Media are not merely observers in the story of democracy’s demise; they are players. Media require coverage. Who will cover media? Not media. Then no one.
The New York Times and The Washington Post eliminated their ombudsmen long since. With the death of David Carr and the departure of his short-lived and inconsequential successors, with the retirement of Margaret Sullivan, and now with the cancellation of Brian Stelter’s Reliable Sources on CNN, there is no one covering media as a story for the public. Yes, there are pontificators aplenty — present company included — and there is inside-baseball coverage for media people from the likes of the Columbia Journalism Review. But who is holding media to account for its impact on the political process for the public? No one.
This is a shameful abrogation of responsibility by our field, journalism.
I have been shouting — even on MSNBC’s air — that we must cover the impact of Murdoch’s Fox News on public discourse. I begged MSNBC to create a feature: We watch Fox News so you don’t have to. I wrote an executive there a proposal, never answered. So I arranged funding of an alum of the Newmark J-School, Juliet Jeske, to start Decoding Fox News on Twitter and Substack. (Someone in media should hire her to continue this important work.)
Fox News is only part of the story. The impact The Times and The Post have on political discourse — hell, on political outcomes — deserves coverage, criticism, and accountability. The impact of polling, bisecting America into simplistic and combative binaries, requires research. The slow death of local news must be studied. The entrance of pink-slime and evangelical news needs to be watched.
Now more than ever, media are a story media should cover. But media — so eager to criticize everyone else — are frightened of criticism themselves.
Were I to summon the spirit of David Carr, I wonder whether he would nominate Stelter as his legitimate successor as media columnist of The Times. I wonder whether anyone would have the freedom Carr and Sullivan had there to question the ways of journalism. I wonder whether any editor or producer or network executive will ever again display the cajones to critique their own.
Media are not objective, impartial, neutral, distant observers on society. Media — as in any other circumstance, media otherwise would love to convince you — have impact. If only media gave themselves a fraction of the attention that they give to so-called social media these days. If only media listened to media scholars and their research. If only media were open to criticism.
But no, media use their power and privilege to to turn spotlight on others, no longer themselves. That is wrong.
In the video above you will see New York Mayor Bill de Blasio trying to school CNN senior media correspondent Brian Stelter in the most important and most undercovered story in media today, a story that’s right under his nose: the ruinous impact of Fox News and Rupert Murdoch on American democracy. You’ll then see Stelter dismiss the critique in a fit of misplaced journalistic both-sideism.
Without Murdoch — without Fox News nationally and the New York Post locally — “we would be a more unified country,” de Blasio tells Stelter. “There would be less overt hate. There would be less appeal to racial division…. They put race front and center and they try to stir the most negative impulses in this country. There is no Donald Trump without News Corp.”
Stelter: “You’d rather not have Fox News or the New York Post exist?”
de Blasio: “I’m saying because they exist we’ve been changed for the worse.”
Stelter: “But isn’t that like saying they’re fake news or an enemy of the people?”
Jarvis: Sigh. No. He is criticizing Murdoch particularly. He’s not criticizing all of media. He’s not trying to send the public into battle against them. He’s not trying to kill them. He’s saying News Corp does a bad job. He’s saying they harm the nation. He’s right. Listen to him.
Stelter a little later: “Politicians make lousy media critics. Why do you feel it’s your role to be calling out a newspaper?”
de Blasio: “Because I think it’s not happening enough…. When it comes to News Corp., they have a political mission and we have to be able to talk about it.”
Stelter: “But singling out News Corp., it’s like Trump singling out CNN. Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
Jarvis: Scream. No, News Corp. is singular. That is the point de Blasio is trying to make as he compares them to CNN, the other networks, The New York Times, and The Washington Post: “One of these things is not like the others.” There is nothing like News Corp. in this country or in recent history. We’re not talking about that and we should be. When I say “we” I don’t just mean the nation, I specifically mean us in journalism and media and I very much mean media reporters and critics — that is de Blasio’s further critique. This is not a matter of balance, of symmetry, of two wrongs. The behavior of Fox News and of the right is asymmetrical. That is the key lesson of the election of 2016. If we do not start there, we are nowhere.
Now I’ll grant a few caveats: The rest of media are liberal and don’t admit it and that’s much of the reason they’re not trusted by half the nation. de Blasio also brings baggage when it comes to criticizing local media that criticize him. Because I teach at the City University of New York, I suppose I’m employee of the mayor’s. And I’ve been a fan of Stelter’s since he was in college. But I think Stelter is wrong to dismiss de Blasio’s critique because de Blasio is a politician, not a media critic. Indeed, we in media need to listen to voices other than our own.
de Blasio also brings caveats of his own. He supports the First Amendment. He supports free speech. He supports the press. He likes apple pie. (I’m guessing.) But that’s not good enough for Stelter, who accuses de Blasio of criticizing News Corp. because he wants to run for president. That is reportorial cynicism in action: ascribing cynicism to the motive of anyone you interview so you can seem to be tough on them rather than dealing with their critique and message at face value.
I imagine Stelter is frightened of criticizing Fox News directly because it is (a) a competitor and (b) conservative and we know that shit storm will rain from the right. So be it.
I will not mince words: Rupert Murdoch has single-handedly brought American democracy to ruin. Cable news — especially CNN — made its business on conflict and the rest of media built theirs on clickbait but only Fox News is built to — in de Blasio’s words — “sensationalize, racialize, and divide.” Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. are specifically to blame. How can any civilized soul, let alone a media correspondent, not have heard Laura Ingraham’s bilious racist rant last week and then demanded in all caps and bold: HOW THE FUCK IS THIS ON TELEVISION? WHO ALLOWS THIS? Murdoch does.
Media are fretting and kvetching about Twitter and Facebook enabling a few — yes, a few — crackpots to speak but it’s Fox News that has the bigger megaphone. It’s Murdoch that empowers Trump. It’s Fox News that instructs him on what to do, as we can see on Twitter every morning. Murdoch has far more impact than Infowars or any random asshole in your Twitter feed. de Blasio could not be more right: Rupert Murdoch made Donald Trump. He made it acceptable for the racism we saw in Washington this weekend to come out into the light. This is a damned big media story that media are not covering. So what if it takes a politician to bring attention to it? Credit Stelter for inviting de Blasio on after he gave a preview of his perspective to The Guardian. But arguing with him does not necessarily journalism make. Journalism is also listening, probing, exploring, understanding.
I go into class this week urging students to become media critics, to question what they see in journalism and why it is done that way. To prepare, I’m rereading The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. In it, they quote Murdoch when he won TV rights in Singapore:
Singapore is not liberal, but it’s clean and free of drug addicts. Not so long ago it was an impoverished, exploited colony with famines, diseases and other problems. Now people find themselves in three-room apartments with jobs and clean sheets. Material incentives create business and the free market economy. If politicians try it the other way around with democracy first, the Russian model is the result. Ninety percent of the Chinese are interested more in a better material life than in the right to vote.
“These words by a modern publisher advocating capitalism without democracy have no meaningful precedent in American journalism history,” Kovach said in a speech. He is talking about the man who is influencing at least a third of America. News Corp. is singular. That is why I have been arguing since before the election that the nation must invest in responsible, fact-based, journalistic media to compete with Fox News and provide an alternative. Until then, be worried. Be very worried. For as de Blasio warns, the local version of Fox News, Sinclair, came very near to taking over and brainwashing more local TV markets in the nation. This is not going to go away of its own accord, as if the nation one day wakes up from this nightmare, hits itself upside the head, and asks: “What were we thinking?” This is going to go away only through exposing what is happening. You’d think journalists would be the first to understand that.
I was just asked about CNN’s, Fox’s, and others’ screw-ups with the announcement of the Supreme Court health decision in the context of process journalism. I disagreed with the characterization. My response:
I could not disagree more strongly with your characterization of this as an error of process journalism. Hardly!
