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Jay Rosen

369. How journalists can avoid rising to the bait in covering Trump

Jay Rosen is a media critic and professor of journalism at New York University. He’s also an observer of the trends and troubles affecting the media industry, which he documents on his blog, PressThink.org and on Twitter. Since 2015, Rosen has focused his critical eye on how the press has covered the candidacy and subsequent presidency of Donald Trump, whose effusive and combative style Rosen says has altered the norms of political reporting

Recently, Rosen posted a thread on his Twitter feed outlining a set of strategies political journalists and newsrooms can employ to more effectively navigate the “new norm” and not rise to the bait of Trump’s rhetoric. He joins Producer Michael O’Connell on this week’s It’s All Journalism podcast to discuss this thread.

Michael O’Connell: You’re on the podcast because a recent thread that you had on Twitter addressed some of the frustrations that political journalists are facing in covering the Trump administration. The pattern is something that I like to call the Trump conundrum, which is Trump says something outrageous. The press is compelled to cover the outrageous comment. Coverage, negative response ramps up Trump and his base. And then Trump doubles down and now the press of course feels compelled to cover the ramping up and it all sort of spins wildly out of control. The end result is greater coverage for Trump, an electrified base and greater opposition and mistrust for the media. What worries you about this scenario? 

Jay Rosen: Well, there’s several things going on there. One is that Trump has incorporated into his political style the use of journalists and the national news media as a hate object. And when he says outrageous things and gets critical coverage of it, instead of that being a kind of a warning or a trouble sign for him, it actually helps him with his core supporters who believe that journalists are trying to take their guy down. And so in the past negative press coverage and criticism across the news media would be considered for our president or our presidential candidate a negative. Trump has turned it into a positive. So that’s one problem.

Another problem is that the criteria for what constitutes news include outrageous remarks and surprising statements and the trashing of norms and offensive comments. And those are things Trump does every day. And so if an outrageous or crazy comment is going to create news, that means that it’s like incredibly easy for Trump to control the news agenda because all he has to do is say something else that kind of like busts through normal behavior for presidents. And so the conclusion is that a lot of things that journalists do are based on premises and expectations for how public actors, especially presidents, will behave and Trump violates all those expectations. And unless journalists adjust to that, they are going to continue in this spiral. 

O’Connell: So do you feel that this is a conscious effort on his part? That this is how he’s going to, you know, push out his message? 

Rosen: Not particularly.I’m not of the belief that he has much of a strategy. I don’t think that this is very well thought through. The proof of that is he has the highest negatives of any recent president, he’s never passed 50% in approval ratings. So there are huge costs to him to doing it as this way. But I think it’s a reflection of his personality. It’s just who he is. It’s not a strategy. It doesn’t have a plan behind it. It’s just the nature of the man. 

And one of the things that’s extremely unusual about Trump, and it’s very hard for journalists to wrap their minds around, is that he doesn’t care if he is humiliated publicly. He has no gene for public shame. He doesn’t care if he’s shown to be a fool or a buffoon or ignorant or a racist. And because he doesn’t have this gene or  this personality that flees public shame, it’s very difficult for journalists to cope with him, because he’s constantly saying things that violate expectations. And if you take toward him traditional news values, then he’s going to dominate your news agenda every single day. And this is the trap that I think the national press caught in. 

O’Connell: Yeah. And this is not something that just happened recently. This is, I mean, people were beginning to notice this and being critical of the way news outlets were covering the 2016 campaign, like giving his speeches much more exposure because he said outrageous things and people wanted to hear what he had to say. And it became a sort of a ratings driver, certainly in the cable world. 

Rosen: Yeah. We’re in the fourth year of this pattern. We’ve been through it since 2015, so it’s now four years into this. 

O’Connell: So why can’t journalist just ignore his outrageous comment or the falsehoods he may put out? 

