On Monday, CNN hosted CITIZEN, a daylong political conference in New York City featuring “thought leaders and newsmakers” such as Senator Jeff Flake, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. But Kushner’s softball interview with CNN’s Van Jones was so cloying, pandering, and useless that it made headlines of its own.
That interview is an example of a troubling trend not isolated to any single media outlet, and that trend has seemed to accelerate in recent months: The more aggressive this administration gets, the weaker the press becomes in response. Clearly, it’s not the media’s job to make someone look bad. But it’s also not their job to make someone look good. It is their job, however, to reflect reality. And at that they seem to be failing.
We’ll explore the reasons in a bit, but to be clear: The press has a pathological reluctance to report truthfully about what is undeniably—to anyone with a brain and a heart—a bad administration filled with con men, bigots, and liars trying to impose ideals that resemble nothing like the things this country is supposed to value and champion. Those people are dangerous, and the country is very much at risk of losing what makes it great. Or if not great, what has always pushed us, slowly and painfully, in the right direction. The press, by treating these times and these people as normal and only repeating what they hear without challenge or context, is failing the public and failing voters. Ultimately, if they don’t find their footing, they will fail democracy.
It’s also an admission of defeat. The press has been beaten by lies. You can’t simultaneously cover or equivocate two separate realities with separate facts, because one is at its very essence a lie and the other one isn’t. There’s nothing objective about a lie, and by reporting outrageous lies objectively for fear of being called biased by these lying creeps, the press finds themselves doing exactly what they’re trying to avoid: engaging in subjective, biased journalism.
Jones’s interview of Jared Kushner is a good place to start.
First: Jared Kushner doesn’t do interviews. His last on-camera interview, I believe, was a December 2017 appearance at the Saban Forum. Kushner also gave a Palestinian newspaper an interview this June. So why Jones, and why now? Two reasons. First, Van Jones isn’t a reporter, and Jared knows that. Second, Jones is a vocal advocate of prison reform, which is one of the many issues, such as the Middle East peace process, that Trump has delegated to Jared.
And indeed the main topic was prison reform, but the interview was booked well before the Saudi-backed murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which pushed Kushner’s name onto the front page thanks to his cozy and ethically blurry relationship with the Saudi Crown Prince. (Kushner reportedly gave the prince a CIA list of his enemies just ahead of a massive corruption crackdown carried out this year.) That horrific event looms large, and because it’s so somber, significant, and potentially explosive, it should command any news organization to take it seriously.
The opening salvo from Jones:
How did you get this job? You have like the dopest job in the world, the secretary of everything…how did you wind up in this position?
How did he get the job? Come on. He married Ivanka.
Also: The “dopest” job in the world? Kushner has been put in charge of, among other things such as prison reform and the Middle East peace process, fighting the opioid epidemic. Opioid overdose deaths increased on Kushner’s watch last year. Sounds like great fun.
Also: A “secretary of everything” would a terrible, terrible thing for any administration. That’s the president’s job, presumably. It’s certainly not a job for a tax-evading, tenant-exploiting, obsessively coiffed failed media mogul better suited to serve as an emotionally-stunted, Wes-Anderson-first-draft, twenty-something snob who sleeps with rocket-ship sheets under an autism-accurate glow-in-the-dark constellated ceiling.
And we haven’t even gotten into the interview yet.
It’s worth looking at Kushner’s response:
I did not plan my life to go into politics…my father in law announced he was running for president…I took on a lot of responsibilities.
We can extrapolate a lot from this small contrast: Kushner freely admits he came in with not just zero political experience, but that he’d planned his life without ever having politics in mind. That is, he planned it without giving serious thought to policy or developing relationships with people in government or navigating the byzantine bureaucracy he’s suddenly found himself in the thick of. Or to Jones’s view, in charge of. But it’s the press’s job to connect these dots and try to frame the picture accurately in the larger context of history and how government works generally, because Kushner is objectively an anomaly.
Why did you want to avoid politics? What made you want to get involved, aside from the request of your father-in-law? Etc etc.
(Worth noting that in a 2008 interview with The Guardian, Kushner said basically the same thing about getting into the newspaper business: “Owning a newspaper ‘had never crossed my mind,’ he says. ‘When I heard the paper was for sale, it seemed like a very interesting property. I looked at it almost like a Park Avenue building that didn’t have any windows.’ Was he even familiar with the paper? ‘I didn’t really know much about it until I was going to Harvard. It was never a paper I would look to buy – but whenever I saw it, I found it incredibly smart, witty and it had a unique perspective. But I really didn’t know about it. It wasn’t properly marketed.’”)
