Press critic Jay Rosen on how and why the media is normalizing Trump: "The need to be truthful conflicts with the duty to appear neutral"

Journalists still use words like "policy" and "learning" to describe a president with no policies who can't learn

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published May 6, 2017 3:00PM (EDT)

 (Getty/Wellphoto/AP/Susan Walsh/Salon)
(Getty/Wellphoto/AP/Susan Walsh/Salon)

Jay Rosen is one of America’s most significant public media critics, though he almost certainly wouldn't say that himself. Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, strongly prefers the more concrete and old-fashioned word “press” to the more abstract “media.” His PressThink blog, launched in August 2003, has always been closely attentive “to forms of thought that identify ‘journalism’ to itself — but also to the habit of not thinking about certain things.”

It was only natural that Rosen responded to Trump’s first 100 days in office with a thread of tweets about the problems that arise from journalists using “normal” descriptive terms to characterize such an abnormal president — including the problem that more accurate descriptive language sounds extreme and gets rejected. And it was only natural that Salon would want to talk to him, at some length about the issues he raised, in hopes of pushing the media -- sorry, the press! -- in a more reality-based direction when dealing with a president who still seems fictional.

On Trump's 100th day in office, you tweeted a series of comments exploring how the press's use of conventional everyday language misrepresents the abnormal reality of Trump’s presidency. I'd like to start by asking you about two specific examples you cited in your thread, and what they reveal about the press's assumptions that drive coverage of Trump's behavior. The first was calling the page of bullet points his "plan," his "tax plan." What's wrong with that?

A plan requires planning, deliberation, thought, a certain amount of commitment. There's nothing in Trump's behavior in office so far, or in any of the reporting around how that document was produced, that supports that term. It was something that was rushed; it had nothing to do with the process of deliberation. It reflected his desire to claim some flurry of action as the 100-day marker approached. And even after this so-called plan was announced, crucial aspects of what he thinks is going to be his tax proposal were talked about later. So on the [following] weekend, for example, [White House chief of staff] Reince Priebus talked about including something about carried interest -- I don't know if you know what that is, but it's a huge deal. That wasn't even in there. So that is not a plan. It's just an improvised sketch responding to an impulsive demand from an overgrown child who happens to be president of the United States.

What about the second example you gave, "PBS NewsHour" announcing a look back at Trump’s “foreign policy accomplishments and setbacks"?

I think that's a very routine phrase -- "foreign policy" -- but it contains an assumption, which is that he has a policy. I think we have a lot of evidence that there are no policies, because the ease and rapidity with which he overturns what he said was his policy, and the light and transient causes of the reversals -- like a 10-minute discussion with the Chinese president, or something he saw on television -- shows you that they weren’t really policies in the first place. So to say he has policies is misleading. He has reactions to things, and when new things happen he'll have different reactions. There's almost nothing -- especially in the international sphere -- that isn't instantly revisable. To me, a policy reflects a certain amount of knowledge, it reflects deliberation and some kind of conviction. Even though people change their policies, when they’re really policies they change them reluctantly. That doesn't fit the facts. That's not how he operates.

You cite a couple of common tropes used to describe Trump that for most politicians would imply criticism. Explain what's problematic about them, starting with describing Trump as "flip-flopping." What’s wrong with that?

Reporters think of themselves as skeptics. That's a major component of their professional self-image. I'm trying to point out a case for their not being skeptical enough. So, "flip-flopping" sounds like a criticism, right? And it is a standard criticism that reporters make, because it’s supposed to be a problem if you switch your position. Maybe it shows that you have no principles, or you have no core. That's the implied rebuke, right?

But in this case, “flip-flopping” is actually crediting Trump with having positions in the first place, which I don't think he ever did. If you can, for example, just abandon “Mexico will pay for the wall” -- which is something he said in almost every speech -- without any guilt or struggle, really, or if he can be talked out of his opposition to NAFTA -- which is another key component of his campaign, and not only of his campaign but of his political style, the whole revolution in Republican Party thinking that he seems to have engineered -- two conversations with Trudeau and the Mexican president and he changes his mind, right? So to say that those were positions that he flip-flopped on is granting far too much. It distorts the description of the kind of president we have.

You also cited the phrase “a steep learning curve.”

I just don't know of any evidence that he is learning. I see him changing his mind, and as I said, reacting to events. But I don't see evidence of learning, because he keeps doing the same thing.