Rosen: Well, they can’t ignore him because in a word, he’s president and his comments can have geopolitical significance, as, for example, with North Korea. They can also expose parts of the population to hatred and resentment. They can mobilize a kind of nationalism, racism, prejudice. They can encourage some of the worst instincts in American life. And so when a president who represents the entire nation is saying these things is, it isn’t as easy as a lot of people say to just ignore him. I don’t think that’s, it’s not a practical solution. On the other hand, just letting him dominate the news of the day with his hatred and his racism and his resentment, that’s not a practical solution either. 

O’Connell: Now I know that one of the initial reactions after the 2016 election was really kind of this push toward we’ve got to get it the lies. Cause that’s the thing that as journalists, we should be able to sort of tackle this. We create these fact checkers. We expose all, we you look into every crazy comment and we say this is wrong, this is wrong, this is kind of wrong. This is misleading. And we build up these lists of lies. I forget what the number is at at the Washington Post.

Rosen: It’s over 10,000.

O’Connell: I don’t think people who have not been convinced that Donald Trump is a liar are going to be convinced if we report 12,000 lies.

Rosen: Right.

O’Connell: I mean, any rational human being would look at that number and say, yeah, I think that’s probably enough evidence. Probably a hundred lies would have given us enough evidence. But it certainly gives us sort of a magnitude of what we’re dealing with and that just reporting, you know, that something is a falsehood and explaining what the truth is isn’t a cure or isn’t the only cure to this. Personally, I think it’s important that the press expose untruths, but I don’t think that that’s the remedy for this. But you know, I mentioned before that you had to put this thread up on your Twitter feed a couple of weeks ago and you’ve been writing about this issue from, I think, even the early days of the Trump administration, what sparked you early on to sort of jump into this?

Rosen: it was the violation of all assumptions that political journalists have about how candidates and presidents are going to behave. So the fact checking is a very good example. Glenn Kessler, who’s The Washington Post fact checker, has pointed out several times that in the past when candidates or presidents were fact checked, Republican and Democrat, it isn’t that they necessarily conceded that the press was right and apologized. But when they were fact checked by more than one new organization and what they were saying was shown to be false or dubious, they would generally change what they were saying. They would alter it so that it, it passed the test. They would either change the claim or they would slightly revise it so that they didn’t get criticized again in that way. And that was the power of fact checking. That was the system working as it were. But as Kessler has noted several times with Trump, there’s absolutely no effect whatsoever. He gets fact checked and he not only continues to say it, but he would often double down or or add to the outrageousness of it. And so this is clearly a case where standard practice doesn’t work. The premises or assumptions that journalists could reliably have are busted. And the press, if it’s going to continue its role as an accountability institution, has to come up with something different because clearly fact-checking Trump makes absolutely no difference whatsoever. 

O’Connell: Yeah, and back to this thread that you had on Twitter, you came up with a handful of strategies and some of these are sort of based on things that some newsrooms have done but others are kind of a rather interesting approach to it. Let me go through through them sort of one by one and we can talk about each one of them. 

The first one is, well, this all sort of goes under the umbrella of, how can newsrooms avoid taking the bait? When Trump says something outrageous or he says something false, how can the press avoid just repeating that falsehood, repeating that outrageous comment and sort of having it go spinning out of control? So, the first thing you put forward is suspend normal relations with the Trump administration. How can newsrooms not cover what the president says and does? I mean, because that’s what their job is. What do you mean by suspend relations? Normal relations? 

Rosen: Well, it’s borrowing in use of analogy from diplomatic relations where one country will occasionally suspend normal relations with another in order to register a protest or to say you’ve gone too far or this is beyond the norms of civilized conduct and in press relations, suspending normal relations would mean that this is you’re declaring that this is an extraordinary situation that normal rules don’t apply, that the president himself has violated the expectations for presidents so dramatically that the press that covers the president has to change what it does as well. So, I didn’t prescribe a particular measure to take, but what I said was each newsroom can decide which part of normal press relations it’s going to quit. So for example, for the Washington Post, it might mean not participating in background briefings for the producers of CNN. It might mean not going live to Trump events for, as I pointed out in my piece for Rachel Maddow of MSNBC, she’s decided to almost never, not never, but almost never use tape of Trump talking at a rally or a speech because the chances are he’s going to say something that’s false and she doesn’t want to misinform her viewers. And it’s not that she’s ignoring what Trump does. She talks about him almost every show, but she doesn’t play his speeches because that’s going to let falsehoods through. So that’s an example of suspending normal relations. 

