The media failed us in 2016, and they are doing it again in 2020

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There are three excellent media criticism articles that every media villager should have to read, especially the talking heads reading from the teleprompter on the TV news. Bookmark this and read one at a time.

Sean Illing at Vox makes the point that The fake “Obamagate” scandal shows how Trump hacks the media:

We’ve been introduced to a new conspiracy theory this week: “Obamagate.”

There’s no point in unpacking this theory here because it’s bullshit and everyone knows it. (If you need an explainer, my Vox colleague Jen Kirby has you covered.) But for the sake of a reference point, here’s the simplest version possible: “Deep state” holdovers from the Obama administration allegedly spearheaded the prosecution of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn as part of a broader scheme to undermine the Trump presidency.

I really don’t want to offer any more details because, again, this is a bullshit story. (Trump, despite promoting it endlessly, couldn’t even explain it when asked by a reporter.)

The important thing here is not that this theory is false. The important thing is that we’re talking about it at all, and we’re only talking about it because the president wants us to talk about it. Talking about this non-story means we’re talking less about, say, the nearly 85,000 Americans who have died so far from the coronavirus or the impending recession.

Watching the media pounce on this story like greyhounds chasing mechanical rabbits has been painful, but also deeply familiar. It’s a pattern we’ve seen unfold countless times. The president unleashes a tweetstorm, millions of people retweet it, right-wing media boosts the signal, and then mainstream media outlets cover it, often breathlessly.

* * *

This is the latest example of zone-flooding, a phenomenon I described at length back in February. The strategy was best articulated (in America, at least) by Steve Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News and chief strategist for Donald Trump, who in 2018 reportedly said: “The Democrats don’t matter. The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”

This is a new form of propaganda tailored to the digital age and it works not by creating a consensus around any particular narrative but by muddying the waters so that consensus isn’t possible. And it’s all the more difficult because even the most scrupulous, well-intentioned coverage can easily fall into the trap of flooding the zone.

* * *

The goal of zone-flooding is simple: introduce bullshit stories into the information bloodstream, sit back while the media feverishly covers them (from all sides), and then exploit the chaos that results from the subsequent fog of disinformation.

It’s an approach that thrives on conventional journalistic norms around objectivity and fairness. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, a sharp observer of this process, explained it well in a recent piece. His point, like mine, is that reporting on deliberately misleading stories in ostensibly objective ways serves only to reward the bad-faith actors spreading the nonsense in the first place.

* * *

The press, admittedly, has a difficult job to do, especially in this information landscape. But that’s the thing: The landscape has changed. The digital media ecosystem overwhelms people with information. Some of that information is true, some of it is false, and much of it is deliberately diversionary. Trying to cover every crazy story, every batshit claim, is a fool’s errand. The end result of so much noise is what I’ve called “manufactured nihilism,” a situation in which people are so skeptical about the possibility of truth that they give up the search.

And the zone-flooders, like Trump, maintain an enormous advantage because they’re not seeking to persuade anyone of anything. They don’t even need to have a strong case — Obamagate is so obviously flimsy. They just need to be shameless enough and relentless enough to spread an obviously flimsy non-story. And they just have to introduce enough doubt to ensure that people won’t mobilize around a coherent narrative.

* * *

So now we find ourselves engaged in an endless game of whack-a-mole, debunking and explaining one false claim after another. And false claims, if they’re repeated enough, become more plausible the more often they’re shared, something psychologists have called the “illusory truth” effect. [Also known as the big lie propaganda technique].

The media, then, is caught in a loop. Trump — or one of his supporters — says something we all know is absurd and false. The rest of the right-wing media and members of the GOP establishment add to the cacophony. And then we dignify the absurdity with coverage that treats it as worthy of rebuke. And in the process, we amplify the false narrative we’re debunking and flood the zone with more and more shit. That leaves people confused and exhausted, unable to discern fact from fiction and inclined to disengage altogether or, even worse, retreat further into partisan bubbles.

The press has always sought to conquer lies by exposing them. But that doesn’t work anymore. There is too much misinformation, too many claims to refute, too many competing narratives. And because the decision to cover something is almost always a decision to amplify it, the root problem is our very concept of “news” — what counts and what doesn’t.

We still haven’t fully reckoned with the 2016 election and the incessant coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails. That was another bullshit story elevated by journalists who felt it was their duty to “objectively” report it. That impulse for fairness and proportionality might have tipped the election — in any case, it was hugely consequential. And the whole saga demonstrates how even the attempt to disprove a false or exaggerated claim can contribute to zone-flooding.

My critique, to be as clear as possible, is of journalism, not journalists. Most reporters are doing their best to cover the news as it unfolds in real time, and they’re doing it the way it’s always been done. The problem is that the old model of journalism — often called “the view from nowhere” approach — has been hacked, and we simply haven’t adapted to it.

Obamagate is another example of this systemic failure. Here we have — and I can’t say this enough — a complete non-scandal. There’s no “there” there. It’s pure misinformation. But we’re still talking about it. And I’m writing this piece about it. This is a massive problem. Even though I’m trying to point up a flaw in our system, I’m still somehow participating in the mess I’m hoping to clean up. This is the paradox we’re all up against.