This was not a matter of reporting what you know when you know it. This was a matter of reporting your misunderstandings before you know enough to say that you know anything.
The entire decision was made and written. CNN, Fox, and others listened to a bit and went with it.
The New York Times, on the other hand, essentially admitted it didn’t understand enough to make some things clear. It was oddly phrased — saying that something about the decision couldn’t be known when, instead, it couldn’t yet be understood fully. Whatever. At least The Times used restraint and appropriate caveats. We saw a similar case in the Italian murder appeal of Amanda Knox, when TV said too much too soon.
(Later: What the Times said in its earliest version was: “It remained unclear whether the court officially upheld the mandate or chose a more technical path that effectively allowed it to stand.” Well, yes, it remained unclear to The Times because The Times hadn’t had the opportunity to absorb and understand the decision and its implications yet. It said so.)
In true process journalism, the news itself is a process, not a fait accompli like a court decision. Process journalism is about news itself as a process and journalism following that process — again, with due caveats. Process journalism is about covering a truly breaking story — a storm, a riot, a revolt, say — and recognizing that fact in how we cover it.
This was a matter of TV news making bad assumptions on too little information and speaking too soon. That has been the danger since 24-hour news immemorial.
The real lesson here is that the scoop is and always has been a dangerous act of journalistic narcissism. Did it truly matter if one outlet “broke” the same information that other outlets — and the world of the internet — knew a second before another? Or was it indeed worse when those outlets got it wrong because they were hasty and stupid? They were still seduced by the scoop, which has no value in media that operates at the speed of the link.
Journalists must think how they can best add value to information, not how they can most rapidly repeat it. Explaining the story is adding value. Getting it wrong detracts value and devalues credibility.
CNN and Fox and others fucked it. It’s as simple as that. It’s not a matter of process journalism. Please!
After I wrote that, my correspondent wrote back quoting my discussion of process journalism with references to, for example, the misreports in the breaking, moving, confusing stories of tornadoes and shootings. I added this:
That’s talking about things that are presently unknowable by the reporter but are known, the reporter hopes, by others. (Does anyone know of prior problems with this politician? Does anyone know whether the power is still out downtown?). That is *not* the case here. Everything that needed to be known by CNN and Fox was knowable. They just spoke before they knew it. I repeat: That’s fuck-up journalism, not process journalism. Please do not libel the one with the other.
LATER: Steve Myers of Poynter continues to go down the road of blaming process journalism for CNN’s and Fox’s fuckup. I was responding to him above.
Here are some appearances I’ve been making regarding Wikileaks, transparency, and press freedom.
On CNN with John King Thursday night talking about the hacking of MasterCard et al, quoting this Guardian editorial arguing that the attacks are a form of civil (cyber) disobedience in defense of a free internet:
Here’s a link to BBC audio, on the same subject, discussing the shift from power-to-power to peer-to-peer architecture.
The Berliner Zeitung BZ asked for a brief op-ed. Here’s the English text:
Should Wikileaks be stopped? The question is somewhat irrelevant. The movement it exemplifies – transparency – cannot be stopped.
I’m not saying that secrecy is dead. We still need secrets – about security, crime, privacy, diplomacy. But we have far too many secrets in government. One thing that Wikileaks reveals is the abuse of government secrecy.
But now governments will have to learn how to operate under the assumption that anything they do can be seen on the front page of this newspaper. Is that a bad thing? I don’t think so. I say that government must become transparent by default, secret by necessity.
Transparency breeds trust. Whether for government or journalism or business, operating in the open enables the opportunity to collaborate with constituents.
We in journalism must recognize that Wikileaks is an element of a new ecosystem of news. It is a new form of the press. So we must defend its rights as media. If we do not, we could find our own rights curtailed. Asking whether Wikileaks should be stopped is exactly like asking whether this newspaper should be stopped when it reveals what
government does not want the public to know. We have been there before; let us never return.