So what I tried to argue was that every news organization has to decide for itself what the consequences of that will be. But suspending normal relations makes it possible for journalists to make different decisions than they would for a normal president. 

O’Connell: Yeah. I remember when the New York Times, the publisher was invited to the White House and that was sort of an example of here’s an unusual opportunity. Yeah, I’ll go down and I’ll talk to the White House. There were good things and the bad things that kind of came out of that. But you know, looking for different ways to cover the White House so that you actually are controlling your news cycle and your news choices. 

Rosen: Well, at that meeting and the publisher of the New York Times basically lectured Trump on the dangers of his “enemy of the people” rhetoric and tried to get him to stop. That’s unusual.

O’Connell: Yes, that is unusual. And it’s a different sort of role for a journalist to typically play, I think, reading the riot act to a president. 

Rosen: Yeah, exactly.

O’Connell: To remind them that this is the reason why we have a free press and your negative reactions — and we even sort of touched about the negative comments directed towards the press, but we can talk about that after we, after we talk about the, these sort of solutions that you’re putting out here. And the next one was, report but don’t make Trump the, the main character. How do you accomplish that? 

Rosen: Well, I don’t think this is all that difficult. He doesn’t have to be the center of every story. You can talk about some of the things he’s done without making him the protagonist of the story. So for example, instead of focusing on his frankly racist and extreme comments about Baltimore, you could focus on what people in Baltimore are saying about that, that you can focus on the people who are affected by his comments. Or you can focus on the struggle of Republican office holders to maintain some dignity and still be part of the president’s team. So I think there’s lots of ways of mentioning and reporting what he’s doing, so you’re not like blacking out the news, but you aren’t making it about him and he isn’t the central character. I don’t think it’s that difficult. Once you think about it is it’s actually pretty easy, but it’s not the natural way that journalists think because they have for so many years considered everything the president says and everything the president does as news. 

O’Connell: Yeah. And it goes back to just recognizing that this is not a normal, normalized process. 

Rosen: Right.

O’Connell: It’s something that you have to adapt to.

Rosen: Right and then it goes hand in hand with suspending normal relations with the Trump government. 

O’Connell: Now this other one is, it’s a pretty nifty strategy as well. It’s called a truth sandwich. How does that work and what are the advantages of it? 

Rosen: Well, this is the recommendation of George Lakoff, who’s an academic at Berkeley who has studied rhetoric and political behavior, and what he recommends is that when you report on something misleading or false that the president says, you first report what the case is, for example, that immigration has been going down, right? First you report that, then you report what Trump said, which is we have a crisis on the border. We’re getting flooded by this caravan of migrants from Latin America. And then you repeat what the actual situation is. So you start with the truth. Then you mentioned the distortion and then you repeat the truth. So that’s called the true sandwich. And that’s a different way of reporting on some of the outrageous and false things that the president says.

O’Connell: This last idea that you present is the one that I kind of really find really kind of fascinating and this is like establishing in larger newsrooms establishing a gaslight desk to sort of identify when somebody is very blatantly telling you a mistruth and sort of doubling down on it to say, no, that’s not what I said, even though you might have film of them saying it. So what are the dangers of gaslighting and how to reporters’ coverage help to spread it inadvertently?

Rosen: A really clear example of this was after the send her back chat at one of his rallies drew attention and the criticism, Trump tried to say the next day that he had not encouraged this and that he tried to prevent it and that he tried to speed up what he was saying, just sort of accelerate past it and that he had taken steps to kind of like prevent the crowd from doing this. And anybody who watched the tape knew that was false and it was very easy to prove that it was false. All you had to do was like rolled the tape. 

