For all Donald Trump’s ranting and railing against the media, they are and always have been Trump’s most valuable asset, boosting his signal exponentially — largely on his terms — while simultaneously serving as his all-purpose punching bag.
He’s a pathological liar and a lifelong racist, with a plethora of dangerous psychological symptoms. But when Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced her potential 2020 candidacy, much of the mainstream media eagerly let Trump set the narrative, recycling his racist taunts and questioning Warren’s grasp of reality — an over-the-top example of how well they serve his needs.
Trump is hardly alone. The media has persistently benefited conservatives in a similar fashion. The general press ethos of symmetrical "fairness" is vulnerable to asymmetrical exploitation and attack, as is liberal culture more generally. Witness the decades of bad-faith attacks on climate science promoted by the fossil fuel industry which has known about its own culpability at least since the 1970s.
On "Meet the Press" last weekend, Chuck Todd of all people said he wasn't going to play the "both sides" game about the science of climate change — a sharp reversal from decades of their usual practice, as seen just a month earlier, of giving “equal time” to ideological industry shills. This comes three decades late, compared to James Hansen’s 1988 warning to Congress, and more than five decades late, compared to the first warnings to President John F. Kennedy in February 1961. But better late than never, right?
But that was just one show and just one issue — though the future of humanity hangs in the balance. With the 2020 presidential campaign just getting started, and Democrats taking over the House, the media's "both sides" obsession — making absurd, baseless policies seem the equal of serious proposals — is a tremendous boon to the GOP. You could even call it their ace-in-the-hole. As, Bill Kristol, a lifelong beneficiary of this false balance logic, put it recently:
As a non-Democrat, I'm struck by how much the media seem obsessed by possible rifts among Democrats, narrow lines they'll have to walk, stray utterances of their backbenchers, etc., than by the rather more massive fact that we have a president and administration in total meltdown.
Indeed, this vastly understates the media’s false balance response to Warren's 2020 campaign announcement — an event that served to highlight just about everything wrong with our contemporary media system: its vacuousness, sexism, racism, classism, short attention span, lack of historical awareness and more.
Warren released a powerful announcement video combining her own personal story with the economic devastation of the American middle class, a terrain where she’s been fighting for decades.
“After my older brothers joined the military, and I was just a kid, my daddy had a heart attack and couldn't work. My mom found a minimum-wage job at Sears and that job saved our house and our family," Warren narrates over family pictures, a story that sounds like a fairytale today: "My daddy ended up as a janitor, but he raised a daughter who got to be a public school teacher, a law professor and a senator. We got a real opportunity to build something."
Then Warren turns to the reality she's struggled to understand, explain and fight against for decades now. "Working families today face a lot tougher path than my family did," she says, as a chart traces the declining middle-class share of U.S. income, from the late 1960s to now, "and families of color face a path that is steeper and rockier, a path that is made even harder by the impact of generations of discrimination," she says, as another chart shows how the wealth gap between black and white families has only grown wider over the past 30 years.
A lot of people saw that video for themselves, but not that many heard it analyzed, echoed and discussed — treated with the seriousness and respect it deserved, whether one agrees with Warren or not. As former Hillary Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook Robby Mook tweeted the next day:
“Without intervention or some counter movement, the savvy press are going to do a number on us in 2020,” media critic and NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen added, retweeting Mook. (Even though I don't believe the "media only covers insult" statement is true.)
As usual, Rosen’s more nuanced view deserves attention — as does his proposed alternative, which we’ll consider below. Trump’s insult strategy is just an extreme example of the broader asymmetrical advantages conservatives have always exploited and enjoyed as their own special form of privilege.
Leaving Trump’s insults aside for the moment, there were also the standard sexist “likability” attacks, most notably from Politico, which Warren deftly turned into a fundraising opportunity. As reporter Ashton Pittman noted in a scathing Twitter thread, Politico's "unlikable" narrative directed against Warren was a 180-degree turn from 2016, when it was a common refrain "that Elizabeth Warren would be a far more 'likable' woman for Democrats to run as a candidate for president than Hillary Clinton. I have receipts...." Not just the receipts, but the social science behind it.
As Pittman went on to summarize, “Research shows that ‘women negotiate for promotions and raises more often than men do, but they're far less likely to receive them. The issue is that, when women negotiate, people like them less for it.’” Along those same lines, Hillary Clinton's popularity dropped significantly each time she announced runs for office, in sharp contrast to John McCain and Rudy Giuliani.
