Monday, December 05, 2016
The Fourth Estate, but last in the hearts of their countrymen.
Among the many offenses that modern architecture has committed against Pennsylvania Avenue in downtown Washington—America's main street, we like to call it—is a glass 'n' stone 'n' steel box that houses a museum about news gathering called, unfortunately, the Newseum. Funded by the New York Times, Hearst, ABC News, Comcast, CBS News, Time Warner, and every worthy journalism nonprofit in the land, the Newseum is the establishment press's monument to itself—a mirror into which every mainstream reporter and editor can peer with an admiring gaze.
From the front of the building hangs a five-story-high sheet of marble inscribed with the First Amendment, in letters that are easily as tall as an early hominid. You can't miss it. You're not supposed to miss it. The display reflects the premise of the museum: that the "free press" mentioned in and protected by the Constitution is identical to the kind of corporate entities that paid for the museum.
It's a silly conceit, and only a business as powerful and unavoidable as national journalism could get away with it for so long. But has the journalistic establishment at last met its match in the buffoonish figure of Donald Trump? Consciously or not, Trump has used the interregnum between Election Day and Inauguration Day to subvert and, in some cases, even deal a death blow to many of the standard conventions of political journalism.
His most famous weapon is the tweet, those midnight brain belches that suddenly erupt from Trump Tower and are turned into instant news by a panting press corps.
Politico's press critic, Jack Shafer, suspects that Trump's tweets, even the strange ones, are strategically provocative, designed to throw reporters off the scent of real Trump stories (his business entanglements, the settlement of the Trump University lawsuit) by giving them something more immediate, sensational, and easier to cover. Shafer is probably giving Trump too much credit, but there's no doubting that our president-elect provokes a response from his intended audience.
And who is that? The common thought is that Trump uses Twitter to go over the heads of the reporters who cover him to reach the public unfiltered. Just as often, though, the reporters are his primary audience; the secondary audience is the general public, few of whom obsessively check a Twitter account the way reporters do. But the public can distinguish between a tweet and the reaction to it. For an ordinary person, the news isn't merely what Trump tweets, it's also the hyperventilation he provokes from the press. The second is usually crazier than the first.
Remember when a cast member of the musical Hamilton gave a pompous lecture to Vice President-elect Pence from a Broadway stage? If you've forgotten the lecture you probably remember the tweet that Trump fired off when he learned about it ("Our wonderful future V.P. Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing. This should not happen!"). And then you might remember the reaction of the press to Trump's reaction.
The New Yorker's Washington correspondent called Trump's tweet "unhinged and bizarre." News readers on NPR nearly choked with indignation. When Trump briefly appeared in public the next day, the questions from the press pen were all about the tweet. (Aleppo was crumbling, children's hospitals in Syria were bombed to rubble . . . but Mr. President-elect, what about Broadway?) CNN said Trump had "lashed out" at "Americans exercising their constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of expression." The political correspondent for New York magazine stilled his trembling fingers long enough to tweet that Trump had offered "a terrifying glimpse of how he could attempt to suppress free speech."
My guess is that most people took Trump's tweet for what it was—an unnecessary but well-meaning rebuke aimed at the bad manners of a sanctimonious showbiz fop. The reaction from the press, on the other hand, offered a terrifying glimpse into how bizarre and unhinged the press can be when Donald Trump mouths off.
Then Trump saw a Fox News story (he evidently sees no other kind) about an otherwise obscure incident of flag burning. Flag burning should be illegal, he tweeted, and should be punished with perhaps a penalty of a year in jail and "loss of citizenship," however the hell that would work. Details to come: Twitter only gives you 140 characters, after all.
The reaction of mainstream reporters and commentators was an unlikely mix of sputtering rage and sniffy pedantry. They couldn't have been angrier if Trump burned the flag himself. Didn't Trump know the Supreme Court had ruled flag burning constitutionally protected speech? Didn't he know his hero Antonin Scalia supported that decision? Didn't Trump know the president can't unilaterally render an action illegal?
Let's assume Trump didn't know these things—doubtful but possible. The press's corrective was appropriate on the merits. But it was comically overheated. "Donald Trump v. The First Amendment," headlined the Washington Post. New York magazine: "Donald Trump Wants You to Burn the Flag While He Burns the Constitution." The New York Times could barely contain its condescension: "Mr. Trump, Meet the Constitution."
Missing in all this was what the modern press prides itself on providing its lumbering readers: context. Few of the horrified reporters and editorialists seemed to recognize that a large majority of Americans almost certainly share Trump's revulsion at flag burning and would like to see it sanctioned—and probably regret that the Supreme Court has foreclosed the option. The public saw an offensive and unpatriotic act and the president-elect's righteous reaction to it; the press saw the stirrings of authoritarianism. One view was moralistic. The other was a paranoid fantasy. And just as moralistic.
With a tweet here and a tweet there, and with a reliably hair-trigger hysteria from the press only 140 characters away, Trump is happily driving a wedge between the news media and their intended customers. As if they weren't already unpopular enough! The dawning Trump era is pushing the mainstream press further and further to the margins of the conversation Americans think is worth paying attention to.
And Trump can be pretty cruel about this denigration of the press—and subtler than you'd expect. Since the election dozens of reporters and camera crews have been corralled behind rope lines in the gleaming, hideous lobby of Trump Tower. There they are treated to a daily parade of office-seekers, from David Petraeus to Rudy Giuliani, supplicants willing to humiliate themselves in a perp walk so they can gaze meaningfully into the eyes of the president-elect.
The Trump Tower perp walks make for a textbook case of the pseudo-event: an ostensibly naturally occurring episode that in fact is being staged to create what appears to be a real news story. A fire is a news story; a press conference called by firefighters to discuss fire prevention is a pseudo-event. It's the same in Trump Tower: When Mr. X or Ms. Y is appointed to a real job, that's a real news story. When Mr. X is "being mentioned" for a job and the press reports the mentioning as if it were news, that is a pseudo-event.
In the 50 years since the historian Daniel Boorstin coined the phrase, the news media have become connoisseurs of pseudo-events, promoting empty occasions manipulated by marketers and corporate flacks and political activists and sometimes by the news media themselves. On any given day the bulk of published news is a dog's breakfast of pseudo-events. The continuous elevation of non-news into news, the confusion of the trivial with the important, is one reason why American news reporting is so boring and its practitioners so often ridiculous.
Trump has staged this pseudo-event in his own lobby, and the dutiful reporters, who must pretend the perp walk and the "mentioning" are news, don't know they are being mocked. Over two generations the press have gone from defining news as "what happened yesterday" to "what we think might happen later" to "what other unnamed people tell us they think might happen tomorrow"—in other words, from concrete reporting to "analysis and context" to blue-sky speculation. With very little real news coming from Trump Tower, the public gets to see the press forced into its weakest posture, getting excited over nothing. They look even more desperate than usual. Thanks, Trump!
Or consider another great convention of political news reporting: the postelection rapprochement. After the heat of the campaign, the victor calls in members of the press, singly or in groups, to show there are no hard feelings and pledge a shining future of mutual cooperation. By their own testimony, this is what the TV news readers, personalities, and executives expected when Trump summoned the whole flock of peacocks to an audience in Trump Tower on November 21. In keeping with the hypocrisy of the establishment media—transparency for thee but not for me—the meeting was off the record. But we do know that the peacocks, prepared for the usual sucking up, got a dressing down.
An anonymous source described the meeting to Daniel Halper of the New York Post. The peacocks tried to ask about press arrangements at the Trump White House, as well as typically vacuous questions ("How are you going to cope with living in D.C. while your family is in New York?" asked David Muir, ABC's Doctor of Thinkology). The president-elect had other things on his mind. "Trump kept saying, 'We're in a room of liars, the deceitful, dishonest media who got it all wrong.' He addressed everyone in the room, calling the media dishonest, deceitful liars." And then the peacocks had to drag their tail feathers back through the lobby with everybody watching.
Getting tagged as liars isn't the most unnerving thing reporters have heard from Trump. That prize goes to his declaration that as president he would "open up" libel laws and make them more like libel law in England where, as Trump put it, "they have a system where you can actually sue if someone says something wrong. Our press is allowed to say whatever they want and get away with it." Again, it's not clear that Trump realizes he can't do any such thing on his own, even as president, but—also again—the reaction from the press to his fond fantasy has swung between dudgeon and delirium. Trump, we're told, wants to "repeal the First Amendment."
