Media critic Jay Rosen on 2016 campaign coverage and the rise of Trump: "That's the way authoritarian societies work"

In an interview, Jay Rosen explores six ways the media can move past bogus neutrality — and rebuild public trust

Published November 6, 2016 5:00AM (EST)

 (AP/Andrew Harnik/Reuters/Carlo Allegri/Getty/David McNew/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Andrew Harnik/Reuters/Carlo Allegri/Getty/David McNew/Photo montage by Salon)

This election cycle has been a profound challenge for journalists, not least because the sheer volume and intensity of Donald Trump’s lies and their centrality to his campaign have made it impossible to stick to normal notions of objective coverage. Trump has made war, in effect, on the very possibility of objective reporting, and reporters still don't know what to do about it. 

Press critic and NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen -- best known for coining the phrase "the view from nowhere" -- has been exploring these difficulties over the course of the campaign on his influential Pressthink blog. On Oct. 23 he summed it all up with a succinct framework of six ideas on “What the campaign press should not be neutral toward." Salon reached out to interview Rosen about this framework, which he argues is already inherent in the nature of journalism as a set of latent values that need to be spelled out. Although framed in terms of media coverage of the 2016 campaign, Rosen’s argument is actually much broader than political journalism. It goes to the heart of what journalism is for, and what kind of society we want to be.

A few weeks ago on this site, I wrote, “The purpose of the press in a democracy is to help make a society legible to itself — the whole to its parts and the parts to its whole. The more diverse a society becomes, the more vital this purpose.” That helps orient what follows: Journalism does not exist in a vacuum, nor does it serve Platonic ideals. It exists as a vital organ in the life of the society in which it lives, and it needs to be understood, cared for and defended as if that society’s life depended on it. Because it does.

I’d like to go through the list of things you laid out — and perhaps some examples — to explore what you mean when you say there are not just things journalists can do, but also things they have an obligation to do, in terms of taking non-neutral stands. Let’s start with the first idea you presented: Journalists should be pro-participation.

The premise of election coverage is that we're equipping people to participate. The first idea I ever tried to present to working journalists — in 1989 in Des Moines, Iowa, at the Associated Press managing editors conference — was that empty streets are bad for editors, meaning that people need journalism when they are participating. If they go out and see live music, they become interested in listings, advertisements for venues and reviews. If they stay home and just watch television, they don't really need news that much. The whole reason journalism has a public-service core is that people in a democratic society are supposed to be participants, and that goes for lifestyle coverage as much as political coverage.

Since that is a premise, it's smart to act on that premise, and encourage people to vote. Now of course, you’re encouraging them to vote for who they want to vote for, not for who you want them to vote for. So it's nonpartisan, except in the sense that when partisans decide that they will undertake a political act discouraging people from voting, that's something I think journalists can take action against, warn against, come out against, denounce.

You linked to a tweet highlighting Trump questioning the legitimacy of the election, but that's not the only example you could pull from this cycle, I think.

No, there's a lot. There was a piece in Bloomberg that talked about the voter suppression strategies, so it's a live question. In a larger undeclared way, Trump’s trying to discourage participation by making the whole election confusing and depressing -- beyond negative, a new frontier in negative. Saying that the opposing candidate should actually be in jail, not even running for president, that's pretty negative. I don't know that it’s correct to call it a strategy, in the sense of a thought-through plan, but it does seem like an approach, of discouraging the entire electorate, so that only the most hardcore people vote. And that is anti-democratic.

What about the next idea you presented — that journalists should be pro-verification?

This is to me the most obvious thing that journalists should be for. It is the premise of the fact-checking movement, which is a trend in journalism. It's a pro-verification stance saying, "We're going to penalize you with bad publicity if you try to present truth claims that cannot be verified." I think that's something that should be extended, so it's not just featured in one corner of the news product, but is central to the way journalists operate.

If journalists can't be specialists in verification, what can they be expected to uphold? It's an incredibly elementary thing to me. I think they need to be specialists in verification, and specialists in the vernacular. They have to speak in a public language. Verification is as elementary as speaking in the public language, as opposed to a specialist dialect and insider language.

Examples of this — of false or unverifiable claims — are too numerous to count, right? There are like 20 or 30 every day.

Yes, but sometimes very big claims have to be subjected to verification, too. Not just small ones. Dave Roberts wrote a very good piece about this in 2015, about how fact-checking the way it's done now only applies to mid-range statements. Really big things don't get fact-checked, and then things that are too small don't get fact-checked either, right?  

An example for me would be: Do tax cuts lead to more revenue? It's not that that has never been fact-checked. It has. But that claim is a pillar, you know? That's where it becomes really important to be pro-verification all the time, about small things, medium-size things and big things.

Trickle-down economics claims and global-warming denial seem to me like similarly big long-term examples.

