The Failures of the American Political Media

The most important development in American politics over the last fifty years has been the transformation of the Republican Party from a conservative party that would elect a person like Dwight Eisenhower to a radical white supremacist party that would elect a person like Donald Trump. The second most important development of the last fifty years has been the inability of the political media to tell that story, culminating in the shameful coverage of the 2016 presidential election. That failure inspired this site. How did this failure happen?  How will we avoid the same problems? I hope to explain both in this article.

There are three major factors that led to the failure of the media. They are the profit motive, a failure of critical thinking skills leading to false balance, and the corruption of access.

First, let’s discuss the profit motive because it’s the simplest to understand. This is particularly true of television news. The bargain the broadcasters made to get access to the airwaves for free was that they would devote some portion of their air time to covering the news and keeping the public informed. For a long time, the news division was a money loser for the networks, but they provided the news as part of the bargain and tried to do a good job for prestige and bragging rights, essentially. This led to trusted anchors like Walter Cronkite who most Americans felt they could trust to be honest with them. Over the last thirty years, though, especially with the rise of cable news, the news division was asked to generate a profit like the rest of the network. This led to cutbacks in terms of reporters and researchers and a reliance on easy or sensational stories rather than in-depth reporting. These cutbacks were mirrored by the consolidation of the newspaper industry into giant corporations interested in turning a profit, cutting down on reporters in places like state capitals and foreign bureaus. The rise of the internet and the conception that content should be free made the problem worse.

This problem is a hard one to avoid. Good journalism is expensive. One story that comes to mind is this Mother Jones piece where a reporter got a job as a guard in a private prison. That story cost $350,000 to produce, pulled in over a million reads, but only earned $5000 from ads, although the story is essential to understanding how abuses in our system happen and why we need reform. And it led to changes from the Obama administration (which have since been revoked). Some of the solutions the second article mentions are some of our goals here at Torchlight. In particular, we have reporters assigned to beats and the plan is for them to become experts in those fields and provide our readers with the truth. This will take time and for now we are all volunteers with real jobs and real lives outside of the site. For now we have a Patreon account which we hope to use to at least break even and keep us around long enough to develop that expertise, and compensate those who have it  But we are not in this to get rich so we should avoid the worst of these pressures.

The second problem is a failure of critical thinking skills that has led to a false balance. This is a belief that the two major political parties must be symmetric in terms of both their strengths and their weaknesses. It leads reporters to reflexively search for a way to balance their criticism of one party with the other. Here’s an example from Amber Phillips of the Washington Post: “Political norms — like, don’t accuse the president of the United States of lying without evidence, or don’t accuse the former president of the United States of wiretapping your phones without evidence — have been eviscerated.”  The first clause in the hyphen criticizes Bernie Sanders for saying the President is lying and then equates it with an example of the President lying. Note how this construction occludes rather than illuminates the truth. Those are equivalent actions, so really you should just be cynical and mad at everyone. Let’s call it a day.

Here’s another example. That’s a pair of word clouds from the middle of September about words people associated with the two Presidential candidates, according to Gallup. You’ll notice that for Trump, they mostly heard “speech” or “president” or “immigration.”  Meanwhile, for Clinton, there was one dominant story: “email.”

How is this an example of false balance?  Check out some of the smaller words for Trump: “lie,” “racist,” “Russia(n).”  The huge number of Trump scandals made the media try to remain balanced by focusing on the “scandalous” elements of Clinton’s candidacy, of which the only one was her use of a private e-mail server when she was Secretary of State. This blew up a minor e-mail management problem into a “disqualifying” lapse of judgment. How do we know it was minor?  Mike Pence used an AOL account to conduct state business as Governor of Indiana and it was never mentioned until this March. Naturally, his account was hacked, while Clinton’s was not. But the favorite chant of the Republican party last fall was that she needed to be “locked up.” This was nonsense, the press knew it, and yet they lied to the public, repeatedly.

The real major story of the 2016 election was how white nationalists brazenly took over a major political party, but admitting that means admitting that America’s happy myth that we have moved beyond that particular danger is a lie. It is not, and we need to confront the perils of white nationalism now more than ever. This means honestly confronting the choice people made on November 8, rather than framing it in terms of “economic anxiety.”

Fortunately for us, false balance really is easy to correct: stop trying to reach for balance. We aim to tell you the truth as we see it, nothing more and nothing less. We will do our best to backup our claims with facts and figures and link them to you so you can read them for yourself. If we think a quote we get from a politician is a lie, we will either say that or just not print it at all.

How did false balance become so prevalent?  I think there are two main causes. The first is that the press internalized Republican complaints about “liberal bias” and have overcorrected. The second and far more pervasive factor is also the third major reason for the decline of journalism and why we created this site: the corruption of access.

By the corruption of access, I mean the ways in which journalists and their sources form a symbiotic relationship. The journalist gets interesting quotes from their source, which increases their prestige within the paper, and the source can leak quotes to the journalist to shape public opinion or opinion within their bureaucracy to better serve their own interests. An example of this was when the Bush administration leaked lies to the New York Times about Iraq’s fictional nuclear weapons program. This shaped public opinion to be more favorable to the Bush Administration and increased Judith Miller’s prestige, at least until she was proven wrong. And even now, because punditry has zero accountability, she has a lucrative job as a cable news pundit.

Eventually this phenomenon moves beyond a symbiotic relationship and the media begins to feel as if they are part of the ruling class. This is what I refer to as “courtier journalism.”  The most important factor becomes not the truth, but what reporting gets you into the best parties in Washington. The best book I have read on the subject is This Town by Mark Leibovich. He details the ways in which Washington is an incestuous company town where lobbyists, government officials, and journalists co-mingle in all the same places and begin to adopt the same worldview. This has led to journalists deriding people who protest disastrous policies like the Iraq War or the deregulation of the banking industry as being “unserious” because they disagree with the consensus in Washington.

There are a number of articles detailing this kind of behavior, the most famous of which is this Sally Quinn piece. Sally Quinn is a long time Post writer who was married to Ben Bradlee, the paper’s editor until he died a few years ago. She writes about how Washington was horribly offended by the uncouth Bill Clinton. And every quote from politicians and journalists alike in the piece sounds the same regardless of ideology or party. It is all about how he corrupted their beautiful little village. They are wealthy celebrities play acting as “the common man” when they know nothing about how life is outside of the city. This attitude led the blogger Digby to coin the term “the Village” to describe the permanent ruling class in Washington who are there regardless of who controls the city. This is the corruption of access at its worst.

Fortunately, we do not have access. We do not live in Washington, and we do not want to go to their cocktail parties. We will not lie to you to get better access for the next story. We will never, ever attend the unholy abomination that is the White House Correspondent’s Dinner to literally celebrate our corruption.

The media failed the country in 2016. As we saw after the President’s first Joint Session address to Congress, the punditocracy will fail us again and again. Donald Trump was not presidential before he was inaugurated, he was not presidential when he gave the address, and he was not presidential when he accused Barack Obama of wiretapping him without any evidence. We need to return the media’s emphasis to reporting and not punditry. That’s our goal here at Torchlight: while we will occasionally write opinion pieces like this one, our focus is on reporting. And if we ever ask the question “who won the week?” we know we will have failed.