congress, citing the Times or the Post, then do things like demand investigations into the Buzzfeed story even after Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office made clear the original story wasn’t true.

    It’s not like the Buzzfeed saga is a one-off. In the same week, a carefully edited clip of an encounter between some white Covington, Kentucky high school students wearing MAGA hats, a Native American, and some black protesters was fanned into a racial showdown, when all it took was for someone to first watch the whole recording to realize that was a completely false narrative. Or CBS’ lead journalist falsely Tweeting he was under an arrest warrant in Egypt. Or something as silly as a mass-proclamation conservatives were furious over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s silly dance video. Or this long list of Russiagate game-changers that weren’t. Or two-years’ worth of inaccurate breaking news somebody in the Trump administration was about to flip, quit, be indicted or get fired. The narrative has assumed priority over reality. People are conditioned to overreact as their first impulse. Somebody is going to get hurt.

    Buzzfeed’s reaction was to “stand by its reporting” and challenge Mueller to proofread their work for them and be more specific in telling them where they screwed up, beyond the Special Counsel’s clear, blanket statement the Buzzfeed article was simply not accurate. That was the first such rebuke issued by Mueller in some two years. Though to be fair, James Comey also stated in front of Congress some New York Times reporting on Russiagate was wrong. The media in both instances characterized being told it was wrong by the definitive source as a “dispute.” Otherwise, the standard response to being wrong is to apologize and maybe delete a Tweet or two, the damage done, the zeitgeist stirred.

    The Cohen story, followed so quickly by the Covington high school story, should be a pivot point, a significant moment of reflection for the media when they stop, take a deep breath, and remember why they really exist as a free press. Hint: they were written into existence by the Founders to play a critical role in critical thinking in our system of government. This tabloidization is already out of control, the media already largely written off as a force for good through the 2020 election cycle. One hopes after that some amount of resiliency will take hold, and the press will snap back.

    Now that way of dealing with political enemies, choosing stereotypes and falsity over accurate reporting, does indeed have some echoes back to 1933.

     
     

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    Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

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