There are lots of differences between libel laws in England and in the United States. The chief distinction, very simplified, is that when a famous person sues over a libelous statement published in England, the news outlet has to prove in court that the statement is true; when a similar libel is published here, the famous person has to show the news outlet knew it was false—a much harder claim to prove. The effect, thanks to a series of Supreme Court decisions, is to declare famous people fair game for pretty much any kind of journalism. As "public figures," they seldom sue even over a blatantly false report because they're unlikely to win in court.
It's a dogma of the national press that this distinction is an essential element of the First Amendment. Yet the country had a remarkably busy and freewheeling press before 1964, when the Supreme Court invented the new arrangement through a piece of judicial legislation called New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. Indeed, then and now, both England and the United States have a long history of a robust, competitive, and lively press. And you could easily argue that their press is livelier than ours, precisely because British hacks lack the stuffy self-importance of the average American newsman, which is encouraged by, among other things, the protection offered by our libel laws.
In the elevated stature it claims, the corporate press in the United States is supported by the deference public figures show it, by a daisy chain of self-flattery, and by a web of dubious conventions that Trump hopes to subvert. Mostly these are artifacts contrived for the convenience of the press and for its aggrandizement. Trump hasn't held a formal press conference since summer, for example. The longer the president-elect goes without giving a full-dress press conference, the more obvious it will become that these stylized spectacles are unnecessary except under the rarest circumstances.
A president cocooned from skeptical and even disrespectful questioning would be intolerable—an affront to the country. But an East Room theatrical, with the correspondents done up in their dress-for-TV best, is not the only alternative. There's no reason why a president's obligation to explain himself couldn't be met with a series of town halls or, better, a weekly sitdown with a rotation of intelligent and knowledgeable interviewers like John Dickerson, Chris Wallace, and a bunch of people we've never heard of. As it is, the presidential press conference serves mostly as certification ceremony: The reporters get camera time, a chance to show off their expertise—some questions last more than a minute—and an accreditation as a personage to be reckoned with. They may even get recognized while weighing their fresh kale at Whole Foods. It's not the president's job to make the press corps feel important.
A Washington without presidential press conferences is a Washington in which the grip of the establishment press has at last begun to loosen. The same goes for the equally worthless daily briefing held in the White House press room by a political appointee whose most important job is not to answer serious questions. Anyone who has sat through these interminable exercises knows that whatever information they transmit could better be explained at a lower bureaucratic level—let the flack for the Bureau of Labor Statistics release the unemployment numbers to labor reporters, who know more about the matter anyway. (President Trump would still think the numbers were rigged, but that's another story.)
And then, after the White House briefings and news conferences are done away with, here's what could go next: the State of the Union address, a televised pseudo-event, beneficial (and interesting) only to the reporters who cover it. SOTU, as it's cloyingly called, could vanish for a century with no discernible damage to the functioning of self-government.
To borrow a tag from the 18th century, Trump has the chance to govern as a disestablishmentarian—trying to decertify the establishment media by extricating them from the exalted position they have claimed and occupied. Very few reporters think of themselves as partisan or ideological. But they do think of themselves as indispensable. Disabusing them of this idea would be the ultimate subversion.
Perhaps the most promising moment came in an interview Trump gave to reporters and editors of the New York Times. The president-elect came to their offices—an unaccustomed act of deference. And he went out of his way to praise the self-satisfied tradesmen arrayed before him. "The Times is," Trump said, "it's a great, great American jewel. A world jewel."
Which is true. But then he also said this, when asked about the right-wing website Breitbart.com and its relationship to the far right: "Breitbart cover things, I mean like the New York Times covers things." You can imagine Trump's shrug of indifference. "And you know, they have covered some of these things, but the New York Times covers a lot of these things also. It's just a newspaper, essentially."
Just a newspaper? Like the Times? I wonder whether in that room, at that moment, a terrible revelation began to dawn among the Timesfolk, soon to spread among their colleagues in the mainstream press: Maybe we are no longer who we think we are!
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.