Margaret Sullivan, The Washington Post’s media columnist and formerly the New York Times public editor, picks up this thread today in The media is helping Trump turn the bogus ‘Obamagate’ into the 2020 version of Clinton’s emails:

It’s becoming clear that journalists never fully reckoned with the mistakes of 2016 campaign coverage. We know this because they seem poised to repeat them.

As you may recall, the news media — from Fox News to the New York Times and plenty of others across the political spectrum — managed to make the relative molehill of Hillary Clinton’s dicey email practices into a daily obsession, roughly equal to the mountain of Donald Trump’s financial and personal transgressions.

Well, don’t look now but this is happening again before our eyes. Its name this time is “Obamagate.”

That’s a moniker that, in President Trump’s outraged tweets, is rendered in all capital letters, but let’s not.

This vaporous, apparently made-up offense, according to Trump, is the political crime of the century — and, heck, last century too, because he claims that it makes the 1970s Watergate scandal look like child’s play.

As best as he’s even attempted to spell out, it supposedly involves a deep-state conspiracy by the former president and his allies to undermine Trump by being informed of the identity of the private citizen having covert and legally questionable discussions with the Russian ambassador — a citizen who turned out to be Trump’s national security adviser designate Michael Flynn.

Despite the fact that this practice is legal and normal, the nonscandal around it is getting plenty of attention.

On Chris Wallace’s Sunday-morning interview show — usually an island of relative sanity in the hyper-partisan, pro-Trump world of Fox News — a bottom-of-the-screen chyron read: “Is ‘Obamagate’ an Effective Campaign Strategy?” And Trump water carrier Karl Rove was allowed to opine that there were “some very serious questions that need to be answered. . . . It does stink.”

Juan Williams, the network’s designated left-leaning contrarian, tried to pour water on this nonsense. “There is no Obamagate,” he said bluntly, declaring Trump’s blather a smokescreen to distract from his disastrous handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Still, the conversation about the nonscandal went on for about seven minutes on this popular show at the nation’s most-watched cable network.

Nor was it ignored on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” where host Chuck Todd — while acknowledging the subject’s ultimate emptiness — kicked around its potential political fallout for a while with White House correspondent Peter Alexander and others. [Because Todd is always about the optics, not substance].

And at CBS News, Catherine Herridge [CBS hired conspiracy reporter from Fox News, now she’s pushing “Obamagate”] has been heavily hyping her updates on the non-story. “SCOOP,” she declared on Twitter to herald her story that acting director of national intelligence Richard Grenell had notified Congress about the great unmasking.

CBS’s hiring of Herridge from Fox News last year was sharply criticized by liberals who recalled her persistent reporting on the Clinton email debacle and on debunked allegations that the former secretary of state personally approved the diminishment of security at the Benghazi compound in Libya before the 2012 attack there.

So let’s just say that Obamagate is getting plenty of attention across the media spectrum, even if it’s filtered through the lens of whether it will matter to swing-state voters.

“Watching the media pounce on this story like greyhounds chasing mechanical rabbits has been painful, but also deeply familiar,” wrote Sean Illing on Vox (above).

And it’s so horribly familiar because we have failed to learn very much, if anything, about how much attention to give exaggerated pseudo-scandals — which in this case should be nothing at all.

It may be that searching deliberations about what went wrong in the 2016 news coverage have taken place behind dozens of newsroom doors. I’ve heard reports of such post-election discussions, but they seem to have mostly focused on how the media missed the story of economic anxiety and growing anti-elitism in the heartland. This has been remedied by what I like to call the Endless Diner Series: Coastal journalists venturing inland to ask members of Trump’s base if they really still like the guy they voted for.

Note: These “economic anxiety” stories have largely been debunked by political science. It was always about white identity, white grievance and racism. See, Economic Anxiety Didn’t Make People Vote Trump, Racism Did; Time to Kill the Zombie Argument: Another Study Shows Trump Won Because of Racial Anxieties — Not Economic Distress; A NEW STUDY CONFIRMS (AGAIN) THAT RACE, NOT ECONOMICS, DROVE FORMER DEMOCRATS TO TRUMP. So no, the media made another error, it did not learn anything from 2016.

We’ve left it to scholars at Harvard University and researchers at Columbia Journalism Review to perform the autopsy on our 2016 coverage. “In just six days, 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,” CJR calculated.

But did these lofty views in Ivy League publications amount to a public-facing mea culpa by those who erred? Something that might have helped head off a venture like “Obamagate”?

Certainly not.

And so, former White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon’s cynical political advice manages to gain traction once again: that the best way for Trump to proceed is to constantly distract, to create chaos, to “flood the zone” with nonsensical excrement.

It’s already happening.

Those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it, as philosopher George Santayana said. And those who don’t admit they messed up? They are far more likely to do it again.

