Trump & the Press: A Murder-Suicide Pact

The press will destroy Trump and Trump will destroy the press.

Consider that trust in media began falling in the ’70s, coincident with what we believe was our zenith: Watergate. We brought down a President. A Republican President.

Now the press is the nation’s last, best hope to bring down a compromised, corrupt, bigoted, narcissistic, likely insane, incompetent, and possibly dangerous President. A Republican President. Donald Trump.

If the press does what Congress is so far unwilling to do — investigate him — then these two Republican presidencies will bookend the beginning of the end and the end of the end of American mass media. Any last, small hope that anyone on the right would ever again trust, listen to, and be informed by the press will disappear. It doesn’t matter if we are correct or righteous. We won’t be heard. Mass media dies, as does the notion of the mass.

Therein lies the final Trump paradox: In failing, he would succeed in killing the press. And his final projection: The enemy of the people convinces the people that we are the enemy.

The press that survives, the liberal press, will end up with more prizes and subscriptions, oh joy, but with little hope of guiding or informing the nation’s conversation. Say The New York Times reaches its audacious dreamof 10 million paying subscribers. So what? That’s 3% of the U.S. population (and some number of those subscribers will be from elsewhere). And they said that blogs were echo chambers. We in liberal media will be speaking to ourselves — or, being liberal, more likely arguing with ourselves.

No number of empathetic articles that try to understand and reflect the worldview of the angry core of America will do a damned bit of good getting them to read, trust, and learn from The New York Times. My own dear parents will not read The New York Times. They are left to be <cough> informed by Fox News, Breitbart, Drudge, RT, and worse.

Last week, Jim Rutenberg and David Leonhardt of The Times wrote tough columns about turmoil in Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal over journalists’ fears that they find themselves working for an agent of Trump. They missed the longer story: What we are living through right now was the brainchild of Rupert Murdoch. It started in 1976 (note the timeline of trust above) when he bought the New York Post to be, in his words, his bully pulpit — and he added new meaning to that phrase. Yes, Rush Limbaugh and his like came along in the next decade to turn American radio into a vehicle for spreading fear, hate, and conspiracy. But it was in the following decade, in 1996, when Murdoch started Fox News, adding new, ironic meaning to another phrase: “fair and balanced.” He and his henchman, Roger Ailes, used every technique, conceit, and cliché of American television news to co-opt the form and forward his worldview, agenda, and war.

Murdoch could have resurrected the ideological diversity that was lost in the American press when broadcast TV culled newspapers in competitive markets and the survivors took on the impossible veil of objectivity. Instead, he made the rest of the press into the enemy: not us “and” them but us “or” them; not “let us give you another perspective” but “their perspective is bad.”

What’s a liberal journo to do? We are stuck in endless paradoxical loops. If we do our job and catch the President in a lie, we are labeled liars. When we counteract fake news with real news, everything becomes fake news. If I get angry about being attacked by angry white men I end up becoming an angry white man. Liberals tell us to be nice to conservatives to win them over but then they only mock us for being weak. Snowflakes. Cucks. Liberal tears.

I commend to your reading this essay by Dale Beran explaining the ultimate political irony of our day: The alt-right is made up of losers and when we call them losers they win. So we can’t win. “Trump is Pepe. Trump is loserdom embraced,” Beran explains. “Trump supporters voted for the con-man, the labyrinth with no center, because the labyrinth with no center is how they feel, how they feel the world works around them. A labyrinth with no center is a perfect description of their mother’s basement with a terminal to an endless array of escapist fantasy worlds.”

How do you argue with that worldview? How do you inform it? How do you win somebody over when all they want is enemies? (Watch this at your own peril.) You probably can’t. There are some chunks of America that likely need to be written off because they have fenced themselves off from reasonable, fact-based, intellectually honest, civil debate and now wallow in hate. Is that condescending of me to say? No, it’s pragmatic. Realjournalismus.

So then am I giving up on journalism and democracy? No, damnit, not yet. I am giving up on mass media. The internet wounded it; Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump finally killed it.

