Burying insider political journalism

Credit: White House Photo by Benjamin Applebaum

BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith recently wrote a thoughtful, searching essay about what he sees as the decline of the insider style of political journalism that he helped popularize in the 2000s.

According to Smith, micro-scoop-driven politics coverage that frames politics as sport, focuses on politicians’ personalities and tactics, and lacks a clear moral sensibility is no longer in vogue. In fact, he argues, “Americans of all political stripes now actually hate it,” because the old style is “painfully inadequate for the movement politics of a new era, with higher stakes, higher passions, and far wider interest.”

Scores of reporters have been heaping praise on Smith for re-evaluating the value of the genre of journalism that he helped make dominant from his blogging perch at Politico during the Obama era. But I believe his analysis is off the mark in two major ways: I don’t think the insider style is on the brink of demise, and I think that there needs to be a deeper reckoning with its shortcomings.

The insider style is as big as ever

First, I am skeptical of Smith’s observation that insider journalism is widely disliked or even declining sharply in popularity.

Politico, the publication which typifies the insider style, is continuing to thrive as a publication and drive the conversation in political media. Its iconic morning newsletter is still called Playbook, it still strives to put the reader in the mindset of a campaign operator or a lawmaker’s communications director, and it’s still widely read.

And Politico’s model appears replicable in the Trump era. In January 2017 a few Politico alums founded Axios, which in many ways is simply Politico on speed. It delivers microscopic scoops at a breakneck pace, and its core speciality is palace intrigue. But it hasn’t been a flop — in fact it has swiftly become a major player in the media world. It’s audience growth exceeded its own expectations, it’s ramping up hiring dramatically, and it raised $20 million in venture capital last fall.

I agree with Smith that more overtly politicized publications on the left and right appear to have risen in prominence and popularity in the past two years, but I think the insider style is still far and away the most dominant mode of political journalism in the nation.

That’s because the insider style hasn’t faded as much as it has evolved: it’s no longer about the gamesmanship of Democrats against Republicans — it’s about the spectacle of Trump TV. Hyper-incremental reporting is still a common practice, but it’s about Trump’s psyche and what his aides are thinking and saying. Coverage of tactics and jockeying for power is still a common practice, but it’s about Trump’s dealings with lawmakers and foreign governments — and his own administration. The sports metaphor isn’t as apt anymore; we’re now gawking at reality TV. But fundamentally, there is still an implicit conceit of politics as a must-watch showAnd it should come as no surprise that many of the most talked-about articles are being written up at the New York Times and the Washington Post by the dozens of Politico alums that have joined them over the past several years.

Smith suggests that the decline of the insider style means a move away from brazen amorality in reportage. I think there’s truth to that. In the new insider style, there is typically a more pronounced sense of the reporter trying to hold the politician — that is, Trump — accountable. But then the question is, to what standards? I’d say the new accountability mostly comes down to: a) pointing out blatant falsehoods and b) pointing out how Trump departs from established norms through his rhetoric or policy choices. Those are useful practices, but I think they fall short of Smith’s ideal of journalism as “often telling stories with a clear right and wrong.”

The norm fixation among political journalists is no guarantor of more ethical behavior. Consider how the insider style media is aghast every time Trump says something mean about Justin Trudeau but grows giddy when Trump fires missiles at Syria. The former is a break from tradition but not particularly consequential, while the latter is considered perfectly presidential but could’ve been the opening salvo of another war.

It is true as Smith points out that political media is becoming more oriented toward movement politics — both on the right and the left — and that there’s been some fantastic coverage of policy. But the reality is that Trump TV is the main show. The New York Times will swarm any tale of Trump chaos but was caught completely off guard by the rise of democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. There’s still a lot of work to do.

The insider style isn’t old. It’s wrong.

My second point of disagreement with Smith is regarding the reason for the inadequacy of the insider style. At many points in his essay, Smith implies that it is obsolete because we’ve moved into a time of crisis with “higher stakes.” I think that the insider style was always misguided, and that the Trump era is laying bare its inherent problems.

Smith argues that the insider style was more suited for a time of broad bipartisan consensus on free markets, war, immigration and so on during the 90s and aughts. Now bigger divides in political life demands a kind of journalism that can properly chronicle those divides — and their concrete implications for society and the world.

Smith also suggests that the insider style isn’t the right fit for a political crisis. He argues that during a crisis everybody, not just political junkies, wants to know about what’s going on in government. In such urgent and unusual times, it’s important to write in a more accessible style and to broaden coverage beyond who’s up and who’s down. “In a normal country, nobody cares about politics,” Smith writes.