Finally, Jack Shafer at Politico has good advice (for the “access” publication for which he writes), “Until the president comes up with actual evidence for his allegations, we’re under no obligation to pay attention.” If only! How Not to Listen to Donald Trump:

It turns out President Donald Trump’s status as the most accessible person to ever hold the office is more a curse than a blessing. Day after day, he fills the air with the ack-ack of disinformation and misdirection, needlessly alarming the public and sending reporters on wild goose chases to either confirm or disprove his allegations. On Thursday, in an interview with Fox Business’ Maria Bartiromo, Trump repeated his newest figment that Joe Biden and Barack Obama are guilty of some unnamed crimes for which they are deserving of “50-year sentences.”

* * *

Despite a lack of interest from his minions in Congress (Graham has said he has no plans to grill Obama), Trump’s foggy demagoguery has mobilized the entire press corps to determine what the hell Trump is talking about. Explainers from Reuters, the Washington Post, the Guardian, CNN, and elsewhere struggle to decipher Trump’s vague but strident accusations with little success. We can say this much with certainty. It appears linked to the counterintelligence operation against Gen. Michael Flynn in late 2016, and the requests from Obama administration officials that his identity be “unmasked” from intelligence reports so they could understand who, exactly, was talking to the Russian ambassador. Flynn lied to the FBI about speaking to the ambassador about sanctions and later pled guilty to lying to the FBI about those conversations. (Unmasking, by the way, is a routine, not nefarious thing, which the Trump administration has requested thousands of times.) But until Trump uses his words to make his charges about Obama more specific, we can only guess at what the actual crime might be.

Why must we fetch every bone that Trump hurls into the high, prickly brush? Well, he’s the president, and he wouldn’t make such an extreme charge if it weren’t true, would he? But he does, and he does all the time. This tidy list from Business Insider demonstrates his historic capacity for making baseless but grotesque claims of criminality and deception: implicating Ted Cruz’s father in the Kennedy assassination; claiming that Obama wasn’t born in the United States; surmising that Justice Antonin Scalia did not die of natural causes; accusing Joe Scarborough of complicity in the death of an intern; asserting massive voter fraud in the 2016 presidential election; saying windmills cause cancer; connecting the Clintons to Jeffrey Epstein’s death; and the Bidens-in-Ukraine baloney.

* * *

At the three-and-a-half-year mark of his presidency, we have ample proof that Trump’s barking about the criminality of others—almost always his opponents—is routinely groundless. As many have written, he is a terrible source of investigative leads and he routinely spins nonsense to reset the conversation in hopes that it will deflect the press from his political problems. And he’s doing it again. As a serial and unreliable accuser, Trump is like that cocoa puff who loves to phone reporters with evidence of massive wrong-doing but when interviewed only has a shopping bag full of unrelated, yellowing news clips. The biggest difference between the cocoa puffs and the orange one, of course, is that the cocoa puffs only want to be heard while the orange one hopes his hogwash will get enough play to influence voters in November.

This is where it gets tricky for reporters. But it’s time to establish a new standard for our coverage of the president.

Journalists should still write down what he says, just as we should always listen to the cocoa puffs when they call. But the urgency of our investigations should be informed by what sort of substantiation Trump and his surrogates provide. Does the press have an obligation to debunk every allegation he makes, even the vague and tissue-thin charges he makes on a regular basis? Who made him our assignment editor? Trump has cried wolf so many times—deliberately wasting journalistic resources by sending reporters off to investigate spurious charges—that it’s now incumbent upon him to invest his charges with some tangible proof if he expects reporters to follow his lead. At the very least, Trump should explain what law was broken and cite its page number in the legal code, offer to share with journalists the evidence he has collected, and present the criminal or civil complaint he has filed. Unless and until he does that, reporters have no duty to publicize his blabber beyond recording it for posterity in a brief mention inside the A section.

We can expect more, not less of Trump’s wolf-cries as the election approaches, as international affairs professor Tom Nichols tweeted Wednesday. “The Trump people are going to unleash a blizzard of bullshit, including selective releases and declassifications and leaks, and if the media chases every one of these as bombshell, they’re going to end up being a functioning arm of the Trump campaign,” Nichols wrote. Telling the president to put up or shut up with his accusation—to put the onus on him to show that there is a there there—is the only way press can declare its independence from his tricks.

Of Trump’s favorite baseless accusations, his favorite must be the charge of treason. He’s uncorked it dozens of times, most recently against Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif. Seeing as treason is narrowly defined in the Constitution, you’d think that if he had a case against Schiff, Trump would have—for the protection of the United States—pressed for serious investigations and arrests in the past three years. Instead, Trump has dropped all of his treason allegations like a toy that no longer interests him. If the past is any guide, Trump will push “Obamagate” with the same bombast and flummery to keep the press chasing their own tails, leaving less time to report more fruitful stories.

Trump has achieved something no president before him has. By his own energies, he has forfeited the automatic right to our investigative attention. Feel free to listen to his indictments, but don’t be a dupe. Use just one ear.

Unfortunately, too many in the stenographic news media (mostly TV news) will report Trump’s every utterance without context, without fact checking, and without an opposing viewpoint from someone in a position of authority who can refute his nonsense. The media are failing their profession, and failing the country.




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