And so that was an example of gaslighting, because gaslighting is telling you that what you can see with your eyes and your ears is not true. It’s attempts to make you doubt the evidence of your senses. And instead of just reporting that and making news out of his own attempt to deny what is flatly the case, I think the press to just say that’s gaslighting and send it to the gaslight desk rather than treat it as normal news, give it this designation. And then let people who have been dealing with and accumulating evidence of Trump’s gaslighting report on it and also frame it as gaslighting from the first to the last. So that’s what the gaslighting desk ideas about. 

O’Connell: That’s interesting because it’s almost like a second generation of the fact checking. 

Rosen: Yeah. It’s similar because that’s what happens now. It’s like sometimes Trump will say something and you kind of like, you send it to the fact checking desk, right? But instead of sending it to the fact checking desk, because it’s ridiculously easy to fact check you send it to the gaslighted desk because that’s what it is. 

O’Connell: Yeah. And then then you presented that by presenting it that way you’re informing your, your audience. So look, this is something that’s going on. It’s not just that it’s a lie. There’s a double down of a lie. It’s, an ongoing way to try to get the gaslight. I’m trying to think of a better word, but gaslight’s the word.

Rosen: Yeah.

O’Connell: We’ve mentioned this sort of in passing, but you’ve also written about how part of all of this is Trump’s attacks on the media. What is it that disturbs you about that or troubles you about that? 

Rosen: It’s extraordinary. It’s part of a larger attack on many of our democratic institutions. So when the president of the United States or a candidate for president says that the election is rigged, that’s an attack on our institutions. When he claims that the FBI and the intelligence community is trying to undermine him and is lying about him and inventing evidence, that’s an attack on our institutions. When he and his cabinet and his aides shove aside the knowledge and professionalism and expertise of our diplomatic corps, that’s an attack on institutions and his rhetoric about “enemy of the people” and “fake news” is an attack on one of the key institutions of democracy. Political scientists, when they ask themselves what is a democracy, they start with four or five key institutions you have to have. Obviously elected government is one, the rule of law, independent judiciary and a free press and for a president to attack the free press, not as mistaken or biased or sloppy, but as fundamentally corrupt, which is what his rhetoric about “enemy of the people” is about, it’s just an extraordinary thing. 

Why do we need the head of American democracy, the most powerful person in the American democracy to be undermining our democratic institutions? That’s like extraordinary. And in addition to that, the United States has always been a leader in press freedom. And the American president when he went abroad, always brought the press with him. And when, for example, the president would have a meeting with a foreign leader who was an authoritarian or where there wasn’t much free press like the president of the Philippines or the president of China, it was always a point made by the White House that they would bring the American press with them on the trip and they would have a joint press conference with both leaders and both press corps. And this was a point that presidents made and that State Departments always made because they wanted to bring American democracy with them when they went abroad. Now the situation is completely different and the American president is taking the lead in encouraging authoritarians across the globe to attack their own press. So that’s an example of just how bizarre and norm busting the current president is. 

O’Connell: Yeah, and you even see that in the United States. For local reporters covering City Hall, they may run up against a politician who says, oh, that’s fake news. Or you’re just, you know, you’re biased, you’re liberal, you know, you can’t trust you, you’re corrupt. And that makes it difficult for us to do our job.

Rosen: That’s right.

O’Connell: And also, unfortunately, it also puts us in dangerous situation sometimes, which is also scary.

Rosen: Yes, it can do that. And it’s persuading office holders that they don’t have to engage with the press. 

O’Connell: Yeah, which is always a problem, because it sort of cuts right into our role as a watchdog on government and our elected leaders. So since we’re talking about government elected leaders, let’s just sort of wrap this up. Just a couple of thoughts about the 2020 campaign. How would you describe, 2016 and before, I mean there’s, it’s sort of a general feel that people aren’t particularly happy with this horse race approach to covering the presidential race. Do you think that we’re just going to have another one of those in 2020 or, or do you think we’re going to sort of evolve into something else or is it too late? 

Rosen: I do not think that the American press or the news organizations that are responsible for covering the campaign at the national level went through any evaluation of their election coverage model. I don’t think they believe that they need to change it. I think they pretty much assumed that they could go into the 2020 campaign with the same mental equipment that they have used in previous campaigns. And of course they wanted to not make the same mistakes that they made in 2016 and they have done certain things to make sure that they address those. But they believe that the model of election coverage that they have used in the past is fundamentally sound and it’ll be able to do the job in 2020 and I don’t think that’s true. 

O’Connell: And this sort of goes in with this whole sort of overarching concept that this is a non normal situation.

Rosen: Yes.

O’Connell: That we need to treat this different and we need to approach this different.

Rosen: Well it’s not a normal situation. It’s the premises on which the press built its practices have collapsed. So, for example, it was always assumed for candidates and presidents, Democratic and Republican, that they wouldn’t want to violate the norms of democracy because the criticism that they would get from office holders, from the public, from the press, would make it not worth it. And Trump has created a different model of the presidency in which criticism from the press and from, let’s say one whole side of the political spectrum, is not only not a bad thing, it’s a good thing and it helps mobilize your supporters. We haven’t had, at least in the last century, presidents who deliberately polarized the electorate as they did their politics. That wasn’t something that journalists were ready for it. We used to be that you put together the coalitions that you could, you got elected and then once you got elected, you tried to persuade people who didn’t vote for you to be supporters, even though they didn’t vote for you. And the presidential approval rating was the way that we measured how well presidents were doing at reaching out to those who didn’t vote for him. This is not something that Trump even contemplates. Instead, he tries to polarize the electorate and then hopes that his half is bigger than the other half. And when you have a president who is doing that, a lot of the routines of political journalism don’t even make sense. 

O’Connell: Yeah. And what’s interesting is that you can back and you look at George W. Bush where I think at one point he even talked about is, “All I really need to represent is 51% of the electorate.” But the fact is we elect a president and that he’s the president for 100% of the people. 

Rosen: That’s right. Which is why after 9-11 George W. Bush made a very public show of saying to Muslim Americans, “You are part of this country.” Even though they may not have voted for him, but it was very important for him to make that statement. Whereas with Trump, it’s the opposite. It’s like he’s trying to divide, to polarize and to drive people into their warring camps. We’re just not used to that kind of behavior from a president. 

O’Connell: So just to wrap this up, I’d like to end on a happy note. What are your feelings or what are your thoughts about where we’re headed at the moment? Do you think that the press will sort of rise to this challenge? Do you see signs of newsrooms of journalists, you know, saying, “Hey, we need to change the way we do things,” or do you think you know, what we see now is what we’re going to see in a couple of years?

Rosen: If there had been after 2016 a kind of industrywide reckoning, if we’d seen leaders in the press get together and air some of what had gone wrong, if we’d seen reflection and re-evaluation after that debacle, I would be a little bit more optimistic. If we had seen going into 2020 public re-evaluations of how to do election coverage, I would be more optimistic. But I really think that the American press is still clinging to what it knows how to do. It’s still using assumptions from previous presidencies. It’s not that it doesn’t see what’s happening. I think that journalists are very good at sort of observing, but in changing their routines and changing their assumptions, I just don’t think that they are willing to do that and so I’m not very optimistic. I don’t see anything on the horizon that’s going to result in a different outcome in 2020 than we saw in 2016. 

O’Connell: OK. I think I’m going to leave it there. Jay, thanks for coming on the podcast. Once again, people should follow you on on Twitter. They should also check out your blog, PressThink.org. Thanks again for being on the podcast. 

Rosen: Thank you very much.

Allison Taylor-Levine

625. Community collaboration key to evolving local journalism

Allison Taylor Levine, CEO of Local Journalism Initiative, discusses how LJI’s Delaware Journalism Collaborative, which has brought more than 25 partners throughout the state together to report on polarization and possible solutions, strengthens local journalism in Delaware and our democracy.

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