So now what? Now we reinvent journalism. Now we learn how to serve communities, listening to them to reflect their worldviews and gain their trust so we can inform them. Now we give up on the belief that we are entitled to act as gatekeeper and to set the agenda as well as the prices of information and advertising. Now we must learn to work well with others. Now we must bring diversity not just to our surviving newsrooms — which we must — but to the larger news ecosystem, building new, sustainable news services and businesses to listen to, understand, empathize with, and meet the needs of many communities.

Our goal is not to herd all the lost sheep back into our fence. I will disagree with those who say that we must grinfuck to Trump voters to woo them to our side of the ballot. No, we must stay angry and incredulous that they — the fanatical core of them — brought us Trump, and we prove our worth by fixing that. I say there is no hope of convincing frogs and eggs in our Twitter feeds; let’s not waste our time. Instead, our goal is to bring out the people who regretted their vote; there must be some. Far more important, our goal is to bring out the people who did not vote, who were not sufficiently informed of the risk of their inaction and thus not motivated to act. We can do that. Journalism can. That is why journalism exists, for civic engagement. (This is why starting Social Journalism at CUNY was a revolutionary act.)

Start, for example, with the many communities who are lumped together as Latino Americans. Meet them not as a demographic bucket imagined by Anglo Americans and marketers but as distinct groups of people who have distinct needs and interests. (This is why I am proud that CUNY started a bilingual journalism program.) Do the same with so many other underserved and these days abused communities: immigrants, Muslims, LGBT communities, people who will lose health insurance … communities organized not just around identity but also around need.

To be clear, this does not mean that the last mass-media companies can abandon these communities to media ghettos. The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, CNN, every newspaper company, and every broadcast company must work much harder to bring diversity into their newsrooms and executive ranks to do their jobs better. (One last plug for CUNY: This is why we work so hard to recruit a diverse student body.) We can improve mass media. But I don’t think we can fix it as it is — that is, return it to its lost scale. And I don’t think that mass media can fix the mess we are in.

So I would advise media companies old and new to invent and invest in new services to serve new communities. If I wanted to save a struggling mass-media company — think: Time Inc. — I would start scores of new services, building new and valued relationships with new communities.

And, yes, I would start a new service for conservative America. I would hire the best conservative journalists I could find not just to write commentary but to report from a different worldview (if anyone can define conservatism these days). I would underwrite scholarships at journalism schools (I promised to stop plugging mine) to recruit students from towns wracked by unemployment, from evangelical colleges, from the military. I would take advantage of a tremendous business opportunity to fight back against Murdoch’s and Trump’s destruction of the American press in the full belief that there are enough people in this nation on the right who want facts, who want to be informed, who will listen to their own uncomfortable truths. I would welcome that diversity, too.

Finally, I would stop listening to the entitled whinging of journalists about the state of their business. Yes, Murdoch fired a first bullet and Trump hammered a last nail but we bear the most responsibility for abandoning large swaths of America and for refusing to change. I disagree with Adrienne LaFrance that Mark Zuckerberg is out to “destroy journalism.” His manifestoabout the future of communities and an informed society shows we have much to learn from him. “Online communities are a bright spot,” he writes, ever the optimist. “Research suggests the best solutions for improving discourse may come from getting to know each other as whole people instead of just opinions — something Facebook may be uniquely suited to do.”

OK, but I will also push him, too. Facebook, Twitter, and all the platforms should invest their considerable intelligence, imagination, and resources in helping reinvent journalism for this age. New tools bring new opportunities and new responsibilities. I would like to see Facebook help news companies understand how to serve communities and how to reimagine how we inform citizens’ conversations where they occur. I wish that Facebook would find more ways to introduce us to new people who can tell their stories in safe spaces where we can come to learn about each other. I would like Facebook and media to collaborate convening communities in conflict to informed and productive discourse. I would like to see Twitter finally address its and perhaps society’s key problem: Can we be open and also civil? I hope Google will be more transparent about those who would manipulate it and thus us. I hope they all help us invent new business models that no longer reward just clickbait and fame, cats and Kardashians, sensationalism and polarization (Zuckerberg’s words). The platforms should spend less effort trying to help journalism as it is — except insofar as it buys us time for innovation — but instead support journalism as it can be.

