We’ve Moved

Over the past several years, a considerable number of expert groups, commissions, panels and individuals have voiced elements of what, writ large, is a fairly coherent and consistent critique of the current practice of political journalism at our major news outlets.

It’s too shallow, too attracted to spectacle and too easily distracted. It is forgetful and indifferent to expertise. It is too quick to normalize abnormal behavior. It reflects elitist conventional wisdom and is out of touch with the rest of America. It spreads, rather than refutes, disinformation. It is tongue-tied on racial and gender issues. It is obsessed with conflict and finding two sides; with the horse-race and with gotchas. It values access to the powerful over giving voice to the voiceless. It prizes optics over substance; and cynicism over hope.

In the Trump era, addressing these shortcomings has obviously become more necessary than ever: the media is being played, stymied and demonized all at once. With the next presidential election bearing down on us, addressing those shortcomings — and trying our damndest to fix them — has become urgent.

So I’ve launched Press Watch, what I hope will be a collaborative project to monitor political reporting and encourage more responsible, informed and informative campaign and government coverage before the 2020 election.

Please join me there. Read more about the site. Consider making a donation. If you know philanthropically-inclined people or groups, please put in a good word. And please, as always, let me know what you think.

Trump Hid From Reporters – Then Only Agreed to Talk to Them Off the Record

Trump visiting the Air Force One press cabin in 2017.
Trump visiting the Air Force One press cabin in 2017. (TV Pool photo by @jonkarl).

Donald Trump had spent Wednesday essentially hiding from real people.

His visits to the sites of two mass shootings were almost illicit: he avoided public places in favor of hospitals, where he met mostly with people who were on duty and therefore unlikely to make a scene. He saw few actual shooting victims, and, evidently fearing that some might confront him with his own culpability in spreading the toxic anti-immigrant hysteria that infected one of the shooters, he didn’t let journalists come along.

Some observers were not impressed.

White House press officials had insisted that the visit was not “a photo opp” but was “about the victims and their families and thanking medical staff.” That was quickly revealed as a lie, when the press office released not one, not two, but three slick videos shot and selectively edited by its own film crew, North Korean style. The third one actually had a triumphant soundtrack.

Read moreTrump Hid From Reporters – Then Only Agreed to Talk to Them Off the Record

Don’t just quote his words

As Trump visits El Paso and Dayton today, journalists should remember some of the hard-learned lessons of the last four years, and apply them.

Don’t just quote his words. Trump’s words are meaningless without context. Their true meaning only emerges when one compares what he says when he’s reading a speech with what he says when he’s speaking contemporaneously, with what he tweets, with what he has said and tweeted before, with what his actions say – all in the context of his history of lies and misstatements and reversals. His grammar is also a tell. He does not deserve the benefit of the doubt, because the true meaning is often the opposite of the apparent meaning. Stenography in this case is misinformation. Readers and viewers deserve better.

Trump isn’t just using anti-immigrant rhetoric — he’s fomenting anti-immigrant hysteria

Trump rally in Phoenix in 2016. Photo by Gage Skidmore.
Trump rally in Phoenix in 2016. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

The debate over whether Donald Trump is racist or not has been an absurd distraction from reality, which is that he has been stirring up the most virulent strain of anti-immigration hysteria there is: he’s not only asserting an invasion by dangerous people with dark skin, he’s saying it poses an existential crisis to white America.

The white nationalist who opened fire on Latino families at an El Paso Walmart over the weekend was a believer. He described being caught up in something more powerful than himself. “I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion,” he wrote in a manifesto posted on 8chan.

Feeling like a heroic defender of America is a key element of Trumpism, and goes a long way toward explaining why his supporters are so enthralled. The biggest way he riles them up is by being hyperbolic about the stakes. Giving power to the Democrats, allowing in more immigrants — those are not just bad things, they are the end of the country.

He doesn’t get attention because of his charisma; it’s because he’s hysterical. He’s an absolutist (he is the “most” and “least” and “only” person). He doesn’t let facts get in the way (“fake news”). But most of all, he tells his cult-like devotees that if they fail, it is the end of America. “Making American Great Again” has always been about rescuing it from ruination brought about by Obama and people like him.

Read moreTrump isn’t just using anti-immigrant rhetoric — he’s fomenting anti-immigrant hysteria

Desperately Seeking Best Practices for Covering the Trauma of Trumpism

Anti-Trump rally in Baltimore in 2016
Anti-Trump rally in Baltimore on Nov. 10, 2016 (photo by Elvert Barnes Protest Photography)

I haven’t felt like things are normal in my country for a long time now.

So despite CNN’s attempts to turn the Democratic presidential debates into American Gladiators, there was something refreshing about several hours of prime-time TV dominated by the shared awareness that the Trump presidency is a dangerous and hateful aberration.

Although, if you noticed, that wasn’t the attitude of the debate moderators. They mostly questioned the Democratic candidates as if this were just another election, as if there were no particularly unusual threat to basic American values like pluralism and inclusiveness and democracy.

My point is this: Wide swaths of the American public – especially, but not only, the people he has directly threatened and maligned — are essentially traumatized by Trumpism. But that trauma is not reflected in the attitude of our elite media.

And most importantly, it’s not reflected in the news coverage.

Read moreDesperately Seeking Best Practices for Covering the Trauma of Trumpism

‘Open Borders’ Is a Right-Wing Talking Point, But It’s Leaching Into Mainstream Coverage

Julian Castro at CNN debate
Julian Castro at CNN debate

Julian Castro was right on Wednesday night to bristle when a debate moderator’s question implied that his proposal to decriminalize undocumented immigration would effectively lead to open borders.

“Open borders is a right-wing talking point,” Castro snapped. (Here’s the transcript.)

The question cited an influential Washington Post op-ed earlier this month by Jeh Johnson, who served as homeland security secretary under President Obama, in which he likened decriminalization to “a public declaration… that our borders are effectively open to all.”

Since then, Johnson’s words – unrebutted – have been repeatedly cited by the political press corps, the result being that news reports increasingly conflate decriminalization with “open borders” – a politically toxic phrase that Trump and others wield like a club.

But they are not, in fact, the same thing.

The Democratic candidates themselves are somewhat to blame for the confusion, because they have not brought a whole lot of clarity to their plans to maintain a secure border.

That’s because rather than talk about securing the border – a benign concept that Trump has nevertheless weaponized into a de facto attack on non-white immigrants – the presidential candidates are tightly – and not inappropriately – focusing on the most immediate moral crisis, which is the inhumane separation of families the border by the Trump administration.

Read more‘Open Borders’ Is a Right-Wing Talking Point, But It’s Leaching Into Mainstream Coverage