I … don’t think this goes deep enough. The insider style might feel less irresponsible during times of stability and bipartisan consensus, but that doesn’t mean it was a wise or ethical approach back then. As Smith himself briefly notes, both parties happily banded together for the moral catastrophes of the Iraq War and mass incarceration. And of course there are plenty of other huge misdeeds that both parties agreed on during what were considered good times — deregulation that produced the financial crisis, inaction to prevent ecological catastrophe, the evisceration of welfare, the abandonment of worker power as inequality skyrocketed to Gilded Age levels, the list could go on forever. The point is that journalists should be skeptics who buck the conventional wisdom of the political class, not traffic in it. They should do this on principle, because the good times are only good for select communities, and the stakes are never low for those who lack power. And they should also do it because that’s how you prevent a crisis. 

If you want to serve the public, you don’t wait until an issue threatens to destabilize the country. You tackle the crisis as it brews. But the insider style blinds us to that kind of anticipation. Its fixation on the psychodrama of politics obscures policy realities, moral reckoning, citizen experience, grassroots mobilization.  We should not have “nostalgia” for a time when the old insider style pervaded, but regret that it distracted us from some of the very issues that helped Trump take the White House.

Lastly, I am struck by Smith’s comment that in normal countries “nobody cares about politics.” I have to ask: what is a normal country? I certainly have never encountered one. Spend 10 minutes in a busy pub or a cafe anywhere in the world and it’s almost impossible to avoid overhearing some talk of politics. 

Sure, I have met people in the US and abroad who don’t read the news everyday and can’t name many people in government. But I have rarely come across people who don’t think or talk about their rent rising, the quality of their tap water, how hard it is to live comfortably on their paycheck, the fact that they can’t take time off to take care of their new-born child, what the new people in the neighborhood look like, whether they can get married, the new country their government is bombing. And how hard it is to have a say in any of itThat’s all politics. Only someone who still believes in the insider style would believe otherwise.

A small step against fake news

A simple proposal for combating fake news: all publications should have easy-to-spot and extremely thorough “ABOUT US” sections.

At one point I didn’t take fake news — articles, videos and message threads with false claims masquerading as legitimate news — all that seriously. I rather flippantly figured most people could discern between what’s credible and what’s not quite intuitively. But the reality is that a) some fake news is sophisticated and b) digital literacy varies a lot, and for many it’s far from intuitive or easy to tell the difference between legit sources, quasi-credible sources, and flat-out made-up bullshit.

One thing that really drove this home for me is some of the insane messages I’ve received from some older family members and friends in recent years. I’ve been forwarded so many far-fetched articles, videos and mass texts on WhatsApp and Facebook from well-intentioned, educated and otherwise-judicious people that it struck me how difficult it is to navigate information online for some demographics.

One very small but potentially useful step that the media industry itself could take is getting aggressive about “ABOUT US” sections. They should explain things like where the company is based, its history as an institution, its mission, give examples of its work that highlight its credibility (impact on policy, citations by other outlets, rewards, etc), explain its business model and where it’s money comes from, have a very robust masthead in which staff explain their own backgrounds in easy-to-understand language, describe their attitude toward reporting vs aggregating, and so on.

This of course won’t address most of the core issues that allow fake news to proliferate. And a fake news outlet could also just make up a ton of stuff in a very sophisticated-looking “ABOUT US” section. (Although maybe some kind of independent media watchdog could track media outlets that submit evidence of their about sections and confer some kind of “verified” badge? Maybe this is a crazy idea.) But if it became a norm it could help at least some people vet sources a little more carefully.

“Sorry to Bother You” and leftist art

If someone had quickly summarized the plot of “Sorry to Bother You” for me before I saw it, I would’ve probably entered quite skeptically. In broad strokes, it sounds like a painfully cliche-laden leftist pamphlet entitled, “Why Capitalism is Evil and Here’s How We End It.”

So I saw the movie, and there is some of that, but fortunately it’s more than that. (No plot spoilers ahead.) I thought it had some flaws but overall it was quite good, because of the execution: Its humor and lightheartedness blunt the edge of the preachiness; the surrealism injects unpredictability and freshness into an otherwise paint-by-numbers depiction of class exploitation; the rapid, off-kilter pacing ensures that you are viscerally engaged.

It’s not that I would’ve disliked the politics of a radical leftie movie, of course. It’s that pure didacticism bores me, and seems to undermine the entire purpose of communicating through the medium of art. I’d rather read a pamphlet than watch a movie in the guise of a pamphlet. If you’re a leftist artist, respect your medium. A film allows you to stir emotions, to capture the nuances of lived experience, to use the power of fantasy to explore potential outcomes of the logic of our society, to force us to deeply reckon with existential dilemmas, and so on.

I don’t think I really learned a lot from watching “Sorry to Bother You” and it was a pretty straight-forward parable. But it was fun and visually inventive enough so that I enjoyed it. I’m also trying to keep in mind that movies address a lot of different audiences. This one might be just the right kind of provocation for people — especially young people — who feel that something is amiss but aren’t sure how to situate their class experience. Perhaps nuance isn’t always that important.