When Jones finally got around to Khashoggi, he called the state-backed assassination and concomitant cover-up “this situation that happened.” When he asked Kushner about the Saudis’ deception, Kushner replied, “Every day we deal with people who are trying to deceive us in different ways. But our job is to see through it, but also to stay focused on what’s best for the American people.”
This, obviously, isn’t an answer.
Jones then asked what Jared would say to people “that are mad at Jared Kushner right now,” and who connect the Saudi cover-up and the Trump administration’s own heel-dragging to Jared’s relationship with the Saudi prince, who these “mad” people believe might have felt empowered to carry out the assassination because of their friendship.
Kushner’s response: “I don’t respond to the critics.” He then presumably flipped his flat-brimmed ball cap around and slumped back in his chair, arms crossed and pouting and cursing the haters. Jones moved on.
Jared Kushner works in the White House, and he refused to explain the nature of his relationship with a head foreign official, and whether that relationship contributed to a massive international scandal. Why? He didn’t want to. Jones moved on and posed surgically honed questions such as, “How are we going to get peace in the Middle East, by the way?”. “You guys are weird on trade.” And, “Are you having fun?”
Exactly no one on planet Earth cares whether Jared Kushner is having fun.
Jones concluded by telling his chum it took him “some guts to walk in the door” for the interview.
Look: This was someone from a major global news organization holding an extraordinarily rare interview with an immensely powerful person who at the very moment is surrounded by questions of the highest importance. It couldn’t have been more valuable. And Jones totally f*cked it up.
In this interview, we can see two things have converged: The entertainment forum of cable news, and the cartoonishness of this political moment. If CNN had any dignity, the network would never let Van Jones on the air again after this disgrace. But sadly, it’s not isolated, and it’s not recent. It’s normal.
The leading story this week has been a “caravan” of thousands of aspiring asylum-seekers making its way north to the United States. They’re about 1500 miles away from the U.S. border, and they’re traveling on foot. Trump has said, based on nothing, that the “caravan” contains criminals and people from the Middle East, and last weekend Trump said Democrats want to give illegal immigrants luxury cars. And lo, the caravan led all the network news.
Here’s a headline about the caravan from AP:
An army. And a picture of poor, desperate, and vulnerable women and children.
The caravan is not scary. It’s a group of poor people hopeful to take advantage of decades-old standing asylum law and try to create a better life for themselves as refugees in America, where they won’t live in fear of gang rule or poverty. What they are trying to do is perfectly legal, and they are nothing to fear. They are people we should try to understand and help.
AP caught so much hell it deleted the tweet, offering an apology that also got the language wrong (“ragtag” instead of “ragged”). The second draft: “They have said they are fleeing widespread violence, poverty and corruption in Honduras. The growing caravan of migrants has resumed its journey to the U.S.”
How in the world can one of those headlines be swapped out for another? Those are wildly different stories. Is it an army marching towards our border? Or is it a group of people driven by desperation and fear out of their homes and towns, with little recourse left but to walk—walk—1,500 miles, with their children, through dangerous parts of Mexico to get to a foreign country where they know basically nobody and don’t speak the language. Oh yeah: And that country’s president hates them.
Those are not the same story. Those are not the same realities. But one has been drawn up by Trump in order to control the press’s midterm narrative. Hell, Trump isn’t even trying to hide the strategy:
But per usual, the press is complying, regurgitating whatever Trump says. Sure, Trump might have said something crazy and untrue, but crazy and untrue sh*t the president says is, unfortunately, always newsworthy. But the way his lies and flawed arguments are presented, without being challenged right up front in the headline, confers legitimacy on them.
This is, make no mistake, the right wing’s whole strategy. Paste’s Shane Ryan addressed this a few months ago when the New York Times duly and uncritically amplified Trump’s fear-mongering about the murder of an Iowan woman by an undocumented immigrant. The only reason that story made the NYT was because right-wing media, cable news, and Trump wouldn’t shut up about it. They forced the story, and the NYT allowed it to happen without acknowledging the reason they covered the murder: The only thing truly nationally newsworthy about one of who knows how many murders that week was that it was always on the president’s lips.
Without context, it becomes difficult for readers to discern the influence behind the story, and easy for them to surmise (incorrectly) that there is a trend of undocumented immigrants murdering American citizens. This is exacerbated by the guise of “objectivity,” which is meant to prevent journalists from taking sides, but which leads here to an uncritical, just-slightly-subdued parroting of the anti-immigrant agenda.