Very big. I think journalists have kind of recognized that, at least with global warming denial -- that years of "he said, she said" coverage of that was a default of responsibility. I think that is generally recognized now. And that's good.

Also, I tried to introduce this term and it's not catching on, but maybe in 10 years it will: "verification in reverse." I think this is a really important development in American politics that is very hard to understand, very hard to explain. So verification is taking something that is debatable and trying to nail it down with facts, right? Verification in reverse is taking something that's been nailed down and trying to introduce doubt about it. The act of doing that generates a lot of energy, and then you try to empower your political movement with that energy. Of course the claims of the birthers, including Donald Trump, are the best example of that. I don't know why verification in reverse seems to be so powerful now, and so attractive to certain political actors, but it's a fascinating question. And when verification in reverse works, my argument is that is a defeat for journalism.

All right, let's move on to your next idea. Why should journalists be pro-deliberation?

Deliberation is a certain kind of public discourse in which, upon a common set of facts, people have different views. And so to me, to be pro-deliberation has two parts. The first is there is a common set of facts. It's not that everybody agrees on all the relevant facts; it's not that we need complete consensus. But there is a common set of facts possible on most things, and here they are. Another term for that would be "news." In order to cast an intelligent vote, to participate, we don't only need to be informed in our private selves, we need to be part of the public conversation. So you need a common set of facts, and then you need diverse views on those facts.

Diverse views, to me, doesn't mean two sides. That might be a beginning, but it means many sides. And it includes lots of views, including some that may not be so popular, or common. So I think journalists should be much better at providing that kind of discourse, because it kind of follows from the first two. It follows from participation and verification.

It strikes me that trying to do that in the context of this election was an impossible task, if you don't already have the ethos for it in place.

Yes. It can't just spring forth in campaign season. So things that are anti-deliberation, or that wreck deliberation, should be resisted. Relentless two-sidedness — that hurts deliberation.

OK, what about the next idea: Journalists should be pro-accountability.

If you look at the mission statement or the "About Us" section of ProPublica, they say, "We do accountability journalism." Their whole approach is based on the idea of accountability, which means that people who have power, people who are in charge of things, who have a lot of money, who take money for things on the assumption they're going to spend it wisely — like, for example, the Red Cross, which they did a big exposé about — deserve scrutiny.

That is fundamental to notions like the watchdog press, but it’s also fundamental to what I said earlier about deliberation. We need to know what people in power are doing and planning in order for us to cast an intelligent vote. We need powerful people to take responsibility for their words as well as their actions, and defend them. When power-seekers or power-holders escape from that, that's something journalists should oppose. I think this is implicit in a lot of routines in journalism; it's not like I'm importing some kind of foreign idea. I'm trying to bring out a latent idea.

But it’s not omnipresent in journalism, right? Part of the reason Trump is where he is comes from media coverage that lies outside this framework of accountability. Most of Trump's favorable coverage has come from the tabloid press, the entertainment press and the business press, none of which value accountability at their core.

Right. He is very skilled at exploiting corners in which accountability journalism is really absent. The gossip press, for example.

So, the question for the press is this: To what extent can you afford to have pockets of the media that are completely removed from the accountability standard? You don't have parts of the press that are exempt from punctuation and grammar standards.

That's the problem. It's definitely a problem. Ben Smith wrote a piece a few weeks ago, saying that he thinks the MSM — as he called it, I don’t use that expression, he did — did a great job in covering Trump. His reasoning is that if you read the Times investigative pieces about Trump, then the journalists had him pegged, as he put it. But he says in there that the cable networks kind of fell down on the job, and just publicized his rallies and his movement, without a lot of scrutiny. So that would be an example of a journalist saying, "Hey, parts of what we’re doing aren't working.” He also says in there that the networks should have amplified the reporting done by people in the print tradition. They didn't do that.

OK, so moving on to your next idea: Journalists should be against opacity.

The whole reason we need a free press is because we need society to be legible, as you wrote in that piece that I quoted. I think that’s a very powerful idea, a legible society. Because if people look at events and they can't see any pattern, they look at the world and it doesn't make sense, they try to pay attention to politics but it's all opaque, they're not going to participate. They're not going to need verified, truthful, lively, current news coverage. An opaque society that remains opaque — opaque power holders, opaque institutions — kills the desire for news at its root. Because why would you need constant news reports if there's nothing to be understood? That's the way authoritarian societies work. Everything is so confusing: You can never tell where power lies, because it could be everywhere, and all appearances are deceptive. I think that's a big problem.

When you go way, way back, one reason that Jefferson was such an anti-urbanist — he was famous for having this image of a rural, pastoral society, which he called the ideal for a republic, and he had lots of prejudices about that — but one of his ideas was that an industrial urban society, it gets complex really fast. If it's too complex, it's too hard for citizens to monitor, and if it’s too hard for them to monitor, then pretty soon the republic isn’t going to work well. It's almost an argument against excess complexity.

We’ve lost that. We’re way, way beyond that. But if you go back and read Walter Lippmann's "Public Opinion," which is in some ways the founding work of media criticism — I did my dissertation on it — this is in there: An opaque society turns citizens into spectators. There’s a connection between entertainment and opacity. When the world is opaque, then spectacle has a new lease on life.

Finally, why should journalists be against demagoguery?

This is the hardest one, where I got the most pushback. It's really easy to just call something demagoguery when you don't like the argument, which in the minds of my critics makes it useless. But I think there is such a thing is demagoguery, and very often it means relying not just on appeals to fear, but appeals to fear where you can’t verify the “facts” that are being spread. When you combine the notion of appealing to prejudice, fear and ignorance with my earlier imperatives like verification and deliberation and fact-based debate, I think you can begin to isolate when something becomes demagogic. I think it's important for journalists to be able to do that, and to be clear that this against our values.

Ben Smith was one of the journalists who said, "Look, describing what Trump is doing as racist is not really a subjective thing. It's just a description." I wrote about this earlier, it was a memo he sent to BuzzFeed people where he said, "We're going to call it racist because that's what it is." And I think you could look at that as putting into practice that fifth principle about demagoguery. Because his argument was not, like, I'm parading my opinions around in a newspaper. He was saying, this is descriptive, and our job is to be descriptive.

I think journalists are on much firmer ground when instead of calling people racist, they call the actions and statements racist. You can say an argument is racist, or you can even say a campaign is racist, if it's built on a racist appeal. The candidacy could be racist. You don't have to say the person is.

Right. Because that gets into questions of consciousness and intention, that are very important for a person but are more on the private side of that public-private divide. And it's the public side that journalists should really focus on.

Yes, journalists should err on the public side, and not just the public side: What is observable, what's verifiable, what you can have the evidence for. This goes along with a larger belief I have, which I've tried to articulate many times, in different things I've written. The best way to be trusted these days is not to speak in the voice of God, or to take the view from nowhere, but to combine two more modest approaches. One is, "Here’s where I’m coming from, I don't have the voice of God. I’m coming from a place like you are. Here’s where I’m coming from." And also, "Here's our reporting. Here's the facts we're drawing from. Here's the evidence. Here's the documents. Don't believe me? Look for yourself." Right? Documentation.

So the combination of "Here's where I'm coming from," and "Look for yourself," is more trustworthy than "We’re the professionals, so leave it to us," or "We have the voice of God," or "We’re objective," which are increasingly difficult to trust. Simply insisting on them more and more isn't going to solve that problem.

One final broader question. American journalism is embedded in American culture, so we have an inhibition against perspectives that view our institutions critically, like the fact that our healthcare system is an outlier, our welfare state is an outlier and our culture, in its degree of religiosity, is an outlier. You don't have to attack any of these to realize that we're outliers; it’s something we’ve chosen historically, and if we're going to choose it consciously, we have to be aware it's a choice, and there are other possibilities. Far from being elitist, divorced from everyday Americans, most journalists are actually embedded and entangled in the very same unexamined cultural mythos. I'd like to know what you think about that.

It's a hard problem, but I do think American journalism has to be American. It's related to what I said about the vernacular. You have to speak the language of the people you're trying to inform. Along with that does come some assumptions, maybe even some biases. But under the principle of deliberation, that's where I think journalism has a positive duty to enlighten us with views from beyond our shores. Certainly, letting people know that the rest of the world does it a different way, or doesn't think this way, is part of that. I don't think our journalists always do a good job of that.

Another example would be that other industrial democracies are way ahead of us in Internet service, quality of Internet service, which is something people want, and pay a lot for. And it's amazing to see the differences between the U.S. and the rest of the world on that. You do see that mentioned every once in a while, but I think it's a big problem. You can say the American media is too American, but I think it has to remain in touch with the country. I think journalism is always a reflection of national identity. There's no other way it could exist.

Agreed. But I think part of the function of journalism is to make us aware of possibilities — "a man's reach should exceed his grasp" kind of thing. It's not that we stop being who we are, but we strive to get beyond ourselves; and that's how we become something new. And if America isn't about becoming something new, what is it about?

Yes, I think there's a lot to that. It would be smart sometimes for people in newsrooms to ask themselves, "What would be an ideal debate about this problem that we have here in the United States?"And try to imagine what that looks like. And then construct their journalism accordingly. That wouldn't look like a CNN roundtable.

Anything more you'd like to add?

I think there's going to be a call for some reflection, after the election, on trust and the news media and journalism. Instead of assuming that pandering to the people who hate you is the way to repair the situation, I think it's more likely that reaffirming these values, and going deep on them, and being stronger for them is the only way, ultimately, to win back trust.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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