Winter is Coming

POSTED BY HANK REICHMAN

In a post last week on Bill Moyers’ website New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen outlined a series of troubling (and a few encouraging) developments regarding the survival of a free press in the U.S. Here are some highlights:

For a free press as a check on power this is the darkest time in American history since World War I, when there was massive censorship and suppression of dissent. I say this because so many things are happening at once to disarm and disable serious journalism, or to push it out of the frame. Most of these are well known, but it helps to put them all together. Here is my list:

1.An economic crisis in (most) news companies, leaving the occupation of journalism in a weakened state, especially at the state and local level, where newsrooms have been decimated by the decline of the newspaper business. . . .

2.A low-trust environment for most institutions and their leaders, the same ones who are regularly featured in the news.

3.A broken and outdated model in political journalism, which tries to connect to the public through “inside” or access reporting about a class whose legitimacy is itself eroding. . . .

4.An organized movement on the political right to discredit mainstream journalism,. . .

5.The rapid escalation of this drive-to-discredit as Trump gained traction with the electorate.. . .

6.After the debacle of 2016, trust in the news media as an institution feels lower than ever in living memory, while popular anger reaches an all-time high.. . .

7.A homogeneity and coastal concentration in American newsrooms that can be described in many ways — lack of diversity is the most common, with disagreements on what kind of diversity is most desired — leaving the press ill-prepared to take creative action across a cultural divide. . . .

8.A figure in power who got there in part by whipping up hatred against the press, and who shows no signs of ending that abusive practice… coupled with a disturbing pattern in which Trump broadcasts through his Twitter feed outrageously false statements, the press reacts by trying to “check” them, and the resulting furor works to his advantage by casting journalists in the role of petty but hateful antagonist, with Trump as the man who takes the heat and “tells it like it is.”

9.The emergence of an authoritarian political style in which trashing the norms of American democracy (as when he cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election, or suggested prosecution of his opponent) works to Trump’s advantage with a huge portion of his supporters, while failing to alarm the rest. . . .

10.The increasingly dim prospect that there will be a fact-based debate to which journalists can usefully contribute when the leader of the free world feels free to broadcast transparently false or ignorant claims. . . .

11.An advanced stage of culture war, political polarization and asymmetrical mistrust of the press in which, instead of leading to greater public awareness and a gradual movement toward reform, sensational revelations, hard-hitting investigations and exposés of corruption are consumed as fuel in an accelerating political divide. In other words, Watergate-style journalism increasingly enflames and polarizes, rather than informing and alerting the public. . . .

12.The success of “verification in reverse,” a method on the march, in which a knowing political actor takes facts that have been nailed down, and introduces doubt about them, which then releases energy (controversy, resistance, ready-to-hate news coverage) which in turn helps power a movement among those who wanted the established facts repealed, as it were.. . .

15.A proven model — proven, that is, by billionaire Peter Thiel — for bankrupting news companies and driving them out of business by using the court system and jury trials, which can leverage public disgust for The Media (see no. 6 above) into jury awards that defendants cannot possibly pay. As yet there is no known counter to this strategy. The fact that it worked once has an intimidating effect. . . .

16.A crisis of representation around covering Trump in which it is not clear that anyone can reliably tell us what his positions are, or explain his reasons for holding them, because he feels free to contradict advisers, spokespeople, surrogates, and previous statements he made. . . .  Every interview with Kellyanne Conway or Reince Priebus is premised on a claim to represent the man in power. This claim may be false. But journalists need people to interview! So they will continue to do it, even though they may be misinforming the public. . . .

17.Weak leadership and a thin institutional structure in the American press, which is not accustomed to organizing itself to fight back or act assertively in any coordinated way, as with the White House Correspondents Association, currently failing even to get a meeting with the Trump transition team, but still planning to yuck it up with him at the WHCA dinner in the spring of 2017. In many ways the press resembles a “herd of independent minds,” with no one responsible for the beast as a whole, and no easy way to fix broken practices, or re-direct effort. . . .

So that is what I mean by “winter is coming.” All those things 1-17 are happening at once, and strengthening one another. The combined effect is chilling. . . .

Are there any bright signs? Yes, a few.

18.When you ask about specific news brands (as against The Media) the trust picture looks better.

19. I quote New York Times columnist Jim Rutenberg: “In the weeks since the election, magazines like The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Vanity Fair; newspapers including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post; and nonprofits like NPR and ProPublica have been reporting big boosts in subscription rates or donations.” The Guardian and Mother Jonesare benefiting too.

20. According to news industry analyst Ken Doctor, The Washington Post will add more than 60 journalists in the coming year.The Post is making money again. And its leadership believes that “investigative and deeper enterprise stories are good for the brand and the business”— not an expense that has to be subsidized by lighter fare, but a means to sustainability in themselves. . . .

23.In the US, the Constitution remains firmly in place, hard to alter. First Amendment protections are real and among the strongest in the world. There are no signs that prior restraint or overt government censorship are on the horizon — though self-censorship is another matter. . . .

What not to do…

Don’t settle for accusation-driven over evidence-based reporting, just to avoid drawing flak from Trump’s press-hating supporters or demonstrate how even-handed you are.

24.Don’t recruit Trump loyalists into the news and opinion space (Jeffrey Lord of CNN is the model) as a gaudy show of balance. This will not save you. . . .

25.Don’t settle for accusation-driven over evidence-based reporting just to avoid drawing flak from Trump’s press-hating supporters or demonstrate how even-handed you are.

26.Don’t make it all about access to the president and his aides, or preserving the routines of White House reporting, as the press corps is currently doing — mostly out of habit. . . .

To read the entire piece go to http://billmoyers.com/story/winter-coming-prospects-american-press-trump/

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