But Politico’s unlikability narrative didn’t stand alone. It was intimately intertwined with Trump’s earlier racist taunting of Warren, as well as corporate Democrats’ sniping, as Politico’s setup revealed: “She’s too divisive and too liberal, Washington Democrats have complained privately. Her DNA rollout was a disaster — and quite possibly a White House deal-breaker. She’s already falling in the polls, and — perhaps most stinging — shares too many of the attributes that sank Hillary Clinton.”
As Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple noted, "Trouble is, the story doesn’t quote anyone articulating that critique."
A malicious myth
The same applies to the claim about Warren’s “DNA rollout" being a "disaster” pushing back against Trump’s tired Pocahontas taunts, as Huffington Post’s Jennifer Bendery explained. The idea that Warren “infuriated tribal leaders” may be “what lots of news outlets want you to think,” but those stories have virtually no backup. Taking note of two early December stories in the Washington Post and New York Times, Bendery wrote, “Oops. Neither of these stories included comments from any elected tribal leaders.”
There had been one prominent negative comment — from an appointed official of the Cherokee Nation, not an elected leader. Cherokee Principal Chief, Bill John Baker, had previously defended Warren’s efforts to understand her ancestry, according to Bendery:
“She said that she has Native American ancestors,” he said in a 2012 interview. “I wished every congressman and senator in the U.S. had a kinship or felt a kinship to the Cherokee Nation.”
What’s more, Bendery noted:
Richard Sneed, the principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, said he’s not upset at all by Warren’s DNA test. He hasn’t heard from any tribal leaders who are mad either….
“She’s never claimed to be a tribal citizen. She’s never used her story of ancestry to her advantage. She just has a story of Native ancestry,” he said. “People tell me that all the time. Everywhere I go. I don’t think people are trying to gain some status by saying that.”
To date, Sneed is the only principal chief of a federally recognized tribe ― there are 573 of them ― who has publicly said anything about Warren’s DNA test.
So there’s the stark reality: The "possible White House deal-breaker" was little more than a media myth.
But that’s just one side of the false balance distortion. On the other side, Trump’s derogatory use of “Pocahontas” really does disturb many people in the Native American community — but that has gotten little national attention from the media that claims to be suddenly so concerned about Native Americans. On July 5 last year, Trump gave a speech in Great Falls, Montana, repeatedly using the name “Pocahontas” to attack Warren. In response, Wyoming Public Media reported, a bipartisan group of 10 Native American Montana state legislators wrote a letter calling his behavior “plainly unacceptable”:
[W]hat Trump did was take the name of a real Indian person (whose history has already been distorted beyond recognition in popular culture) and transformed it into a racially bigoted epithet. This is plainly unacceptable and beneath the dignity of the office of the president.
As WPM reported:
[Susan] Webber, a Montana Democratic lawmaker and member of the Blackfeet tribe, helped co-write the letter. She said the name “Pocahontas” is used by some as a stereotype for sexualizing native women.
“Indian women are seen as the ‘Pocahontas,’ the Indian princess saving the white man,” she said.
Native women face some of the highest sexual violence and assault rates in the nation. In the vast majority of those cases, the perpetrators are non-native.
This goes directly to Trump’s well-documented history of misogyny and racism. Using the term wasn’t some “innocent” one-off remark on his part. It was an X-ray of his so-called soul. But the media as a whole has completely failed to report it as such.
Was Warren wrong to release DNA test results showing that she had a Native ancestor? Are tribal leaders and Native people mad? It depends on whom you talk to. In the group that HuffPost surveyed, the answer to both those questions was overwhelmingly no.
Warren could clearly have done a better job of coordinating with Native leaders and spokespeople in advance — a lesson she’s surely learned, because unlike Donald Trump, she’s capable of learning things and actually listens to other people's concerns.
But let’s not forget the big picture here: Trump started using the “Pocahontas” slur because he had no other way to respond to Warren’s sharp criticism of failed Republican economic policies and his bogus attempts to distance himself from them. If the media really cared about what Native Americans think, they would have roundly condemned him from the beginning, and never let his distracting slur gain traction in the first place.
