The Trump years, like the Nixon years, came with triumphant language in which journalists portrayed us as soldiers in a righteous army. “Democracy dies in darkness”, is the Washington Postthe new slogan filled with omens. But how effective is this army? And how fair really? Exploring the gap between aspiration and achievement can be uncomfortable.
The reality is that the defining philosophy of contemporary journalism is not trust but insecurity – a reality that plays out in everything from news outlet business models to public figures and the career paths of journalists and editors. chief.
It’s an appropriate weekend to consider the matter. The annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner always highlights the divergent aspects of journalistic psychology. Invariably, presidents (with the exception of Trump, who attended as a guest before the presidency but skipped it once in office) make amiable remarks mocking the press and themselves, then conclude with solemn comments that bow to the journalists’ sense of lofty goals: Guys, we had a great time tonight, but let me be serious. I often object vigorously to what I watch and read from you all, but – make no mistake about it – asking tough questions is part of your etc. and so on and every citizen benefits from your inflexibility, etc., etc. The heart of the weekend – which now starts midweek and runs through Sunday afternoon – is actually all sorts of socializing and scene-making. Are you going to the Semafor party? Is this where people go? Maybe the invite ended up in my spam. Any chance to make me participate in the POLITICO brunch? Maybe. It’s closed, but I’ll talk to our people…
Several years ago, the editors of the New York Times decided the whole event was such an unseemly spectacle that they stopped buying tables at dinner (although you’ll still see plenty of its reporters before and after parties). I’ve always thought weekend contradictions—people who aren’t naturally cool indulging in a fleeting fantasy that they are—are funny and mostly harmless.
But it’s a different matter when these contradictions come to define large swaths of the media industry the other 51 weeks of the year. More and more, they do. Three ways stand out:
First of all, is the ambiguity of the media’s relationship with Trump. He sometimes bragged about an inconvenient truth, even if the news outlets didn’t like to admit it: he was good for business. For news outlets whose economic prospects depend on ratings and traffic (fortunately, that’s not central to POLITICO’s business model), there was as much symbiosis as conflict with Trump. We see it now as news outlets, cable TV in particular, are plagued with fundamental issues in their business models that they may have temporarily put off during the heady Trump years.
There is another even more inconvenient truth. Unlike the Nixon years, little of the excellent coverage of the search for truth and investigation drew blood – even if the revelations were just as shocking, if not more so. Trump’s singular genius has been to reduce every issue to a binary choice: Which side are you on? He’s not the first politician to do this, but he’s been the most effective at turning critical coverage, whether true or damning, into another rallying cry for his supporters. Media executives haven’t really grappled with the implications: in such a polarized environment, the accountability levers we used to use in the name of the public interest often work imperfectly or not at all.
Second, many of the media innovations of this generation made journalists more insular and interested in their attention.
Fortunately, the problems of legacy media platforms like CNN are offset by energy and investment in new properties. But many of these new platforms have a significantly different understanding of their audiences and their responsibilities. In the wake of Watergate, journalists have emphasized the detachment from political and corporate power. The assumption was that news agencies and their best reporters had their own power. With their large followings, which provided the power to set the agenda, they did not need to grovel to access them or publicly revel in their intimacy with influential people. Many of the new generation of publications, on the other hand, trumpet that their primary audience is insiders and that their main interest is private intrigue and public showmanship. Journalists present themselves as accomplished insiders and devote extensive coverage to their own industry. New newsletter company Puck, for example, writes as much about CNN President Chris Licht and his struggles to transform the network as it does about the possibility of a dangerous new conflict with China. “Elite journalists are our influencers,” Puck co-founder and editor Jon Kelly boasted to The New Yorker. The publication organized a big launch party at the French Embassy.
POLITICO in its early days partly reflected the trend. At the time, we were both celebrated and denounced for being too close to Washington sources and socializers. In the years since, we have developed one of the largest rosters of political journalists in the country, whose influence is based on intellectual expertise rather than intimacy.
Third, is how classic Trump traits have their counterparts in the media industry. Trump’s rise helped bring attention to sexual harassment and launched the #MeToo movement – a stark illustration of how the media can still set the agenda and enforce accountability. It is also true that the tally revealed many prominent abusers within journalists’ own ranks, particularly on television.
It was a surprise for me. In retrospect, this seems naïve. Even beyond the sexual harassment scandal, the paradox is evident. Like many colleagues, I have an instinctive tendency to perceive certain traits in many (maybe not most, but many) of the politicians, business leaders and other powerful people we cover: vanity, hypocrisy, moralism, status anxiety, heartbreak, and all sorts of insecurities hiding in inflated self-esteem. These human infirmities are found in all walks of life, but seem overrepresented in professions that attract people who are ambitious, creative and hungry for public recognition.
No, I don’t think assholes are overrepresented in the media. But insecurity breeds abhorrence, and the incentives of modern media and social media, in which journalists seek to “build their brand”, can be stimulants to superficiality and egomania. The antidote to these things is hard work and high standards.
The most attractive thing about journalists of this generation, like previous ones, is their belief in a profession that is on the side of the good guys. When this week’s party is over, we should work even harder to make sure we’re really on this side.