Trump TV

Trumpism is a mass phenomenon, a genre of consumerism that has corroded the republic and shows no signs of slowing.

Trumpism isn’t just about Donald Trump’s reactionary depravity, staggering corruption, and ceaseless mishaps. It’s also about the zeal with which people love to watch it.

CNN President Jeff Zucker has confessed that he gave Trump extra airtime during the 2016 primaries because he “delivered big on ratings” — and in the process he probably helped Trump’s bid for the White House get traction at a critical stage during his campaign.

Today it’s virtually impossible to read a single front page that isn’t saturated with Trump coverage or to spend more than a few seconds on social media without encountering his name. From water cooler banter to dinner parties to late night talk shows, the question “Did you hear what Trump just did?” seems inescapable.

What makes things even worse is that the Trump era is coinciding with a particularly rocky chapter for the American media sector. These days once-profitable outlets are missing their revenue targets, the digital media venture capital bubble is popping, and legacy outlets are laying off workers en masse; there is no solution to the media’s business model crisis in sight. Foreign bureaus are shuttering, local coverage is plummeting, and and freelancers are reporting a decline in publications’ interest in what were once bombshell stories. There is one reliable way for media outlets to make money: cash in on the Trump spectacle.

Every national publication knows that Trump is the main way to keep the clicks coming. And in the process, vital discussion of other branches of the federal government, public policy, foreign affairs, local news, the environment, social movements, and so on is being crowded out.

I’m not particularly interested in trying to disentangle the chicken-or-the-egg question of whether Trump coverage is driven by public demand or if Trump coverage generates public obsession. The reality is nobody’s hands are clean. It’s obvious that both chroniclers and consumers alike are compulsively drawn to bear witness to and share stories of the tragicomedy of the Trump administration.

I don’t mean to suggest that I’m not sympathetic to why it’s happening, or to suggest that I’m not fully complicit. (I am.) Trump must be covered. And citizens are justifiably horrified by his conduct.

But this monomania is cancerous. And I’m not just worried about how the homogeneity of popular discourse. I fear that Trump TV is robbing people of their agency. I hear so many people talking about feeling burnt out and fatigued and numb because of the news cycle. Many of them would be better off taking a break from the media, or at least strictly rationing consumption of it, and spending the extra energy getting involved in some more activism — something concrete that reminds them of their own power, that counteracts the impotence of perpetual outrage. And also maybe just reading some books about birds or something.

Why the right is uneasy about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Conservatives are growing nervous about the rise of the socialist left because they know its message is powerful.

Virginia Kruta, an editor at the right-wing news site Daily Caller, visited an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rally in Missouri over the weekend and found it to be “terrifying” because she saw “just how easy it would be, were I less involved and less certain of our nation’s founding and its history, to fall for the populist lines they were shouting from that stage.”

She goes on:

• I saw how easy it would be, as a parent, to accept the idea that my children deserve healthcare and education.”

• I saw how easy it would be, as someone who has struggled to make ends meet, to accept the idea that a ‘living wage’ was a human right.

• “Above all, I saw how easy it would be to accept the notion that it was the government’s job to make sure that those things were provided.

First of all, yes, some of that reads like self-parody. But it’s worth thinking through this too. It’s difficult to imagine conservatives as worried about the siren call of, say, Hillary Clinton’s promise in 2016 to expand Pell Grants for students from below a certain income threshold, or improve Obamacare as it suffered from skyrocketing premiums and left people under-insured.

Social rights like a universal right to quality health care or education resonate with people instinctively and have a tremendous capacity to mobilize citizens. They have a clear moral mandate and they’re immediately intelligible to non-wonks. The right recognizes that.

And conservatives like Kruta also see how hard it is to object to it without sounding barbaric. It can be easier for conservatives to take down Dems working to reform a flawed system than it is to slam Dems who are acknowledging how flawed the system is in the first place. Yes the right will fear-monger about how this is all a slippery slope to Soviet-style totalitarianism, but they recognize how language about social rights has a special ability to engage many ordinary people where they are right now: beleaguered, bereft of faith in the system.

Some centrist liberals are going to say the left is over-promising. But policy-wise, there’s evidence across the affluent world that government-backed health care, child care, tuition-free higher ed etc. are entirely feasible projects. As for political capital to push through these kinds of reforms— you generate it by persuading people that it’s necessary and good. With pride, and without apology. That seems to be happening right now.

What explains Trump’s behavior toward Russia?

I believe that Trump’s behavior toward Putin is over-determined. That is, there are multiple causes which could, on their own, explain Trump’s extraordinary behavior toward Russia — and that matters when it comes to interpreting the meaning of this moment.