Trump was initially trying to capitalize on earlier charges that Warren had misrepresented herself, using affirmative action deceptively to further her career. This was exhaustively investigated and refuted by the Boston Globe. Trump’s appropriation of this right-wing attack against Warren echoes his birther attack on Obama that first established him as a credible GOP candidate, and is equally bogus. But it does speak volumes about him, and about our media's dysfunction. Trump’s concerns about the validity of others’ status and accomplishments reflects his own inner sense of worthlessness — a key characteristic of narcissistic personality disorder.
Trump made it to the top of the Republican primary field in 2016 in part because GOP policies had long since failed to deliver as promised, and he promised something different. But he made to the White House largely because he played the media’s false balance game to perfection — with more than a little bit of outside help. As reported in a Columbia Journalism Review study (which I wrote about here), “In just six days [Oct. 29-Nov. 3, 2016], The New York Times ran as many cover stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails  as they did about all policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election.” This wild imbalance reflected a systemic weakness, identified in a Harvard study I discussed in the same story:
The institutional commitment to impartiality of media sources at the core of attention on the left meant that hyperpartisan, unreliable sources on the left did not receive the same amplification that equivalent sites on the right did. ... These same standard journalistic practices were successfully manipulated by media and activists on the right to inject anti-Clinton narratives into the mainstream media narrative. ...
[D]espite the Times' profession of objectivity, the paper was effectively hacked by pro-Trump forces and produced wildly biased reporting, even independent of the notion of pursuing journalistic "balance" within individual stories.
This is precisely what’s happening again with Elizabeth Warren. And it will happen with every single Democratic candidate, which is why they ought to have rushed immediately to her defense in solidarity. What's especially striking is how this is already playing out against a woman who has arguably been Trump’s leading target in the potential 2020 field ever since the 2016 election, precisely because she is his arch-nemesis: a good-government progressive, a woman and a genuine self-made success.
Warren’s supposed stumbles or difficulties are not actually about anything she has actually done, but rather how the so-called liberal media has been hacked to turn against her. They never effectively recognized or responded to the racist “Pocahontas” slur when Trump first deployed it, or when he doubled down on it, much as they failed to respond to Trump’s tireless promotion of birtherism. Nor did they take much notice of the Boston Globe report that cleared Warren of charges that she used her ancestry claim to gain unfair professional advancement. To top it all off, they badly mischaracterized her follow-up release of her ancestry DNA — a move she clearly saw as routine, following the Globe report.
Donald Trump had previously promised a $1 million contribution to a charity of Warren's choice, if she could prove her Native American ancestry. That’s what she asked for on Twitter, the day that she released her test results to the Globe:
This was not “a disaster — and quite possibly a White House deal-breaker,” as Politico alleged. It was a pitch-perfect response to years of racist bullying on Trump’s part, directing him to put his money where his mouth was, and do something to counter the sexual violence that his years of “Pocahontas” slurs helped promote. It only became a disaster when the “liberal media” obediently followed the script that Trump and his allies laid out for them, ignoring how blatantly (and characteristically) Trump weaseled out of his charity pledge, and turning some minor grumbling into front-page news.
If Warren was guilty of anything, it was failing to recognize how badly the so-called liberal media had been hacked by decades of right-wing ideological warfare. She’s not alone in this, and it can't be separated from everything else going wrong in America today. It’s exceedingly difficult to grasp just how badly the media’s false balance and other misleading norms have been twisted to produce such high volumes of misleading propaganda, usually without the slightest awareness of what they’re doing.
Campaign journalism as if people mattered
There is a better way: an alternative, bottom-up, citizen-based approach to campaign journalism long championed by Jay Rosen, known as the “citizen’s agenda.” He wrote about it in his 1999 book, “What Are Journalists For?” and his 2010 online essay, "The Citizens Agenda in Campaign Coverage," as well as a midterm Election Day Twitter thread. Trying to take the existing system and rid it of all the right-wing hacks wouldn't solve the fundamental problem: Mainstream media doesn’t serve the public interest, even when it isn’t hacked. What’s more, Rosen notes, it has no clear measure of success, nor a clear purpose:
One of the problems with election coverage as it stands is that no one has any idea what it means to succeed at it. Predicting the winner? Is that success? Even if journalists could do that —and they can’t — it would not be much of a public service, would it?
A very weird thing about horse race or “game” coverage is that it doesn’t answer to any identifiable need of the voter. Should I vote for the candidate with the best strategy for capturing my vote? Do I walk into the voting booth clutching a list of who’s ahead in the polls?
The alternative, pioneered by the Charlotte Observer in 1992, was to ask its readers:
The idea was very simple: campaign coverage should be grounded in what voters want the candidates to talk about. Which voters? The ones you are trying to inform….
It revolves around a single question. Here is the question: "What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?" From good answers to that everything else in the model flows.
While the horse-race style of political journalism can be done anywhere, cookie-cutter style, more or less the same way, the citizen's agenda requires fresh questions every time -- or at least a fresh look at what questions the public has this time. It's front-loaded on the citizens' side with the questions, "What do you care about? What do you need to know to decide how to vote?" And it requires an open-ended approach, welcoming input through multiple means:
The key is to pose this question (for months) in every possible form. Interviews with reporters. Focus groups with researchers. Call and leave us a message. Email us. Tweet us. Text us. Fill out this form. Speak up at our forum. Comment on our Facebook page. Talk to us! …
In addition to those inputs, the polling budget has to be redirected. Away from the horse race, toward the organizing principle in our revised approach, “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?” You can poll for that. But it is not normal.
There’s great power in this approach. It creates a clear mission for all the election coverage that follows. When journalists ask politicians questions on behalf of the public, it’s not just theoretical. They are questions the public has actually asked. Of course, journalists play a role in collecting and refining the questions — but it’s an iterative process. You listen to what the public is asking about, produce a draft set of questions, then get feedback to refine, redraft or replace items, and then do it over again. In the end:
The product is a ranked list, a priority sketch. The top 8-10 issues or problems that voters most want the candidates to be talking about.
It helps focus your “issue” coverage and voters guide. It informs your explainers. And it keeps you on track. Instead of just reacting to events (or his tweets...) you have instructions for how to stay centered around voters' concerns.
In this model, journalists know what success looks like, and voters know what needs are being met — their need for specific answers about what matters to them most. It’s a true alternative, not just to business as usual, but to how business as usual has gotten dramatically worse, as well:
You can’t keep from getting sucked into Trump’s agenda without a firm grasp on your own. But where does that agenda come from? It can’t come from you, as a campaign journalist. Who cares what you think? It has to come from the voters you are trying to inform….
A demonstrable public service, the citizen’s agenda approach puts the campaign press on the side of the voters and their right to have their major concerns addressed by the people who are bidding for power. This is the road not taken.
I have two other thoughts I would to add to what Rosen said. First, there’s an obvious synergy between this approach and one key part of HR1, the first bill introduced in the Democratic House: the six-to-one matching fund for small donors. As Lee Drutman explained at Vox:
The most transformative piece of HR 1 is the new small-donor matching system. This would change how campaigns are financed, by creating a 6-to-1 public match for every dollar raised in small-dollar contributions. Rather than spending their time calling rich people and attending fundraisers on K Street, individual members would have a greater incentive to do fundraising events back in their districts. As a result, they’d get a very different sense of the most important problems facing the country.
There are other synergistic possibilities as well. This Citizen’s Agenda model arose in 1992, the year Ross Perot ran as an independent and got 19 percent of the vote. As I’ve written about before, an innovative pollster, Alan Kay, had developed an approach he called public interest polling, which he used to explore the nature of the discontent Perot tapped into. He found strong support for a set of proposals described as “Punitive Cut, Limit, and Reform Proposals,” including cutting congressional pay, term limits, limiting contributions from lobbyists and special interests and passing a balanced budget amendment. But he also found support for a second, more proactive set of proposals, including:
A voluntary questionnaire with IRS tax forms, to inform the government of principal budget priorities.
Develop and use new indicators (similar to the GDP) to hold politicians responsible for progress toward other national goals, like improving education and health care, etc.
Scientific, nonpartisan, large sample surveys of public opinion on all important national issues.
So the "citizens' agenda" model for campaign journalism could serve as a driving force to advance a broader range of democratic reforms that would work synergistically to help shift the balance of power into the hands of ordinary people. That's also a natural fit with Elizabeth Warren's populist economic agenda, as well as those of Bernie Sanders and other potential 2020 candidates. It also cuts across party and ideological lines far more than the out-of-touch pundit class realizes.
If we want real change as a result of the 2020 campaign, there's one thing nearly all Americans can agree on, no matter which candidate we support. We need to radically reinvent political media, and turn it into a toll that helps us get answers to the questions that matter most.