Let Donald Trump kill the mass media that made him President. Let his ego and his hate suck all his attention and hostility from its last dying embers. Let his election be the last gasp, the nadir of this dying institution. Then let the rest of us — God willing a comfortable majority in this already-great nation — find a path to resume a civil and informed conversation about our shared future.

  • mike__ch

    FNC was always Ailes’s domain, and the difference in tone it took from Murdoch’s Sky News that airs in other countries (and can be viewed online) is part of that. Ailes is gone, but it’s going to take a few years for the organization to completely flush his influence. In the meantime, their support of Trump is occasionally reluctant support. Shepard Smith is defending the credibility of CNN reporting and paying compliments to Jim Acosta because they are ultimately in the same boat as CNN here. The base they have long built their ratings around is already eroding to Breitbart, Alex Jones, etc.
    The erosion already started: Fox wants you to buy from Comcast etc to hear their re-coloring of actual events; whereas these new media sites that eliminate the actual events are frequently online at no additional charge. Trump telling people that The Real News is found far outside the mainstream business model is as much a danger to Fox.

    My own take on reinventing journalism is to look outside the bubble of America. We have been, and have for a long time, considered “centrism” to be shifty quite a ways to the right of where it used to be. Nixon started it in 1972 by bringing in the preachers and moral guardians and converting the south, and Reagan’s agenda (which was not about tax cuts but benefitting Wall Street) kept it cemented there.

    In the rest of the world, Barack Obama was a centrist. Many corrupt bankers never went to jail, General Motors was essentially given a loan and an oversight committee rather than nationalized outright, trade flourished, and the lines between investment banking and consumer banking were never re-established. Meanwhile, the “conservative press” painted a picture of him as some radical opposed to the very idea of profits, an image that still sticks among the heartland and businesspeople who mistakenly think of themselves as small business and middle class. (See also that owner of a regional salon chain in the CNN audience that complained to Sanders about having to pay healthcare costs if she opened a fifth location.)

    A conservative news service that doesn’t further injustice mass media would have to challenge what the idea of conservatism even is at this point. Is conservativism unabashedly free trade and full of Adam Smith ideals that often cause Americans to lose in the competition, or is conservatism about trade skepticism, protecting our capital, and enriching ourselves to the fullest extent possible? Conservatism is almost certainly a fan of a security state, but is it aggressively supportive of regime change as it was under Cheney/Rumsfeld? The capitol’s conservative wing has the worst leadership we’ve seen in many decades, and any good traits are being lost in the cesspool. Trump isn’t a fan of buying a regime change the way Bush was, which may be good for the future of conservatism. However, he’s also not a big fan of global alliances to keep bloodthirsty superpowers in check, which is almost assuredly bad.

    Maybe Murdoch will pull it together (if he scrapped FNC completely and replaced it with a feed of the Sky stream online, some would call that an improvement) but if he can’t conservative media in America will have to sleep in the bizarre bed it’s made for itself before it’s reborn as something else.

  • Doug Rainey

    I have been reading the WSJ online. I think they do a good job of playing it down the middle, despite the Fox ties. Of course, there has been some turmoil in the newsroom regarding the treatment of Trump.

  • Difficult for me to read long discussions on line, but I do have some thoughts on the topic. The short form is that I think the main problem is bad economic models.

    The NY Times has a current model of becoming one of the last newspapers left standing. I don’t like that because we need broad journalism everywhere.

    CNN has an eyeballs-for-advertising model that drives them to disaster porn. Their fatal problem is that most of the time the news is pretty boring, and they can’t sell ads if people stop watching.

    These days the most successful business model is fake journalism in the form of paid propaganda a la FAUX ‘news’ and Breitbart. They are only running ads to pretend they are legitimate, but they are really funded by greedy bastards who want to make their propaganda look good–and it seems to be working too well.

    My favorite alternative model would be for the news websites to sell solutions, not just tell us about the problems. The articles would be followed by links (or QR codes in dead tree versions) and the readers would be able to buy ‘charity shares’ to support the solutions they like. Some of the solutions might be internal projects, just paying for the cost of producing the article or future articles. Other projects could be external projects, but the website would still earn a commission for making sure the project proposals are complete and for evaluating and reporting on the results after the project is finished.

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