The press needs a complete reinvention

Jay Rosen

The press doesn’t really believe that it bears any direct culpability in the election of Donald Trump, nor does it believe accusations today that it is biased against him. They KNOW they’re playing it down the middle, so any beliefs otherwise are false and don’t deserve a response. This forms a barrier impossible to penetrate when it comes to covering the Trump Presidency, because there are serious ramifications for all of us so long as the press maintains a business-as-normal disposition regarding its own work. Con artists require a certain equilibrium within which to present their logical fallacies, and the press — by being its same old self — is providing exactly that. In its current state, the press is simply being outmaneuvered by expertise it cannot overcome, because the playing field isn’t even.

As the brilliant Jay Rosen has pointed out — and I have written about subsequently — the press, especially the Washington press corps, operates in a thought stream that it considers “savvy.” To understand this, Jay pointed us to the three spheres of objectivity that the press uses as authored by Daniel C. Hallin in his book, The Uncensored War. It’s comprised of three concentric circles, the sphere of consensus in the middle, surrounded by the spheres of legitimate debate and then the outside sphere of deviancy. Wikipedia:

In the sphere of consensus, journalists assume everyone agrees. The sphere of legitimate controversy includes the standard political debates, and journalists are expected to remain neutral. The sphere of deviance falls outside the bounds of legitimate debate, and journalists can ignore it. These boundaries shift, as public opinion shifts.

The public is unaware of these classifications, but they surely understand that there is something wrong within the mainstream press that blinds them to certain realities they regularly confront every day. Things are not alright, but the press seems stuck in some obscure mindset that assumes they are. This is the pinpoint of the “why” of Donald Trump, but to cover the administration in this light would be to admit the press has been wrong in their foundational thought stream. What we have today is what happens when the press operates with the public’s opinion in the sphere of deviancy. They simply refuse to look at reality in America through any other lens than that provided by their own self-serving savvy. Perhaps it is the press itself that has entered deviant status.

The below meme appeared on my Facebook feed last week, and it’s very clever. It’s also highly persuasive to people who don’t feel they’re getting a fair shake from the press.

You can say all you want that this is merely a fool’s folly, manipulation, or the feeding of ignorance, but to deny it resonates with a great many Americans is just plain dumb. It’s also highly press-destructive and revealing about how we don’t seem to have learned anything since November of 2016. I’d call this completely within Professor Rosen’s admonition for the press to get off its “normalcy,” because the best it can do in its current state is produce the above. I believe this set of images speaks directly to the inability of the press to behave in any way differently than it always has, and it has profound consequences for our country.

And, while this is most certainly suicidal for the press, it doesn’t surprise me, because the press — especially in Washington — suffers from oxygen deprivation atop the pedestal it created for itself in the wake of Watergate. Watergate created the celebrity journalist, a different animal than the columnists of old who knew such status. Woodward and Bernstein were garden-variety reporters being spoon-fed by the number two guy at the FBI. There were books. There was a movie starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. It doesn’t get any more celebratory than that.

J‑schools began encountering masses of wannabe Woodwards and Bernsteins, and the dye was cast for a different role for journalism in the culture, the “gotcha” journalist. Gotcha was the pathway, and the higher up the person “got,” the better for the journalist. Not content to just cover the news anymore, reporters saw themselves on the same cultural level belonging to the people it covered. It has produced transparent sitting ducks for spin, because everything hinges on access to a special class on the status ladder — those in charge.

Objectivity has totally failed, and we have to question whether there ever was such an animal in the first place. Christopher Lasch has brilliantly argued that it was manufactured by those who needed a sterile environment within which to sell advertising, and I don’t disagree. That sterile environment was also very useful for the selling of ideas, which is the role of public relations — the spin doctors.

Here’s another great deception that has been sold as a part of an objective press: the press has a duty to be fair. Any honest examination of this postulate will reveal it to be an assumption, a logical fallacy used to defend what Rosen calls “he said, she said” coverage of the news. The press has no obligation whatsoever to be fair. We proved that at The 700 Club 35 years ago, and Fox News proves it every day. “The press” as conceived in the First Amendment is not a bastion of fairness, for why would such an institution need protection from the government if this were true?

At CBN, we positioned ourselves to the right of the mainstream press. The act itself made two false claims: one, that the mainstream press represented a liberal, therefore political view of life, and two, that we should be taken just as seriously as they were in the overall presentation of journalism. Politicizing the press was designed to excuse our own politicalization. Since we were a propaganda arm of the political right, we couldn’t escape the fact that our presentation of the news was political, so in order to claim status as journalists, we needed to paint the entire institution as one, giant political land grab.

The point is that the press operated believing itself to be fair, and we did not. It’s not by accident that Fox News uses the word “fair” in its marketing slogan, for the whole idea is to confuse everything so as to provide an air of legitimacy to what is actually political propaganda.

Professor Rosen has seen this coming for decades and has tried to apply his academic mind to not only uncovering all of this but to also provide suggestions and recommendations on what to do about it. His latest,  “It’s time for the press to suspend normal relations with the Trump presidency,” is spot on but doesn’t go far enough.

I think the press needs to first suspend normal relations with itself.

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