I think any time he does something the press likes, they credit him for “becoming more presidential,” and then he turns around and does the same old same old, and they act surprised.

There's this phrasing they use, and I'm trying to point out to them that this sort of unconscious or less-than-conscious use of terms is becoming a problem. They'll say something like “Trump is learning that the White House is not all-powerful in our system,” or something like that, where what “learning” really means in that sentence is that events are showing him that, because it's turning out differently then he predicted. But the word they're using is “learning,” so there is a subtle assumption there that he’s learning, that he's actually drawing the necessary conclusions, incorporating them into his behavior so he can be a better politician and a smarter president next time around. And there is no evidence of that.

You went on to say, "Just as thoughtless use of normal terms distorts an extreme situation, using accurate terms may sound 'too extreme.'" One example -- which you have cited before -- is that "many things he does can only be explained via narcissistic personality disorder. But that is off limits to newsrooms." Can you give me an example?

I think a good example is contained in that Politico piece I wrote about in my last post at PressThink, which is all about the supposed shocking irony, or astounding irony, that the same man who campaigns against the media and conducts hate speech against journalists as a class with regularity, is in fact hugely concerned with the news media and craves their attention, craves their approval. It's not really surprising if you understand narcissistic personality disorder.  Another way to say it would be, if you crave the approval of journalists -- which Trump clearly does -- it's not such a great idea to call them disgusting people, dishonest people, the enemy of the American people. But if you understand narcissistic personality disorder, it makes perfect sense. A person that the medical health profession also calls a malignant narcissist -- probably a better term -- believes they are worthy of adulation by everyone, and when they don't get it, their reaction is rage.

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So that would explain this behavior, which on a rational basis is very hard to explain. That's why I said the point is not so much that journalists should go around diagnosing Trump, because I know that's controversial, and I understand the reasons why they're reluctant to do that. What I was really trying to point out is that it's very hard to understand some of the things he does unless you know about this construct. Because it's extreme behavior.

Could you say a bit more about why discussing that question is off limits? Both the stated reason and your sense of the real reasons.

If you ask journalists about it they’ll start telling you that it's unethical to diagnose at a distance. They usually don't know that this is actually a debate within the mental health profession. There are people who do say “absolutely not," the Goldwater Rule is not just an ethic of our profession but close to the core of our profession's ethics, and they defend it strongly. Then there are other people with Ph.D.s in psychology and M.D.s in psychiatry who have a different idea, which is, as mental health professionals we have a duty to warn -- that's a phrase that they’ve been using -- when a malignant narcissist has the power to hurt other people, we have a duty to warn. So that's a different idea about professional ethics.

One thing journalists do is they pick up on one half of that debate, and say this is the ethics of the situation, leaving out the other half. And also, leaving out the fact that I think is just sort of odd: Why are journalists bound by the ethics code of the American Psychiatric Association? How many other professional bodies are they also bound by? It's a little weird. So they would say that it's unethical to diagnose, they're aware of the Goldwater Rule. Sometimes they don't know about its history. For example, do they know that it was a reaction to a libel verdict? It’s a way not to get sued, for professionals who could be in that position.

Anyway, they would say that. But the real reason is that it sounds like they are too extreme, too far out there, too critical, too close to sounding like a political opponent of the president. Which illustrates something that a lot of mainstream journalists would prefer not to confront -- which is [when] the need to be accurate and truthful conflicts with the duty to appear neutral. And you can't have both. So what you do when you can't have both?

Another example you cite is Josh Marshall writing, "He is not only ignorant but clearly unaware of his level of ignorance." That is a description of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which a number of journalists (myself included) have written about regarding Trump. In fact if you type “Dunning-Kruger” into Google, “Dunning-Kruger president” is one of the first things that comes up, so there's definitely an awareness of it out there. Yet it doesn't seem to have become incorporated into reporters' understanding of Trump. What does that tell us?

I think you'll find this for a lot of things. There are stories about it. There is reporting about it. But it doesn't become part of the routine. Another good example is Evan Osnos’ piece, which is the current cover story in the New Yorker. It’s about, could Trump be gotten rid of, either through the 25th Amendment or impeachment. He did a lot of reporting about mental health. He goes into this debate in the mental health profession, between those who think, “Yeah, there’s something really going on here,” and those who think you can't say something about a person you haven't examined.

