The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The media must defend itself

Patty Rhule, vice president of exhibits and content, hangs up the front pages of world newspapers at the Newseum on its last day on Dec. 31, 2019. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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One of the less important revelations from the report released three years ago this month documenting the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election was how much prior reporting it validated. The Washington Post and the New York Times shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for their back-and-forth discoveries of how Russia sought to influence the election and the ways in which that effort at times intersected with Donald Trump’s campaign. Much of what the report from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team contained had been published by The Post and the Times months earlier.

But, of course, this is not how many Americans saw it. Trump, eager to defend his narrow election victory, had begun disparaging the investigation as a witch hunt before any significant revelations existed. His allies in the conservative media and Republican politics nodded along, eventually cobbling together an alternate narrative about how the investigation into possible links between Trump’s campaign and Russia began, one that at first centered on a text-message exchange between two FBI officials and later focused on a claim that Hillary Clinton had caused the entire thing to spring into existence. This theory waved its hands at the actual predicates for the investigation (ones validated after a review from the Justice Department’s inspector general) and ignored the ways in which questions about Trump’s ties to Russia were answered. Claims about Trump and Russia were distilled to the shorthand of “collusion” — and then “collusion” was declared to have been nonexistent. And that was that.

In the three years since the report was released, not much new has been added to the case Mueller made or to the initial reporting. Instead, the vast majority of the energy centered on the Russia investigation has been expended in the effort to bolster those alternative narratives. That’s aided by the ongoing investigation-into-the-investigation begun by Trump attorney general William P. Barr, an investigation that at this point appears to be centered on pinning blame on Clinton and her attorneys. The probe led by special counsel John Durham has repeatedly ginned up claims that get enormous flurries of attention in conservative media and then fizzle out.

The effect is simple. Those paying little attention to the whole thing are probably left with the impression that the media’s initial reporting was incorrect or blinkered. Those paying close attention are almost necessarily enmeshed in the alternative theory of the Russia probe’s genesis that Trump’s allies have constructed. Meanwhile, our reporting sits there quietly, waiting to be read like the kid at the school dance who figures eventually they’ll be asked to dance.

This is an increasingly untenable approach to the very real fight over objectivity. Instead, the media needs to be proactive about rising to its own defense.

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I think most people — and particularly most reporters — assume that objectivity will win out, that the arc of history will bend toward reality. But we should not be sanguine about that prospect. There is a very real fight underway over how events are understood, epitomized to some extent by the back-and-forth over the Russia investigation but more concretely by claims about the sanctity of the 2020 election. There is a reality of what happened and there is an effort to blur or reframe or dismantle that reality. The latter, changing and often unbound by the requirements of rigor or logic, is eternally the focus of more attention and energy. Reality just sits there being boringly and often unchangingly real.

Some assumptions can be made about what you’re thinking right now. The odds are good that, as a reader of The Post, you are probably sympathetic to the idea that reality is being challenged by bad-faith attacks and dishonesty. Perhaps you are encountering this argument from a less sympathetic perspective, though, one in which you’re inherently skeptical of the media. This, of course, is a perfectly fair position to take; the media should be in the habit of encouraging skepticism of those in positions of power, including ourselves.

Many people who encounter the argument here, though, will do so through the filter of an antagonistic third party. There are any number of media critics in the world, of course, many acting in good faith. There are also many critics who are focused not on improving but on upending media outlets such as The Post. Who see the power of the media as something dangerous and oppositional because reality is dangerous and oppositional. Should anyone read this at all, there will be some site somewhere that will pick out parts of the essay so that its readership can laugh at how ignorant The Post is or I am, because there is a thriving ecosystem of sites and actors focused on leveling precisely that sort of attack. Decades of efforts to undercut the media, particularly on the political right, have been effective enough that disparagement of The Post need be no more complex than an “lol the lamestream ComPost is at it again” jibe. And by offering such jibes, you can gin up a lot of followers or a lot of pageviews and make a decent living.

The partisan divide here is important. While it was long the case that Democrats expressed more trust in the media (a trust that also manifests in the breadth of news outlets Democrats read or watch), that divide widened in the Trump era.

It widened in part because Trump explicitly encouraged people not to trust the news media, for almost entirely self-serving reasons, but also because the media responded to Trump’s regular, vicious attacks by letting the work speak for itself. Surely, if we just tell people the truth, the anger will fade, many in the media seemed to think. If we just fact-check Trump, people will understand.

Telling the truth and correcting falsehoods are important, of course. They just aren’t enough. There are divergent media ecosystems in the United States, and The Post’s reporting and fact-checks get little traction in that other space, unless it’s to be ridiculed. There, it’s generally taken as an article of faith that The Post and the Times are unreliable, so simply offering a presentation of reality doesn’t have much effect.

Usually. The irony is that The Post and the Times and other mainstream outlets are understood as inherently credible enough that our reporting is often cited to demonstrate some point that isn’t specifically about the media or that doesn’t inherently align with partisan boundaries. Fox News, for example, loved to tout anti-vaccination scold Alex Berenson, a “former New York Times” reporter, because the network understood that the title gave him legitimacy even as the network’s hosts would work to undermine that legitimacy.

This sort of cherry-picking of utility happens on both the left and the right. There are critics on the left who offer sweeping criticisms of The Post’s approach to its coverage who then cite that coverage in other contexts. The scale is very different, but there is also a marketplace on the left for criticism of mainstream outlets that sits alongside unstated appreciation of the coverage from the same sources. Challenging the media is always more interesting than agreeing with it. This is how it goes — but it also demands that the media do more on its own behalf. That’s particularly true since so many of the attacks from either side are easily rebuffed, being bad-faith or lazy or generic.

One of the essays that has influenced me the most over the past decade is one I talk about a lot: “Against Transparency,” written by Lawrence Lessig in 2009. Lessig’s point is simple: Providing too much access to pieces of information might “push any faith in our political system over the cliff.” As, to a significant extent, it has.

“To understand something — an essay, an argument, a proof of innocence — requires a certain amount of attention,” he wrote. “But on many issues, the average, or even rational, amount of attention given to understand many of these correlations, and their defamatory implications, is almost always less than the amount of time required. The result is a systemic misunderstanding — at least if the story is reported in a context, or in a manner, that does not neutralize such misunderstanding.”

Lessig is saying that giving people a lot of information to process makes it hard to pick out what’s important — and easy to elevate things that aren’t. It is the story of the anti-Russia-investigation effort, a real part of the political system’s current position at the cliff’s edge. And Lessig’s articulation assumes a good-faith observer of what’s being presented! Give people looking to disparage the press or their opponents a surfeit of unfiltered information and the damage that can be done is nearly endless. Give people enough random things to select from and they can equivalently construct a case for whatever they want to believe. Here be QAnon.

This is deployed against the media in shorthands. Oh, I’m supposed to believe The Post when it corrected a story about the Russia investigation? We’re going to trust CNN when it once retracted a story? Post and Times reporting is by now dismissed simply by pointing back at the Russia investigation in the first place: Since that investigation is assumed to have been eviscerated, the fact that we reported on it is plucked from the ether as a reason to reject whatever the observer seeks to reject. Every institution has made mistakes. And in the other media ecosystem, those mistakes are often the cherry-picked total of what mainstream institutions are associated with.

So let’s say the mainstream media began to more proactively defend itself. What would that look like?

This question is intertwined with one that’s vexed the media for a long time, the one about how to reach those in that alternate media ecosystem. There isn’t a clear answer in part because opponents of the mainstream media are often not interested in its arguments or defenses.

“All I would like my unbiased, objective, nonpartisan reporter friends to understand,” journalist Alex Pareene wrote this month, “is that they are debating with people that consider them the enemy not just in a partisan sense but in an existential one.”

That is largely true, and, again, it complicates the answer to my question. But what is not a useful response is simply ceding the debate.

Not every critic sees the media as an enemy. Many people are simply immersed in an ecosystem that presents as limited and dishonest a picture of the media as it does the world broadly, and those people might be receptive to a defense. In a recently published study, people paid to switch from watching Fox News to CNN came to understand how Fox News often colors what it reports on. This is not a fundamental issue of ally-vs.-enemy. And cost is a real hurdle: The Post’s paywall makes it less likely someone will read this than they will a free bit of derangement from a conspiracy website.

Defending the media is not easy. It’s uncomfortable, in part because it’s vexing to think that objectivity needs a defense. It also almost invariably provokes a backlash that, in the age of readily available social media and email addresses, is often highly toxic. In fact, backlash has been weaponized, with outlets and personalities who are proactive about identifying targets for abuse. The Times recently offered its reporters the opportunity to disengage from social media, in part to avoid the solipsisms that can emerge within the mainstream media. But it also means that a platform used for news-sharing will lose people who are obviously invested in defending the value of the media. Ideally, too, more defenders of the news on social media, on cable news and over email will temper or at least dilute the toxicity of standing up a defense.

The media gets things wrong. Then we correct those errors, with the goal of ensuring we’re representing as accurate a picture as we can. Most of what the media does, of course, needs no correction. What it does need is defenders, both from within and outside media institutions. It needs defenders consistently. And then, hopefully, the reporting can be heard speaking for itself.

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