The most exciting theory for many critics of the president is the idea that Putin has “kompromat” on Trump — some damning evidence of a misdeed so enormous that it could ruin his presidency — and that Trump feels obligated to cater to Putin in order to prevent its release. Whether a salacious pee tape or some kind of document showing high-level collusion traceable to Trump, in this theory Trump is willing to serve as Putin’s puppet to ensure his own political survival.

But there are also other explanations for Trump’s pro-Moscow orientation. The biggest one is probably that he considers claims of Russian meddling in the 2016 election to be a blow to his mandate and credibility — Trump is obsessed with eliminating any notion that he didn’t win the election all by himself. By downplaying Russian interference, he protects the legitimacy of his victory.

The fact that he goes about this by undermining the assessments of his own intelligence services lays bare another potential motive. Trump has a political interest in damaging the authority of the intelligence community that’s probing his ties to Russia. By making the intelligence community look fallible or wrongheaded, he weakens the Mueller probe’s credibility among his supporters.

There are other factors as well: Trump has business ties to Russia and has sought to build a Trump Tower there in the past — it’s possible that he sees warming ties with Putin as a long-term business play. During his career he has demonstrated a more sustained interest in his own wealth and power than geopolitics.

Trump also has a cultural affinity for Russia. There are parallels between the look of some of his grandiose properties and stereotypical Russian aesthetics. He appears to love Eastern European women. He shares Putin’s Islamophobia and machismo. And Trump has an obvious admiration for authoritarian strongmen from Xi Jinping to Recep Tayyip Erdogan — he is impressed by men who seem to have a strong grip on power in their countries. Striking deals with these leaders and aligning with their worldview holds allure for him.

And lastly, there is of course the do-it-to-spite-the-mainstream-media impulse.

Trying to figure out why Trump is doing what he does is often a fool’s errand. But it does matter that there are a range of possible motives for his behavior. Many of Trump’s critics see his deference to Putin as the most telling sign that he’s got something to hide, and then paint him as Putin’s lapdog. But if Trump isn’t actually motivated by kompromat, then he’s not really being manipulated — he’s deliberately trying to align the US with Russia, or least has few qualms about making concessions to Russian interests.

This is all a long-winded way of saying don’t assume that Trump’s pro-Russia behavior is proof that Trump is guiltier than we have evidence of. There are plenty of reasons to believe he’s acting of his own volition.

Are some liberals losing their minds over the Trump-Putin presser?

In some liberal quarters it appears that Trump’s lovefest with Putin on Monday was about the worst thing that’s ever happened to America.

Prominent liberal journalist Sarah Kendzior co-signed a tweet from political activist Garry Kasparov calling it “the darkest hour in the history of the American presidency.” Former Watergate prosecutor Jill Wine-Banks cried out that Trump’s performance “will live in infamy as much as the Pearl Harbor attack or Kristallnacht.”

This kind of hyperbole is ahistorical to the point of being offensive. Kasparov’s statement is mind-boggling: Surely the defense and expansion of slavery, ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, sending Japanese-Americans to internment camps, incinerating tens of thousands of civilians with nuclear bombs, and launching wars of aggression on false pretenses in the Middle East are … quite a bit darker. And it’s hard to know how to take Wine-Banks seriously as she likens a press conference to attacks that took human lives.

What Trump did was very bad: He undermined his own intelligence services; he excused Russia’s interference with the American electoral process; he gave Moscow the green light to pursue its most vicious foreign policy strategies and goals that are odds with US interests; he elevated Putin while putting down his own citizens; he dealt yet another blow to a liberal international order which, while unjust by many measures, is keeping the world relatively peaceful at the moment; he made the US look like a joke before the whole world.

Why not just call it what it is? Where does this need to instantly canonize it as the Worst Thing in American History come from? Why the need to rank it alongside or ahead of cleansings and massacres and enslavement? (None of which, I should say, I’m inclined to rank as the “worst” considering how disparate they are.)

I think there are two major drivers of it:

(1) The spectacle of Trump siding with an adversary of the US over his own government is deeply shocking to people, and the fact that it’s happening with Russia of all countries makes it intolerable for many. The Cold War still shapes American perceptions of Russia, and among many the idea of Trump colluding with Moscow appears to be the highest form of betrayal that a president can commit. For some reason infidelity to the nation-state seems to register as more dishonorable than mass atrocities.

(2) The desperation to see Trump taken down over his ties to Russia is doing unhealthy things to some people’s minds. The more that Trump’s “treasonous” behavior is framed as a singular kind of sin, the stronger of a case they have for impeachment. Or so they hope.

Again, what Trump did was disturbing on a number of levels, many of which I didn’t touch on. But it’s important to keep perspective. Not just so that dark chapters of American history aren’t eclipsed, but so that today’s advocates can remain judicious and strategic.