But that's a good piece of journalism. It's reporting. It's talking to experts. It's going back in the history. It's inquiring. So it's not that journalists never mention it, or don't report on it. Or there aren’t journalists who are aware of these things. There are. It's the difference between stories that get published and routines. It's still routine to say “Trump's foreign policy.” It's not routine to say, “Wait, does this president even have policies?” So it's driving the wedge of skepticism too deep. It just feels like a violation of the professional code to be that skeptical – even though being skeptical is a point of pride for professional journalists and, as I said, part of their professional identity.

It seems to be a broader part of the problem for journalists. There's a general problem of assimilating what's been reported into their ongoing reporting, which is what you're supposed do as a beat reporter. You're supposed to benefit from the accumulation of experience over time. That’s what makes an old-hand reporter superior to a cub reporter, right? But they're not doing that.

In the ways that I'm pointing out, no. Another way you could say it is that by failing to come face-to-face with these things and make them part of their routine description, they are really ceding the subject to the satirists and the comedians and the late-night talk show hosts. Vox did a really good explainer on why the satirists are doing better than the journalists covering Trump. That’s sort of what we’re talking about here. Because the fact that he’s not only ignorant, but he’s ignorant of how ignorant he is -- or he doesn't even know that he doesn't know --  it is challenging to put into your “straight news” article. But if you don't you are leaving it to the satirists and the comedians. What you're really doing is forfeiting cultural authority to them.

This raises the question of what journalism requires, beyond what has worked in the past: the ability to bring new frames of reference in the public discourse, as well as the willingness, motivation and capacity to do so. How can these new requirements that have been illustrated so vividly by Trump's presidency be articulated in a way that working journalists are likely to grasp?

It's important to understand why these things happen. It's not just that journalists are lazy or unobservant, or they don't know that these extremes are being reached, or they are unaware of how different Trump is compared to other presidents. I think they are aware. I think they see these things, and they either roll their eyes or shake their heads.

But it's important to understand that news writing and news production is heavily based on routinization for a reason. The reason is, when you have to produce an account under pressure, on deadline, by 3:30 -- or you’re asked to go on air -- there's no time to think, “What's a new language for this new reality we're in?” You have to reach for routinized terms and concepts as well as production routines themselves, like calling the experts and bringing in Jeffrey Lord. That too is routinization. Because when you have to produce in a hurry no matter what happens, you tend to rely on known terms.

So it’s a condition of the work that journalists have to do. You can make them aware of that, because they know as well as anyone that that is their stock in trade. So how do you motivate people to look at this problem and start addressing it? You remind them that they are writers, and every journalist who is good at it thinks of themselves as a writer. That's part of their identity. And what a writer is supposed to be good at is finding the right words -- not OK words or any words or the usual words, but the right words. Calling things by their right names, these are the most basic imperatives you have as a writer. So that's what this is: going back to your roots as a writer  and trying to get it right. “Policy” -- is that really the right word, you know? “Plan” -- is that really what it is? What is that awareness? It's a writer’s awareness.

What can ordinary citizens and media critics do to support journalists in doing that better?

Well I try to model that with number 16 in my thread: When somebody breaks from the pack and delivers fresh perspectives using the tools of journalism, you have to hold them up and say, “Hey, this is different, this is good. Great job! Look at this!” Underline it.

In the example you cite with Chuck Todd, what was striking was that he didn't really reach for new language. Everything he said was pretty much using conventional terms, but he did a very good job.

Yes that was very revealing, it shows it can be done. That's why I used it.

But at the same time, you're pointing to something more, that there's a need to expand the frame of reference. There seems to be a tension there.

We need both. We need fresh terms and fresh perspectives and maybe different language. But we also need people like Todd who can make it sound friendly to insiders and still deliver a striking perception.

Finally, what's the most important question I haven't asked you, and what's the answer?

You haven’t asked me, "How do journalists react to your thread?" There was initially none, but as the weekend went on and the work week, I started to get more and more reactions from journalists who are saying, "This is actually something we need to think about." Jesse Eisinger, an investigative reporter for ProPublica, said something about it, and there have been others who picked up on it and said this is something we have to deal with.

One of the things that White House correspondents who write about this habitually don't often know is that there's more frustration with them among their peers than they know. They're aware that a lot of readers and followers of news are bashing them, and they’re aware of criticism from the outside and from people like me and you. But I don't think they’re as aware as they should be that lots of their peers are frustrated with political reporters. In other words, it's not just me. That's what I'm saying.

By Paul Rosenberg

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

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