There are countless headlines and stories like these, which present lies or baseless conspiracy theories or violent white nationalist gangs as objective things for readers to take in as if their existence justifies their essence.
Greg Sargent of the Washington Post put out a good piece on this recently. “The straddle itself is the problem,” he says, meaning the difficult task of offering both sides of a story when one is an outright lie.
Sargent points out that journalists often fall back on phrases that allow them to print false claims next to true ones. The thinking here is that if you give readers enough context, they should be able to discern fact from fiction. But when you print any story in a major publication, it launches that story into the national debate. Not only that, those stories give us the language we use to tell it. So when we see AP calling the caravan a “ragged army of migrants,” readers understand that this is one viable way to see them, and the loaded language will perpetuate itself.
One way to address the problem would be to make headlines longer in order to accommodate and balance this alternate reality. But not even this is a solution. Look, the press is unbelievably powerful. Things that should not be up for debate—such as whether the Mueller investigation is a “witch hunt,” or whether Hillary Clinton won the popular vote because millions of people voted for her illegally, or whether Christine Blasey Ford mistook Brett Kavanaugh for a doppelgänger for three decades—become debates when they appear in the public square. Those insane claims and threats and lies and bad-faith trolling aren’t worthy of serious debate, but when major outlets put them in print, as Sargent says, they “further the idea that this is grounds for a legitimate dispute between good faith actors on either side, and at worst by tacitly endorsing that idea.”
Here’s a great breakdown of the media’s caravan nonsense, which, in the context of the above, makes clear how subtle journalistic choices can set and reset the entire frame of a story. The audience doesn’t know what the reporting left out, so they can only go on what they see. In other words, anything that appears in a major outlet has the de facto legitimacy not necessarily of truth, but of being significant.
Here’s a Bloomberg piece with a header that straight-up says, “Trump’s Tax Push to Help Middle Class Could Help Top Earners, Too.” Except there’s literally no way Trump can push his tax cut through, which he just made up out of nowhere last week. This headline is a) a statement of a fact that isn’t a fact; and b) an analysis of something that the writer knows will not happen. The reader, if interested in an analysis, must believe the thing being analyzed is real. This is metafiction, not journalism.
Here’s a tweet from NBC that repeats without context or challenge an insane conspiracy theory from Trump that has no basis in reality.
USA Today published an op-ed piece “written” by Trump himself, with no accompanying fact-check or challenge. Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler later said of that piece, “almost every sentence contained a misleading statement or a falsehood.”
Recently the New York Times published a terribly constructed piece that I can only guess came about because the reporters didn’t understand the story they were writing. It was essentially a hit piece on Rod Rosenstein, and it presented anonymous claims as unqualified statements of fact.
And here’s a comforting one from AP: Our president assured us “North Korea is no longer a threat.”
WELL, HEAVENS TO BETSY.
So why print this stuff at all? Many people in the media are scared of Donald Trump and his bevy of bullshitters and base of angry, violent, and willfully ignorant racists of accusing them of being liberal partisans or FAKE NEWS. They don’t see the opposite is true: Facts aren’t partisan, and they don’t have a poorly-varnished bad-faith subtext; the administration’s lies are, and they do.
This fear is the fundamental problem, and it’s only getting worse. In its effort to avoid the “fake news” tag, the press is actually spreading fake news: Trump’s.
And of course there’s a tacit understanding among journalists—because there’s a tacit understanding among most Americans, including people in the Trump administration—that Donald Trump is stupid, dishonest, cruel, bigoted, and mentally ill. Many journalists, however—especially reporters—are afraid to call Trump what he is, and apparently afraid to challenge or correct much of what he says, or to present a forceful challenge. As a result, outlets often repeat the president’s lies, but the only fact they’re presenting is that the president said something. That’s the dumbest and most obvious, laziest thing possible. It’s harder to report, but the content and his motivations are much more problematic and much more newsworthy.
Look. There are infinite ways to accurately describe anything: This is a sentence. It’s also a group of words. It’s also a group of letters. It’s also a group of letters comprising a group of four words. All those things are objectively true, but when it comes time to print a headline, you’ve got to go with one. The job of the press, as they selectively see it, is to just report what Trump says. This is cowardly, negligent, and dangerous. But that gets us to another place, because it’s also selfish: Journalists inoculate themselves at our risk.
But this is all ridiculously easy to fix. Here’s your model: