Rejected by the Strib. (Not That I’m Taking it Personally.)

NEW BLOG PHOTO_edited- 2Here’s a commentary piece I wrote for the Strib which didn’t make their cut. Word is they’re a bit overwhelmed with Trump stuff. But I don’t call reading anything there from this perspective. Nor did any of the Strib managers I contacted acknowledge e-mails seeking a conversation about adjusting to Trump-style rhetoric and media manipulation.

Whether mainstream professional journalists want to admit it or talk about it publicly or not, the work they do is at another moment of revolution, if not crisis. How to conduct business in the Age of Donald Trump compounds pressures already placed on traditional journalism organizations by the explosion of free internet alternatives to Reporting as Your Parents Remember It and the squeeze from rapacious investors.

Whatever your feelings about Trump, his attitude toward so many long-standing protocols including those guiding White House-press relations makes him a disrupter of unprecedented magnitude. Judging by how he’s conducted himself through his business career, the presidential campaign and the transition to taking over as POTUS 45, Trump operates — and thus far has succeeded beyond all conventional expectations — by asserting a combative, constantly shifting alternate reality to the world the press has comfortably reported on for generations. That was a world where the press played objective arbiter between two thoroughly familiar political forces, Republicans and Democrats, each largely accepting the basic rules of conduct between them and the media that covered them.

There is no good reason to think that arrangement will ever exist with Trump. More to the point, there is peril, even a threat to established journalism’s basic business model, in wishfully thinking that traditional protocol will suddenly emerge with Trump in the Oval Office. Put bluntly, the question traditional journalism managers should be asking themselves is this: “What do the readers (or listeners or viewers) who trust us expect from us now, in this new environment?”

The news environment of 2017 is as intensely bifurcated as I can ever recall. Where one large mass of news consumers still puts faith in fact-based reporting by daily newspapers, network news and the like, another remarkably large mass, a group instilled with a deep distrust and contempt for mainstream journalism by 25 years of talk radio and hyper-partisan websites, eagerly consumes and trades in preposterous fakery. What’s real and true matters less to them than what tilts the battle in favor of their tribe.

The dilemma for established news organizations is in providing too little of what their most supportive customers want most. Specifically, that would be very aggressive truth-telling on a transparency-averse figure, Trump, who has also demonstrated a startling disinterest in what’s empirical and true.

Trump is pushing the traditional press into uncomfortable territory, requiring a rapid evolution in both style and operational ethics. Over the past year, leading news organizations like the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times famously broke with the long-standing taboo against use of the words “lie” and “liar”, in describing various Trump assertions. Having surveyed (or attempted to survey) a dozen or so news executives and media analysts, I can report that the few who cared/dared engage in a conversation on the topic of new strategies for covering Trump were palpably uncomfortable with the Times’ and Post’s break with tradition and offered no new rules for the road as Trump takes office.

There are plenty of journalism outlets, from BuzzFeed, to Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept, to Mother Jones, to Talking Points Memo to Vox and so on prepared to cover Trump unfettered by polite traditions and protocols left over from the Eisenhower administration. The peril for the more established press is in failing to evolve and compete with those insurgents for the attention and trust of the audience that has supported Old School journalism up to this moment.

American journalism needs its version of Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”, a tactical guide for waging battle against a committed foe. At minimum it should include resisting the reflexive over-reaction, like a flock of starlings, to Trump’s tweet-of-the-hour and instead concentrate on burrowing obsessively into essential disclosures. Like the new President’s opaque financial associations and obligations, with the Russians the Chinese, or whoever.

The public has a profound right to know. And the people who continue to trust Mom and Dad’s Media expect big legacy journalism shops to adjust to our stark new reality and not just “report” the latest bizarre tweet, but deliver the critical information they want, protocols be damned.

7 thoughts on “Rejected by the Strib. (Not That I’m Taking it Personally.)

  1. Brian, the corporate press cannot comprehend the truth of what you say. They don’t recognize fascism, or racketeering authoritarianism, or however we describe these lying extremists and crooks who have seized power. They don’t recognize it, and would not know what to do about it if they did recognize it, because their only honorable role would be to express overt opposition, in the name of democracy, instead of repeating and thus lending credence to the lies (in the name of objectivity.) The basic problem is, the time for objectivity as a balancing act is over. The objective truth is what readers deserve, and that requires calling out lies and denials as falsehoods and deceptions. Tell the truth: THAT’S the role of the press–not the spurious balancing act which equates fantasy and fiction with sense and reality.

    • Well, thank you Oliver for the sentiments here. What I find (very) interesting is that acknowledged leaders in national political reporting — the NY Times, the Washington Post and the LA Times — have made a transition in describing Trump’s behavior. Meanwhile, smaller papers, like the Strib and the beknighted Pioneer Press, which rely on syndicated coverage of White House activities, are the ones still dragging their feet on accurately, succinctly describing what any informed adult can see and hear for themselves. That’s their looming credibility issue. What I find discouraging, for its basic lack of courage, is the unwillingness of papers like the Strib to even discuss the situation, a situation that is not just a small crowd of hyper-partisans agitating for the press to serve as an attack dog.

  2. Brian,

    Nice piece and not surprising that it didn’t make the cut with the Strib. You are calling them out and challenging the tension between their business model and professional standards. No mystery who will wins.

    • Thank you, sir. And yes, there was a modest inside game at play with this, since I had attempted to engage Strib editorial page and newsroom managers in a conversation about precisely what I described in the commentary. The test was whether they were brave and open-minded enough to acknowledge what is clearly a loud complaint rattling up from their customer base and publish something that encouraged the kind of “informed discussion” they routinely profess to want. That said, they may not have found the writing up to their standards. But, I read the Strib’s page pretty regularly, and I have not seen anything making the points I made or encouraging such a discussion. It all leads to t
      he view that they are not comfortable with the topic.

  3. Well, don’t forget that Glen Taylor owns the Strib and that’s what ultimately controls the editors. There’s a great editorial they wrote themselves in 2014 after THAT election, asserting that our political system is sick and in trouble. What they refuse to say is that the Republican party no longer believes in democracy–won’t even give lip service to the word and the ideal it embodies–but only in power, raw power. But the editorial staff includes such specimens as Doug Tice, defender of the Electoral College, so they’re obviously infected with the fear of the unwashed masses, and will find a way to rationalize becoming collaborators with the fascistic regime of a sociopathic ruler–a modern Caligula–who also appears to be an agent or a pawn of a hostile foreign power.
    The Republicans, of course, do not wish to govern but to rule, without opposition. Therefore, there is no room left for the concept of “loyal opposition.” Patriotic Americans need to enlist in a conscious Resistance movement for national liberation. The Democratic Party, bereft of insight, courage, or vision, is virtually useless. The press, being squeezed to extinction by a tsunami of electronic distraction and a plague of digital addiction, could (if it knew its own true role) work to save our nation and its heritage by deciding to boldly speak truth to corrupt and unprincipled power. This would be risky as they would become targets for totalitarian repression. However, they would become very popular for as long as their liberty lasted. There is a quotation from Elie Wiesel about the immorality of remaining neutral between good and evil. Wish I could remember it.

    • Very ironically, there’s a rarefied quality to big city newspaper newsrooms and editorial boards. Ironic because you’d think they of all people would have an acute handle on public sentiment. But if they did they wouldn’t have been as surprised as everyone else by the size of the sentiments that delivered Donald Trump to the White House. This cultural isolation is a facet, I believe, of a tradition of discounting extremes, another relic of a different time. Extremism today just doesn’t sound or look like the KKK and the Jim Crow South. The default presumption on the part of most of the press is that “this too shall pass”, which is another way of explaining why the establishment media is loathe engage — i.e. go on record — either assessing the situation or pledging changes to more adequately report on it.

  4. Here’s what Herblock, the editorial cartoonist, wrote about the Joe McCarthy era:
    “The McCarthy threat was not met by giving him enough rope to tie up the country and to hang everybody including himself. It was not met by people who regretted that nothing could be done about him because of the temper of the times. For those who don’t want to speak up there is never a right time.
    “The threat was turned back by people who did something to change and improve the temper of the times; by people who were willing to stand up and fight back . . . by those newspapers and commentators that would not be silent and refused to trim or hedge; and by people who, without benefit of public platforms or protective prestige, spoke up for themselves and for common decency as individual Americans.”
    Mr. Block quoted Walter Lippmann: “A measure of how serious was the danger is how long it took, how difficult it was, to rally resistance. In the long months of timidity and vaccillation damage was done to this country which it will take a very long time to repair . . .”
    Well, there’s more and you can read it in Herblock: Through the Looking Glass, if you can find a copy. Since nothing is more certain that that the corporate press will choose the path of collaboration and appeasement rather than patriotic resistance, we have to blaze our own trail.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *